Panasonic's Lumix DMC-G1 is the first camera to be based on the micro four thirds system, a joint initiative between Panasonic and Olympus.
Unlike any other digital camera that has come before, the G1 has been designed without the legacy of 35mm film in mind. It's an SLR in terms of looks and interchangeable lenses, but has been designed first and foremost as a purely digital camera. There is no longer a traditional mirror and pentaprism arrangement (the system used to reflect light from the lens through to the viewfinder) as found in other SLRs, which removes a lot of the bulk from the camera body.
In terms of looks alone, the G1 certainly displays all the hallmarks of an SLR. If you didn't know any better, you would assume that the G1 was either a really sophisticated compact camera or a miniature SLR.
Weighing in at a diminutive 385 grams, and measuring 8.36x12.4x4.5cm, the G1 can sit comfortably in your hand just like a compact; indeed, we'd be inclined to compare its size with some megazoom cameras like Canon's SX1 IS or Olympus' SP-565UZ.
Everything on the top looks like a normal dSLR so far.
The whole unit is clad in a particularly pleasing plastic, textured to a degree that allows you to grip it securely when shooting, but not enough to visibly taint the design. Plus, it comes in three colours: a deep red, black and ocean blue — another cue that distinguishes the G1 from other dSLR competitors.
In general, the layout of the controls on the G1 is nothing out of the ordinary. There's the usual mode dial, which is surrounded by the power switch and the shooting burst rate switch. There's a pop-up flash and hotshoe, and the dial at the front of the camera swaps between the aperture and shutter speed selector when you press or click it inwards. Once we had gotten used to it, we found that it was actually quite intuitive.
Panasonic's intelligent auto mode is also standard here, designed to make the step up to the G1 as painless as possible for those used to automatic settings on a smaller model. That said, there are a myriad of scene modes and preset functions to keep anyone busy, plus the usual manual/shutter/aperture/program priority modes.
Sitting high on the feature list of the G1 is the 12-megapixel Live MOS sensor, which is the same size as used in other four thirds cameras (18x13.5mm). Due to the nature of the G1's construction, live view is always active on the camera; think of it as a trait carried over from compact digital cameras.
The back of the G1 with its rotating swivel screen facing outwards.
Next on the list is the rotating 3-inch LCD screen that can flip and rotate on an axis to sit facing inwards or outwards on the back of the camera, or face the body if you choose to use the viewfinder exclusively.
Unfortunately, due to the unique mirror-less construction, the G1 has to make do with an electronic viewfinder as opposed to the traditional optical one. Thankfully, the EVF supplied on the G1 isn't bad at all, with 1.4 million pixels packed inside and a speedy refresh rate at 60Hz.
At this stage, there are only two Panasonic lenses available for the G1 — 14-45mm f/35-5.6 and 45-200mm f/4-5.6. They're two capable units that cover a fair range, but we would have liked to see some more choice. Panasonic has stated that as of this year there will be several more additions to the micro four thirds lenses, including a 20mm f/1.7, 14-140mm f/4-5.6 and 7-14mm f/4.
Adapters are also being made available that allow four thirds lenses to be mounted on the G1, though given the small stature of the camera, any lens not specifically designed for micro four thirds is likely to dwarf the unit. Also, autofocus will only work if the lens supports contrast AF.
Performance and image quality
The closest point of comparison for the G1 really has to be an entry-level dSLR. With that in mind, we tested the G1 over the same areas that we would have tested a dSLR.
Start-up time on the G1 was surprisingly quick, with next to no delay between turning the switch on and the camera being ready to shoot. Shot-to-shot time was similarly impressive; on the RAW+JPEG combination, we found there was about a one-second gap between pictures.
It may seem intuitive on a dSLR style camera to immediately head straight for the viewfinder, but the G1 has always-on live view which means that using the LCD screen to shoot is just as easy. There's a motion sensor that automatically detects when you put your eye up to the viewfinder and swaps the display away from the screen, which is quite clever in theory but was over-zealous in practice; when we held the camera a little too close to our body, the G1 thought that we wanted to shoot with the viewfinder.
Click through for our photo gallery of shots taken with the G1.
(Credit: Alexandra Savvides/CBSi)
Furthermore, the EVF may seem almost identical to shooting with an optical viewfinder in most situations, but in darker environments it struggled and a fair amount of noise was visible.
The colours that this camera delivered were really quite lovely. Greens and blues in particular jumped off the screen with a natural warmth and no excessive over-saturation. Of course, there is the option to over-saturate the colours in the dedicated art mode found on the dial — an interesting tool that can produce some quirky effects in-camera rather than in post-production. Another pleasing aspect was the mode to preview changes in shutter and depth of field; a great idea for those who would rather see the effects of changing settings before they take the picture.
Lens sharpness was another surprise with the 14-45mm, delivering accurate and even clarity across the frame with little to no vignetting. At high ISO levels we also found that the G1 coped admirably, with only slight levels of noise — as would be expected on a dSLR. Indeed, in low light and night situations it performed a lot better than we had expected, with next to no colour noise.
The G1 was able to keep noise under control across the ISO range. Click image to enlarge.
(Credit: CBS Interactive)
One problem that we did find with the G1 was that it underexposed constantly. It's not so much of a problem if you shoot in RAW, but those who choose the JPEG path might wonder why their images are always a little too dark. The big issue with the G1 though is saved for video mode — there isn't one. Panasonic has stated that the next iteration of the camera will have HD capabilities, which is a surprise given that this feature is pretty much standard on Panasonic's high-end compacts.
What sets the G1 apart from other entry-level dSLRs is really its size, flexibility and unique features. We really enjoyed using the G1, and though it does have its problems, for anyone looking for a compact alternative to an entry-level dSLR and with no current investment in a lens system, it's an incredibly strong contender.