The Micro Four Thirds camera market is starting to get a little bit crowded: at the time of writing, both Panasonic and Olympus have three models available, with more touted to come this year.
The Lumix GF1 is the most successful of these cameras so far in terms of delivering on its promise of SLR-like images in a compact form factor. Though it is expensive, it's a worthwhile investment for any photographer serious about entering the Micro Four Thirds world.
Design and features
Sharing a similar retro aesthetic to the other popular Panasonic camera, the Lumix LX3, the GF1 is a compact version of the company's other Micro Four Thirds cameras, the G1 and GH1. The body is heavier than it appears, at 285g without a lens attached.
Having used the G1, and the GH1 extensively, the GF1's controls are well placed on the smaller form factor, though the video record button has been moved to the top of the camera, alongside the shutter button and mode dial. As on the other models, switching between aperture and shutter speed selections is done by pressing the control wheel which is a little disorienting if you are not accustomed to it, but works well once acclimatised. Unlike its older G-series companions, the GF1 has no articulating LCD screen. Instead, it's just a 3-inch screen at the back of the camera.
At the top around the mode dial is the standard G-series method of changing the shooting mode, from single, continuous, bracketing and self-timer. The flash has its own dedicated button which pops it up from the main body; note that even in automatic mode the GF1 will not automatically activate the flash. Like the other cameras, the GF1 allows you to preview changes to shutter and aperture in real time, though actually getting a clear representation of the final picture is tricky thanks to the refresh rate of the screen.
The GF1's main competitor is the Olympus Pen E-P2 (the E-PL1 isn't really in the same ballpark when it comes to price and specs). Side by side, the two cameras share a lot of things in common but the main differentiating factor is the GF1's pop-up flash and slightly higher resolution LCD screen. Below is a table comparing the two cameras on their main selling points.
|Panasonic GF1||Olympus E-P2|
|12.1-megapixel Live MOS||12.3-megapixel Live MOS|
|ISO 100-3200||ISO 100-6400|
|3fps (JPEG), 7fps (RAW)||3fps (JPEG), 10 (RAW)|
|Optional electronic viewfinder (not provided in kit)||Optional electronic viewfinder (provided in kit)|
|3-inch, 460,000-dot LCD||3-inch, 230,000-dot LCD|
|1280x720 AVCHD Lite/Motion JPEG||1280x720 Motion JPEG|
|Optical image stabilisation||Sensor shift image stabilisation|
Surprisingly, Panasonic has not chosen to bundle the GF1 with an electronic viewfinder (EVF), like the E-P2, so we were unable to test the EVF, and from specifications alone the Olympus version trumps it on resolution. The GF1 also lacks a dedicated microphone input for an external mic; the E-P2's accessory port allows for a stereo microphone to be attached.
The provided pancake 20mm f/1.7 lens is incredibly light and fits nicely on the body of the GF1. However, there is no image stabilisation built into the lens, nor is there image stabilisation in the body of the camera which may be a sore point for some photographers wishing to mount older, classic lenses on the GF1. The 20mm has a nice feel to it though, and allows for easy manual focus thanks to the magnification screen that appears on the LCD whenever the focusing ring is turned.
The GF1 complete with 20mm lens attached. It's really quite compact. (Credit: Panasonic)
Video encoding is taken care of thanks to AVCHD Lite or motion JPEG, 60 frames per second at 720p. Like the E-P2, the GF1 can record video with filters such as film mode (including black and white or the natural/vibrant/nostalgic effects).
Other features that may be of interest include various scene modes including Peripheral Defocus which alters the focus and widens the aperture automatically in order to blur the background (essentially the same as going into aperture priority mode and adjusting the aperture yourself).
Strangely, the GF1 produces better images using the peripheral defocus mode rather than dialling in the same exposure in aperture priority or manual mode. The peripheral defocus image (top) looks clearer and has better colours than the same exposure on aperture priority mode (bottom) at f/1.8, 1/2000s. (Credit: Alexandra Savvides/CNET Australia)
The GF1 certainly is on its toes when it comes to performance, especially compared to the Olympus Pen cameras. Starting up and taking its first shot within 0.8 second, the Panasonic was much faster than the E-P2 which we clocked at three seconds.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Time to first shot||Raw shot-to-shot time||Typical shot-to-shot time||Shutter lag (dim)||Shutter lag (typical)|
When we tested the G1 against the GH1 we were slightly surprised to find that the G1 delivered superior images, in terms of colour rendition and overall tonality. The GF1 fortunately comes a lot closer to what we experienced shooting with the G1, which means its images are excellent. Exposures are on the mark and it copes well with tricky lighting situations, particularly areas of shadow and highlight contrast like in the scene below.
(Credit: Alexandra Savvides/CNET Australia)
Now it's time for the exciting part: pitting the GF1 against the E-P2 in an all-out shoot. To be fair to both cameras we used the one lens — the Lumix 20mm f/1.7 — in order to assess image quality.
Round 1: colour
We know by now that the E-P2 does a splendid job of rendering colours, but that was when we observed its results in isolation and compared to non-Micro Four Thirds cameras. The GF1 comes out swinging in this test, proving that the Olympus does oversaturate and create punchier hues. While this can be desirable, it looked garish next to the GF1's image.
The GF1 (left) and E-P2 (right) (Credit: Alexandra Savvides/CNET Australia)
Winner: Panasonic GF1
Round 2: macro
The 17mm lens may not be the most suited to macro photography but it's certainly possible to get some good results thanks to the wide maximum aperture. We're not really sure what happened here: it looks like the GF1 didn't quite determine the light properly, as the E-P2's shot is more representative of the actual light conditions.
The GF1 (top) and E-P2 (bottom) (Credit: Alexandra Savvides/CNET Australia)
Winner: Olympus E-P2
Round 3: high ISO sensitivity
As the GF1 can only reach ISO 3200 we've limited the E-P2 to this level as well. From the images below, it looks like the E-P2 starts to lose detail and smear things as the sensitivity increases. The GF1, while noisy, maintains more detail.
The GF1 at ISO 3200 (left) and E-P2 (right) (Credit: Alexandra Savvides/CNET Australia)
Winner: Panasonic GF1
The GF1 is the most complete Micro Four Thirds camera yet. Like the E-P2, it's a joy to shoot with and delivers great images, but is a more fully fledged camera than the Olympus, and we recommend it wholeheartedly.