My experience with a micro-4/3rds camera - (Panasonic GF1 Review)

My experience with a micro-4/3rds camera – (Panasonic GF1 Review)

If  you’ve been able to get your hands on one of these, consider yourself lucky.  After driving to most every electronic store I knew of and still not being able to get a hands-on feel for this new camera, I decided to take the plunge and make my order on Amazon.  Now, after using it on a recent excursion to Ireland, I wonder why I ever hesitated.  Hold on for a quick dive into the micro 4/3rds camera experience.  (Scattered around are some sample images–minor adjustments done in LR.)

20mm, f/1.7 -- Shallow dof, smooth blurring.  Minimum Focus Distance: 0.66' (0.2m)

20mm, f/1.7 -- Shallow dof, smooth blurring. Minimum Focus Distance: 0.66' (0.2m)

Since deciding to become a “pro” photographer specializing in weddings and portraits some years back, I have always been keenly aware of industry developments in the photographic field.  Primarily I kept my ear to the ground to what the big players like Canon and Nikon were doing.  I made the financial commitment to Nikon, but both were leading the pack in new developments.  Somehow, amidst all the hustle and bustle, I had been ignoring the 4/3rds movement that was starting by the likes of Olympus and Panasonic.  I had come across various announcements and brushed them off for another low-end product that couldn’t compete with my high-end gear. But, as a frequent traveler, who also likes packing light, my wife and I have been in the market for a more compact camera, but we’re also spoiled with our DSLRs.  I felt I was between a rock and a hard place.  I couldn’t bear the thought of pushing the shutter release button, then counting to 10 as my perfect composure fell apart before my eyes and then seeing my camera finally flash.  Then looking at the final image in all its grainy glory and wishing I had lugged my heavy D700 and lens assortment along just for that missed shot.

Enter the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1.  Before our recent excursion to Ireland, my brother was debating on whether to buy one of my older Nikon bodies (D200) or spring for one of the new micro 4/3rds mirror-less cameras.  I gave him my two cents but he went for the Panasonic and brought it along.  Fortunately for me, this meant I had less gear to lug around.  For those not familiar with this type of camera, a little explanation is in order.

60 Second Long Exposure - Low Noise - f/4.5 - ISO100

60 Second Long Exposure - Low Noise - f/4.5 - ISO100

What’s 4/3rds?

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 is the third camera in Panasonic’s Lumix G-series, using the Micro Four Thirds System. This latest model in the Lumix range from Panasonic is said to be the world’s smallest and lightest digital interchangeable lens system camera with a built-in flash capability. Although the Panasonic Lumix GF1 is small, it still offers many advanced features such as its extensive advanced settings and high definition video recording capability.  They achieve its small size with one simple trick– remove the mirror used to bounce the image up into the viewfinder.  The sensor size for the Four Thirds bodies is stuck somewhere between the minuscule point and shoot sensors and the larger APS-C sensors.  It is, in fact, the same size sensor that Olympus uses in their larger 4/3 DSLR line. Since sensor size is often a major factor in image noise, this sensor should compare closer to a DSLR than your typical compact cameras, but with lenses much smaller than a beefy full frame camera.  Same goes for depth of field.  It will perform better than a compact (shallower depth of field possible) but not as well as a full frame DSLR.  So if the promises are to be believed, this new standard should equate to smaller and lighter cameras, along with smaller and cheaper lenses that perform nearly as well as your typical SLR.  I know.  I was skeptical too.

f/16, 1/60sec, ISO100

f/16, 1/60sec, ISO100

The 20mm Lens

I can say however, after using the viewfinder-less camera for over a week, shooting in all types of situations, I have a new friend in cameras.  The GF1 was released in September of 2009.  Panasonic gave two options for lenses, a standard 14-45mm kit lens or the now cult classic 20mm 1.7 “pancake” lens.  The latter is the lens I’d recommend.  It makes the camera small enough to slip into your pocket, but versatile enough to shoot in the most demanding light situations.  Having a normal range prime (a 40mm equivalent on a DSLR) will take you back to the days when photographers had to move their feet to get a great composition instead of just rotating a zoom ring.  It really makes photography fun.  I couldn’t agree more with the in-depth review given by DP Review, “The Lumix G 20mm F1.7 ASPH is a lens that we’ve been looking forward to seeing for real ever since Panasonic first showed a mock-up back at Photokina ’08. The good news is that it’s been well worth the wait – the 20mm is an excellent lens, especially considering its tiny size. It does well in all aspects of our studio tests, and produces fine images in a wide range of situations while also focusing quickly, silently and decisively. On compact Micro Four Thirds bodies such as the E-P1 and GF1, it offers impressive image quality and low-light capability in a package significantly smaller and more discreet than any DSLR system. The last few years have seen Panasonic rapidly improving its cameras; the 20mm F1.7 sees the company flexing its muscles in the field of lens design and showing it means business here too. We’re unashamed fans of fast primes, and it’s great to see Panasonic providing one relatively early in the development of Micro Four Thirds.”  The guys over at DP Review have also given an incredible review of the GF1 body here if you need some technical comparisons.

Another long exposure example.  This image was actually taken around 11pm with a 60 second expsure at f/4.  Full moon gave color to the scene.

Another long exposure example. This image was actually taken around 11pm with a 60 second expsure at f/4. Full moon gave color to the scene.

I was surprised to hear this reviewer from Wired say he’s also willing to leave his trusty DSLR behind.  This excellent review notes that you can also use your legacy lenses with an adapter if you’re willing to give up automatic focusing. Adapters are available for almost all lens mounts to be used on any micro 4/3 body, so that Canon “L” glass can still be useful, even if you aren’t lugging around your 5D Mark II.

So with that background, here are a few of my personal impressions.

Things I liked:

  • Size.  I like carrying this around and I don’t scare people off when I pull it out.
  • Historgram and Live info before you take the shot.  The f-stop and shutter settings are uniquely displayed live on the screen.  As one reviewer put it, “Some are bothered by the lack of a built in viewfinder, but I find the different perspective refreshing – and adds some unique capabilities you don’t get with an SLR like a live histogram, full brightness depth of field preview, live black and white and crop. For some reason it just feels like a creative tool instead of another piece of electronics.”
  • Dedicated movie button.  This is just a convenience god-send.  No more switching dials or digging into menus to capture a short clip on the spot, or forgetting you are in movie mode when you try and take a picture for that matter.
  • Did I mention size

Things I didn’t like:

  • No viewfinder. In bright sun this will be an issue.  The optional electronic viewfinder seems to be lacking in resolution.
  • So far, very limited lens choices.  The Pancake 20mm lens is gold though.  Large aperture lenses and primes are lacking.
  • Movie mode, although nice that it is HD quality, had focusing issues.  Better to focus the camera and then leave it in manual to avoid focus searching (unless your subject is moving around a lot).

Summary:
I’ll be buying a micro 4/3 camera as soon as my budget allows it.  Perhaps by then there will be even more models to choose from.  In the mean time, if you’re in the market, take a look at what’s available.  Olympus just released the Olympus E-PL1 Pen Camera for $599.  It is the lowest cost Micro Four Thirds camera currently available and comes in many stylish colors!

To see other articles by Chas, click the author link below.

f/8, 1/250sec, ISO100

f/8, 1/250sec, ISO100

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Chas Elliott is a freelance photographer in the Northern Virginia and DC area. See more of his work at www.chaselliott.com.

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