Gear Talk: Lumix GF1 Review

With a background in photography, I spend a lot of time trying to find the perfect camera for backpacking. I'd love to carry my Nikon D300 all the time, but it's just too bulky and heavy. A few years ago I switched to compact, point and shoot cameras. These days you can take pretty good photos with them, but as I photographer I eventually find them somewhat lacking - either in manual controls, accessibility, image quality, depth of field (other than in macro mode) and durability. I used a tiny Samsung NV10 for a while, which took great pictures with nice punchy colours and has the advantage of making me look like a spy, but after a couple of years the automatic lens cover started to malfunction. The tiny lenses on compact cameras easily break when subjected to sand and extended misuse. To counter that I switched ot an Olympus Sylus Tough 6020. Waterproof, shock proof, 14 megapixels, perfect for the outdoors. Jason Klass just got one and seems to like it. I thought it was a piece of shit. It has some nice features but I found the images lack detail, and the colours are somehow flat. The problem with small cameras is that the lenses and sensors are so small the quality of captured data is typically quite low.

Then last year, late to the party as usual, I read about the

Lumix GF 1

. I'd heard about four thirds cameras before, but resisted them as what I really wanted was a full frame, 35mm sensor.

The four thirds system

uses a smaller sensor, but the GF1 allows you to select the ratio of the sensor, between 4:3 ( a nice medium format ratio), 3:2 (35mm), 1:1 (for squares) and 16:9 (widescreen, baby). Although the sensor is far from full frame, it is considerably larger than those used on compact point and shoots.

A larger sensor helps to capture dappled light scenes. 

As it has been out for a while, there are plenty of other, more extensive reviews of the GF1. Here are a few good ones:

Hendrik's field report at Hiking in Finland


Digital Photography Review

Imaging Resource

I won't write an extensive review and list all the functions as that has already been well-catered for. Instead I'll focus on it's suitability as a mid-sized camera for photographer-backpackers.

For me, the GF1 is the best of both worlds. It's more compact than a dSLR, offers interchangable lenses, has a larger sensor than a compact, it's not too heavy (470g inc. UV filter), and it has a good set of manual controls which are easily accessible - via real buttons!!!

The GF1 seems especially good at capturing fire. Just look at those crisp flames and smoke.

Lovely depth of field too.

It's light sensitivity performance is not on a par with the latest dSLRs, but I've found it to be more than adequate, with an ISO range of 100 to 3200. Naturally, it shoots in RAW as well as the usual array of compressed JPEGs.

I was surprised it captured such a range of light in this cabin shot.

It has a metal body which, while not waterproof, is reassuringly sturdy. The buttons are sensibly arranged, and include my essential requirements: an exposure and focus lock, manual focus, and access to ISO and metering. A dial on the top allows switching between different modes, aperture or shutter priority, manual, and the various other more 'compact-user-friendly' modes. Two custom settings are useful if you want to set up the camera for sepcific uses.

While the GF1 doesn't have a dedicated macro mode, the pancake lens allows

you to focus down to about 15cm.

There are a few things SLR users will miss.

A depth of field preview button would be nice

[edit: I just remembered it


have a depth of field preview on the 'Trash' button in camera mode. It also previews shutter speed. Trés neat!], and old fashioned as I am, I curse the day that aperture rings were taken off lenses and put into camera software. While the GF1 makes it easy to switch between shutter and aperture adjustments by alternately pressing the control dial, I'd still prefer dedicated dials for each. It's better than hiding them behind a menu system though (but more on that later).

Personally, in this type of camera, I don't miss the absence of a viewfinder. The LCD is bright, crisp and superbly detailed. Viewfinder fans can get an electronic viewfinder which sits on the hot shoe.

In the original file, the light on the bird's wing is very detailed. Curses on JPEG compression.

The camera also records HD video, and you can record some pretty stylish material using some lovely depth of field effects.

Indeed, depth of field is the main draw of a camera like this for me.  While point and shoot's are undeniably lighter and smaller, they are limited in what they can achieve with such small lenses. While depth of field is achievable in macro modes, at mid ranges the effect is much less than with the GF1 or a dSLR. Sure, you can fiddle in Photoshop later and create the effect you want, but I love using focus in my photography. For many outdoor photographers, the crisp, clarity of an F16 landscape is what they are after, and the GF1 excels in this also. The lens (I have the pancake 1.7/20mm) is absolutely superb. The detail it captures is often stunning. I never notice any chromatic aberration or other visual inconsistencies, and at a fast shutter speed, frozen droplets of water from a dog jumping into a lake are frozen in the air in remarkable clarity.

With a camera this size and weight, with this functionality, I am more than happy to carry a couple of hundred more grams. I keep mine safe in a

Lowepro 60 AW

all weather case, which straps to my belt and has a built in rain cover(!) There's not a lot of room in there for any filters (I usually carry an ND and polarizer), but at least the camera is safe and not too bulky.

I also purchased a Joby Gorillapod for compact cameras, but unfortunately the GF1 is a touch too heavy for it. I really need the SLR version, which is a shame as it is a touch too large for my tastes.

Snow scenes are often hard for cameras to expose correctly.

The GF1 does a remarkably good job.

So, I've been very happy with the GF1. I've had it about a year now, and every time I'm impressed with the quality of pictures it takes. If you are looking for a camera with more than a compact, but less bulk than a dSLR, I recommend it. But there are also many alternatives out there - the Sony NEX-5 has been getting good reviews although some of the photos I've seen taken with it look a touch flat, and occasionally blurry - this could be related to low light performance though.

One thing to note is that the Panasonic Lumix GF2 is out soon - it's smaller, has 1080i video, and a touchscreen interface - but in my opinion they've tkaen a step back towards compact cameras by hiding the controls in the user interface of the screen, rather than having dedicated buttons. On the other hand, you'll find GF1s available at a bargain prices right now. I recommend the pancake lens if you just get one.

A photo of the person making the recommendation of the camera used to take the photo.

Alternatively, if you're looking purely for a compact camera, the

Lumix DS7 / TZ10

produces some very nice results - very close in quality to the GF1. Take a look at

camera-loan-meister Hendrik's review

(how does he do that??). The image quality seems superb, and although the effects of a smaller sensor and lens are present, they are far less noticeable than in most cameras.

As for me, I'm sticking with the GF1. In fact, I think I'll take it out for a few snaps this afternoon!

Great detail. Great Sahti.

Irrelevant and gratuitous shot of secret bushcraft shelter found near Rovaniemi.