The start of a new decade brings with it a shift in digital image capturing technology. From an ambitious snapshooter’s perspective, perhaps the most versatile system has presented itself. While the discerning professional may not consider the micro 4/3 system cameras heavy lifting tools, it is at least an intriguing compact system for lighter shooting. This is not a technical review, nor am I going to go into the performance within pixel peeping proportions, but I will state my love for this camera and the fire it has lit inside my photographic loins so to speak. The micro 4/3’s (four thirds) system is a joint venture between Panasonic and Olympus to eliminate the mirror box and physical shutter mechanism within the body of a camera leaving behind a compact body with a nearly endless bevy of interchangeable lenses via lens mount adapters. Because it uses a live MOS (metal oxide semiconductor) sensor, you see what the sensor sees on the LCD, or via the add on EVF (electronic viewfinder) while eliminating the need for a pentaprism to view what you are shooting through the lens. This substantially decreases the space needed where a mirror would operate in a traditional SLR camera. The Panasonic GF-1 is the lightest, smallest of the m4/3 bunch as of this writing (*the E-PL1 is now smaller and lighter), which when combined with the 20mm f/1.7 “pancake” lens makes for a remarkably compact camera when you take into consideration the image quality it is capable of outputting.
I hear quite often from photographers and photo enthusiasts that the best camera is the camera you have with you. Whether that be a camera phone, or a bag full of pro gear, simply put you cannot take a picture without some type of camera with you. I have never shied away from dragging around a bag of gear, to the park, the grocery store, the doctor’s office or out to dinner. While I see this as normal, my wife and friends have politely dealt with my requests to wait while I change lenses, or set up a strobe. In my case, more options provide more potential distractions, for everyday shooting anyway. When I approach a family walk through the neighborhood as if I were on a paid editorial shoot, let’s just say I am willing to admit that I may need to step back a bit. Having a simple, yet capable compact camera with me at all times allows me to shoot from the hip while still maintaining full creative control over my camera. The GF-1 is that camera for me.
The m4/3’s system plops a large 13x17mm sensor inside remarkably compact bodies. To put it in context, the 4/3’s sensors offer roughly a quarter the physical real estate as that of a “full frame” sensor. In the picture below, the camera on the left (the 5DmkII) has a large, full frame sensor measuring 24mm x 36mm which is nearly identical in size to a frame of 35mm film. By comparison, the 4/3’s sensor in the GF-1 is quite a bit smaller, but compared to a standard digital compact camera, the sensor provides up to 10 times or more real estate than the average compact point and shoot camera.
This is relevant to me for two big reasons. First, allowing more real estate per pixel allows those pixels to gather light more effectively which translates to better light gathering in low light shooting situations (better signal to noise performance), and second with a larger sensor comes an inherently shallower depth of field, or area parallel to the sensor ‘in focus’, at a given aperture setting providing the ability to isolate a subject, one of my favorite go to “effects” in camera. (see the aperture post for more info!) In good light, most all current cameras are able to capture and produce good quality pictures, but as the need for lower light exposure increases, the smaller sensor cameras quickly need to rely on in camera image processing to deal with the grain, or noise produced at higher ISO’s ultimately degrading the image quality. A pixel is a light gathering unit and measured fraction of the sensor. The larger the pixel, the better its ability to gather light. If you divide your pinky fingernail into 12 million equally sized parts, those parts will be smaller than dividing something the size of both your thumbnails into 12 million parts. Not rocket science. (Now more pixels providing higher resolution vs. overly crammed pixel filled sensors creating diffraction due to the size of those pixels not being capable to effectively gather light based on the light being let through the lens’ aperture is a discussion for another day.) Being that the GF-1’s sensor is about a quarter of the physical size of a 35mm “full frame” it has an effective focal length multiplier of 2x, so the 20mm lens field of view (or any lens used with the 4/3’s cameras) is equal (in 35mm terms) to twice the listed focal length, or in the 20mm’s case the equivalent field of view of a 40mm lens.
This is where the system gets a little wild and some might say ridiculous. Add an adapter to use your other interchangeable system lenses. Here is my GF-1 with my 70-200 Canon lens attached via an EF to m4/3’s adapter…
Turning an otherwise compact camera into a silly looking device is at least entertaining. It is nice knowing that if I wanted to, I can use the lenses I’ve already invested in. Now, one thing to take into consideration, with the EF adapter (and other 3rd party lenses in most cases) the lenses need to be focused manually. Also, any lens that does not have a physical aperture ring on the lens itself to manually adjust the aperture will be shot wide open as there is no way to electronically adjust the aperture. There is a work around which requires you to stop down the lens on the proprietary camera body, depress the DOF preview button, then remove the lens from the camera and fasten to the m4/3’s body which will keep the aperture stopped down (see this post for a video and more info on using 3rd party lenses). A bit of a pain in the flow, but still, if necessary it’s good to know it is possible. So far, I believe that there are lens mount converters to a micro 4/3’s from 4/3-standard, Canon EF, Canon FD, Leica M, Leica R, Minolta MD, M42, Nikon F, Olympus OM, Pentax K, Sony Alpha, Contax/Yashica and others I’m sure. You will have to manually focus (most of) them, but you can use them!
Having been familiar with the Panasonic menu layout coming from a Panasonic Lumix LX3 as my compact of choice prior, the camera seems intuitively laid out and all major functions are accessed via a one button push from dedicated buttons on the back of the camera and all menus are viewed and adjustments made on the 3″ 460k dot screen. You are able to purchase the EVF (electronic viewfinder) which sits in the hotshoe and plugs in via the USB connection directly below the hotshoe. I played around with the EVF in store and figured it would be very handy when bright sun rendered the LCD screen useless, but the quality was sub-par in my opinion and for $200, I figured I could deal easily without it. If they produce a better EVF, I may be tempted, but seeing as this camera gets tossed into my coat pocket and travels with me as my compact pocket snapshooter camera, I will save most of my pennies for the bigger purchases for the big cameras.
Now, like most all digital cameras now a days, the GF-1 takes HD video (720p @30fps). You can capture vid clips in the more standard Motion Jpeg format, or the compressed Panasonic AVCHD-lite format. I am not a video guy, yet anyway, so I am not the person to ask about rendering video, or syncing audio, etc. From what I can tell, the AVCHD-lite format is more for direct use with Panasonic TV’s and such as you can now plug an SD card into the Viera link on newer Panasonic TVs and some magic happens or something. Also, the AVCHD files are compressed and allow for longer recording times over the motion Jpeg format. I cannot speak to the benefits or drawbacks, so I will just say this, 720p HD clips with mono sound and manual control over aperture, ISO, etc will allow you to record many situations, but I wouldn’t expect professional results (unless of course you know what you’re doing). Any tool in the right hands is capable, and this tool certainly seems like it has a substantial upside to it in this application.
One thing that I will always require in a compact camera is a hotshoe. I am a big fan of off camera lighting, and I tend to break out the pocket wizards, flash guns and mono lights on a regular basis. The max sync speed on the GF-1 is 1/160 sec which isn’t great, but fine for most applications. (Again, if heavy lifting is needed, I break out the heavier tools.) The main point for me is to use a cool little camera to get fun results.
GF-1 w/20mm f/1.7 Lumix lens, f/11 – 1/125 sec – ISO 100 1-AB800 flash above on axis, 1-580exII flash on either side behind, all fired via pocket wizard on camera.
For my use, I feel that the GF-1 has very high image quality from ISO 100 through ISO 800 where noise starts to become visible without pixel peeping at 100% and when printed up to 8×12″, ISO 800 images come out clean enough if properly exposed in the first place. I’m sure that with a little noise reduction tweaking ISO 800 could be printed without noticeable noise even larger. ISO 1600 starts to get messy and for me will only be used with the intention of converting to black and white, where I like a bit of grain (and it isn’t affected by chrominance noise).
Now, I am a huge fan of shooting in RAW over Jpeg. (For those not familiar with RAW, I put together an article here describing the benefits.) However, because I use Aperture 2 (Apple’s DAM software) and Apple seems to have some vendetta against Panasonic’s .RW2 raw files* (and I haven’t upgraded to CS4 yet) I don’t have software to convert the RAW files from the GF-1 aside from the Silkypix software that comes with the camera. Using Silkypix is about as intuitive as organic chemistry and its interface is about as enjoyable as spending an evening punching yourself in the face. That said, I shoot Jpeg files with the GF-1, and until either Apple gets their stuff together, or I break down and get Lightroom to run alongside Aperture (which LR does in fact convert the RAW files from Panasonic), I will continue to shoot in Jpeg. That said, I am pretty impressed with the compressed Jpeg files coming out of this camera and look forward to playing with the RAW files once I am able. One thing I would have liked to see is a 14 bit RAW file instead of the 12 bit in the GF-1. It seems like it would have made sense and really appealed to the more invested shooter. Not a deal breaker by any means, but I hope they remedy this in any future m4/3 camera. (*authors note, Aperture has updated its RAW compatibility in both ver.2 and now in ver.3 providing RAW conversion for the GF1 as well as all other current m4/3 cameras to date.)
Currently there are 5 different micro 4/3’s cameras on the market (*this dates the article as there are now 1 more Oly and 2 new Pannys as of spring 2010). From Panasonic; the G-1 (just discontinued), the GH-1 (basically a G-1 with full 1080p HD video) and the GF-1. From Olympus there are the EP-1 and EP-2. While the retro style of the EP-1 and 2 are cool, as is the sensor based stabilization (effectively stabilizing any lens on the camera 2-3 stops to combat hand shake), and the in camera effects are very neat, the AF system is by all accounts much slower and the 3″ LCD Screen is a measly 230k dots. I have only played around with an EP-1 in store, but I did feel that the menus were tough to navigate by comparison and the screen did not do the stylish camera justice. These are things that can be easily overlooked for many people and I would highly suggest getting a hands on feel for all the m4/3 cameras if you feel you are in the market, but the small package and fast f/1.7 lens kit sold me on the GF-1 hands down (now if the EP-2 was offered in a kit with the 20 f/1.7 lens, I may have had a harder decision). Regardless, the micro four thirds systems seem to be picking up speed and look to be here to stay. The future in this format looks bright and exciting for photographers indeed!
My Pros & Cons regarding the GF-1
Coat pocket sized system camera, with image quality rivaling entry level dSLRs
Good low light performance
Lens system compatibility
3fps burst shooting with good AF system
No sensor based stabilization (Panasonic still relies on Lens based stabilization)
12 bit RAW files (I’d like to see 14 bit in the next generation)
Silkypix is as much fun to use as a RAW converter as a manual push mower is to mow a heavily overgrown 1 acre cow pasture (this really has nothing to do with the camera though)
High ISO performance should perform at least one stop better, ie: I’d like to be able to get usable color shots at ISO 1600 (by most accounts the EP-2 holds a 1-2 stop high ISO/noise advantage over the GF-1)
In conclusion, I am in love with this little camera. I feel that this new mirror-less format, electronic viewfinder, interchangeable lens system camera is the way of the future for entry level through the consumer model cameras and one we will see from many of the major manufacturers in the near future (see the Samsung NX10, etc). As for the GF-1 in particular, it has a mini-rangefinder look that is not only fashionable, but functional. I have larger than average hands, and this small camera fits comfortably and feels nicely positioned and balanced. I can put this camera in a large pocket, or small camera bag and not feel sore after a day of walking around with it. I think that this would be a wonderful camera for the casual travel shooter, or someone like me that will still be bringing the big camera and lenses along for the trip, but will use this for the times you don’t want your big camera out and about. Anyone looking for a high quality compact should certainly consider the m4/3 format. While the GF-1 has decent auto focus and will shoot at up to 3 frames per second, I have found that tracking quickly moving subjects seems to stump the camera at times (honestly, quickly moving subjects can stump most all but the higher end cameras truth be told) but that said, for a compact camera relying on a contrast based AF system, it does really well. It isn’t a pro sports or birding camera, but it will hold its own in most situations. It isn’t cheap (msrp $899 w/lens), but I think that we will start to see some much more affordable micro 4/3’s cameras coming to market over the next couple years opening this segment to a broader audience which is exciting.
Thanks for reading and finally, here are just a few shots straight out of the camera as Jpegs (unless noted, shot with the Lumix 20mm f/1.7 lens).
f/1.7, 1/400, ISO100, +0.3ev
f/2.8, 1/125, ISO100 – off camera flash used
f/1.7, 1/800, ISO400, +0.3ev
shot with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L + EF to m4/3 adapter @ f/1.4, 1/250, ISO400
f/1.8, 1/80, ISO800
f/2.8, 1/500, ISO200, +0.3ev