Yes, the headline is correct. This is a sort of extended (as in about 10 pages long) mini-review of the Panasonic Lumix GF1, from the eyes of a 5DmkII user. There is a lot of good reviews of the GF1 out on the interwebs, in fact one of them was what put me on the trail of this diminutive little DSLR in the first place. There is even a comparison between these two cameras out there. The reviews I’ve read all make a good point of the advantages of the GF1, like the size, joy to use, the reasonably fast AF, the possibility to use Leica M mount lenses. One nice review even pitted the GF1 against the Leica M9. The impression I took home from all these reviews is that after getting the GF1 as a second camera, many photographers found that their pro-level Canon/Nikon systems started collecting dust as they just didn’t seem to want to stop using the GF1.
Yet, the reviews left me wanting more information. How does the GF1 stack up against a pro level SLR in daily use? What are the differences in the approach to photography it brings? Can it convince me to drop my Canon system completely to build a new system around the four thirds system? My local photo store was kind enough to loan me a unit for a few days. This is my attempt to answer these questions. It is not a complete technical breakdown of the GF1, there is no need as DP Reviews does that better than anyone. This is my experience of the GF1 from a personal perspective.
First some background to put my experience into perspective. I’ve been photographing for about 15 years. About 6 of these years I’ve spent as a photojournalist, on staff and freelance. Today I’m a happy amateur with occasional freelance assignments when they tickle my fancy. I run a photoblog at www.anyday.se which I’ve update irregularly but continuously for the last four years or so. I’ve been using (in order of appearance) analog Nikons (F4 and F80), Analog Canons (EOS 1), Analog Leicas (M4P), Digital Canons (EOS 1D, EOS 1D mk2, EOS 10D, EOS 5D MkII). Of all these cameras the two I’ve enjoyed the most is the analog Leica M4P and the one I now use - the Canon 5D MkII. For the record I really love my 5D, it’s an awesome camera and the photos it produce are massive, sharp, with great definition and a very very nice tonal range. The only thing I’m finding myself having a problem with is the size of it.
It’s a well known saying that the best camera is the one you have with you. It’s now most famous as the tagline for an iPhone app by Chase Jarvis. It’s completely true, and should inspire us to make sure that the camera we actually have with us is as good as it can be. This is the reason the GF1 is interesting to me. I find myself less and less likely to bring the 5D MkII with me. When I do I bring a camera bag (Billingham Hadley) filled with the house, two lenses; a Canon 17-40mm 4.0, and a Canon 70-200 mm 4.0, sometimes a flash. I’ve based this setup on the ones I used to run around with as a photojournalist. But it’s a bit of a hassle. Back when it was my job to lug around this kind of equipment, being ready to run form one assignment to the next, this equipment (with two camera houses) was necessary to keep me open for all kinds of tasks. It’s still a very versatile kit when I do bring it with me. But I’m no longer a photojournalist, and even when I was it was a hassle to lug around. Today this means that except for the days I specifically go out to take pictures, I leave my kit at home.
During a few years my main camera was a Leica M4P. For those who don’t know, this is a completely manual rangefinder made in the 1980’s. It doesn’t have a light-meter, and since you’re not looking through the lens you don’t get a preview of the photo the way you get by looking through the lens of the SLR. What it is though is a fantastically built, compact (though not diminutive), workhorse of a camera. Unlike the Canon, I brought it with me everywhere I went, together with a few rolls of film and an external light meter. I loved that camera, but in the end the digital world had too many advantages, I finally caved in and traded it for a Canon 10D. (Yes, it still kills me to think about it).
The GF1, to me, represents a possible merger of the things I like about the Leica and the 5D MkII, without having to hand out $7000 for a Leica M9. Call me naive, but that is what I was hoping for to a certain degree. Lets take a look at what I found out.
Size, build and handling
The first impression is that it is indeed small. I’ve read a few reviews and seen some photos, but it is smaller in real life than it looked in the pictures, just like celebrities are. Yet it’s not tiny the way a true compact is. With the pancake 20mm lens on (the lens I was interested in besides M-mount lenses), it was possible to fit it into the pocket of my jacket, but not comfortably so. Yet compared to the 5D MkII, it’s a dwarf.
So does that diminutive size mean that it’s cramped and uncomfortable to use? Well no, I wouldn’t say that. It’s not the most ergonomic camera I’ve used, small cameras rarely are, but the most used controls are well placed and it is possible to have have a decent hold of it. I wouldn’t say it’s any more, or less awkward to use than the smaller Canon SLR:s. As it’s smaller than a Leica M series, it’s not really comparable to that experience either. Suffice to say that it’s comfortable enough.
I don’t know if it’s something you get used to, but compared to the rubber-like grip of the Canon, the GF1 is more plastic and thus feels more slippery. The grip is not very big and I found myself walking around holding it more in the palm of my hand, gripping around the lens, than holding it “ready to shoot” as that hold didn’t feel secure enough.To me, that didn’t cause too much of a problem though, holding it in my left hand by the lens, bringing it up and gripping it with my right hand to shoot works well. It might take a fraction of a second longer, but it works. A wrist strap would ease my mind a bit when walking around though.
The controls are overall nice, but the control wheel could use a little work. Compared to the ones on the Canon it feels small, slippery and it requires a lot of scrolling to get the aperture in aperture priority mode to go from one extreme to the other. A slightly bigger wheel with more rubbery feel would probably solve these issues. By clicking on the wheel you switch from controlling the aperture or shutter speed to controlling exposure compensation. It’s a solution that works ok, it’s not as fast as the dedicated wheel on the 5D. Other cameras in this size – like the Olympus Pen – has two control wheels, that could be better, but I would settle for just one as long as it’s good.
I’ve found however that swiching the ISO is in fact faster than it is for me on the 5D MkII. Despite using a canon SLR since they began shipping digital ones, I haven’t really gotten the ISO settings button into my muscle memory - as a result I always have to look for it. The GF1 puts it on the directional buttons making it easy to find and fast to switch. There is also the option, as on the 5D to choose ISO automatically and within a certain span.
Speed can be measured and speed can be experienced. Considering that the GF1 utilizes contrast detect autofocus this camera should be slower than regular SLRs. Looking at the numbers it is easy to see that the GF1 has a slower autofocus than most Canon SLRs (although not by much), but significantly faster than the other cameras in it’s own category, like the ones from Olympus. But how does this translate to actual use? First of all, the GF1 is a lot faster than the compact cameras you may be used to. It is pretty snappy in focusing speeds when the focus targets are within the same range-category. However you notice the speed dropping when you focus from infinity to a subject within macro range. When the camera struggles to find focus (which happens very rarely) you can also notice that it takes a bit longer for it to search from close range to infinity and back than it would with a regular SLR. I would say that the GF1 is better at finding focus than some mid-level SLRs with non-professional lenses, but compared to the 5DmkII with L-series lenses it is of course slower and in some situations it runs in to problems where the canon would not.
Is this a problem? Well this depends of course on how you use your camera. For me, my days of shooting sports are behind me. I do however have the need for a camera that can catch those fleeting moments that might pass you by. For me the GF1 felt quick enough. It is slower than the 5D MkII for sure, but during the time I had it, it managed everything I needed it to do. I didn’t have a chance to try it out on the most difficult of subjects – kids – as I am fortunate enough not to have any around my home. But, I do think it could catch up with most of the things I need it to do.
Shot to shot in continuous mode it is quite fast, I never ran up the buffer even by shooting only in raw, but then I didn’t really try to provoke it.
For me, speed is about getting the shot before the opportunity passes you by. I would say that in many ways the GF1 will be faster than the 5D mkII for the simple reason that it’s small enough to bring it with you. The number of opportunities that pass me by will be a lot smaller when I actually carry the camera with me and I believe the GF1 will be fast enough to capture them when they occur.
Using the live view screen
To me the camera has always acted as a shield, a protective filter between me and the world. Using big SLR:s you can hide your own self while still able to look intensely at the person you are shooting, searching for that fleeting moment to press the shutter. Even with the Leica there is a viewfinder and you hold the camera to your face. Not so with the GF1. Now to be fair there is an optional electronic viewfinder, but I haven’t got one on the one I borrowed and I’m somewhat skeptical about how I would like looking through it. For now I was stuck with the live view screen. This has advantages and disadvantages.
The good: It’s a bright, 60fps screen which feels like it gives you a good view of what you are shooting in all but the brightest of direct light. Compared to the Canon and even more so compared to the Leica M4P, you see a representation of the final image on the screen. This creates a possibility to see the effect of exposure choices much more directly than when looking through the viewfinder of the Canon. It’s easier, and I would like to say; fun. I am worried however that it would make me lazy and think less about how I want the picture. The live view might compensate that by increasing your tendency to explore different exposures and angles.
In fact, not having the camera bound to your face like a facehugger from Half Life, you are able to find new angles without breaking your back. The camera does not have an articulable display, but it’s still a big difference against the 5D MkII. Now the canon also has Live View, but I rarely use it as it doesn’t feel as intuitive on a camera built around a viewfinder. Another advantage of using the screen is that you are more stealthy, you will have an easier time shooting candid portraits, you will probably also seem less intimidating compared to holding a huge block of SLR to your face.
The bad: It’s a display. Compared to the Canon you’re looking at a screen portraying the reality in front of you, instead of looking at the reality itself. This makes a lot of difference. If you are shooting a portrait, you might be looking for the moment the light hits the eye in just the right way at the exact moment your subject makes that small move with her eyebrow. Looking at that small screen, you may miss those subtle things completely. Also, it gives you the feeling that you are somehow further from the thing you are photographing, even if the distance is the same. Using the screen also causes you to loose one of the stabilizing points when holding the camera as you no longer hold the camera to your face. The final disadvantage is that you loose that comfort of hiding behind that big SLR, though that might be a good thing. Granted, all the things I’ve mentioned as disadvantages with the screen may be cured with the EVF, but I’m unsure if it gives you that feeling of looking at reality when you shoot, as opposed to a screen showing reality.
The best comparison would be looking at the matte viewfinder screen of old medium format cameras like the Hasselblad. I used to own one and I liked how it allowed me to concentrate on composing the shot, but it didn’t offer me quite the same look on the details.
My own theoretical solution to keeping the good and avoiding the bad would be to get an external optical viewfinder such as the ones made by Voigtländer. The ones made for 40mm lenses would work well with the 20mm pancake lens. You wouldn’t be able to see the focus point, but provided you use the center focal-point (I did) you could probably get it right most of the time and use the viewfinder for stability, framing and keeping an eye on reality. Provided you use an aperture of 8 or more and hyperfocal distance, you could skip focussing in most situations and only use the external viewfinder. This is the way I used my Leica most of the time.
Even though this is a review of the camera, I find I have to say a few words on the 20mm pancake lens. It has a 1,7 maximum aperture so I’ve tried to compare it a bit to the Canon 50mm 1,8. In my opinion the Panasonic lens renders some great photos. It’s not super-crispy at wide open, but it’s sharp enough. I find that the bokeh is better on the Panasonic than on the Canon 1,8, but then bokeh is often a question of subjective taste. If I would buy the GF1 I would not hesitate to get the kit with the 20mm 1,7, it’s size, speed and sharpness makes it a great starting lens with the GF1 and a great travel partner, at least until you get some Leica lenses to play with.
This is in fact the killer feature of this camera in my opinion: with an optional adaptor you can fit Leica M lenses on it. Sure, you can fit other lenses too, there is a Nikon adaptor, I bet you can find a canon-adaptor to. But the idea of putting the compact and amazing Leica lenses on this camera feels like some sort of awesome version of a Frankensteins monster, or a camera version of the guy with the chainsaw hand in Evil Dead. In fact, browsing through Flickr I found photos of the GF1 with Leica lenses and Voigtländer viewfinder which looks like someone steampunked the GF1 and in the process happened to make it awesome. I have yet to try it, but I think the way manual focus works on this camera, putting a nice, fast, manual Leica lens on it would make for a great combo.
I’ve read some reviews on other Panasonic and Olympus micro four thirds lenses and even foregoing the Leica (manual focus) lenses, there seem to be some nice lenses for this camera. I am, however, not able to say much about them at this point.
This is really the make it or break it part of this review. It is also the area where the 5D should come out on top without any problems. The question is therefore not so much if but instead how far on top the Canon ends up. In order for the GF1 to be an alternative for me, it has to be close enough not to make me want to cringe or cry every time I transfer the photos to my computer and compare them to what I’m used to from the Canon. Looking at the specs, this might be hard to accomplish for the GF1. The Canon has almost twice the amour of pixels and on a full size sensor to boot. In fact, the sensor on the Canon is roughly 3,5 times the size of the sensor on the GF1. So the Canon takes “bigger” images. But if this was the only difference I wouldn’t mind much, 12.1 MP is enough for most of what I use my photos for nowadays. Bu the Canons larger sensor also means that it has less pixel density which usually also translates into lower noise levels.
Because of this I mainly had two concerns when I tried out the GF1, none of which was the number of pixels. The first was dynamic range, the second was noise.
I’ll begin with noise. At 100-200 ISO it’s pretty much not an issue at all, not should it be. At 400 you can tell it’s present and to a higher degree than on the Canon. To be fair the Canon has extremely little noise, even on higher sensitivities, but the GF1 does have a bit of a problem catching up. At 400 it’s not really a problem, but it’s not the noise-free photos you might be used to see coming from the 5D MkII. At 800 you may take issue with it. Unlike on the 5D I wouldn’t recommend cranking up the ISO higher than that unless you are prepared to handle a lot of noise, or if you intend to make the photos black and white. Is it too much noise? I’m honestly not sure. I tend to stick in the lower ISO regions, but I’ve enjoyed knowing that I didn’t have to be afraid to turn the ISO up on the Canon without ruining the photos. I would like to try the GF1 a little longer to see if the noise would be a problem for me, but for the time I had it, it never really got in the way of my shots.
So what about the dynamic range? This to me has been the one of the things I’ve loved the most about the 5D MkII. Sure, the full sensor size makes for some sweet wide-angle love, but the sheer amount of information recorded in both highlights and shadows has never failed to impress me. Stepping back to a situation where I can’t trust the camera to bring back a blown out sky in post-processing, or get the details out of harsh shadows, that would be tough. Losing the wonderful gradations the Canon produce would be even harder.
According to DP review the dynamic range of the 5D MkII is between -4.9 EV and 3.5 EV, giving it a usable range of 8.4 EV. The Panasonic had a little more information in the shadows, -5.4 but only reached 3.1 in the highlights, giving it a dynamic range equal to the Canon with 8.5 EV in usable range. What does these numbers mean? Well it means that the GF1 is more likely to clip in the brighter areas, but maintains more information in the shadows. In real world situations the GF1 actually does expose with care, even under-exposing a bit, which compensates for this somewhat. This is pretty much consistent with what I felt when looking through the pictures in Lightroom. I would say that the GF1 probably lost a bit of detail in the highlights where it would have still been there with the Canon, but not to a degree where it caused problems.
In my opinion, the dynamic range on the Canon is more in line with what I like, that is taking care not to loose information in the brighter areas, I also, purely from the feeling I get by looking at the pictures, find that the 5D MkII has a nicer gradation, visible mostly in the skies. But is it a world of difference? No, not at all. Overall I feel that the GF1 held up nicely to the Canon and exceeded my expectations in this regard.
So does size matter? Well 21 MP is a lot of pixels and to tell you the truth I have enjoyed being able to crop photos taken with the 5D MkII to a quarter of their original size without worrying about quality. The Panasonic doesn’t provide as much leeway in this regard. Yet, the occasions when this happens are few and mostly I try not to crop images whatsoever, so this is not a deal breaker for me. In any case, if you truly need the 21 MP the 5D MkII offers, then you probably wouldn’t even start reading this review. Is it nice having all that resolution? Yes. Is it vital for non-commercial work? No. The Canon is a professional camera and being what it is, producing the image sizes it does, is a comfort for many people, professionals and amateurs alike. If you need it is pretty much a question you have to answer yourself. For me, megapixels only count up to a certain degree, and only if you have the lenses to match the sensor.
But what about colors you say? Well I won’t even go into that seeing as how I’m color-blind and all. But to my defective eye, the GF1 produced nice, realistic color tones. A bit more muted than the Canon I believe, at least when loaded into Lightroom. I felt that a little more vibrance and saturation brought them closer to what I am used to seeing from the Canon. I couldn’t however tell you if the blue sky is blue or the brown old grass is brown, I trust my cameras to do a better job than myself in this regard, and I would trust the GF1 too.
It’s worth noting that the four thirds system offers a different proportion between width and height of the photos. The GF1 offers widescreen modes (16:9), but the native format is a bit taller than the classic 35mm format in landscape orientation. To me this took some getting used to, but now I must say I like the proportions.
Sorry, didn’t test it and I’m not very interested in it. Considering the Canon 5d MkII was used to shoot the entire season finale of House, I wouldn’t count on the GF1 to match it though.
It seems nowadays that everyone and their dog has a digital SLR. Even among beginners and amateurs there is a certain lust after that camera, sometimes just beyond their reach, that will make all the difference. If you have a Canon 50D, you want the 7D, if you have the 7D, you want the 5D mkII, and so on. What if you decided to go in the other direction. To step down not only in camera size, but in megapixels. To get off that train of camera-envy and overcompensation by long tele zoom lenses? What camera do you really need?
For me the GF1, and the four thirds system represents the potential of finding that camera that strikes just the right balance between usability, portability and creative freedom. In the great digital camera wars between Nikon and Canon, you sometimes loose track of what is outside the trenches. To continue the analogy, trying out the GF1 has been a bit like getting out of the trenches of World War 1 embracing the guerilla warfare of modern day. It is essentially about small and nimble, vs. big and powerful. The question is if the GF1 strikes the correct balance.
I posed some questions in the beginning of this review. If you read this far you deserve to hear what I figured out.
Does it stack up? Well, for me, I have to say it kind of does. But then my expectations are not the same as they are on a full size SLR. What I can say, is that surprisingly few compromises has been made when squeezing an SLR into such a small body. When using it, it doesn’t feel like an SLR due to the lack of viewfinder, bit still the possibilities of convenient and fast manual control makes you use it like one. It’s the fun of a compact with the control of an SLR. And looking at the photos you get, you won’t be fooled to think it’s a compact. The GF1 paired with the right lens, such as the 20mm 1,7 pancake provides you with the image quality you need to take some fantastic photos.
Did it convince me to drop my Canon system completely to build a new gear around the Four Thirds system? Wow, this is really a tough question. When I decided to try out this camera I had been reading a lot about it. I couldn’t quite shake the idea that it might be something for me, but I was pretty much convinced it would disappoint me. So the decision to try it out was not really to confirm that it was something for me, but rather to confirm it wasn’t, so I could put it out of my mind. Instead, trying it out ended up making my decision even harder. I really liked this camera, and it did what I wanted it to do pretty much as well as I need it to. And, it does these things while remaining a very portable and delightful – even fun –camera to use.
To be truthful, I am at this point seriously considering selling my entire Canon system, taking the plunge and diving into what I think is, and more importantly will be, a strong alternative to the great Canon/Nikon divide – The four thirds system.