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Product Review: Panasonic Lumix G1
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Product Review: Panasonic Lumix G1

100 in 100/IV: The revolution in camera design starts here

How did the world’s first Micro Four Thirds camera do in the field, on the street, and in the test lab?  Let’s find out…


Key features:

  • 13.1 megapixel Four Thirds sensor
  • Micro Four Thirds lens mount
  • 3-inch flip-out, 460,000-dot LCD monitor
  • 1,440,000-dot Electronic Viewfinder
  • Face Detection
  • Optical stabilization
  • Live View
  • Intelligent Auto mode
  • Manual focus, exposure control options


Camera options:


Best Suited For:

  • Sports
  • Nature
  • Action
  • Scenics
  • Low-light photography
  • Vacation/travel
  • Snapshots


Price (at time of writing): Less than $700



Executive Summary

When Panasonic unveiled the Lumix G1 last fall at Photokina, it changed the rules of the game for camera design. The first electronic viewfinder camera with interchangeable lenses, the G1 is the first camera to use the Micro Four Thirds design, which uses a shorter flangeback (distance between the rear of the lens and the sensor) than DSLRs. With the shorter flangeback and no need for a space-eating reflex mirror since the viewfinder image is electronic, designers were free to make the camera body narrower and generally more compact, and lenses much smaller.

And yet, the Lumix G1 uses the same Micro Four Thirds sensor as its bigger siblings, such as the Olympus E series of DSLRs. It can even, with an adaptor, use lenses designed for the standard Four Thirds mount. In other words, the potential is for big-camera quality and access to a big-camera system in a small interchangeable-lens camera.

With so much hype surrounding it, does the G1 deliver? What did Panasonic sacrifice (besides a reflex mirror view) for miniaturization? Are performance and image quality comparable to full-sized Four Thirds cameras, and how does this camera compare to APS-D sensor DSLRs? How did it perform in the lab, and in the real world? Let’s find out!

Ergonomics

In the hand, the Panasonic Lumix G1 is well-balanced and light. It feels more like an EVF-type camera than a DSLR. Controls are a good size and logically placed, and the generous-sized grip makes the camera easy to hold. My only minor quibble is that the forefinger dial that controls shutter speed and aperture when in manual mode is press-sensitive, and I found myself changing its modes accidentally a few times.

A quick digression: Some reviewers have called the G1 a DSLR. They are wrong, and have caused some confusion among consumers. A DSLR has as reflex mirror and a pentaprism or pentamirror housing that optically directs the actual image through the viewfinder. The G1, instead, provides a live digital view of the image via an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Therefore it is, technically, an EVF camera—albeit the first with interchangeable lenses. The only features it shares with DSLRs are interchangeable lenses and a DSLR-sized sensor. There—I feel better now.

The eye-level 1.4-million-dot viewfinder is bright and easy on the eyes, although as with other EVF cameras it blanks out the moment the shutter is triggered. If you have the camera set on its default, the 3-inch LCD monitor is on in shooting mode until you bring the camera up to your face. If shooting down from the hip, you’ll need to hold the camera about 4-5 inches away from your body, or the LCD monitor will think the camera being held to your face, and turns off in favor of the EVF. The LCD monitor provides a bright, high-resolution image that was moderately viewable in bright sunlight and easy to see in all other light.

Modes & Features

The G1 offers a wide range of features designed to appeal to photographers at all levels. For those who understand exposure, manual exposure, as well as aperture- and shutter-priority modes, are available. For those who want the camera’s benefits without understanding the underlying concepts, there are program, auto and iA (intelligent Auto) modes. Intelligent Auto uses sophisticated algorithms to recognize specific lighting situations and choose from the camera’s scene modes.

The My Menu feature lets you customize your settings for quick recall. So, if you want to shoot lots of black-and-white pictures with high contrast, you can switch between that and super-saturated color with limited ISO options and Histogram always on—for example.

Manual focus is intuitive and easy. A switch on the left side of the top  of the camera lets you choose focus mode; in manual simply turn the lens’s front ring, which controls focus. If you invest in a Leica M-lens adapter, to use an M-mount lens, you’ll need to keep the camera in the MF setting. Conversely, face recognition was fast and accurate in optimizing focus and exposure for people in scenes.

Lab Test results
 
Since the G1 straddles two categories—Four Thirds DSLRs and Compact system cameras—it’s important to compare it against both. Compared to other Four Thirds cameras, the G1 put in a good performance that falls right in the middle, quality-wise; compared to other compact system cameras, it is the best in its class as of this writing. Lab analysis of RAW images at the sensor level conducted by DxOLabs.com (and are used with their permission) showed that the G1’s image quality is comparable to Four Thirds format DSLR cameras such as the Olympus E-420 and E-510. In fact, of the eight Four Thirds cameras tested, the fell right in the middle of the range, with a 53 overall DxOMark Sensor rating (the range was 51-57).
 
Measured ISO sensitivity was approximately 1/3 of a stop higher than indicated, consistently at all speeds. ISO 100 was actually 129, ISO 200 was 266, etc. The top ISO, 3200, actually measured as 4055. Digital noise levels are well controlled, dipping below acceptable levels after ISO 800 (which is actually ISO 1117). This jibes with my review of actual images shot at these speeds, which showed surprisingly little grain.

Dynamic range was an average 10 stops at ISO 100, but drops to only 8 stops by ISO 800. Color depth was very good, with a 21.1 rating out of a possible 28.  Color sensitivity is the most accurate at ISO 100-400, although it deteriorates gradually through the higher speeds, a typical DSLR performance and outstanding for a smaller camera.

 

 

 

 

In The Field

I found the G1 to be quick and responsive on the street and in the field.  Focus was fast and in most cases decisive. (In a few instances, it missed; however, as I was writing this review a new firmware update was announced for the G1 that included AF performance improvements and with the new firmware loaded I did notice better AF accuracy. So, make sure your camera is loaded with firmware version 1.3). Face recognition and all exposure modes were quick and accurate.

High-speed photos were not as grainy as I expected, and in fact when shooting at ISO 400 and lower it was not noticeable. At 800 it was there but not objectionable.

The flip-out, rotating LCD viewfinder provided excellent resolution and was viewable in most lighting conditions. In direct sunlight the image quality was fairly good. The electronic viewfinder image was sharp and easy on the eye, with good overall image quality. As is typical with EVFs, image view quality degrades in low light. But in good lighting, the viewfinder view is outstanding, as one would expect from a display with 1.4 million dots! I kept the camera in the Histogram Always On setting so I could get immediate exposure feedback.

Handheld at 1/80 sec at ISO 200 and 45mm: Optical stabilization works as advertised, and grain is well controlled. Enlarged to 100%, below, results are impressive.

Overall, I felt that although the G1 is loaded with high-tech features, the technology rarely got in the way of my ability to shoot sharp, well-exposed photos. In the field and on the street, it was a pleasure to use.

Street Photography Stress Test

Why a street photography stress test? Street photography requires a fast, responsive camera with decisive focusing, manual focus ability, virtually no lag or write-to-card time and no delay between shots. If a camera can pass my street photography stress test, it can handle almost anything—including sports, kids, and scenics.

When in manual focus and exposure settings, the G1 was fast, with virtually no lag time or file transfer delay. Walking the streets of Manhattan I was able to easily shoot unobtrusively. In AF, the camera was a tad slower, but the face recognition feature kicked in and did a good job capturing faces even in fast-changing scenes. Focus tracking allowed the G1 to hold focus on people as they walked across the field of view, although if different people were going in different directions, that confused the camera and slowed it down somewhat.

While people relaxed in a new pedestrian mall in the middle of New York’s Times Square, I put the G1 through its paces.

Quiet operation and quick, decisive autofocus made this a good camera for capturing candid street corner moments like this one. The rotating monitor let me experiment with hip shots like this one.

I switched to manual focus and exposure for this tough subject: a woman wearing black in open shade under an oversized awning, with a sunny street behind her. I exposed for the woman and expected the sunny details to be more blown out than this, which shows a wider dynamic range than the lab results seem to indicate.

Overall SPST score: A-

Conclusion

The Panasonic G1 is not just the most innovative camera to come along in quite some time, it’s got the chops as a reliable, solid picture-taker. DSLR owners may not even miss the lack of an optical view because the image in the electronic viewfinder is so sharp. The camera is responsive in the field, delivers big-camera image quality, and has cutting-edge features that make it easier for beginners to get great shots. All this in a camera that’s smaller and slimmer than any DSLR, and takes a wide range of interchangeable lenses.

If you really want HD video, wait for the GX-1 to come out later this month; it’ll cost about $1,200. But if you just want a solid, extremely capable still camera that at $700 won’t break the bank, is light and portable, and gives you entrée into the world of interchangeable lenses, I wholeheartedly recommend the Panasonic G1.

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