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A compact interchangeable-lens camera for the rest of us?
Stripped of most of its external controls, and slimmed down, the GF3 is the first MILC to be designed for Soccer Moms and others who have hit the limits of their point-and-shoot cameras but don't want the bulk or expense of a full DSLR.
When Panasonic introduced the GF1 and GF2, it was aiming to carve out a new category consisting mostly of DSLR users who wanted a smaller rig with interchangeable lenses and the feel of a street-smart mini-DSLR. With the introduction of the GF3, Panasonic is adding an entirely new direction to its lineup of MILC (Mirrorless Interchangeable-Lens Compact) cameras. Stripped of most of its external controls, and slimmed down, the GF3 is the first MILC to be designed for Soccer Moms and others who have hit the limits of their point-and-shoot cameras but don't want the bulk or expense of a full DSLR.
The smallest and lightest of the GF series (and for several months, the smallest MILC on the planet), the GF3 is competing for the attention of the same audience as the recently-introduced Olympus Pen Mini and the even more recent Nikon J1, as well as the Sony NEX-3. The advantage that any Micro Four Thirds camera has is the growing and intriguing selection of lenses, such as the Olympus 12mm f/2 (yes, it will work on the Panasonics, and conversely, Panasonic lenses will work on Olympus Digital Pen models) and the Panasonic 7-14mm fisheye zoom.
Hot dog! It's got a flash! Niko gets his backside illuminated by the GF3's onboard flash. Be sure to take the lenshood off when using flash or it will block some of the light.
Does the G3 have enough to stand apart from an increasingly crowded field? Now that we have many models to compare it against, it's worth taking a close look at the first in what has become an increasingly crowded sub-category, the basic MILC.
In the Hands
The first thing one notices about the GF3 is its contoured top plate, which houses a pop-up flash. It's great that this camera has a built-in flash, but it comes at the expense of a hot shoe, which is on the GF1 and GF2 but not on this model. That's the most obvious sign that the primary audience for this camera won't be serious enthusiasts.
The GF3 is a small camera but is comfortable to hold. While the raised hand grip could be improved with a strip of rubberized material, it was easy enough to handhold.
External controls are kept to a minimum. On the top plate, besides the large shutter release and small but easily used on-off switch, there's a red video capture button for shooting HD video at 1080p/60i, as well as the iA button which, by virtue of its prominent placement and purpose, shows who the camera is really made for. iA is Intelligent Auto, using artificial intelligence to match the shooting situation with the most appropriate set of settings for that kind of scene. Press the iA button and no matter what mode or setting you're in, it will get you back to iA mode.
The standard 14-42mm kit lens is somewhat largish when compared with the equivalent lens that Olympus provides for its Pen line. Panasonic should put its kit lens on a diet so it would better match the scale of its host camera.
Digging into menus...and touching the monitor surface
If you are among the (probably less than) 20 percent expected to use the camera's more advanced features, you have two options. You can use the Menu Set button to access and navigate all of the camera's functions using the four-way toggle switch and the Qmenu/fn button. This is a typical menu navigation system, and Panasonic does a good job with large icon-driven categories (right) and contextual subcategories. Most features are within 3 levels but some require an additional button push.
Standard camera controls familiar to more advanced users, shown above, are just 2 button presses away.
Touchscreen focus control: “Defocus control” (see screen shot at right) lets snapshooters select depth of field (that's Aperture priority for more advanced shooters) using simple touchscreen interface. I used it above to throw background out of focus.
However, there's a faster way to get to basic controls, and that's Q menu, which can be accessed either by pressing the Qmenu/fn button or by touching the Q Menu item on the 3-inch touch-sensitive LCD monitor. In Qmenu, you get quick access to video, burst rate, image quality, focus mode, and ISO. Simply press the desired on-screen icon to open up its options. Even better: You can drag and drop additional functions into the Qmenu, creating a custom Qmenu. Want to add on-screen Histogram or flash? No problem. Over 20 functions can be added to the Qmenu. Sweet.
Touch screen controls include Qmenu (top right). Highlighted icon (3rd down) indicates touchscreen-activated shutter release is on. I found it required too strong a touch that shook the camera.
Qmenu puts hard to find controls literally at your fingertips. In this case, you can choose from four aspect ratios at large, medium and small resolution settings. AF modes, ISO, JPEG or RAW and other controls can be similarly changed and Qmenu can be customized!
You can also pinpoint focus on the touch screen by touching the spot on the photo that you want to be in focus, and you can even touch the screen to trip the shutter release. I found the touch screen to be less responsive than I would have liked—it reacted slowly and sometimes I had to re-do drag-and-drop Qmenu customizations because they didn't work the first time. I also found that I had to press a bit too forcefully to trip the shutter, which caused camera shake, so I don't recommend using the on-screen shutter release until Panasonic finds a firmware fix.
When used carefully, the HDYN (High Dynamic Range) mode can improve images. The scene above was shot in iA. Below, it was shot in HDYN mode and looks more like the actual scene, with improved shadow detail..
The one “below-the surface” menu that even basic users might want to play with is the Creative Control menu (located within the Rec mode). You can access HDYN (High Dynamic Range) which can be used for good (taming high contrast scenes) or evil (turning normal scenes into images that are painfully obviously HDR). Expressive mode saturates the colors while Retro mutes them. High Key overexposes scenes while Mini blurs all but the center area of the image to give everything a “Lensbaby” look (see below).
Mini mode plus the Panasonic 7-14mm lens at 7mm and a jaunty angle gives this playground an off-kilter feel.
You can control Aspect Ratio, picture size, image quality (including RAW and RAW+JPEG). Serious photographers will appreciate the manual focus option and if you have multiple lenses and change them often the dust reduction system is time-tested and effecctive; Olympus DSLRs were the first to have such a system.
While there is the aforementioned iA and iA+ modes, you can choose more traditional P, A, S and M exposure methods, as well as the same fast AF acquisition time as the higher-end GH2.
The 12MP Micro Four Thirds sensor also captures 1080p 60 interpolated fps HD video in HVCHD format, although the sensor's output is 25 fps. There's a built-in mono mic but no option for an external microphone.
iA figured it out: This was shot in iA, which figured out this should be in macro mode, and got the exposure just right.
In general, I found the GF3 to be fast and responsive—likely fast enough to suit the needs of its target audience. Focus acquisition is quick, with less than ½ a second hesitation in low light. Once focus is set, or the camera has been set to manual focus mode, there was no noticeable lag time.
As one might expect, the need to control almost all features by borrowing through the menu structure can take time away from shooting but the touch screen operation mitigates that. I found myself using and preferring the touch screen to change ISO, shutter speed and aperture (once I customized the touch screen choices).
The flash throws just enough light for people pictures in relatively small areas. If you're more than 15 feet away, it's not advisable to use the flash. However, it was convenient to have a built-in flash where some other cameras in this sub-category leave the flash as an extra item to carry.
The GF3 is said to use the same sensor as the GF2, which claimed an overall DxOMark.com score of 54 and can produce acceptable levels of digital noise up to ISO 800 (DxOMark scores used by permission). At ISO 100 I found image quality to be excellent and even at 800 was able to get good enough image quality for the needs of casual users. Even at 11x14 image quality holds up. In fact, with noise reduction turned up, you can go almost all the way to 6400 and get acceptable snapshot-sized prints.
Conclusion and recommendation
The GF3 is a sleek little camera. Its menu structure is logical, graphically pleasing and easy to navigate, and the touch controls are easily mastered making up for the lack of external controls (there are only seven). The camera is amazingly small yet easy to hold, exhibits minimal lag time (none if you prefocus) and should fit the needs of your typical well-heeled snapshooter.
However, the data port/hot shoe and matching EVF finder, which is essential for eye-level photography, an integral part of the other GF models, is not there. Yes, there is the convenience of the pop-up built-in flash, but is it too great a price to sacrifice an important aspect of the GF system? (Speaking of the flash, when the kit lens's hood is attached, it blocks the flash's coverage, an unfortunate design flaw. When shooting flash, take the lens hood off and you'll be fine.)
The other quibble I have with the GF3 is its $570 price tag (with the kit lens), which is $120 more than a similarly-equipped GF2 (which was designed for a more advanced user). Most likely if you are the kind of photographer Panasonic is trying to market this camera to, you won't miss the data port/hot shoe with the access it gives to optical or electronic finders and add-on flashes, but will appreciate the built-in flash.
There are lower-cost alternatives but they lack the built-in flash—notably the GF2 and the Olympus E-PM ($500 with 14-42mm lens), which require carrying an external flash unit that can't be used at the same time as a viewfinder. Then there's the Sony NEX-3, which has a larger sensor and better image quality for a competitve price of $530 with the 18-55mm kit lens. So it's a toss-up decision which might be made easier if the GF3 sold for a little less.