Nov 212011
 

THE PANASONIC GF1 – A LANDMARK CAMERA

 

By KJ Vogelius

Could it be? A digital Leica facsimile for the everyman? Image quality without compromise in a small, light and well handling package at a reasonable price? The perfect everyday camera?

Compactness, handling and image quality are each others enemies when it comes to camera design. You can’t really have one without compromising the other. In the digital realm it’s been even more evident. You’ve only had the choice of extremes – small, with dubious handling and image quality – or – good handling and image quality in a huge body. A sweet spot between the three haven’t really existed since the analog era.

The GF1 is the first digital camera to arrive at that sweet spot, and does so in a fantastic manner turning it into something of a modern classic.

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Body & size

Pretty much half the size of the 5D Mk II, smaller still than the famously compact Leica M cameras, the GF1 is about the ideal size – small enough to always be with you without getting in the way, but big enough to grip and control comfortably. It’s low weight also helps it to stay almost invisible when not in use (the body weighs 285g compared to 810g for the 5D MkII or 585g for the Leica M9).

 

Another, very nice side effect of the more compact dimension is that it’s much less imposing when photographing people. I find it much easier to get natural, more relaxed, expressions with the GF1 than the 5D. Not needing to have it glued to your face probably helps as well.

It’s not quite as good looking as the beautiful Olympus E-P1/2/3 but has a nice understated, almost utilitarian, charm to it. Though like with the LX3 I do wish they’d skipped the cheap looking chrome accents.

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Handling & Auto Focus

There have been a number of small digital cameras with good image quality before the GF1, but their Achilles heel has always been the handling. Taking long to start up, focusing slowly, slow to react to commands, long shutter lag, poor ergonomics, and often all of the above.

The GF1 has none of those problems. It turns on instantly. Input registers quickly. There’s very little shutter lag. Important settings are quick to access and controls are placed conveniently.

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I was also very surprised to find the auto focus experience with the GF1 better than that of my 5D Mk II. Usually as fast, as reliable, and far more flexible. The 23-point-focusing is probably the cleverest AF system I’ve used.

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Image quality

I still find it amazing; the quality I can get out of this tiny camera. Sharp, detailed photos with the signature depth and fidelity that only a large sensor can give.

Shooting RAW is a necessity, JPEGs from the GF1 are underwhelming. Low light is also slightly problematic – image quality degrades quickly above ISO 800 (up to 1600 is useable in a pinch). The metering is usually spot on. Colors are good, not great, out of camera, but corrects well in RAW processing.

Something very nice with the Micro Four Thirds system is that it uses the squarer 4:3 aspect ratio, which I find much better balanced compared to the more common 3:2 ratio.

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Compared to other cameras I’ve shot with the image quality of the GF1 is second only to the full frame 5D Mk II and at times there’s honestly not much telling them apart.

 

The Amazing 20/1.7

While the GF1 is undoubtably a fantastic camera, it’s not as unique as the lens that was sold with it – the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7. This large aperture, tiny lens is a huge reason why I like the GF1 as much as I do.

 

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The images rendered through this lens are wonderful – sharp and vivid with an ability to render small detail in a way I’ve only seen from Zeiss and Leica lenses, usually much more expensive, before.

This all comes together to make it one of my all time favorite lenses and a true must have for the Micro Four Thirds system.

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Viewfinder

While I mostly prefer using the rear screen for composing, it’s nice to have the option of an eye level viewfinder. Particularly in difficult light – when the screen washes out in bright light or when a longer shutter speed is needed – it’s difficult to hand hold steadily using the rear screen.

There’s an add on EVF for attachment in the hot shoe which looks like an clever solution. Unfortunately it’s very poor quality – the resolution is low, there’s a ton of ghosting and the refresh rate leaves much to be desired. Hence, I wouldn’t recommend it.

I found a solution in the Olympus optical viewfinder, made for their 17/2.8. It’s actually a better match for the angle of view of the 20/1.7 than the Olympus lens it was made for.

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It’s very bright, has great eye point and it’s also much cheaper on eBay than other alternatives – I paid around $30. There are drawbacks – no shooting information or auto focus confirmation in the finder and only usable with one focal length, but I’ve found the advantages to be well worth it.

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Shooting Legacy Lenses

A huge advantage of Micro Four Thirds and other systems like it is that due to the short register distance of the lens mount, pretty much any other lens can be used on the camera with the correct adapter – including tiny rangefinder lenses. Especially great for anyone invested in another system.

Shooting legacy lenses on the GF1 is somewhat of a kludge however. It’s nice in the way it handles – setting the aperture on the lens itself just feels right. Seeing the already stopped down image on the screen also has advantages; it’s much easier to judge depth of field and focus shift is a non issue. The image quality is also potentially fantastic, despite the smaller sensor.

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The big problem is critical focusing with brighter lenses. Since the GF1 lacks functions such as focus peaking or picture-in-picture included in more recent cameras, a little procedure of zooming in to focus is required before each shot, loosing sense of the overall composition and making timing much more difficult.

For anyone planning to do a lot of shooting with legacy lenses – the GF1 is simply not the best choice. Fortunately the native lens offerings of the Micro Four Thirds system is fantastic and getting better by the day.

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A Landmark Camera

Considering that it’s been more than two years since the GF1 was introduced it’s surprising how relevant it still feels. No other camera has really arrived at that sweet spot between compactness, handling and image quality with the same poise – it’s descendants, siblings and various competitors all held back by over-simplification, poor handling, or lackluster lenses.

The GF1′s strengths are all about being an everyday camera. There’s no fairy dust in it. Together with the 20/1.7 it excels at making real life look real, neither subtracting nor adding in itself. It’s no crutch you can rely on for cool effect.

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For capturing the ebb and flow of day to day life there’s very little to improve upon. The GF1 is much more than just the sum of it’s parts, turning it into a true landmark in digital photography and possibly my favorite camera of all time.

More of my photos, work and articles can be found on my site.

Thank you Steve for your site and for publishing this article, and thank you everyone else for reading.

 

KJ Vogelius

  54 Responses to “USER REPORT: The Panasonic GF1 – A Landmark Camera by KJ Vogelius”

  1. Sounds like you’ve really mastered the GF-1! Shame Panasonic hasn’t to chosen to go the “enthusiast” route as much, until the GX1 was released. Still I don’t think they’ve designed very compelling cameras. It only took Sony one generation to develop the NEX-7. Why no built in view finder for a micro 4/3rds camera, and styling of an X100? If they’d have beaten Fuji to the punch I and I bet a lot of other people would be Panasonic owners instead of X100 owners.

    All the same, the GF1 is the best so far I think. Looks like you’re really rocking it! That 20mm does seem like a sweet lens.

  2. It’s nice to see something other than “street photography”. Your pictures have great lines, composition, perspective, and use of light.

  3. What is this, retro-day?;)

    I’ll agree that the GF-1 was the first compact system camera that appealed to advanced users, but that’s several years ago!

  4. No nonsense informative write up and some nice photos. There ARE normal people among photographers :) Thanks.

  5. “No other camera has really arrived at that sweet spot between compactness, handling and image quality with the same poise – it’s descendants, siblings and various competitors all held back by over-simplification, poor handling, or lackluster lenses.”

    Little over the top here and unless someone has been living under a rock to discount all the other very good options have come out it a bit silly, or trying to live with blinders on.

    Is the handling of the EP3 for example that bad ? Having owned both I’ve found the PEN’s to offer not only more direct control but also features such as touch screen, much faster focus, IBIS, not to mention a much nicer EVF option etc

    I’m not saying the GF1 wasn’t a nice camera, I remember having one a couple of years ago when it came out, and yeah, back then when it was nothing but boring point and shoots or a DSLR it was pretty cool, and one can still enjoy shooting it now, but still….. to act like its the only option….

    PEN’s, X1, X100, NX, NEX, X10, V1, etc, so many excellent camera options that theres something for everyone

  6. I love my GF 1 I have used it as the family camera for the last 18 months, great little machine and has that great ability to be very simple to use (for my wife) whilst giving the option for full manual control and everything in between.

  7. I truly love the GF1, I use mine with a few Minolta legacy lenses and the brilliant 20/1.7 pancake.
    It would still be my first choice of compacts today.

  8. I’ve been using a GF1 mostly with the 20mm f1.7 for two years now.The only grouse I have with it is it’s low light performance,sometimes even ISO 800 is pushing it too far in poor light.

  9. The lens is a gem. However the GF1 is my least used digital camera of the last few years. I much prefer the tactility and utility of the Olympus Pens, not to mention their far superior add-on EVF.

  10. Hi KJ,
    I totally agree with your observations on the ease of use. I looked at them when they first came out and hesitated because of cost and the lack of a built in viewfinder. Just too much of my old Leica days haunting me, I guess. I picked up a Canon S90 but it just doesn’t inspire me with its handling and un-viewable screen in daylight even though it, like many cameras today as Jeff says, takes very good pictures.
    Last week I had the chance to borrow a GF-1 with the 20mm and it fell to hand so nicely and gracefully produced beautiful shots in a way I hadn’t appreciated in a long time. An old 35mm Leitz briteline finder fits perfectly and is really close enough in perspective to be more than adequate. The pop-up flash clears it by a millimeter! Yes, there could be improvements but the grass is always greener it seems. So of course I went bought one yesterday.
    Cheers

  11. Looking forward to the review of the Nikon QV-1000C.

  12. Classic in it’s own right… Very nicely written article and nice pics to go along.

    Cheers!

  13. Hey, at least it’s not another M9 experience diary, right? :-) Agree that that 20mm is a gem.

  14. It was the handling that sold the GF1 to me, rather than the EP1 a the time, particularly the click wheel and motor drive toggle. It’s been fantastic to use with Pentax, Nikon, Canon and Leica glass, I may replace it with the GX1, but even this is a step back in some ways. Lack of physical motor toggle being one.

  15. Nice article. Three points I would like to make…..
    1. Whenever I handle Olympus Pens (all of them) they do not seem in the same league of build quality as the Panasonics. Reviewers (including Steve) rave about the EP-3 but seldom mention that it does not feel that well made – it certainly does not feel good in my hand.
    2. Not everyone likes a touch screen – however well done it is.
    3. Poor low light performance of the GF-1? It seems damn good to me! I think us oldies are easier to please on this topic!

    Regards to all from Phil in UK.

    • Just a note…I feel the E-P3 its better built and feels better than the GF2, GF3, and G2 and G3. As for the older GF1 in this article, to me, the E-P3 feels better made but the GF1 also feels great. In no way does the E-P3 feel cheap.

      • I dunno….I think these judgements about the build quality and “feel” of various cameras are pretty subjective.

        Personally (and this is just my opinion) I much prefer the shape, handling, feel and controls of the G1/G2/G3 series to any of the other m4/3 offerings. And I don’t think they’re “too big”, or mind their “pseudo retro dslr” designs, as some have described them.

        Unfortunately, I can’t get any Panasonic product to produce color that I like. They look kind of greenish-blue-ish all over, highlights and shadows have different color casts, reds are browny-orange, greens are yellow, skin tones just aren’t right. I think Mr. Vogelius’s pictures illustrate all of these issues. (And this is not in any way a criticism of him. I thank him for his article.)

        I can’t find any settings in LightRoom or Aperture that really fix these problems.

        The E-PL2 is way better color-wise, despite its nasty fiddly little controls. Love the color, but had to re-purpose the movie button because I kept getting multi-Gigabyte accidental videos.

        Guess that’s why they make different cameras for different people……

  16. Thank you everyone for reading, and for everyones comments. Much appreciated!

    My site & Flickr links seem to have gotten lost – if you would like to follow me, these are the links:
    http://www.vogelius.se/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/kj_/

  17. The GF1 is one of my favorite cameras! I have eight lenses for it from fisheye to 350mm (35mm equivalent). It complements my FF DSLR perfectly. I think all of he Pany cameras since the GF1 (other than maybe the GH2 have been “less-than” as far as build quality and features (touch screens…Puulllease!). I am not familiar with any of the Pen cameras..but if they are anything approaching the Oly 12mm f/2.0 they could be good.
    I plan on purchasing the GX1 and VF2 so that I have two bodies on hand. I think that the GX1 will take the GF1 up 1/2 notch. I wish I could say a whole notch..but that just isn’t so. Very moderate improvements but I am expecting very good build quality.
    Great article about a GREAT camera!!!!! Thanks for the input.

  18. Great article. Basically sums up why I’ve used one since it came out. After Steve’s reviews of the EP3 I thought it was time to try the newer faster system. Bought an EP3 and returned it after a week. Just going to buy some new lenses instead. The newer Olympus didn’t bring anything to the table that I needed or couldn’t live with out. For what I originally bought the GF-1 for remains the same. To have a small “go anywhere” camera that allows me to create great images.
    Thanks again for the great article.

  19. I think everyone needs to remember that we all have different needs when it comes to equipment. What works for me might not work for others. Let’s concentrate on how our equipment inspires us to make the most of composition and light. There’s no need to bash someone’s else’s equipment. We would all have M9′s and new 1DX’s if money allowed. There is a time and place for every camera and every size sensor. I’ve never looked at a photo and thought…. “too bad is wasn’t shot with a nicer camera. It could have been a good capture.”

  20. Nice article. I am still enjoying my GF1. I don’t do much low light shooting, so the relative weakness of the camera in this area doesn’t bother me.

    I had an EP2 for a while. Also a nice camera, but I much preferred the GF1′s interface. Most of all I liked the fact that the camera instilled confidence. I can concentrate on making the photograph and not on managing the camera. Love the detail in the raw images.

    It’s a purchase I don’t regret for a moment. The only thing I would wish for is a built-in VF.

  21. Nice to see some pics of Stockholm and your sommar stuga :) Gotland?

  22. Great article! Well written and nice shots to accompany. Back when I bought my X1 it was a toss up between the little Leica or the GF1 with 20mm pancake and it was a tough choice. I used the GF1 loads and agree it a great camera and has never been replaced yet. I will be waiting anxiously for steve’s review of the version. Gfx1 is it called?

  23. Body and size! We all know that Panas are small but there`s no need to overdo difference, You might as well put 600/4 on Can to nail it. Normal lens like 50/1.8 or better Voightlander 40/2 would do. Thumbs up for you enthusiasm.

    • I’m just a hobbyist and don’t have access to a lot of lenses, but it’s true that the Voigtländer 40/2 (which looks like a very nice lens as well) would probably be a fairer comparison.

      However, we’re still looking at close to equivalent kits – 35/2 vs 40/3.4. The ZE35 is also the closest of my SLR lenses to the Panasonic 20 in terms of rendering and look, amazing considering the size (and price) difference.

  24. This site shows some great art shots via a GF1.. http://mall-gf1.blogspot.com/

  25. Interesting decision to put a filter on the lens – when digital and even modern films are not UV sensitive anymore.

  26. Great article! Beautiful pics from ett fantastiskt Stockholm!
    Tack för artikeln!

  27. Nice post! I have to agree the GF1 was a landmark camera and possibly the most fun camera I have owned. It certainly got me out and about much more, it got me into street photography and Leica lenses which eventually lead to buying and M9. I’ve since gone on to the EPL2, G3 and EP3 for 2nd body support, but the GF1 was and is a total classic!

  28. Thanks a lot. I absolutely agree with you. A very nice, solid camera with amazing results.Sometimes better than my M9. But in my case with one problem: the f 1.7 lens got stuck to the camera, it wont come off anymore. Thanks for the advice on the Olympus optical viewfinder.[img]http://www.flickr.com/photos/lightzone/6280118186/in/photostream[/img]

  29. Great article!
    I was planning to sell my GF-1 but took it for a walk last weekend and I was impressed by it’s image quality and fun factor. I use a 25mm f/1.4 Panaleica lens on it and the results are phenomenal. Definitely I am keeping it.
    I also have a Lumix G3, but it does not inspire me as much as the GF-1… Weird I know. IQ and Megapixels are not everything after all… So the G3 will go to a new home soon!

  30. Maybe i should give the GF-1 a go.

    I went with the EP1 because of its looks, handling, imagestabilisation.
    Paired with Zuiko primes of yesteryear EP1 looks scrumptious & the photos have a feel of analogue.
    B&W Art filter in the EP1, EP1 colours almost identical to that legend E1
    thats why i keep picking it up when i want to do something creative.

  31. “Sharp, detailed photos with the signature depth and fidelity that only a large sensor can give.”

    What depth? And what large sensor?

    Sorry, but this article was in my opinion way off. It’s great that you enjoy the GF1, but that’s about the only good thing about this article.

  32. This is spot on.

    To me, the GF1 (with prime lenses) physically is nearly perfect. The right size, right ergonomics and right weight.

    I shoot RAW 100% with all my cameras (my other cameras are Canon 5D Mark II and the original 5D), so the issue of RAW vs JPEG with the GF1 is moot. I am very intrigued by the GX1 – it seems to be the real successor to the GF1. If the image quality lives up to the hype I will be ordering one as Adobe updates Lightroom to handle the RAW files.

    Thank you for posting this.

    jack

  33. This was my perfect camera until i receive my Fuji X100, i still love it and will keep the M4/3 system with me i also have all the lumix lenses !

    Greg

  34. Thanks for the nice post.

    I love the first picture of your post.
    How did you do that? Do you need a filter? or is it “just” very smart setting of the camera?

    M

  35. What a wonderful love letter …

  36. Oh well, I just bought a second hand Panasonic GF1 for £89 and a brand new 1.7 pancake lens for £287 and have been using it for just 5 days. This camera is awesome and I totally agree with this article. It works like a dream and even knocks socks off my Canon 7d with its expensive lenses. I am getting better shots with this camera than with the £4000 I spent on the canon and associated lenses. Yes I have bought it as a second camera but for portraits and walkabout and even landscape and macro this camera and lens are putting so much joy into photography. The sharpness is superb and I am getting far more shots that I am very happy with. That’s just the JPEGS. I am shooting in both raw and jpeg and am wondering what is best to do with the raw files to achieve even more fantastic results. Sorry but from my recent experience , everything I read in the reviews about this camera have proved to be true which is more than can be said about the canon 7D. I am beginning to wonder now if there is a canon conspiracy trying to put people off the alternatives. I have been using canon for the last 10 years but after one week with the lumix my happiness has increased tenfold. Yes there will still be a place for the canon but at my recent wedding shoot, the panasonic shots gave me something extra that the canon did not give me straight out of the camera.

  37. Hello people,
    I totally agree a superb camera!
    I need to let go of mine as I just am not using it anymore and would love for someone else to enjoy.
    It comes with the 20mm 1.7 pancake and a really nice old school leather case that makes it look like a Lieca. A joy to use.
    $500 FIRM
    FEEL FREE TO MESSAGE ME.
    Brett

  38. Lovely, Lovely Images and I love the Micro Four Thirds format, everyone is into 16.9 but I love the 4.3 format, so totally agree Superb camera. I currently use a Olympus e-5 and Pen and use these in weddings, please take a look at my images here – http://www.picturewales.com

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