FIRST LOOK: Panasonic's Lumix GF3 Mirrorless Compact

Written by Audley Jarvis     17/06/2011 | 05:48 | Category: DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY

Just launched in Australia, Panasonic's Lumix GF3 looks good and has plenty of style apart from being easy to use. We take a first look at this mirrorless compact camera that may well keep the company at the top of the micro system pile.

Key Features

    * 12.1-megapixel Live MOS sensor
    * 3in, 460k-dot touch-screen LCD
    * Super-fast AF system
    * 1080i Full HD movie recording
    * Full manual control

Panasonic proudly declared the GF3 to be both 17 percent smaller and 15 percent lighter than its predecessor - the already quite small GF2 - Panasonic has boldly claimed the GF3 is the "world's smallest and lightest" interchangeable lens camera body.

In addition, the new 12.1MP model offers the same lightening-fast AF system first introduced in the G3, along with a 3 inch, 460k-dot touch-screen monitor, Touch AF and Touch Shutter functionality. HD (1080i) movie recording, fully manual control and a range of digital filter Creative Controls and colour palettes are also packed in.

The GF2 is pitched more towards the lifestyle end of the market than other G-models, with Panasonic looking to market it as the most user-friendly, style-driven option within the range. As such it looks stylish and is smaller and more portable than a regular DSLR, but is capable of delivering image quality on a par - or at least close to - that of its internal mirror-sporting cousins.
Elsewhere within the range, the G3 is targeted at photo enthusiasts and those photographers looking for the added practicality of a (electronic) viewfinder, articulated LCD monitor and hot-shoe plate.

The older G2, meanwhile, now fills the budget slot, while the GH2 remains as the flagship G-series video-oriented model. As things stand, we're not aware of any plans on the part of Panasonic to revamp the GH2, even though it's now 10 months old.

While Panasonic is quick to trumpet the stylish design and sleek new curves of the GF3, the company remains equally as keen to champion the new camera's innovative features, ease of use and overall image quality. In fact, as far as the marketing strategy goes, it's very much a three-pronged attack: stylish design, technical innovation, and fantastic image quality.

While it undoubtedly has the stylish looks, the GF3 needs to be able to deliver in the performance and image quality stakes too. Not least because the compact system camera market has become more competitive than ever in the past 12 months or so since Sony, Samsung and (to a much lesser extent) Ricoh and Fujifilm decided to challenge the hegemony of Olympus and Panasonic's Micro Four Thirds standard.
While Panasonic still occupies the number one spot within the market it helped to co-establish in 2009, the company is clearly mindful of the increasing threat being posed by new arrivals to the market, most notably Sony's NEX range.

Indeed, the GF3 comes hot on the heels of the launch of the Sony NEX-C3 - another model looking to wear the "world's smallest" crown within the compact system camera market, even though it uses a larger APS-C sized sensor. We'll have to get the two cameras together before we're able to make any direct comparisons, but on paper at least the GF3 appears to be marginally smaller in terms of width and depth, but marginally taller - most likely due to the curved flash housing.

Other compact system cameras with which the GF3 might be expected to directly lock horns with include the Samsung NX10, which like the Sony NEX range, uses an APS-C sized sensor. The Olympus E-P2 at around $1549 body-only cannot be discounted either, despite being over 18 months old now.

So does the GF3 have what it takes to keep Panasonic top of the compact system pile? Lets take a closer look and find out.
Straight out of the box the most noticeable difference between the GF3 and its predecessors is the styling. While the GF2 signified a move away from the straight lines and angularity of the GF1, the GF3 takes the process even further, with all of its edges and corners further rounded off.

For better or worse, the hot-shoe has been removed altogether too, with the pop-up flash moving from the shoulder of the camera to the centre, where it now sits directly under the GF3's curvaceous 'hump'.
The back of the camera gets an all-new layout too, with a new circular control dial replacing the old directional-pad of the GF2. We'll have more to say about how these last two changes affect handling and performance later, but for now let's have a closer look at the headline specs. Is the radical re-styling of the exterior matched by what's inside the camera?

Not as much as you might expect is the short answer to that, with the GF3's primary components subtly echoing what has been found in previous Lumix GF models. The GF3 uses a 12.1MP Live MOS sensor and while we've been informed that it's been newly developed for the GF3 it offers exactly the same resolution of previous generation sensors employed by GF2 and the GF1 before that.

This does surprise us somewhat, as we'd rather expected to see the GF3 share the same (and also new) 16.2MP sensor employed by the G3 - especially given how well that performs in low-light. We can only speculate that the reason the GF3 doesn't use the same chip as the G3 is that the 12.1MP one is cheaper to manufacture, thereby keeping the overall cost of the GF3 down.
Alongside the new sensor, the GF3 uses the same Venus Engine VII HD image processor found in the GF2. Working in partnership they enable the GF3 to shoot continuously at 4fps at full resolution, and to record 1080i Full HD movies at 25fps. Sensitivity, meanwhile, ranges from ISO 100-6400.

As with all G-series cameras the GF3 offers the full compliment of 'PASM' shooting modes alongside the usual range of Scene modes. The GF3 also sports the same iAuto mode seen on the G3 that, while fully automatic, does allow you to take control of depth-of-field, exposure compensation and white balance using simple on-screen prompts.
The GF3 also gets the Creative Control shooting mode of the G3, which is essentially a series of five digital effects filters: Expressive, Retro, High Key, Sepia and High Dynamic.

If you'd prefer to stick with a regular shooting mode, the Picture Styles menu allows you to determine how your processed images will look by altering the levels of sharpness, saturation and so on. The six Photo Style presets include: Standard, Natural, Vivid, Monochrome, Scenery and Portrait, although you can also create your own custom profiles.

Images can be recorded in either JPEG or Raw (.RW2) format, or indeed a combination of the two. Movie recording abilities are well catered for, with the GF3 able to record 1080i HD movies at 25fps. Sound is recorded in stereo but there's no external microphone jack.
In the hand, the GF3 feels like a solid little camera. Much of the outer casing is fashioned from aluminium and this certainly contributes to a premium feel overall. It shares the same sculpted finger-grip of the G3, enabling you to get a comfortable and secure grip on the camera. On the back there's also a raised thumb pad with a raised ridge at the top to stop your thumb from slipping off.
Buttons all fall within easy reach, although fans of the shoulder-mounted thumbwheel may be disappointed to find that's it been removed, replaced instead by a dual-purpose circular wheel and D-pad on the back. This works in much the same way that it does on Canon cameras, in that the wheel both rotates and acts as a directional-pad depending on what you are trying to do.

Pressing the wheel to the left still takes you directly to AF mode and pressing 'up' still takes you directly to the camera's ISO settings, however while the camera is being used in, say, Aperture-priority shooting mode, rotating the dial will change the aperture up or down.

Should you wish to change shooting modes or enter the main menu to make more advanced settings then a simple press of the Menu/Set button in the middle of the wheel will do this, although you can of course use the touch-screen itself as well.
There's really no right way or wrong way to change things and to be honest, during our time with the camera, we used a curious 50/50 mix of physical button presses and touch-screen jabbing to keep control. We think you really need to own the camera for some time before finding which system, or combination of the two, works best for you.

Either way, it is worth mentioning that the GF3 employs a snazzy new graphical user interface that aims to make navigating your way around the camera easier. For example, in order to change your shooting mode you can jab the current shooting mode icon in the top-left of the screen, which will bring up all the alternative shooting modes, represented as a ring of icons on the monitor. From here you can simply tap away at the one you want. In practice it's neat and simple.

In use the light-speed AF system the GF3 inherits from the G3 proves irresistible, especially when combined with the Touch AF function. This basically allows you to select your point of focus simply by touching it on the screen. You can even take the process one step further by using Touch Shutter to instantly take a picture, again simply by touching the point of focus on the screen.
Speaking of the screen, it's a 3in, 460k-dot affair - exactly the same as its predecessor and also the G3. While it's not quite as sharp as the 960k-dot monitors used on many mid- to high-end DSLRs it's still perfectly sharp enough for composing and reviewing images and certainly represents a big step-up from the fuzzy 230k-dot monitors used on so many compacts.

We don't mind admitting that we're a little disappointed to see the hotshoe removed though, as this does lessen the overall flexibility of the camera. The GF3's internal pop-up flash is rated GN6, which is the same as previous models, but not as powerful (or as flexible) as a standalone flash unit would be. And of course, another consequence of the GF3 lacking a hotshoe is that it won't be possible to attach Panasonic's optional LVF1 Live View Finder to use the camera at eye-level with either, though considering how expensive the viewfinder is this is an admittedly niche consideration.

While we did get a chance to crank the sensitivity up to its highest settings (see ISO Performance), we didn't get a direct opportunity to test the GF3's built-in flash.
The GF3 will be available in a number of packages based on the 14-42mm and 14mm kit lenses, or indeed both lenses together. While fitting the 14-42mm zoom takes the overall size of the camera beyond pocket-friendly dimensions, using the GF3 with a 14mm 'pancake' lens makes it small enough to slip inside most coat pockets.

It's worth bearing in mind that lenses belonging to the Micro Four Thirds camp need to have their focal distances multiplied by two to be described in equivalent 35mm terms. Thus the 14mm lens affords the same field of view as a 28mm lens on a traditional 35mm camera, while the 14-42mm offers the 35mm equivalent of 28-84mm.
If neither of the kit options takes your fancy then you can always add your own lens from the ever-expanding list of dedicated G-series lenses, which now includes includes zooms, primes and even a dedicated 3D lens. Using an adaptor, it's also possible to attach regular DSLR lenses from Olympus, Sigma and other third-party manufacturers.

Bearing in mind that the GF3 production samples we used were early production models without release-spec firmware, we'd have to say that overall image quality looks to be very good. Metering is accurate with the camera able to strike a good balance between highlight and shadow retention when faced with a high-contrast scene.

Colour is generally quite pleasing. Used on the Standard setting, the GF3 delivers neutral but pleasing colour that is neither saturated not flat. Of course this can be tweaked for more or less saturation depending on your own preference using the Photo Style options. The Expressive option within the Creative Controls acts very much like a Vivid setting too, should you like that sort of look.
There are no problems with white balance to report, with the GF3 able to select an accurate colour temperature when left to its own devices on the Auto White Balance setting.

At 12.1MP and coupled with the 14-42mm kits lens the GF3 delivers impressively punchy edge sharpness while resolving plenty of fine detail. Put an even sharper lens on, something like the Leica 25mm f/1.4 Summilex and you'll get even sharper results.

Low-light performance looks to be impressive too. While we're not yet sure whether the GH3 is on a par with the excellent results obtainable by the G3, our limited testing in a dark environment yielded pretty good results (see Sample Images: ISO Performance).


Verdict

While we'd want to have a closer look at a full production sample it does look at this stage like Panasonic could have another winner on its hands with the GF3. It certainly looks good and has plenty of style. Better still, it's also easy to use, offers some innovative features and, above all, is capable of delivering great results. Competitively priced, we wouldn't be surprised if the GF3 keeps Panasonic on top of the micro system pile for the foreseeable future.
ISO 1600
ISO 1600 - 100% crop
ISO 3200
ISO 3200 - 100% crop
ISO 6400
ISO 6400 - 100% crop
Sample Images:
1/250sec at f/8, 14mm, ISO 200, AWB
1/1250sec at f/6.3, 14mm, ISO 400, AWB
1/400sec at f/8, 31mm, ISO 400, AWB
1/125sec at f/8, 14mm, ISO 200, AWB
1/125sec at f/8, 33mm, ISO 200, AWB
1/100sec at f/4.5, 18mm, ISO 160, AWB
1/250sec at f/7.1, 42mm, ISO 160, AWB
Creative Control (Miniaturisation), 1/160sec at f/5, 20mm, ISO 160, AWB
1/100sec at f/5.6, 39mm, ISO 1600, AWB
To read the original review, click here
1/1250sec at f/6.3, 14mm, ISO 400, AWB