Companies that aren't Canon or Nikon have it rough in the digital camera market—particularly outside the cheap point-and-shoot area. Some band together for strength in numbers, creating cooperative standards like Panasonic, Olympus and Leica's new Micro Four Thirds system—a spec for smaller cameras with digital viewfinders like a compact, but interchangeable lenses, manual controls and higher performance like a DSLR. We tested Panasonic's 13-megapixel Lumix G1, paying close attention to the fact that it's the first contender in a totally new camera category and—like that other G1, the Android smartphone—it sets the stage for what's to come.
There is a single photo that you should think long and hard about before deciding whether to plunk down $US800 for the G1. And oddly enough, it wasn't even shot with the camera itself. Want to see it?
Yeah, there it is—the G1 posing next to my Canon Rebel XT. As you can see, for all practical purposes, they are the same size and shape. The G1 is smaller by a hair, but unless you're carrying both at the exact same time, it's a difference you would never, ever think about. This seemingly small fact completely undermines the system's potential to set itself apart from the big boys' entry-level DSLRs, which are the G1's direct competitors whether Panasonic likes it or not. The G1 fails to deliver on Micro Four Thirds' potential to produce cameras with small, unique form factors—those Leica-style "digital rangefinders" we pined for when the system was announced—that could be very worthy of your consideration. For now, an entry level Canon or Nikon DSLR is a better bet, coming in with humongous lens and accessory systems and lower price tags.
The thing is, a Micro Four Thirds camera doesn't have to look like a conventional DSLR. There is no pentaprism, which allows for a direct through-the-lens viewfinder in a DSLR and is responsible for the traditional bulge up top. There is no long legacy of lenses and hardware that dictate how the camera body should be formed. But there the G1 is, with its faux prism bulge and totally traditional DSLR shape.
Panasonic apparently chose this route to drive home the fact that the G1 is a serious camera, not just a gussied-up point-and-shoot. I guess that makes some logical sense for a minute, but for people who buy a $US800 camera based on more criteria than just the way the body looks (read: most), it will probably prove to be a fatal mistake. Which is too bad, because when form factor is ruled out, Micro Four Thirds' unique characteristics show a lot of potential for greatness. Let's look at those.
When you look through the G1's viewfinder, you see a digital image of the sensor's live view output. Generally this is a really terrible way to compose a photograph, but the G1's is actually really usable. It's not jerky at all in good light (it does tend to slow down in low-light, though), and it's sharp, bright and clear for focusing thanks to a resolution of 1,440,000 dots. It's the best digital viewfinder I've ever used personally.
For auto focus, the G1 uses a 23-area contrast-based system, again because there is no mirror to reflect light to a dedicated AF sensor found in most DSLRs (contrast detection is also occasionally used by DSLRs when they're in live view or video capture mode). It tended to work well in good light and in bad. Manual focus is also possible, but a zoomed-in view PIP-style—like many DSLRs have—would have been nice.
There is a dedicated button for switching between the digital viewfinder and the LCD, which you can swivel out from the camera's back. There's a sensor next to the viewfinder that automatically switches between the two depending on where your face is.
Micro Four Thirds (like the Four Thirds true-DSLR system that came before it) gets its name from the 4:3 aspect ratio of its 13-megapixel "Live MOS" sensor. The sensor is basically a hybrid compact/DSLR type—the 4:3 aspect ratio is more common in compacts (although you can set the aspect ratio to the more traditional DSLR standard 3:2 easily), but the sensor's physical size is more on par with the APS-C sensors found in low-end DSLRs. That's a good thing, because a bigger sensor always equals less noise at high ISO sensitivities, more control over limited depth of field, and better image quality all around. That's why the prospect of a truly compact camera with a Micro Four Thirds sensor is so exciting.
As you can see, though, with the lens removed the sensor is directly exposed to the elements. If you have an industrial grade clean room in your house, I would advise changing lenses in there. Dust spots on your sensor are the worst.
Right now there are only two Micro Four Thirds lenses: The 14-45mm/F3.5-5.6 kit lens and a 45-200mm/F4.0-5.6 telephoto zoom. Thankfully, you can mate the G1 with the larger selection of standard Four Thirds lenses via an adaptor (which includes some nice high-end Leica glass). Here you see a Lumix/Leica 14-40mm mounted.
Controls and menus are generally well thought out. There's a bunch of flexibility built in here—from the customisable ISO intervals (full or 1/3 stop) to the handy Quick Menu—which lets you access just about all of the basic shooting functions from within the viewfinder without diving into a menu.
Mad props for the clickable main scroll wheel. I don't know if this is standard on Panasonic's other performance cameras, but it's incredibly helpful—a single press cycles between controlling the aperture or shutter speed (depending on your mode) to setting a quick exposure compensation or going between shutter and aperture in full manual mode, all with a single wheel. Nice.
I can easily live with the annoyances noted above, balanced as they are by the niceties I also mentioned. However, the G1 does have three dealbreaking drawbacks:
Noise levels are not great. Here you can see a progression of shots from ISO 100 to ISO 3200. As you can see, ISO 3200 is pretty useless:
And here, a quick and dirty crop comparison with a Rebel XT (which is three generations old, keep in mind) at ISO 1600 (the XT's max). Even my three-year-old Rebel does better at ISO 1600. The Micro Four Thirds sensor is large, but it's still smaller than APS-C and not as adept at handling noise as Canon or Nikon sensors, which get trickle-down sensor tech from noise-busting high-end cameras. You can see the full uncropped 1600 images here: G1 ISO 1600, Rebel XT ISO 1600
This makes absolutely no sense: The G1 does not have a video capture mode, even though all the challenges of recording video on an SLR are completely non-existent here. Panasonic has said that its future Micro Four Thirds cams will have HD video. This is precisely where the system has a natural leg-up on entry-level DSLRs and it's a shame—perhaps a fatal omission—that the G1 couldn't take part.
Panasonic G1 with 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens: $US799
Canon EOS Rebel XSi with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens: $US669
Nikon D60 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens: $US599
As long as that's the competitive landscape, the G1 has no chance.
I am optimistic about Micro Four Thirds, but there's just no reason anyone should buy a G1. Less money could get you a real DSLR that is, for all practical purposes, the same size. The G1's digital viewfinder is excellent, but it's no comparison to looking at the real world as you shoot. Factor in the G1's relatively poor high-ISO performance and tiny lens selection and it's a no brainer.
All is not lost for Micro Four Thirds. Remember Sigma's DP-1, the super-compact, rangefinder-looking point-and-shoot that packed a DSLR-sized sensor and manual controls? Micro Four Thirds could add to that paradigm a great electronic viewfinder and a system of interchangeable lenses. How about a Leica M-looking body with a few interchangeable prime (not zoom) lenses? What about using actual Leica lenses via a rumoured M-mount adaptor? Sign me up for that any day. There is hope that a remedy is coming soon, as Olympus, Panasonic's partner in this endeavor, will unveil its Micro Four Thirds camera early next year. For now, though, it's back to the drawing board for Panasonic, and back to DSLRs for me.
All full-resolution shots straight from the camera with no cropping or processing.