There are four Micro Four Thirds cameras on the market right now. That's it. But with Panasonic's GF1, investing in the mini genre makes more sense than ever—if you know what you're getting into.
Olympus and Panasonic co-developed what's called the Micro Four Thirds standard just last year. The biggest difference to the eye is the smaller-than-SLR lens mount that incompatible with SLRs unless you deploy an adaptor. Internally, the standard ditches the mirrors used in SLRs and uses a four thirds CMOS (not micro four thirds chip!) to capture the image straight from the lens (just like a point and shoot). That sensor is roughly 30% smaller than that found in your average dSLR but 9 times bigger than what's in your average point and shoot. The result is a camera ever so slightly smaller than a dSLR that should give you a similar end image quality.
The big not-so-secret There are only four products on the market at this point (Panasonic G1, its video-centric brother, the GH1, Olympus E-P1 and, of course, the Panasonic GF1), and they all have the exact same 13MP Panasonic sensor. But only the latest two, the GF1 and the E-P1, have taken advantage of the smaller technology to create design-forward cameras.
The spoiler However, if you're going to buy one of these cameras, you probably want the GF1 ($900 with 14-45mm lens). It couples all the good stuff from Panasonic's existing line with a retro body that's eerily similar to the Olympus E-P1. The build The GF1 is too big, and it's too heavy. The Panasonic GF1 is indeed smaller than my Canon XTi, but it still won't fit in your pocket.
Yet I love carrying it around. Why? The body feels solid, as if it's from another era, a Utopian time when men were men and companies built hardware to last—before we valued sissy silver painted plastic more than the metal it was emulating.
The GF1 (and the Olympus E-P1 for that matter) feels like a small tank in your hands, an element of war that won't give up after being tossed in a bag recklessly. If dropped on an iPod from over 3 feet, the iPod would certainly be crushed.
There are neither too many buttons nor too few. A familiar circle rotates between shooting modes naturally and burst and timer modes share a switch right in front of it. A d-pad toggles functions like ISO while a clever clicking dial allows you to adjust shutter speed and f-stops.
A few buttons earn their very own functions, like focusing mode, exposure lock and, maybe most cleverly, video. Hitting this little button to the right of the shutter release switches you to video no matter what mode you're in.
Given the almost retro-style build, however, it was tough for me to lose an optical viewfinder (though a digital optical add-on is available). It's a heavy camera to hold outstretched while framing shots on the viewfinder. But luckily, the 3-inch LCD's 460,000 pixels mean you can just manage to find critical focus, thanks to the screen auto-zooming to your subject during manual focusing, though it can be tough to be sure you've really nailed it.
And then there's the flash. Unlike the E-P1, the GF1 has one of these bad boys, and Panasonic has celebrated that fact by designing what must be the most complicatedly mechanical flash on the market. Watching it snap from the camera body is both impressive and worrisome. Can these little struts really hold up? Regardless, it's handy to have, even though a perk of buying such a big, expensive camera is avoiding flash photography.
Honestly, there's not much we can say about the quality of the GF1's sensor that hasn't been said (by us, even.) The biggest particular problem is ISO noise, as you can see in the gallery below. Bottom line: the GF1 supports ISOs up to 3200, but you probably don't want to reach beyond 800.
However, with that disclosure out of the way, I'd like to make a few points.
1. Shooting on the GF1 feels like shooting on an SLR. I'm not just talking about the ease of tweaking advanced controls. I mean, you pull the trigger, the camera takes a shot RIGHT THEN. For dSLR owners, that's nothing new. For P&S owners, that's a revelation.
2. There is undoubtedly more noise with Panasonic's sensor in high ISOs than you could find in dSLRs for a similar price. But, the image quality you can achieve—I mean that intangible mix of sensor size and great glass that makes your photos feel professional—is undoubtedly beyond the realm of point and shoots, well in the SLR ballpark.
Needless to say, pretty gross stuff.
3. The Live View system features what's, hands down, the best function I've ever see on any Live View system yet. Holding a Shutter Mode Effect button previews the motion blur you can expect in your final shot—saving you the heartache of the perfect preview and horrible blurry-faced end product we've all experience on point and shoots.
The only catch? The system didn't work well in daylight, when you might want to use Live View to preview sports motion blur. Note that this car didn't blur at all in my preview, nor did about 20 similar test shots I took in identical conditions.
However, low light tests worked fine.
The 720P video I'd describe as solid but not extraordinary. The AVCHD (or motion JPEG) video, while inherently better than P&S systems or Mino HDs, is not razor sharp. Without side by side comparisons or the wonderful popping colours you get with a bit of sunlight (it rained through my entire testing period), I can't make any definitive statements. But what I've seen from the T1i seems better (richer colours, sharper figures), and not just because it's 1080P.
• Sharper screen • Faster autofocus (I'd estimate about 3x faster—it's noticeable) • Built-in flash (the Olympus requires an optional mount)
But it should be noted, the E-P1 has its image stabilisation inside its body while Panasonic relies on its IS kit lens. In other words, every lens the Olympus uses will have inherent image stabilisation. Also, Olympus allows autofocusing on all Micro Four Thirds and Four Thirds lenses. The GF1 can accept these lenses, but it only retains autofocus on its own brand. In other words, lens fanatics may find the E-P1 the better bet. And if you find one or the other on some super sale, well, it's a toss-up.
Confession The real reason I enjoyed shooting on the GF1, and the real reason you're interested in Micro Four Thirds if you are indeed interested, has nothing to do with practicality.
I like walking around Chicago with the GF1 on my shoulder. It gives me that feeling of Leica superiority without the expense. The Micro Four Thirds system may have originated in Japan, but the romance of shooting on the latest systems is purely European. For the first time in a long time, a piece of electronics has made me long for an era and a place that I never knew.
Every soccer mum tourist in Chicago has a dSLR. They may take prettier photos than I do, but damn do I long to be different once in a while. And I'm here to say that, if you crave a Micro Four Thirds for the same reason, it's my opinion that the GF1 works well enough that, well, that's OK. I'm just not trading my dSLR for one.
Incredibly solid build
Best screen in class
Unique shutter blur preview
General stylishness and badassery
Video is good, not great
Same CMOS found in earlier version/competition
IS in kit lens, not camera