Thursday, September 8, 2011

Panasonic DMC-GF2 Review

Introduction:
Review based on use with Retail Firmware version 1.0


The micro four third's standard has introduced a number of interesting compact interchangeable lens cameras to the market. The Panasonic DMC-GF2 represents the second generation of micro four thirds cameras from Panasonic, with the first being the GH1, G1 and GF1, second generation being GH2, G2, and GF2. The third generation of these cameras from Panasonic have started to hit the market (G3 and GF3), but at the time this review was written the GF2 was still on the market.


One of the primary benefits of cameras in the M4/3 family is the compact size of the camera and lens combination. With kit lenses such as the Lumix G 14mm F2.5 you can maintain a compact camera feel, without the poor low light performance of a compact camera, at least that is the theory. Once you add one of the kit zoom lenses you start to lose the small size of the m4/3s cameras. From my point of view this system works best with small prime lenses, if your goal is to keep your camera system compact and light weight. There are a number of cameras competing with the GF2 in this field of ILC (Interchangeable Lens Compacts) cameras, primarily from Olympus and Sony, although Samsung and Pentax also offer ILC cameras. So the question you have you ask yourself when buying into the ILC line of cameras is, what system suites my needs best? I hope this review will help you to see if the Panasonic GF series of cameras is right for you.

Build Quality, Handling and Controls:
When you pick up the GF2 you notice right away how well constructed it is, thanks to the tightly assembled metallic body. There are no loose parts to shake or break off, which is a pleasant suprise for a camera in this price range. Unlike many of the lower cost ILC cameras on the market right now the GF2 has a metel shell on the body, which is slightly textured and feels great in your hands. As I noted, most of the camera body is metallic, leaving only the battery door, top plate and accessory ports being plastic. The built in, manual, pop up flash is also made of plastic, but it safely tucks away in the top plate for protection.


As for handling, as noted before, the camera feels great in my average sized male hands. Due to the compact nature of the camera you might find your pinky finger slipping off the bottom edge of the grip, but I did not find that to be a problem unless I tried to operate the camera with one hand. The grip itself is very small, and is not rubbery, which means that gripping the camera can be a little difficult if your hands are sweaty or cold.

When you pick up the camera all of the primary controls are easily within reach. The shutter is right where you index finger falls into the camera, and the rear dial and four way controller are easily within reach of your thumb. As a result you can use the camera single handed, but I wouldn't recommend doing so, as that would compromise stability. When holding the camera with your right hand you can manipulate the touch screen with your left thumb, allowing you to change settings quickly without altering your grip on the camera when using 14mm F2.5 prime lens. That dynamic changes slightly when using larger zoom lenses, but is still workable.


There are only three buttons on the top of the GF2, the chrome shutter button, the smaller recording button, and the iAuto button. The On/Off switch is also located on the top plate of the camera. In addition there is a hotshoe for mounting compatible external speedlights or the Panasonic LVF1 electronic viewfinder. Most modern cameras in this price range have an exposure mode dial on the top of the camera, but the GF2 changes exposure modes either through the menu system or with the touch screen on the back.


Most of the controls for the camera are on the back of the camera, and are easy to get aquatinted with. On the upper left side of the camera body you will find the button that manually pops up the spring loaded built in flash (the flash does not pop up automatically). This button works whether the camera is turn on or off so you should be careful not to press the button when putting it into your camera bag. I didn't have any issues with the flash popping up accidentally, so it does not seem to be a problem.

On the upper right hand side of the back you'll find the main command dial, which has several functions. In shooting mode the dial controls the aperture or shutter speed (depending on the exposure mode, P, S, or A). When you press the dial in, and release it you can then change exposure compensation (all modes except for manual), up to + or - 3ev. In playback mode turning the dial to the right allows you to zoom in on the selected part of the image. You can then use the four way controller to move around the image. If you turn the dial to the left then it will bring up more than one image for review, and after three turns it brings up a calendar showing the dates when pictures (stored on the SD card) were taken. When you are in the main manu system, or the quick menu, the dial can be used to scroll through available options.


Below the command dial you'll find the playback button, which allows you to review any images or video files stored on an inserted SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card. Under the playback button is the four way pad with central Menu/Set button. The buttons on the four way pad give you access to ISO, White Balance, auto focus settings and the drive mode/self timer settings. The Menu/Set button is used to enter the main menu system or select a highlighted option in the menu. Under the four way pad you'll find the QMenu/Fn (Function) button. This button is programable, but by default it gives you access to the quick menu system (which is flexible in and of itself). In playback mode this button functions as a delete button for removing unwanted images or videos.

The next set of controls are found on the touch screen, which takes a little getting used to. Once you are used to how much pressure is needed to use the touch screen it is a very impressive, and easy tool to use. You can quickly and easily change the area of focus with just a tap. By default the screen also activates the shutter, but I would not advise using the camera in that manner as it adds too much camera shake. There is also an onscreen Qmenu button, which is helpful if you program the physical Qmenu button to something else. The shooting mode settings are also available via the touch screen, allowing you to choose between the usual iAuto, P, S, A, M settings along with scene modes, and the three custom setting modes as well.  In playback mode you can swipe with your finger to move between images or videos. Finally there is a display button on the screen which allows you to choose how much or little shooting information is displayed on the screen.


The bottom of the camera hosts a tripod socket and the battery/SD card slot chamber. Due to the position of the tripod socket you cannot open the chamber door if the camera is mounted on a tripod, or if you have a larger quick release plate attached. Battery life is decent for a camera this size, and you can capture just over three hundred shots per charge. The amount of shots per charge differs based on whether you use the built in flash, focusing mode, the sleep time for the screen, and if you use the optional electronic viewfinder (LVF1).

There is only one button on the front of the camera, and that is the lens release. To detach the lens press the button and turn the lens counter-clockwise. To attach a lens simply lineup the red dot on the lens and the lens mount and turn it clockwise until it clicks into place. All current micro four thirds lenses are compatible with the GF2 (Panasonic, Olympus and third party lenses).


Using The Camera:
Rather than diving into all the technical details about the GF2, there are many reviews that do so already, I'm going to focus on how the camera is to use in general. One of the most important aspects of a camera is how it responds to user commands. Overall the GF2 is a very responsive camera, as there are no noticeable delays when you are trying to access various functions, such as using the menues or image playback. Shot to shot time is another indicator of performance, and from the time you press the shutter to the time the image is written to a memory card (an average class 10 SDHC card) is about 2 seconds, which is more than acceptable for a camera in this class. The camera will slow down a bit if you are in continuos shooting mode, as the buffer is not overly large.

The cameras interface is easy to understand, and once you peak through a few sections of the manual you shouldn't have any trouble using it. For those who are not used to advanced compacts or DSLRs, the camera's iAuto and scene modes work just like on any other Panasonic point and shoot camera. If you are not interested in the more advanced capabilities of the camera, the only thing that might be new is the ability to use interchangeable lenses.


What about actually shooting with the camera? Like many modern point and shoot cameras the Panasonic GF2, generally, forces the user to relay on the 3" rear LCD for composing images. That is not a bad thing at all, because the screen gives you a 100% view of what the final image will look like. The screen is bright enough to shoot in most conditions, unless the sun is shining right on it. If you are going to be shooting in conditions where that will be a problem often, you may want to consider the LVF1 optional viewfinder (which I will talk about more later).

All of the shooting information that you need is displayed on the rear LCD, including shutter speed, ISO sensitivity, shooting mode, drive mode, and white balance. Optionally you can add a live histogram and/or several different kinds of framing grids. You can also choose the aspect ratio of your shots, 4:3, 3:2, 16:9 or 1:1. 4:3 is the default setting, and using this aspect ratio fully utilizes the sensor. Any other ratio is a crop and reduces resolution somewhat (at 3:2 for example the camera shoots at 10MP vs 12MP at 4:3). It may be interest to some that the camera will shoot in RAW at any one of these aspect ratios. I noted this because some other cameras give different aspect ratios, but only when shooting jpegs.


How is auto focus performance? Like most modern contrast based auto focus systems the GF2 is accurate most of the time. I didn't run into any situations where the camera back or front focused, unless I, or the subject, moved. In good lighting conditions (a sunny day or well lit room) auto focus is very fast (about 1 second), but as the light starts to drop off (at dusk) or in a poorly lit room you will start to notice the camera focusing slower. The GF2 does have an auto focus assit lamp to help it focus in low light, but some people/subjects might be bothered by this light, so you might want to use it sparingly.

The GF2 does have some problems when focusing on moving subjects, but as long as you are not trying to capture people or pets that are running, it should be able to keep up (in continuous focusing mode). Face detection auto focus works well with people who are standing still, so don't be afraid to use that feature. Subject tracking on the other hand is a little hit and miss, as it is on most contrast based auto focusing cameras. I did find subject tracking to be useful for the focus and recompose method, but considering that you can tap on just about any part of the screen to focus it isn't necessary.

What about lenses? The GF2 comes kitted with either the Lumix G 14mm F2.5 or G 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 OIS lenses. Personally I went for the 14mm F2.5, primarily to keep the camera as compact as possible. As someone who shoots with a Nikon D700 most of the time, having a compact camera system for casual shooting is a nice to have. With the 14mm F2.5 the GF2 isn't much bigger than the Panasonic Lumix LX5, which is one of the smaller advanced compacts on the market today. I didn't get a chance to test the 14-42mm lens, but I did try the 14-45mm lens that was kitted with previous Panasonic M4/3s cameras, and the performance is considered to be similar. I strongly prefer using the 14mm prime, partly because it has a decently fast aperture at F2.5, and because it is optically superior. Niether of the kitted lenses are pro grade lenses by any means of the imagination, but the 14mm prime has no moving parts to break off, and it has a metal lens mount.

The first thing I noticed about the m4/3s lenses that I've used so far, all kit lenses, is that they suffer from a lot of CA (chromatic aberrations), even though all images taken with M4/3s cameras (even RAW files) are corrected in camera! I'd hate to see what the photos looked like uncorrected! The 14mm prime is much (and really mean this) better then the zoom in this regard, but still not great.  That being said, I am generally pleased with the results that I've gotten with the combination of the 14mm F2.5 and the GF2.

What about overall image quality and noise performance? Between ISO100 and ISO400 image quality is on par with most modern entry level DSLRs. The M4/3s sensors do not support as much dynamic range (the range between whites and blacks), but they are better than almost every compact point and shoot camera that you can buy right now. Once you get to ISO800 and up noise is visible in your images. Below are 1MP samples at ISO100-6400. Right click on the images for a larger view.

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200 

ISO 6400

I could talk about the image quality of this camera, but I'd rather just show you some images, which show what this camera can do a lot better than words. Panasonic GF2 Image Gallery. GF2 also shoots video, which is very close to the performance of the still image quality, so I wont getting into that. The video quality is better than most compact camcorders, in terms of noise performance. Continuos auto focus is available, but it can be a little hit and miss at times.

Panasonic GF2 with LVF1 attached
What about the optional viewfinder you talked about? Panasonic offers an optional electronic  viewfinder (DMC-LVF1) that is compatible with the GF2. To attach the LVF1 you remove the hotshoe cover and slide the LVF1 into place. The finder fits snuggly into the socket and shouldn't fall off. I didn't have mine fall off at any point while testing it. The LVF1 is a decent viewfinder, although it is a little lacking in terms of resolution compared to the viewfinders available for Olympus M4/3s cameras. The pitfall to this low resolution is that it might be harder to nail focus manually, for macro shots for example. There are three reasons why you might want to use the electronic viewfinder, 1. Shooting in bright conditions where the main 3" LCD is hard to see, 2. For shooting at low angles without having to crawl on the ground, and 3. Better stability in low light situations. Of course the downside to reason 3 is that the electronic viewfinder struggles to keep up when you move the camera in low light. You'll notice that there is a lot of lag, even more so than the main 3" LCD.


To use the finder just press the LVF/LCD button and the back screen will go dark and the LVF will turn on. Note that unlike the rear LCD the LVF will not power down during operation, so it will drain the battery more quickly, unless you power the camera off or switch back to the rear LCD. Also note that if you use single AF point mode you cannot move the focus point, without turning on the direct focus area option in the menu. If you turn that option on the four way buttons on the back of the camera can be used to move the focus point. The only downside to that is that you lose direct access to settings like ISO, WB, focus mode and drive mode. Otherwise all of the options that can be shown on the main LCD are visible with the LVF.


Overall, I think the LVF1 is a little overpriced for what it offers, but at the same time I wouldn't want to be without it based on my shooting style. The LVF1 is one of those optional accessories that you would want to wait and see if you need or not. I would highly recommend testing it out before buying.

Comments and Conclusion:
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 is a nice little camera for enthusiast photographers that don't want to carry the weight of a DSLR, but want the flexibility of having more optical (lens) choices. The GF2 might not be the best ILC on the market, but it is a decent performer. Image quality may not be on par with entry level DSLRs above ISO400, but it is much better than even the best fixed lens compact cameras available. The camera is made of high quality materials, is responsive, flexible, and generally easy to use.

The G 14mm F2.5 prime lens that comes kitted is a also a decent performer, although it does suffer from noticeable amounts of chromatic aberrations under some conditions. Unlike the alternatively kitted 14-42mm lens the G 14mm F2.8 is compact and has a metal lens mount. Of course some users will want to have the flexibility of a zoom, but do keep in mind that one of the strengths of an ILC is the ability to use multipal lenses.

The Panasonic DMC-LVF1 is a nice, optional, tool to have if you don't like shooting at arms length. The resolution of the LCD in the LVF1 is a little low, but acceptable unless you want to manually focus with extreme precision.You might want to try it out in a camera shop before buying though.

Pros:
  • Light weight and compact (with Lumix G 14mm F2.5 kit lens)
  • Easy to use iAuto mode for people who don't live and breath photography
  • The control layout allows advanced users a enough flexibility to make great images without sweating bullets.  
  • Compatible with all interchangeable lenses that conform to the Micro 4/3 standard
  • Better ISO performance than similarly sized advanced compacts
  • Touch screen allows you to quickly focus just about anywhere in the frame
  • Well constructed, metallic body

Cons:
  • Lower ISO performance than similarly priced entry level DSLRs
  • No built in image stabilization (unlike Olympus M4/3s cameras)
  • Battery life is average for it's class (similar to E-PL2)
  • LVF1 resolution is not great, lower than Olympus VF-2 for PEN cameras
Note that in the near future Panasonic will be releasing a firmware update for the GF2 that will allow it to work with the recently announced powered zooms (X 14-42mm and X 45-175mm).