In short – yes. But, there are of course details to follow…
The Panasonic G1 is the first camera to be released with the new micro four-thirds sensor and lens system. The micro four-thirds system, co-designed by Olympus and Panasonic, is a modification and reduction of Olympus’ revolutionary four-thirds system introduced to the photographic world in 2003. The huge advantage of the four-thirds system is that it was designed for digital literally from the ground up. This means that the lens mount, the lens design and the lens coatings have been optimized to transmit light back to digital sensor as opposed to a camera body which was filled with digital guts and accepts lenses that one would have used to capture light onto a film plane. Additionally, the four-thirds system features smaller & lighter digital bodies, smaller & lighter lenses, and those lenses have an increased focal length factor of 2x due to the sensor-size relationship to that of a 35mm piece of film. But herein also lies the disadvantages of the four-thirds system. A smaller sensor generally generates more noise. Secondly, a smaller sensor will allow for less shallow depth of field, which will cause a lack of subject isolation capability. Last, four-thirds (4:3) refers to the aspect ratio of the digital image produced by the sensor. A standard sensor captures an image in a 3:2 aspect ratio which translates to a standard 4×6-inch sized print. Take a look at the sensor chart below.
The addition that the micro four-thirds system adds is yet a smaller mount and lens design. In order to accommodate this smaller design, Panasonic & Olympus have removed the mirror-box that one would find a your usual run of the mill DSLR. Because there is no mirror, one no longer needs a prism in order for the light to reflect upwards into the eyepiece. Instead of a glass prism or pentaprism, the viewfinder is an electronic viewfinder, or EVF. Lastly, the diameter of the lens mount is 44mm instead of 50mm which will allow for even more compact lens designs. User of the current four-thirds system will have the ability to adapt most lenses to the micro four-thirds via a lens adapter.
Olympus has allowed Panasonic to release their micro four-thirds system camera first in a more traditional camera-design body. Olympus’ model which is due for show at PMA next month will look radically different from a DSLR design. It will look like an interchangeable lens rangefinder unit. Olympus, known for their revolutionary product design felt comfortable breaking the mould, but did not want to put Panasonic, a relatively new player in the camera industry in an awkward position of being radical and revolutionary.
Top Command Dial
The main command dial atop the camera offers a host of engines with which the user can engage to drive their photographing experience with the Panasonic G1. The basic mode that most users start with is the IA, or Intelligent Auto mode. This is exactly the same as the AUTO mode found on most other camera manufacturers’ units. When in this mode, the camera is in the driver’s seat. The camera engages auto exposure, auto-ISO, auto white balance, auto contrast, auto flash, stabilizer ON, and it even chooses the point of autofocus based on a scene recognition system, which is usually, pretty damn intelligent. Beyond the IA, there are the standard exposure modes of Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority and full manual. Additionally the preset exposure, or ‘scene’ modes of Portrait, Landscape, Sports, Night Scene, etc., and then another marking that reads ‘SCN’ which calls up a screen menu which allows for the selection of another 15 or so preset modes. Two last options: A ‘CUST’ mode which allows the user to store a list of presets for specific shooting purposes and a ‘My Color Mode’ menu which allows the user to fine tune the way the camera renders colors, contrast, saturation, etc.
The exterior button assortment on the Panasonic G1 is extensive and impressive. For a camera in its class, it probably has the best ‘hands-on access’ to changing settings and configurations. One thing that I liked very much was the access to changin the drive modes on the camera – single shot, continuous, bracketing, and self-time. They are situated on a collar that is wrapped around the main command dial. It is so easy to access. Most cameras of this size and price have them buried in the back menu or force the user to hold down multiple buttons to access them. Not this camera. Just click it to the desired setting. Changing the autofocus mode works in a similar fashion. On camera top-left, a dial allows the user to choose from AF-S, AF-C, or manual focus. Once again, even some of the best and highest price SLRs force the user to go into back menus or hold down two button and rotate a dial in order to change this setting.
When in Program, Aperture priority, or Shutter priority the user has access to adjust exposure compensation. There is no obvious button to do so, but with a little hint from somebody [such as this review] you’ll have yourself saying, ‘Yea, that makes sense!’ When holding the camera, your right index finger rests on a wheel. Click this wheel inward and it will activate the exposure compensation. Turn the wheel to the desired direction and amount and click the wheel in again to lock. It’s that easy! Additional exterior buttons of note are an ISO and White Balance access from buttons on the back of the camera.
- Compact, SLR-like design
- Pop-up Flash w/ Hotshoe
- Programmable Quick Menu (assignable function button)
- Quick Access drive modes
- Various Film Modes the user can select to give digital images a different feel.
- Articulated LCD screen – this is great because you can lift the camera over a crowd and then tilt the screen so you can see it, or you can lower the camera angle to the height of children, pets, or set the camera on the ground and flip the screen up so you can compose your shot without having to break your back or strain your neck. This is one of my favorite features on any camera. It really lets you ‘shoot from the hip’ without really being noticed.
- The electronic viewfinder is surprisingly comfortable to look through. The image is sharp, contrasty and does not cause a headache. The viewfinder also has a diopter adjustment.
- Manual White Balance – a piece of cake to set!
Notable Menu Functions
The only notable option in the Setup menu is the ability to assign the function button on the exterior of the camera. By enabling a parameter to be called up by the function button you can allow for frequently accessed back menu items to be called up with a touch of a button.
The Shooting menu allows the user to adjust the aspect ratio. We mentioned earlier the native aspect ration of the sensor is 4:3. This means that any adjustment to the aspect ration would be a crop to the sensor data, thus a loss of some resolution. It certainly should not be that big of a deal – the difference between 12, 11, and 10 megapixels and it might save you the trouble of cropping all of your photos to 4×6 once you get them into your computer before you print. So, I would recommend setting the aspect ratio to 3:2.
The stabilization options for the camera and lens combination are accessed via the shooting menu as well. The user has an option of Modes 1,2, & 3. Mode 1 activates stabilization all of the time . This will drain battery power fastest. Mode 2 activates the stabilizer only when the user is about to actuate the shutter. Finally, Mode 3 is best to use when the user is panning the camera with a moving subject. The stabilizer knows what type of movement to allow for and what type of movement to compensate for. It’s amazing how sophisticated these units are!
The flash curtain options – normal sync vs 2nd-curtain sync- are chosen here. Keep in mind, any of these menu options can be assigned to the function button. So if this is a feature you often find yourself changing, assign it to the function button. Although the access to enable bracketing is on the collar around the main command dial, the bracketing options are located in the menu. In the back menu, and typically you would set it up once, you would tell the camera how many images to bracket and in what direction to bracket it: – o +, o + +, – - o, etc. The user can choose a maximum of 7 frames. This would mean 3 shots underexposed, 3 overexposed, and one ‘correct’ exposure. This setting is great for HDR photography! (an article for the upcoming weeks!).
The last parameter of note in the shooting menu is the Long Exposure Noise Reduction, or Long Exposure NR. If you are shooting JPG, this parameter should be enabled. If you are shooting RAW, this parameter should be disabled. Here’s the reason: When the camera’s sensor is exposed to light say, for longer than 1 sec, noise can begin to generate in the pixel data. With a RAW file, this can be managed during the RAW processing much more powerfully than one can manage it with a JPG. When you open a JPG because it is a compressed file, there is a slight smoothness to it. An additionaly smoothing process to the file (which is what noise reduction does) would be detrimental to image quality. In this case, it is best to leave the camera to do all of this during the in-camera processing step before it is written to the memory card. If you are shooting RAW files, you should leave it off for two reasons, 1) it will take considerably longer to write the RAW file to your card because the camera is trying to process a much larger file than a JPG. You will miss subsequent shots, and 2) the RAW conversion process allows for much more precise and targeted noise reduction to maximize image quality.
In terms of camera-handling, it is not the most comfortable to hold. The grip is a little too short for most hands and due to the tiny little lens (except for the telephotos) there isn’t much room for the left support hand under the lens. The camera is a little too light to hand-hold without steadily if it did not have image stabilization. Remember, the heavier the equipment (to a point), the easier it is to hold steady. The electronic viewfinder is quite comfortable to look through and one can set it up so that you can see all exposure settings and focusing points when shooting, so you don’t have to go back and forth between eyepiece and LCD screen. This will save battery life, but the battery life will still be no where near as good as a true SLR.
The controls are easy to access – exposure compensation, ISO, and white balance. The manual white balance is so easy to set, just like it is on the Canon G10, Nikon P6000 and the Panasonic LX-3, all of which I have reviewed here on this site. Because I shoot RAW files, I have no use for the changing of the Film Modes or ‘My Color Modes because those are only applicable to JP images which are subject to the in-camera processing.
The built-in flash is quite useless. It is extremely harsh, has very little range, but what else would we expect from a pop-up flash? Unfortunately the diffusion dome I created for the Panasonic LX-3 will not mount on top of the G1′s flash. However, Lumiquest makes a great product that can pass as usable diffusion screen.
The auto-focus speed it decent, and the face detection works like a charm. However the continuous autofocus mode does not do the best job of tracking action. I think it has something to do with the live view off the sensor, whether you’re in LCD or EVF mode. The sensor’s live view cannot refresh fast enough to keep up with the moving action. Try to take a series of panning shots of a moving subject. You will get blurred images. Another reason for blurred images, or better yet, images that you ‘didn’t think you took’ is the delay of shutter actuation on the G1. All cameras, when using a live view mode, cause a delay in the picture-taking process. There’s nothing to do about it. In this respect the Panasonic G1 is no different than the very best of point and shoot digitals, but certainly one of the better ones, no doubt.
The ISO performance is decent for a sensor of this type. I am even willing to go as far as saying that the sensor in the G1 is far superior to any Olympus with respect to resolution, low-noise, and the sharpening kernel. The Panasonic G1 images blow away those of the Olympus 420, 520 and even the E3. From ISO 100-400 you really can’t even tell it is a smaller sensor. Once you hit 800, enlargements will still look great, but close analysis will reveal some color noise in shadows. ISOs 1250 and 1600 are usable in a pinch, and images converted into black and white would have an extremely appealing grain-like effect. Stay away from 3200 unless you absolutely have to. It does look like a train wreck. When shooting at ISOs 800-1600, one way to cut down on noise is to experiment with the technique of ‘shooting to the right’. This involves being able to read the histogram and using a series of over-exposures to optimize signal capture as opposed to noise capture. An article on this will be featured here in the next couple of weeks.
Summary & Conclusion
The Panasonic G1 is a welcome addition to the camera world. With its compact size, lightweight and portability, I see it as a camera I would be comfortable taking on a long weekend trip with me, leaving the larger DSLR gear at home. During my evaluation period, I used both lenses currently available for it. The kit lens, a 14-45 and the 45-200mm zoom, which is super compact as well for a 400mm equivalent lens. Once Olympus releases their micro four-thirds camera, we should start seeing more lenses as well. But despite its few, yet serious drawbacks for higher-end uses, this camera gets an A+ recommendation from me. I may just even purchase one.