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Panasonic GX1: compact but precise

Updated: July 3, 2012 10:07AM



It took a couple of years for the camera industry to decide what to call “a camera that has an interchangeable lens system and a large image sensor like an SLR, but which lacks a mirror box and is convenient to carry, like a point-and-shoot.” Behold, the Compact System Camera.

Which leaves only the second baffling question of this brand-new camera category: Just what kind of photographers are meant to buy these things? Clearly, manufacturers are still trying to figure that one out. Some compact system cameras are are as affordable as a decent point-and-shoot, and are barely any larger. Others are even more expensive than a decent Nikon SLR, and are barely any smaller.

With such great genetic diversity out there, no one compact system camera can ever be called the very best. But the 16-megapixel Panasonic GX1 is a true standout. It handles and shoots like an SLR, takes terrific pictures like one, and it has the range of lenses and accessories of one as well. But the GX1 delivers those things in the most compact and convenient possible package. Its lone relative weakness compared to some other compact system cameras is the limitations of its smaller image sensor. But it’s clearly the best choice for those enthusiast photographers who wish they could bring their SLRs wherever they go, and who can’t justify the expense of some of the pricier cameras in this category. The GX1 is $699 for the body alone, $799 with a 14-42mm manual zoom (28-85mm equivalent in 35mm terms) and $949 with a 14-42mm powered zoom lens. Street prices are $549/$675/$799.

Physical features

The GX1 is hardly larger than a conventional point-and-shoot camera. I’m pretty sure it’s the smallest Compact System zoom camera you can buy, if you go for the powered zoom. The lens telescopes down into a pancake when powering down and the pairing fits into most jacket pockets. It’ll even fit into many pants pockets, assuming you buy your pants for function rather than style.

Compare and contrast this with other compact system cameras (like the excellent Sony NEX-7) that mates a Chris Farley-sized zoom to a Keira Knightley-slim camera body. That’s...er...not a desirable pairing. It’s so bulky that you almost might as well be carrying a conventional SLR.

But how comfortable is this tiny camera to operate? The good news is that the GX1 sports a thick rubberized wraparound grip and a thumbrest on the back. It feels quite secure in your hand. The bad news is that there isn’t a lot of room for its many mechanical buttons. Those of us blessed with large, workingman’s hands will need a little time to get used to these undersized controls.

I did get used to them. But I never got used to the fact that these chrome buttons are marked only with engraved function labels. If you’re blessed with the right ambient lighting at just the right angle, you might actually be able to read them easily. Alas, I’ve led a life of sin and vice, apparently.)

This feels like a premium, well-built camera. The GX1 is clad in metal and its main controls — the control knob and the power switch — are sturdy and provide snappy, positive feedback. There’s no weatherproofing, so try not to let it get rained on too much.

The GX1’s built-in flash pops up on spring-loaded scissors that swing it up and forward to minimize redeye. I love the fact that it doesn’t lock into its conventional forward position. You’re free to manually pivot the head up, which lets you try any number of subtle bounce-lighting effects. During my month of testing, I’d often use a white business card as a makeshift bounce hood, and was very pleased with the results.

The built-in flash is augmented by an industry-standard flash shoe. That’s a big deal. A photo shot with a pocket camera and a powerful accessory flash is often more impressive than one shot with an SLR and lit with a weak onboard flash. Plus, many third-party accessories (such as wireless flash triggers and wireless shutter controllers) are designed that standard terminal and bracket. Going with the established standard adds an extra shot of value to the GX1 by opening it up to the range of accessories available to an SLR.

The GX1’s flash pivots but alas, its touchscreen does not. It’s large, bright, and is visible from a wide range of viewing angles, so getting a low-to-the-ground shot of your dog isn’t exactly impossible. The GX1 does have an accessory port for a pivoting LCD viewfinder, for (a) fans of angled shots and/or (b) people who enjoy getting nose grease on their camera’s preview screen.

There’s an HDMI port for playing videos and slideshows on an HDTV, a data port that should have used the convenient mini- or micro-USB standard but doesn’t (remember to pack the special cable or a card reader when you travel), and a simple headphone-style jack for a wired shutter release. That’s about $50 if you buy the Panasonic accessory...or about ten bucks if you buy one of the almost-as-good knockoffs from Amazon.com.

Battery life isn’t impressive. You can expect to get about 300 to 330 shots per charge, which is about ten percent fewer than the best performers in this category. The GX1 does support the new higher-capacity SDXC cards as well as the older kinds. And if you think 64 gigs of storage is crazy-excessive for a pocket camera, then you clearly don’t spent a lot of time shooting HD video alongside your photos.

In use

The GX1 reverses a frustrating trend in Panasonic compact system cameras: its touchscreen augments the mechanical control buttons and knobs, instead of replacing them.

I’m convinced that a camera that sticks its most important features behind a touchscreen is harder to use. The GX1’s buttons might be tiny, but you get used to them after a week or two...and forever thereafter, your fingers can find them by touch and muscle memory. Touch buttons require a certain distracting amount of aim and focus. And that’s assuming that the button you want was already on the screen to begin with. Furthermore, the GX1’s mechanical buttons are placed so that they fall under the natural arc of your thumb. A touchscreen often forces you to shift the camera in your hands so that you can tap the screen accurately.

Is an all-touchscreen interface all that much slower and more difficult to operate? Well, no. But when you see a picture in front of you, the clock is usually ticking. An extra second can be all the time you need to lose that Decisive Moment and wind up with a snapshot for your Twitter feed instead of a photograph for your wall.

The GX1 blends its mechanical and touchscreen interfaces well. You can operate 90% of its functions using just one or just the other. You get the most out of the GX1 when you find your own balance between the two. Some functions -- such as setting a focus or exposure point — are obvious Wins for the touchscreen.

Philosophically, the GX1’s interface and features seem to have been designed by a longtime SLR user. There’s a dedicated physical button for exposure/focus lock and a dedicated button that you can program with whatever feature you want quick access to (for me, it’s manual flash exposure compensation). If that’s not enough, there are two additional programmable function keys available on the touchscreen. You can also customize its onscreen menus so that you never need to hunt for an option you use frequently. Lovely.

Features that serious photographers often use are right near the surface and well-implemented. That attitude is consistent all across the board. It’s hard for me to identify an SLR-style finely-grained control that isn’t available on the GX1, and it seems like it’s always possible to customize a feature so that it works precisely the way you want it to. Many cameras that cost way more than the GX1 only offer an anemic “three frames, one stop apart” bracketing feature. On the GX1 you can take as many as seven frames spaced as little as a third of a stop apart. You can even define up to four groups of custom settings, any two of which can be immediately set via dedicated slots on the master control knob. My opinion of this camera shot up immensely after I committed myself to sit-down reading of the whole manual, and I realized how much I had been missing by only walking through its menus.

For all of my insistence on SLR-style control, the GX1 also impressed me with its built-in smarts. Before this newest generation of cameras arrived, I’d rarely use an Automatic mode. My eye and my experience were usually far more trustworthy. The GX1 (and others like it) humbled me pretty damned fast.

Suffice to say that if I’d reviewed the GX1 after my first week, I’d have been much more critical. The camera just wasn’t getting the shots I thought it was capable of taking. I was still getting used to its controls and quirks, though, so I tried just leaving it in Intelligent Auto mode. Bingo: the GX1 was focusing and exposing properly, and making all of the right choices.

Case in point: a group of steampunkers I encountered on the street. The Intelligent Auto mode wasn’t bamboozled for an instant by the intense details on the costumes in the middle of the frame. It analyzed the preview image, spotted a line of human faces, and switched to a portrait mode that locked focus on multiple sets of eyes and also defocused the background. I had shot a similar steampunk photo a year earlier with another Panasonic compact system camera (I live near one of New England’s many Steampunk districts; that’s why property values are so high here) and that camera blew it.

The other Win: Intelligent Auto has its own dedicated, illuminated button. Now that I feel like I understand how the GX1 works, I leave it in Program mode (so I can tweak settings on the fly). But when I saw those cosplayers coming, I knew I only had one shot at getting the picture.

(Rule 1 of Cosplayer Courtesy: Steampunkers have better things to do than stand there, with their many brass accessories slowly tarnishing, while you fiddle with the buttons on your camera.)

I punched the iA button, got the photo, then punched the button again to be back in the land of obsessive-compulsive photographic control freakery.

Like all of the best new cameras, the GX1 helped me to take better photos by encouraging me to embrace a set of well-functioning automated features. Features such as Intelligent ISO. If the GX1 senses that your subject is moving, it’ll choose a higher ISO solely so that it can access a higher set of shutter speeds and freeze the action.

Focusing is quick and agile. The GX1’s full-frame autofocus includes 23 zones. I was just as grateful for its pinpoint focusing mode, which offers even narrower precision than a single focus zone. It’s another one of those features that seems ridiculous until it inevitably proves to be the only way to get the shot.

There’s also the usual razzle-dazzle focusing modes. Face-priority focus? Yup. Maintain focus on a moving subject? I couldn’t rent a toddler for the afternoon but GX1 passed the Squirrel Autofocus Test with flying colors. The GX1 comes armed with another neat autofocus trick: you can train it recognize the faces of the people you know. If your daughter is singing in a school choir, focus will lock on her and not the kids in front of her or behind her.

Specs on the GX1’s continuous shooting modes are pretty much par for the course. It’ll keep shooting JPEGs at 4.2 frames per second until the card is full, but the buffer for RAW images maxes out at 9 frames. There’s also a super-high-speed mode that will take up to 40 JPEGs at 20 frames per second.

Overall, the GX1 is a respectably zippy camera. It starts up quickly, achieves focus lock in a jiffy, and only made me wait when I was pushing the camera to its write limits -- bracketing 7 uncompressed RAW images in under two seconds.

Negatives? Well, the GX1 is mostly devoid of “stunt” shooting modes. There’s no in-camera HDR, no in-camera panorama assembly. As my description suggests, though, those are modes you use when you absolutely, positively must achieve an effect in-camera. Though those modes are nice to have, most people tend to do that kind of stuff with desktop apps.

Image quality

What a relief: I’ve let go of the outdated notion that there’s much of a point to side-by-side-by-side comparisons of modern cameras. What good is a camera that only takes superior photos under controlled testing conditions? There’s a great deal of difference between a toddler and a test card. Society will only allow you to immobilize one of them in a metal clamp.

And the GX1, like most of the better cameras on the market, lets you fine-tune its “formula” for turning numbers into JPEGs. The GX1 tends to err on the side of cooler colors rather than warmer ones and tries hard not to oversharpen. If you don’t like that...it’s easily changed. Moreover, it seems a bit silly to nitpick over any subtle differences. 45 seconds with even the most basic desktop photo app can make the images from almost any two cameras in the same weight class appear identical.

Two issues remain, though: dynamic range and high-ISO performance. Both of these are intimately connected to image sensor size. The GX1 uses the popular multi-manufacturer Micro Four Thirds standard for compact system bodies and lenses. The Micro Four Thirds sensor many times larger than a conventional pocket camera’s image sensor, and you can’t possibly fail to notice the improvement in image quality. But competing compact system cameras (most notably, Sony’s NEX series) manage to cram an APS-C sensor -- which is the same size as what you’d find in a conventional consumer SLR -- into a compact package.

As a result, the GX1’s sensor isn’t the very best performer at high ISOs. Still, it functions quite well. After more than a month of shooting, I’ve come to think of 1600 ISO as an eminently “safe” setting, with little noticeable ISO noise. 3200 ISO images are often perfectly fine, particularly if there’s plenty of light (ie, you chose 3200 ISO so you could use a high shutter speed on an overcast day, not because you were shooting a black cat by candlelight). 6400 ISO is definitely a Hail Mary setting and the GX1’s max ISO, 12800, is more fanciful than useful.

The smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor can’t offer the same high dynamic range as APS-C, either. It’s hard to detect the difference except through a strict side-by-side comparison. All other factors being equal, you’d likely prefer the portrait that was shot with the APS sensor, though you probably couldn’t put your finger on why the skin tones seem just a tad more natural. The APS dynamic range advantage mostly makes itself known in shots with poor exposure; an APS-C sensor is more likely to record details in an area of severe over or underexposure (such as a blown-out highlight) than a smaller Micro Four Thirds-size sensor.

Do keep in mind, though, that a camera isn’t just an image sensor. A camera is a complicated system of hardware and firmware and user interface that helps you take good photos. A better-designed sensor might be less likely to shoot a blown highlight, but a better-designed camera would help you to have picked the right exposure to begin with.

All that matters is that I have a folder full of Lovely Photos taken with the GX1. I found no complaints with its image quality and was pleased with its speed, customizability, and ease of operation.

Video

The GX1 shoots 1080P video in either AVCHD or MP4 format. The function has its own dedicated stop/start button, which makes it to grab video clips as you go without making a whole formal production of it. Intelligent Auto mode works in video as well (though with fewer scene selections) and you can use the touchpad to change focus mid-shot.

It records audio through a pair of microphones at the top of the camera. Good. But it’s a shame that there’s no way to connect an external mic. It’s just a rare example of the GX1 lacking a feature that would have expanded its capabilities beyond what you’d expect from a pocket camera.

The Bottom Line

I like the GX1 but I can’t call the it the best compact system camera on the market. There’s far too many unique cameras out there and far too many kinds of photographers as well. But I think it hits the sweet spot of the compact system concept. It provides a clean and clear option in a world where you can buy an excellent shirt-pocketable camera for less than $400 and an ambitious conventional SLR for a little more than a thousand. It works great as a standalone, compact camera and it’s packed with SLR-grade features that’ll help an enthusiastic amateur get exactly the shots he or she wants. It supports the large library of Micro Four Thirds lenses, and can use any Panasonic or third-party accessory flash, so you won’t soon outgrow the capabilities of your new $700 camera.

Other compact systems navigate this world with a little less certainty. Sony’s NEX-7 takes incredible photos, but yeeps! for $1,350, it really ought to. The $699 NEX-5 is way more affordable, but doesn’t have an onboard flash. I’ve used a flashless camera for a couple of years now and I assure you that carrying an accessory with you everywhere you go is just as big of a hassle as it sounds. Olympus’ new OM-D (a Micro Four Thirds, like the GX1) has caused a lot of buzz, but it’s clearly intended to compete with large SLRs and not pocket cams. Other cameras from Leica and Fuji combine the romance of classic rangefinger styling with the price of a halfway-decent used car, and only supports a limited range of boutique lenses.

See what I mean? The GX1 is an attractive choice for someone who can afford something a little better than a point-and-shoot but who either doesn’t have the money for an SLR, or doesn’t want to haul around a large camera, or both.

It was definitely the clear choice for me. I do a hell of a lot of traveling and my Bigass SLR (a Nikon D200) rarely travels with me. I don’t consider it worth the hassle. Even when I recently set off for a week in Ireland with goals to come back with great photos, I took Panasonic’s loaner GX1 instead of the D200. And it worked great...in no small part because I had zero qualms about keeping the GX1 around my neck or tucked away inside my little iPad satchel at all times. That wouldn’t have happened with a camera that weighs three times as much and required its own camera bag.

So, yeah: I bought myself a GX1 of my own before I even finished unpacking from the trip. I already have a bunch of Micro Four Thirds lenses, so it was a pretty easy choice.

If you’re not necessarily looking for “A pocketable camera that shoots and handles like an SLR,” the field’s still fairly open. And it’s going to get open-er soon: in a few weeks, Sony will release the NEX-F3. It’s an intensely consumer-friendly camera that features a large, APC-C sensor, a popup flash, and a swing-out screen for just $600. I expect to have one in hand soon and will get a review out as quickly as I can.

The massive array of compact system cameras is good news for consumers, of course. This isn’t a world of cookie-cutter cameras. It’s almost like there’s a custom camera shop that’ll build a rig to your specifications, and then sell it to you at consumer prices.



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