One of the biggest digicam breakthroughs in 2008 was the announcement of the Micro Four Thirds System. What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of it – unlike the Wall Street crash of ’08 or Obama’s landslide? Perhaps not, but it was big news for camera enthusiasts. In a nutshell, the system lets manufacturers build compact digicams that accept a wide variety of lenses, just like D-SLRs. Unlike popular digital single lens reflex cameras, there is no mirror mechanism, or optical viewfinder, so the new cameras are much smaller than typical D-SLRs. This is cool stuff, and we had Panasonic send us a sample of the new 12.1-megapixel Lumix DMC-G1 as soon as possible. For the record, Panasonic and Olympus are the prime movers behind the new format. In fact, they also are the key proponents of the original Four Thirds System found in current D-SLRs from the two companies; unlike the Micro Four Thirds, these cameras have mirror assemblies. We seriously doubt Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony will adopt either one. Does this new format make sense—and how does it perform? In a few clicks, you’ll know the answer…
Features and Design
Available in the red, blue or black finish (it’s almost like a flat suede), the 1.78-inch thick, 13.6-ounce G1 is more compact and lighter than typical D-SLRs such as the $799 Canon EOS XSi or Nikon D60, which are close to 2.5 inches thick and weigh 16 ounces for the body alone. While the bodies are not dramatically different, the real difference is seen in the new Micro Four Thirds System lenses. The 14-45mm zoom supplied with the G1 is less than half the bulk and weight of a typical 3x D-SLR zoom. This is a huge plus for those who end up with sore shoulders after spending days lugging around traditional D-SLRs. And just like most D-SLRs, there’s a digital factor that multiplies the focal length. In this case it’s 2x, so the 14-45mm supplied lens is 28-90mm in 35mm terms.
You should also note that manufacturers are trying to slim down “classic” D-SLRs, including Pentax with its new 10MP K2000. It measures 4.8 x 3.6 x 2.7 (W x H x D in inches) and tips the scales at 18.5 ounces. Compare this to the 4.9 x 3.3 x 1.78 on the G1. And the 10MP Olympus E-420 – officially the smallest and lightest D-SLR available – measures 5.1 x 3.6 x 2.1, and weighs 13.4 ounces. Again, the bodies may be close, but the lenses are the real point of difference in terms of bulk. You should heft them at the local consumer electronics emporium to see if this means anything to your shooting style; we certainly appreciated the loss of weight.
Remember, the Olympus E-420 is a Four Thirds System camera with mirror assembly. With the Micro system, there’s a 50% shorter mount-to-sensor distance, and a smaller lens-mount outer diameter. And voila – this lets engineers create an advanced point-and-shoot camera with interchangeable lenses. As of December, there are only two of them, the 14-45mm kit lens and a 45-200mm zoom. Olympus and Panasonic say more lenses will arrive in 2009, as will the Olympus body. By using an adaptor, current Four Thirds glass fits the G1.
The front of the Lumix DMC-G1 is Spartan, and like any D-SLR, is dominated by the lens mount. You’ll also find a lens release button and a self-timer-AF Assist lamp. On the front of the pistol grip is a dial to scroll through menus, and a nice metallic accent. Lumix and G1 logos are low-key and tastefully done.
Things get more interesting on rear of the G1. As mentioned earlier, these new cameras do not have the traditional D-SLR optical viewfinder to see your subject directly through the lens as the light is bounced on a mirror to your eye. In order to give a similar feel, the G1 uses Live View technology. The Live View finder is basically an electronic viewfinder surrounded by a rubber eye cup. The screen is rated a whopping 1,440K pixels, so it’s much finer than any other on the market. It also has a 100 percent field of view, like any point-and-shoot camera. Most D-SLRs offer 94 to 97 percent. You can go to the Panasonic and Olympus sites for all the techie details. Suffice it to say that the Live View finder really impressed us, and provides an excellent view of your subject. Another real plus is the articulated 460K pixel 3-inch LCD screen. In the screen facing out position, it’s used to frame or review your shots. If you’d like, it can be swung open for overhead and low-angle shooting. The screen also faces inwards when not in use to prevent scratches.
Also on the back is a key to switch between the EVF/LCD, a diopter control, playback and AF/AE Lock buttons. On the top right corner is a comfy thumb rest to help you keep the camera steady. To the right of the LCD are the buttons familiar to anyone who has handled a digital camera in the past decade. Surrounding a menu/set key are buttons that give you access to ISO, white balance, function (which you can assign) and AF mode. You’ll also find a display and preview/delete keys.
On the right side is a compartment for the optional SD/SDHC card slot, while on the left are USB and HDMI outs. Note that the HDMI is for watching stills on your HDTV. Unlike every point-and-shoot digicam, the G1 does not take video clips of any type, which is a real oversight. Panasonic does say that newer models will offer HD video capability. Now that D-SLRs like the 12MP Nikon D90 take high-def video, this seems like a major boo-boo.
The top of the G1 is cluttered with stuff, which is a good thing once you read the 160-plus page owner’s manual. On the far left is a dial to choose between focus types. There’s AFS (auto focus single) which is your typical setting, AFC (auto focus continuous) for shooting moving subjects and MF (manual focus). Next to this dial is a pop-up switch for the built-in flash (it’s not automatic), and a hot shoe sits atop the viewfinder. Very few aim-and-forget digicams have hot shoes, other than the recently reviewed Canon G10. There’s a large mode dial with a good selection of choices along with iA (intelligent Auto), a mode found on all Panasonic point-and-shoot cameras. iA automatically adjusts for face detection, ISO, exposure, and will even attempt to guess what type of subject is front of you, and adjust for it (scenery, portrait, close-up, night portrait and night scenery). There are some individual scene modes as well, along with more advanced options like aperture- and shutter-priority, manual, program AE. At the base of the mode dial are the on/off switch, and another to choose between single shot and burst mode, which is a very D-SLR-like 3 frames per second (more on this in the performance section). You’ll also find a quick menu button and another for film mode. Here you can choose the “feel” of the image, plus change contrast, sharpness, saturation and noise reduction under each one. It’s fun to play with and discover the mood you want to give your photos. On top of the pistol grip was the shutter button, which we were itching to hit.
What’s In the Box
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 may use a new format, but the kit is as traditional as can be. You get the body, 14-45mm lens, a lens hood and cap, battery/charger, owner’s manual, USB and A/V cables, plus a strap. The supplied CD-ROM has PhotoFunStudio viewer version 2.1, SilkyPix Developer Studio 3.0 for handling RAW files, and a USB driver.
Once the battery was charged, a 2GB SD card popped in, and the 14-45mm kit lens attached, it was time to start shooting.
Image Courtesy of Panasonic
Performance and Use
We initially used the camera in JPEG mode using the iA setting, image stabilization engaged, then moved on to the various scene and manual modes in RAW and JPEG. Since this is a 12.1-megapixel camera, you’re saving 4000×3000 pixel files, similar to a Canon Rebel XSi or Nikon D90.
The camera is very D-SLR-like in certain performance aspects, and similar to a digicam in others, highlighting its hybrid roots. For instance, it starts up very quickly and focuses fast, too. It also captures close to the 3 fps claimed, which is very D-SLR like, and much quicker than the recently reviewed Canon PowerShot G10. The electronic Live View finder is very detailed, but you definitely know you’re looking at a mini TV screen instead of an optical viewfinder. It’s not bad, but it’s certainly different. The outside LCD screen is very good, and we appreciated the flexibility of the swing-out arm. The lightweight camera/lens combo felt really comfortable with the controls in the right spots for our hands. But as always, we suggest you do your own ergonomics test before you buy any camera or camcorder. We took a variety of shots indoors, and out, even attempting a few at ISO 3200 for laughs—Panasonic cameras traditionally have noise issues at higher sensitivity levels. Still, we had to give it a try. Once done, the photos were downloaded then turned into 8.5×11 full-bleed prints with no tweaking in the software or printer.
The results were a mixed lot. Outdoor shots of fall skies and evergreens were good and accurate. However, they just didn’t have the crispness and oomph of the G10’s output. That’s not to say they were bad, just not as good as that $499 14.7MP digicam. We were very pleasantly surprised how well Panasonic tamed the digital noise monster here; it really became noticeable at ISO 800, which is definitely better than most digicams, but not up to the level of a Canon or Nikon D-SLR. Face Detection worked well, but not as quickly as on the G10. Taking a step back, however, the photos for the most part were solid.
Image Courtesy of Panasonic
It’s clear to us this really a version 1.0 camera. It does what it was intended to do, but we wanted more – and less – of some things. We wanted video capability and more lenses to choose from. We also wanted less noise at higher ISOs. And we definitely wanted less when it came to the overall size and price. $799 for a first-gen camera is a lot—especially when you can purchase a lightweight Olympus E-420 with a lens for 500 bucks. That said, we’ve seen a number of prototypes of Micro Four Thirds cameras at various trade shows, and the potential, as far as sizes and shapes are concerned, is very intriguing. Right now we suggest you take a look at the G1 to see the first of its type, but hold off on buying one unless the price comes way down.
• First Micro Four Thirds camera
• Solid print quality
• Very high quality Live View finder
• Good 3-inch LCD screen
• Almost D-SLR-like response
• No video of any type
• Noise at ISO 800 and above
• Live View finder is a bit disconcerting
• Not many lenses available without adaptor