Panasonic has surprised a lot of people by announcing the Panasonic GF3 camera only 5-months after releasing the GF2 to the market. Just like its predecessor, the GF3 has interchangeable lenses (micro 4/3) and is intended to be a more “consumer-oriented” camera than Panasonic’s flagship model DMC-GH2. It is also different from the GF1, which was designed for photography enthusiasts with a need for an ultra-compact camera.
Panasonic has realized that the GF line could be used to enter the much larger “premium” consumer market, that’s why the company has pushed hard to make the GF Series simpler to use and more attractive for those who want the image quality, without the hassle of tweaking settings. Does it really achieve that? And how good is it?
Panasonic GF3 in a nutshell
The GF3 uses the Micro four thirds (or Micro 4/3) standard also featured by a number of other camera makers, including the Micro 4/3 creators: Panasonic and Olympus. Some other brands use similar designs but based on the larger APS-C sensors often found in Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras. These cameras, such as Samsung’s NX100 or the Sony NEX-3, are technically not considered to be Micro 4/3, but they share the same idea, goal and overall design: giving customers SLR-style versatility and picture quality in a compact, lightweight body.
I won’t go through the whole list of specifications, but here are a few things that you should keep in mind:
Size: with 107.5 x 67.1 x 32mm, the GF3 is one of the smallest cameras in its category, but it is not the smallest. The Sony NEX-C3 gets the title with 109.6 x 60.0 x 33mm. Still, the sizes for both cameras are largely comparable. When compared to the GF2, the GF3 is 17% smaller. I have the GF1, which is noticeably bigger than the GF2 already… so it’s much bigger than the GF3.
Weight: at 221g (7.83oz), the GF3 is light. It is also 16% lighter than the Panasonic GF2.
Optical Capabilities: The camera has a 12 megapixel sensor and can shoot 1080p videos. You can review the shots on a 460,000 pixels display.
Design: This is very subjective, but I think that the GF3 is one of the best-looking micro-cameras out there. Those who like the “retro look” may prefer the Olympus PEN, but it’s hard not to like the GF3 for its design. By the way, I found the colored versions to look more polished (especially the red and white ones) than the black version, even if the black GF3 is just as well built (aluminum body etc…)
From an external point of view: the size, and the removal of certain physical controls (buttons) are the most obvious changes. I have used the GF2, and the GF3 has a much better touch display. It simply reacts faster and feels better to the touch. While it still feels a bit like an older smartphone, it is one of the best touch-displays that I have seen in a camera. Without a doubt, cameras will catch up to smartphones in the next few years.
The sensor sensitivity tops out at ISO 6400, which is plenty. That’s higher than the ISO 3200 of my GF1, but the GF2 already had ISO 6400, so this is not new. If you are not familiar with the ISO sensitivity, this basically means that the sensor can “amplify” (or “gain”) the light that it receives, so that you can continue to shoot at higher shutter speeds in low light. The cost is noise, which will be introduced as well and creates slightly grainy photos.
The GF3 uses the same “Venus” image processor as the much larger Panasonic GH2, which is a welcome improvement. The importance of a good image processor should not be underestimated. Raw data captured by the camera sensor has to be interpreted by software, and there can be big differences in terms of image quality from one image processor to the next. For jpeg images straight from the camera, image processing is often what makes the difference between good and great models.
The expanded user interface pushes the GF3 deeper into “consumer” territory, and while this could be a sensitive subject with enthusiasts who loved the GF1 for all its physical controls, it may also make more novice users feel more comfortable.
On the minus side, camera enthusiasts will notice that the minimum ISO increased from 100 to 160. The lower the minimum ISO is, the less noisy the images can potentially be. I personally do not consider this to be a huge deal, but purists may mind. Also, in bright light you might need a stronger filter in order to achieve desired shutter speeds.
Finally, there is no flash accessory option anymore as the flash mounting shoe is gone. This will surely make part of the enthusiast population unhappy or outright angry, as it limits users to the built-in flash which is tends to be not very flattering, sitting close to the lens and allowing only for relatively harsh, direct light. The elimination of the flash shoe is one of the clearest signs that Panasonic is targeting point-and-shoot photographers with the GF3 rather than ambitious amateurs looking for a secondary camera.
Context: how I use it
Before we go on, I think that it’s important that you know how I’m using my micro-camera as this inevitably shapes how I perceive its qualities and pitfalls.
The micro-camera follows me when I roam around trade shows or go on vacation. I also own a Canon 50D, which is a really good, but bulky, camera. I have clearly chosen the micro-camera for its small size and weight, and I love the fact that it can fulfill most of the duties that my 50D does for me. In both situations, I tend to shoot in difficult lighting conditions, whether it is on a poorly lit showroom or at a dinner with friends. But whatever happens, I never use the flash. I personally prefer photos without it.
Also, I tend to use my photos only on the web, and I rarely print anything larger than letter-size, if at all.
The Panasonic GF3 can shoot great photos, and here are a few shots to illustrate my point. Some have been taken with the pancake lens, others with a 50mm f1.4 lens that can be purchased separately (it is an awesome lens). I think that most people simply want to capture what they see with the highest possible quality, so it is important to have a powerful, low f-stop lens.
What’s f-stop (also called aperture)? In a nutshell, it’s a metric that shows how much light gets into the lens. More light means more “image” information, which means “better image”. In dim lighting, more light also means “seeing better”. For example, when we go from f1.4 to f2.0 to f2.8 the light intensity is reduced by two each time. f2.8 lets only a quarter of the light in, when compared to f1.4. This is a big deal!
On a sunny day, f-stop doesn’t matter so much because there is plenty of light, and even high f-stop lenses provide more than enough light information to get clear and crisp images.
In dim lighting (or when capturing fast action) the sensor needs all the light it can get to “see” the image. If it doesn’t, the camera can compensate by boosting the sensitivity (ISO), but that introduces noise in the photo, thus reducing image quality to some extent.
Overall, I’m impressed by the image quality of the Panasonic GF3, especially if you have a low f-stop lens. Despite its small size, it does deliver clear, colorful and crisp images. My personal advice is to get the lens kit that has the lowest f-stop, and forget about the zoom capabilities.
Check our Ubergizmo Flickr account to see more samples.
When it comes to moving images, the Panasonic GF3 also delivers very crisp results, up to a full HD 1080p resolution (50fps says VLC) and a bitrate of 16Mbps (256Kbps for the audio track). Although VLC tells me that the GF3 did produce a 50fps video (it didn’t feel like 50fps), panning the camera around, made the video a bit jittery – at least more than I would expect.
The conclusion is that it’s best to shoot from a static position or pan very slowly. For example, in my case, it’s great for an interview, but not so practical to shoot an on-screen demo, as the images (or the shiny screen) could disturb the autofocus. By the way, the motor noise can be fairly noticeable in a silent scene
In video mode, the GF3’s autofocus works faster than the GF1’s but it can still take a couple of seconds to focus (in photo-mode, it’s very fast). This is much slower than most ($500+) handheld camcorders. The other option is to use manual focus and shoot a video with a fixed-focus lens. With that setup, you can get beautiful video shots.
Don’t replace your mid-range camcorder with the GF3 yet, but if it’s the only video device that you have with you, it will do a good job, especially in low-light – provided that you have a “fast” lens (low f-stop).
How does it hold up to a DSLR camera?
Some people think of the Panasonic GF3 (or GF-Series) as an high-end “compact”, but when I jumped onto the micro 4/3 wagon, I thought of it as a “DSLR replacement”. In terms of pure image quality, I think that the Panasonic GF3 does deliver images that are comparable to DSLR cameras in the same price range, but don’t forget that image quality depends *a lot* on your lens quality. DSLRs tend to have larger sensors, but they also come with average kit lenses.
For what I do, the only thing that the DSLR was doing consistently better was to focus faster (a lot faster), especially on difficult objects like… shiny smartphones. Every GF camera may have a hard time focusing on such objects and I it may take more time to get the focus where I want to.
As said earlier, lower f-stop lenses will produce less noisy images, especially under low-light conditions (or when using fast shutter-speeds). One of the GF3 kits contains a ƒ3.5-5.6 14-42mm lens, which is an average, all-purpose, equivalent to what can be found in many DSLR kits. On the other hand, it is also possible to get a 14mm (fixed) f2.4 pancake lens if you feel so inclined. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the 20mm f1.7 lens that came with my GF1 camera is a GF kit lens anymore (it’s still available as an option, and it has a great price/performance ratio). I would personally recommend going for the GF3 kit with the pancake lens (lowest possible f-stop).
I consider the choice between a DSLR or a micro-camera to be more of a “lifestyle issue,” not a technological one, or even an image quality issue. For a given image quality and budget, do you want to have a camera that is light and small, or one that has a classic feel and access to a wide array of accessories?
If you are wealthy enough, most of you may actually want both…
What could be better?
As good as it is, the Panasonic GF3 is not perfect. I think that there are a few things that would make it an even more compelling camera. Here’s my take:
Built-in optical stabilizer: today, there is no optical stabilizer built into the camera’s body. This could be an improvement that would help every single user.
USB charging option: I love the small format, but the battery charger is 50% of my camera size, and I would love to having the option of not using it. I would lobby for having a USB charging option, even if that means a slower charge. Also, if you forget/lose your charger, you would not be dead in the water. For a fast charge, the current charger is just fine. By the way, the charger should be able to plug directly to the wall, without an electric cable. We need it to be as compact as possible.
Apps? I know this is very early in the game, but I truly believe that cameras will soon become programmable to the point where we can get downloadable apps. Imagine what you could do if you had the brains of a smartphone and the optic of the GF3… The possibilities would be endless. In the meantime, there’s room for improvement in the user interface.
Most people want to use any camera as a “point and shoot” (yes, even DSLRs), but I know that some of you will want more control, and that’s a fair request.
In terms of controlling the camera settings, the touch display does an OK job, but let’s face it: it is there mainly to simplify the camera usage for the majority, rather than making it faster/better for enthusiasts users. When I want to change settings via the quick menu, I can do it faster with the physical buttons on my GF1, there’s no question about it. The thing is: I rarely tweak anything at all.
The same thing goes for the mode selection (Auto, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority…) and the rate selection (single shot, burst mode…). Those physical controls are completely gone to reduce thickness. Instead, the settings are accessible via the touch-screen menu.
The new touch interface also introduces things like touch-to-focus, a feature similar to what is found on smartphones. You can simply touch the screen to tell the camera where to focus. There is also a mode where a tap on the screen will focus and take the shot in one action. Admit it, this is cool.
Obviously, I understand that those who want to tweak things for every shot can be frustrated by the reduction in the number of physical controls and dials. However, that is the price to pay for getting such a tiny body. And from the overall direction where things are going, this may not get better soon.
Presets: like most small cameras, the GF3 also comes with “presets” that cater to particular needs. Here’s the list: Soft skin, Baby1, Baby2, Portrait mode, Peripheral defocus, Architecture, Party/indoor, Night portrait, Pet, Scenery, Food, Low light, Illumination snap, Flower, Night scene, Sports mode, Sunset
Depending on your situation, they could be useful as they are supposed to use the “optimum” settings for each situation. In practice, I have never, ever, used any of them. I usually have a low f-stop lens, and the fully automatic options do wonders. If it really comes down to it, I might tweak the shutter speed and/or the ISO, but that’s about it.
Who is this for?
Consumer: The Panasonic GF Series has become more and more consumer-oriented over time. The GF1 was very much for enthusiasts, but the GF3 is much more consumer-friendly in my opinion. It is less intimidating because it has fewer buttons and dials, and its size is very attractive to those who want to take great photos without sacrificing their comfort.
Enthusiast: The enthusiast may have lost some execution speed with the GF2 and GF3, but I find the GF3 to be much more responsive and comfortable to use than the GF2. In the future, I bet that this will get even better, and that it would eventually catch up with what we have on smartphones today.
Unfortunately, users who would love to have a more sophisticated version of the GF1 (with manual controls and a “pro” philosophy) will be disappointed. The market is not going in that direction and I have yet to see another manufacturer pursue this direction.
I think that Panasonic can do something for everyone if it continues to improve the responsiveness of the touch display and make sure that the user interface is great (this is always a tricky one). Camera companies are not as good as application developers when it comes to touch interfaces, but they should be able to learn quickly, or maybe they should open the user-interface to developers…
It would be a mistake to consider the Panasonic GF3 as “just” a fancy compact camera as it can truly be a DSLR replacement for a lot of people, including me. To be fair, it also has the price of a DSLR, so it’s normal that we expect the same level of performance from it.
As I said earlier, it comes down to lifestyle and usage model: I own both type of cameras and that’s really how I think of it. Both are very good at what they were built for, but they are so (physically) different that they are bound to have significant advantages over each other, depending on the situation.
From an image quality point of view, the Panasonic GF3 can hold its own when compared to much bulkier camera but it is obvious that DSLRs often have an advantage when it comes to sensor size, variety of lenses and accessories. However, the GF3 will win every time when it comes to portability. Often, the best camera is the one that you have handy.
If the Panasonic GF3 is of interest to you, I strongly recommend considering the 14mm f.2.5 kit (or the 20mm f1.7). It is a bit more expensive (up to $700 for the camera+lens), but using the pancake lens gives you the full benefits of having a small camera that can fit in a small pouch or cargo pants pocket. You always have the option of using an array of other lenses if you want to.
I hope that I have answered most questions that you may have. If not, feel free to drop a comment and I’ll try to reply as soon as I can.