There's no way of reviewing Panasonic's latest Micro Four Thirds camera, the GF1, without mentioning the Olympus E-P1. Other than the nostalgic design of Olympus' sixties styled snapper, the two cameras are almost identical in build quality, purpose and technology.
Here's the bottom line. For size and style, the Olympus is unbeatable. For everything else, the GF1 is the better camera. It realises more fully the Olympus designers' vision of a professional but compact camera that not only evokes the glory days of Magnum and grainy Parisian cafe scenes, but has the quality to capture the moment without compromise too.
Old school snapper
Both the E-P1 and the GF1 are based on the Micro Four Thirds system, which essentially means you get an SLR-sized and quality sensor with interchangable lenses, but no mirror system or optical viewfinder.
It's a trade-off between size and practicality, except in the case of the GF1, there's almost no concession made.
The Olympus' Achilles heel isn’t in picture quality (which, incidentally, the Panasonic surpasses). The E-P1 is easily the equivalent of any DSLR up to ISO800, where it starts to get a bit noisy, and when it comes to outputting JPGs the quality is exceptional.
What the GF1 has that the E-P1 doesn't is speed. Fast autofocus, quick write speeds, negligible time to boot: the only place a 'proper' SLR outperforms the GF1 is in continuous shooting mode.
The Panasonic's buffer quickly fills up and holds up the next shot in a sequence. The live preview of colour filters works much better than on the E-P1 too, and it even has a built-in flash.
The upshot is a camera that takes shots comparable with any digital SLR, but has all the charm, handling and immediacy of a Leica, without the price tag.
No image stabilisation
The biggest reservation serious photographers will have with the GF1 is the lack of an optical viewfinder, but the truth is that after a few minutes you won't notice it's missing.
The screen is bright and usable in all conditions, and the zoom for manual focus is more accurate than the small eyeglass in any equivalently priced SLR.
There are, in fact, just two things that would make the GF1 better. The first is on board image stabilisation. The Olympus has it, so there's no reason for the Panasonic not to.
In its defence, most of the Panasonic Micro Four Thirds lenses have optical stabilisation built in, but the best kit lens – the 20mm prime – doesn't. It is incredibly fast, though, with an F1.7 aperture, which almost makes up for the lack of motion cancelling hardware.
The second issue is harder to explain away, and that's the noise of the autofocus motor in movie mode. Switch subject and a swarm of angry bees move into attack position somewhere just behind the mic, and there's nothing you can do about it. Frustrating, as the HD cinema output is actually rather good.
But if it’s a stills camera you're after, the GF1 with both kit lenses and a stabilised, 400m equivalent superzoom comes to just over £1,000. That makes the Panasonic exceptional value for money whether you're looking to invest in a new system or just want an (almost) pocketable second camera.
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