Everyone wants a swappy-lens compact camera. That's clear, but what's less clear is how much we're willing to compromise on DSLR-style features in the pursuit of smallness. Sony has shown with its NEX-7 that, if you're prepared to pay, you really can have it all in a more petite body. At less than half the price, can Panasonic's GF6 compact system camera satisfy the serious snapper?
Ideally, most people would want a viewfinder on a camera with interchangeable lenses, but at this price that's asking a lot. However, there's some compensation from the flip-out LCD which gives you some useful options for framing. For example, you can shoot from waist height, looking directly down onto the horizontally-angled screen, framing and focusing using the lens barrel and your left hand.
The tiltable display can also come in handy for poking your nose through a crowd or over a sea of heads to catch a glimpse of a passing personage, or just to avoid reflections or glare from the sun. Unfortunately even at its brightest setting the LCD is often trumped by outdoor lighting levels, making it harder to view than we'd like.
But wait… the day is saved by the LCD's canny ability to automatically flip its display when you fold it up 180-degrees for a self-protrait or a piece to camera. For YouTubers that's great news, as it means you can talk to your audience and monitor your footage at the same time, without all those disconcerting off-camera glances.
Built-in flash and build
So we can do without the viewfinder, right? The lack of a flash would be more serious but not to worry, the GF6 has its own that pops up on a tightly sprung mechanism with a push of a discreet button. The flash adds hardly anything to the overall size and is far more convenient than having to plug one into the hot shoe, as is the case with the Samsung NX1000. Next to this you'll just about notice a pair of stereo microphones.
The top plate of the GF6 looks like metal but is actually coated plastic, so it's doesn't feel quite as "premium" as it looks. The 14-42mm kit lens is also quite plasticky but certainly not cheap feeling. It lacks the futuristically precise build of the Sony NEX-5N but any concerns of cheapness are batted away as soon as you take a shot and hear the clunk of the shutter.
Pictures and video are captured on the GF6's Micro Four Thirds sensor. While the sensor is smaller than the APS-C size used by Sony's NEX cameras (and smaller still than a full-frame sensor in a DSLR), it still has more surface area than that of a regular compact's sensor, and each of its 16 megapixels have more light-gathering power and more physical space to do their own thing without interference from their neighbours.
That theory is proven in the GF6's image quality. Colours are well balanced and generally the exposure is just about right (it can be tweaked with an on-screen exposure dial), but what impressed us most is the precision of the pixels. You can shoot in uncompressed RAW mode, but even in Fine JPG mode, every little dot is exceptionally defined. This allows you to crop and blow up shots with more confidence, and of course it packs in lots of detail uncropped shots.
There are two Auto modes (as well as manual, aperture and shutter priority modes), one of which aims to bring out yet more detail with a little post-processing, although in our tests there was little to choose between the two. Scene modes, retro-style art filters and a sweep panorama option are also on hand.
Much has been made of the GF6's fast auto-focus, and in good light at wide-angle settings it's virtually instant, often allowing you to just point and shoot without worrying about pre-focussing. It's also quite nifty at higher zoom levels where there's a shallow depth of field, and generally settles on a suitable focal point just as rapidly.
However, with the 14-42mm kit lens attached it can get rather fussy at macro levels, refusing to shoot due to a lack of focus even though it would appear that some of your shot actually is focussed. This is rather disappointing for anyone scoping out bees amongst the flora, but it can be overridden and made to shoot when you tell it, if you dig far enough into the settings menu. You can see more sample shots at full resolution here.
Video is good but not exceptional. When used on a tripod its 1080p/25fps footage can look rather nice, especially if there's some depth of field going on to blur the background and keep your subject in sharp focus.
However, hand-held footage suffers from frame tearing (a wobbly, juddery effect when the camera is moved) and further jerkiness when zooming with the non-motorised zoom on the kit lens. Detail levels are reasonable but unless you're in a very controlled environment it's far from ideal as a camcorder alternative.
It's all sounding pretty good so far but the GF6 has some rather annoying usability issues. For example, to put the camera into one of its Auto modes you have to press a dedicated button marked "iA". When this is done, the main mode dial ceases to respond or alter any settings. It's confusing to have the Auto modes taken off that main mode dial, and the only indication that you are in Auto mode is a tiny blue halo around the button, which can be hard to see in sunlight.
That means it's easy to shoot in the wrong mode accidentally. For example, you might think you're in Auto mode but you're actually in Manual, or vice-versa. Also, the main dial on the rear panel works differently depending on which mode you're in, and even if you do know which mode that is, the tiny white-on-silver icons on it are almost unreadble. For example, during the test we accidentially fired off a shot in Manual, set to a 60-second exposure, which in effect locked up the camera for a minute, plus another minute while it processed the shot. Fortunately we were shooting a herd of sleepy cows rather than a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment of magic.
Then there's the touchscreen, another part in the overall interface jigsaw that doesn't quite fit. Some elements are buttons that need to be touched, while others are simply readouts, and it's never that clear what's what, and how you're expected to interact with the touchscreen. With an inconsistent menu system added to the mix, you might be inclined to shy away from some of the GF6's deeper features, which is a shame.
There's a lot to like about the Panasonic GF6. It's hard to fault on picture quality, and with a wide range of Micro Four Thirds lenses to choose from it's got bags of creative potential. However, if you're stepping up from a regular compact and looking for that full DSLR feel in a smaller form you could be disappointed. User-interface niggles take the shine off an otherwise excellent system camera.