Camera Talk: Panasonic Lumix GF1 (and image processing on the move)

My full kit: the GF1, plus lenses, EVF and battery charger.

Several people have asked me what kind of camera I use, so I figured I’d write up a post on the Lumix GF1, especially as it’s taken a big dip in price recently.

I started this journey out with a Nikon D300, a superb DSLR that’s given me little cause for complaint. But I’d long been looking for a lighter, less bulky alternative that wouldn’t compromise image quality and camera control as much as an in-the-pocket Point and Shoot. Taking photos is important to me – not only is it a process I really enjoy, but it’s part of the way I’m financing this cycling trip.

First off, the GF1 is a Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera. For anyone not au fait with the latest in digital camera jargon, this basically means it uses a slightly smaller sensor than a standard APS-C DSLR – like the Nikon D90 or Canon Rebel. Which, along with the fact that it’s forgone the traditional mirror found in an SLR, means the sensor can be housed in a far smaller, and shallower, camera body. The good news is you still get the versatility of interchangeable lenses. One downside is the (in this case optional) viewfinder is digital rather than optical, which can take some getting used to.

Looks-wise, the GF1 shares its form with an old rangefinder, which I like. Very discreet. And once those attention-seeking logos have been camouflaged with black electrical tape, it’s even more so.

I’m not going to go into any technical blurb here, as this model is over a year old, and you can find all that kind of information online. DPreview is a good place to start. Besides, there are several newer models in the Lumix and Olympus ranges – the pioneers of the MFT system – and I’m sure there’ll be a GF2 before too long. Similar in principle, albeit with a slightly larger sensor (which promises better low light performance) is Sony’s NEX camera. Also part of the compact mirrorless and interchangeable lens gang is Samsung’s NX100.

So, instead of a technical shakedown, here’s a few thoughts on how this system fares for travel – and in particular, biking. Of course, you can’t expect to shoehorn everything into one camera this size, and coming from a semi-pro Nikon with a handful of fast lenses, I was bound to see a few differences. But the important point is to remind yourself what you really want from a camera, and how you realistically use it day to day.

With this in mind, here’s a few likes and dislikes…

What I like:

Extremely light and compact. The whole system, with a clutch of three lenses, feels lighter than the Nikon D300 body with a just single prime lens. It’s not until you put them side by side that you really appreciate how Lilliputian the GF1 is, and realise that because of this, a direct comparison between the two cameras is largely moot.

On a similar note, I like how modular this system is. With the electronic viewfinder removed and its pancake 20mm lens fitted, this camera really is extremely discreet, especially given the image quality is produces. It barely draws a second glance when wrapped up in its Panasonic soft case. Not Point and Shoot small, but small enough never to feel the need to leave behind, often the case with my DSLR.

Likewise, the GF1 looks very low key, which makes me more comfortable using it in Central America. People freak out less when they see it, and tend to act more naturally.

Interchangeable, high quality yet compact lenses. The 20mm 1.7 (which translates to a 40mm in 35mm language) is super discreet, sharp and offers great for depth of field control. The 14-45mm (28mm to 90mm) is a good all rounder, and lives on the camera much of the time. It’s sharp too. And the 45-200mm (90-400mm) is ideal for compressing those massive mountain views, and giving that sense of scale often missed with a wide angle. Likewise, no complaints with sharpness. More options are appearing all the time, though pricing is still high for faster lenses compared to their DSLR cousins.

It’s not as quick as an SLR for action photography, but there’s less camera shutter lag than the fasted Point and Shoot.

Likewise, while it’s not quite as easy to adjust manual settings as an DLSR, it’s far easier to control than a Point and Shoot.

In my eyes, image quality is very good. It exposes well, with great colours once I’ve run the RAW images through Lightroom. I use a profile I made that aims to be similar to the in-camera vivid JPG setting.

Battery life is good enough. I carry two spares, though I rarely find myself needing the third before I find a spot to plug in.

Build quality is good. Bike travel pushes camera build quality to its limits, especially if you favour dusty, muddy, dirt tracks… After a year on the road, the GF1 is holding up well – and I should add I don’t pamper my cameras. A ‘pro’ model with better sealing would of course be welcome…

There’s a whole range of lens adaptors to run the likes of Leica and Nikons, in manual focus mode, though I haven’t done so myself yet. At some point, I’d like to try my Nikon 50mm 1.8, which would give me a 100mm portrait lens.

Camouflaged GF1. Most people think it’s an old film camera.

What I don’t like:

Prices are coming down, but they’re still high compared to the more popular DSLRs.

The GF1 isn’t as quick as my DSLR, both to switch on, and between each shot. It’s more of a challenge for action photography and I miss the responsiveness of the D300. That said, it’s way faster than a Point and Shoot.

Shutter speed maxes out at 1/4000 second, so to make the most of my 1.7 20mm prime in bright sunlight, I really need a ND filter.

A quibble. When I’m using the digital viewfinder rather than the rear display to take a shot, I’d like the camera to automatically revert to the EVF mode after I’ve checked a picture. As it is, it’s a bit fiddly to switch between the two shooting modes. Some models with built in EVFs have sensors to do this, like the GH2.

I miss the clarity optical viewfinder, though I soon got used to the digital one. It’s better than nothing in bright sunlight, and handy for exposing your shot.

The EVF seems a little delicate, though it’s holding up ok so far. It’s not as ergonomic as a built in viewfinder, so can get snagged when I’m hurriedly pulling it out or packing it away.

When changing lenses, the sensor is exposed. It hasn’t been as much of an issue as I was expecting, but I have noticed some dust specks I need to deal with.

Low light performance isn’t up there with larger DSLRs, but is way better than a Point and Shoot.

Not as much depth of field control as my Nikon D300, both due to the smaller sensor, and because the lenses that aren’t as fast. It’s that size conumdrum again – fast lenses are inevitably big and heavy.

While I’m not convinced I need a proper wide angle lens, I’d love to see a 12mm prime (or 24mm in 35mm terms) to compliment the walkaround 14-45mm. I really miss that extra bit of coverage.

Likewise, I’d like to invest in a reasonably fast portrait lens, like the 45mm 2.8 Panasonic/Leica (90mm in 35mm terms) – but one that doesn’t cost over $800! I’ll probably look into getting a mount for my 50mm 1.8 Nikon lens, which will double to 100mm for MFT use.

The GF1 and 20mm lens, wrapped up in Panasonic’s pricey but well made case.

Other notes:

I ended up investing in the removable EVF – the digital viewfinder. It’s ridiculously overpriced and the quality could be better, but it does make a big difference to using the camera with the 45-200mm lens and in bright sunlight. I’d probably look at models with inbuilt EVFs next time – like the soon to be released GH2.

I do miss the low light performance of my Nikon D300. With a little care care, I’m pretty happy with anything up to ISO 800 on the GF1. Bear in mind too that without the mirrow slap, you can shoot at slower shutter speeds.

Processing images on the move

To get the best from this camera, I’d recommend take your images in RAW format, rather than in-camera JPGS. The downside to this is that if you’ll need a netbook or similar to process them. I use Lightroom 2 with a Samsung NC10. While I’d highly recommend this particular model of netbook for general bike travel, bear in mind that it runs Lightroom extremely slowly and can’t handle Lightroom 3. As an alternative, look into this free piece of software, http://www.photoscape.org. The NC10 has held up amazingly well to the rigours of bike travel. Aside from a few keys that have needed to be reassigned – I dread to think how much dirt and dust in there – it’s still chugging along nicely.

The new, 1kg Macbook Air 11in looks like it could be the ideal solution to running more powerful imaging programs on the move – if you have a spare $1000…

Backing up

I back all my images up onto a Western Digital My Passport portable hard drive, like this one. Hard drives keep plummeting in price and are available all over the Americas. I’ve bought several over the course of the journey and sent them home with friends, rather than tracking down CD/DVD burners in local Internet Cafes. I also try and make a secondary backup for my favourite shots onto a 16GB Sandisk Cruzer memory stick, which I stash in a different place on my bike.

I’d be more selective with the images I keep if I ran a more powerful computer, saving hard drive space. As it is, my NC10 is so slow to preview images in Lightroom that it works out far quicker to create a favourites folder, and leave the rest unedited.

Mac Update: I’ve been using a Macbook Intel Core 2 Duo this last week and noticed the 16GB Cruzer was considerably slower than on my Windows XP netbook. Also, the latest My Passport drive (slimmer, and slightly wider) I have can be read by the Mac, but can’t have any files written or changed. It seems guess the drive needs to be formatted in FAT32 first for dual compatibility. Interestingly, the previous My Passport model works fine jumping between the two.

Don’t forget to make your backups. A WD My Passport portable hard drive and Sandisk 16GB Cruzer memory stick. Both are cheap and easily available.

Conclusion:

It’s all too easy to pore over every word written in reviews and photographic forums (I do it all the time), and risk becoming overly obsessed with the minutae of each camera’s technical abilities. Sure, the GF1 can’t match a mid range DSLR on paper, which is just as you’d expect from its size.

Yet when it comes to really using the camera, out in the real world – or at least in the way that I do, for online images and publishing in the bike press – there’s far less of a quality difference than you’d imagine. With better low light performance, the gap would be even smaller.

Ultimately the GF1, and indeed, this style of mirrorless camera, is a great creative tool. It’s light enough to carry all day without a second thought, but versatile enough not to hinder your sense of photographic control. It encourages a slightly different style to the way you use it, which in turn opens up different avenues in the way you take pictures.

In conclusion, I’d say the GF1, and probably most other Micro Four Thirds models, are all but ideal for lightweight travel, particularly on two wheels. The camera and a second lens easily fit in my bar bag, and I can even carry all my lenses on a super lightweight tour, like the AZT. If I was to continue using the D300 travel, I’d feel the need for a second, more low key compact camera, a high end Point and Shoot like a Lumix LX5. Which means yet more kit to travel with…

As it is, the GF1 bridges the two perfectly.

Other opinions:

Mike travels with a GF1 and knows how to take a picture. His thoughts are here.

More realworld opinions, and great photos, by Craig in the Himalayas.

Ideal for street shots.

Not too obtrusive for portraits.

Nice depth of field control .

Tough enough: the GF1 has survived temperatures ranging from -20c to +44c.

The 14-45mm (28-90) lens lives on the camera much of the time.

The 45-200mm (90-400) is surprisingly sharp.

Great colour rendition.

Easy to use on the move.

And discreet…

20 thoughts on “Camera Talk: Panasonic Lumix GF1 (and image processing on the move)

  1. mikesimagination

    hey Cass, I just picked up a Leica m-mount adapter for the GF1 for £20 from Hong Kong (eBay), the bespoke panasonic one is £200 which seems stupid as it is purely mechanical interface. For a fast portrait lens check out the Voigtlander Nokton 40mm, f1.4 -which will give you 80mm equiv and gets good reviews, they’re pricey in the UK but loads less in the US. When I leave on next trip in November I’m taking my GF1 with it’s 20mm pancake lens and Leica 50mm Summilux, should do what I need..
    cheerio!
    m

    Reply
    1. John Crawley

      I too shoot with a GF1. Mainly because I have been following you since you switched over to it. I use the 20mm and the digital zoom giving me an effective 40, 80, 160mm lens system out of one lens. It is clean and noise free. It truly cuts down on the number of lenses i need for a trip.

      Reply
  2. Sean

    Nice review of a great camera. The 20mm is an almost perfect lens… but I also hope they come out with some fast longer primes. Great pictures from Mike as well. Sean

    Reply
  3. Arthurs83

    Nice paper and shots! I have the G1 myself, and am also very pleased with its ability for its size. I’m not always happy with the colors Lightroom give me. Yours look much better. How did you make your custom profile?

    Reply
  4. Jennifer

    Great shots and nice review! I enjoyed reading it. I just got a GF1 and I’m very excited about it.

    Where did you find the case?

    Reply
  5. RichNYC

    Love your setup. Perfect for touring!!! Have my eyes on mirror-less DSLRs, too, esp. if I decide to go on an extended bike trip again;) For now I’m getting spoiled by my Nikon D90 and 17-55/2.8 zoom, an amazing combo but way to heavy for touring on a bike…

    Reply
  6. otbiking Post author

    Jeniffer, the camera case is the standard Panasonic one, designed to go with the 20mm lens. They make another with fits the 14-45mm.

    Rich, the 17-55 is indeed awesome. And big, and heavy… While my parents have been here, I’ve been back with the Nikon. Love the camera in so many ways, but lugging it around has reminded me why I moved over to the GF1…

    Reply
  7. Pete Bursnall

    Hi Cass,
    Read the camera review with much interest having done much soul searching on the subject recently. For my books I have been using the pocket Olympus Stylus 770 which is crashproof, waterproof but less than perfect in low light. That said I have some fantastic shots from it. Occasionally I use my Canon DSLR 300D but it is too bulky for the bike / sea kayak etc so just sold the dslr kit on ebay and bought a Fujifilm S200 which is a bridge camera aka 14 x superzoom. Looking forward to seeing how it does compared to the other two.
    Keep taking those knockout shots.
    P

    Reply
  8. Anthony

    Banged-up, dirty and covered in black tape.
    Well-used like a camera should be!

    Motorcycle travel is not dissimilar when it comes to hard-use and limited space. I found the combination of a good compact to carry in a pocket, and a D200 with a couple prime lenses was a good combination.

    The GF-1 looks like it sits right between my LX2 and D200. Worth a look if I’m in the market for a new camera…

    (nice work on the unique corona bottle perspective BTW)

    Reply
  9. Greg Mu

    Cass!

    Between you, Mike and Craig I think I’m sold on the Panasonic GF…. Well, I was sold until I saw the dpreview of the GF2:

    http://www.dpreview.com/news/1011/10110405panasonicgf2.asp

    Not sure it’s that much of an upgrade from a photographers point of view but the addition of full HD video and overall smaller size seem to be the biggest changes. In my mind, the strikes against the GF2 are the replacement of the 20mm lens with the 14mm f2.5 and the touch screen LCD, an additional moving part with potential for failure while traveling.

    It seems like the ‘upgrades’ in the GF2 might not be worth the tradeoffs. What are your thoughts?

    Hope your return to Central America has been a welcome one.

    Reply
    1. otbiking Post author

      I’m not sure. From what I read, the GF2 isn’t as user friendly as the GF1, in terms of buttons on the camera, and accessing manual modes. I like the look of the GH2, even though it’s bigger than the GF1. For me, better low light performance would be a deciding factor over anything else.

      Reply
  10. Harry, WorldOnaBike

    Good write up. Black tape is my friend too, even though I still travel with 5kgs of DSLR and 3 lenses…

    Not sure if I could ever stop down from the 5DmkII again, but this small cam you are using would be a great secondary camera for my companion.

    I use a similar set up: Lenovo laptop (3 years shaking without problems), WD drives (my fourth so far, 1TB and now nearly full) and LightRoom 3.

    Cheers, Harry

    Reply
  11. Zane Selvans

    Maybe you’re bandwidth constrained, but god it would be nice if you could post pics that were more than 400px wide. I repeatedly find myself clicking on them and hoping they’ll get bigger… but they never do! :)

    Thinking about upgrading to a GF1 or GF2 largely because of your pictures. You should have an affiliate link here somewhere to Amazon or B&H Photo…

    Reply
  12. Sean

    Hi Cass,
    you’ve mentioned you’d like 12mm for the GF1. There is a solution, see Bill Voelker’s blog at
    http://billvoelker.wordpress.com/2011/03/14/panasonic-gh2-with-computar-12-5mm-cctv-lens
    I’ve got one for my GH2. It vignettes a bit, but you can trim it in post and still get around 28-30mm with 1.3aperture(FAST). It cost about $10.- (c-mount adapter) + $40.-( the lens itself) on EBay. It looks ridiculously small (on GH2) but it works quite well.
    Also for portrait, I use 50/1.4 CANON FD – another $50.- dollars solution from EBay. WORTH EVERY PENNY.

    Reply
  13. otbiking Post author

    Harry, the GF1 isn’t in the same league in terms of low light performance as the 5D, or depth of field isolation. But it weighs a whole lot less and compared to my Nikon D300, in most situations, it’s pretty hard to tell apart…

    Zane, I’d post bigger versions, but unfortunately when I’ve tried, the versions in the actual blog post seem to lose a lot of saturation. I need to experiment more…

    Sean – thanks for that, will look into it. How are you liking GH2?

    Reply
  14. Zane Selvans

    Re: higher res photos… yeah, you don’t want WP doing the re-sizing. You could use a theme with a wider main content column… maybe 640px wide, and then export at that width. I use Flickr, and they do a good job of retaining the look of the photos in downsampled versions. They also allow easy one-line embeds within WP (you just put the URL of the photo’s page at Flickr on a line by itself), and there’s a very good Lightroom to Flickr exporting plugin from Jeffery Friedl.

    Reply
  15. Dave Morgan

    Stumbled across this page while checking out Troll details; trying to get my head around Troll versus Nomad right now. But I’ve recently traveled with a Lumix setup so I’ll offer my thoughts.
    I was away for a year, starting with a ride down the east edge of India on a cheap Trek I bought in BKK. I wanted to make sure I always had a working camera so I took two G3 bodies, along with the beautiful but under-utilised (by me) 20 mm pancake lens, and the 14-42 and 45-175 power zooms. I don’t need the power but I wanted the range and the 14-42 is nice and compact (but cannot be manually zoomed so it sucks juice). The G3 works for me because of the electronic viewfinder; I have old eyes that need glasses to read (or view an LCD) but work fine with the EVF so I don’t have to don glasses just to see what I’ve shot as I would with a DSLR; pretty much the only time I used the LCD was to show images to people I’d just photographed. I lost one G3 body when a climbers’ camp in Laos burned down a few minutes into 2013 (fireworks and thatched roofs are not a good combination). My wife was flying out to join me a couple of weeks later so I got a G5 delivered to home in time for her to bring; unfortunately it has a different battery from the G3 (same as the GF, I think) so it wasn’t quite as convenient but the G5, although a tad larger, seems to produce better results. I’d definitely recommend the Lumix micro four-thirds as an almost perfect travel system.
    And I agree that RAW is the way to go; you’re in some pretty special places and you want to be able to get the best out of your shots. I prefer Lightroom over working on raw files in Photoshop; I find all those Photoshop sidecar files to be a pain to handle (but that’s probably just me). I used an Asus ultrabook with a 1600×900 resolution screen (higher than the Mac, I think) and that was fine, although a bit more ram never hurts. Also, memory cards are cheap so I took enough with me to last the trip. I had a USB hard-drive as well that I backed everything up on. Good thing, too, or I would have lost some of my favourite India shots in the fire. I don’t profess to be anything more than an enthusiastic snapshotter but if you take a few thousand photos, some of them have to turn out well. (You can judge for yourself at http://dmorg.org.)
    Now, back to my original concern: Surly or Thorn? Troll or Nomad? I want 26 inch, although I ride a 29er at home.
    Great site!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *