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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.