The Lumix DMC-G1 and Lumix DMC-GH1 were Panasonic's first Micro Four Thirds cameras, but they looked and felt like digital SLRs, so it was easy to miss the point. The 12.1-megapixel Lumix DMC-GF1 is the company's first Micro Four Thirds compact, and realises the format's true potential: the photo quality and controls of a dSLR in a compact camera. We tested the £730 kit with the fixed-focal-length 20mm 'pancake' lens. You can also get the DMC-GF1 with a 14-42mm, 3x zoom lens, for about £100 less.
Whichever kit you go for, the DMC-GF1 is expensive. What you've got to bear in mind, though, is that, although Panasonic bills it as a compact camera, there's a big difference between the DMC-GF1 and even a top-notch compact like the Canon PowerShot G11. Normal compacts have tiny sensors, while the DMC-GF1's is the size of a dSLR's, or near enough. Standard compacts don't have interchangeable lenses, and neither do they have the kind of build quality, layout and design finesse that Panasonic has built into this camera.
The DMC-GF1 is a fantastic camera to use. The 460,000-pixel LCD display is sharp and bright; the autofocus is fast; the controls are clear, logically laid out and have the perfect feel; and the shutter delivers a wonderful mechanical 'ker-chink' that you don't get from any other compact. It's rare for an electronic device to be so mechanically satisfying.
Then there's the lens. A fixed-focal-length lens isn't to everyone's taste, but this one is compact, beautifully made and incredibly sharp, even at its f1.7 maximum aperture, which is, incidentally, two and a half stops faster than the average kit zoom.
You get dSLR-style controls, including program auto-exposure, aperture-priority, shutter-priority and manual modes, a choice of picture styles, and the option to shoot in raw format if you want to do all your fiddling later. It's all easy, hands-on stuff, and not buried under layer after layer of menus.
The 1,280x720-pixel, high-definition movie mode is rather good. It's activated by a red button on the top plate, and, if you don't want to use the AVCHD format (it's efficient, but poses tricky compatibility issues in terms of editing and distribution), you can switch to plain old Motion JPEG instead.
Of course, the DMC-GF1 has its negative points, and its price is one of them. For this money, you could get a decent dSLR, and maybe even a twin-lens dSLR kit. Also, the push-click action of the control dial on the back is perhaps slightly too sensitive, with the result that it's easy to make errors when spinning the dial.
This camera's size is another potential drawback, because, while it's demonstrably smaller than a dSLR, it's still something of a whopper. It's twice the size of the Ricoh GR Digital III, for example. The danger with the DMC-GF1 is that it may fall into a kind of no-man's-land, since it's smaller than a dSLR but not by enough to make a useful difference. That's one good reason for choosing the pancake lens kit, though, because this will slip into a coat pocket without much trouble.
Don't get the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 if you want a camera that does as much as possible as cheaply as possible. With the DMC-GF1, you're buying simplicity, quality and precision, not gadgets. It will appeal most to dSLR owners looking for a portable back-up, as well as old-time photographers who want the emphasis shifted away from the tech and back to the pictures.
Edited by Charles Kloet