The war to produce the world's smallest, lightest interchangeable-lens camera is in full swing, and the Lumix DMC-GF3 is Panasonic's latest contender. It's certainly one of the most pocket-friendly lens-swapping cameras we've ever seen but, at £500 with a 14-42mm lens, are you paying a big premium for the GF3's small size?
Micro Four Thirds system
The GF3 is a Micro Four Thirds camera, which means it has a much larger image sensor than the average compact and you can also change lenses, as with a digital SLR. But because Micro Four Thirds cameras tend not to have a viewfinder, they can be much smaller than a full-size dSLR, potentially offering the ideal balance of performance and portability.
The GF3 is certainly highly portable. Measuring 108 by 67 by 33mm, and weighing 264g with the battery and SD card, the camera is, in comparative terms, a tiddler. In fact, according to Panasonic, it's 16.7 per cent smaller and 16.2 per cent lighter than the company's previous Micro Four Thirds model, the Lumix DMC-GF2.
But that's all relative -- stick the GF3 next to a compact camera and it won't come off so well in terms of size and weight. And you should remember that these measurements are for the camera's body only. Depending on the lens you strap on the front, the size and weight could increase considerably.
Still, the GF3's design is smart and minimalist. The gently curved edges and moulded, matte body are understated but very cool. It's available in a surprising variety of colours -- black, brown, red and silver -- although it's worth remembering that the lenses themselves only come in black.
Touchscreen and controls
The rear of the unit is taken up almost entirely by a large, 3-inch LCD screen. It's a high-res, 460,000-pixel display that offers approximately a 100 per cent field of view. It's also touch-sensitive, and Panasonic's control system is both simple to use and responsive. The touch-based focus and tracking features are a big bonus.
A button that combines both a scroll wheel and a five-way pad can also be used for navigating settings, but there are no mode dials and buttons are kept to a minimum -- in fact there are only eight more buttons on the whole device, and that includes the power switch and lens-release catch. A pop-up flash is provided but, conspicuously, there's no accessory shoe.
Don't be put off by the GF3's relatively low resolution of 12.1 megapixels. The crucial aspect is the sensor's size. In fact, we applaud Panasonic for sticking with 12 megapixels instead of cramming in as many pixels as possible at the potential expense of image quality.
A similar level of restraint is applied to the GF3's features. Rather than throwing every possible shooting option at users, the GF3 offers a small, tightly focused selection. Aimed at beginner to intermediate photographers, Panasonic provides its iA intelligent auto mode and iA+, which automatically selects an appropriate scene setting, as well as program AE, aperture and shutter priority, manual, scene, and creative modes. There's also a user-defined custom mode.
The iA mode can be selected by a dedicated button on the top of the device, but all the other modes require three button presses, or touchscreen taps, to set, which is no substitute for the immediacy of a mode dial.
The video mode has a dedicated button too, recording at a 1080i resolution. The GF3 uses the same AVCHD format as the best camcorders, but audio is only recorded in mono, which drags down the camera's overall usability as a video device.
As you'd expect, the GF3's photo performance is, to a certain extent, governed by the lens you use. In our case, we tested the device with an H-H014 wide-angle, 14mm, fixed-focus pancake lens, which you can buy bundled with the camera for around £500. The lens adds less than 21mm to the camera's depth, which makes it a pretty good option for those aiming to maintain portability.
In bright, even, daylight conditions, the GF3 rewarded us with clean, nuanced, natural-looking shots. Colours are bold, contrast is strong yet even, and subtle tones are picked out well. Our test shots came out slightly on the soft side, although this could be down to the lens we used, and it's something that can be fixed in a good image-editing package. You can find noise in some solid blocks of colour but you'll have to look fairly closely, and chromatic aberration is well controlled.
Interior shots will show more grain, but you can get some good results at mid-level ISO settings without the flash. Again, success is dependent on the lens. The pancake lens doesn't offer any image stabilisation, so some of our indoor shots looked rather blurred.
Overall, though, we were pretty happy with the GF3's performance. It's easy to get good results, but there's also plenty of opportunity to play around with settings and try out different lenses. There's even a 3D lens available should you wish to experiment in that area.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 is well built, conveniently sized and can take fabulous photos. But we're less enthusiastic about its high cost, especially when a number of features that more advanced users might require -- an accessory shoe and mode dial, for example -- are sorely absent.
If you have the cash to splash on the camera itself and a selection of good lenses, then the GF3 is unlikely to disappoint. But, unless size is a crucial factor, you may be better off opting for an entry-level dSLR instead, such as the Canon EOS 600D.
Edited by Charles Kloet