In February 2009, Panasonic kindly loaned my one of their (at the time) new LUMIX DMC-G1 micro four-thirds digital SLRs for a couple of weeks to play with and review. Because I use a Mac and shoot in RAW mode, it wasn’t possible to publish the photos taken with the G1 until Apple released Aperture 3 in February 2010. But despite the time that has passed, the DMC-G1 is still on sale and definitely worth a review.
To help you make your own mind up, I’ve also included over 40 example shots taken with the G1.
My Review Model
Panasonic lent me a LUMIX DMC-G1 camera, complete with a 14-45mm lens (equivalent to 28-90mm in 35mm terms). The camera has an electronic viewfinder, and a live view screen on the back that pops out of the body so that you can tilt and swivel it. It came in the lovely red colour shown above.
Let’s start with first impressions. Everyone who saw the camera – friends, family, and my colleagues at work – found both the camera in general, and the particular tone of red in particular, to be very eye-catching and very much to their taste. There’s just something about the look of the G1 that suggests quality. The publicity photos really don’t do it justice. If you’re even remotely thinking of buying this camera, pop down to your local camera shop and see it in person if you can.
It’s very nice to handle too. The camera body has a rubber coating that makes it very easy to grip, and is much smaller and much lighter than my beloved Nikon D200. You can (and I did) walk around with it in one hand for a whole day without getting tired. When it was time to send the loan unit back, I found that I’d grown very attached to it.
As A Camera
The whole point of the micro four-thirds camera system is that it allows the camera manufacturers to design cameras that are much smaller and lighter than DX format cameras like the Nikon D200 or full-frame cameras like the Nikon D700. One of the compromises they had to adopt to achieve this was dropping the mirror and pentaprism required for an optical viewfinder.
Using the G1, therefore, is a bit like using a compact camera. You frame your shot using the screen on the back of the camera. There is a viewfinder, but it is electronic (i.e. it’s another screen, just a very tiny one), and I personally didn’t use it after the first couple of attempts. I’m too used to an optical viewfinder, and I found the electronic viewfinder too blocky to use with any degree of precision. Besides, using the screen on the back of the camera is much more flexible, as it allows you to hold the camera at silly angles or away from you and still see the shot that you’re composing. The screen on the G1 pops out; it can be tilted and rotated, just like the screen on a camcorder. It’s very very handy, and a feature I’d love to have on a future Nikon DSLR.
Focusing with the G1 took full advantage of this. It was possible to zoom in on the picture to make sure that the image I was about to take was in focus exactly where I wanted it to be. This is another excellent feature I’d love to see on a future Nikon DSLR; I believe that picking your focus point (instead of just focusing on whatever is in the middle of the shot) is a very important part of composing a good picture.
The passage of time has dulled my memory, I have to admit, but I don’t remember any real issues with the camera at all. I tend to shoot with manual focus a lot, so I don’t recall using the autofocus very much. Micro four-thirds cameras have a reputation for being a little slow to autofocus; something to consider if you’re buying a camera to shoot birds or cars and the like, perhaps.
I did find that the battery ran flat on me sooner than I’d expected. On one of the test shoots, I took the camera out all day, and had to switch back to my Nikon halfway through the day after the G1’s battery ran flat. That was more inexperience with a new camera than anything else, I believe, but it is something I wish I’d tested better at the time.
What Was The Problem With RAW Mode On The Mac?
Many photographers like to shoot in RAW mode because the resulting image gives you the most flexibility in post-production. Take a JPEG image (such as my shot of Machrie Moor from 2004) which has been heavily adjusted in post-production, and you can clearly see the way the colour gradients have broken down. You simply don’t get that degradation in quality when processing RAW images.
Unfortunately, shooting in RAW mode with the Panasonic DMC-G1 turned out to be a problem when it came to preparing the images for this review. There’s no such thing as a ‘standard’ file format for RAW images. Each RAW image is essentially a dump of the actual data captured by the camera’s sensor; as a result, every time there’s a new camera with a new sensor, there’s normally a new RAW image file format for people like Apple and Adobe to support. And … how can I put this? Apple took their time adding support for RAW files from the G1. They didn’t add support for the G1’s RAW images until February 2010, a full 12 months after Panasonic had lent me the G1 to review.
Let me say that again. For a full year after the release of the Panasonic DMC-G1, it wasn’t possible for me to view or work with the G1’s RAW images using Apple’s products. Adobe released support for handling RAW files from the G1 back in November 2008 according to one report.
If you are going to buy a newly-released digital camera, and you want to shoot in RAW mode, first make sure that your photography software of choice has support for it. This is a major pitfall with digital cameras to be aware of. It wasn’t just the DMC-G1 that I’ve been stung with this. I also own the compact Panasonic LUMIX DMC-LX3, and I had to wait 14 months before Apple added support for its RAW files. Grrr.
Remember to check before you buy. And if Apple are being tardy in supporting the camera you’re interested in, consider switching to using Adobe Lightroom. Or don’t shoot in RAW mode.
I took the camera out on three major field tests before I had to hand it back to Panasonic.
The first test was arguably the most difficult. We went out to Aberystwyth on the dullest, dreariest day you can imagine, the sort of day where I’d resort to black and white HDR shots with my Nikon D200 and count myself lucky if I bagged anything worth uploading.
In the second test, I spent a day walking a good chunk of the Bath to Bristol Railway Path. It was once the route of the Midland Railway, and it makes for a lovely and gentle walk through a mixed countryside. As such, it provides a nice amount of variety to give the G1 a good workout, and the sort of long trip that makes you quickly appreciate the G1’s lightweight nature and size.
To finish, I took the camera out for a couple of hours up the hill opposite where I live to basically mess about taking woodland shots and take advantage of the live view on the camera’s rear screen to take the sort of shots that’d be just too awkward to attempt with a traditional DSLR like my Nikon D200. Woodlands are a good challenge for any camera; you’re going to take photos that are quite busy – crammed with detail – with lots of opportunities to highlight any problems with colour fringing or coping with textures and patterns.
So how did the camera fare? In my opinion, surprisingly well, but here are the pics so you can decide for yourself. None of these shots have been adjusted or cropped in any way at all. What you see is exactly what the camera produced.
The weather at Aberystwyth was dull and grey, but that didn’t stop the G1 getting the exposure just right on this shot of the harbour.
Point the camera away from the grey sky, and the G1 has no trouble at all producing bright photographs like this one.
Again, the auto-exposure did a great job in this shot, striking a pleasing balance to bring out the boats in the harbour.
This is where it gets a little more subjective. The camera appears to have based its exposure on the white waves, trying to avoid burning them out. The resulting shot looks quite dark, but I’m sure it can be easily processed to bring out the detail.
The under-exposure continued throughout the day. Although the unprocessed shot looks dark, with careful adjustment I’m sure all of the detail could be easily brought out of this shot.
This shot, perhaps, is where the G1 under-exposed too much. Some credit for trying to preserve the detail in the sky, but I think that the camera got it wrong this time – albeit in very difficult conditions.
But the camera got it spot-on with this shot, possibly because there’s a lot less sky in this shot, or perhaps because of the large amount of tarmac 🙂
The exposure on this shot seriously impressed me. It has brought the detail out in the passageway just perfectly.
Add more sky into the shot, though, and we’re back to underexposing the shot 🙁 I’m sure that, with more practice, I’d learn to handle the camera well enough to avoid this underexposing … but would the camera’s target audience ever learn? That is something I’m not so sure about.
I’m pleased not only with the exposure but also the depth and detail on this shot. One advantage of the G1’s smaller sensor is that it can produce sharper images than my D200. View this shot on Flickr at full size, and look closely at the detail in the background, and see for yourself.
I’m a great fan of Nikon lenses (which is one of the main reasons I’ve been a loyal Nikon user for the past decade or so), but I’m very happy with the kit lens that comes with the DMC-G1. There’s a little bit of distortion on this shot, but not enough to complain about by any means, especially when you remember just how affordable this camera is.
The G1’s ability to capture fine detail isn’t just useful for landscapes like the headland shot above. If you like snapping texture shots (such as this wooden planking), you’ll be very happy with the G1.
I have no idea what happened to the white-balance here, and it’s been too long for me to remember whether or not it was my fault … but look at the fantastic detail of the rust. Just as importantly, notice the depth-of-field behind, and how the G1’s sharpness adds a pleasing contrast to any photo where you decide to blur the background.
That’s it for the photos from Aberystwyth. The conditions were difficult, but with the one problem of underexposure, I think the camera did well, and I came back from my very first outing with the camera with several photos I would have been happy to post on my blog and share on Flickr. And at least the underexposure behaviour appears predictable.
This next set of example shots is from the second field test: my walk along the Railway Path from Bath to Bristol. This sort of field photography puts the lens in particular to the test: will it have enough width to take in the landscape and yet enough reach to zoom in on interesting sights in the distance? And will the fine detail be lost in horrible purple colour fringing?
The day opened overcast, but thankfully not as dull as it had been out at Aberystwyth. With the brighter conditions, there were no underexposed shots at all during the day, which was great news!
If you view this shot at full size on Flickr, the fine detail of the bare tree branches can be clearly seen, and there’s no sign of horrible purple fringing.
As I walked along the path that ran along the River Avon, this green bottle bobbed gently by. Focusing on the bottle was easy enough, the camera coping well with the reflection on the water.
“Wide” on the 14-45mm lens is probably wide enough for most people. I like the sharpness on the image too, such as the amount of detail in the tree bark.
At the other end of the lens, the image isn’t quite as sharp to my eyes, but is still perfectly fine. And there’s no obvious problems with colour consistency between the two ends of the lens’ range either.
But the lens is definitely at its best when used for wider shots. I suspect landscape photographers looking for a lightweight alternative to a big and heavy Nikon would be very happy with the DMC-G1.
There’s nothing all that remarkable about this shot at first glance, but the main reason I’ve included it is for the lack of reflection highlights on the lettering on the sign. I’ve had camera and lens combinations in the past that would have struggled with this.
The 45mm (equivalent to 97mm on a 35mm lens) had enough reach to pick out this bridge visible in the distance, but there wasn’t much to spare. With both Nikon and Canon having 18-200mm lenses for their cameras, the more modest zoom on the G1’s kit lens might frustrate people at first. But Panasonic also make a 45-200mm (which would be the equivalent of over 400mm of zoom on a 35mm camera system!) at a very modest price.
The shots above are all nice examples of the quality of the lens … lots of nice straight lines with little noticeable distortion, bringing out the true nature of a cycling path running along a former railway route 🙂
The live view screen makes it very easy to attempt more unusual shots like this without back-breaking contortions. This is exactly the sort of shot I’d normally resort to using a pocket camera for; the fold-out screen on the G1 gives it an added versatility.
I picked this shot partly for the lush fine detail that the camera has picked up, and partly for the very pleasing exposure and colours. I think the G1 can capture very high quality images in good light, as we’ll see later.
Reflection shots are challenging for cameras, but the G1 has exposed this just right I feel. The other reason I’ve picked this shot is because of the composition. If I’d taken this shot with my Nikon D200, I would probably have had to crop it in post-production to get the framing right. With the live view on the large screen on the back of the G1, I was able to see this shot clearer when the shot was taken.
Another example of how the sharpness that the G1 can reliably manage makes a great contrast if you go for a shallow depth-of-field in your shots.
As the light improved, the G1 started to capture images with colours and tones that I found to be very pleasing. The sky is still a little washed out, but that’s a problem all current digital cameras suffer from, and here the effect isn’t displeasing.
Plenty of pleasing detail throughout this photo, from the gravel beneath the train tracks to the clouds in the sky. I think it’s a good example of what the G1 can do with very little effort, which is perfect for the amateur photographer who is likely to be interested in the G1.
As the light improved further, the G1 captured the blue sky accurately. My previous Panasonic – the FX33 – had a tendency to get the shade of blue in the sky wrong, but no such trouble here.
Alas, half-way through the walk the battery in the G1 ran flat, so I wasn’t able to explore this rail yard with the camera properly.
By comparison, here’s a shot taken with the Nikon D200 a few minutes later. I think the shots from the G1 compare very well, especially when you think that the Nikon D200 + 18-135mm lens combination cost me over 1,600 GBP, and today you can pick up a brand-new G1 for under 450 GBP. That’s progress for you.
Finally we come to the third and final field test, an afternoon’s stroll on Craig-yr-Hesq in South Wales, with more examples showing the excellent detail that the G1 captures and at last the opportunity for the G1 to show off what a great job it does of capturing rich colours on a bright day.
It’s worth mentioning that this shot was handheld 🙂
I really enjoyed my two weeks trying out the Panasonic LUMIX DMC-G1, and putting together this review I’ve been very impressed with the quality of the images that the camera consistently captured. The conditions were not kind at all, but the G1 still did a great job. Each photo is full of fine detail, especially on the wider shots where the bundled kit lens is at its sharpest. The colours are rich and accurate, and very importantly I haven’t found a single shot spoiled by purple fringing so far. And none of these shots have been adjusted at all; they are exactly as taken by the G1.
I’m not sure that the G1 is for people like me who have been shooting with digital SLRs for some time. It is very early days for the micro Four-Thirds standard, and at the time of writing there are only two lenses available for the G1. By contrast, my light travel kit bag has three lenses in it 🙂 But don’t let that put you off; I don’t believe that we’re the target audience for this camera.
If you’re looking to move up from your pocket digital camera to your first digital SLR, then you should include the G1 on the list of cameras to consider. Because the camera is entirely electronic, the controls look and feel like those on a pocket camera – with the added advantage that you can take full control over your images when you’re ready to do so. Today, the G1 with the 14-45mm kit lens that I used to take these shots can be purchased for under 450 GBP brand new – and for even less on eBay. That’s cheaper than a Nikon D5000, and you get a more versatile lens for your money.
I believe that both the Nikon and Canon ranges offer the serious amateur more long-term options, but most people just want to have fun taking photos, and at the same time have a little more creative control and a little higher quality than a pocket camera can offer. If that sounds like you, then the G1 might just be perfect for you.
I hope you find this review useful; if you do, please leave a comment below. And please feel free to share your own experiences with the G1.