Panasonic's new Lumix DMCG1 isn't a DSLR. Yes, you can remove the lens, and the camera's $800 street price (with 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens) makes it more expensive than some entry-level DSLRs. But this tiny interchangeable-lens electronic-viewfinder model represents an entirely new class of camera.
The G1 is the vanguard of the Micro Four Thirds system, a format meant to bridge superzoom EVFs and DSLRs. The idea: To grab people who want the resolution of a DSLR but the simplicity, small size, and nonthreatening look of an EVF or compact. The G1 (as with all Micro Four Thirds cameras scheduled to follow) has a DSLRsized Four Thirds sensor, which captures more detail than the tiny chip inside any superzoom. It's also engineered to be smaller than a typical DSLR and super-easy to operate. And to prove it's not intimidating-even fun-it comes in colors (red and blue), as well as black.
What's The Small Idea?
A collaboration between Panasonic and Olympus, this new camera and lens system uses a lensmount that's smaller than the one on regular Four Thirds DSLRs from Olympus and Panasonic. With Micro Four Thirds, the distance from the back of the lens to the image sensor is shorter-there's no allowance for a mirror box and thus no optical viewfinder.
The design also permits relatively tiny lenses, even with lens-based image stabilization. Compared with DSLR glass, Micro Four Thirds optics are about half the size for an equivalent focal length. And as with Four Thirds cameras, there's a 2X lens factor.
By EVF standards, the imaging sensor inside a Micro Four Thirds camera is gigantic. A typical superzoom EVF's chip has a diagonal measurement that's less than half of a Micro Four Third sensor's. What does this mean for you? The possibility of slimmer camera bodies that maintain the resolution and versatility of interchangeable lenses.
The G1 operates very similarly to other EVF cameras: You frame the image using either the 3-inch 460,000-dot LCD or the 1,440,000-dot (equivalent) electronic viewfinder. Much like a digital projector, this EVF rapidly combines separate red, green, and blue frames to create a full color image that refreshes at 60 frames per second.
The result? The highest-resolution EVF we've seen in a still camera. It still blanks out during burst mode, making it difficult to pan along with a moving subject. But it's bright and impressively detailed. The LCD tilts and swivels to make low- and high-angle shooting easier. When focusing manually, both the EVF and LCD zoom in on your subject automatically, as soon as you start turning the focusing ring on the lens. That's an advantage no optical finder can match.
While our editors like the DSLR-style body, it's not much smaller than the less-expensive Olympus E-420 ($448, street, with 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 Zuiko ED lens) or Pentax K2000 ($700, street, with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 and AF200FG hot-shoe flash). The G1 measures 4.9x3.3x1.8 inches. That's less than a half-inch smaller than the E-420 in each direction. Doesn't seem like enough in itself to warrant a new system.
The G1 is really just a proof of concept. For instance, it doesn't shoot video, though Panasonic strongly hints that the next version will capture high-definition video.
Controls are, for the most part, well placed, with a decent number of switches, dials, and buttons. A four-way switch next to the mode dial and behind the shutter button lets you choose the drive mode, while a tiny dial on the top changes the focus mode. A cluster of buttons next to the LCD offers quick access to ISO, AF mode, white balance, and metering. A Quick Menu button takes you to image size and aspect ratio, while the Film Mode button gives you various color and black-and-white looks.
We really like the clickable scroll wheel in front of the shutter button. Just press it to get to exposure compensation, and again after dialing how much comp you want. Once our testers got the hang of it, adjusting exposure was fast and easy.
For those who want simplicity-and the backers of this system count them in the millions-there are lots of scene modes, as well as Intelligent Auto, which chooses a scene mode and ISO for you, and even adjusts brightness to bring out details in shadows or highlights.
In our lab tests, the G1 yielded a mixed bag. Color accuracy: an Excellent rating with an average Delta E of 6.21. That's noticeably better than Sony's $3,000 (street, body only) full-frame Alpha 900, which scored an average Delta E of 9.
Viewfinder accuracy: 100 percent. That's a benefit of the electronic viewfinder. On the downside, the viewfinder magnification is just 0.7X. For comparison, the Olympus E-420 scored a 0.93X magnification in our lab test.
Resolution is where the G1 soars. Its 12.1MP sensor captured 2370 lines of resolution at ISO 100. That's better than Nikon's 12.3MP D300, with 2350 lines. You can't expect that from a compact camera. Canon's 12MP PowerShot G9 tops out with 2150 lines at ISO 80.
Noise didn't fare as well. At its lowest ISOs, the G1 kept noise to Extremely Low levels, scoring 0.6 at ISO 100. Up to ISO 400, noise remains at Extremely Low and Very Low levels. At ISO 800 noise steps up, scoring 2.03 and pushing it into our Moderately Low range. At ISO 1600 and ISO 3200, it ranks Unacceptable, as noise jumps to 3.8 and 7.5, respectively. Panasonic's own L10 DSLR scored 2.98 at ISO 1600 and doesn't include ISO 3200 at all. Maybe the G1 shouldn't, either. Lumix L10, with its 0.51 sec at EV 12.
At lower light levels, the G1 slows down quite a bit, though-and here the AF behaved in a way that prevented us from running our usual AF tests. Panasonic rates the AF as effective down to EV 0. In our field testing, the camera focused in lower light than that, but the AF became sluggish and unreliable-the camera tends to ignore the area you selected to focus on and instead widens the area in a desperate attempt to lock onto something. While you lose precision in low light, Panasonic has managed to make contrast AF a viable alternative to phase AF in many situations.
Glass Half Full?
As a brand-new system, Micro Four Thirds doesn't offer much in the way of lenses…yet. So far, you're limited to the 14-45mm kit lens and a 45-200mm f/4-5.6 (both imagestabilized). Between those two, you get an equivalent focal-length range of 28-400mm, but this system will need some faster glass if it's to succeed.
Panasonic promises a handful of new lenses later in 2009, and we expect more optics as Olympus and third-party lensmakers, such as Sigma, become involved.
In the meantime, Panasonic offers an adapter that lets you use original Four Thirds lenses on a Micro Four Thirds body. But relatively few Four Thirds lenses are compatible with contrast AF, which means you'll have to focus manually. Also, standard Four Thirds glass is so much larger than Micro Four Third lenses that you'll lose the compactness that's a major selling point of the new format.
As a proof of concept, the G1 succeeds. It's a good camera that outperforms most compacts, delivering lots of detail, accurate colors, and when shooting in enough light, extremely high quality images. The biggest downfall? Price. It's hard to justify spending so much when a DSLR is only slightly larger and a lot less money.
But once HD video capture is built into a Micro Four Thirds model, and the size and price shrink even a little, the equation could change. And that has the potential to shake up photography in a very big way.