Hands on: Panasonic Lumix GF6 review
Panasonic has plumped out the specification of its latest Lumix GF6 compact system camera by including the same 16-megapixel sensor as found in the Lumix GX1. There are a host of other new features on board which include a tilt-angle LCD screen that can swing forward by 180-degrees for self-portrait shots, alongside Wi-Fi connectivity and NFC for paired-device, one-touch sharing.
But it's not just the features list that's expanded: so has the GF6's waistline which, while still on the dinky side, is larger than its GF5 predecessor because of the bulk associated with the new LCD screen.
But expanded though it has, the GF6 is fitter than before. Pocket-lint took a pre-production GF6 on a whirl around Vienna - a Viennese whirl, if you will - to use the camera in a variety of shooting situations during a day-long tour. We've had plenty of time to assess the changing face of Panasonic's entry-level line - does the GF6 advance the entry-level G-series, or simply blur the boundaries between itself and the GX1?
The GF6 is a different beast from the GF5. It's evolved from a more point-and-shoot compact system camera to one that offers greater immediacy: the inclusion of a mode dial on the top of the camera opens it up to a broader audience, but - and crucially - just makes it quicker to use. Diving from full manual mode to, say, a creative filter is possible by the flick of the dial, or bypass any selected mode with a single press of the light-up iA - that's intelligent auto mode - button to let the camera make all the exposure preferences.
The camera's new electrostatic touchscreen is incredibly responsive to the slightest of touch, which while great in use to manipulate the focus point or fire the shutter can be a problem when manipulating the thin-edged, tilt-angle LCD screen's position - it's easy to accidentally touch the screen and, therefore, adjust the focus-point by accident. The screen itself takes a fair tug to pull it out too, but once in its bracketed position it's easy to manipulate throughout its given range - which has limited downwards tilt. The full-on forward-facing position will have some limited application for self-portraits, so long as you have a wide-angle enough lens attached to the front of the camera.
Once in position we're keen on how the GF6's screen feels and the bracket doesn't feel flimsy. It's a new, higher resolution 1,040k-dot panel too which, despite its resolution positives, does still suffer from a fair share of reflective problems in sunlight - we found that outside in daylight certain angles just didn't lend themselves well to preview. And as there's no hotshoe to attach a viewfinder there's nothing that can be done to get around that. That's the one element the GF6 continues to ignore - this iteration of the series may have added the mode dial, but we're not entirely sure we'll ever see an entry-level G-series with viewfinder capabilities.
Out on the town we put the GF6 through its paces, using the full spectrum of manual exposure modes. One niggle we found is that an upward press of the d-pad accesses exposure compensation which then remains in play until it's exited in the same fashion - the problem with this is that when we thought we were adjusting aperture values we'd then see that the camera was often still adjusting exposure compensation instead. It's a trap that we saw a variety of our on-tour colleagues falling into too.
Otherwise the GF6's performance is on top form when confronted with the right conditions. For the purpose of this test we had the new 14-42mm traditional twist-barrel lens in tow which has a modest f/3.5-5.6 maximum aperture. Not the brightest of lenses on offer, but paired with the camera the introductory £499 price tag makes perfect sense for the market.
With this lens autofocus was super-fast at any given focal length. Panasonic's said to have improved the focus system beyond that of the GF5, but it's so immediate in response that we wouldn't be able to humanly tell. It's that quick.
The variety of autofocus options - accessible via a left-press of the d-pad - are as all-encompassing as before: there's a 23-area auto mode, user-adjustable 1-area, as well as a cross-hair pinpoint AF option that sits among face detection and focus tracking options.
We spent the majority of the time shifting between 1-area and pinpoint modes - the latter of which zooms the preview in to a 100 per cent crop to ensure absolute focus - and found their combination with the touchscreen made for fast focus-point positioning. There's little to nothing to moan about in this department at all and that pinpoint mode really does add a level of individuality to the range which, at least so far, G-series competitors lack.
Speed is upheld elsewhere too: the ability to snap away at 4.2fps is ever so slightly improved compared to the GF5's 4fps rate but, and when considering the GF6's resolution increase, this figure is a reasonable upgrade. Shoot in raw & JPEG Fine and such speed isn't achievable, however, nor is it when attempting to shoot outside of a single, fixed focus point. Sticking to JPEG only or lower resolution shots is the way to open up the most rapid-fire use, or dig into the menus for electronic-shutter options for yet speedier snapping possibilities.
AF-C: All trot, no gallop
But such positive points are all achieved in good light. With the same entry-level lens used in dimmer indoor conditions the story was quite different. Despite an apparent eight-fold improvement to low-light conditions achieved by the autofocus system limiting the sensor's usual 120fps readout we didn't find much of an advancement at all.
Indeed when attempting to shoot horses indoors the combination of the lens's maximum aperture limitations and camera's maxed-out Auto ISO sensitivity - capped at ISO 3200 - meant it wasn't possible to get a shot that wasn't blurred because we couldn't use the four-figure shutter speeds that would be required. This isn't an issue with the camera, as such, it's down to the fact that you'll need to invest in faster and more expensive lenses to get the very most out of it - and Panasonic do make them which, in a turn of events kind of way, is a positive for the G-series as a whole.
Another issue that was highlighted by shooting in dim indoor conditions is that the continuous autofocus mode still isn't up to scratch - but then we'd say the same of any given compact system camera, as they just don't compared to a DSLR's continuous system. It's all trot, no gallop, but is frustrating when it fails to deliver.
Battery life also wasn't able to last the duration of the day. We shot around 250 raw & JPEG Fine shots and a series of short 1080p MP4 movie clips and, among some playback and image deletion, soon saw the flashing-red battery symbol and it was game over. Not an awful innings, but battery life in compact system cameras remains well behind where we'd like it to be.
Panasonic's rollout of connected features such as Wi-Fi and NFC (near field communication) for one-touch sharing have their heads in the right place, but the implementation - which is the same as found in the Lumix TZ40, for example - isn't as immediate as, say, how accessible the Samsung Galaxy Camera's Android operating system makes things.
There's still a lot of dot-joining to be achieved here to simplify the pairing and password-entry process to ultimately make everything that much more effortless. We definitely see the potential, and the feature is on the "nice to have" list, but we still found ourselves slipping the SD card out and into the side of our laptop for a quicker and more open way of playing with shots.
Saying that, while out on the streets of Vienna we did pair the camera with our iPhone-loaded Lumix app - already downloaded and in play for a Lumix FT-5 review - because, well, just because we could really. The ability to pair with smart devices, share multimedia to televisions and upload to web direct from the streets may have its occasional use and appeal, even if the initial password hurdle is a nuisance that needs to be leapt over a few times in the beginning.
One of the major things hanging over the GF6's head is just how good its image quality is. With the Micro Four Thirds sensor size at its core, there are physical size benefits to the system as a whole compared to many of its APS-C sensor competitors. Image quality ought to to be way beyond that of a compact camera and similar to many of its large-sensor rivals but, at least as yet, we can't comment on the GF6's final images because this camera body was running firmware version 0.2. It's a far cry from the full, finished version which will continue to be tweaked the camera's engineers up until release at the tail end of April.
The GF6's associated literature claims that the sensor is a "new" Live MOS, but we've previously been told from within Panasonic that the sensor is the same as that found in the GX1. There are differences, of course, such as the pairing with the latest Venus processing engine, but otherwise - at least in general - we anticipate similar results.
There are other imaging additions in tow too, such as the in-camera filters now notching up to a total of 19 mark. We used the likes of dynamic monochrome in abundance as we were keen on its high-contrast black and white palette - great for candid street photography. There are plenty of options including the new ones such as Old Days, Sunshine, Bleach Bypass, Toy Pop and Fantasy options, alongside the existing range of Retro, High/Low Key, Miniature Mode and so forth.
Even though it's too soon to pass judgement on the GF6's image quality as a whole - nor are we permitted to reproduce full-scale samples of the shots on these pages - just think about how well the 16-megapixel Micro Four Thirds sensors have been performing of late - Olympus OM-D and Panasonic GH3 for example - and we're confident that the GF6's iteration will pull decent quality out of the bag.
We'll find out towards the end of April when the final firmware camera becomes available and we get a finished camera in for review.
Overall the GF6 feels a lot like the GF5 in a slightly bigger frame, with yet more useful features such as a physical mode dial. All this can be scooped up at a cut of the earlier GF5's price - we're glad to see the cost-effectiveness that's achieved by removing the pricey power zoom lens from the kit, which makes for a fair and attractive sub-£500 price point.
It's still not shooting perfection, however: no provisions to add a viewfinder at a later date, a reflective screen which suffers in sunlight and limited continuous autofocus hold the GF6 back from being a complete DSLR dominator, even if, in the right conditions, its super-fast autofocus system is something special. There's a lot of promise here, a lot of which rests on just how much better the new 16-megapixel sensor will perform.