Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 review

4 out of 5
£600

For

Small size, touchscreen, movie quality

Against

No mode dial, 14mm kit lens bundle only, no viewfinder

The world’s smallest compact system (or “hybrid”) camera with a built-in flash also boasts a touchscreen capability too. But does all this techno wizardry push good old standard ergonomics a bit too far out the window? Pocket-lint’s Panasonic Lumix GF2 review has the lowdown…

When the Lumix GF1 was released just over a year ago it had all the right ingredients: a hybrid camera with (at the time) the smallest stature of them all and yet easy-to-reach controls that made up the perfect marriage of a compact-come-DSLR-style camera. The Lumix GF2 shakes things up even more by squeezing extra touchscreen technology into an even smaller body - the world’s smallest compact system camera with a built-in flash we’ll have you know.

The new design means that the GF2 sheds some 19 per cent physical size and 7 per cent weight over its previous GF1 release. It’s clearly been on a bit of an Atkins diet, but we like the final look as it’s small but still ergonomic. The one issue that does have to be raised, however, is the decision to entirely cut out the physical mode dial from the top of the camera and instead hide it away inside the camera’s options - one of the biggest problems we cited with the competitor Sony Alpha NEX-5 when that was first released.

For those cautious of the touchscreen control, however, there’s really no need to fear - it works a treat should you want to get thoroughly involved. And, for those a little more reluctant, pressing the various physical buttons will still resolve all shooting options, meaning a successful mix of using both touchscreen and buttons makes for best use. It’s not intimidating and actually only comes forth as an accommodating extra rather than any kind of hindrance. Even the user interface has seen a redesign over the G2 (the first Lumix to feature a touchscreen) to ensure buttons are larger for an altogether more accurate experience in use. At 3 inches in size the screen is sizeable considering the small body dimensions though, for those hoping for it, there’s no vari-angle update on this particular model.

The Micro Four Thirds sensor at the GF2’s heart is the same 12.1-megapixel resolution as in its previous GF1 incarnation. However, with the introduction of the new Venus Engine FHD, video does see some adjustment - raised from 720p25 to 1080i50 (UK PAL release; our US cousins will see 30fps/60i in accordance with the NTSC release). Many will debate whether this is actually an “improvement” as the interlaced format of capture lends itself to “tearing” for fast panning shots and similar scenarios, though won’t be an issue for most shots. Sometimes that extra resolution is meaningless if it’s not all displayed at the same time and there have often been arguments that 720p is preferable to 1080i. Whether this is an issue or not, one thing we can say is that the sheer amount of data being pumped into every frame of movie capture is fairly incredible. Each piece of data extracted from video files showed a significant bit rate that was well above and beyond many DSLR competitors out there and the quality is rather impressive.

However, with no external microphone socket and a very close-together “stereo” mic on the body itself the diversity of sound could live up to more (despite its otherwise decent quality). When shooting in movie mode the “Peripheral Defocus” mode can be utilised in real time, meaning that the focus point can be pressed on screen with a finger and that location becomes the point of focus. The slower transition of focus when recording a video also makes for smoother, more graceful shots than the commonly seen over- and under-focusing present  though it’s still not point-perfect.

When shooting stills the autofocus speed is generally good, though it’s not as impressive as the forthcoming GH2’s “light speed” focus that is twice as fast as before. The GF2 feels fast enough and is accurate, with the biggest complaint the sheer limitation to the size of the focus area - it’s very centrally-arranged on the screen. Plus the angle of view on the LCD screen is more slight than expected, and more extreme angles above and below eye level won’t produce an accurate exposure read which can be frustrating.

As per the previous release there’s no viewfinder in this model, further reinforcing its compact-like status.

This particular release comes bundled with the 14mm F/2.5 lens (that’s right, no zoom here). While the wide aperture is certainly of benefit, the relatively wide focal length won’t be to everyone’s tastes and it’s a huge disappointment that there are no plans to release a body-only option in the UK. Those looking to upgrade from the GF1 will already have their 14-45mm or 20mm F/1.7 lenses in tow, but newcomers may find the prime wideangle a setback rather than start up. As Micro Four Thirds is compliant with all Lumix and Olympus Pen lenses, there are plenty of others to choose from (one of the key benefits of this system), but it’s all going to come in at yet more cost. And with an initial £600 (TBC) price already on your receipt, it’s not the cheapest option out there.

For the 3D-mad out there it’ll be of great interest to see that the GF2 will be compatible with Panasonic’s 12.5mm (65mm equivalent in full-frame 35mm terms) 3D lens. This stereo shooter has a fixed focus point, meaning no autofocus (or indeed focusing at all) is available and the permanent F/12 aperture is designed to provide the most believable resulting images. Of course you’ll need a 3DTV to playback your results on. The 2.2-megapixel MPO files do look convincing in the right circumstances, though objects too close to camera or near to the frame’s edges may not prove to be successful. Still, a bold step into the ever-growing world of 3D. Despite the “low” 2.2-megapixel resolution in this mode there’s no reason to panic - that’s the perfect size to fill up a current 1080p HDTV; the only issue is that it’s not (yet) possible to capture 3D video. 

Images are clear and colourful, and the 14mm renders sharp results. There was the odd bit of overexposure in some circumstances, though not frequently or worryingly so. The wide aperture lens makes for some great blurred background shots and, as the Micro Four Thirds design lends itself well to wide aperture lenses, this is a feature available in many of the other lens releases too. One of the 14mm’s issues is that minimum focus distance during autofocus is nowhere near as impressive as we’d expect - and this is usually a requirement for wideangle lenses.

The main issue with image quality overall is the higher ISO performance. As the Micro Four Thirds sensor is fairly small compared to those found in a DSLR, it suffers from smaller pixels on a smaller surface area and thus less light can reach each “pixel” to make for the most defined, clear and dynamic resulting image. This isn’t a particular issue when there’s plenty of available light, but when light lacks, the sensor and processor need to amp things up a fair whack which results in a smattering of image noise to the detriment of detail and final quality.

As the 12.1 megapixels is the very same size as that in the GF1 before it, the GF2’s actual images are of a very similar quality. An additional stop added for ISO 6400 sensitivity is added, though this quality here is considerably marred with image noise. However, images are clean and clear to ISO 400, then begin to show grain that’s textured rather than problematic from ISO 800, but hereafter things begin to go awry: ISO 3200 and 6400 are of somewhat limited quality, especially when considering the competition from the Samsung NX10 and Sony NEX-5 models (both of which have larger sensors).

Verdict

The GF2 gets a whole lot of things right: it’s small and light and can easily fit into the pocket. The touchscreen is very future thinking but you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to, meaning there’s always a backup button to press in most circumstances. However, the lack of a physical mode dial and the fact that only the 14mm F/2.5 kit lens comes bundled in with the package pose a couple of issues that could have easily been avoided.

Image quality is good for day-to-day shooting, though low-light use and high ISO settings will see it come unstuck when compared to the stiff competition out there. On the plus side the wide range of Micro Four Thirds lenses see it win the versatility battle and the GF2 should easily be seen as one of the most complete and pocketable hybrid/compact system cameras to be released to date.

Product photos by Chris Hall, taken from our original hands-on with the GF2.