Panasonic has unveiled its smallest and lightest interchangable lens system camera in the form of the Lumix GF3 and we were invited along for a sneak preview. The brand's existing Micro Four Thirds camera - the GF2 - was only introduced just over 6 months ago, so what extra features does the GF3 bring to the table?
Measuring in at a svelte 107.5 x 67.1 x 32mm, the GF3 is extremely compact and 17% smaller than the GF2. Panasonic says that it's also 15% lighter, weighing in at 222g. The lightweight chassis is sculpted from aluminium and is available in four colours (black, red, white and brown).
The GF3 has a much more rounded look than the squarer, rather retro-styled GF2. The corners have been shaved off, contributing to the reduction in both size and weight. This has also resulted in the camera looking far more like a compact model than previous hybrid cameras. This is no bad thing, especially as it's likely to make the camera appeal to a wider audience by attracting those trading up from a compact for the first time.
Packing a 12.1-megapixel Live MOS sensor, the GF3 also sports the Venus Engine VII image processor which means that the camera is well set up for for high-def videos, even in low-light shooting conditions. It's got an ISO range of 160-6400 and has the same zippy 0.18-second AF speed as the previous model. The GF3 offers a burst rate of 4fps along with high-def AVCHD video capture (1080i at 25fps), complete with Dolby sound. The GF3 packs connections for both HDMI and digital AV out.
The video mode includes full time Auto Focus and and Auto Focus tracking so that the camera will automatically lock onto the subject and follow it as it moves. There's a dedicated video button right next to the shutter release, although it leaves enough space so that you shouldn't hit it by mistake when trying to take a photo.
Panasonic has introduced a new control dial for the GF3 that offers more control than the four-directional keys on the GF2, enabling you to scroll through images and functions. The touchscreen control on the 3-inch panel remains the same as it was on the previous model, so it's possible to use either the screen or the dial as your main control or switch between the two. As with the GF2, there's no separate electronic viewfinder on this model, meaning that you're reliant on the display, giving the camera the feel of a compact.
We tried out the brown version of the GF3 (although it's really more of a burgundy) and we were kitted out with the 14-42mm F/3.5-5.6 standard zoom lens (H-FS014042) for the majority of the time. We had the camera slung around our neck for a good couple of hours and even with the added weight of the zoom lens, it was still perfectly managable and easy to prime quickly for speedy shots. Later on in the day we switched to the 14mm F/2.5 pancake lens (the H-H014) wihch really made the camera look and feel like a compact but we did find that we kept reaching for the zoom when there wasn't one.
The camera felt really well-balanced and the main controls are logically placed and easy to find without having to look down. There's also a moulded grip at the top right of the camera which provides a natural place to rest your thumb so that the camera will be comfortable to hold for long periods of time, such as when you're shooting a video or taking a long exposure. The raised grip at the front right-hand side of the camera also makes it feel natural and safe to hold.
The GF3 is equipped with a built-in pop-up GN6 flash, although unlike the GF2 it doesn't include a hotshoe connector as well, which may be a stumbling block for those that require a little more flexibility when it comes to lighting. As we were shooting outdoors, we didn't get a chance to try the flash out to any degree so we'll reserve judgement until we get the camera in for an in-depth review.
The Creative Control mode offers six visual effects that you can add to your pictures including sepia, Retro and High Dynamic. It also includes a minature mode - a first for the G system - so that you can easily compose tilt-shift style shots. It's a natural addition and present on most other rival cameras.
For beginners, or those that need to line up a shot quickly, the GF3 has Panasonic's Intelligent Auto Plus (iA+). Along with face recognition, the iA+ settings picks out the most suitable scene mode for you, depending on the subject and lighting, while the MEGA OIS (Optical Image Stabilisation) is there to prevent shaky hand-related blur and the motion detection adjusts the ISO sensitivity if the subject moves, mid-shot.
As you'd expect from a camera using the same 12.1MP sensor as the GF2, the picture quality from the GF3 was excellent with crisp edges and plenty of detail packed into each image. We were lucky enough to be shooting on a bright, sunny day so we had ideal lighting conditions. We didn't get a chance to try the camera in low lighting, which is traditionally where it could well struggle when the ISO setting is boosted. This is something that we'll be looking out for in our full review.
Panasonic offers the world's largest range of Micro Four Thirds lenses to choose from, including the newly unveiled Leica-branded H-H025 25mm F/1.4 lens. As with the GF2, the GF3 is also compatible with Panasonic's Lumix G 3D lens giving you the option of pushing your stills into the third dimension.
The most striking thing about the GF3 is its svelte profile. It really does look like a high-quality compact and feels like one, too. It was comfortable to use and didn't feel cumbersome despite several hours wandering round in the hot sun.
The touchscreen works surprisingly well and most of the functions can also be operated using the hard controls so you actually tend to end up using a mix of both for the smoothest operation. The screen was good in terms of visibility. We were road-testing the camera on a very sunny day and we never had a problem with glare on the screen. It might have been nice to include a vari-angle screen on the updated model for over-head shots - perhaps that's something that we'll see on a future model, although that would add to the bulk.
The GF2 was priced at £600 at launch (including a 14mm lens), although you can now get it for around £529.99 (with a 14-42mm lens as well). In comparison, the GF3 (launching mid-July) is priced at £629 for the twin lens kit, £549 with just the pancake lens and £499 with just the zoom lens, so it looks as though it'll end up selling at a lower price than the previous model.
Aside from a few treats such as the minature mode, and the new control dial, the main difference between the GF2 and the GF3 is the dramatically slimmed down chassis. For a camera that can be carted around with multiple lens, that's a key issue and we look forward to testing the GF3 more thoroughly when we get it in for a full review.