Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 review

As regards to truly compact, compact system cameras, Olympus may have got there first with its E-P1 in late-2009, but Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-GF1 wasn’t far behind, stealing some of its Micro Four Thirds system co-developer’s thunder by including the convenience of pop-up flash. As well as, for us, some lovely film simulation modes and marginally sharper results with the supplied 14-45mm kit lens.

In timely fashion Olympus’s new flagship model in the E-P3, which does now at last feature flash, coincides with the similarly third generation Panasonic series “GF” product in the new logically monikered DMC-GF3. This is not to be confused with Panasonic’s DSLR styled DMC-G3, also a Micro Four Thirds system camera and a recent release.

Design and build

Available in black, red or white body colours, the GF3 again features a neatly implemented pop up flash, but, in a move that may displease Lumix GF series enthusiasts, this has been placed dead centre above the lens mount. As a result, the GF3 now omits the hotshoe and attendant accessory port (for alternatively attaching an electronic viewfinder) found on its GF2 and GF1 forebears, and features a mono rather than stereo microphone set up. So arguably some creative flexibility has been sacrificed.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised. Both Olympus and Panasonic have been successively releasing more user-friendly - don’t say “dumbed down” - products, in a bid to stretch their tendrils further than early enthusiast-level adopters and gain a slice of that mass market pie. Whereas besides the new E-P3 Olympus has also introduced new mid range E-PL3 and entry level E-PM1 “Mini” models, Panasonic’s new GF3 (along with the older in many ways superseded model in the GF2) stands alone against this invading trio. There are also the competing models in Samsung’s NX, Sony NEX and the new Pentax Q camera families to consider. 

The pop-up flash that has replaced the hot shoe and given rise to a curved bump above the lens - which may cause older readers to have a flashback to Sony’s Mavica series that used CDs as its recording media - has also produced a softer overall look, complete with sloping edges to the body. The GF3’s design therefore is both attractive and unthreatening. In being approximately 17% smaller and 16% lighter than the GF2, Panasonic was claiming the GF3 as the world’s smallest CSC with built-in flash on its June release date.

With or without our supplied 14mm (28mm film equivalent) fixed focal length test lens attached, one of 12 own-brand compatible optics, we can attest to it certainly being Panasonic’s most compact offering to date. For the first time we did actually manage to squeeze a Panasonic GF series into the pocket of our jeans, albeit with some discomfort. Overall dimensions are 107.7 x 67.1 x 32.5mm - so very similar to Sony’s new NEX-C3 at 109.6 x 60 x 33mm - and it weighs 264g with the necessities of SD card and rechargeable lithium ion battery loaded.

As we’d expect from previous generations of premium grade Lumix (including the peerless fixed lens LX5), build quality feels robust, with a small grip to the front and a thumbpad at the back. That said, the rubber cover protecting the HDMI and separate AV/USB port feels a tad flimsy and we can see this being torn from its hinges in time. Plus it’s also worth mentioning that the GF3 doesn’t feature body integral image stabilisation to protect against the blurring effects of camera shake, so a lens that does is required. The 14mm F/2.5 wideangle lens supplied with our review sample isn’t image stabilised, so despite its bright aperture in practice works best with exterior daylight or a pair of steady hands - preferably both. 

In addition, and unlike the Sony NEX-C3 and indeed Olympus’ even newer E-PL3, the Panasonic GF3’s backplate 3-inch, 460k dot LCD is non-angle adjustable and resolutely fixed. Vari-angle screens seem to be coming in big time, both on CSCs plus entry and mid range digital SLRs, so it is something we would have liked to have seen incorporated on the GF3; even if it had made for a marginally wider chassis. Next time Panasonic perhaps?

Take control

Like the Olympus, Panasonic’s 16:9 aspect ratio LCD is a touchscreen, which means that backplate controls are simple in appearance. Instant video record and intelligent auto (iA) buttons have been placed on the top plate, leaving space to introduce a new scroll wheel type command pad on the back, reminiscent of Canon’s PowerShot range and a first for the GF series. We’re not big fans of scroll wheels and find them rather fiddly; however you can just press down on the edge of the pad and tab through function items as you would do with a normal non-scroll pad. Or of course simply tap the corresponding item on screen, so it’s not the be-all and end-all. 

Like Olympus, Panasonic is making a claim for the world’s fastest auto focus with the GF3, and there is the usual ability to defocus backgrounds in DSLR-like fashion here using an arched on-screen slider, along with a smattering of digital effects, including the now ubiquitous miniature filter. Full HD 1920 x 1080 video with a frame rate of 25fps and in AVCHD compression format also features. In addition there’s the option to shoot in the more widely compatible Motion JPEG format, but with the caveat of a resolution dip to 1280 x 720 pixels.

Activating the GF3 is by the traditional means of flicking an on/of switch on the top plate, which is stiff enough to prevent accidental activation. Do this and the LCD immediately flicks into life, the GF3 ready for action in a second, which is DSLR-like fast. Press down on the shutter release button and, as its manufacturer boasts, the camera immediately responds, the view via the camera’s LCD momentarily softening as the GF3 determines focus and exposure, AF point highlighted in green. If the response is not quite instant, then it’s certainly near enough. Take a full resolution Fine quality JPEG and it’s committed to card in 2-3 seconds. There’s also the option to shoot RAW, either individually or alongside Fine JPEG, the result being a manageable wait of a mere second longer. 

Getting to key settings such as image quality is a case of either pressing the dedicated “Q.Menu” (Quick Menu) button on the backplate which thankfully hasn’t been squeezed out by the touch screen, or simply tapping the virtual “Q.Menu” button which is replicated on a virtual toolbar on the right hand of the LCD screen. With buttons both real and virtual responding instantly to the touch, as we’ve found with previous touchscreen Lumix models, utilising a combination of both seems to work best and feels the most intuitive. Curiously though, and no matter how hard we tried, our GF3 review sample wouldn’t let us delete any shots we had taken in-camera, even though we’d cancelled the image protect function in playback mode. We’ll put this down to a blip with our early review sample (Firmware version 1.0).

Performance

Auto focus in video mode is very impressive however, or at least was with our wide-angle test lens attached, softly and silently adjusting perspective in a non jarring fashion as we panned from one subject to another. We did inevitably get a bit of camera shake when shooting stills without flash handheld in available light - and the GF3’s more compact proportions and addition of non stabilised pancake lens perhaps give rise to this more than bulkier models in the Lumix range, so if low light really is your thing, and despite the relatively bright F/2.5 lens aperture, you’ll want to go for a stabilised lens option or pack a tripod.

When it comes to image quality, as usual we enjoyed the colour boosting results to be had from choosing the likes of Expressive shooting mode found amidst the new “Creative Control” modes. There’s no physical shooting mode wheel on the camera, which in part - along with the mirrorless build and junking of the top plate hotshoe and accessory port - allows for the smaller proportions and cleaner physical control layout. So instead we get a cool-looking virtual shooting mode wheel on screen.

Featuring in Creative Control mode alongside the pop art-like Expressive option are retro, hi key, sepia, high dynamic range and now obligatory tilt and shift lens apeing miniature effect mode. No fish eye option, but we can live without it. In default shooting mode, colours straight out of the GF3 are warm but in Expressive mode they have real punch, and this was the option we found ourselves using most for added drama, particularly when shooting street scenes.

The other thing to mention is that the inclusion of a new Venus Engine FHD processor on the GF3 has, suggests Panasonic, given rise to improved/low noise results at higher ISOs, including at ISO 3200 and maximum whack ISO 6400. Marginally so perhaps; we were still getting a soft and fuzzy appearance at the top setting, though admittedly it is usable at a push, but if we had a choice we’d go no higher than ISO 1600. We’ve included an example of a Russian doll shot with our 14mm lens at ISO 6400 so you can see what the quality is like. In general terms though we were happy with our results from the GF3.

Verdict

We’ve focused on the highlights here, but, in summary, in looking to downsize its GF1 and GF2 predecessors still further - and admittedly a CSC that you can squeeze into your pocket with lens still attached is the ultimate goal - the GF3 omits some features we would ideally have liked Panasonic to have kept (the hotshoe and accessory port), whilst this time around the opportunity has been missed to add an adjustable LCD.

That said, Panasonic claims it currently has a 44% market share with its compact system cameras in the UK, so must be doing something right. And, whilst the GF3 might not include everything we would have put on our wish list, for those making the step up from a point and shoot camera for the first time, this GF series Lumix is its most accessible yet. Plus, for any new users what it doesn’t offer in comparison to its predecessors won’t be missed. The only stumbling block is that £549 would also buy such newcomers a decent entry level DSLR, such as a Nikon D5100 or Canon EOS 1100D, with standard 18-55mm zoom and arguably better image quality - that’s if the GF3’s much smaller form factor isn’t the over-riding consideration. 

As well as images taken with our sample GF3 and 14mm test lens, we’ve included some earlier sample shots taken in Rome with a pre-production sample of the GF3 and variety of lenses simply because we liked them and felt they were very much up to scratch for anyone viewing the GF3 as a possible shoot-from-the-hip street snapper, which is where the smaller form factor and pancake lens come into their own.

Product shots by Libby Plummer, also taken in Rome.