First Look: Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF5 review

0 out of 5
£449

For

Compact body, grip, display, fast autofocus, plenty of shooting options

Against

User interface is a little inconsistent, otherwise too soon to judge

The Lumix GF5, or Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF5 to use its formal title, is the latest G Series compact system camera from Panasonic. It replaces the Lumix GF3 and the similarity is instantly recognisable from the distinctive design.

Pocket-lint had the chance to get hands-on with Lumix GF5 when Panasonic introduced the new model at Chessington World of Adventures, where we took the camera for a little play time. Could this be the camera that tempts you away from your compact? Could this be the camera to replace your aging DLSR or first-gen Micro Four Thirds cameras? Read on for our first impressions after a day out with the camera and an excited family.

Design and build

The Lumix GF5 is every inch an evolution of the GF3. The distinctive bump to incorporate the round lens attachment sets this camera apart from the rest of the G Series Lumix models. It's cute, it's good looking, but it's not lacking in features.

The body itself is small, not too different from digital compact travel zoom cameras of the last few years. Attach a lens, of course, and the 107.7 x 66.6 x 36.8mm body becomes considerably larger. We tested the camera with the Lumix G X 14-42 power zoom lens.

With a compact body, grip becomes something of an issue. The GF3 offered a moulding on the right-hand side to give some purchase to your fingers. The GF5 now has a rubberised grip in this position, providing much more to hang on to under much wider conditions.

This is partnered with a rubber thumb grip on the back, which sits on the right-hand rear corner. Between these two you have more scope for gripping the camera securely, while still being able to press the shutter button with a finger, so one-handed shooting is possible.

The camera is light enough to do this, although the lens will make a huge difference to how the camera balances in the hands, and two-handed shooting will always be preferable for stability.

The flash is neatly hidden within the bump on the top of the camera, and deployed on the press of the button on the rear. The illuminator on the front left-hand corner aids low light focusing, but there is a risk you'll cover it with a stray finger when gripping two handed. Little details like this are inherent to small-bodied cameras, and acceptable in the trade-off for pocketability. 

And this camera is pocketable with the right lens. It easily fits into the pocket of a raincoat, in a way that DSLR models simply don't. 

The build of the GF5 feels good. It has an aluminium chassis, with the aluminium lens mount adding detail to the front. Although it doesn't feel as solid as the Lumix GX1, it's difficult to find fault. There is something of a toy-like and playful look to the GF5, but it's endearing rather than belittling. In the hand it looks and feels more serious than the GF3, despite their close relations.

This is helped by the inclusion of a new high-resolution display around the back. The 3-inch 921k-dot display is bright and vibrant and wonderfully sharp. It isn't the sharpest of all camera displays at this size, but it's a very welcome addition and something that makes the whole experience of using the GF5 a nicer one.

Controls: Push my buttons

Control of the Lumix GF5 is divided between physical buttons and virtual touchscreen controls. The buttons are now metal, rather than plastic, again adding to that slightly more mature feeling. In comparison to the GF3 there is one additional button and that's to add or remove information from the display.

Across the top plate you have the shutter, instant video capture and power switch, as well as the iA, (intelligent auto) button. On the rear of the camera you have a four-way controller encircled with a rotating dial and a central, important, Menu/Set button. The four positions of the controller give you immediate access to common controls, with the dial allowing you to change values in these areas, and others, such as changing the aperture or shutter speed.

That central button is used to confirm actions, as well as to open up the main menu system. There is also a quick menu system opened via the final button on the lower edge of the rear. This lets you change various shooting settings - such as ISO, aspect, quality or focus mode - and can be customised to your liking.

But that Q.Menu button also doubles as a programmable Fn (function) button, so if you don't want the quick menu, you can assign it to something else entirely. This makes sense, because you might find you don't regularly need many of the settings offered by the quick menu. It's nice to have this flexibility to change the camera to your method of working.

Controls: Touch me

But the buttons are only half of the control story, as the touchscreen display is where you'll be headed to change things like the shooting mode and explore some of the more exciting things the GF5 has on offer. You'll find two additional customisable Fn buttons on the screen, again giving you instant options.

The touch response is good and on-screen buttons are both large enough and logical enough to make it easy to get around. But there are about four different styles of interface, so if we're being critical, we could say that the user interface is somewhat inconsistent.

A press of the menu button, surprisingly, opens up the menu, which is rich and graphical and has been completely redesigned. There are nice personal features like being able to change the background image and the colour scheme. It's also here that you'll find the important virtual mode dial. 

We've seen various approaches to on-screen mode dials. Normally we'd say that direct control through a physical dial is always our preference, but the GF5's solution is capable enough. The modes are presented for you to press and that then either engages the relevant mode or, in the case of scenes or the art filters, takes you through to select the option you want.

There are 23 scene modes and they aren't just "landscape" or "portrait", oh no. Panasonic has gone for some really whacky names and, although funny, they do explain exactly what they should be used for - such as "sweet child" (sample below). This area of the menu system is also highly graphical, scrolling through the modes with high-resolution images.

Dive into the art filters and you'll find that, again, you can have a preview or a description, along with an accompanying image representing the mode Bst we're not entirely sure why the art filters and the scene modes present themselves in different styles in the menus: one scrolls horizontally, the other vertically, for example. 

The nice thing about the hybrid control arrangement is that Panasonic's dependable iA mode is always available on that top plate button. This means that no matter what you're doing, a press of a single button will hand control back to the camera so you can grab a shot in auto.

Aside from menu tinkering, when it actually comes to shooting, the arrangement of on-screen and physical buttons seems to work. You can have touch capture: simply touch the screen and you've taken a shot, although we found it far too easy to fire off shots when handling the camera, so we disabled it.

When shooting, you get a right-hand tab which pops-out on the screen to present your other options. If you have a powered lens from the X series attached, you'll get on-screen zoom controls here; if you're using an art filter, you'll find the options to control the intensity of the effect are in this side tab too.

Performance

Naturally, we weren't using the final firmware, so we can't judge the outright imaging quality of the Lumix GF5 and Panasonic has asked us to make that clear. However, the camera was stable in operation and slick to move through the menus and shooting options.

One of the headline claims of the Lumix GF5 is the 0.09-second autofocus time. It's certainly quick to focus and our initial impression is that it's clever enough to pick out what you want in focus. Manual focus is easy to use too, and the magnified focusing view used in conjunction with the manual rocker on the Lumix G X lens works very nicely.

Despite some niggles about the arrangement of the user interface, we never struggled to find what we were looking for. Changing shooting modes is quick and easy and, as we've mentioned, the omnipresence of that iA button means you can switch back and forth with ease.

The results are impressive too. iA is good for general shooting and dependable: it doesn't often seem to falter, giving good results for very little effort. For beginners who don't want to spend their time playing with settings, iA may well do everything they ever need. 

The manual deployment of the flash is also convenient, because it won't leap out and illuminate your shot when you don't want it, like many similarly priced DSLRs would. The ISO range provides a great deal of flexibility for capturing shots in lower light conditions without having to resort to longer exposures.

With this not being final firmware, we haven't tested the ISO results at all levels, but the shots we took at ISO 1600 are perfectly useable (sample below). Sure, noise is present, but not to a detrimental degree. We'll take a closer look at ISO results when we get the camera in for a final full review. 

Overall we're impressed with the results. The 4fps shooting isn't hugely fast, but it's quick enough to hold out for that perfect shot of an excited/scared child, or animals doing stupid things. We also found that the art filters returned some nice results, the tried and tested "miniature" mode letting you get that diorama effect easily, as well as turning into an easy time-lapse mode if you hit the video button from that mode.

We were testing the camera using a class 4 card, which may have had an impact on the video we captured, but we're still impressed with the results. Stereo audio capture is now offered from the built-in mics and focusing is pretty fast. Paired with the silent and smooth zooming of the Lumix G X lens, it makes for a nice combination. On a dark ride, the results are still acceptable, the camera finding focus in much more difficult situations.

Verdict

Overall the Panasonic Lumix GF5 is not only a great successor to the GF3, but a genuine step forward. Panasonic hasn't stood still with its most compact model, but made real changes. The additional grip and the improvement to the rear display make this a much better model than previously.

Although we can't judge the outright quality from the new 12-megapixel Micro Four Thirds sensor, we're impressed by the results we got during our test shoot and the ease of use. There are some minor niggles with consistency in the menus, but Panasonic should be applauded for moving the menu system forwards, as the combination of touch and regular controls is highly usable.

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF5 will be available from June 2012. The test configuration used here with the Lumix G X 14-42 lens will cost you £579, with the standard kits lens it will cost you £449.