The Panasonic Lumix GF2 might sound like an incremental update to the GF1, shrinking the dimensions slightly and giving it a minor facelift, but you’re mistaken if you think that is the case. In the pursuit of innovation, Panasonic hasn’t just tweaked the casing, it's made some fundamental changes to how the camera is used.

It joins its G Micro system of Lumix cameras, offering the Micro Four Thirds mirrorless setup, for which it currently has 11 lenses with 4 more due in 2011. Panasonic tells us that the GF1 will be sold in parallel for a time, which is understandable as they are different enough to provide a potential customer with choice. We got our hands on the new Panasonic system camera on the day of its announcement, so thought we’d share our first impressions with you.

With Panasonic lacking a DSLR range, it's pouring R&D into this segment, and interestingly it told us that 60 per cent of its customers buying into the Lumix G System are new to system cameras - i.e, they are moving up from a compact digital camera.

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The GF2 bears more than just a passing resemblance to the company’s flagship compact the Lumix LX5, but ultimately the GF2 offers a greater range of creative possibilities with its interchangeable lens system and higher technical capabilities - including an updated three-CPU Venus Engine FHD at its core and a 12-megapixel (effective) sensor. But the GF2 is still compact - in fact, it has had a reduction of 19 per cent over the GF1, leaving you with dimensions of 112.8 x 67.8 x 32.8mm. It is smaller than the Olympus E-PL1, but in most cases, the lens you put on the front will dictate the bulk.

The most striking feature you’ll notice is the removal of the mode dial on the top. Our first reaction to this was shock-horror. Being regular users of DSLR cameras, we like the immediacy of switching shooting modes on a dial - you meter in one mode, see it isn’t going to work, so switch to get more control - it all happens in a flash. Panasonic did manage to talk us around, but a lot hangs on a very simple addition.

On the top of the GF2 you’ll notice an iA button which will toggle the iA (or intelligent auto) mode. We’ve used iA on a number of different cameras in the Lumix range and have been impressed with the results - it is pretty smart at scanning the scene and picking out shooting settings that work for your average daily snapshots. But, toggle off the iA mode and you return to whichever shooting mode you were using before.

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This means you can have your “S” shutter priority mode set-up to give you a nice long exposure on a waterfall, then press the button, spin around a grab a photo of the wonderful landscape behind you. Yes, a mode dial will let you do this too, but the point is that you can switch in a flash which takes the sting out of the control change. 

But that’s not all. Panasonic has given the GF2 a touchscreen and designed the user interface around touch control. They’ve done a really good job with it too. As a completely new interface on a new camera with this many features, you expect to have to take some time to get to grips with it. But we found we were able to get to everything with very little exploration - it just seems to work, which is high praise indeed. Of course we’ll have to spend a little more time with it when it launches in January 2011 to really see what works and what doesn’t, but first impressions are good.

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Getting to shooting modes means you have to press the menu button on the back, then the Rec Mode button on the display. This then offers up the normal shooting modes - iA, shutter priority, aperture priority, manual, program and scene along with custom and colour mode. It is a few presses, but it is fast and very easy to do. The touch interface offers up the normal goodies in this menu, including access to video recording, although there is also an instant video capture button sitting on the top plate too.

Our favourite element of the menu, however, is the Quick Menu which is fully customisable. Press the Q Menu button on the back and it will pop-up with a number of settings available to immediately access. You can select what you want the Q Menu to show you, so if you have a particular feature that you regularly change, you can add that to the menu. The system works by dragging and dropping icons and is beautifully simple.

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But the touchscreen isn’t just a means by which Panasonic could remove a dial and manage menus. There are various controls that touch brings to the GF2. For example, you can touch to select a focal point and taking it a step further, you can have touch shooting too - you simply press a point, the camera focuses and takes the shot. It’s nice and fast, but remember you do still have to hold the camera whilst you are doing this, so it might introduce some shake.

There is also a “background defocus” setting which gives you a sliding scale you can drag from left to right. It’s a great feature for newcomers looking to take photos with a differing depth of field who haven’t yet discovered the aperture control. You can also select a focal area and lock the focal point all by touch, and it really works well.

Video too has had a boost with the GF2, now offering Full HD AVCHD capture. You can pull focus in video using touch, as well as being able to change the aperture for a more dramatic effect. The GF2 looks to be a powerful camera for shooting video and we were impressed at how well switching focus in-video worked, but something we’ll want to play with more before we pass judgement. It is supported by Dolby Stereo audio, but there is no external mic socket.

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In the hand the GF2 feels like a quality camera. The reduction in size means there is less to hang on to, but a clever redesign to the handgrip around the front means you can still keep it stable. In fact, gripping both the GF1 and the GF2, we found the tapered grip of the GF2 was more comfortable than the older model. Panasonic has stuck with using premium materials, so it still has a metal body and that quirky flash that extends high so it doesn’t cast a shadow from the lens. There is also an accessory mount where you could put a larger flash or the excellent DMW-LVF1 electronic viewfinder we’ve seen previously.

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Panasonic was happy for us to grab a few test shots, although this wasn’t final firmware so they aren't indicative of final quality. We found the GF2 to feel assured in what it was doing and we were happy with the authentic results we got from it. This is one area where we will wait to see what the final results are like, but based on previous cameras in this family, we expect the quality to be every bit as good.

Price when reviewed:
First Impressions

Although we only spent a brief time with Panasonic Lumix GF2, we walked away excited about the new camera. We’ve been weary of some touch control systems on cameras before and our experience with the Sony NEX cameras was that it divided opinion. But Panasonic’s approach doesn’t seem to be that of all or nothing. There is a fusion of button and touch control that seems to work well together. The iA button, although incredibly simple, offers really important switch that we feel many newcomers to a system camera will find really useful. 

Hitting stores in January 2011, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 is expected to retail for £629 with a single kit lens - a high asking price, but we’ll have to see if the features and quality make it a price worth paying. We suspect, from first impressions, that it will be.