Panasonic’s Lumix GX1 takes a step backwards in order to move forwards: the camera may look much like the three-generation-old Lumix GF1, but manages to squeeze both the advanced controls and feature set of the Lumix G3 into its premium-build body.
And very premium it is too. The GX1’s aluminium chassis body is finished with metal buttons and a raised leather grip to the front (though it feels more like rubber than leather to us). We’re yet to see a better-built compact system camera.
The build is complemented by a series of external controls that make the camera all the easier to use: there are two physical function (Fn) buttons and two more “virtual” function buttons on the touchscreen LCD. Add one-touch buttons to handle AF/AE lock, display, AF/MF, movie, iA (intelligent Auto) and Q.Menu (quick menu display on-screen) and almost all settings are just a button press away.
The Q.Menu makes great use of the touchscreen feature as it’s possible to drag and drop multiple settings in or out of the menu, much like a Smartphone’s apps can be reordered to suit. Whether you chose just three or four options or multiple screens with dozens of settings - the choice is yours.
Add a built-in flash and a hotshoe and the GX1’s room for expansion makes it a different beast to the consumer-targeted GF3. A new accessory port on the GX1’s rear means a 1.44m-dot electronic viewfinder (DMV-LVF2) can be added - though the extra cost will quickly stack-up and the resolution and size isn’t as class-leading as Sony’s 2.44m-dot OLED viewfinder.
One thing is clear: the ‘X’ series will be for more demanding users where physical controls and room for expansion are a must, compared to the ‘F’ series’ point-and-shoot style.
Panasonic’s eye is on the ball when it comes to autofocus. Not only is the "lightspeed" autofocus system of the G3 ported over to the GX1 it’s even been improved to obtain focus in under 0.1sec. The GX1’s the variety and ability of focusing modes are also the best of any Lumix G camera yet.
In addition to the 23-area auto, face detection and subject tracking modes, there are two user-controlled options in the form of 1-area and pinpoint. Both work on the premise of positioning the focus area anywhere around the screen. There are no restrictions - the very edges of the frame are accessible - to obtain a more precise focus. Pinpoint goes one step further by zooming in on the image to actual size prior to capture to ensure the exact area is in focus - perfect for keeping eyes in focus in portraits or intricate flowers accurately focused in macro mode. And, of course, this is where the touchscreen comes into its own: the ability to press onto the screen itself makes adjusting a focus point’s position not only far quicker but far more accurate too.
Unlike previous G-series models the GX1 adds a new AFF (flexible) mode to its usual AFS (single), AFC (continuous) and MF (manual) focus options. In a nutshell AFF is halfway AFS and halfway AFC - though the camera will only continuously focus if the degree of subject movement prompts the camera to ‘think’ intelligently about maintaining focus.
The 1080i HD movie mode also reaps the benefits of the GX1’s capable autofocus. Continuous focus glides between focal lengths with ease and the accurate focus rarely drifts beyond the necessary focal point. However it is a shame to not see 1080p capture and as there’s no microphone input the in-built stereo microphone is the only way to record audio. Although the GX1 isn’t designed to be a movie-only camera, these shortcomings see competitors offer better moving-image capture.
The GX1’s 16-megapixel sensor is the very same as that found in the Lumix G3, though small tweaks provide the GX1 with an extra stop of high ISO sensitivity, ranging from ISO 160 through to ISO 12,800 at full resolution.
Image quality doesn’t differ between the two cameras otherwise, resulting in good quality images from ISO 100-800 that are still usable from ISO 1600-3200, though the ISO 6400-12,800 settings do suffer from muted colours, softness and excess noise.
Stick to the lower ISO settings as the GX1 delivers impressive image quality. It may not quite outsmart a larger-sensor DSLR, but then the smaller size of the Micro Four Thirds sensor means both a smaller build and selection of smaller lenses.
Among the variety of GX1 kit options is a new 14-42mm power zoom lens. This small lens extends to full size only when the camera is turned on and doesn’t use a zoom or focus ring - instead two small toggles to the side of the lens make it feel more like controlling a compact camera.
This one’s a bit of a Marmite deal: you’ll either love it or hate it. Traditionalists may feel the design is ill-suited, the toggle zoom is slooow, plus the additional £150 price premium does make the £758 kit expensive. The standard 14-42mm kit is a more reasonable £599. Of course the smaller size of the power zoom is its biggest plus point. As we Brits like to say, "horses for courses" as far as that’s concerned.
What’s not to like about the GX1? It looks wonderful, its build is superb and the layout and controls are fault-free. Autofocus is very impressive, the variety of focus options are capable and the image quality, while not the very best a compact system camera has to offer, is still pretty darn good. Besides, the image quality reflects the smaller size of the system and is a good balance between system size and final image quality.
Add the power zoom lens, however, and the £758 asking price does mean the camera is a little pricey. There are cheaper compact system options out there, but none are as well-built or effortless to use. The GX1 is one of those excellent tools that just lets you get on with taking pictures.