As compact system cameras become more plentiful, there are splinter product groups forming. Panasonic’s latest compact system camera, the Lumix GF5, is all about being small and easy to use.
Those after a pocketable system, but one that will deliver on the image quality front, ought to find the GF5’s form and features an attractive prospect.
It doesn’t have the extensive hands-on controls, optional viewfinder, nor the great expansion possibilities of a higher-spec model, such as the Lumix GX1 – but that’s not what this latest micro system is all about.
Can the small-bodied GF5 deliver big in the image quality and performance departments to set this Micro Four Thirds model apart from its competitors?
Small, but not too small
The GF5 is small, really small. But not so small that it becomes a nuisance to use. With the 14-42mm power zoom lens attached the camera’s not significantly larger than many of the current 20x travel zoom compact cameras such as the Panasonic Lumix TZ30. In part this is based on the 14-42mm power zoom lens’s ability to collapse within itself when switched off.
The overall design is a near carbon copy of the previous GF3 model, but with one notable difference: a chunkier, better designed grip. This makes the camera adhere better to the hand, which will be of particular use if attaching a longer lens.
There’s also a new "display" button on the rear to toggle between different screen views and overlays. A small addition, but an improvement nonetheless.
The lack of a main mode dial may distress some, but the combination of a Q.Menu button and rear d-pad-cum-rotational-dial make chopping through different options simple.
Furthermore the 3-inch, 921k-dot LCD screen is touch-sensitive, so it’s possible to select options from the quick menu with a literal touch of a finger. It’s responsive too, not smartphone responsive mind, but not a million miles off the mark.
The GF5's lack of a viewfinder or any provision to add one at a later date is something any prospective purchaser will need to know about from the offset. After Sony’s announcement of the latest NEX-F3 compact system camera with its smart accessory terminal and optional viewfinder, however, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Panasonic follow a similar approach with the next GF-series model. For now users will have to deal with just the screen which, despite its decent resolution and touch-responsiveness, can be tricky to view in bright sunlight.
To infinity and beyond
Recent Panasonic G-series releases have had impressive autofocus performance and the GF5 is no exception. The claim of "the world’s fastest" is thrown around left, right and centre these days, but with this Lumix it’s quite believable. And even if it’s a microsecond slower than the competition, it’s not something that will register to any normal person's brain.
As well as a 23-area auto mode, autofocus is broken down into face detection, AF tracking, 1-area and pinpoint modes. With 1-area and pinpoint it’s possible to press anywhere on the screen to acquire a specific focus point. The pinpoint option zooms in to a 100 per cent image-sized view to show where the exact focus has been acquired. There’s plenty of control here, or you can let the camera take control instead - the choice is yours.
For more experienced users all the usual manual control modes are available from within the menus, or those inexperienced users can simply press the "iA" (intelligent Auto) button on the top of the camera for point and shoot simplicity where the camera takes control. The iA button lights up blue to show it’s kicked the auto mode in, a useful feature should it be accidentally pressed.
The camera's new power zoom lens that came with this test kit isn’t controlled like a usual twist-ring lens. Instead the inclusion of a compact-like zoom toggle on the lens itself moves through the wideangle to mid zoom setting. The idea’s a good one, and it’s great for steady zooming during the 1080p movie mode, but we’re not totally sold on it. It’s one of those "Marmite moments" really - you either love it or hate it, or, who knows, you may be impartial. If it’s not for you then there’s a cheaper 14-42mm kit lens option available amid the bags of other Micro Four Thirds lenses that are out there. That's one thing the Micro Four Thirds standard certainly isn't short of.
Speaking of movie mode, the GF5’s full HD 1080p capture now includes stereo sound (something the GF3 lacked), full-time autofocus and can output MP4 files for immediate use. There’s also AVCHD capture for more demanding users, but this requires processing before it can be used on most off-camera devices.
The GF5’s sensor may have the same 12.1-megapixel resolution of its GF3 predecessor, but Panasonic tells us it’s a newly designed one paired up with an advanced noise reduction system.
Marketing bumph? It would appear not. We already thought that the GF3 delivered decent shots considering its image sensor size, but the GF5 steps overall quality up a notch.
The ISO 160-6400 range is expandable to an ISO 12,800 (equivalent), though there’s still no sign of that lower ISO 100 sensitivity that we’d really like.
The Micro Four Thirds sensor size may make it harder to achieve as dramatic shallow depth of field – that pro-looking "blurred background" look - as some of the APS-C sensor compact system camera competition, but it’s really not as far off. The upside is a smaller and proportional camera system.
At the lower sensitivities from ISO 160-400 the GF5’s images are crisp and clean and pack in plenty of detail. The difference in detail is fairly negligible between these settings.
Amp things up a little and results are still good, though ISO 800-1600 become a little softer - yet image noise still isn’t a distinct issue. That it’s possible to shoot with a Micro Four Thirds sensor at ISO 1600 and still get detailed, sharp shots is impressive. It would seem that the advanced noise reduction really is doing its thing. Work it.
ISO 3200-6400 are softer and show some colour noise but, as you can see from our sample images gallery, there’s no reason such sensitivities can’t be used for smaller-scale work such as online shots.
However, the newly added ISO 12,800 equivalent setting isn’t any good. We’d rather it had been omitted as it doesn’t bring anything fresh to the party. Just noisy, over-processed shots. We'll just pretend it's not there, then.
On that back of overall good performance, one of our only qualms is the auto white balance. It occasionally wandered off into some strange territory from time to time. We're not talking a million miles out, but when a scene has a "peach wash" or other minor colour cast it just looks a little bit like an out of date film stock or something from decades gone by.
The GF5 includes a creative control mode with a variety of filters, including six new ones. There’s dynamic monochrome, star filter, cross process and many more to make up the total 14 options.
Ignoring the occasional colour balance glitch, the GF5 holds its weight in the imaging department. It’s the perfect step up from a compact and, daresay, a giant leap forward for the GF-series.
The GF5’s ultra-small size doesn’t limit its overall performance. This is one fast camera that delivers where it counts on the image quality front too.
Although the power zoom lens keeps the package’s size down, we’re not totally sold on either its price implication or toggle zoom - opt for the standard (larger) 14-42mm lens and you won’t lose out on image quality, but will save yourself a hundred notes. Though, granted, it’s all a matter of personal preference.
The lack of a hotshoe and viewfinder can’t be held against this camera as Panasonic has the higher-end GX1 for those kinds of snappers. Instead the GF5 is designed to be as small and user-friendly as possible and, with that in mind, it’s bang on the money. It’ll tick most of the right boxes for the point-and-shoot yet image conscious market that it’s aimed at. Good to see Micro Four Thirds continuing to push its own envelope. The GF5 may be small, but it's certainly powerful.