Up to this point, we've covered rather mainstream digicams, and we've stayed in the $300 and under region. For many people, that will do it. But what if you are really picky about image quality (and willing to make the effort to actually get it)? Or what if you have some rather unusual need? The next few cameras go beyond the basics.
We start with the Panasonic G1 (yes we've covered a lot of Panasonic cameras here -- what can I say? Panasonic is on a roll of late). Now at the outset we said that anyone who was very serious about photography (i.e. concerned about image quality over convenience) would want an SLR. Since the SLR is large topic by itself, I decided to look at the market outside of SLRs where convenience is part of the equation, and absolute image quality isn't the biggest consideration. That is, we've been focused on the digicam market. Well, the Panasonic G1 falls right in between the digicam market and the SLR market. It is almost an SLR technically (it has through the lens viewing and interchangeable lenses), but with some interesting differences that mean it might appeal to digicam buyers in search of something better without the inconveniences of traditional SLRs.
For this installment in the series, guest Gadgetman Steven Stone takes us through this innovative new camera:
The Panasonic G1 is the first micro four-thirds camera to reach the market (there have been four-thirds cameras for a while, but this is the first "micro" four-thirds offering). The micro four-thirds specification uses a full-size four-thirds sensor, but instead of a single-lens-reflex and live-view viewing system the micro four-thirds uses only an electronic live-view system. This allows the body to be substantially smaller, especially in regards to thickness, and since the lenses are much closer to the sensor, they can be smaller as well (see overlay comparison below with prior generation four-thirds Panasonic L10 SLR).
The G1 with its 14-45mm F3.5 – 5.6 kit lens, SD memory card, and battery weighs a scant 22.4 oz! That combo is street priced around $775. And while it may look only slightly smaller than the diminutive Olympus E-410 (a standard four-thirds SLR) or the Nikon D-40 (an APS-sensor SLR), in your hands and more importantly around your neck, it is noticeably less burdensome.
If you google Panasonic G1 you will find several full reviews from sites such as Digital Photography Review (dpreview.com) and Luminous-Landscape (luminous-landscape.com), so I won’t repeat their efforts. Instead I’ll focus on whom the G1 will most appeal to and why.
Although on paper the G1 looks like the perfect “step-up” camera for amateur users looking for a camera with interchangeable lenses and RAW file output, it is far more suited to a professional or serious amateur who needs something smaller and lighter for on-the-go shooting. It’s ideal for experienced shooters who’ve cut their teeth on Leica rangefinder 35mm cameras. In fact, the G1 reminds me of my first Leica/Minolta CL, only better.
The most controversial ergonomic feature in the G1 is the electronic eye-level viewfinder. Early generations of electronic viewfinders were terrible. The otherwise excellent Panasonic LC-1 (also marketed as the Leica Digilux 3) was saddled with an electronic viewfinder that was simply awful. I bought one and I kept it exactly three days because the viewfinder was so atrocious.
The G1’s electronic viewfinder is a completely different animal. It’s bright even in low light, and easy to manually focus regardless of the environmental conditions. The electronic viewfinder also makes it possible to see all pertinent information such as f-stop, shutter speed, ASA, white balance, exposure, etc. But what’s especially neat about the electronic viewfinder is that you can have a real-time histogram that you can place anywhere on the frame if you wish.
The G1 also sports a large LCD viewer that can be swiveled and tilted for low, high, or even reverse angles (so you can see exactly what the camera sees even when it’s pointed directly at you). This LCD finder is bright, clear, and looks like a view camera’s ground glass so you can really examine all the subtleties of your compositions. Old-school large-format photographers will get a warm feeling of déjà vu looking at the G1’s LCD screen that will remind them of their Kodak Masterview 8 x 10 camera.
While some photo-forum fan-boys have intimated that the G1’s picture quality rivals a full-frame digital camera such as the Canon 5D, the reality is that while the G1 is good, it’s not THAT good. It certainly equals any four-thirds format SLR or APS SLR up to 800 ASA. Above 800 ASA the higher-priced Nikon and Canon SLRs still have an edge. But if you have the skills in post-processing, the digital noise on G1 images even at 1600 ASA can be reduced to a very visually pleasing level.