Cameras

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1 Review

The fabled GF1 had a baby with last year's G3.

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Introduction

Back by popular demand, Panasonic has returned to the enthusiast system niche with the Lumix GX1. While it's technically the first model in a new G-series sub-line, the GX1 is really the logical descendent of the GF1, a discontinued and most beloved Micro Four Thirds format camera. For a while, there was no obvious upgrade for GF1 fans.

Eventually, Panasonic heard the cries of the enthusiasts and introduced the GX1. It's the spitting image of the GF1, stuffed with updated components, including the great 16-megapixel sensor used in last year's G3. While it's built from familiar elements that have worked in the past, the mirrorless segment gets more competitive every month. Is the GX1 really the update that enthusiasts have been looking for, or was it just cobbled together to appease a few vocal fans? We ran it through a set of tests to see how it would stack up.

Design & Usability

The GX1 can't get a grip, but at least it can fit in your pocket.

The GX1 looks a great deal like its predecessor, the GF1. It's a sturdy, blocky camera, though with a small enough lens, it can fit into a coat pocket, which photographers on the move love. Of course, the sacrifice of great on-the-go design like this is the comfort of a full-sized grip, which always comes as a blow to overall handling. Note too that the GX1 isn't weather-sealed or shockproof, so handle with care.

Casual photographers will likely be intimidated by all of the manual controls.

The excellent interface and customizable control scheme on this model will delight skilled enthusiasts, but casual photographers will likely be intimidated by all of the manual controls. Intelligent Auto modes are available for quick, easy shooting, but this really isn't geared toward beginners on the whole. The GX1 a fairly speedy camera, nearly as quick (though not always as accurate) as a DSLR, in fact. It has almost a dozen external, direct-access keys and some of them are flush with the chassis, making no-look operation a bit tougher than we'd prefer. Navigating is generally a pleasure though, with enough direct-access keys on the body that many users shouldn't have to spend too much time futzing around in the menu system. If they need to, a quick, intuitive menu houses the most commonly adjusted options and an on-screen Touch Tab works nicely too, popping on and off the screen with the swipe of a finger. As a fairly serious camera, some of the GX1's menus are pretty deep, but that's a positive thing in this case.

Features

Manual labor isn't for everyone, but some people love it.

Of the GX1's numerous upgrades and improvements, one of the most helpful is the new on-screen level guide. Using a simple line system, it indicates the X-Y orientation as well as the pitch—a great aid for framing shots. Just about all of the important optical components have been upgraded too, such as its improved sensor, its new LCD, and its 14-42mm "Power Zoom" lens. The newsworthy bit here is that the power zoom lens has a tilter on the barrel instead of a manual twist mechanism (same deal with manual focus)—and though a tilter doesn't feel as natural as a twist-barrel, it allows for a pocketable profile without giving up the focal range. Furthermore, anyone with lots of legacy glass sitting around will be happy to know that this GX1's Micro Four Thirds mount is the most versatile mount out there, with adapters available for just about any type of lens.

In place of a viewfinder, users must rely on the 3-inch touchscreen LCD with tap-to-focus.

A 16-megapixel, 4/3-inch Live MOS sensor is housed within the GX1. It's similar to last year's G3 sensor, but the new one boasts a slightly higher effective pixel count and an extra ISO stop (up to 12800). In place of a viewfinder, users must rely on the 3-inch touchscreen LCD with tap-to-focus (Many buyers will be relieved to know that Panasonic does sell attachable viewfinders separately though).

Related content

In terms of video, capability is acceptable but unimpressive, despite a 1080/60p mode. Users will also find about two dozen preset scene modes and picture effects, plus a minimal set of in-camera editing tools. Notably, there is no in-camera high-dynamic range (HDR) mode (though the bracket shooting and burst modes are quite nice) nor any kind of sweep panorama or panorama-assist features. As a system camera, a full set of PASM manual modes are on offer, and two customizable modes are available as well. Shooters can use the jog dial to control aperture and shutter speed, and they can also tinker with flash. The GX1 tops out at 16 megapixels in a standard 4:3 aspect ratio, and RAW and RAW+JPEG capture are supported (though as we'd expect, they slow down performance).

Performance

The GX1 passed many of our tests with flying colors.

The GX1 delivers strong overall image quality. Sharpness is respectable, even with the X Power Zoom lens, and color accuracy—an area where Panasonic typically excels—is flat-out excellent. Noise is very strong too, for a Four Thirds sensor. Like most Panasonic G-series cameras, the GX1 has five levels of noise reduction available, ranging from -2 to +2 and including the default setting of 0, but in our opinion, the default NR 0 provides the best balance of noise reduction and detail retention. Micro Four Thirds sensors like the one on this GX1 are smaller than the APS-C sensors found in most DSLRs, and for that reason DSLRs produce less noise. That's part of the trade-off for having a smaller, more convenient camera body. Don't fret though, because even in really dim conditions, cranking the GX1's NR to +2 and edging to ISO 3200 should get the job done without scrubbing too much fine detail. ISO 6400 looks pretty rough, however, and ISO 12800 should flat out be avoided if possible.

Panasonic continues to impress with the kind of noise performance they squeeze from the Four Thirds sensor.

The chief complaint about mirrorless systems for the first few years of their existence was the sluggish autofocus, but contrast AF systems have come a long way recently. The GX1 is almost as fast as any camera with a mirror in decent lighting, thanks to Panasonic’s so-called Light Speed AF. It slows down and loses accuracy in dim lighting, but we have very few complaints outside of that. The fact is, Panasonic continues to impress with the kind of noise performance they squeeze from the Four Thirds sensor, and thanks to strong high ISO performance and snappy AF, low-light image quality is quite nice.

Conclusion

Picking the GX1 out of a crowd

The GX1 is a fine camera through and through. At this point in time, image quality is arguably the best that we've seen from the Micro Four Thirds format—it's a toss-up with last year's G3, which is built around very similar components, but we give the edge to the new kid on the block. It's good to see the classic design and sturdy, pocket-ready body (at least when it's paired with a small lens) back in the G-series lineup after a few years. Even better, the GF1's excellent control scheme has returned as well, augmented with a slick touch interface. And that Power Zoom lens? We were skeptical, but it's really a decent lens with a great design.

But after shooting around with the GX1 for a few weeks, and running it through all of our lab tests, the total package feels incomplete. On paper, it's the camera that tons of Panasonic fans have been clamoring for, but looking at the hard numbers from our lab tests, the GX1 isn't the number one rangerfinder-style Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera. It lags behind other models in terms of both performance and value, so even though it's a great camera, that takes some of the wind out of its sails.

Of course, we would've loved for Panasonic to have pushed the boundaries a little more, to show us another big step forward in the Micro Four Thirds format, the way that they did with the G3 last year. They played it safe instead, and that's perfectly fine—we get a very capable, well-built camera anyway—but it doesn't help the GX1 stand out in its crowded market.

Science Introduction

The GX1 is basically a combination of two great Panasonic Micro Four Thirds cameras—last year's G3 and the fabled GF1—and it works well as a result. But it doesn't bring much new to the table and it's getting harder to stand out in this class when you play it safe. Nevertheless, this GX1 held up strongly during testing, with particularly nice results in the way of color accuracy, noise reduction, and low light performance.

Color Accuracy

The GX1 nails it on color accuracy.

The GX1 earned excellent color results. This is an area where Panasonic typically excels, and the GX1 is no exception. Standard mode proved to be the most accurate, and we measured a minimum color error of 2.59 (anything under 3.0 is great) with a near-perfect saturation level of 100.6 percent. Reds and greens are very accurate. Pure yellow is fairly flat, while most shades of blue are deeper than ideal levels.

Most of the color modes that we tested (everything except Monochrome) turned in excellent accuracy results. Natural mode came in a very close second place, with a 2.71 minimum color error and 96 percent saturation. It reproduces blues more faithfully than Standard mode, though its yellows are more flat. Portrait scored right behind Natural, with more accurate yellows but more vivid reds. Even the two most heavy-handed color modes, Scenery and Vivid, are fairly accurate, though they exaggerate greens and blues.

Furthermore, the GX1 has one of the more accurate white balance systems in the class. Auto white balance is a hit or miss affair. It performs very well in daylight and respectably under fluorescent light, but can’t correct the pale yellow cast of incandescent lights. This is a pretty common issue with auto white balance systems, and the GX1’s score doesn’t really concern us. The custom white balance system is great though. Compared to AWB, daylight isn’t much more accurate, but there was hardly any room for it to improve. It corrects extremely well for fluorescent and incandescent lighting too.

Noise & Low Light

The GX1 performs fairly well, even with a small sensor in low light.

Like most Panasonic G-series cameras, the GX1 has five levels of noise reduction available, ranging from -2 to +2 and including the default setting of 0, adjustable in the Photo Style menus. Panasonic has told us in the past that even the lowest NR setting still applies some noise reduction, though not very much.

In our opinion, the default setting, NR 0, provides the best balance of noise reduction and detail retention. Shots remain nicely detailed up through ISO 1600. Noise is a low 0.55% at base ISO (160) and barely crosses the 1% mark at ISO 1600, which is suitable for the vast majority of shooting situations. For really dim conditions, cranking NR to +2 and edging to ISO 3200 should get the job done without scrubbing too much fine detail. There’s a significant drop-off at ISO 3200, though the photos are arguably still usable for online sharing and small prints. ISO 6400 looks pretty poor, and while ISO 12800 could look worse, it’s probably best to avoid that setting in all but a pinch.

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