Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1
Awhile back I posted about the Lumix GF2 and promised I’d write a post about some hacks I was hoping to find. Well, short of the little popup-flash bounce trick, those hacks never really materialized for me.
The GF2 served me well. It’s a great little travel camera, but the lack of dedicated hardware controls made it feel a little toy-like, despite the excellent implementation of its touch screen controls. The GF2 also lacked an external shutter release, a feature I use constantly for macro shots or when on a tripod. Long exposures take as long to process as your shutter release time – a 30 second exposure takes 30 seconds to finish recording – that’s pure waiting time when you can’t take another shot. It makes the GF2 useless for some types of time-lapse photography.
Which brings us to the GX1. Announced late in 2011, the GX1 promised to be the true successor to the now cult-status GF1, the origin of the micro-four-thirds species. With the updated 16MP sensor replacing the now aged 12MP LiveMOS sensor and a processor that’s been tweaked and upgraded from the top-end G3, the GX1 is probably the fastest m4/3 camera in Panasonic’s lineup.
The camera starts up and is ready to fire in just over a second (depending on lens). DPReview clocked power to exposure time at around 1.4s in their excellent review. Subsequent shots are a mere 0.2s including auto-focus. Long exposure shots are recorded with very little delay regardless of exposure time. Touch screen controls feel responsive and snappy for the most part, the exceptions being a few animated UI elements that feel a tad sluggish (the touch tabs interface, for instance). Fortunately, for most of these touchscreen features, there are now dedicated hardware controls to access functions directly.
Construction-wise, the GX1 is a solid little camera. The addition of the extra chunky rubber grip on the front feels good in the hand, though it does feel like there isn’t a lot of space for your thumb on the rubber grip surrounding the command dial. That said, I don’t think I’ve accidentally hit any of the controls with my thumb during shooting. It’s a fairly comfortable camera to hold with one hand if you need to. Shutter release feel is excellent with good feedback on half-presses.
The controls are comprehensive. Two hardware Fn buttons are assignable and an additional two are available in the touch tab interface. By default they’re set to Auto Exposure for Fn1, AF/AE Lock for Fn2, and Fn3 and 4 are set to adjust display paramaters (level guide and histogram respectively). These are pretty sane defaults and I like the positions of Fn1 and Fn2 for auto exposure and AF/AE lock well enough. Astoundingly, the button labeling on the four-position buttons are silver on silver guaranteeing they’re impossible to read in any light. Fortunately, you’ll get to know them pretty quickly. I chose the “silver” body for my GX1 and the other button labels are white on the somewhat dark silver body. Also not super-easy to read, but I still like the nearly titanium color of the aluminum body.
One slightly surprising change is the single control dial (referred to as Rear Dial in the manual) has been made slightly smaller on the GX1. This means you need more rotations to accomplish the same change as on previous models. A minor point but one that makes the control dial feel a little bit clunky. I’m also not a huge fan of the feel of this control. I’d prefer something more solid with better feel. As probably the single-most heavily used control after the shutter release, it’s a control I’d prefer had better tactility. This does however encourage use of the auto exposure button on Fn1 when shooting in any of the manual exposure modes. The rocking power switch next to the excellent mode dial on top has a somewhat cheap feel to it as well. I’m worried that I’ll break it off someday. The battery and memory card door on the bottom is the only other piece of plastic on the body that feels like it could break if I weren’t careful. I’d probably have to be a complete ass to manage that though as when it’s closed, it’s fairly tight.
My only other quibble with this camera is the inclusion of Panasonic’s iA button. iA stands for “Intelligent Auto” and is a feature for novice shooters who just want a point and shoot. Dedicating a full button on the top plate for this feature is pretty annoying on a camera aimed at enthusiast shooters. I’d far prefer it were programmable. Your only option is to set the iA button to “click and hold” to eliminate accidental presses. If you’re into iA mode, it lights up in a garish blue when activated letting the world know that you don’t know how to use your camera.
Other fun features on the mode dial are various scene and creative modes that let you alter the colors and shooting characteristics if you’re into the whole instagram thing and shoot in JPEG. One nice feature of these modes is that they work when shooting video. This gives you an easy way to shoot in sepia or black and white without requiring time-consuming post-processing on your computer. More-importantly, the custom white balance modes also function in movie recording. If you want to shoot with a cyan or orange filter or green up your fluorescent lights like you’re in an episode of CSI, you can do it.
These are great little cameras for video and honestly one of the main reasons I became interested in micro 4/3. They take a bit of getting used to. Some lenses have different focusing characteristics and if you’re shooting in continuous auto-focus they tend to hunt a bit. This is where the touch screen auto-focus really comes in handy. Setting yourself in single shot auto-focus and using the touch screen to pick your focus point mid-shot (called “rack-focus”) or using face or target tracking autofocus modes let you shoot a scene with impressive results. Something I still need more practice with.
The GX1 has returned to offering a stereo condenser mic on the top, a feature missing from the GF3. I don’t believe it’s possible to attach a hot-shoe mounted stereo mic as is possible on the more video-focused GH2 though for my needs, the built-in mic is just fine.
So there you have it! The GX1 is a superb “little” walking around camera. With the 14mm pancake lens or the 14-42mm power-zoom, it’s quite pocketable. Having traveled with it a couple of times now, I have no qualms about carrying it in a small camera bag, you can pack a surprising amount of photo gear into a compact carrier. Would this replace my Nikon DSLR? Probably not (14 bit color in the Nikon, multiple exposure capabilities, a whole different range of high quality lenses, etc.). But for travel or street shooting, I think the GX1 and a couple of hot primes fits the bill nicely.