Panasonic GF1 and Mirrorless Compact Cameras

I picked up a Panasonic GF1, with a view to replacing my Nikon D40 with something more travel friendly.


I don’t usually change cameras often, well until recently. The last time I bought one was a few years back, after my compact Pentax W60 was stolen. I replaced that with a Pentax W80, and was genuinely shocked at how poor the results were. The model change from 60 to 80 provided a bump in the resolution from 6MP to 12MP, without an increase in sensor size, with what I now understand to be predictable results. Anything shot at greater than ISO100 had noise, even when viewed at 800×600. Awful noise. I was obtaining photos that were not just visibly poorer than the W60, but also worse than my ancient 3MP Sony compact.

Hence when shopping for the D40 (6MP APS-C sensor) replacement, I was more than wary of high pixel count, low surface area sensors. I tried smallish “enthusiast” cameras from Nikon, Fuji, Canon, Olympus, Ricoh and Sony. There appeared to be nothing comparable with the D40 as far as low pixel count, high surface area, but the micro four thirds system seemed reasonable. Among these, I tried hands-on pretty much everything available or previously available. I settled on the GF1, which “felt right” as far as size, weight and lack of dumbed-down controls. The GX1 was very similar, but currently expensive here. I picked up the ( used, mint ) GF1 and a new GF3 for Mrs TT, plus two Panasonic lenses ( 14mm and 14-42mm ) for less than the GX1.

As it takes me a while to adjust to a new camera – one of the reasons why I don’t change that often – I took the GF1 out on a bright Spring morning yesterday to Tokyo Bay, to try to get to grips with it. It was a good learning experience. Things you cannot get from an inspection in store, and also things not mentioned often, or at all, in reviews. So what did I learn … ?

a.) The GF1 really does give you all the electronic control of a DSLR, perhaps more than my Nikon. Colour balance of rear display ? Check. Auto WB hue and tint calibration ? Check. Rear curtain flash ? Indeed. While I do know how ( and when ) to use these, I honestly don’t know how often they’d be useful. But all of these things are missing from the later GF3 and, for someone looking for a DSLR replacement, I’m glad they’re in there.

b.) The EVF is useful. Not for the reason I repeatedly read about though – bright light washing out the rear screen. The rear screen was beautifully visible in direct sunlight, assuming it was set to one of the dynamic modes. I found the EVF useful for three reasons. Most importantly, using it removes all the other visual distractions. You only see your picture. Also, holding the camera to the face braces it, at the expense of a nose smudge. Finally, at night especially, not having a screen shining out really helps to “stealth” the camera. The EVF resolution is relatively poor, but I didn’t find this a problem.

c.) Manual focus is a bind. Not impossible, but is there any system better than the moving rectangle of a rangefinder, or the split circle and ground glass of a film DSLR ? The optional ( and variable magnification ) auto-zoom for manual focussing helps, but really only for subjects not moving. Otherwise it is like trying to focus on a galloping horse with a hand held telescope – far too wobbly.

d.) Fortunately, autofocus is both very fast, and very configurable. I got used to a “spot focus and move” technique when necessary, rather than “move the square where you want to focus”, which seemed much slower and frustrating.

e.) The 14mm lens is silent. I had read that some lenses make a noise when stopping down or focussing, but this one doesn’t. Not a whisper.

f.) No noise up to about ISO1000 for normal viewing – significantly better than my Pentax ! ISO 1600 usable, with about the same noise as ISO200 on the pitiful Pentax. I’d rate the Panasonic entirely acceptable for noise, similar to the Nikon. This is a good result.

g.) With the EVF and 14mm lens fitted, it is pocketable, assuming a coat or jacket pocket. I can definitely carry and use this more unobtrusively than the D40, which as DSLRs go, is quite small itself.

Alright so far, no real problems. But while the GF1 does give you the electronic control of a DSLR, I believe it ( and some other compacts ) fall down somewhat on the physical control. Part of my comfort in buying the GF1 was the reasonable size allowing for real buttons and switches for ISO, WB, AE lock and shooting modes. Plus a wheel ( yey ! ) for PASM and another wheel ( yey ! ) for Aperture/Shutter selection and exposure compensation.

My favourite, and still most used, film camera is my Rollei 35.


A shutter wheel, an aperture wheel and an ISO wheel. I like wheels. They don’t move and they show you instantly what you have set. Wheels are good. Switches are okay. Buttons acceptable. Menus… meh.

Having to go to a menu to select AP, find the continuous shooting mode, adjust ISO, or press buttons to change aperture, is not for me. I’d just leave it on Auto if that was the case. The GF1 has decent, tactile, direct buttons/wheels/switches as appropriate for these, and all the information is displayed in the EVF ( or screen ) at all times, if you select this.

What I only found out in the field though, was that half these direct buttons are directly under your thumb, when placed behind the camera in a position to use the shutter/aperture/exposure wheel – the most used setting. As this wheel is behind the camera, as opposed to on top, as it is on some other designs, the natural “squeeze” of your grip is fore/aft rather than top/bottom.

The result of this was random presses of the direct input buttons for ISO, WB and focus mode. The only way I found to avoid this was to hold the camera in a kind of dainty grip with the tip of the thumb, but this made handling and setting the controls tricky. If there is any way to lock the settings, I didn’t find it. Earlier in the day, I had set the display in the EVF to minimum information, just aperture, shutter and exposure. I ended up with many of these shots at ISO640 and “flash” WB. Once I had noticed this, and put all the settings back, the only way I felt comfortable was putting all information in the EVF, so I would notice if I suddenly set MF, or ISO800, or Dynamic BW film – all of which happened.

There is so much information now, it takes up two lines of text at the top of the EVF, and a third line at the bottom. It’s a mess, albeit an informative and seemingly essential mess. I got used to switching the camera off after each shot, to prevent accidental button pushes. Interestingly, startup time from off to on seemed faster than from “sleep” to “awake” when left on…

I was shooting raw so the WB and Film Mode hiccups didn’t affect the images. I do wish some more of the buttons had been place even a cm to the left, out of the way of the thumb though. I think the penchant for large screens has maybe compromised handling. My reference D40 has a similar width, but a smaller screen so the buttons are out of the way but still “at hand”. So some steps forward, some back.

I am very happy with this camera overall, and had no expectation that I’d be up to speed with it instantly. My Rollei 35 and Nikon operations are second nature to me, but they should be as I’ve used them for years. It takes some time to adjust. I really needed to find a way to stop the random control changes though. I chose the GF1 because it has proper buttons for ease of control, after all. Just as it happens, too easy !

The camera has the usual PASM modes on the top dial, as well as a few others I never use such as Scene and Art. I always use Aperture Priority, for no other reason than that’s how my brain works after starting out with an Olympus OM10 almost 30 years ago. My breakthrough is this : addionally on that PASM mode dial are “C1” and “C2” – custom modes. The manual wasn’t too clear on these, but the very significant thing is that, unlike the PASM modes, I found that C1 does not retain setting changes when you switch off. This is exactly what I want.

So I now have C1 set up as Aperture Priority, Auto WB, Auto ISO ( limit 1600 ), menu resume off, exposure compensation -1/3 and my preferred film, metering and focussing settings. Regardless of what I changed for the previous shot, as soon as I power up in C1, it goes back to these settings. That’s how I want to start each shot, with a known base configuration.

I can still mess with ISO, WB, focus mode or whatever, but as soon as I’m done shooting in that situation and switch off, it all reverts back to my base configuration. Unlike leaving it in “A” mode where an ISO, WB or exposure compensation change, deliberate or accidental, is persistent through power cycles. The fact that C1 is on the physical wheel for PASM is perfect too – I just leave it switched to this now, no menu hunting required and instant visual confirmation. Just power on and begin. Did I mention I like wheels :mrgreen:.

I haven’t seen this behaviour noted elsewhere, nor in the manual, but it is really critical.

Hope the above may be of small interest to those in the market for something similar wth a similar background. I’ve learned to pay attention to the handling, not just the magazine feature and spec list or ( purlease… 😆 ) lens measurements.


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