Panasonic GF2 Review

UPDATE – Added movie mode still frame grab at 1080p from GH2 and GF2 with same 14mm F2.5 pancake lens. GH2 is better, and it’s sensor is slightly larger too. View full resolution on Flickr here.

The GF2 is for people stepping up from compact cameras, and is itself almost as small as the LX5. It’s 14mm F2.5 pancake kit lens is superb, but for those looking for a wide-zoom lens, it’s better to stick with a compact or suffer the size penalty. I shall not bore you with charts, thus my review begins with:

Conclusion:

Unfortunately the GF2 has an older sensor than the GH2, and does not keep pace with the Canon 600D or NEX5 in image quality terms either (especially at high ISOs) being similar in this respect to the GF1 but with better noise reduction. The body feels superb to handle, so small for a ‘DSLR’ class camera and Canon could now do well to take note, but the GF2 lacks the Sony NEX tilt-screen and the GH2’s free-style screen. The LCD is generally good but lower resolution than on competing Canon and Sony DSLRs.

The video mode is not as good as the GH2 since it’s dumbed down and in an interlaced format. 25p is possible on the PAL model, since the sensor runs at 25p but on the NTSC version the sensor output is 30p which has a much nastier video aesthetic to it. The main issue however, like the NEX5 is that it lacks much manual control in video mode – specifically ISO. Shutter speed can be manually controlled with the Flicker Reduction feature and aperture can be manually controlled on heritage lenses (like Contax Zeiss, Leica) but ISO is adjusted on the fly to maintain a camera controlled exposure. This is disappointing for creative reasons and looks awful when it changes mid-shot depending on light conditions and what the camera is pointed at but it’s handy for quick point and shoot movies so I can see why it’s in there. I just don’t want my camera to suddenly overexpose the background whenever someone moves in front of it. HDMI output is poor as it was on original GH1, no live output during recording – in fact not even during live view, only in playback mode.

Again thanks to the Flicker Reduction feature which overrides the shutter speed to one of 4 presets (including 1/50) to avoid flickering and banding under certain types of electric lighting (especially on holiday) the GF2 avoids the Samsung NX and Sony NEX trap of shooting at ugly ‘skate video style’ high shutter speeds in video mode. 1/50 is optimal for the cinema look.

Tripod mounting of the GF2 is an issue. Like the original GF1 the SD card slot is bafflingly behind the battery door, so when changing the SD card you have to take the tripod quick release plate off. Please for heavens sake camera manufacturers can you start putting all the ports on the left, and the battery & SD card slot on the right and leave the base of the camera unused. I’d also like to see the notch for quick release plates come back, to the right or left of the tripod screw mount so that the damned camera doesn’t loosen up on the tripod head all the time! Video cameras have always had these, and they remain bafflingly absent from DSLRs despite every tripod quick release plate on the market featuring the securing notch.

The touch screen works really well, but it is not exactly up to Apple standards. The onscreen graphics are incredibly ugly and they’ve increased in size to make the touch screen easy to use. This has the downside of obscuring shots, and even in playback mode the display cannot be completely cleared of touchscreen options, which I find completely idiotic.

I’ll review the Lumix 14mm F2.5 pancake lens in my next article, it doesn’t quite bring Canon 5D 24mm F1.4 levels of fast wide goodness to the Micro Four Thirds system but it is a great kit lens, and a much more sophisticated piece of glass than Canon usually bundle with their entry level DSLRs. Remember this is a kit lens not a separate purchase, so it’s incredibly good value. Along with the 20mm F1.7 these pancakes remain a strong point of the GF system, though they look silly on larger cameras and the GH2 looks pug ugly with one.

Video mode has more moire and aliasing than on the GH2 and not as much detail but it’s a big step up from the original GF1. 1080i (50i with 25p inside it from sensor) and 720/60p are decent and get the job done though obviously I miss the GH2’s Creative Movie mode. That is an area Panasonic have chosen to differentiate their models with, I’d prefer if it they release the same camera in different body formats and left customers to decide which features they used. Of course though the camera range as a whole would probably cost more if they did this.

Build wise, the GF2 is better than the GH2 – baffling, just like the GF1 versus GH1. It has a solidness to the build which the GH2 almost completely lacks.

Who is the GF2 for?

The GF2 is an ambitious exercise in miniaturisation which satisfies consumer demand for Canon DSLR quality in a Panasonic compact body. Something still not offered by Canon despite the hints from the market that people want it, i.e. a 10% reduction in Canon’s sales!!

However Team Lumix seem to have held back a little on the GF2 which stops it becoming the camera it should have been. The GH2 has stolen the new sensor for itself and the GF2 is left playing catch up not just with the GH2 (which makes sense) but the Sony NEX and Canon 600D (which doesn’t make sense). Surely Panasonic would have preferred to cannibalise GH2 sales than not have a sale at all, and have their chief rival take one.

Whilst shooting with fast lenses and pancakes on such a small ‘DSLR’ is really really nice, I have a feeling a lot of the enthusiasts this product is aimed for will be temped by the NEX5’s better image quality and brand sex appeal, or more creative control offered by the Canon Rebels. The GF2 maintains my nickname of Girl Friend camera because I can see a lot of women photographers really valuing it’s size beyond geeky debates over pixel peeping.

Video mode wise, the GF2 suffers almost the same fate as the NEX – hobbled by moire, interlacing and a lack of creative control.

A decent codec and the M mode are the first to suffer when camera manufacturers choose to differentiate their entry level from enthusiast products.

But the flaw here is that the GF2 is not really entry level, it’s for enthusiasts who want the best compact camera money can buy. If the Canon G12 has so much creative control and costs less, I don’t understand why Panasonic still see the GF2 as a step down from DSLRs rather than a step up from compacts.

Unless you MUST have the small body and not just better high ISO performance, interchangeable lenses and shallow depth of field (despite the fact that almost all lenses will make it as large as a GH2 anyway and about as un-pocketable) most people will be happier with a Canon S95 or Sony HX9 instead.

My girlfriend bought a GF1 with 20mm pancake last year and she hated the lack of zoom, and the zoom adds bulk and defies the point. THAT is the main problem for Panasonic and Sony with the way mirrorless has gone so far.

Apart from that – a brave effort, but slightly reheated.

The GF2 gets an 8/10 from me.

To see ISO performance and image quality samples I recommend DPReview.com’s superb studio scene app here.