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Thoughts on the GF1

So, a few months on, how has my cunning camera plan worked out? I eBay’ed my FE2 (for a pittance), my Bessa L and the 15mm Heliar (for about what I paid for them - rangefinder gear does not lose its value) and bought a very nice secondhand, boxed GF1 from Ffordes. I also purchased a cheap but well-made Nikkor to m4/3 lens adapter from eBay and a new Panasonic 20mm/1.8 lens from Park Cameras. Recently, I added one of the Panasonic 14mm/2.5 lenses that is currently being split off from the discontinued GF3 kits and sold cheap by various eBay sellers.

The GF1 is a nice, compact camera that is reasonably easy to use. I don’t love it and it doesn’t give me the same warm glow as using my old EM, but then I’ve reached the conclusion that I’m unlikely ever to replicate that experience with digital kit. There are simply too many functions and buttons complicating the presentation to ever allow you to embrace a digital camera in that way. The goal is supposed to be making rewarding images, and developing some kind of fetishistic relationship with the gear is just the icing on the cake.

Size- and weight-wise, it compares well with the EM. The 20mm lens seems a little chunkier than I’d have expected but is also very light. The 14mm is much smaller and more in keeping with the compact aesthetic. But overall, it’s no problem to carry around the camera and both lenses in a small holster pouch all day.

In operation, the GF1 is reasonably simple to use once you have read the manual and set the camera up as required. So far, I’ve only used aperture priority mode, setting the aperture via the thumbwheel and dialling in small compensation adjustments by pressing again on the same thumbwheel. You do need to watch the display while doing this, and I haven’t yet trained my fingers to always move the dial in the correct direction to narrow or widen the aperture as required (in fact, I consistently move it the wrong way on each first attempt). Very occasionally, I use the Quick Menu button to change the default ‘film’ look, but it doesn’t make any difference to the end result as I shoot raw. Indeed, the ability to view the LCD in monochrome but take a colour shot is one of the features I always wanted on my Nikon DSLR.

This reliance on only a few controls is a blessing, as Panasonic’s menu system is fairly opaque and the number of buttons on the rear only serve to complicate the interface. The GF1 is still seen as “better” by degrees than its successors because of the direct access to functionality provided by these buttons, but I’d say that’s a mixed blessing. What you want, ideally, is direct mechanical access to the two or three items you adjust most often, together with some sort of visual and tactile feedback. So yes, you want dials but what you really want are traditional aperture and ISO dials, not computer controls. In that sense, the GF1 is merely a least worst option compared to other compact cameras. This is a prime case of being careful what you wish for: yes, the GF1 has direct button access to ISO and White Balance, but it also has three different menu buttons, a focus mode selector and an overloaded thumbpad. Rather than offering a clear, transparent interface to the camera, this complexity serves only to obfusticate it. (Interestingly, the Shutterbug review I just referenced for a rear view of the camera reckons “there are just enough buttons to be functional, yet not intimidating”. The reviewer is clearly suffering from Stockholm syndrome after using too many digital cameras.) Yet when people complained that the GF1’s successors lacked sufficient manual controls, what they really meant is that Panasonic took away the wrong buttons. Interestingly, the GX1 simply reinstates them in a slightly different layout, apparently without bothering to consider whether some optimisation was possible.

After taking a shot, there is a configurable review period but, as far as I am aware, no way to immediately delete the shot at this stage. To clean up your shot history on the go, you’ll need to drop into the full image review mode and negotiate the flexible but somewhat awkward frame deletion dialogue (which you always have to switch from “No” to “Yes” to delete even a single image, making the whole process about as time-consuming as possible).

The GF1 supports ISO up to 3200 and an auto ISO setting. However, auto ISO is only effectively enabled if you set an upper limit to the range (otherwise it will top out at ISO 400 by default). And the highest upper limit you can set is … ISO 1600. So 3200 remains only a manual option, which you could view as a safety feature given the accompanying noise, or as an annoying limitation.

For output, I transfer 12MP raw files from the memory card, each of which contains a smaller (roughly quarter-size) JPEG preview that conveys the picture settings used at the time of shooting. (I believe the chosen frame crop also applies to the raw file, so you can’t shoot square frames and later change your mind.) A major disappointment here is that orientation data is only added to images shot with an OIS-capable lens (i.e. not the primes). Would it have been too much trouble to integrate the same tilt detector that even basic compacts and phones possess, Panasonic? (This is the kind of annoying detail often left out of reviews, and is something I will check the GX1 specs for should I decide to upgrade.) Be prepared to spend some time rotating your portrait images in the editor, or settle for shooting square pictures all the time. Also, bear in mind that the in-camera picture settings only apply to JPEGs so you’ll still need to apply any mono conversions to the raw files (AfterShotPro, at least, lacks the ability to use any picture settings in the metadata as a default suggestion).

I’m not going to comment on image quality, as I don’t pixel-peep. The images look fine to me. I’m sure there are many cameras, particularly later models, that produce better results but these seem perfectly acceptable for my purposes.

Overall, I find the GF1 pleasant to carry but marginally less pleasant to use. Composing and shooting via the rear LCD is still not something to which I can fully acclimatise; I’ve pondered the accessory EVF, which gets mixed but notably positive reviews on Amazon, but I haven’t yet sufficiently committed to spend the money. The apologetic thumbwheel falls just short of a truly comfortable control method, the plethora of damn buttons can never be quite put out of one’s mind and the absence of a quick way to delete images is just irritating enough to be hard to ignore. However, if you can put all this aside for a few minutes and simply keep pressing the shutter, it’s a great camera and the results are fine indeed. If I had more time to spend taking images, I would probably increase my investment in m4/3 and look to upgrade to a later variant, complete with EVF, that would hopefully address my current peeves.