Samantha and I have been looking for a small, portable, carry everywhere digital camera for a long time. But we need a camera that has raw capture, great image quality, high ISO performance AND can fit in our coat pocket. Big demands on our part but we think technology is getting closer to giving us what we want.
When we saw the size, specs and description of the Panasonic GM1, we thought we might finally have the answer to our wants (or are they needs?). This camera is touted as being the smallest interchangeable-lens camera in the world but giving us a 16 MP micro four thirds sized sensor (half the size of a 35mm sensor) in a mirrorless and viewfinder free camera. In addition Panasonic made a specially designed tiny 12-32mm (24-64mm equivalent) lens that makes this camera a miniature powerhouse. Pretty cool but will it also meet our demands in the field of a quick and easy to use camera with dynamic, creative controls?
Only one way to find out! So we contacted our friends at McBain Camera in Red Deer, Alberta and asked them for a GM1 to play with for a few weeks. They sent us the camera and off we headed to our annual Winter Photography Workshop in the Canadian Rockies to run the little camera up against the fierce wind and cold of Abraham Lake and the Kootenay Plains!
For a complete list of specs on this camera we suggest you check out this link. We are not too picky about specs and our needs are simple. As long as the camera has a decent sensor with at least 10 MP or higher, raw format, exposure compensation, histogram display, auto-bracketing, a good LCD display, aperture priority, manual mode and some kind of program mode we are happy. We did like that this camera has a crazy shutter speed range from 60 seconds to 1/16,000 of a second. And we have grown to love touch screen displays (especially touch focus) after using our Canon 70D for months. We also really appreciate face recognition autofocus and variable aspect ratios for shaking up our compositions. Really, this camera has all the features we need and more for fully automatic (‘no thinking’) shooting or for fully manual (‘we are control freaks’) shooting. We found nothing lacking in the specs and the camera had many pleasant surprises on its “I can do that too” list.
For instance, one of the big surprises was Panasonic’s Intelligent Auto (IA) mode. When we wanted to get a shot fast and not have to think of the technical controls, we just shot in IA mode and the camera did everything for us and did it surprisingly well. In fact, we were blown away by the resulting photos in IA mode. It made us realize that modern cameras give technically good photos 95% of the time and that what separates photographers now is not technical prowess but creative vision (what we see, how we portray it and how we compose our photos). Being a technical whiz behind the lens really matters very little any more.
What we liked about the GM1
There was lots to love about this camera and below is a wee list of things that impressed us.
- image quality was really awesome. We could easily sell our dSLRs and just shoot with this camera and have images usable for all of our professional needs – seriously! (hmmm…. maybe something to consider, sure would save our backs and our wallets!)
- the size, oh yes the size… (and the weight) a truly pocketable interchangeable lens compact camera – we would take this everywhere
- interchangeable lenses – this is huge, we can customize this little beast with whatever lens suits our fancy!
- the base ISO of 200 and the OIS (optical image stabilization) of the 12-32mm lens makes this camera a hand holdable powerhouse (no tripod needed)
- for lower light requirements good high ISO performance makes this camera a real walk around workhorse.
- the auto focus was zippy and accurate and we really like the touch screen option of placing the focus point anywhere in the frame. Face recognition auto focus worked really well even with people covered up in balaclavas!
- video capture was really easy to use and did a great job (see video here)
- with fast lenses like f1.7 or f2.8 it was possible to get sharp subjects and a soft beautiful background (something not possible with point-n-shoots with small sensors)
- the camera gave us every control we would ever need to do creative professional photography and we loved the extended shutter speed range which went beyond what even our pro dSLR bodies could achieve
- closeup photography was decent with the 12-32 mm kit lens (not as good as some point-n-shoots but totally workable)
- awesome silent shutter mode for ‘stealth’ photography
- really awesome IA mode for photographers more worried about capturing a moment than in getting bogged down in technical considerations
Check out our test video from the Michael Bernard Fitzgerarld concert in Canmore.
What we did not like about the GM1
It is probably too bad that we tested the GM1 in -30 degree weather. If we had tested it in the summer this list of dislikes probably would be shorter. Our main frustration with the camera has to do with the miniature size of the camera controls (buttons and dials). The camera is so small that the main control dial gets accidentally depressed all the time. Or worse, when you want to make a specific change (change the exposure compensation or aperture) what you think you are pressing on the control dial is not what you meant to press and then you are in a worm hole of shifting white balance or moving focus points. Aaargh!
Unless you have thumbs the size of a pencil the command dial will end up driving you crazy. Sam only used the camera for about an hour and was ready to toss the thing at the frozen lake! Add thick gloves or mittens and the camera is almost unusable except in IA mode where all you do is press the shutter button. But still there is the issue of how to hold the camera without accidentally pressing something! Even indoors with bare hands, it is super easy to touch something you did not mean to and mess up the camera controls you were going to change. After a while you get used to the precision required to change settings but it takes a while and some patience (note to Sam). Even after mastering the finicky controls the truth is this camera is a bare hands, warm weather camera!
Our dislikes include:
- small, finicky, hard to accurately manipulate camera controls – these could have been designed much better (we have suggestion for Panasonic if they are interested!)
- the camera is slow to use when wanting to change controls on the fly, the buttons and wheels are just too small – as pros who take charge of the camera and have to respond to quickly changing subjects and light, fast access to camera controls is necessary. Often we ended up just using IA mode because changing settings in the cold was just too hard!
- the camera is not ergonomically well designed for one handed shooting. You mostly have to pinch the camera with the thumb and forefinger of both hands gripping the bottom and the top of the camera
- the easiest way to change camera controls is with the touch screen which works great but not with thick gloves or mittens
- low battery capacity; about 200 shots in warm weather, much lower when it is -30 degrees! You definitely need a second battery for a day shooting with this camera
- the flash sync is 1/50 of a second or slower
- there is no mic jack for video
- diffraction kicks in severely with this camera after about f11, using f16 or f22 is not recommended!
- does not really handle well with with telephoto lenses
This camera isn’t for everyone. Making a small but capable camera comes at a cost and mostly that cost is in ease of use. Sam and I want a camera that has easy controls so we can make creative control decisions fast and easily. To really make the most of this camera you need to use the touch screen; the control dial and buttons are just too small. But to use the touch screen you need warm weather. If you live in an environment that is not too cold, then this camera would be great because touch screen controls are usable with bare hands. Here, in Alberta, we seem to have 10 months of winter and the touch screen has its limitations so we had to rely on the control dial which mostly drove us crazy because it is so small to use effectively (especially with gloves on).
We think this would be a perfect camera for travel to warm destinations. Its small size does not make it a target for thieves, plus it’s so small you’ll never leave it behind. With the Panasonic GM1 you just look like a tourist with a point-n-shoot and not a serious photographer; you can take the camera anywhere and nobody will question you about your gear or your motives for snapping shots. Big pro dSLRs attract attention good and bad. this camera with its silent shooting mode and awesome IA mode would be a great little street photography camera (in warm weather)
This camera would also be a great hiking or backpack camera as long as you pocketed a couple of spare batteries to power the hungry little camera (or use a solar roll to recharge your batteries while on expedition). We love the image quality and the compact size of the camera. If the handling was better (better designed control dial and buttons) this camera would have made it into our bag. Give us this camera with usable dials and buttons and we would have our perfect go everywhere camera. Almost there Panasonic, maybe in the GM2?
Thanks again for letting us test the GM1, McBain’s in Red Deer!