Alright, I've been living with the Panasonic GF3 for a few weeks now and here's the full review. But first, confession time. I would never have bought this camera if it wasn't on sale in Amazon. I had heard some not-so-good things about it. But it was selling for around $300 (55% off!), roughly the same price as the lens that it was bundled with, the Panasonic 14mm f/2.5. I really wanted the lens. So I bought the camera.
Don't worry, it wasn't an impulse buy. I had actually done my homework. My wife was looking for a camera that was smaller than our Olympus E-P3, but she also wanted a camera that had similar image quality. I knew the GF3 fit those requirements. And if we were going to use it as a point and shoot, all those not-so-good things I read about didn't matter so much. Right? Or am I just trying to convince myself for buying a lemon?
Before anything else, it has to be said that I'm reviewing this camera as a hobbyist. I don't pretend to be a photographer, amateur, professional or otherwise. I've picked up a few tricks over the years and know my way around a camera, and as a former journalist I also know a thing or two about capturing and reproducing images, plus my beat was about consumer electronics. This review will be about real world usage, nothing technical. Got it? Right. So here we go.
The GF3 was designed to be small and Panasonic's designers succeeded there. In the hand, it feels like a chunky compact camera. If, like me, you've come from standard-sized micro four thirds cameras or SLRs, the GF3 feels small indeed.
It doesn't have a serious camera vibe by any means. The absence of buttons gives itself away. It doesn't feel like a toy either. There is some serious weight in the package, and this is a good thing, but it's not heavy either. There's a rubber thumb rest on the back, and a curved hand grip in front, both which worked for me, but they won't work for everyone.
The bundled 14mm lens is also tiny and it doesn't protrude very much.
The main feature of the camera is the swooping curve on top. It's pretty, I'll give them that, and it helps to shave off some extra centimeters. It comes at the price of a couple of things though: the hotshoe and the mode dial. "Pretty" is actually a word that seems to fit here. It looks especially pretty in red, which my wife was gunning for. She changed her mind though when she found out that the paint job raised the price significantly. The black GF3 puts us back in dude territory.
Back to the disappearance of the hotshoe and the mode dial, you won't be using any external flashes with this camera, or viewfinders, or flash triggers, or external mics. The built-in flash pops up from the middle of the swooping curve, and though it's not a strong flash by any means, it will do in a pinch.
Few buttons and no mode dial means the GF3 has no choice but to unload controls onto the touchscreen menu. Sometimes, this works okay. Other times, it fails miserably.
Selecting a new mode from the virtual mode dial, for example, takes three pokes. One to activate the Menu (NOT the Quick Menu), one to select the mode dial, and one to select the mode. I found the mode dial after around 15 minutes by the way.
Mostly, the Quick Menu isn't too bad. You've got stuff like your ISO controls and AF mode selector, but it can be confusing finding things between the Quick Menu and the generic Menu. Which menu has what? Who knows?
The biggest problem however isn't the menu layout but the actual touchscreen itself. It uses a resistive touchscreen instead of a capacitive one. So instead of gliding around with your finger like you would on an iPad, you have to give the GF3 a real poke every time you select something or swipe through your images. This feels so pre-iPhone days.
Because the touchscreen is such a pain, I mostly left the camera on iA mode (intelligent auto) and snapped away. This mode tries to guess what your shooting situation is and selects the appropriate scene mode. And waddayouknow it works. Autofocus is fast and responsive too. I had no complaints.
So how do the pictures look? At the end of the day, this is what's important, and here, the GF3 delivers. Image quality is comparable if not identical to other micro four thirds cameras in its class. I'd say the E-P3 has a slight advantage in image quality, especially when shooting RAW, but the difference isn't great. It's small enough to be ignored, and will be noticed only by pixel peepers.
|A quick and dirty handheld snap with the 14mm f/2.5. Out of camera JPG. Wide open.|
|100% crop. Not the sharpest I've seen, but it's not bad. The Olympus 45mm beats it for sharpness.|
Like all micro four thirds cameras of its generation, it will struggle in low light situations. High ISO performance isn't so great.
Panasonic cameras do tend to render scenes somewhat coolly. I prefer Olympus colors hands down. The GF3 also seems to underexpose, but it could just be me. I'd have to do a scientific test which would bore me to tears, so forget that. Here are more pictures instead.
|This shot and the next three were taken with the Panasonic 20mm. Still an amazing lens.|
|The new baby and the jealous toddler.|
|So easy to use, even a toddler can take pictures with this camera. Yes, this was taken by my toddler.|
|Shot this at f/10.|
|100% crop. You can read the banner.|
For the price this camera is going for nowadays it's a steal. I got it for around half the price of a Canon S100. Its current price on Amazon isn't much more. $329 with the 14mm pancake lens, or PHP15,000++ with taxes and shipping STILL make it half the price of a top-of-the-line compact like the Canon S100. And image quality-wise the GF3 will kick the ass of a compact camera any given Sunday, provided you don't mind the extra bulk. Looking at it another way, it's like buying the 14mm lens for the $300 listed price and getting the camera for $20.
Sure, the GF3 has Issues. The crippled controls and no hotshoe mean it can't go toe to toe with the E-P3 or GX1. Lack of control will frustrate more seasoned photographers, but shooters trading up from compact camera land will find lots to love. This is a camera that's best left on auto mode, with only occasional digging into menus. But once you've found some settings that work for you, this camera will treat you well and provide you with some solid images.