Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Panasonic GF1 Revisited (In Alaska)

Panasonic GF1
GF1 with viewfinder and 20mm f1.7 lens with the Olympus OM 135mm f2.8
I was recently faced with a conundrum that many of us photographers face when we are about to go away on vacation.  Which camera equipment to take with us.  My family and I had booked a trip to Alaska on the Norwegian Star cruise ship and were going to be gone about a week.  I have a lot of Canon equipment that I use for work, but I sort of put a line in the sand between my work equipment and my play equipment so that gear wasn't considered.  I had also recently purchased the Olympus E5 and by the way I'm loving it, but I had to consider weight, that I was on vacation and with my wife and daughter, not a bunch of photographers.  I also have a Pentax point and shoot (W90) but honestly I'm not crazy about that camera's image quality except for its ability to shoot time lapse.  I figured I wasn't going to bring my film camera either, I wanted the convenience of digital.  So, it occurred to me that I should give myself a break from big DSLR's and give the micro four thirds cameras a long test as a tourist.

That left me with two choices, the Olympus EPL1 or the Panasonic GF1, both of which I own.  The Panasonic won out for two reasons.  One, I own the viewfinder for it and not the Olympus and two I have two batteries for it and only one for the Olympus (I drained the first battery after about 4 and a half days of use).  With the GF1 I took the 20mm f1.7 Lumix lens, the Olympus 14-42 kit lens from the EPL1, the plastic Holga lens and the Olympus OM 135mm f2.8  lens mounted on the MF-2 adaptor (which works seamlessly).  I also decided to take the wrist strap off the camera and put the neck strap back on.  I had decided a while ago to give up on neck straps, but I envisioned I'd be carrying (shopping) bags, holding my daughters hand, etc so I wanted my hands free.  Also I knew that my wife and daughter would have very little patience for me setting up my shots every 10 minutes.  I needed quick, easy and light gear.  The good news is that this is the biggest shake-up or test drive I have ever given this camera so now I can write about it again with a more informed impression than I first made with it.

Tracey Arm Glacier in Alaska
Tracey Arm Glacier 3 shot HDR with Olympus 14-42 lens and GF1
Well here is what I learned.  There were times I missed a proper DSLR for sure.  We had a grey whale swimming beneath our balcony one day and I was trying to focus and photograph the moving subject with the GF1 with very poor result.  Same experience with a bear up in a tree.  The viewfinder on the Panasonic is nice for being able to bring the camera up to your eye and shoot it like a 'real' camera, but it has a couple of faults.  It isn't very big and bright, the focus adjustment knob on the side of it gets bumped easily each time you hit the button needed to turn it on and it goes out of focus (it turns way too easily) and the image inside the viewfinder is no match for that of a proper DSLR or that of the Olympus electronic viewfinder that I looked through in the store.  Also, the viewfinder doesn't really clip in there well in the hotshoe.  It seems to want to slide out a little at times which is worrying as it isn't a cheap accessory that you want to lose.

Also, the GF1 isn't weather sealed, and in our stop in Prince Rupert it was raining very heavily.  I left the GF1 on the ship that day.  The Pentax point and shoot or the Olympus E3 or E5 would have been welcome partners.  My daughter did bring her Olympus 850SW waterproof point and shoot that I passed down to her so that was handy.  Luckily it only rained that one day the whole trip.

Sailing to Tracey Arm
The water on the way sailing to Tracey Arm, 3 shot HDR with GF1 and 14-42 lens
The good things about the camera were also pretty quickly obvious to me.  First up I stood out from the crowd.  You might think this is vain, and it is, but in a sea of point and shoots, cell phones, Canon Rebels and Nikon whatevers (whatever the bottom of the line Nikon is) I looked pretty cool with my vintage leather wrapped GF1 especially when I had the viewfinder and Olympus OM lens on it.  Yes, you can say it, I like to look awesome!  Plus people have no idea what you are carrying, I like that too.  I always take a look at others equipment, I can't help it.  Sort of a popularity survey of others stuff.  Interestingly the cruise ship must have a partnership with Olympus as they sell the waterproof point and shoots, the EPL2 and the superzoom camera right on the boat with constantly scrolling Olympus commercials (which are really quite good) and a big banner in the photo department.  Making no sense to me, the photographers on board all use the Nikon D90.  Not that that's a bad camera, it just seemed contradictory.  By the way, the photography on board was very poor.  I don't mean to say that as a snob, but if spot colouring, on camera flash and basically anything that screams 1999 is your favourite photography fashion, then you should cruise.  And you know what?  They make a lot of money selling that to happy customers.  People line up for it.  So rest assured, the bar is very low still for the general public.  In their defence I doubt they have time to deliver considered and well done photographs to 2300 cruisers, nor do they wish to pay for properly trained and interested photographers.  To finish my little informal survey, other than the sea of bottom end Canon and Nikon DSLR's that all looked shiny and new, there were a significant number of micro four thirds cameras that I saw including the EP1, EP3, EPL2, and the G3.  That surprised me.  I also saw one Samsung NX100.  There was also a lot of point and shoots, but most of them were the superzoom variety.  Of course a lot of iPhones were being used.  I saw one low end Sony DSLR.  It still had a price tag on the neck strap.  

Other good things I enjoyed about the GF1:
  • It was really light.  I never noticed it around my neck or slung over my shoulder.  It never seemed in the way.  
  • The viewfinder, despite my griping about it's quality, is pretty handy when its sunny or bright outside
  • It's black and white jpgs look really good and contrasty right out of the camera.
  • To do an HDR, all you have to do is flip a switch on the top and you are exposure bracketing.  That is the easiest camera ever for getting instantly to HDR mode.
  • It isn't a fast focuser, but it isn't point and shoot slow either.  Fast enough for slow moving people and not frustrating for other things so long as they aren't a quick swimming whale.  Face detection is pretty handy and works well, but changing focus points manually isn't quick or intuitive.
  • The video quality is good, certainly more than any home user could need, and it's easy to use.
Other things I didn't like:
  • at ISO 800 it really isn't enjoyable any longer for noise unless you are black and white.  ISO 1600 should be reserved for black and white grainy images which some will hate, but I don't mind.  ISO 3200 is unusable, which will matter to some people, but for me, with this type of camera, it isn't an issue.

GF1 with Olympus OM135mm f2.8 lens
Of the lenses I brought I can say this.  I used the 20mm pancake f1.7 lens the least.  That surprised me, but in retrospect I was outside most of the time and didn't need the fast aperture.  The Olympus 14-42 kit lens isn't fast (3.5-5.6), but it has a useful range and I used it the most.  It is plenty sharp and is small enough not to be a bother to carry.  Both of those lenses weigh next to nothing.  I only used the Holga lens a few times.  It is very soft and kinda junky, but that's why we love it right?  I used the Olympus OM 135mm f2.8 a lot actually and it balances nicely on the camera when you are holding it.  It is noticeably larger when you are just leaving the camera strapped around your neck because the lens barrel will knock into things, but it isn't too bad.  I found it really hard to manually focus it with the viewfinder or screen I think because it is effectively a 270mm lens and that is hard to do manually especially considering the viewfinder is really not that bright.  The lens itself focuses smoothly and is a dream to use on my film camera but I found on this trip I pretty much just put it on infinity focus and prayed.  The whale shots I took and the bear shots were out of focus.

Olympus 135mm f2.8 OM lens
When the lens did work, it was a dream to use.  Very sharp and had wonderful compression.

Olympus 135mm f2.8 OM lens
For this trip, for the most part I shot in jpg.  I'm on vacation after all, and these aren't critical shots.  I did switch to raw a couple of times if I knew I was in a tricky spot, but I was able to use the same 8gig SD card the whole trip and never used my backup card.  I uploaded the photos to my iPad each night and shared them with the family using the camera connector kit.  That was pretty easy and convenient to use, and viewing photos on the iPad is really nice.

Olympus 14-42 kit lens
Photo 2011-08-27 10-28-09.jpg
Pike Place Market in Seattle, where we left on the cruise.  20mm f1.7 Lumix pancake lens, out of camera b/w jpg.
Overall, I really enjoyed my in depth relationship with the GF1.  The out of camera jpg's were fun to use and I especially like the dynamic black and white setting (seen above).  The art filters aren't quite as nice as in the Olympus cameras, but they are still fun.  The camera tends to underexpose a little bit in aperture priority, but I'm OK with that, better than blowing out the highlights.  It seemed to do a better job in 'Intelligent Auto' mode which I used when I gave the camera to my 9 year old. The camera is a wonderful street camera and a really good vacation camera.  It isn't perfect, but it is very very good.  I was glad I left my DSLR's at home in the end.  The biggest compliment I can give the GF1 is that it never got in my way and delivered excellent quality images when I wanted them.  If I could add anything to the wish list for this type of camera it would be to build in the viewfinder (or at least make it clip in securely), make it brighter, add weather sealing to the camera and some of the lenses and that's about it.  I think with the newer GF2 and GF3 it seems like Panasonic is going more towards the consumer point and shoot market and that isn't a good thing to me.  I'll keep the GF1 thank-you.

Olympus 14-42 Kit lens.  Mail box in the famous Creek Street Ketchikan Alaska
My daughter on the pier in Ketchikan,  Plastic Holga lens for micro four thirds
Bicycles in Pike Place Market in Seattle, Lumix 20mm f1.7 lens
The only 5Dmk II I saw on the trip, in Pike Place Market
One of the few traditional point and shoots I saw, but Pike Place was full of people with cameras
Pike Place Hearse Shoot
I'm not sure if I'm the only person doing this, but I'm always stalking and checking out other photographers.  The one guy that really caught my attention is the fellow in the photo above who parked a big white hearse across the street in Pike Place Market, put a camera on a tripod and tethered it to his Macbook Pro for a photo.  Not sure if he had a permit (doubt it, I'm sure they would have made him have traffic flag people) but it was incredibly interesting for me anyway.  He was working fast I'm sure trying to get done before a police officer came by.

Missed Grey Whale Shot

Thanks again for dropping by the blog.  I appreciate your visit!  Before I go I should mention that I came across a really cool magazine in the market in Seattle called Shots which I bought and love.  Grab one if you enjoy independent fine art photography.  Look for my in depth report on the Olympus E5 at some point.  Just going to warn you, I do love it, though having said that, I had the chance to play with a large format film camera on Sunday and that my friends was really really amazing.  


Sanford said...

Don't beat yourself up over missed whale shots. Great whale photos are nearly impossible to get under the best of circumstances, no matter what camera you use.

Neil Gaudet said...

Hi Sanford, thanks for dropping by the blog. I think I might have been able to at least get a sharp photo if I had my Canon 7D or Olympus E5 for example. Not one that would have appeared on the cover of National Geographic, but heck at least sharp. Manually focusing an old film lens in a dark flickery electronic viewfinder that tends to fall out of focus itself is near impossible.

But I believe you. Wildlife photography isn't my area at all, and I'm convinced I'd be terrible at it, at least at first. I'll stick to weddings and portraits. :)

Alan said...

Hi, really interesting article. We did a similar cruise in June this year. Took my epl2, the kit 14-42 mk II, and the panasonic 14mm and 45-200mm. The 14mm was great for inside at night, and the long zoom good for wildlife, but overall I was the same as you, the 14-42mm got most use. In general the reduced weight and size was great though, especially when travelling with a 14month old. Talking of art effects, the dramatic tone on the epl2 got some amazing shots. Any days with a bit of cloud produced some great shots. Alan.

Neil Gaudet said...

Hi Alan

Thanks for dropping by the blog!

I'd like to try that 14mm lens, but I've put off buying more micro four thirds lenses until I see a camera with a built in viewfinder and maybe (hopefully) weather sealing. Though I've been known to change my mind.

I hear you about travelling with kids and reducing your camera weight. That was on my mind for sure, though my daughter is 9 so I had it a little easier.

I've used the dramatic tone on my E5 a few times and really enjoyed it. The artistic filters on the GF1 aren't quite as good except I really prefer their dynamic black and white setting. I never thought I'd like the artistic filters, and for the most part I actually don't use them, but if you're just fooling around they are a lot of fun.

Anonymous said...

Never saw the problem with using the lcd instead of the viewfinder, makes focusing manual lenses even easier imo.
Might be different for people that shoot SLRs all the time, but I prefer rangefinders most of the time, and transitioning from them to the gf1's screen takes no time!

Neil Gaudet said...

The LCD is fine to focus on with manual lenses as you say, but for me I find I'm kind of shaky holding a camera away from my body with two arms stretched out. I get more stability with the camera up to my eye and my elbows bent, which is pretty important as the GF1 has no built in stabilization. Plus the viewfinder blocks the sun.

I can respect that for some newer photographers raised on point and shoot digitals the LCD might be preferred and I'm surprised how much I enjoy using the rotating LCD and live view on my Olympus E5, but nothing beats a viewfinder for me.

Appreciate you dropping by the blog.

Anonymous said...

Have had the GF1 myself and loved the camera. It is a joy to use and has a great "personality". Used it mostly as a walkaround camera when I didn't want to carry my DSLR with "oversized lenses".

Unfortunately I let it go when in favor of a lighter Nikon DSLR to use as a walkaround camera, but regreted it deeply so I bought a X100 :-)

Neil Gaudet said...

The X100 is beautiful. I had the chance to play with one briefly and I can totally see the appeal of it. There are a couple of quirks with it, but it's hard to deny the attraction and 'bling' factor that camera has. But you sound like me after I sold my Panasonic L1. I still regret it and miss that camera. Amazing how attached we get to these silly little devices eh?

Thanks for the comment and dropping by the blog.

clippingimages said...

very innovative photography........

Neil Gaudet said...

thanks :)

Vanna Sings said...

Just read your post about black and white jpegs from the GF1. Do you use any particular settings or the preset black and white options?


Neil Gaudet said...

Hi Vanna

Thanks for dropping by the blog. I've since had my GF1 converted to an IR camera so I pretty much leave it on RAW and apply no filters. But if I remember right it was called Dynamic Black and White for the preset on the Panasonic Camera. I've always liked the black and whites right out of the camera, nice deep blacks and lots of contrast.

Shadda said...


I loved this blog/rambling but was wondering about the hdr part, did you change the settings on the camera to 2/3 of a stop which I believe is the maximum? The default is 1/3rd. Is this really enough and what did you combine the images in? Lightroom or similar or does the camera do it for you. Do you also have to press the shutter release 3 times or just the once. Too many questions I know, sorry.

Neil Gaudet said...

Hi Shadda

Sorry it's taken me so long to reply to you. I admit I've been a bit of a bad blogger lately.

I frankly don't recall if I changed the settings of the camera. I usually like 3 exposures one stop different from each other which I usually find enough. I'd have to go look at the camera to answer your question and job my memory, but unfortunately I don't have it with me. In fact I've converted the GF1 to an IR camera!

I probably used either Nik Software's HDR program or Photomatix. I own both, and I'm a bit back and forth on using them. I don't recall which I used from this trip. With the GF1 if I recall, you only need to flip the switch to exposure bracket and mash the shutter once and it does the rest for you. Panasonic makes it so easy to do HDR, easier than any other camera I've owned. The old L1 was just as good.

Thanks for dropping by the blog!