When the Panasonic GF2 was announced, many owners of the first-generation GF1 (including yours truly) were understandably excited. As Panasonic's answer to the rangefinder-styled Olympus PEN EP-1, the GF1 offered a tougher build, an old-school control layout, and a classier, more reserved look than its mirrorless rivals -- limited as they were in 2009 -- and so gained a substantial cult following. Paired with the remarkable Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens, it was a nearly pocketable setup that still shot excellent photos, making it ideal for street shooting.
However, early news of the GF2 dampened some enthusiasts' excitement. As details emerged, it became clear that while this new model picks up a number of new and desirable features from Panasonic's higher-end dSLR-styled Micro Four Thirds cameras, it also does away with much of what made the GF1 so attractive to many of its fans. Most strikingly, the new camera lacks the GF1's old-school physical control wheels and dedicated buttons for important settings. Instead, it uses a touchscreen interface more commonly found on luxury point-and-shoot cameras.
To put it bluntly, the GF2 is a camera aimed squarely at the mass market, whereas the GF1 was made distinctly with enthusiasts in mind. Since it's smaller, lighter, and much simpler to use than its predecessor, the GF2 is sure to attract more attention, especially from the crowd looking to step up from point-and-shoots. It offers a feature set that (on paper at least) bests that of the Olympus E-PL2 and has a good go at the APS-C mirrorless cameras from Sony and Samsung. Moreover, its price is competitive with the cheapest mirrorless and dSLR options on the market. In other words, it's a very capable camera, regardless of its target demographic.
Body and Design
Looking at the GF1 and GF2 side by side, it's obvious that the new camera is substantially smaller. This is no mean feat, since the GF1 was already a very small camera. The GF2 measures just 4.4 inches wide by 2.7 inches tall by 1.3 inches deep -- close to pocket camera territory. It's smaller than the Olympus E-PL2, and remarkably it's even tinier than some enthusiast point-and-shoot cameras like the Canon G12, Nikon P7000, and Olympus XZ-1. Of course, unlike those last cameras, the GF2 uses interchangeable lenses that increase its depth by a significant margin. The body by itself weighs just 265 grams, or a little more than half a pound, and the 14mm f/2.5 lens adds just 55 grams more (about 2 ounces). The 14-42mm kit lens is a bit heftier at 165g / 5.8oz.
The GF2's profile has also been slightly resculpted. The slightly raised vertical grip of the GF1 has been given a gentle curve on the GF2, which fits the hand about as well as a camera this small possibly can. The hotshoe for the optional viewfinder now sits atop a slight hump at the top of the lens mount. Along the upper edge, the GF1's mode selection dial and drive mode lever have been removed. In their place is a built-in stereo microphone, as well as a new dedicated iA (Intelligent Automatic) mode button. The cleverly engineered popup flash is still located on the left side of the hotshoe.
On the rear, many of the GF1's dedicated control buttons have been removed. Gone are the AF/AE Lock and AF/MF toggles. Gone is the Display button. The Playback button has been moved down closer to the four-way control pad, and the Quick Menu button has been merged with the Trash button. This is a very simplistic design compared to the original, which will no doubt please just as many users as it frustrates.
The 3-inch LCD maintains the GF1's 460,000 pixel resolution and 3:2 aspect ratio, but adds a new anti-glare coating that does make it easier to see in bright sunlight. Of course, the biggest news about the screen is that it's now touch-sensitive. With the removal of many physical controls, the Quick/Function menu has been extensively redesigned for touch-based use, and in practice it works quite intuitively. The screen can also be tapped to select the focus area, which comes in quite handy when the user needs to zero in on something quickly and doesn't quite trust the multi-point autofocus mode.
On the base plate is a metal tripod mount socket centered on the axis of the lens mount, as well as the door covering the battery and SD/SDHC card compartment. The SDHC card is spring-loaded and is easy to insert and remove, while the battery is kept in by a small plastic clasp. Thanks to the generally shrunken design of the GF2, the battery is smaller than the one used in the GF1 and has a slightly lower capacity (7.3Wh vs. 9.0Wh). A small plastic flap on the right side of the camera covers the mini-HDMI port and proprietary AV Out connector. On the GF1 this flap was spring-loaded and quite a bit more secure than the cheap-feeling solution used here.
The lens mount is still vanilla Micro Four Thirds, which means it's compatible with any Panasonic, Olympus, or Voigtlander lens designed for the standard. Legendary optics companies including Carl Zeiss and Schneider-Kreuznach have also recently joined the Micro Four Thirds consortium -- as have lesser-known brands like Samyang -- meaning that a broader variety of high-quality native glass will soon be available.
Also worth noting, the MFT mount has one of the shortest registration distances in existence, which means that with the right adapter, just about any lens ever made can mount to the GF2. This includes everything from 50-year-old M42 screwmount lenses to Canon and Nikon’s current-generation glass. All lenses used on the MFT mount have a 2x “crop factor,” which essentially means that the field of view is equivalent to a lens with two times the stated focal length. For instance, the 14mm f/2.5 prime that ships with the GF2 is equivalent to a 28mm field of view.
Overall, the build quality of the GF2 is very good. The body is made almost entirely of metal with a nice, sleek matte finish that doesn’t show fingerprints easily. There’s no noticeable flex when gripping the camera, and the few remaining buttons and dials have a pleasingly responsive feel without any mushiness or wiggle. Despite its pared down feature set, the GF2 doesn’t seem to have sacrificed any sturdiness aside from the cheesy AV compartment cover flap. Like many Panasonic cameras, the GF2 can be purchased in a variety of colors including black, white, silver, red, and pink.
Performance and User Experience
The GF2 is an incredibly fun camera to use. Its compact size and light weight, particularly when paired with a pancake prime lens, make it ideal for street shooting and situations where a larger camera would draw unwanted attention. People just don't seem to be as intimidated by cameras this size -- they just don't look so serious, so having one with dSLR-level image quality is a boon for candid shooting. Startup time and shutter lag are extremely short (or virtually nonexistent, in the latter case), which makes it very easy to get shots.
With the 14mm f/2.5 prime lens, the autofocus is also very quick, though as with most live view-based cameras (with the notable exception of Sony's new SLT models) it isn't really suitable for high-speed sports shots. The user can choose between several different AF modes including single-point, 23-area, face detection, and tracking. In the single, 23-area, and tracking modes, users can set the focus point by touching the screen. When doing this in the single-point mode, users choose the exact point of focus and the size of the focus area (using a vertical slider on the right side of the screen). Any point in the central 45 percent of the frame is selectable, which is enough range for most situations. When tapping-to-focus in 23-area AF mode, a tap selects a group of focal points around the target. In tracking AF mode, tap the desired subject and the GF2's AF system will track it with decent accuracy, at least until it leaves the frame. I'm not typically a fan of touchscreen implementations, but I have to say that this kind of tap-to-focus is really a killer feature. Very, very cool.
Of course, manual focus is an option with any lens on the GF2. With native Micro Four Thirds lenses, the user can choose to enable the customary Panasonic "MF Assist" mode, which magnifies the center of the image to 5x when the focus ring is turned. This simple innovation makes it much, much easier to focus on static objects. It's a killer feature for, say, macro shooting. The MF Assist is not automatically activated when non-MFT lenses are mounted, but there is an option to manually engage that feature.
The touchscreen isn't only used to focus, of course. It's also used to access virtually all of the quick settings needed when shooting on the go. These controls have been intelligently designed for easy access and a minimum of wrong-presses. In the standard shooting mode, for instance, there are four touchable buttons on the screen. In the upper left corner is the Mode button, which indicates the current shooting mode and can select a different one. Along the right side are the Quick Menu button up top, and the touch-to-shoot shutter button and Display button below. Pressing the Quick Menu button brings up a large overlay with a side-scrolling list of menus at the bottom (Picture Setting, Video Quality, Image Quality, Metering Mode, AF Mode, etc.) and a grid with sub-menu options up top. Users can customize the Quick Menu with up to 10 settings -- always a welcome feature.
However, as I noted in my review of the GH2, Panasonic's touchscreen implementation doesn't come up all roses. I was often annoyed to find that, while carrying the camera in a non-shooting position, something had inadvertently touched the screen and screwed up some vital setting (usually the focus point). Usually, I found this out after shooting (and missing) several exposures.This happens partially because the GF2 uses a resistive touch panel. Resistive panels rely on physical pressure rather than the electric charge of skin-on-screen contact, which means that literally anything can activate the on-screen controls, not just fingertips.
Aimed at relative newbies and those who just want to set-and-forget, the GF2 adds a dedicated, tactile button for the iA, or Intelligent Auto, mode. Pressing this button at any time will cause the camera to revert to full automatic operation. In this mode, the camera chooses from a number of scene settings based on the image coming through the lens, and accordingly sets the aperture, shutter speed, and so on. Images taken in iA mode were of consistently good quality -- well-exposed and with good color. Scene modes and My Color settings are also available, with familiar options like Sunset, Sports, Macro, Portrait, Landscape, and so on. Finally, the standard manual shooting modes can be selected, including full Manual, Program, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Priority. In these modes, the physical rear dial is used to change the shutter speed or aperture.
Panasonic has packed another neat feature into the iA mode (and stolen a little terminology from Nikon in the process): a “Defocus Control” slider. Activated by pressing a touch button on the LCD, this function adjusts the aperture of the lens to create more or less background blur. For instance, when shooting a portrait, it can be set for the maximum “defocus” to isolate the subject from the background. The resulting depth of field is automatically previewed on the LCD, which is a convenient benefit. To get the same effect when shooting in Aperture Priority mode, users have to set the Fn button to Depth of Field Preview and press it. The degree of “defocus” can be controlled using either the slider on the LCD screen or the camera’s physical rear wheel.
Alongside the iA hard button on the top plate of the GF2 is the dedicated video recording button. Pressing this red button immediately activates video capture, using pre-selected settings. Unlike previous Panasonic Micro Four Thirds cameras including the GF1, the only way to enter movie mode on the GF2 is with this dedicated button.
Shooting videos is a relatively simple process with the GF2, though there are frustrations along the way. To begin with, if still photos are set to a 3:2 or 4:3 aspect ratio and video in a 16:9 HD ratio (as will most likely be the case), hitting the video recording button will chop off the bottom and top of the still image. Without any guide lines before the aspect ratio changes, this makes it very difficult to frame the beginning of a video -- it's a guessing game as to where the top and bottom edges of the video frame will be. Manual controls are also lacking; aperture, shutter speed, and the like can't be set before or changed during shooting. Interestingly, however, the touch-to-focus function still works with video, making it quite easy to isolate a subject in a crowd without distracting, tentative efforts at manual focus.
Image and Video Quality
In general, the GF2 produces very good photos, with pleasing sharpness, mostly accurate colors, and good control of noise up to about ISO 800. In most conditions the camera can produce excellent output in full automatic (iA) mode, making it a very easy transition camera for those new to advanced cameras, and the shots only get better with practice.
The GF2 employs a variant of the venerable Micro Four Thirds sensor, though not the same one found in Panasonic's top-of-the-line GH2. This tech is beginning to show its age -- particularly in terms of dynamic range (ability to preserve detail in over- and under-exposed areas) and high-ISO (ability to avoid excessive image noise when shooting in low-light) performance. There is relatively little headroom in the files produced by the GF2, even when shooting RAW, which means it's more difficult to salvage images that aren't perfectly exposed. Above ISO 800, noise begins to creep into shots pretty rapidly. ISO 1600 is still pretty usable, but 3200 is a grainy mess and 6400 looks as sloppy as the output from a camera phone. This is nowhere near the performance of larger sensors like those found in the current generation of dSLRs, such as the Nikon D7000, Canon 7D, or Pentax K-5. It's worth noting, however, that the GF1 topped out at just ISO 3200, so some improvements have obviously been made.
With cameras that shoot both JPEG and RAW, it’s a given that there will be a notable difference in quality between the two formats, even when JPEGs are shot at the highest quality settings. This is the case with the GF2 as well. The camera's JPEG compression seems a bit more aggressive than I'd like, smearing fine detail at times. Glancing at a straight-out-of-camera JPEG alongside one converted from RAW, it's possible to discern a sizeable gap in acuity, even before any additional RAW processing. On the plus side, the GF2's RAW files are very good indeed -- at least within the sensor's limitations. They were a pleasure to work with in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw.
Using the default settings, colors produced by the GF2 seemed quite neutral, perhaps leaning very slightly toward the cool side. Images aren't oversaturated, skewed unnaturally warm, or made too contrasty -- all of which are characteristics common to cheaper consumer-grade digitals. This means that the user has more freedom to adjust the images in post-production to suit their personal taste, though some coming from point-and-shoot cameras may find the default output to be a little "flat."
I used the new Panasonic 14mm f/2.5 prime lens for every shot I took with the GF2, and found it to be an excellent performer -- sharp (particularly in the center of the image), well-corrected for distortion, and without obnoxious vignetting. As I stated earlier, this lens on the GF2 is equivalent in terms of field of view to a 28mm lens on a typical film camera -- in other words, a moderate wide-angle. This is a very useful focal length for street shooting, landscapes, and so on, but not ideally suited to portraiture, wildlife, or sports. For portraiture, I highly recommend Panasonic's similarly small 20mm f/1.7 pancake, which is a truly stellar optic design. I am a prime lens shooter by nature, so sticking to a single focal length for the duration of my testing didn't bother me; however, those coming from point and shoots, and those less interested in "zooming with their feet" will probably want to opt for the 14-42mm kit zoom.
Video quality is vastly improved over that of the GF1, and even approaches the output of the much more expensive and feature-rich GH2. The GF2 can record in 1080i (interlaced), or 720p (progressive) HD using the lightweight AVCHD codec, or 720p and lower using the clunkier and chunkier Motion JPEG format. AVCHD video is recorded as 30fps 1080p and then converted to 60fps 1080i for playback. Video looks very good on the whole, without much tearing or “jello” effect (aka rolling shutter). Sharpness is adequate and the color is the same here as it is in the stills -- neutral with a slight "cool" tendency in the white balance.
While the GF2 may be a disappointment to a small, specific subset of enthusiasts (who also happen to be the most vocal commenters on the Internet), the majority will find it to be a full-featured, intuitive, and very useful photographic tool. In most senses it improves on the GF1, with a newer and more sensitive imaging sensor, higher-spec video recording, and reduced size and weight. It produces great stills and video -- certainly on par with all but the highest-end Micro Four Thirds cameras and close to equaling the output of previous-generation APS-C dSLRs.
The move away from physical controls to a touchscreen interface is really the only possible stumbling block for enjoyment of this camera, and for the most part it's a winning implementation. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it will be many people's favorite aspect of shooting with the GF2. While it has its quirks and minor annoyances, by and large the change is beneficial for the kind of shooting you're likely to do with this type of camera.
Relative to other cameras in its class, the GF2 is positioned pretty well. Just released, it is currently available in a few configurations: $500 for the body only, $600 for the 14-42mm kit, and $700 for the 14mm prime kit. This is a good deal cheaper than the GF1 was at launch, and pretty much in line with similar offerings from main rival Olympus. Their E-PL2, which lacks the GF2's touchscreen interface but offers in-body image stabilization, is also selling at its $600 MSRP for the 14-42mm kit (and isn't available in other configurations). In the broader mirrorless field, the Sony NEX-5 is selling for around $700 for the zoom lens kit. Pricing of the Samsung NX series is a bit scattershot, with the GF2-like NX100 going for as low as $450, while the small but dSLR-esque NX10 asks $500 and up (the next gen NX11 is yet to be released). Some lower-end dSLRs have crept into this price frame, but none of them can match the portability of these smaller mirrorless solutions, so it might be bit unfair to compare them head-to-head (though most buyers still seem to be more interested in entry-level dSLRs than mirrorless cameras).
The GF2 is in an interesting market niche. It simultaneously appeals to interchangeable-lens neophytes moving up from point-and-shoot compact and bridge cameras, as well as dSLR owners who want a more portable but still high-quality alternative to their heavy gear. For the former group it offers a good sense of continuity in both its control scheme and its appearance, and for the latter group it offers the smallest and lightest Micro Four Thirds package available, combined with excellent image quality. Which is to say, it's a winning formula on multiple fronts.