If ever there was a convincing argument for Micro Four Thirds, this camera and the Olympus E-M1 would form the vanguard. One lets you shoot under incredibly demanding conditions and extends the shooting envelope significantly over the competition; the other is so darn small that it puts most compact cameras to shame. In fact, the body is no larger than it needs to be to accommodate a 3″ touch-sensitive LCD, and a tiny bit of real estate to accommodate a few buttons and a vestigial thumb grip. To put things into perspective: the body is the same size as the ultra-compact Canon Ixus I used to have; the one so compact that it doesn’t even have a d-pad. Size does of course carry some compromises. But I admit that I was curious to find out just what they were; there are times when I need a bit more flexibility than the fixed 28mm of the excellent Ricoh GR, and this seemed like just the ticket…
From the images floating around online, I expected it to be small. But not this small; I believe we have reached the limits of how small we can make a camera body and still expect it to be usable. Some of the controls – the rear ring, for instance – aren’t very useful and a bit too fiddly; I’d have preferred to forgo that, have a proper d-pad and put the command dial where the AF selector switch is on the top – that seems like a waste of real estate to me, especially given that most people will use it with the kit pancake zoom (also excellent, by the way) which doesn’t even have a manual focus ring – rendering one of the three positions on that dial useless. The function button in its centre can stay, however.
Surprisingly though, the lack of real estate – and lack of buttons – do not really make for huge handling deficiencies; the impressive and highly customisable controls and touch screen shortcuts mean that a lot of the things you might usually need buttons for – AF point, for instance – aren’t necessary, or can be configured to be soft keys on screen. What did bother me more was the lack of any assigned button to be one-touch 100% magnification playback zoom, and the ability to jump between zoomed-in images to check focus/ sharpness – this is one of the most used features on my other cameras. Kudos for making playback mode full featured though – you can scroll and delete from the instant review (and even choose whether this behaviour is default or not).
Overall though, the camera is well built, solid, and the metal bits feel like metal. I was a bit disappointed in receiving the silver unit to review, but it’s grown on me; every other camera I have is black, and perhaps a little boring. Button feel is good enough. The battery is tiny, and will only get you about 250 images in practical use, but then again we expected that and can accept it as a compromise to the size of the thing. I like how compact the whole basic package is – almost jeans-pocketable, definitely jacket pocketable – but I dislike how many steps are required before you are ready to shoot: 1. remove lens cap; 2. extend lens; 3. power switch on; it somewhat defeats the point of having a small, pocketable, fast camera that’s always ready to go – with the GR, I just hit the power button or switch. All in all, it passes the haptics test: I want to pick it up and shoot with it. And I still want to pick it up and shoot with it even though I’ve had it in my care more than a week, which is a good sign.
In the past, I’ve had issues with Panasonic’s slightly confusing menus; whatever tweaks they’ve made to the GM1 have increased usability substantially, to the point that it doesn’t bother me anymore. Set and forget, then use the camera in glorified point and shoot mode, albeit with significantly better output. There are two gotchas here, and they’re pretty big ones if you shoot like me: firstly, program mode will tend to choose very small apertures and max out the mechanical shutter at 1/500s instead of switching over to the electronic shutter* – this results in very soft images indeed due to diffraction. And avoid the low ISO settings; there are visible compromises to noise and dynamic range.
*The GM1 has a dual electronic/ mechanical shutter, with the former taking over at 1/500s and up. Unfortunately, mechanical shutter speed and flash sync were sacrificed with size: just 1/50s; not that you’ll be doing much flash work seeing as there’s no hotshoe and the built in one is tiny. It can be bounced though, which is handy if you have low ceilings I suppose.
You can of course work around this by leaving the camera in aperture priority, which is fiddly because of that rear dial. By far a bigger problem is that if you’re using the spot meter, it’ll show you the correct exposure of what’s under the spot all the time, even if you lock exposure and recompose – I seem to recall the LX7 also having the same behaviour, which is hugely annoying as you cannot really see the final composition. Worse still, the spot may move to a point with vastly different exposure to what you intended. I suppose somebody will point out that the function of a matrix meter is to remedy that; the meter could use a bit more consistency, especially with highlight overexposure.
I haven’t said anything about image quality yet. In light of recent news regarding the origin of the E-M1’s sensor – Panasonic – I’m now starting to think that the GM1 and E-M1’s sensors are related; they aren’t the same because the GM1 lacks PDAF photosites, and as far as I can tell, still has an AA filter – though a very weak one. Its pixel acuity is comparable to the E-M5; i.e. just slightly below the E-M1. Dynamic range and noise characteristics are very similar; almost identical, in fact. I process the files the same way, and feel that I’ve got the same amount of latitude. Base noise seems to be a bit higher with the same ACR NR settings though – I have no explanation for this – which lowers the highest usable ISO by about a stop to 3200 in a pinch with some NR and DR compromises.
There is one important difference, though: colour. The E-M1’s native colours are much more pleasing than the GM1; neither is accurate, but I have to do more work with the GM1 to get to a point I’m happy with. I’m pretty sure this is down to the camera displaying the usual Panasonic trait of an odd shift in the blue channel towards cyan, which is especially noticeable (and unnatural) in skies; this in turn affects magenta. A custom ACR profile would probably cure this, and if I decide to keep the camera in the end, I’ll probably go produce one. Bottom line: image quality is better than adequate, and a big step above any of the small sensor (including 1″) compacts – even with the kit pancake.
Ahh, that pancake. The 12-32/3.5-5.6 OIS has some odd specifications – it’s a 24-64 equivalent, slow aperture, has no focusing ring, but is positively minuscule; it’s about the same size as a spare body cap and lens back cap put together. It manages this by collapsing, which makes it easy to store but requires and extra step to shoot. I’ve actually owned one of these lenses since December last year, and have been using it on my E-M1 to make a point and shoot on steroids; I like it very much. A shame that it isn’t available on its own outside of Japan. The black version appears to be made of anodised aluminium; I can’t tell what the silver version is made of – I suspect the zoom ring is metal, but the body is plastic. In any case, it moves smoothly, is easy to frame, and locks open and closed positively. Focusing is fast, and the stabiliser is effective – I can’t tell much of a difference between the lens’ stabiliser and the E-M1’s stabiliser.
Optically, it’s surprisingly good – much better than you’d expect given the spec and the fact that it’s a kit lens; I personally find it to be sharper and more distortion-free than the 14-42 pancake it appears to replace; it also has slightly better microcontrast. Both lenses still have pronounced distortion at the wide end, however; neither is fast to shoot because of the design compromises required to achieve that size – the 14-42 pops out by itself, but has a slow e-zoom lever, and you have no idea where in the zoom range you are until you start zooming; the 12-32 has to be extended manually before shooting. I have not used the new Olympus 14-42 pancake enough to make a meaningful comparison, but it is slightly thinner and also pops out by itself (and even has an optional self-opening petal-shaped lens cap, too).
If I had to sum up the GM1 – and 12-32 pancake – in one word, it would be fun. This camera is one you do not take too seriously, but whose results are always surprisingly good – especially given the size of the camera – and it can also serve as an emergency backup body if you’re shooting a M4/3 setup anyway. In my mind, you can only really pair it with the 12-32 or 20/1.7 pancakes before it becomes a bit of a pointless exercise due to imbalanced ergonomics; it can be done, but I don’t see why you’d do it. It isn’t a serious camera: you’re missing a lot of things like a hot shoe, viewfinder (or ability to take one) and there are some bugs like the spot meter behaviour; but that’s not the point: if you’re going with the intention of shooting, you’ll take the right tool. This isn’t going to be your only camera, so it doesn’t matter -unless perhaps you’re flying an extremely budget airline, or backpacking, or doing some other extreme sport. I’ve carried the GM1 in my pocket for the last two weeks, and produced some images I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise because my primary intentions at the time were not photographic – this is the important bit – because I had a) a capable device and b) the right range of perspectives with me. You might begin to think I like this thing; you’d be right. MT
I will be uploading more GM1 images to this set on flickr.
The Panasonic GM1 with 12-32 collapsible pancake is available here from B&H.2
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