Clickenzee to Embiggen!
Introduction (you don't have to read this if you know about GF1's and small cameras)
I got my first Leica in 1999 or 2000 and I was smitten hard. It was a beautiful thing and I used it nearly exclusively until I got a Nikon Coolpix 950 -- the immediacy of digital was too much to pass up. I never lost my love for the Leica but you also never get back the time you spend in the dark room. For years after I used many digital cameras, but I loved none of them. In my heart I've always been looking for a digital Leica M.
"Well," you may say, "there is a digital M, Mr. Smartypants, why don't you get one of those?"
And the answer is because Leica's digital M is $7,000 which I consider a non-starter as I could buy three Nikon d600's for that price and still have money left over for lenses. Leica's given up on the photojournalist market which is fine -- I've been waiting for someone else to fill that hole. There have been a bunch of attempts and the one I thought best was Panasonic's GF1 -- a micro 4:3 camera with a very small body and an (optional) external viewfinder and complete manual control, which is pretty much what I was looking for.
I used my GF1 for years and it was very popular with pros who were also looking for something like a digital Leica, it was a good first attempt and I've been eagerly awaiting an update, faster autofocusing was the thing I wanted most Panasonic followed up the GF1 with two models, the GF2 and the GF3, both of which had fewer rather than more features. They gave up more manual control over the camera in attempts to make it smaller and this made both of those models appeal less to pros who (like me) clung to their GF1's and sent nasty notes to Panasonic.
Finally Panasonic listened and instead of a GF4, they put out an update to the GF1 named the GX1, because pro cameras should have an X in the name and it helps to obfuscate things. (The cameras are actually called "Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1" and "Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1" because that sounds more confusing).
So Should You Upgrade?
I got a GX1 when they first came out and have been using it for about six months now. My main impression is "Oh, Panasonic, why?" There are some things the new camera does better but, I think, more that it does worse, which is frustrating.
I'll go over a few.
Random button moving. You may clickenzee to embiggen
One of the first things I noticed when I picked the camera up is that some of the metal parts were seemingly replaced by plastic ones, which is annoying, but it doesn't really affect functionality. The first big, important difference is that the focus device has changed from a lever-button to a simple button. Nearly all digital cameras will let you focus the camera by pressing the shutter button down half way and holding it, which is .... inconvenient, especially for pros who often will hold focus for a very long time, so, pro cameras usually have a thumb focusing "AF Lock" button. The GF1's was a clever lever, you could distinguish it from all the other buttons because you pressed it up with your thumb, and it had a ridge on it. You know you're focusing when you hit it. The GX1 replaces this with a general purpose re-assignable function button that you can program to be the af lock if you want, though it's flat and low to the camera body -- I'm not sure I'm pressing it often. Blah.
More button moving madness. Older GF1 on the bottom, newer GX1 on the top.
Another super-annoying change is the on-off button which is a convenient well placed left-right slider switch on the GF1. It's very simple to sweep your finger across the camera to turn it off or on when putting it into or pulling it out of your pocket or your camera bag. The GX1 moves this button half an inch, gives it significantly more resistance, and puts it at a 45 degree angle so no longer can you sweep your finger left or right, but takes an effort and different finger to turn either on or off. No doubt this was to stop the camera from accidentally being turned "on" in your pocket, but since the camera auto-sleeps after five minutes, accidentally turning on was never really an issue. Now I just have two cameras that work differently.
You can also see in this photo that the GF1 provides a top mounted selector switch for single photo, motor drive, bracket, and self timer selection. As you may imagine, it's very easy to flip this to self timer, this all becomes buried in menues on the GX1.
They also moved the video button and added an "intelligent exposure" button -- the intelligent exposure button is a pretty neat idea -- you've got your camera set in manual, you're doing something specific and suddenly, the lights change and you need to take a photo fast, iA throws the camera into complete program mode and it makes all the decisions. The video record button is now more recessed into the body, which means occasionally you think you hit it, but you didn't and three minutes later you realize you're not recording video. Again, this was likely because some people had problems accidentally turning on the video when they were trying to do something else. It's never happened to me though.
The Eye Level Finder
I wouldn't consider a camera without an eye level finder, one you hold up to your face to frame -- both the GF1 and the GX1 have these as optional ad-ons. They're both electronic, which I think is good -- once you can see your histogram in the finder you won't want to go back. The resolution in the GF1's finder is really low, it gives you an idea of what's out there, and that's about it. The GX1's is awesome, high resolution and fantastic to look through. They also changed the location of the focus knob for the finder -- which was, as far as I can tell, the only improvement made by any button moving. Previously located on the side of the finder, you now need to pop the finder up and re-focus from a knob on the bottom. The focus knob on the GF1 was forever being changed by even the most casual rubbing against anything.
The GX1 ads full 1080p HD video though it still has no space for an external microphone. The video may be a compelling feature as the camera easily accepts third party lenses -- you can put your Nikon 50 1.8 on the camera and take some amazing video wide open.
Speaking of Third Party Lenses
The manual focusing system on the GX1 is a significant improvement over the GF1. When a manual focus lens is attached, pressing the selection wheel will pop up a 100% crop of the center of the image (the GF1 enlarged the entire viewfinder) this allows you to focus and still be able to see enough of the frame to compose your shot. This is Very Nice.
High ISO Performance
The GX1 does a fairly nice job at high ISO's though the 20mm 1.7 pancake lens that lots of people get with it by default is relatively soft wide open.
1/20th f4.0 ISO 3200. Clickenzee to Embiggen!
And a full resolution crop from the same image:
Clickenzee to Embiggen!
It's probably not going to win any awards, but you can definitely get a useable (publishable) shot out of the GX1 at high ISO.
Built in Flash
OK, the GX1 has one more significant advantage over the GF1 -- it has a built in popup bounce flash. The GF1's flash pops up really cleverly with the touch of a button and provides a stark and unflattering flash like all built-in-flashes. The GX1's flash though is on a spring -- you can grab the flash head with your left index finger and aim the thing up at the ceiling. Very nice.....
So, Should I Upgrade?
Probably not. The GX1 is higher resolution and the video is nicer, but it's not significantly faster in terms of auto focusing and if you're familiar with the button layout of the GF1, I'd say just hang on to it for now.
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