Thanks to noticeably superior image quality, enhanced utility afforded by swappable lenses, and falling prices, digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras have exploded in popularity over the last few years. But there are still plenty of people out there who are holding back for one big reason: size. Their bulky bodies, which house complicated mirror systems and optical viewfinders, are often bigger and weightier than consumer video cameras.
Panasonic's 12.1-megapixel Lumix DMC-GF1C is a member of a new breed of DSLR that hopes to change that.
It employs a relatively new standard sponsored by Panasonic and Olympus called Micro Four Thirds that uses the same image sensor size of most consumer DSLRs but does away with the need for a mirror system, resulting in dramatically smaller camera bodies and lens mounts. The result is a camera about the size of four iPhones stacked together-a DSLR that can actually fit comfortably in a large jacket pocket, even with a lens attached.
On the subject of lenses, there aren't many currently available in the Micro Four Thirds format. So, even though you can buy the GF1C body alone for $849, most consumers will likely opt for the $1,099 kit, which comes with Panasonic's 20mm/F1.7 ASPH lens. Featuring a so-called "pancake" design, this 100-gram piece of glass squishes seven lenses into a 20-millimetre profile while offering the equivalent of a lens with a 40-millimetre field of view. The tradeoff is an inability to zoom.
The GF1C seems pricey, especially given that it's being targeted at people who have thus far held back on moving from much less expensive point-and-shoots, but that's the cost of cutting edge compactness. However, once users begin to figure out the GF1C's features and understand the advantages it holds over a typical snapshot camera, there's a good chance some will reckon it's worth the investment.
Though it offers most of the benefits of a traditional SLR, its interface feels much like that of a simpler camera, which means there's no reason the GF1C should intimidate rookie DSLR users. Shots are framed using a clear and bright 3-inch LCD, dedicated buttons exist for functions such as video recording and image playback, and preset modes give users the ability to quickly and easily adapt to scene conditions.
It also has many consumer features that casual photographers have come to crave and expect, such as face detection and recognition (it will even display the names of recognized subjects in images during playback), a mode called My Color that automatically employs artistic effects with names like "Retro" and "Silhouette" to each exposure, and digital print order controls, which allow users to mark pictures for print and how many copies should be made.
Slightly more advanced operations are just as simple. Should you decide to test the waters of manual focusing, just tap the autofocus/manual focus button beside the screen and begin twisting the lens. If you want to switch to burst or timed photography, flick the drive lever located in front of the mode dial on the top of the camera to your desired setting.
Of course, the real virtue of a DSLR comes via the ability to manually adjust exposures to create specific effects by setting shutter speed, altering aperture, and choosing ISO. Appreciation of these features comes only through experience and understanding, at which point you'll be able to make streams of falling water look like frozen glass, capture the movement of the stars on a cold clear night, or simply draw attention to the faces of your children by placing them in focus and making everything else appear blurry.
The GF1C doesn't make learning how to do these things any easier, but its uncluttered controls and clean, intuitive menu system certainly don't put up any obstacles. Plus, should you happen to find specific settings that you like and intend to use frequently you can save and program them to a couple of notches on the mode dial for quick access.
The GF1 also offers HD 1280-by-720 movie recording capability in either AVCHD Lite (good for HDTVs) or Motion JPEG (suitable for sharing online). I thought the video quality was excellent, though the sound wasn't ideal, especially since the microphone picks up the sound of lens' motor during autofocus.
One issue DSLR purists might take with GF1C is that its live viewfinder, which takes a view from the image sensor and provides a clearer, more accurate representation of the scene, costs an extra $199 and doesn't come with the kit. Plus, it attaches via the accessory shoe, which means more serious photographers will need to choose between the viewfinder and an external flash.
Still, this oughtn't prove a major vexation for the camera's target consumers, most of whom are now accustomed to using built-in flash systems and screens as opposed to viewfinders to frame shots.
All said, Panasonic's Lumix DMC-GF1C is a great little camera that will undoubtedly convert even more of the casual photography masses to DSLRs. However, the price will need to come down a bit further for the Micro Four Thirds format to gain real traction among its target audience of casual photographers. At $1,099 for a kit, it's nearly twice the price of an entry level traditional DSLR, and a big jump up from the $300-$500 most consumers are used to spending on point-and-shoots. And, with only eight Micro Four Thirds lenses currently available, a better selection of glass wouldn't hurt, either.