I bought a Panasonic Lumix GF3 with the 14-42mm kit lens. After boring on a about camera kit yesterday I ended on a cliffhanger, wondering about whether to buy a new Nikkor lens for my old D40 or dip my toe into the brave new mirrorless world of so-called ‘compact system cameras’; and the resolution is this experiment in the new-ish micro four-thirds format. I’m going to spend a few months with the GF3 and then I’m going to buy a telephoto zoom; I don’t yet know wether it will be a Nikkor DX or a m43 lens but by then I’ll have had to decide.
The mirrorless/CSC cameras do away with the prism that allows you to have an optical viewfinder, and bring the lens close to the sensor in a smaller, lighter body. Some have the same size sensor as entry-level DSLRs (APS-C) while others have smaller sensors allowing for even smaller bodies and lenses (but potentially at the cost of image quality). Some have an electronic viewfinder (EVF) which essentially mimic an optical viewfinder by offering a tiny TV screen you can shove your eye up against; others just have a screen.
I wanted a few things from a new camera, addressing some drawbacks I’d found with the D40:
- A big, bright screen.
- Touch focus (press the screen, like on the iPhone) and the option of a ‘manual’ focus ring on the lens (this still isn’t mechanical, however, it’s just another interface for driving the focus motor).
- The ability to shoot movies (so I double the benefit I get from new lenses) preferably with autofocus.
I narrowed it down to a couple of cameras: the Sony NEX5 and the Panasonic Lumix GF3. The GF3 was far cheaper, and had (I felt) a better choice of lenses. Sony are the only company that make cameras using E-mount lenses. Panasonic and Olympus have collaborated and the m43 standards so their lenses are inter-changeable (although image stabilisation is handled differently by the two manufacturers, making Olympus telephoto lenses less suitable for Panasonic bodies). Also there were reports of the Sony NEX5 overheating when shooting movies for an extended period of time. So the GF3 it was.
The Panasonic ‘GF’ series are their low end models, primarily aimed at those moving ‘up’ from compact cameras, and from the GF1 more and more was removed to the point where an intermediate model (the GX1) was introduced to cater for the enthusiasts. All the same, I went for the GF3 (it has no hot shoe, so no external flash, and no option for an EVF) because it is so a small and light. At 274g with battery (no lens) it’s half the weight of the D40 body. It’s my first step in testing the m43 waters, as well as an experiment in seeing if I’ll use a lighter camera more often (if I buy the 14mm prime, the total camera weight will be just 330g). And if I like m43 I can buy a fancier, heavier body with which it can share lenses, if I choose to later on.
- It’s really small. That’s great, in a way, but it’s tricky for my big hands to grip, so it’s less comfortable to use. It’ll take some getting used to.
- I don’t miss the viewfinder. (Picking up the D40 just now, it took me a while to remember I couldn’t just look at the back, I had to bend and put my eye to it.)
- The menus are very well designed. Using aperture it’s much easier to set or monitor which f-stop you’re using.
- Shooting a movie is a doddle with the dedicated button. Much easier than the iPhone.
- It’s very, very fast to start up, and to focus too.
- It may seem obvious, but micro four-thirds has a different aspect ratio (4:3). I knew this, but I didn’t think about whether I liked it. It turns out I don’t.
- The D40 is much more comfortable to use. I know I’ve said that, but it’s worth mentioning twice.
Here are the photos I’ve taken so far (24 at the time of writing, but that number will grow).
There has been no instantaneous revelation I do find I miss the D40, although when I pick it up there are already new imperfections the GF3 has brought to light. I need to spend more time with the GF3 getting used to it, so I need to set the D40 aside for a few months and see if I grow accustomed to the Panasonic.
Turns out I’m not the first to do this. Over a year ago, Ade Rixon did much the same thing, buying a Lumix GF1 rather than going straight to upgrade his D50. His report, 6 months later, provides a possible glimpse of my future. Maybe.