Another New Toy

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.

Early impressions:

  • 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.

About Simon Wood

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See for more...

8 thoughts on “Another New Toy

  1. The GF3 is a very nice compact yet capable camera – I was sorely tempted when they were being sold off at discount in so many places online. I certainly don’t doubt I could have taken any of my recent shots with one just as well. For many keen amateurs without a legacy lens investment, I suspect mirrorless would suit them better than a DSLR, especially if travelling.

    Interesting that you “don’t miss the viewfinder”; I find I instinctively want to put the camera to my face, and although the D50’s viewfinder is very poor by any stretch, I’d much rather use one than hold the camera out in my arms. This might be because the GFs put me in mind of rangefinders, and then I want to use them like one.

    I’ve added an update about my GF1, based on further experience:

    1. “For many keen amateurs without a legacy lens investment” <- yes, that's me. The only additional lenses I had for the D40 were actually from the f401 and because they relied on the autofocus motor in the camera, they won't focus on with the D40. So this whole experiment is to pre-empt the build up of such a legacy…

      I expected to miss the viewfinder more, and when I'm shooting with the camera at head-height, especially out of doors, I do notice its absence. But not as much as I notice the absence of a 'live view' screen now I go back to the D40. I'm not sure how I'd get on with an EVF, not because they're not great little monitors, but because reviews I've read say that in action, you do notice the fact they don't behave quite like optical viewfinders (eg. they're not quite as immediate). But if the m43 experiment goes well, I might open that option by upgrading the body. I think I can justify that – the GF3 was quite a bargain, especially second hand!

      Very interested in your GF1 update – especially since you also see it as a (potential) stopgap if into m43. If I continue deeper into the m43 world, I may ask you a bit more about the lenses you mention! But that's for later…

  2. Dipped into Digital Camera Centre yesterday and gave the Nex-7 a view as a possible replacement/upgrade to my Panny TZ-10. Looked at the possibility of getting the A-mount to E-mount convertor so I could use my expensive G and Zeiss lens for the A-700, but ruled that out quickly as a) it would add another 40mm to the front of the camera, b) I would need to spend £200+ for the series 2 connector to get AF and most importantly the weight would take me back to where I was starting with the A-700. So as the main reason for purchase would be to upgrade the Panny, decided this wouldn’t be a sound choice, esp. as there is NOTHING wrong with the Alpha.

    So, if I want to upgrade/replace the Panny for travel/walking, where do I go?

    Spent sometime then looking at reviews of the Sony bridge HX200v, and the latest TZ-40 against the Sony HX50. My gut feelings are to stay with Panasonic, particularly as the HX50 (unlike the 20v) doesn’t have GPS, which is important for me in my mapping and travel blogging. I don’t think I want/need a bridge camera – weight and pocketability are what I seek – so when I get a few pennies, I may be looking for a TZ-40, butthen again maybe I’ll just wait until the TZ-10 conks out!!

    1. That’s quite a range of camera types! If you’re after weight and pocketability – doesn’t the TZ-10 already offer you that, along with GPS? The TZ-40 only seems to be a whisker smaller and lighter. All these other cameras seem bigger and heaver – not to mention requiring blowing a significant wedge in the case of the NEX-7 – so is there anything you need to gain that would justify that cost?

      1. Exactly, that was my conclusion too (see last sentence). I had the time in town yesterday, so used it :-). Also you’ll recall my sensor problems earlier this year, and that coupled with dropping the Panny whist away last week, meant I thought it’s end was inevitable. Then, of course, I have my OAP to spend later on this year ….

        1. Yes, oggling kit is always a pleasurable use of time!

          Sounds like the TZ-10 has another fine quality: robustness. Saving you money! So, if it’s burning a hole… Have you got your GoPro yet? 😉

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