A good, small, DSLR
Jan 9, 2012
Review by Ernest Blackwell
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Small size, good feature set for the price, can take good photos and video.
Cons:Not much cheaper than a DSLR; lacks optical viewfinder, hot shoe; uses a battery pack
The Bottom Line: It's the child of an entry-level DSLR and an advanced P&S. If size is your major concern and you're more comfortable with a P&S, this is the camera to buy.
I finally broke down and bought a DSLR to replace my older superzoom point-and-shoot (P&S) camera. I originally considered a Canon DSLR, since the entry model camera was pretty cheap over the holidays (about $500), but after looking at the different cameras and options, I settled on this Panasonic GF3. Why? Read below...
Recommend this product?
The build quality is solid, especially if you are upgrading to your first DSLR-style camera (a camera with detachable lenses). The body is a combination of plastic and metal, with enough metal parts to give it a good feel in the hands. I would be concerned if I dropped it, but that same thing goes for almost every digital camera I have owned except for one Minolta camera that really was completely metal (and has since stopped being produced).
One thing to keep in mind that falls in the build area is the size. I like that the camera is pretty small, but if you ahve large hands, it could be a tricky camera to operate. Just wrapping your hands around it and finding a way to hold it nicely might be problematic for those with big hands. It really is closer in size to a standard pocket P&S camera, so if you trouble holding those, you'll likely have trouble with this one. Luckily, everyone in my family has medium or small hands, so it isn't a problem for us.
The camera relies on a combination of buttons and a touchscreen display for operation. That sounds nice, but I have noticed that it takes me a while to find some of the settings. Some settings aren't available at all times (flash options, for instance, can only be changed when the flash is popped up from what I can tell), and other settings can be buried in menus. A plus though is that the menus can be personalized to some degree, so if there are specific things that you regularly change, you might be able to move those into the main menu screen. The touchscreen works well, responding to all of my touches quickly. It does though mean that you'll have a dirty, oily screen after a few weeks of use, so a cleaning cloth and an LCD screen protector are strongly recommended!
As far as exterior buttons, you have a jog wheel on the back with a center button (the menu and general "yes" button) along with a menu/function button below the wheel and the image/video review button above. The jog wheel also operates as a 4-way controller. It's a good button layout, but I do have to admit that having a jog wheel that also has directional buttons can be confusing; sometimes I accidentally hit a different option because my finger isn't exactly in the right place on the wheel. Above, there is an on/off switch, a dedicated video record button, and an auto-mode button along with the usual big shutter button. The dedicated video button is great considering the rest of the menu structure; not having to look down and scan through menus to start recording video is really handy. The top buttons are spaced out far enough and recessed enough relative to the shutter button that I don't have trouble finding the shutter button without looking.
The flash is decent, but nothing beyond any other P&S. It pops up using a button above the rear LCD, and you have to press it back into place when you don't need it. It takes a second or two to recharge the flash, so no burst mode when using a flash. The plastic that the flash is attached to does seem like it would be the first thing to pop off of the camera; I would hate to see the result of dropping the camera with the flash open. The camera lacks a hot shoe, you don't have the ability to add another flash that way. There are other flashes though that can be purchased that work with a range of digital cameras, so it would be possible to add a stronger flash.
The camera records video in 1080p video, if you choose. To go with that, the camera can output video via HDMI. That's great, just a shame that they couldn't include a $5 HDMI cable with the $400 camera. There is also a port for viewing video/images via a standard RCA video cable and with mono audio, so you don't have to have the newest display to see the stuff on your camera on a screen.
My camera came with a 14-42mm lens, and I bought a 45-200mm lens on sale at the same time. Changing lenses is a breeze, just as you would expect from a solid DSLR. The 14-42 is a good everyday lens that provides soom ability to zoom, while the 45-200 I use less often. Using the autofocus features, I've noticed I can take pictures with more background blur more often with the 45-200 compared to the 14-42. I haven't played with the gear enough to figure out why, but it might be something to play with if you purchase multiple lenses. With the 14-42 len attached, the camera is about the size of most DSLRs. The 45-200 though is several inches longer and makes the camera a bit more of a chunk of equipment to haul around. So if you want everything to stay small in size and can live without the greater magnification, you can probably skip the 45-200. This camera also comes in a kit with a 14mm lens that I have heard is very effective as a general purpose lens. This lens is amazingly thin, bringing the total size much closer to that of a P&S. So in theory, you could sneak this into a sporting event where no "DSRL" cameras are allowed because the camera with that lens would fit in your pocket!
A couple of things that quickly stood out for me that are lacking then are lanyards for the lens caps and an optical viewfinder. I'm pretty sure that in a few months I'll be out buying replacement lens caps unless I add some generic cap lanyards, so it's a little annoying that no one thought to add that $1 accessory. I'm used to using an LCD screen instead of a viewfinder, but viewfinders are exceptionally useful for bright light photography (when the sun washes out the LCD screen). I'm guessing I'll end up taking a few shots during the summer by just guessing at what is on the screen, not by actually composing the shot!
Oh, and this camera uses battery packs. That isn't surprising, but I have always tried to use cameras like the Kodak series cameras that use either battery packs or standard AA/AAA's so that if a pack ran out, I could always buy batteries at a gas station. If you plan on taking lots of shots and not be able to constantly keep charging the batteries, you'll probably want to buy one or two spare batteries (another $50 or so to spend).
- Images and video
As my first "DSLR" (technically it is a compact camera system), I am happy with the images and video it has taken. It isn't perfect by far in low light, at least with the lenses I have (I have heard the 14mm and 20mm lenses perform better in low light), but does well outdoors or when plenty of light is available. It snaps images quickly; holding down the shutter has resulted in me accidentally taking quite a few pictures in a row without realizing it. That sounds bad, but it's really a major benefit of the DSLR; you can take a bunch of photos in a row (say of kids that can never sit still) and pull out the one that is the best. It really increases your chances of getting that family picture where everyone is looking at the camera, smiling, and in focus! The camera also has facial recognition with the ability to identify and tag individuals whose faces you have stored on the camera. When you transfer the images to the computer, it actually tracks who was in the picture for you! Unfortunately, I've only gotten it to work on a small number of photos, so it isn't a perfect function.
The video I've recorded looks good, even if those 1080p files get pretty large pretty quickly! There are a lot of blogs that do a better job of fleshing out the image/video capture qualities of this camera. What I can say though is that it does take better pictures than my old Kodak Z1012IS and when I scan through images taken by this camera and my older cameras (I've gone through about 4 digital P&S's in the last 5 years), you can immediately tell when one of the GF3 pictures is on the screen.
The camera does come with software to manage and edit images and video. On my 6-year-old Compaq desktop, the software actually says during installation that the system cannot handle the video output. On my much newer Dell (core I7 processor with 8GB RAM), the software installs and says it can handle most processing needs as long as few or no background processes are running. Based on that, I would say that if you want to edit hi-def video from this camera, you better have a very new and/or pretty powerful computer! The software does go through and catalog images stored on the computer and provide some basic image editing options. It isn't Photoshop, but it's better than getting no software and it isn't little kid software like I've received with other cameras.
One thing to keep in mind is that different lenses will yield different photos. So changing to a different lens could result in photos more to your liking or photos you think are horrible. It's both the gift and the curse of DSLRs; the ability to change lenses to suit your needs and the ability to waste money on lenses that you'll find you don't like or need.
This is a great camera for someone that wants to upgrade to a DSLR but doesn't want the usual bulk of a DSLR or still wants menus and settings like you would find on a P&S. Cost-wise, you really don't save very much money over buying a DSLR, and the micro four-thirds lenses that this camera uses aren't as readily available as standard DSLR lenses from what I can tell (only a handful of local retailers have them, and the used market is a lot slimmer compared to what is available for standard size lenses).
Final grade: B
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