Friday, December 10, 2010

Quick on the Draw: Impressions of µ4/3

They Also Chimp In Hong KongThey Also Chimp In Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2010 (Panasonic GF1 with 20/1.7)

I recently sold my Canon EOS system. I had gotten lazier and pocket cameras had gotten better to the point that the balance had tipped, and I was no longer carrying it where the pictures are. The pocket camera—a Canon S90—got the picture in the box just about as well as the big camera.

The picture quality was a pretty big step down. The tiny zoom on the S90 is no match for a prime on the 5D, and the tiny sensor doesn't have the snap of a big one either. I also missed the lack of control over depth of field. I never was a bokeh freak, but I do like a bit of separation between the subject and the background from time to time.

I've been shooting with a Panasonic GF1 and the 20/1.7 pancake for a few weeks now, during my trip to Hong Kong and Australia. I also bought a Leica M adapter so I can use the Summicron 40/2.0 from my CL on it for the relatively infrequent occasions I want a short tele. While the combination isn't perfect (what is?), it has exceeded my expectations in most ways.

Damn, It's For Taking Pictures!

The best thing about the GF1 is shootability. It feels like everything is at my fingertips. After a bit of tweaking, all of the critical controls are one or two button-presses or dial-turns away. Especially for a first-generation product, the usability design is truly remarkably good. The GF1 is by far the most shootable compact digital camera I've had, and I'd put it easily in the same ballpark as the EOS-5D, which has the major advantages of more real estate and many more product generations of refinement.

The auto-focus is extremely good. It's fast enough never to get in the way, and very, very precise. The different modes are actually usable—subject-tracking AF works especially well for tricky focus-recompose situations, for example. This is also the first camera which I've regularly left in wide-area AF for quick street shooting—most of the time, it locks on the right subject even if it's not centered.

Panasonic deserves some major respect for getting these two most critical usability features right the first time. It can't have been easy.

Star Ferry PassengerStar Ferry Passenger, Hong Kong, 2010 (Panasonic GF1 with 20/1.7)

The evaluative metering isn't quite as good. While it tends to lowball exposure (which is good, due to the sensor characteristics—more on that below), I get more random-looking underexposures than I would expect. Occasionally I get a frame that's as much as two stops under, with no obvious reason for it. I've kept it on evaluative by default so far, but I might switch to center-weighted average. Spot metering is nice, though, and works exactly as you'd expect.

I'm also not thrilled by the way the auto ISO and P mode behave. The camera is very reluctant to raise ISO, even below 400 where the image quality impact is negligible. This means more shots blurred by camera shake or subject motion than necessary. Similarly, P mode behaves a lot like A mode at f/1.7—it likes wide-open apertures even to absurdly fast shutter speeds. Yeah, there's program shift, but it does the same thing the same way as changing the aperture in A mode, so as far as I'm concerned, P mode is something of a waste.

Taiwanese DessertTaiwanese Dessert, Sydney, 2010 (Panasonic GF1 with 20/1.7)

Low dSLR Quality

The picture quality is superb, compared to the PowerShot S90, or ho-hum, compared to most dSLR's. The best thing about the aging sensor in the GF1 is that it's very sharp: the mild AA filter gives extremely detailed files for the pixel count; at least as good as my EOS-5D's in this respect.

Unfortunately, the rest of the news aren't so good. The most annoying characteristic of the sensor is its tendency to blow highlights, and the very little highlight latitude it has. When pulling an exposure, maybe a half-stop to a stop of detail can be recovered, but it'll be gray. The highlights also tend to go in a rather ungraceful, sharp way, more like a compact camera than a dSLR.

Fortunately the metering errs on the conservative side—and the sensor tolerates pushing very well. What's more, the listed ISO numbers are low: at 800 it meters more like 1250. In theory, this should be a tone curve issue; the sensor's dynamic range is what it is, and it feels like Panasonic isn't quite using it optimally. Given a choice between more gracious highlight behavior and a bit more noise, I'd rather have the noise.

As far as sensitivity goes, when paired with the 20/1.7, it's sufficient. More would always be better, but I've had no trouble getting after-dark street shots or artificial-light indoor ones at entirely acceptable quality. It's perhaps a stop and a half to two stops behind the EOS-5D, depending on how much I baby the highlights.

Aqualuna 99PAqualuna 99P, Hong Kong, 2010 (Panasonic GF1 with 20/1.7)

Brilliant lens

The 20/1.7 kit lens is brilliant. It's extremely sharp at all apertures, and barely improves between 1.7 and 5.6 (where it peaks). It's also a very nice focal length for street and situational shooting, which is the camera's natural mission. It's wide enough to be usable in fairly close quarters, but not so wide that it looks wide, and bright enough to give significant control over depth of field. Its only weakness is a certain tendency to veiling flare. Other than the plasticky build, it's a top-drawer optic in every way. Bravo again, Panasonic. And boo for not offering it as a kit with the upcoming GF2.

Yum, Mudcrab!Yum, Mudcrab! Sydney, 2010 (Panasonic GF1 with 20/1.7)

Stay or go?

I bought the GF1 with the idea that if I don't like it, I'll just sell it and take the loss. I'm not going to sell it. I don't know if I'm going to stick with the system for the long haul—one lens and adapter isn't much of a system—but until and unless something significantly better and the same size comes along, I'm keeping it.

One thing that could tempt me to switch is a sensor that is significantly better with highlights, and, preferably, a stop or so better with regards to noise. The one in the GH2 looks pretty good.

I would also really like a good viewfinder—the GF1's LCD is very good for what it is, but it's virtually impossible to see in bright sunlight. However, I'd rather do without the chunky bulk of an SLR-like; the G/GH series is less tempting to me for that reason. If I do decide to start building a system, though, I might well get one of those to complement the GF1.

I will still have my eye on the Fuji X100. If it lives up to its promise, it might end my love affair with µ4/3 almost before it begun. I think I'll have some more pictures taken before then, though.

Tourist Want A Cracker?Tourist want a cracker? Sydney, 2010 (Panasonic GF1 with 20/1.7, photo by Joanna S-S)

Postscript: The Summicron-C 40/2.0

The Summicron-C 40/2.0 from my Leica CL works surprisingly well with the GF1. Normally, using a lens on a format half the size of what it's made for isn't a great idea, and indeed the Summicron-C does suffer. The basics are there: it's sharp enough wide-open and very sharp stopped-down; it's entirely possible to focus it using the LCD and manual-focus assist, or use zone focusing at f/8 or thereabouts for snapshooting. The bokeh is harsh. It can make for some quite pretty night shots with higlights making nice circles (the photo with the previous blog entry for example), but with noisy backgrounds the results aren't that pretty.

The best thing about the lens is that it's very compact, and the focal length—a short tele, typical for portraits—complements the 20/1.7 nicely. If Panasonic makes a pancake for it with auto-focus and better bokeh, I would trade in a heartbeat.

The Winning Move
The Winning Move, Hong Kong, 2010 (Panasonic GF1 with Summicron-C 40/2.0, around f/8)

For more photos shot with this combo, see the Hong Kong, Sydney, and Brisbane sets on my Flickr page.

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