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Panasonic GM1 Field Report

Small Size – Big Quality
But Not For Fumblefingers or Presbiopiacs

By Michael Reichmann

Most serious photographers hate finding themselves somewhere without a camera. Murphy being an optimist, the alien mother-ship will land just across the street the day that you leave your camera at home. For this reason many of us encumber ourselves with a lump of metal and glass much of the time. Some, such as iconic photographer Jay Maisel, hasn't stepped out of his house these past 50 years without a Nikon over a shoulder. 

An alternative is a pocket camera. Back in the day, (1966 through the early 80's) the Rollei 35 in its various versions was hands-down the most popular, not to mention smallest 135mm camera. Yes, there were smaller cameras available, including those that used 16mm movie film, but these were all compromises when it came to enlargability, AKA... image quality.

In recent digital times pocket cameras of many types have been available, but they are a dying breed. The smartphone camera has pretty much replaced them for many people. Your phone is always with you, and for those personal memory moments, and for sharing on social media sites, they're hard to beat. Image quality? Well, frankly, who cares when it's going to be a 400 pixel image on Facebook.

But for more demanding needs there's the so-called new generation of "serious" pocket cameras. The best example is the Sony RX100 and RX100ii, both of which are pocket sized, have built-in zooms, and decent image quality. When I reviewed the RX100 in mid-2012 I had considerable praise for it, and until recently it was my go-to camera when I walked out the door, but didn't want to be encumbered by a larger camera.

But the digital camera world is a fast track, and yesterday's hero can become tomorrows bum, or at least today's also-ran. Introducing the Panasonic GM1, 2014's newest "serious" small camera hero. Or is it?

Orthodox Russian Church
South Shetland Islands
Panasonic GM1 with G Vario 12-32mm @ ISO 200

GM1 Basics

The GM1 is one of the smallest interchangeable lens cameras on the market. It has a 16 Megapixel sensor, the same as in the larger Panasonic GX7. Indeed, it appears that the support electronics and most of the cameras image processing pipeline are the same as that of the GX7. But, do note that unlike the GX7 there is no in-body stabilization and no EVF.

What Panasonic has achieved with the GM1 is to make an interchangeable lens camera that is as small if not smaller than many cameras with significantly smaller sensors. This means superior image quality, and the ability to take not only all Micro Four Thirds lenses, but also most legacy third-party lenses via mount adaptors.


A Love / Hate Relationship

No EVF

Here's the problem. The GM1 is capable of taking really high quality images. The sensor is as good as it gets in MFT, and the supplied kit lens is a notch above just about any zoom kit lens that I recall. That's the good news.

The bad news is that the rear control wheel defeats every attempt to use it as intended, resulting in mis-settings and missed-settings about 90% of the time.  I'll have much more to say about this momentarily. 

This is a personal thing, but I increasingly dislike composing with the camera's rear LCD. Not only do I dislike it, but I find it almost impossible to do properly in bright sunlight. Even at lower illumination levels I need to wear my bifocals to be able to operate the camera properly. Arm's length photography also leads to camera shake, since the body is much less stable than when ones elbows are tucked in with the camera against ones forehead. Phooey!

Regular readers know I have not always been a fan of electronic viewfinders. But in the past 18 months there has been a sea-change in EVF image quality. Those in the Olympus OM-D E-M1, Sony A7/A7r and Fuji X-T1 have now passed a threshold. They are truly excellent. They can also be made very small. For this reason it is now my opinion that at anything other than the lower price points, and cameras for the base consumer market, all cameras should have quality EVFs.

One could argue that the above is simply a personal beef. Yes, it is. But watch the marketplace. I believe that the tipping point has been passed, and the days of cameras like the GM1, without an EVF, are going to be seen more in the rear view mirror than through the front windscreen – to mix a metaphor. An iPhone as a camera? Fine. But a real camera needs a proper viewfinder of some sort. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Frozen Shrimp. Antarctica. January, 2014
Panasonic GM1 with G Vario 12-35mm @ ISO 200

The World's Worst Control Ring

The GM1's rear control ring is simply a disaster. It is too thin, too lightly detented and too easily pressed. This means that when you intend to enter exposure compensation you find yourself changing ISO or AF Mode or White Balance. Not just now and then, but almost all the time. Who on earth at Panasonic thought that this was an acceptable design? Phooey! 

Not to seem as if I'm ganging up on Panasonic with this model, but another huge annoyance is that to shoot with the kit lens it needs to be twisted so that it extends, and the power switch needs to be turned on separately. If this was an all-in-one camera, with a fixed lens, this wouldn't be necessary. But, I would argue that it also shouldn't be necessary even though the lens is interchangeable.

I mention this because I can't count the number of times I've switched on the camera and then found that I couldn't shoot because the lens wasn't extended. Then there are the times that I rotated the lens preparing for a shot but realized that I also had to to power on seperately. Multiply this by the number of times that I neglected to do one or the other when turning the camera off as well, and all I can say is that even after many weeks of use it's a source of frustration that has never gone away.

Dropped my Balloon. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Panasonic GM1 with G Vario 12-35mm @ ISO 200 

The Bottom Line From the Bottom of The World

I brought the GM1 with me to Antarctica in late January. My thought was that it would serve for occasional use when something within its kit lenses focal length was required, and when I didn't want to switch lenses on my main camera for this shoot, the Olympus E-M1. That's not what happened though. While the camera was in my pocket constantly, I almost never used it. The reason was, simply, that I couldn't see the rear LCD. The diopter on the EVF of the E-M1 is set to my eyes, and so I don't need to wear glasses while shooting with it. But when I took out the GM1, not only couldn't I see the rear LCD properly without glasses, but in the bright conditions in which we were working, the screen was almost invisible anyhow.

So, there you have it. I bought the GM1 before leaving for Chile and Antarctica thinking that it would become an ideal walk-about and occasional use camera, but in the end I found myself using it much less than I had intended. Image quality is very good, but usability – not so much.

If course my gripe about the camera lacking an EVF is not the fault of the camera. The fault lies with the observer. And there may be some who have no problem with the rear d-ring. But that's the whole point of reviews isn't it? For a familiar person to give you their biased opinion so that you can draw your own conclusions based on theirs. Now you have it.

This camera can be purchased at B&H Photo

February, 2014
Michael Reichmann 

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Concepts: Camera, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Digital camera, Digital cameras, Twin-lens reflex camera, Photographic lens, Single-lens reflex camera, Leica Camera

Entities: San Miguel de Allende, Panasonic, Sony, Nikon, Facebook, Olympus, Fuji, Rollei, Antarctica, Mexico, Chile, digital camera, image processing, social media, focal length, White Balance, Michael Reichmann, Jay Maisel, Panasonic GM1, iPhone

Tags: camera, image quality, interchangeable lens camera, digital camera world, small camera hero, pocket camera, smartphone camera, go-to camera, larger camera, interchangeable lens cameras, camera shake, all-in-one camera, real camera, main camera, occasional use camera, times pocket cameras, rear control, decent image quality, rear control wheel, EVF image quality, rear control ring, rear view mirror, superior image quality, larger Panasonic GX7, high quality images, image processing pipeline, photographer Jay Maisel, social media sites, rear LCD, personal memory moments, so-called new generation, legacy third-party lenses, Olympus OM-D E-M1, significantly smaller sensors, base consumer market, lower illumination levels, lower price points, kit lens, GM1, Panasonic GM1