The direction of the future? Panasonic’s G1 range is a camera series to watch

At the Oread Annual Dinner last night I was handed a printout of a camera review – the Panasonic G1 review by ephotozine. Usual thing, “Chiz you know about cameras – what do you think of this?”. I must admit I was probably a tad ungracious – thinking “oh no, not another compact camera that I don’t really know anything about!” But that was a great injustice to Pete, who brought to my attention something that looks rather interesting, and could well be a sign of things to come in the digital camera marketplace.

It was about the Panasonic G1 – a camera that fills the gap between a bridge camera (that’s small and lightweight, but doesn’t have interchangeable lenses), and a fully-fledged entry-level dSLR such as the Canon D500 or Nikon D80. This design is radically different, (despite its attempts to look not very different, just smaller) and some people may say it can’t be called a dSLR – as it’s missing the mirror prism that gives the SLR its name.

But why do dSLR’s need a mirror prism – it is after all a legacy from the pre-digital era, and is actually largely redundant in these days of electronic viewfinders, and digital sensors. For that matter, so is a physical shutter, (I can’t see why this won’t at some point in the future be done totally electronically) although Panasonic don’t seem to have gone that far with this first offering! One thing at a time perhaps – after all, they still keep a false prism hump in the design – it seems market research has told them that their potential customers don’t want their dSLR-like cameras to look too radically different yet.

Removing the pentaprism mirror has been talked about before, but there were three major barriers to this. 1) Quite simply that lens design would need to change, as removing this (and the associated size reduction in overall case) changes the distance between the rear of the lens and the shutter plane. Which means the lens design needs to change in compensation. Which, rather more importantly, means that older lenses won’t work.This is a problem for manufacturer’s with a large investment (and customer base using) such lenses originally designed for use in film-based SLR cameras, but not for a relatively new entrant into the marketplace such as Panasonic.

The second barrier was that electronic (live) viewfinder technology wasn’t quite up to it enough to replace an optical viewfinder. That has now changed, and while it might seem a strange step in the dark to folks used to using an optical viewfinder, many other photographers will find the reduction in weight and bulk more than outweighs the inconvenience of not having a true optical viewfinder.

The third barrier was autofocus technology (removing the prism means changing the way this works). Clearly whatever the technological hurdles, they’ve been overcome, as online reviews of the G1 suggest that it’s auto0focus is as good if not better than entry level dSLRs.

Noise has always been an issue with any Panasonic camera I’ve had a chance to play with – in particular I was very put off the whole Panasonic system by a compact camera I acquired for street photography in Central America a couple of years ago. When the image was viewed at 100%, noise there seemed to be fuzzed out into blotchy patterns of blur, as if the camera was saying, we don’t really know what to do about this, so lets just blur it and hope no-one notices! Everything I hear about more recent cameras seems to suggest that their noise reduction system has vastly improved from those days – online reviews such as dpreview certainly seem to suggest that this particular problem does not exist for the G1.

Coupled with the new lens mount, the smaller sensor used by both the micro 4/3rds system and the standard 4/3rds system, gives a larger crop factor, 2x in fact. This will be good for some, and bad for others. Wildlife photographers will probably be very pleased with the extra reach it gives them, landscape photographers probably will be disappointed by the lack of wide-angle on a standard lens. But all this depends on what lenses Panasonic makes available for the system. If telephoto lenses are shorter, then there is no extra reach, just a saving in weight and space. If they can produce excellent very short lenses, then landscape photographers get their wide-angle. The current kit lens is thought to be surprisingly good for a kit lens, and is a standard 28-90mm (equivalent).

Obvious pros of this system –

  • lightweight (although no lighter than the Olympus E420)
  • much smaller size, and probably future versions could well be smaller once a more aggressive stance is taken to design
  • reasonable entry level price
  • 2x crop factor may give an advantage to wildlife photographers

Obvious cons of the system

  • limited choice of lenses, and yet another new lens system. (Panasonic’s compatibility chart is also very difficult to read)
  • no video – a surprising omission in this day and age
  • closeness of the sensor to the lens mount may be more prone to damage
  • 2x crop factor may be a disadvantage to landscape photographers

But in summary, this could be the start of a radical change in how digital cameras with interchangeable lenses (or dSLR-like cameras) are designed. This looks like the future is saying the mirror is dead – and welcome to smaller and lighter cameras!