Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 MFT compact unveiled
This week's 'world's smallest' system camera
Hands on Last week, Sony announced to the world that it had produced the smallest APS-C interchangeable lens camera, the NEX-C3 . The timing suggests the company might have got wind of something, as a couple of days earlier Panasonic had been busy showing off its latest micro four thirds (MFT) models in an exclusive press preview in Rome.
Big idea: Panasonic's Lumix DMC-GF3
Here, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 made its debut, which has been hush-hush until now. This diminutive 12.1Mp model has fewer physical controls and lacks the viewfinder of the 16.1Mp Lumix DMC-G3 announced last month. With the catch-all phrase, ‘compact system camera’ (CSC) now describing these lens swapping, mirrorless marvels – from the likes of Samsung, Sony and Olympus – Panasonic now lays claim to having the world’s smallest of this particular breed, albeit sporting the smaller MFT sensor to match.
Being best buddies with Leica, Panasonic was also touting a new addition to the MFT optics range, the DG Summilux f1.4 25mm (50mm equivalent for 35mm camera) standard lens. At £549, this Leica lens costs more than the £499 being asked for the GF3 with Panasonic’s own 14-42mm lens kit.
Still, if you’re serious about micro four thirds as your compact system of choice, when it comes to creative options, this bright chunk of Leica glass certainly delivers that depth of field flexibility to make your subject really stand out.
Leica DG Summilux f1.4 25mm H-X025
Indeed, the Leica lens, along with Lumix kit optics and the G3 and GF3 cameras were handed out as part of the snap it and see shoot in Rome. I started off with the G3 plus the 14-42mm zoom and immediately took to its electronic viewfinder – clasping the camera at eye level being an instinctive response to handling this SLR-style body. So much so that the niceties of articulating 3in touchscreen LCD panel were largely overlooked – with just the occasional toggling between EVF and LCD from the dedicated button next to viewfinder.
Touch and go
There’s little to complain about with the Lumix DMC-G3, you can just pick it up and run with it. Start up is swift at well under a second. Everything seems to be in its place, with the centre menu button surrounded by dedicated keys for AF mode, ISO, white balance and burst shooting. You also get a couple of assignable function buttons and an embedded wheel dial as part of the thumb rest.
The Lumix DMC-G3 has all the extras
The top plate features a PASM modes dial with two custom settings. I would have liked a dedicated exposure memory lock on the body, which was on the G2, but the movie record button has taken its place. Apparently, there’s an option to assign this to a function key buried in the menus.
Nifty phase detection AF remains the preserve of DSLRs, so the Lumix G-series relies on contrast detection which features on cheaper compacts and is typically slower. Yet, Panasonic has managed to eke out a respectable performance with response claims of a mere 0.1s on some lenses. Indeed, the G3‘s AF worked swiftly and silently on the lenses tested. Only a few opportunistic off-centre challenges foiled it – with focus favouring the background – but with AF tracking available, there are workarounds on-board.
Swapping over to the Lumix DMC-GF3 was a bit of a jolt. To frame shots, the 3in touchscreen LCD panel is all you have to go with and it’s fixed too. With few exceptions, the majority of the G3’s dials and buttons have disappeared. There’s no top plate mode selector and the back panel offers D-pad/dial arrangement to navigate the functions. Even here, the dedicated ISO found on the DMC-GF2  has been replaced by the EV option. Indeed, to say that the GF3 is a menu driven camera is an understatement.
The minimal approach may take some getting used to if you tweak regularly
In the hand, the GF3 gives the impression of being the sort of compact few would take out of auto. Having only shutter release, video capture and iA (intelligent auto) buttons on the top plate does suggest the essence of the GF3 seems to be point and shoot with interchangeable lenses.
Lumix DMC-G3 14-42mm kit lens
Lumix DMC-G3 with Leica DG Summilux f1.4 25mm standard lens
Lumix DMC-GF3 14mm pancake lens
Sure, the touchscreen assists in the poking around for ISO settings and the like, but apart from one quick menu/function key, the lack of prod and twist instant gratification rather discourages it. This is getting to be standard fare for compact system cameras fighting out for the ‘smallest’ moniker, with Sony’s NEX range delivering a similar paucity of pushbutton pleasure.
Menu driven: the touchscreen performs a range of duties
Along with the Samsung NX100 , Olympus PEN  models hold fast to the idea of enabling users to make tactile tweaks, and time will tell whether these companies will be rewarded for it. The situation seems akin to the menu driven digital synthesizers – such as Yamaha’s classic DX7  – that appeared in the early 1980s, that wiped out the knob laden analogue instruments. Yet, these new models were so fatiguing to program, that users relied on preset sounds and soon got bored. It was only a matter of time before another wave of synths and controllers began to emerge to reinstate what had been lost.
With retro cameras gaining ground, and a price premium too (Fujifilm Finepix X100 , anyone?), one can only hope that, as the bodies continue to shrink, there may be room for some useful dedicated controls. Perhaps then, the phrase ‘most accessible’ will replace ‘smallest’ in the quest for some world title.
Snapping with the 14mm wide-angle pancake lens on the front of the GF3 makes it so compact that it’s easy to forget it’s a system camera. Lightweight, unimposing and with 25fps AVCHD 1080i video recording under its belt too, the camera does inspire confidence, even if creativity is slightly hindered by the necessities of on-screen trawling. Add to that, you then have to remember what the display icons mean afterwards, so you know what settings are active. Yup, a lot of people will use this in the auto modes and be perfectly happy with the results.
The world's smallest compact system camera, apparently
No doubt Panasonic would argue that there’s always the G3 alternative, if fast access to modes is what you need. And I have to say, if you’re anticipating expanding your lens count – which is the raison d’être of buying a CSC after all – and going to all the trouble of carrying around additional glass, then the compact form factor almost becomes irrelevant. You might as well get a G3 and have the EVF, articulating screen and the 16.1Mp sensor. That said, if you’re likely to build up the system slowly or have a ‘lens of the day’ approach to shooting, then have a look at the sample shots – where the megapixel count meets compact convenience – and see where your loyalties lie.
Available soon, the DMC-GF3 with the 14-42mm kit lens costs £499, with the 14mm pancake lens £549, and with both lenses £629. The DMC-G3 costs £549 (body only) and £629 with the 14-42 lens kit. ®