Saturday, 4 September 2010

And the Winner is...

I have mentioned in several recent posts that I've been comparing the Olympus E-P1 and the Panasonic GF1 (the Panasonic G1 having been knocked out in the first round, on grounds of too closely resembling a DSLR). They're both very good cameras, but I'm not wealthy enough to keep both and a choice had to be made.

The interesting bit about comparing cameras in use is that it's rarely the headline features that colour one's impression. In fact, in almost every case I experienced the exact opposite of the expected outcome. The Panasonic has a better LCD screen? On paper, yes, but in use the difference is negligible to non-existent, and in sunlight the Olympus is actually far easier to see. The Panasonic lacks in-body image stabilisation? True, but for me it consistently returned the sharpest images. The Olympus is a little over-stylish, a little "look at me"? Perhaps, but it seemed to become invisible as soon as I hung it on my shoulder (it has a very good strap, btw). The Olympus has no flash? Absolutely, but I have never once used the pop-up flash on the Panasonic.

In the end, my final impression was that the Olympus felt the best -- its density, size and layout suited me, and I really enjoyed using it to take pictures. It handles very like a lighter OM-1. The layout of the buttons was just right, and I loved using the combination of the exposure compensation button and the rolling thumb dial. The buttons were nicely recessed, too, so that brushing against my side didn't affect any settings. Having been driven slowly mad by the mode dial on the LX3 (which changes if you breathe on it), this plus the ultra-recessed mode dial with its stiff detents was a sheer pleasure. The thumb dial, however, was far too easily moved and annoyed me intensely e.g. by changing aperture radically between shots.

But I was sometimes let down by the images it brought home. The autofocus was slow and -- worse -- slightly off target rather too often. Backlit and high-contrast edges suffered from more colour fringing than I like, and -- despite the inbuilt image stabilisation -- there was far too much softness in the sort of hand-held moderate close-ups that are characteristic of my photography. I was losing pictures, and that's simply no good.

The Panasonic is less solid in build than the Olympus, and a little smaller and squarer. If the E-P1 is reminiscent of an OM-1, the GF1 is reminiscent of a chunkier Olympus XA. I was afraid that it would have a similarly flighty mode dial to the LX3, but it's got good solid click stops. Exposure compensation and aperture/shutter speeds are handled by a plasticky but functional control dial which is stiff and unsatisfying to use but impossible to change accidentally. However, the main buttons are not recessed, and can be pressed accidentally by rough contact. Also, in Program Mode the software has an annoying preference for the widest available aperture, resulting in (to me) mad exposures in Spanish sunshine like 2500th @ f/1.7 -- but then Aperture Priority Mode is always my preferred default.

Its photographs are consistently good, however, and that is what counts. Autofocus and exposure are almost always spot on, and there's a quality to them (a "Panasonic look") that they share with the LX3 which I find very pleasing. The consistent sharpness of the images is mystifying -- I kept wondering whether Panasonic had actually implemented image stabilisation at the last minute and forgotten to tell anyone. Maybe knowing it's not there makes one more conscious of technique? The electronic viewfinder, of course, makes a huge difference, and is the icing on the cake.

It was an easy choice deciding which camera to take on holiday, and it's an easy choice to decide which to keep. My only regret is that in selling on the Olympus I will be losing the 17mm lens, which is excellent -- better, I found, in most circumstances, than the much hyped Panasonic 20mm, which can vignette quite badly -- and the VF-1 optical viewfinder, which is a perfect match for the Panasonic 20mm lens.


Gustaf Erikson said...

How about keeping the GF1 and the 17mm?

Mike C. said...

I'd simply never get as good a price for a "broken" kit as for the whole thing in a box.

I don't mind -- I like the 20mm, it's a decent fast lens, but I just don't think it's quite the summit of lens perfection that people make out. It's odd how "group think" can infect even fairly objective technical matters.