Panasonic Lumix DMC G2

When Panasonic released the Lumix DMC G1, it was the first digital interchangeable lens camera system that would just about fit into a pocket.

The tiny body and lenses were achievable thanks to Panasonic’s pioneering development of the Micro Four Thirds system. Using a half full-frame size sensor, already enabled Four Thirds lenses to be closer to the sensor plane than conventional DSLR cameras, but in the Micro system, this was reduced further, as there was no mirror mechanism restricting the distance of the back of the lens to the sensor. This allowed the diameter of the lenses needed to cover the smaller, closer sensor to shrink even more. Another benefit of removing the ’SLR’ mirror box and replacing it with an EVF, was that much of the bulk of a normal SLR was removed, resulting in a far smaller body and VF housing.

The doubters were also largely silenced when they realised that thanks to a million pixel display, the electronic viewfinder was actually quite usable in most circumstances and, in fact, had some distinct advantages over traditional SLR optical systems. For example, having a continuous live feed from the sensor and the facility to ‘zoom in’ and greatly enlarge areas of the frame being focused, something that has not so far been matched in optical systems. It is also the only viewfinder that allows you to watch the HD recording, whereas all other conventional HD enabled DSLRs only provide video monitoring on the LCD.

There is also image quality benefits from the new ‘micro’ system, with the G1 achieving good picture quality, with none of the vignetting seen in conventional DSLR systems. The camera’s clarity, and punchy colour rendition surprised everyone, including the naysayers of the larger Four Thirds system

The G1 justified the original claimed benefits of Four Thirds, namely, much smaller bodies and lenses with equally good image quality, plus it was not only easy to carry anywhere, it also had an IQ to rival many a larger APSC DSLR.

The fact that it also had a fully articulated, swivel screen tucked neatly on the back, just added to the allure of this innovative camera.

Effective enhancements

The G2 continues the evolution of the G1, and at almost the same size but a fraction lighter at 371g (body only), looks very similar, but anyone familiar with the old camera will spot the G2’s subtle enhancements. First up, the shape of the camera grip is now slightly rounded at the edges, a subtle but effective tweak. It’s now HD video equipped (1280 x 720). Sadly, the card now has to share — space with the battery; accessed from the base of the camera. A real 4 pain if you need to change cards while the camera is tripod mounted.

More practically, the main control dial has shifted from the front of the handgrip, to a rear spot that fits neatly under the thumb. Nearly all the buttons and controls, have been reworked.

The AF selection dial has also had a makeover and now includes not only a control lever for the AF mode: MF, (Manual Focus), AFC (AF Continuous) and AFS, (AF Single), but also the AF drive type can now be set by turning the top of the dial, with four settings to cover Face Detect, AF Tracking, 23 Area AF and ‘1-Area-Focusing’. For those used to compact cameras, the G series cameras are a blessing as nearly everything important can be controlled by a single button or lever, with very little left buried away in sub menus. The down side is that for the uninitiated or inexperienced, the number of controls might seem intimidating at first.

Panasonic, eager as ever to be at the forefront of innovation with these tiny cameras, has added a surprise feature to the G2, which may make life easier for those new to photography or challenged by all those conventional controls.

While the G1 got the rotating, tilting, swivel LCD screen, with a full-time live feed direct from the sensor, Panasonic have turned this excellent live-view interface into a means of instinctively selecting the main point of interest for the picture to be taken by turning the LCD into a Touch Panel.

Perfect little all-rounder

Touch screens for menu functions have been around in compact cameras for a while now, but on the G2 you can touch and drag the focus point, while the camera focus seems to instantly follow your finger and a further touch can trip the shutter itself — amazing! Combined with the tilting screen, this innovation makes it much easier to get perfectly focused and composed pictures at incredibly awkward angles. Tracking moving subjects is a breeze — something that is normally nigh impossible with the lamentably slow AF of conventional live-view systems. It also works a treat in review mode, where iPhone-like, you can drag from one image to another and zoom in by tapping the screen. This latest idea from Panasonic is therefore much, much more than a mere gimmick, and I would imagine it is highly likely that this technology will now travel into all manner of cameras in due course.

While sharing the same 12.1 effective pixel and 17.3 x 13mm sensor with 4:3 aspect ratio as the G1, the processing has been improved in the G2 via the new Venus Engine HD II for both the HD Video recording and better control of noise and as a result, the G2 gets a hike up to ISO 6,400, one stop more than the G1’s top ISO of 3,200. With the video button on the top plate, it is really very straight forward to shoot videos, and with manual control available or ‘Intelligent Auto’, anyone can get good movies with this little camera, which I imagine would be perfect for families looking for a one-stop solution to both their still and video needs; for recording the children’s special moments as they grow. Files can also be shot in AVCHD Lite as touted on the front of the camera, which is more suitable for direct HD TV viewing, or you can shoot in Motion JPEG, which is more applicable to viewing and editing on the computer and on-line uses.

Picture quality of the videos look pretty good, and like the stills, they are nice and smooth, well saturated and capture plenty of detail.

The G2 is also a very satisfying camera for enthusiasts who are not particularly into video but would like to have the facility there for those odd occasions when something exceptional happens while they are taking stills. As a highly portable and lightweight still system camera, the G2 doesn’t disappoint on picture quality either. Yes, it is tiny, but it still takes great pictures and that’s even for those who use the top DSLR equipment in their day-to-day work. Picture quality is great, with colours accurately recorded, rich and punchy, without being OTT. Ok, so file sizes are smaller than 20 million plus DSLRs, but for most consumer printing tasks and even some professional ones, the files pack a lot of resolution, in fact, so much so that they very closely match 12 million pixel APSC DSLR cameras and don’t even look too out of place alongside results from full frame cameras either.

Spot the improvements

The dynamic range seems pretty decent too, but I have found with the G1 that it pays to shoot for the highlights, rather like transparency film, so usually I leave it set to minus 1/3rd or 2/3rd stop, which you can afford to do as there is still a decent amount of detail that can be pulled up from the shadows, and the G2 seems to respond in much the same way. Generally, exposures and white balance are also very good and if you are shooting Raw, there is plenty of latitude to play with in the bundled Silkypix software. Files process well in ACR too, but unfortunately DXO don’t have any modules for the G series for their RAW converter yet and I’d certainly like to see if their advanced lens correction tools could squeeze any more detail out of the standard lens and say, the 17mm pancake, which are already pretty sharp — now that would be something!

The AF options are very comprehensive and cover most shooting conditions very well; with the contrast detect AF really standing out in Live View, where it is streets ahead of conventional DSLRs in speed and flexibility. With the new touch focus and touch release, Live View AF moves into a whole new dimension in terms of ease of use on the G2.

Both the G1 and G2 have a native aspect ratio of 4:3, but the G1 also allowed selection of 2 other aspect ratios, 3:2 and 16:9, a range to which the G2 now adds the facility to record in the square 1:1 ratio beloved of studio photographers. Other changes are very subtle, like marginal changes in the viewfinder magnification and the continuous frame rates for high and low speed, which increase by fractions of a second and the G2 also now has a Continuous Medium setting, but at 2.6 fps, (the high setting only achieves 3.2 fps), it hardly makes the G2 a speed freak! One thing more noticeable is that the LCD screen of the new G2 does seem to have benefited from advances in screen technology and is noticeably less reflective than the G1’s. The long list of features on the G2 include all the unique ideas carried over from the G1, such as the ability to preview shutter speed effects in the viewfinder before taking the picture and other neat solutions like Pre AF, where by setting ‘Q-AF‘, the AF starts focusing as soon as the camera is active, so that before you have even composed and fine focused, the camera will be most of the way there in the majority of circumstances; a clever touch that really speeds things up.

The G2 comes with a different standard kit lens from the G1. It is still OIS, (stabilised), and very similar to the old standard zoom, but physically, slightly longer and wider but lighter, and for some reason loses a little range as it is now a 14 to 42mm optic rather than the original 14 to 45mm that was supplied with the G1.

In practice, I found it very difficult to detect any image quality improvements over the G1 I have been using for over a year, but I always shoot RAW and noise reduction improvements for the same sensor tend to be more relevant to JPEG output, which does look very good at the higher ISOs on the G2. The image in the viewfinder also looks a little richer, with more contrast. The pop-up flash is decent enough, with plenty of options to tailor the output, but another suggestion I would make to Panasonic to include wireless command of external flash units, like the Olympus E620 and many other modern DSLR cameras. I’d also like to see a waterproof housing for this camera.

After reviewing the G2’s predecessor, the G1, I promptly bought one and it has been everywhere with me ever since. From Southern Africa, to Istanbul, South East Asia and back; both as a back-up camera, and as a star in its own right. Small as it is, it has survived air travel, boats, damp, vibration from vehicles wit worn out suspension, being dropped down a sand dune, passed round a tribal group, chucke in and out of a roasting, broken down Combi in the wastes of the Namib desert. It’s been lent to an ex special forces safari guide for two weeks, even subjected to ‘pass the camera’ at a teenage party, and all manner of other abuse, yet it is sti working perfectly, and, for what is essentially a consumer orientated product rather than a pr SLR, you can’t say fairer than that. And the fact that the G2 is an improvement on the G1 is testament to just how good it really is.

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