Updated: read our full review of the Panasonic Lunix DMC-G1.
Even the most hardened photographers, used to lugging round bulging backpacks of kit, will admit that sometimes it'd be nice to have a camera that offered similar image quality, yet fits in the palm of your hand.
Conversely, for amateurs looking to step up from a compact to a digital SLR, there's currently a considerable jump in terms of size and weight to get over.
The primary reason for this is simple; while the method of recording an image has changed from film to digital, the basic design of the SLR camera has remained the same for over 50 years.
This is the case for a number of reasons – primarily the requirement for compatibility with legacy lenses going back decades.
Shaking things up
Panasonic, however, has no such legacy, and is therefore in the perfect position to shake things up a little.
Enter the Lumix DMC-G1. Based on Olympus and Panasonic's recently-announced Micro Four-Thirds system, it's perhaps the most important step yet towards a truly hybrid compact/SLR.
The main difference from a DSLR is that the G1 lacks any kind of mirror reflex. The mirror in a DSLR camera bounces the image from the lens to your viewfinder via a reflex mechanism – hence Single Lens Reflex.
With the new Micro Four-Thirds system, however, all visual feedback you receive is from the sensor. Unlock the lens, and the sensor's right there, mere millimeters from the lens. There's still a viewfinder for DSLR users or composing in bright sunlight, but it's electronic. Our experience of this was extremely positive, and our concerns over an electronic viewfinder (usually seen on camcorders) proved to be unfounded; it's enabled via a sensor when you place your eye on the cup and is impressively clear.
What this means, of course, is that the camera's internal workings are far less complex and take up less space, enabling the camera to be smaller – nearly half the size and weight of Canon's new 5D MkII.
See it without any sense of scale, and it exhibits all the external characteristics of an SLR camera. In your hand, though, it's every bit a compact camera in terms of size, weight and feel.
Gone, too, is the typical DSLR hard plastic, replaced with a pleasant velvety rubber. It's a good move towards a more discreet and attractive camera body.
The interface is a hybrid of DSLR and compact-style functionality. There's full manual mode and a 23-area auto-focus system, but there's also Panasonic's Intelligent Auto system that'll look after everything for you – including face detection and scene recognition. The latter seemed to work very well. When pointed at passers-by, the G1 enabled red eye reduction and placed a tracking square around their face. Similarly, when held less than a few centimeters from the subject – a business card worked well in our initial tests – macro mode was automatically selected for a finely-focused close-up shot.
The camera launches with two 'catch-all' lenses, 14-45mm and 45-200mm, with a 14-140mm, a 20mm and a super-wide 7-14mm coming in the new year. The sensor, however, is a 2x crop, which means you'll get radically different focal lengths to what is written on the lens; a lens that would give 200mm on a 35mm SLR camera will give you a whopping 400mm – making the G1 perfect for candid and street photography.
If you own any Panasonic or Olympus Four-Thirds lenses, the good news is the availability of a mount adaptor to convert these to Micro Four-Thirds. Even if you don't, it opens up the G1 to a solid range of optics while we wait for new lenses to arrive, such as Leica's D range.
Using the Lumix DMC-G1
So what does it feel like to use? In a word – delightful. We've tried other hybrid attempts in the past, but nothing has come close in terms of build quality and reliability. Every shot we took came out sharp, even in the lowest ambient light. The intelligent auto mode seemed to be more reliable than in Panasonic's lower-end models – perhaps due to the higher quality components it puts in the G1. We've yet to inspect our shots on a computer (the superglue seems to have flowed freely over new cameras' memory card slots this year) but on the sharp 3-inch screen the results look superb. Things seemed a little noisy at higher ISOs, but we'll leave any conclusions until we're able to inspect the images with a fine-toothed comb.
Excitingly, we also saw a prototype for a future model in the G series, incorporating HD video and stereo sound recording – a lightweight contender to Canon and Nikon's recent ventures into SLR HD video.
The price, we're told, will be 750 Euro for the body and 14-45mm lens, with a full kit (as before, but with the 45-200mm lens included) available later this year for 1000 Euro.
For now, we're sold on the Micro Four-Thirds system, and if Panasonic gets its marketing right it could go very far in the consumer market. Look out for a full review when the camera launches in October.