I like a small camera. That’s the main reason why I’ve been using a Panasonic LX7, and prior to that an LX3, for the past couple of years. I find the image quality is “good enough” for my needs and not having to lug a bag of gear around with me when I travel makes the experience much more enjoyable. When I travel I don’t want to worry about my camera but I still want nice images that I turn into a slideshow for display on an HDTV or post to Flickr.
For that reason, I was really interested when Panasonic announced the new GM1. When you own a compact camera like the LX7 you’re always told that the small sensor in your camera can’t compare to the larger sensors like the M4/3 or APS-C. I understand the limitations of the smaller sensor but I accept those limitations in order to get the smaller camera body. Now along comes the GM1 with a M4/3 sensor in a body that’s smaller than the LX7! Of course I’m intrigued so I asked a friend if I could borrow his for a week to see what I thought of it. I’ve spent my week with the GM1 and here’s what I think of it in comparison to my LX7. Please note that all of my observations are based upon the GM1 with its 12-32 kit lens.
Quenippenon Brook, a three exposure HDR taken with the GM1 and processed with SNS HDR.
When I took the GM1 out of its box my first words were “Wow, it’s so small!”. The body is tiny, even smaller than the Sony RX100 II, and that’s a small camera. The laws of physics being what they are, the lens is still large relative to the body, however even the 21-32 kit lens is smaller than I thought it would be. The GM1 fits into a jacket pocket but you’re not going to get it into your jeans, making it as portable as the LX7. I have the LVF2 external viewfinder on my LX7 which makes it taller and bulkier than the GM1 however I always slide the LVF2 off of the LX7 (a process that takes literally a second) before storing it in a pocket to avoid the potential for damage.
So, how does it handle? A common complaint with small cameras is that they’re too difficult to control with “man hands”. I’ve got large hands and I found that I like the LX7 better for a couple of reasons.
First, I really missed the aperture ring on the LX7 since I do most of my shooting in aperture priority. When you’re using the GM1 in aperture priority mode you change apertures using the control dial around the cursor buttons on the back. The control dial is notched but I still found it a little fussy to engage with my finger slipping on the ridges at times. You can use your fingernail to turn it but I found that awkward. There’s a dial on the top dedicated to switching focus modes (AFS or AFF/AFC/MF) but I found it a little finicky at times. It’s a good thing that I don’t switch focusing modes all that often. Speaking of focusing modes, the GM1 has focus peaking which is great and something that I wish the LX7 offered. Unlike the LX7, there’s no built-in grip on the right side of the camera so Panasonic offers an optional grip that attaches using the tripod socket. The GM1 I used had it but I didn’t use it other than to see what it felt like. I wouldn’t buy it as I don’t think it’s needed.
I miss the viewfinder. I don’t always use it on the LX7 but I really noticed it missing when I used the GM1. I like having the option to use both and you’ll never be able to put on the GM1 since it doesn’t have a hot-shoe.
The GM1 supports WIFI which is a cool feature. I downloaded the Panasonic app for my iPhone and within a couple of minutes had set up the camera so that I could control it from my phone. The camera creates a WIFI access point that you connect to on your phone using the password provided on the camera’s LCD. Once connected, you start the app on your phone and you have almost complete control over the camera with a display that duplicates what you’d see on the LCD screen, including the ability to set the focus point by touching the screen. It’s a nice feature since it also provides you with remote triggering capability, something that’s sorely lacking on the LX7 since they made the auto-bracket and self timer features mutually exclusive. One downside to the WIFI feature is that it sucks batteries on both your camera and the phone. Speaking of which, I had to recharge the GM1’s battery twice during my experimenting which struck me as once too many. The battery life isn’t that great and certainly not as good as the LX7.
I like the touchscreen ability of the GM1, especially when navigating the menus or setting the focus point and I sometimes found myself touching the screen on the LX7 trying to do the same thing.
The GM1 feels solid and well made, like a nicely engineered piece of equipment. I did notice that the left side of the camera where the battery is stored became a little warm. Not hot, but warm. I think this is by design and the heat generated by the electronics in such a tiny camera has to go somewhere and the body is being used as a heat sink. I can’t open the battery/SD card door when the quick release plate from my Manfrotto 494RC2 ball head is attached and I’m a little worried that some of the M4/3 lenses might have too large a diameter to attach when the plate is on there as it’s wider than the bottom of the camera and juts out a bit underneath the lens mount. The 12-32 is designed specifically for the GM1 and is small enough that the camera can sit flat on a table but other lenses may not be able to fit.
Well, I think you get the picture. It’s a really small camera and there are certain compromises made in order to build a camera that small. For many people the most important thing is image quality so how does the LX7 compare against the GM1? It’s not a simple question to answer so I did some of my usual tests to find out.
Here’s how I tested: I took my 30cm statue of Michelangelo’s Pieta and put it on the kitchen table illuminated by the natural light coming in from a large patio window behind and to the left of me. I set both cameras on tripods and placed them as close to one another as possible, trying to set the zoom so that I framed the same image on both. I shot in aperture priority mode while using the 2 second timer with the shutters on both cameras pressed simultaneously. All images are in raw format converted to DNG when imported into Lightroom 5.3. I placed a WhiBal white balance reference card in each scene and used it to set the white balance for each image and to also set as the focus target. I turned off all noise reduction in Lightroom and applied some sharpening. I then used the “Auto” button to have Lightroom adjust the image’s white/black points and exposure.
I created the composite comparison images by loading the two images being compared into Photoshop CS6. Since the two images have different resolutions, I had two choices: increase the size of the LX7 image so that it matched the GM1, or reduce the size of the GM1 image. Since enlarging the LX7 image meant that Photoshop would have to interpolate new pixels, I chose to reduce the GM1 images using the Bicubic Sharper algorithm that is supposed to be best for image reduction. I put each image on a separate layer, flipped the LX7 image horizontally then positioned them so that it would be easier to compare similar areas of the image.
This first image was taken at each camera’s base ISO (80 for the LX7 and 200 for the GM1) and is theoretically as good as it gets in terms of noise. Quite frankly I’m hard pressed to see much of a difference in noise between the two images, even when viewed at 100%. There is a red cast in all of the LX7 image that is noticeable on the white of the statue and the table surface. This appears even though the grey card shows a perfect balance between red, green & blue.
GM1 iso 200 vs LX7 iso 80. Click on the image to view it on Flickr.
Once you leave base ISO then the noise difference becomes much more noticeable with the GM1 clearly outperforming the LX7. This image (again without any noise reduction) shows the GM1 at ISO 3200 versus the LX7 at ISO 800 and to my eye the images are very similar indicating that the GM1 is about two stops better than the LX7. That sounds like a lot but you need to remember that the LX7 has a maximum aperture of 1.4 at wide angle and 2.3 at maximum zoom while the GM1 with its kit lens has a maximum wide angle aperture of 3.5 and a maximum zoom aperture of 5.6 meaning that you could shoot a similar image two and a half stops faster with the LX7. Statements like this usually bring out the equivalency storm troopers and they’ll yammer on about depth of field and blah blah blah but the fact is that if you’re that concerned about DOF you’re not using an LX7. Buy yourself a “full frame” camera and good luck storing your gear in the hotel room safe when you want to go out for dinner.
GM1 iso 3200 vs LX7 iso 800. Click on the image to view it on Flickr.
This next image is the same as the previous one but I’ve used Nik’s DFine 2 noise reduction software to see if I can get a usable image from the higher ISOs. I don’t think they’re too bad; certainly good enough to display on an HDTV or on the web. Pixel peep and I’m sure someone will find something to complain about but I’m OK with it.
GM1 iso 3200 vs LX7 iso 800 with Nik DFine 2. Click on the image to view it on Flickr.
One feature you’re going to lose with the GM1 and its kit lens is macro capability as the minimum focus distance on the 12-32 is 0.2m (0.66ft). When the LX7 is at wide angle, you can get incredibly close. This image shows the closest I could get with both cameras. Notice that what restricted me from getting closer with the LX7 was the fact that the lens was actually touching the statue when focusing on Mary’s right eye.
Close focusing comparison. Click on the image to view it on Flickr.
So, the final question is, would I buy a GM1? I’m not sure that I would but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. The 12-32 lens offers the same zoom range as I had with my LX3 and I was able to get by with that for many years. Once I got the LX7 with its 90mm equivalent zoom I became accustomed to it very quickly and I’m not sure that I want to go back. Of course you can buy many different lenses for the GM1 but once I start carrying an extra lens I lose the advantage of having the smaller camera body. If I’m going to carry a camera bag then my options are incredibly varied and once I’ve committed to carrying a bag I don’t think that I’d want to live with the compromises imposed by a very small camera body. I’ve only had the LX7 for a year and a half now so I think it’s still got a lot of life left in it. If I didn’t already own the LX7 with the LVF2 AND I didn’t want to carry a camera bag then I’d probably get the GM1.