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Panasonic's entry-level Micro Four Thirds efforts began with the DMC-GF1. That camera's rangefinder-style layout blended control and design well, even managing to find a place for a hot shoe. The GF2 ditched a mode dial for a touchscreen. With the GF3, things went off the rails. Instead of a thoughtful blend of form and function, the GF became amorphous, gained a round hump on top, and lost the majority of the previous incarnations’ hardware controls. Panasonic repositioned the GF3 as a compact point-and-shootesque camera with a Micro Four Thirds sensor, robbing users of the most useful qualities of the original.
Since then, it’s been a slow return to form. The GF5 added some buttons and refined the GF3’s awkward, blobby styling. Now we have the DMC-GF6 (MSRP $599.99). Although the signature hump remains (albeit in a more vestigial form), it’s a different beast altogether.
The GF6's purpose is to provide a full Micro Four Thirds experience in a petite package. It succeeds in many ways, especially when compared to the previous two incarnations of the GF series. For the first time since the GF1, there's an honest-to-goodness mode dial. Modes click into place with an extremely confident, satisfying detent. In typical Panasonic fashion, the iAuto mode has its own button, separate from the rest of the modes. Like on the G6 and GX1, two convenient custom modes are a few quick turns away.
The mode dial isn't the only new thing on the latest GF. There's not one but two custom buttons on the GF6. In addition, the GF6 also has a lever around the shutter button that can either control exposure compensation or power zoom (assuming there's a power zoom lens attached to the camera). This GF is the second to have a tilt-and-flip LCD, making self-portraits and shots with friends simple. As always, Panasonic's used the GF6's hump to pack in a pop-out flash.
In order to keep this camera compact, Panasonic opted to put a tiny grip on the GF6. A small, contoured piece of rubber is haphazardly glued next to the off-center lens mount. Around the back is a concave rubberized grip in order to provide a spot to rest your thumb. It's just barely enough to keep the camera in your hand. The klutzy and butterfingered among our readers might want to look into a G5 or G6 for their beefier, grippier bodies. Since the lens is interchangeable, you can shrink this Lumix's footprint by swapping the kit lens for one of Panasonic's pancake lenses.
Speaking of lenses, the GF6 we tested came with the new, refined Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. We liked it on the G6 and we like it here. Arguably, it makes more sense on a smaller-bodied camera like the GF. It's a compact, lightweight lens with smooth-turning zoom and focus rings and excellent sharpness characteristics. We also found it easier to handle than the previous model.
With its recent Micro Four Thirds models, Panasonic has shown that it's not standing still on the feature front. Even though the GF6 is smaller than its brethren, it still packs many (but not all) of the features you'd see in those cameras.
The GF6 is the first of the GF series to get NFC and WiFi standard. NFC is supposed to make pairing Android phones to a camera easier. We had some issues when testing it on the G6, but the GF6 linked up without drama. The Panasonic Image App works extremely well, with a fast live view and a full set of controls.
The GF6 includes many of the Creative Control filters we've come to expect from Panasonic. Also onboard are plenty of scene options, laid out in the easy-to-understand way we've seen on other recent Lumix cameras. Not only is there a name for each scene, there's also a thumbnail picture of what the results will look like.
If you've ever wanted to make your own stop-motion animation, the GF6 comes with a very cool mode that makes child's play out of the famously tedious art form. When capturing a series of frames, the GF6 keeps a faded version of previous shots on screen so that it's easy to line up objects.
The 3-inch touchscreen on the back of the GF6 is a highly responsive capacitive panel. The way that Panasonic has laid out the entire camera means you can choose to use the d-pad, scroll wheel, or touch, wherever you want. Multi-touch gestures like swiping and pinch-to-zoom worked fairly well, although we noticed some lag when advancing photos in playback mode. Like with other touch-optimized Micro Four Thirds cameras, the GF6 has tap-to-focus as well as tap-to-shoot.
Even though it doesn't include a 1080/60p mode, the GF6 is not terrible for video. Both AVCHD and MP4 video compression options are available and you have the option of shooting 60i when using AVCHD. The stereo microphone on the GF6 is a little bit of a worry, since the two channels are just a centimeter apart and are both positioned the left side of the camera. Front-facing or centered microphones would have been preferable and less easy to touch or block accidentally while shooting video. If you like to fine-tune your video settings, the GF6 has plenty to offer. Manual control functionality is all there, and it's nice to see that P/A/S/M modes are all available in video.
There's no doubt that the types of shoppers that will go for the GF6 are people upgrading from a smartphone or point-and-shoot, and in that regard, it'll prove itself to be a huge upgrade in image quality. Because of its size, layout, and automatic features, it's straightforward to operate with a shallow learning curve. But, when compared to other cameras in its class, it didn't exactly shine.
The GF6, like the more expensive G6, handled white balance quite well. Under simulated daylight, incandescent, and fluorescent lighting, it was able to adapt fairly quickly and accurately using both automatic and custom settings. Color, on the other hand, while pleasing enough, wasn't accurate. Noise was not an issue across the lower ISOs but detail gets spotty at and after ISO 3200. For people who like to keep noise under control, Panasonic's has carried over its very good manual NR scheme, with 11 variable settings plus long shutter noise reduction.
Like other M43 cameras, the GF6 uses contrast-detect autofocus. In day-to-day usage, we found that autofocus was quick and precise. When it didn't quite lock on to what we wanted to be in focus, we just turned to the more precise touchscreen focusing option. A quick pinch gesture can easily change the size of the point you want to focus on—and it's surprisingly effective.
Burst shooting continues to be a sore point for Panasonic's M43 cameras. The GF6 managed to shoot at 7 frames per second, which is fine by itself. The problem is that after 7 shots, it slowed to a screeching halt. We recorded as much as two seconds between shots after that, which felt like an eternity. This camera's direct competitor on the Olympus side of the fence took steady shots an a 1-second interval after the buffer filled (which took 25 shots at 8 fps).
While Panasonic is known for its quality video, the GF6 won't win you an Academy Award for cinematography any time soon. With 60i and 30p as its full-HD shooting resolutions, video looked fine but (understandably) lacked the crispness we've come to expect when using 60p. Motion was rendered well, with only a little bit of visible trailing and noise.
At this stage in the compact system camera game, Panasonic knows where it stands. The GF series has taken a long and winding road (with a few bumps along the way), but the GF6 is a camera with plenty of features and controls that let you use them the way you choose. It has a highly useful capacitive touchscreen, WiFi, NFC, a built-in flash and easy-to-navigate menus. We think that the people who will be interested in this camera (smartphone and point-and-shoot upgraders) will enjoy what it has to offer.
But when compared to Olympus's E-PL5—a similarly priced and spec'd camera—everything falls apart. The GF6, like the other recent cameras from Panasonic, suffers from a sensor that's a little long in the tooth. Since everything we did like about the GF6 rests on such a weak foundation (that darn sensor), it'll be a tough sell to enthusiasts who can turn to other, better options at the same price point.
Panasonic has an excellent sensor in their top-of-the-line GH3, but for whatever reason, they have yet to spread the love amongst its less pricey cameras (something Olympus has done with the sensor from its OM-D). Ideally, we'd love to have a camera with the ease-of-use and features of the GF6 with higher image and video quality. We'll have to wait and see what the next generation brings.
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