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Mirrorless cameras gleefully break with tradition in order to benefit today's photographers. With standards like Micro Four Thirds, camera makers aren't beholden to arcane, decades-old mirrorbox measurements and flange focal distances calculated by engineers using slide rules. It's a shift that has led to a diverse, Galapagos-like ecosystem of different camera styles and bodies suited to a broad range of users.
Recently, as we've seen with flagship offerings like the Panasonic GX7 and Olympus OM-D E-M1, the trend has been to make big, full-featured cameras targeted at deep-pocketed enthusiasts and even pros.
Panasonic's new Lumix GM1 ($749.99 w/12-32mm kit lens) goes completely in the opposite direction. It's impressively small. So comically small, in fact, that it could have been born from a bar bet among the Lumix engineers—"If you can get it down to 54.9mm wide, I'll pay you ¥10,000, Yoichi!"
Starting with the sensor and processor from its GX7, Panasonic whittled away everything it could afford to lose. But, the GM1 keeps the essentials intact. It's cute, well-designed and out for blood. It's no coincidence that the GM1's price tag precisely matches that of Sony's world-beating RX100 II. For the same coin, you get a full system camera experience in a form factor that was, until now, reserved for point-and-shoots.
In order to fully understand the GM1, you really need to put its size in context. Pictures on the internet don't do this camera justice—its small footprint doesn't hit you until you hold it in your hands. In some dimensions, the GM1 is smaller than the Sony RX100 II. The body itself is scarcely bigger than a pack of playing cards. And its accompanying 12-32mm kit lens? Not much larger than a couple of Oreos stacked atop one another.
Panasonic has put a lot of thought into how to pare down the GM1's controls. Everything from the dials and buttons to the rigidity of the magnesium chassis and the leatherette grip inspires confidence in the engineering at work. The GM1 feels and looks like it's been manufactured with a watchmaker's precision.
Part of the GM1's success is down to Panasonic's excellent touch interface. Every aspect of the touch experience has been fine-tuned over the past year, from focus and the on-screen Fn bar to playback and the entire menu hierarchy. Without its touchscreen, the GM1 would feel less powerful and more like a traditional point-and-shoot. As it stands, touch does a good enough job of making up for any control limitations.
There's enough physical control, but only just. There's a mode dial, rotary AF/MF selection switch, and a solid-feeling vertical wheel/d-pad on the rear. You won't find a secondary control dial, but the touchscreen largely picks up the slack.
In our time with the GM1, we only had one major complaint—and it's something that's unavoidable with such a small camera. It's cramped. Buttons are close together, and I unwittingly touched the upper right corner of the touchscreen with my thumb on more than one occasion. That meant that when I went to shift focus, the touchscreen refused to respond until I moved my thumb off the touch-sensitive panel. While it might be less of an issue for people with smaller hands, the thin border separating the leather-textured rear grip and the touchscreen isn't big enough, and it takes a conscious effort to avoid accidental input.
The GM1 is only available as a kit with Panasonic's new 12-32mm f/3.5-5.6 standard zoom. Normally, kit lenses are a bummer for those who crave sharp optics and premium build quality. Well, if you're one of those people, prepare to be impressed. Panasonic has packed the GM1's collapsable kit lens with newly designed elements and wrapped it in a classy metal enclosure. While the compactness of this new lens is impressive, there's one big down side: you won't find a focus ring. Instead, this lens must be manually focused with the touchscreen. Other Micro Four Thirds lenses (those with focus rings) work just like on any other M43 camera.
Panasonic sacrificed few features on the altar of miniaturization in order to achieve the GM1's size and price. The image sensor at the heart of this small new Lumix is the same you'll find in the much larger GX7. Video quality is more than acceptable, as we've come to expect from Panasonic. There are even some advanced features like focus peaking, RAW shooting, and a dedicated manual video mode.
So, what didn't make the cut? Well, the limited internal volume meant that neither the GX7's 1/8000 of a second shutter nor its 2-axis image stabilization could fit inside the GM1's tight chassis. Instead, you're limited to a top mechanical shutter speed of 1/500th of a second, with electronic shutter speeds up to 1/16000 sec. The boffins at Panasonic have programmed the GM1 to automatically switch between the two methods on the fly, without the user having to worry.
Even though the small-bodied Lumix gives up the niceties of the GX7 (stuff like a hot shoe, an electronic viewfinder, and NFC connectivity), one new-world convenience that has remained is WiFi. You'll have to manually connect to your Android or iOS device, but we've been impressed with Panasonic's implementation of wireless in the past and it's just as useful in the GM1. Not only does the Panasonic Image App make it simple to transfer images the device of your choice, and lets you control the camera remotely—one of the more fully featured manufacturer-supplied solutions out there today. If you like to remember where you went on a trip, the Panasonic Image App also can use your phone's GPS module to add location data to each photo you snap.
Even though the GM1 pumped out very respectable video in our tests, it isn't as flexible as the GX7 in that department. The top shooting mode is 1080/30p, with 60i and 24p modes as alternatives. It's nice that you can shoot in cinematic 24p, but it would have been a real trump card for the GM1 to shoot 60p AVCHD. Probably due to the GM1's compact packaging and lower-cost position in their lineup, Panasonic left out a mic jack and a headphone jack.
By centering the GM1 around its tried-and-true GX7 sensor, Panasonic has made its intentions clear. This isn't a cut-rate job—quite the opposite. This is serious imaging technology that happens to be tucked inside the smallest Micro Four Thirds body on the market. Our experiences in the field, along with our lab results, speak for themselves. Save for a few minor niggles, the GM1 delivers terrific performance, punching way above its weight.
Leveraging the GM1's speedy electronic shutter, we found that continuous shooting was a strong suit—as long as you don't expect it to keep going. We measured 9.8 fps when using the electronic shutter and 4.5 fps with the speed-limited mechanical shutter. The down side? The GM1's buffer peters out after 4-5 shots. If you can settle for lower-resolution shots, there is also a 40 fps electronic mode that might be useful from time to time.
Positive resolution results both helped the GM1 score highly. Outperforming everything else in this class, the featherweight GM1 and its new 12-32mm kit lens (with default JPEG sharpening on) frequently topped 2000 lw/ph on our resolution chart. We noticed a little softness in the corners across all apertures, but, considering the extra-compact size of the lens, we came away suitably impressed. If you need more sharpness, you can always step up to one of the terrific small primes the Micro Four Thirds system offers.
Discounting the quirky-cute but underperforming Pentax Q cameras, the GM1 is the most compact compact system camera—emphasis on system—we've seen yet. No other small camera provides photographers with such a wide array of options. The only limiting factor is how awkward this little thing can get with a honkin' huge lens attached. If you're planning on using your favorite Micro Four Thirds lenses, we'd strongly recommend picking up the GM1's $99 metal accessory grip. It adds a little extra somethin' for your fingers to wrap around.
Two very different groups of photographers will flock to the GM1. Point-and-shoot shoppers looking for an amazing jacket pocket camera will be hard-pressed to find a better option. It's not going to fit in a pair of skinny jeans (well, unless you mount the Olympus Body Cap Lens) but it's light enough to keep on your wrist without fatigue and compact enough to live in your bag and go everywhere with you. Considering how well it did in our lab tests, it's light on price, too. For the same cost as an RX100 II, you get a bigger sensor, better image quality, and great lens compatibility.
Then there are the seasoned M43 vets. People already invested in the system who want a second Micro Four Thirds camera will love carrying this around. It's the smallest and lightest M43 body available today—something we don't expect to change any time soon. The GM1 is more flexible than a big-sensor enthusiast compact like the Ricoh GR—you'll have the confidence of knowing that it works with the lenses you already love and delivers the image quality you're accustomed to.
More demanding photographers—particularly those who hope to use the GM1 as their only body—won't like what the camera leaves behind in order to achieve its minuscule size. But if you're willing to live with these relatively minor shortcomings, you'll be rewarded with an incredible camera that, on a pound-for-pound basis, is tough to beat. Either as a premium entry point or a companion camera, the GM1 delivers adorable good looks paired with admirable performance at a reasonable price.
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