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Panasonic Lumix G10: A Compact Digital SLR Alternative

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The Lumix G10 is Panasonic's new, affordable micro four thirds hybrid, but has there been too much cost-cutting to make this a viable alternative to an SLR? In our in-depth review, we'll delve into the look and feel, picture quality, lens choice, and how the Panasonic Lumix G10 stacks up against the ever-growing micro four thirds competition!


Background

Panasonic has split its original G1 D-SLR hybrid into two models - the G10 reviewed here and the more sophisticated G2. Both cameras use the same 12-megapixel Live MOS sensor, basic body shape and lenses, but the G2 has an articulating LCD, touch-screen autofocus and other enhancements. The G10 is designed as a basic, low-cost companion, and the ideal introduction to Panasonic's Micro Four Thirds range.

The other two models, the GH1 and the GF1, introduced after the orginal G1, continue. The GH1 is designed for movies, with full 1920 x 1080 HD movie capability and a 10x kit lens. The GF1 is styled more like a rangefinder compact rather than a D-SLR, drawing parallels with Olympus's Pen cameras.


Look and Feel

Panasonic Lumix G10 Review

The G10 is styled like a digital SLR, but it's significantly smaller and lighter. The body is made of plastic, but it has a smooth, matt finish which gives it an air of quality. The 14-42mm lens is a little narrower than a digital SLR's kit lens but about the same length. The zoom movement is smooth but firm and there's no play in the barrel as it extends. The focussing ring has a nice, smooth movement too, though there's no distance scale - that's only displayed on the LCD in manual focus mode. The front element of the lens doesn't rotate when you focus, so you can use filters without any problem.

Panasonic Lumix G10 Review

With the 14-42mm kit lens fitted, the G10 is a little lighter and smaller than an entry-level digital SLR, but it's still not the sort of camera you could put in a coat pocket. For that you'd really need a compact hybrid like the Lumix GF1 and maybe Panasonic's 20mm pancake lens. It feels well made for the money, though, and stacks up well against other cameras in this price bracket.


Controls and Layout

The G10 uses a pretty standard control layout for a D-SLR/hybrid. There's a mode dial on the top, a control dial at the rear and four-way navigational buttons which also act as shortcuts to common settings, including ISO, white balance and metering pattern.

The fourth button can be configured to set the Film Mode, aspect ratio, quality, metering mode, Panasonics new 'Intelligent Resolution' mode, Intelligent Exposure, 'Extra Optical Zoom' and guideline display -we'll come back to some of these.

Panasonic Lumix G10 Review

There are a couple of controls on this camera you wouldn't usually find in a low-cost model, including a drive mode switch around the mode dial, which provides access to bracketing and self timer modes too.

Panasonic Lumix G10 Review

And there's a focus mode switch on the other side for selecting single-shot AF continuous AF and manual focus.

Many entry level D-SLRs/hybrids rely a bit too heavily on menus and on-screen interfaces, and they can be frustrating to operate when you already know what you're doing. The G10's range of external controls, though, makes the majority of everyday settings readily accessible.

And you can adjust even more using the Q.Menu (quick menu) button on the back. This makes the on-screen icons around the display 'interactive', so that when you use the left-right navigation buttons to highlight them, they display drop-down menus where you can make changes.

The G10 might be a simplified model aimed at cost-conscious beginners, but the controls are well thought-out and let you make changes to the camera settings very quickly.


Viewing and Focussing

Panasonic has saved a bit of money with the viewing system, and it shows. The original Lumix G1 and the new G2 both have automatic eye sensors which switch the display from the rear LCD to the electronic viewfinder when you put the camera to your eye.

The G10, doesn't and it is a nuisance. While you're out shooting, you often want to swap from the LCD to the EFV, depending on the subject and the light (the LCD isn't always easy to make out in bright light), and it's a real nuisance having to keep pressing the button next to the eyepiece to do it. It's also the most natural thing in the world to want to shoot with the EVF and then take the camera from your eye to see the result on the LCD – again, with the G10 you have to press the button to switch the display.

That's not the only area where cost savings have had a big impact. The EVF on the original G1 and the new G2 has 1.4 million pixels. You need this kind of resolution to get anywhere near the clarity and sharpness of a digital SLR's optical viewfinder, and these cameras are competing with D-SLRs, after all.

But the EVF in the G10 has only 202,000 pixels, and that's low by any standards. The display looks coarse and pixellated, and doesn't have much contrast or saturation either.

The other thing about the G10 is that Panasonic has gone for a fixed LCD display rather than one which folds out and swivels. Again, this is a step backwards compared to the G1 and G2. It's not as serious as the issues with the electronic viewfinder, but it is a disappointment.

All this does have an impact on the focussing. This isn't a strong point of hybrid cameras in general because electronic viewfinders don't lend themselves to precise visual adjustments and the lenses don't carry distance scales (why not?). If you set the G10 to manual focus mode, it automatically magnifies the display to increase accuracy, but it's a shame it's necessary at all and it can be a bit visually disconcerting.

On the other hand, the autofocus performance is very good. Unlike a D-SLR, the G10 doesn't have a separate autofocus sensor and instead it relies on the sensor-based contrast-detection systems used by compacts. Even so, it's very fast. In fact, it's at least as good as any digital SLR used normally, and many times faster than a D-SLR in live view mode.

Panasonic Lumix G10 Review

This donkey turned away pretty quickly when it realised it wasn't going to get any carrots but the G10 was quick enough to focus and shoot in around half a second!

It's not clear why digital SLR makers struggle to get good performance out of their own contrast-detection autofocus systems, but they do. So even though D-SLR makers may point out that their cameras can compose pictures on the LCD in the same way as hybrids like the G10, it's just not the same. If you're a fan of live view operation, hybrids are much slicker at it than D-SLRs.

This also applies to movies. The HD movie mode on the G10 doesn't have any manual overrides to speak of, but it is very straightforward and effective. You can shoot using the viewfinder or the LCD, and the camera's autofocus continues to work throughout – two things you don't get with D-SLRs.


Lens Choice

There's a lot to be said for hybrids like the G10 as D-SLR alternatives, especially now that the range of lenses is increasing.

Panasonic Lumix G10 Review

As well as the 14-42mm kit zoom, you can get the 7-14mm (14-28mm equivalent) super-wideangle zoom shown here, a 45-200mm (90-400mm) telephoto zoom, 14-140mm (28-280mm) superzoom, 45mm (90mm) macro and a 20mm (40mm equivalent) pancake lens.

The G10 uses the Micro Four Thirds format, so in principle you should be able to use Olympus MFT lenses and, with an optional adaptor, Four Thirds lenses too.

It's clear by now that the Four Thirds/Micro Four Thirds format isn't going away, and third-party lens makers are starting to offer support for this format - further increasing the range of lenses available.

No camera format is future-proof, and if you're planning a career as a professional photographer then you'll probably want to stick to Canon and Nikon because of their vast lens and accessory ranges and long track record, but beginners and enthusiasts needn't worry that they're painting themselves into a corner with Micro Four Thirds. Panasonic's lens range is already more extensive than most of us are likely to need.


Picture Quality

But how does the picture quality compare with that of a digital SLR? It's a good question because Micro Four Thirds sensors are smaller than the APS-C sensors used in the majority of D-SLRs. In fact in terms of area they're about half the size (though they're still many times larger than the sensors used in compacts).

It's become clear that sensor size is the major factor in image quality these days, so the G10 and other Micro Four Thirds cameras do have something to prove.

Panasonic Lumix G10 Review

Well, you can consider it proved. This and other shots taken with the G10 demonstrate that the level of detail in the pictures is at least as good as any 12-megapixel D-SLR's. In fact in some respects it's better, because Panasonic's 14-42mm kit lens is remarkably free of aberrations. There's not much distortion or chromatic aberration, and it holds its sharpness well right up to the edge of the frame. There aren't many D-SLR kit lenses as good as this, so overall the G10 is right up there with the best of its rivals.

Panasonic Lumix G10 Review

The colour rendition is really good, too, and the 'Dynamic' and 'Vibrant' film modes add depth and richness without producing artificial-looking over-saturation. The black and white film modes are good too, though the 'Nostalgic' mode doesn't appear to do much except reduce the saturation slightly.

The traditional argument against smaller sensors is that the photosites are necessarily smaller as a result, and that this will mean worse quality at high ISOs and reduced dynamic range.

That's the theory, anyway, but the G10's performance in these respects is pretty impressive too. Admittedly, the quality at its maximum ISO of 6400 is pretty poor, and you probably wouldn't want to go past ISO 1600 if you could avoid it, but these Four Thirds sensors have come a long way since the early days, and while they should technically be at a disadvantage at high ISOs compared to an APS-C sensor, it certainly doesn't leap out at you.

It's even harder to spot any differences in the dynamic range. All cameras will clip highlight or shadow detail if the exposure's not quite right or if the scene has unusually high contrast, and there's nothing in any of the test shots taken with this camera to suggest it's worse than a normal D-SLR.

In fact, it has an 'Intelligent Exposure' mode which could make it slightly better. This is more sophisticated than the usual 'shadow enhancement' technologies of other cameras because it adjusts localised brightness values as the image data is processed. It's not quite as effective as shooting RAW files and processing them carefully on the computer, but it does noticeably increase the camera's ability to record extreme highlight and shadow detail.


'Intelligent' Technologies

Panasonic makes a big thing of its 'intelligent' technologies, but while the 'Intelligent Exposure' option is welcome, some of the others are confusing and even unconvincing.

There's an iA button on the top of the camera, for example, which instantly activates all of the camera's intelligent technologies for the best-possible fully-automated photos. Now that's fine in itself, even though it is a bit bizarre to have the camera automatically selecting the best automatic exposure mode, but why not just call it full auto? Presumably, there's not much marketing value in that.

And the technological fog surrounding all these technologies has just grown thicker with the introduction of Panasonic's 'Intelligent Resolution' option. Here, the processing engine isolates different regions of the image according to whether they contain clearly-defined detail, subtle textures or areas of even tone, and then processes them differently so that you get the best blend of sharpening and noise reduction for each area.

It sounds like a good idea, sure, but the way it's been implemented is a bit odd. First of all, it's not activated by default (why not, if it's such a good idea?). Second, it can be applied at different strengths. Why? Which should you use? How would you know? It's the sort of thing that looks great in a brochure but is far from straightforward in practice. There doesn't seem a lot wrong with the G10's pictures without it.

The G10's 'Extended Optical Zoom' feature is highly dubious, though. It suggests the zoom range is being magically extended in some way, when all that's happening is that the image is being cropped. So isn't this just a digital zoom under another name, then? Not quite. The G10 has a separate digital zoom which crops the image but then resamples it to the normal 12-megapixel size. The 'Extended Optical Zoom' doesn't do any resampling and so, the argument goes, there's no quality loss.

Really, this is just playing with words. The G10 doesn't have any kind of extended optical zoom at all in the sense that most photographers would be prepared to accept, and this kind of technological double-talk undermines the G10's credibility rather than enhancing it. It's a good camera - it doesn't need it.


The G10 Versus the Competition

The techno-jargon may be a little overpowering and unconvincing in equal measure, but the bottom line is that the G10 is still a very good entry level D-SLR hybrid. The competition has recently got tougher, though. It's not just regular D-SLRs it's up against, but hybrid cameras from Olympus, Samsung and now Panasonic.

Olympus doesn't make a D-SLR hybrid, so its only real alternative to the G10 is the E-PL1, which is styled more like a large compact and has no built-in viewfinder (though you can clip one to the accessory shoe). Sony's NEX-3 and NEX-5 hybrids are also styled like large compacts. The closest rival to the G10, then, is Samsung's NX10.

Panasonic Lumix G10 Review

What's striking is just how compact the Samsung is. It's no larger than the G10, despite using a bigger APS-C sized sensor. The electronic viewfinder is better, the image qualtiy is as good as the G10's or better, and while the NX10 doesn't have quite such a large range of lenses as the Panasonic, there are more to come.

Right now, there doesn't seem to be a lot of difference in price between the G10 and the NX10 and, for the money, the Samsung is the better camera. In the end, then, it could simply come down to pricing.


Verdict

The G10 is a very good entry-level digital SLR hybrid that's competes head-on with conventional SLR designs and comes out very well. The picture quality as at least as good as you'd get from a comparably-priced D-SLR, despite the slightly smaller sensor.

But the EVF's low quality and the lack of an automatic eye sensor are rather obvious cost-cutting measures, as is the fixed LCD on the back. In these respects, the G10 is actually a step backwards from the original G1.


Pros

  1. Small, light and well made
  2. Very good control layout, perfect for manual adjustments
  3. Great kit lens, with low aberrations and good edge-to-edge sharpness
  4. Good picture quality generally and match for similarly-priced D-SLRs

Cons

  1. Low-quality EVF
  2. No automatic eye sensor for switching between the EVF and LCD
  3. Rear LCD fixed not articulating
  4. Value for money only average – Samsung's NX10 is better
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