This page was last updated 11 January 2010.

The Panasonic DMC-G1 DSLR camera on the road

2009 was my travel year. I have quit my job and spent most of the year on the road, mostly in Asia in places as diverse as Tokyo, Tibet, Sumatra, Tasmania, and small Lao islands in the Mekong without electricity. For many years I have been traveling with compact cameras, and always returned unhappy about their shortcomings. Clearly, this time I needed something better.

This page describes my experiences with the Panasonic DMC-G1 micro-four thirds camera. It is not a camera review (dpreview.com has an excellent one), but a report of how I was using it, and what I found worked well and what didn't, under often rough conditions.

The reason why I never carried a DSLR before was weight and size. I travel light, with 10-12 kg total including the backpack, and 3 kg for camera gear was just not an option. Then Panasonic came out with the new micro four thirds system that does away with the mirror and allows much smaller and lighter bodies and lenses. The Panasonic DMC-G1 with two lenses (14-45 and 45-200 at a crop factor of 2) and all equipment weighs 1.2 kg - still 10% of my weight budget but doable.

So I bought the Panasonic a few days before departing for Tokyo, with no time to really get used it, expecting a much better harvest of travel pictures. I returned with over 10,000 of them, not counting the ones I deleted. The G1 did not disappoint.

Compact cameras vs. DSLRs

Before I go into a detailed description of my experience with the G1 on the road, here is a quick comparison of the compact camera I was carrying last year, and the G1 (which I and everyone else calls a DSLR even though there is no mirror). If you want to leave compacts behind too, here is what to expect:

Compact:
Panasonic TZ5

DSLR:
Panasonic G1

Weight and size: 400g, fits in your front pants pocket. 1200g, fits into a medium-sized Crumpler waistpack with the 14-45 lens.
Fast snapshots in sunlight: Not great - quick to take out of your pocket, but starts slowly because the lens extends first; mode wheel is easy to turn accidentally which prevents power on, slow focus, slow series mode. About the same - slow to extricate from the pack, but starts and shoots very quickly. Provided that you haven't left it in a strange mode, more on that later. Don't forget the lens cap...
Poor light situations: Not really usable - needs a tripod despite anti-shake, won't work on moving subjects, noisy pictures, darker backgrounds are lost. Pretty good - handheld shots often possible even at night, background remains well-defined, far less noise.
High zoom: Poor - the TZ5 zooms to 10x, but the pictures are blurry, vignetted (brighter in the center), poor contrast. Great - obviously it does need more light than with a wide-angle lens, but picture quality suffers only mildly and the antishake does a great job. I love 200mm shots when taking portraits of unsuspecting subjects. But - you'll be changing lenses a lot, although I enjoy the precise mechanical engineering.
Artistic control: Basically none. Point and shoot. No manual modes, the camera makes all decisions and usually gets it wrong in low-light and high-contrast situations. Framing with the zoom rocker is slow and imprecise but sort of ok. Display works poorly in direct sunlight. Great, if you take your time adjusting ISO, aperture, and shutter. It's rare to find a motif that you can't take a picture of. Framing is a joy, and the viewfinder gives great feedback. The G1 has poor manual focus control though; more on that later.
Depth of field: None, usually everything is in focus. This gets its own table row because it's such a great tool to make a object stand out from the background. It takes more fiddling to focus on the background.
Mechanical quality: Lens protection is too flimsy to be very useful, sand gets into the delicate lens mechanism easily and destroys the camera. Solid metal body, no exposed delicate mechanisms. But - dust can reach the sensor when changing lenses.
Battery life: Runs a few days on a battery, maybe 100 pictures. Runs more than a week on a battery, maybe 300-500 pictures.
Cost: € 200-300. € 1000 (with 14-45 and 45-200 lens kit). Bigger DSLRs are often much cheaper (but not their lenses).

So, once you get used to the thought of packing chunky hardware into your small travel bag, there are a lot of reasons to carry a G1. But don't expect that you'll get beautiful pictures just by continuing to point and shoot. Sometimes you will, but to really get the best results from a DSLR you need to learn how to use it, and take time to prepare your shots.

Practical scenarios

So I am in a great location and a great motif comes along and I decide to snap a picture. I'd take the G1 from my waist pack, and go through a number of steps that mostly check that no button was moved by the act of pulling the camera from the bag:

This is not too different from what you'd do on a compact, and it doesn't slow me down much. But the fun begins in difficult situations where the compact would be challenged:

Sounds complicated, but much of the above let you take pictures that just can't be done with a cheap compact, and it's enjoyable to work with a solid piece of equipment that does what you want, rather than fighting with the confused automatic modes of a cheap compact.

Tsujiki fish market in Tokyo Tsujiki fish market in Tokyo
Tsujiki fish market in Tokyo at 5:00 in the morning. Very poorly lit with yellowish lamps. The left picture is what happens if you let the camera determine the white balance; the right one is properly balanced.

Since the main mode wheel turns so easily by accident, I have preset all the modes around P (A, S, M) with usually reasonable values, like f/5.6 and 1/125. Otherwise I might find that it's still set on the extreme shutter times set the previous night and blots out every pixel for several seconds while I watch my motif disappear. And the G1 wheel sticks out less and needs more force to turn than the ridiculous TZ5 mode wheel.

Here is my wish list of things that would have helped me. They got so many other things right that this is kind of minor, but I am not going to miss an opportunity to whine:

Focusing

The good news is that automatic focus works quite well. At high zoom and in poor light it takes longer but it works. There are metering modes for focusing on the center, or weighted multiple points, and a focus lock button, so it's usually easy to get it to focus on the object you want.

But sometimes it doesn't work. For example, you can't take pictures of an animal through a wire fence; the camera's focus algorithm will instantly fall in love with the high-contrast wires and ignore the animal. Similarly, when you take a picture from a bus window, the camera will wait until a lamppost streaks by and will focus on that. (Although, in my experience, it's basically impossible to take good pictures from bus windows; they all lack soul.) In cases like this, manual focusing is needed and the camera supports that.

But not very well. It's all electronic, you can't just turn the ring all the way to the infinity mark. The ring is there but it has no marks. If you turn it, the display or viewfinder switches to high magnification and you turn the ring until some edge becomes sharp. But the camera won't help; it can clearly measure sharpness when it's focusing automatically but it's not going to tell you. Holding the camera steady at this high magnification is hard too. And if it's dark, you see nothing. If you have ever seen how beautifully Leica has solved that problem in cameras like the M8, this is frustrating. Out of the 10,000 good pictures I took on my travels in 2009, perhaps a dozen was manually focused.

The G1 has lens stabilization. It works beautifully, although only with Panasonic lenses of course and not through adapters. You actually see the image locking in when you half-press the trigger. Stabilization gains two or three f-stops, which means that you get sharp pictures in much lower light without blurring. I could take hand-held pictures at night (feet wide apart, not breathing, pressing the viewfinder against my eye, using a 2-second self timer). That would be utterly hopeless with a compact.

Depth of field describes the blurring of objects not on the focus plane, which is the plane at the distance you are focusing on. Only objects on the focus plane are sharp. This lets you direct the viewer's attention to the subject of your picture, while deemphasizing the background. Compacts can't do this because of their small sensors and apertures. Full-format cameras with better focusing methods than the G1, such as the Leica M8, do this even better; in a portrait you'd try to focus on an eye. The G1 isn't accurate enough for that, but it still gets excellent results on less demanding motifs.

Elvis in Tokyo Kangaroo in Tasmania
Elvis in Tokyo. Depth of field blurs the trees in the background so that they do not distract from the motif. Kangaroo in Tasmania. This is a typical example of the camera focusing on the foreground, although it did work out ok here.

Viewfinder and display

The G1 does not have a mirror or prism, so the viewfinder has no optical path through the lens. It's really a tiny LCD display with 1.2 million pixels (using the flawed count of the camera industry). It shows an excellent picture, and I prefer it over the large display screen because the resolution is so much higher and sunlight doesn't distract me when selecting the exposure.

The screen does have its uses. It is articulated, it folds out and can point up or down. That's useful if you shoot close to the ground, or hold the camera high over your (and everyone else's) heads.

This guy has no articulated display Overhead picture on Bali
This guy in the Monkey Forest Sanctuary on Bali does not have an articulated display. I held the camera high over my head to take this picture of a temple procession in Bali.

The camera can automatically switch between display and viewfinder using a proximity sensor, but I turned it off because any change cancels some settings like play zoom, when you show someone a picture and accidentally brush over the back of the camera. There is a dedicated button for switching.

Exposure

The G1 has a fully automatic mode called "iA". In this mode, the G1 behaves like a compact, except with the advantages of a big sensor and high-quality lenses. I found it to be not very useful in sunlight because it consistently overexposes by 1/3 EV (in extreme cases by 2 EV), and in dark situations it just looks at the foreground and is helpless without flash. And the camera is so confident of its intelligent auto mode that it ignores EV compensation. It does ok in some indoors shots though.

So most of the time I was in "P" mode with an EV compensation of -1/3. EV compensation is very easy to change with the ring under the trigger button; the only problem is that it's difficult to tell what the ring is currently doing - this can be changed by pushing the ring, and the display uses two very similar colors, white and yellow, to distinguish the modes.

I also didn't trust automatic ISO mode because it ramps up amplification too quickly, adding noise. So I had it set on ISO 100 in daylight, and went up to 400 in poorly lit temples. In extreme situations I went up to 800, but noise begins to become visible at that level. Noise is preferable to blur.

When it's very dark, the camera's automatic mode is helpless. But, unlike almost all compacts, it has a fully manual "M" mode that lets you set both aperture and exposure. And you don't need to guess - pressing the aperture and display buttons puts the camera into a preview mode where it takes pictures at a high rate and putting them on the display but not the flash card. What you see is what you get. Too bad that the trigger button turns the mode off again. Antishake works really well.

The most annoying flaw is that exposure series mode can't be used for HDR exposures because the exposure deltas can't be configured sufficiently wide. The camera's dynamic range (the ratio of brightest and darkest light it can resolve) is not huge, and taking pictures at +/- two f-stops and fitting them together with a program like Photomatix or Photoshop could fix that - but only if the pictures are taken rapidly so they line up well. I tried it manually but couldn't get it to work.

Impressions Liu Sanjie ballet in Yangshuo Detail
Ballet in the middle of a lake in Yangshuo in China, shot from a a great distance from the shore. Taken at full 200mm (crop factor 2), manual mode, shutter 1/200, aperture f/5.6, ISO 800, fine JPEG. Pixel-accurate crop on the right. With the naked eye I could barely see the dancer's movements and very little of the blue snowflake and its reflection. I have seen people taking pictures with compacts and getting a few small bright patches in a sea of black.

Polarization filter

I was carrying only one filter, a cheap polarization filter (Hama). The G1 lenses accept 52mm filters. Sunlight is polarized horizontally as it passes through the atmosphere or reflects off water. Polarization filters (partially) remove this polarized light, so the contrast in the remainder of the picture increases and comes closer to what the naked eye sees. The difference can be dramatic, turning a mushy low-contrast picture bleached by sunlight into a crisp and realistic picture. The effect is most pronounced with bright sunlight, and disappears on hazy days where droplets in the air refract light and destroy the uniform polarization.

If you travel to sunny locations, a polarization filter is one of the essential extras you need to buy. (The other two are a spare battery, one is enough, and a good waistpack like my Crumpler.)

Angkor temple with polarization filter Angkor temple with polarization filter
Temple in Angkor in Cambodia, taken with horizontal (left) and vertical (right) filter polarization under identical lighting conditions. Note how the vertical filter removes sunlight reflected off the lake surface, and casts the stupa and the trees in sharp detail, while the trees in the left picture look washed out.
Entrance to the Potala Palace in Lhasa in Tibet Blue Mountains national park near Sydney in Australia
Entrance to the Potala Palace in Lhasa in Tibet, and the Blue Mountains national park near Sydney in Australia. The dark blue-black sky in Lhasa and the white clouds in the blue Australian sky can only be captured properly with a polarization filter.

Software

The G1 is larger than compacts and has more space for buttons that require navigating a menu on a compact camera. But the camera seems to be meant for people like me, who have recently upgraded from a compact camera, so the menus are packed with useless junk like face detectors, overzealous "intelligent auto" modes, a film selector, and lots of scene presets for sunsets, food, pets, and two different babies. Fortunately they don't get in the way.

There is a quick menu button giving faster access to various functions than the menu, but I never used it except to turn on raw mode. The functions I need (white balance, ISO settings, autofocus mode, and grid are on dedicated buttons (one of which is configurable), although I would have preferred an ISO wheel instead of a button. I very rarely had to use the main menu. Playing back pictures is also quite well done. It's fast and supports useful 3x4, 5x6, and calendar menus.

Aesthetically the menus are a train wreck though. Like in pretty much any digital camera, the icons are hard to see, unintuitive, and ugly - especially the cheesy animations - as if they had been taken from a prehistoric Amiga or something. They all look as if they had been designed by a color-blind programmer with a bitmap editor. They make X11's antique Athena test GUI look sophisticated.

Being in the software business myself, here is my software wish list:

Hardware

The hardware is very solid and held up well. Lenses lock and unlock with a very satisfying metallic feel, and are quick to change. There are a few small problems, some of which are due to the rather small size of this camera:

I don't know why it happened and whether it was the camera's fault or I had bad flash cards, but the camera scrambled two separate flash cards during shooting so that no pictures could be read or written anymore. Fortunately I carried a netbook and made backups every night, and could restore most lost pictures with a filesystem check (Linux fsck), but this is scary. I was using 16GB class-6 Transcend cards. On previous tours I used an Archos mp3 player for backups; it's a very capable device.

Peeling rubber lens rings Crowded back side of the camera
Rubber lens rings coming loose. Crowded back side of the camera.


Craig Mod has a field test of the Panasonic GF1 camera here. It's similar to my G1 in many ways, although much smaller and without a viewfinder.


I have more on the practicalities of traveling to exotic countries here, with a short section on travel photography.

Tell me if you found this information interesting or useful, or if you have comments.