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posted by [personal profile] ptc24 at 07:42pm on 25/07/2015
People like to ask me questions about my cameras - in particular, there are two which get attention in particular. In this post I'll deal with the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF6. There are lots of reviews on the web, but I'd like to give my perspective, with a particular view to buying advice.

So I got the photography bug in 2007 or so, I got a DSLR in 2008, used it for a bit, liked some of the photos it took but got disappointed by the bulk, broke a couple of the "nifty fifty" lenses, my interest in photography waned, then in 2014 I got keen on photography again, and the GF6 was the second camera I got that year. I'd been reading about "mirrorless" camera - also known as "compact system" cameras, and they sounded like a good idea. So I did some research, found an intriguing family of mirrorless cameras called Micro Four Thirds, read some reviews, and settled on the GF6. I'm not a pro or a seasoned enthusiast or an experienced review, but people keep asking me about my experiences, so here goes.

For those not in the know, a mirrorless camera is like a DSLR but without the defining feature - the mirror. DSLRs have interchangeable lenses, and "large" sensors (usually a bit smaller than a frame of 35mm film, but substantially larger than the sensor on your average compact camera or mobile phone), and tend to have various advanced features, and by definition have a mirror between the lens and the sensor that sends light into the viewfinder, so you can look through the lens when framing up your shot. When you press the shutter button the mirror flips out of the way so light can fall on the sensor. This is nice, but the mirror mechanism adds bulk to the camera, and also increases the distance between the lens and the sensor, which tends to mean that lenses need to be bulkier too. Now if you get rid of the mirror, and use the sensor to drive a display on the back of the camera, or an electronic viewfinder, then that cuts down on bulk and gives you a much handier, more portable camera. The best camera is the one you have with you, and if it's smaller, you're more likely to have it with you. I've also heard it said that small cameras are less intimidating, so if you like taking lots of photos of people, then you might this better than a giant intimidating DSLR.

Getting a modern camera, rather than one from half a decade or so back - yes, things have come along quite a bit since my last buying spree. Low light performance has come along very nicely. Also, you often get wifi functionality, which often means you can get your smartphone to connect to it. Great for downloading pictures onto your phone to get them onto the internet in the field, great for using your smartphone as a remote (good for selfies or group photos or closeups of wildlife or lots of other things). Lots of camera brands do this - whatever you go for, check to see if you can get it, it's a great feature.

Would I recommend getting a mirrorless camera? Yes - if you have the cash, are keen enough on photography, and would appreciate the benefits. They live up to the hype. Note that by "have the cash", you should be rich enough to buy an extra lens or two to make the most of the interchangable lens bit. More later.

So, let's get more specfic. Micro Four Thirds (MFT). It's a standard, joint between Panasonic and Olympus, that specifies things like the size of the sensor, the lens mount and electronic connections, etc. So you can use any MFT lens on any MFT camera - you can also get some adaptors to fit a variety of other lenses to the cameras (there's a slight wrinkle I'll get onto later) - however with those the electronics (if there are any) won't work, so you'll need to adjust the focus and aperature manually. Anyway, as well as Panasonic and Olympus, a few other manufacturers make MFT cameras and/or lenses: Sigma make some cheap but highly regarded MFT lenses, Kodak is apparently making an entry into the MFT market, there are a few others.

The MFT sensor is a little bit smaller than "APS-C" sensors, as found on most DSLRs and some of the larger mirrorless cameras (e.g. Sony's range), but still a bit larger than some other mirrorless formats, and most compact cameras. Why do you want a large sensor? Two reasons. Firstly, a large sensor collects more light, meaning better image quality, especially in low light. Secondly, with large sensors, you get a shallower depth of field. This can be a nuisance when doing macro photography but can be really nice for portraits, larger flowers and some other things. You can get a smoothly blurred background - "bokeh" - which contrasts wonderfully with the nice sharp foreground, making the thing you're photographing really stand out.

Anyway, MFT is nice and small and very handy to carry around, and still has the power to take good photos in bad light, and there's a good (if slightly expensive) selection of lenses available. Would I recommend an MFT camera? Yes, if you want a mirrorless camera, there's a good chance you want MFT (although I've heard good things about some other varieties as well).

Zooming in a bit: The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF6. This is - or was - Panasonic's "entry level" mirrorless camera, so pretty cheap - I wasn't sure how much use I'd get so I didn't want to spend too much. It's pretty small, but not as tiny as their GM series, has a tilty flippy screen on the back which I thought was a total gimmick when I bought it, but it has turned out to be really handy. I don't take many selfies, but if you do, you'll really want a screen like the GF6's - it's incredibly handy for that. And it does all of the things I loved doing with my old DSLR, but without the bulk.

Would I recommend buying the GF6? Let me ask and answer another question first. If I knew then what I know now, would I have bought the GF6, or some other MFT camera? In my case, probably some other camera. Why? Feature set.

Things to think about - flash, viewfinder, image stabilisation. I'll deal with these in reverse order of importance. The simplest one is viewfinder. Some people really like to have a viewfinder on their camera - they prefer the shooting position, holding the camera up to your face can stabilise it a bit and help to prevent camera shake, on sunny days using the viewfinder avoids glare on the screen. However, for me... I have another camera with an electronic viewfinder and I hardly use that feature. So the fact that the GF6 lacks an electronic viewfinder isn't a big deal for me. It might be for you.

The second is flash. The GF6 has a nice built-in flash. It is a pop-up flash, which helps keep the flash away from the axis of the lens, which gives an nicer picture, and you can tilt the flash, so you can bounce it off the ceiling for indirect lighting and get an even nicer picture. So far so good. But there's no hotshoe - you can't use an external flash. Serious people might want a big external flash. People who really like macro photography might want a ring flash which attaches to the end of the lens - I'm a bit annoyed that I can't use one of those. So maybe I'd have got one with a hotshoe - but ideally one that still has a built-in flash anyway.

The third is image stabilisation. There are two main ways of doing this - in body, and lens. This is what splits Panasonic and Olympus - Panasonic goes for lens stabilisation, Olympus for in body. The upshot of this is that if you use an Olympus lens on a Panasonic body, or a legacy lens on a Panasonic body, or one of the few Panasonic lenses without image stabilisation on a Panasonic body, you don't get image stabilisation. If you use a Panasonic lens on an Olympus body, then you only get the benefit of the in-body image stabilisation - essentially, you're letting about £25 of the lens price go to waste. So why not just use Panasonic lenses? Well, the selections aren't comprehensive, and some of the lenses I wanted are Olympus lenses or Panasonic-without-stabilisation, there aren't any good Panasonic-with-stabilisation, and I love mucking around with legacy lenses. However, I don't quite miss image stabilisation on those lenses as much as I might do, and the imaged-stabilised "kit" lens the camera came with is nice. If you put it on a 2-second timer to avoid the shake from pressing the shutter button, you can take 1 second exposures hand-held and still have them come out nicely - the camera is that good. Hand held night photography totally works with the GF6.

So, to get image stabilisation, what would I have got. Maybe one of the Olympus cameras maybe - the E-P5 or E-PL7 perhaps. Or the Panasonic GX7 is another intriguing option. As well as having a hotshoe and an electronic viewfinder, it has in-body stabilisation as well as the electronics for lens stabilisation. Most people seem to thing the in-body stabilisation isn't as good as that on the Olympus cameras, but it's still better than nothing. The GX7 only uses one sort of stabilisation at a time, and prefers lens stabilisation if your lens has it. So, for me, I would probably have gone for a GX7 (and it seems, looking at the Panasonic website, the GX8 is now a thing). Still, the GF6 has been a great camera and lots of fun.

One more feature that's really not an issue for me, but is apparently a big deal for some - a microphone jack. If you want to make lots of videos, then being able to plug an external microphone in apparently makes a huge difference to the audio quality. The GF6 doesn't have one. So if you're into video, you'll need to read around a bit more before making your choice. I've heard that the Panasonic GH3 and G6, and the Olympus E-M1, E-M5 and E-P5 - all a bit larger than the other ones I've been talking about except the E-P5 - have microphone jacks.

Lenses - the glass in front of the camera body is in many ways more important than the body itself - less so in these days of digital photgraphy, but still the glass is important. And if you've got a lens mount for interchangable lenses, it pays to have an extra lens or two to make use of that feature. So these cameras tend to come with handy little zoom lenses as the "kit" lens - mine goes from wide angle to short telephoto, and these are well worth having.

The first is the Olympus 45mm lens. This is reasonably cheap - if you get the right offer you can get it for £150 or so - and is fantastically good. People call it a portrait lens, and indeed it takes superb portaits, but there's so much more to it than that. The lens is what's known as a "prime" lens - i.e., no zoom. The main advantage of prime lenses is that their maximum apertures are a lot wider than for zoom lenses. This has two very nice effects. The first is that it lets more light in, making it easier to take fast exposures in low light. This is especially useful for social photography in murky artificial light indoors - you don't want long exposures because people move. The second is that wide apertures give you a shallow depth of field. Remember the "bokeh" I was talking about earlier. The wider the lens opens, the more bokehlicious your photos will be. And this one opens nice 'n' wide. It really makes a big difference.

The other lens - well, this is very much for people who like to be experimental. Look on ebay to see if you can find a 25mm C-Mount CCTV lens with an adaptor for Micro Four Thirds. These will set you back about £20 or so. They're manual focus, manual aperture, and the optics are a bit interesting. Basically there are some effects that would normally be considered to be lens defects but under the right conditions you could call them art. Look at these photos for an idea of the effects it produces. Not what you'd want all or even most of the time, but good for fun and variety. Oh, and the lens opens even wider than the other one I was recommending, with all of the benefits that come with it.

The thing about both of these lenses - they're not image stabilised, so a camera with in-body stabilisation would be good. But still, they're great to have even with the GF6.

One last thing. Apparently the GF7, the successor to the GF6 is out. If I recall right, some of the features are a step forward, some a step back. Of course, now the GF7 is out, the GF6 may be available at a discount.

P.S. All the above is about the camera and not about the marketing. You may or may not be interested, intrigued, encouraged or appalled to look at the marketing for the Olympus PEN-EPL7 (or you may be bored by the very idea of doing so). It is very very blatantly marketed at women in a way that the more expensive Olympus MFT cameras aren't. Panasonic aren't quite so blatant, but it seems on their website that the higher-end cameras tend to come with photos of men and the more entry-level cameras (including the GF6 and GF7) tend come with pictures of women. There are some exceptions though - the cute little GM1 and GM5 cameras (the smallest of their class) come with pictures of men. Make of all this what you will. At the end of the day, it's the photographs you take with the camera that matter, not the ones the marketing department use to promote the camera.


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