In 2008, Olympus was teetering on the edge of photographic irrelevance, and Panasonic wasn’t a serious player in the camera industry. All that changed, however, when the latter launched a brand new mirrorless interchangeable lens system, dubbed Micro Four Thirds, with the Panasonic Lumix G1, released towards the end of that year.
While the G1 and Micro Four Thirds was technically not the first mirrorless camera (that would be the Epson R-D1), one could consider it the Ford Model T of this style of camera, a sort of mirrorless for the masses.
The system was formed as a partnership with Olympus, with both companies producing cameras and lenses that worked with one another (others, such as Blackmagic and whatever was left of Kodak would join later). The system itself was a miniaturization of the existing Four Thirds standard, a format championed by Olympus that ran a distant third to the APS-C and full-frame sensor sizes popularized by the two largest camera manufacturers, Canon and Nikon. The sensor size is physically smaller, about half the size of a full-frame camera such as a Canon 5D Mark IV, but Olympus and Panasonic bet that size, weight, and cost advantages, as well as an open format for other companies to adapt and use in their cameras would outweigh the physical disadvantages inherent in a smaller sensor, such as a noisier image.
While many of these qualities were true for the Four Thirds system before it, by eliminating the mirror from Micro Four Thirds, size and weight advantages were even more pronounced. At about $800 brand new with a kit lens for the Lumix G1, Panasonic was aiming right at the heart of the upper entry level camera market, and so it had to offer something different to stand out.
So, after 10 years, how does the great-great-grandfather of the Micro Four Thirds system hold up?
One of the things that is clear is how Panasonic has really remained consistent over the years. The design language of the menus and the way autofocus and other functions work are remarkably similar to what they’re doing today. That’s not to say that a GH5 is a backwards camera; that’s to say that the company got a lot of things correct straight out of the gate.
Even without a touchscreen, many of the functions are perfectly usable through a combination of the D-Pad and a responsive Q menu button. It seems like Panasonic was a bit unsure of which way they were going to go with this line of cameras, and so the whole thing seems to split the difference between professional models like the GH series and something a little simpler, like a GM or GF. For instance, it only has one dial to change settings, but that dial has an ingenious “click” feature that can change its function, so you’re not really hurting for two dials the way you would on say, an entry-level Canon or Nikon. On the other hand, accessing ISO isn’t the easiest thing to do, and I found myself relying on the Q menu to get there.
The body also seems to split the difference. It’s small, but not the small one would expect with this size sensor. It’s not large either, as it slots in below the Rebel series of cameras in size (save for the svelte SL1). Again, it’s as if Panasonic was putting this camera out in the world to test the mirrorless waters and see which way to go.
The EVF, while not great by today’s standards, isn’t too bad. The color accuracy could use a little work and there’s not really enough pixels to check for critical focus on either the rear screen or EVF. That said, the whole experience of using the camera isn’t all that different than a mid-range DSLR when autofocus is used. That was something that was likely on the top of the list to achieve for Panasonic with this camera at the time when they were trying to convert people to mirrorless.
One thing that has changed from this generation is the grip of the camera. I found this particular body (in the featured image above) in “bargain” grade condition on KEH. When I received it, the entire camera was sticking to the bag it was shipped in. It was covered in gunk and what seemed like animal hair. These were actual listing pictures for the camera:
I did some research on Panasonic forums and checked eBay listings, and it seemed like all first generation Panasonic Lumix G series cameras were having this problem. Apparently, whatever chemicals went into making the grippy, rubbery coating on the outside of these cameras breaks down over time and results in a gooey, awful mess that no one wants to hold (and hence, the accurate “bargain” grading on this camera).
The consensus amongst G1 owners seemed like isopropyl alcohol and cotton swabs were the way to go to strip the coating off, and so I went to work.
Several hours and lots of scrubbing later, most parts of the camera were down to the bare plastic. While it didn’t help improve the looks of the camera, it was much more usable than it was before. Owning several other Panasonic bodies of a few different generations, this only seems to be a problem on the first.
There were some other strange decisions on Panasonic’s part, some that reeked of blatant cost-cutting or deliberate crippling of features. For instance, there’s no orientation sensor on the camera, so you have to manually rotate vertical photos in post, and there’s no video mode in the camera, an odd choice for a body that’s always using live view. For that feature, Panasonic made users wait for the higher-priced GH1. That said, in 2008, this wasn’t an unusual omission. DSLRs had just started entering the video space with the Nikon D90 and Canon 5D Mark II.
But How Do the Pictures Look?
With all this talk about the body and features, how does it shoot?
Well, much like modern Panasonics, the virtues and issues remain. The G1 uses an entirely contrast-based autofocus system, and so while single focus locks on as quickly as anything today, Panasonic’s lackluster tracking focus can also be traced back to this camera and the contrast detection system as a whole. It’s not bad, but it’s not great either. What’s interesting to me, is that I’d probably choose this system over what was in my (then brand new) Canon 5D Mark II. Even after all these years, with a body that has clearly never seen a tuneup in its life, this particular Lumix G1 is dead-on accurate with its focusing. It’s a testament to one of the best advances of mirrorless cameras, which is the on-sensor focusing systems that never need microadjustment.
Image quality is surprisingly good for a 10-year-old digital camera. I’m still a regular user of a 12-megapixel Nikon D700, and in good light, those same 12 megapixels of the G1 hold up really well to that workhorse. Photos are detailed with decent color and easy-to-work-with raw files. As a user of many of the 18-megapixel APS-C cameras that Canon was pushing at the time, I’d say the files are comparable to those sensors in terms of flexibility. The Micro Four Thirds system was really punching above its weight with this entry into the system.
The system, while it started with only two consumer zoom lenses, has expanded to arguably the most comprehensive mirrorless lineup there is. Pair the G1 with a solid lens such as the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 75mm f/1.8 or the Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 II ASPH, and you can get good results even by today’s standards. Low light performance isn’t bad either. Here's a night shot with the camera that shows exceptional detail:
The Last Word on the First Camera
While since the Panasonic G1, Micro Four Thirds sensors have moved on to even better quality 16-megapixel and 20-megapixel models, the G1 is no slouch.
The camera is still quite usable even today, and so it’s worth picking up if you see it in the bargain bin and have the patience to clean it up. Though the Panasonic G1 was overshadowed by many of the video-capable DSLRs of the time, and even by some measures its more specialized cousins, the smaller GF1 and the video-capable GH1, none of those cameras can ever take away the G1’s most important feature: quietly ushering in the age of mainstream mirrorless cameras.