10 Years of Micro Four Thirds: A Look Back at the Panasonic Lumix G1, the Camera That Started It All

10 Years of Micro Four Thirds: A Look Back at the Panasonic Lumix G1, the Camera That Started It All

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?

Clear Lineage

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.

Light duty family photography isn't a challenge for the Panasonic Lumix G1. The focus and exposure systems still hold up today. Color is good, though not great compared to what's coming out of modern Nikons and Canons (the space suit was more orange than it appears here).

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.

Some Missteps

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:

This camera was listed as "bargain grade," and that was indeed the case. Everything worked, but everything was quite sticky as well. The rubber compound coating the body was chemically breaking down.

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:

Even a 10-year-old camera can handily beat smartphones of today. The Panasonic Lumix G1 retains a lot of detail even in low light.

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.

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24 Comments

David J. Fulde's picture

Great article. I love these sorts of lookbacks

Leigh Miller's picture

thanks for this...

micro four thirds is dead though...not a month or even a year from now but it's over.

K G's picture

Moron alert! Must be a Northrup fanboy sheep

Leigh Miller's picture

Childish...resorting to name calling because someone disagrees with you?

Spy Black's picture

Sadly, both Panasonic and Olympus lost sight of M4/3's greatest advantage, size. The GH5 and E-M1 are stupidly huge for the format, and recent information suggests Olympus has lost it's mind with what appears to be their forthcoming flagship camera.

I own an E-M10 Mk II, and as best as I can tell it, and it's successor, are the last practical M4/3 photographer's camera they designed (the video side is pedestrian), despite some shortcomings. It lives up to the practical promise of M4/3.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I agree with you. Also, since I’m in a bit of a downsizing mode, what do you think of the M10?

Spy Black's picture

The E-M10 Mk II (and I imagine the Mk III) is what I call a photographers camera, as opposed to a spray & pray shooter's camera. ;-) It has it's shortcoming, even shooting a few frames consecutively will cause the EVF to start stuttering until data is fully written to the SD card. It still only has a 16 meg sensor, although that doesn't bother me. Low light performance is not great, but usable. It has intelligent face detect and can lock on and track the near-eye of your subject with sufficient lighting, very good for portrait work, although I tend to mostly use single spot. I bought it as a knock-around street camera, but was surprised by it's overall capability. It's an all-metal design, which some people find attractive, but I would've much more preferred it to have been ABS plastic, as it's surprisingly heavy for a camera of it's diminutive size.

It has a very good quality OLED EVF, and Olympus cameras have a feature that emulates OVFs that, as an old-school OVF shooter, I find very useful and leave on all the time. It has a 1/250 flash sync, which I was rather surprised about. It has built-in focus bracketing, albeit not usable with strobes, only continuous light (the E-M5 and up models allow focus bracketing with strobes). The menu structure is rather daunting at first, but once you understand it you start to see how much punch was packed into these little suckers. The menu structure was dumbed down on the Mk III model to make it more attractive to the casual users this model was aimed for, but on the plus side the Mk III model has had the AA filter removed from it's also 16 meg sensor, and the difference is noticeable.

Video is as I mentioned earlier rather pedestrian, but adequate. I bought it for photography so I'm not too concerned with that. It has a touch screen that you can use for touch focus among other things, but I shut it off because I use the EVF a lot and my nose constantly moves the focus point away from where I want it, and can modify various parameter settings. :-D Olympus cameras have a neat feature that allow you to transfer images to a cellphone without needing to install software in the cellphone. You simply connect to the camera's Wi-Fi and use your cellphone or computer's web browser to download images. Brilliant!

Ergonomically the camera is excellent, unless you're one of those people who complain about small cameras, in which case you should be using an APS-C or FF camera. It has a tiered dial structure that allows you to easily feel and control the camera without removing your eye from the EVF, which again as an old-school shooter I find very natural.

I could go on, but hopefully you get the idea. There's a review over at DP Review on it and the Mk III successor model that can give you more info if you're interested. It's not a perfect camera but it has given me much more performance than I ever imagined from such a tiny tot. I tend to keep my FF more in the studio now, and the Olympus has joined the roster along with my Nikon 1 J4 and Canon G9 X Mk II as my compact street photography cameras.

Tony Tumminello's picture

I wouldn't say anything is necessarily lost, they just provide choice for people (like myself) who prefer something more substantial to hold onto. I find the E-M1 to be much more comfortable than the E-M5 due to the more substantial grip, but at the same time there's the PEN series and smaller OM-D models for those who want something compact. And no matter the body, at least the lenses are still pretty small.

Spy Black's picture

"...they just provide choice for people (like myself) who prefer something more substantial to hold onto."

That's what APS-C and FF cameras are for. When you're dealing with cameras that are the size, weight, and sometimes GREATER cost than larger format cameras, what's the point? The E-M1 *IS* an OM-D camera, you just wouldn't know it by it's ridiculous oversize for an M4/3 camera. The E-M5 is also bigger than it needs to be. The Pen cameras need EVFs, the Pen-F again being much larger than an M4/3 camera needs to be. While some of the lenses are compact, many of the newer ones are not. Witness the 300m f/4. Imagine that a 300mm f/5.6 PF lens.

Size, size, SIZE! That's M4/3's forte. At least, it used to be. The M4/3 format cannot compete with APS-C and FF. It has to make an effective argument for being, and so far it's present evolutionary path will bring it to it's demise. Olympus has recently registered a forthcoming camera whose dimensions are listed as "144.37 mm W x 146.765 mm H x 75.345 mm D"! Think about that for a second. The full frame Nikon D850 is 146mm W x 124mm H x 78mm D, and the full frame Canon 5DS is 162mm W x 116.4 H x 76.4 D! Unless Olympus is sticking a full frame sensor in that camera, they have completely lost their mind!

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I feel like if I'm going to hold a camera that big, it might as well be FF. I don't see much of a difference between APS-C and M43, but I start to see it with FF.

Spy Black's picture

With exceptions, there's typically a 1 stop advantage or disadvantage, depending on which way you're going. So FF to APS-C you lose a stop of noise and dynamic range, and so on APS-C to M4/3, and M4/3 to 1-inch. Not entirely etched in stone, but pretty close.

K G's picture

Idiocy at its finest. Not very impartial are you? People who spew this rubbish about M43 not being much smaller are too camera body oriented and need to look at the bigger (lighter) picture. A Canon 7D weighs almost double a G9, maybe do some research and put some actual thought into your ranty articles in future.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Where are you getting your numbers? A Panasonic G9 weighs 1.5 pounds, which is pretty close to the 1.9 pounds of a Canon 7D. I did the research.

K G's picture

Utter nonsense, it's not just about camera body size, it's about the overall weight of the package. Let's see, canon 70-200 2.8, 1400+ grams, Panasonic 35-100 2.8, just over 350. You lot need to think before you start ranting.

Spy Black's picture

You need to read better before making your rant. I said SOME lenses. I own FF, APS-C, M4/3, and 1-inch ILCs. I have a very good idea of each format's strengths and weaknesses

David Widder's picture

Great article. But the only exception I have is that the Epson was not the first mirrorless camera. It is a Rangefinder camera, and Rangefinders are not 'mirrorless' cameras, although they dont have the traditional reflex mirror. The Epson was the first digital Rangefinder to be sure, but it is not the first mirrorless. That title does indeed go to the G1.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I had a lot of internal (and actual) debate with myself and other photographers about this. In hearts and minds, it was the G1. The Epson is for the folks taking the very literal meaning of "mirrorless" when it comes to interchangeable lens cameras. I did really struggle with this and see your point.

David Widder's picture

Indeed. There is a lot of banter back and forth on the internet about what constitutes a 'mirrorless' camera, and how we even came to use the term to describe the cameras now in question. To be sure 'mirrorless' is ambiguous and probably not the best way to describe what it is meant to describe.

What gets lost in translation is that 'mirrorless' in this context does not mean Definition A: 'a camera without a mirror', but rather Definition B: 'a camera that once had a mirror and now does not'. This is an important distinction.

Definition A covers pretty much every picture making device ever made that does not have a mirror. Large format and medium format view cameras, brownie box cameras, old folding cameras, disposable film cameras, compact digital cameras, digital video cams, smartphones, rangefinders, the camera obscura, the little spy cameras used in WW II.....everything without a mirror. Which, on the face of it, is ridiculous.

Definition B though is correct. 'Mirrorless' refers instead to the evolution of the Single Lens Reflex design of camera. Film SLR's used mirrors, then they morphed into digital cameras using electronic sensors instead of film but still with the same old reflex mirrors system, thus becoming DSLR's. Then next evolution of this is epitomized perfectly by the first true 'mirrorless' camera, the G1. It is for all intents and purposes a DSLR camera with the mirror box assembly removed and the optical view finder replaced with an electronic view finder receiving its image directly from the sensor.

THAT is what mirrorless means in this context. It is a Digital Single Lens Reflex camera in which the Single Lens Reflex has been removed....thus it is mirrorless. And here is the important part....it used new technology (direct sensor read and EVF) to replace the old technology (mirror assembly and pentaprism) to give the user.....drum role please....a THRU THE LENS SHOOTING EXPERIENCE.

This is why a digital rangefinder is not a mirrorless camera. Digital rangefinders do not offer a thru the lens viewing or focusing experience. They are rangefinders thru and thru. They were not 'mirrorless' when they were created and they suddenly didnt become 'mirrorless' when they went digital. The Epson cannot be the first mirrorless camera. If that were the case then the all rangefinders would be mirrorless, and they arent. True, they dont use 'mirrors', but they are not 'mirrorless' in the context of how the G1, or A7's are mirrorless. Those cameras provide the same functionality of the DSLR but do so 'without a mirror'.

And, oddly enough, when Leica released the SL it was billed as their first full frame 'mirrorless' camera. The M9, which was their first full frame digital rangefinder back in 2009, was not billed as the first full frame mirrorless camera. And, again, Leica was billed as the second manufacturer to bring out a FF mirrorless (with the SL) behind Sony, who had the A7 series.

So no, the Epson is not the first mirrorless camera. By Definition A above the first mirrorless camera was the Camera Obscura (though for historical accuracy some later Obscuras did use mirrors to aid in tracing an image).

By Definition B it was the G1.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I think the best course of action is to coin a new name for these cameras (Definition B). I don't go around driving in a "horseless" now, do I?

Dr. Dominik Muench's picture

Definitely a system with interesting strengths and weaknesses but not an all rounder for everyone.
I have a love/ hate relationship with M43, love the video quality but hate the stills side.
I own a Gh5 which I bought as travel and B camera to have as a backup on set. For a small, lightweight run and gun system its quite handy and for some film work I don't mind M43, for stills work I hate it.

The chip is tiny and every micron of dust shows up on the images and the detail and the resolution is simply not up to what I need and am used to with my big DSLR systems, especially when doing considerable post work to the images.

Otherwise I find the Gh5 a fantastic camera packed with some absolutely amazing features I wish my RED camera had (the auto focus, image stabilization and focus tracking are fantastic features) . If Panasonic could make the same camera with a full frame or even medium format chip that records in Prores or Prores Raw even this would be an insane game changer. Personally I am definitely steering away from M43 again and potentially looking at the new Nikon Z mirrorless cameras. It was an interesting journey but will definitely be looking at a system with a larger sensor again.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Re: Dust - I just used a Canon EOS R today for the first time, and it had a neat trick - when you take off the lens, the shutter curtain stays down to help avoid dust and debris getting on the sensor. It would be awesome if Panasonic (and Fuji and Olympus et. al) could provide this functionality in their cameras with a firmware update?

Dr. Dominik Muench's picture

this would help with DSLR systems for sure, but unfortunately there isn't actually a physical shutter in the Gh5 or any other M43, they are all mirrorless.

The Gh5 and most other current cameras have a ultrasound sensor cleaning function, but unfortunately that doesn't get everything off the sensor.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Most mirrorless cameras definitely have a mechanical (physical) shutter. You can see it in action as an example here: https://youtu.be/IfH07v5Tpwc?t=292

Dr. Dominik Muench's picture

damn I never noticed that on this little thing.