Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1: Dawn of the mini-DSLR

DSLR or point-and-shoot? Well, how about both…in the same camera.

Options abound when it comes to choosing the perfect digital camera, but with its Lumix DMC-G1, Panasonic tosses an entirely different beast into the ring. Half point-and-shoot, half DSLR, the G1 is the first camera to feature the Micro Four-Thirds system co-developed by Olympus and Panasonic. Inside the Lumix G1 is a dramatic overhaul of the guts you’d find in a standard DSLR.

The key change: The Lumix G1 has no mirror box, a standard on all previous SLR and digital SLR cameras that allows the photographer to frame an image through the camera lens itself. The mirror box takes up a lot of room inside a camera; and by eliminating it, Panasonic and Olympus have created a blueprint for smaller, lighter cameras that support interchangeable lenses.

In addition to permitting smaller cameras, the Micro Four Thirds System paves the way for interchangeable-lens cameras with video-shooting capabilities — though the Lumix G1 itself cannot shoot video, and the Nikon D90 (a true DSLR) has already beaten it to the video punch.

The reduced size of the Lumix G1 comes with some trade-offs: In place of an optical viewfinder, the Lumix G1 relies on both a high-quality, flip-out Live View LCD screen and an eye-level electronic viewfinder. Live View LCD screens, which provide a big-screen view of the shot you’re framing, are a growing trend in the world of digital SLRs; until recently, you had to depend on an eye-level optical viewfinder to frame shots.

Essentially, the G1 is a “tweener” camera — a high-end alternative for point-and-shoot buyers who may feel uneasy about purchasing a full-fledged digital SLR but still want to experiment with using different lenses. And this is just the first-generation Micro Four-Thirds camera. Olympus is developing an even smaller model that uses interchangeable lenses, and the company showcased a stunning and surprisingly small concept prototype at Photokina 2008 in September.

There’s no doubt that the Micro Four-Thirds system represents an evolutionary step in the world of cameras, but how well did the Lumix G1 itself perform? Executive Editor Alan Stafford spent some hands-on time with the G1, and he’s not quite ready to trade in his DSLR for it.

He’s reluctant for several reasons: This first-generation Micro Four-Thirds system camera is still a bit too expensive ($800, plus an extra $170 or so for an adapter that lets you use standard Four-Thirds lenses with the G1) to qualify as a bargain when compared to lower-end DSLRs; it’s not that much smaller than a standard DSLR (the Nikon D40 and the Olympus Evolt E-420 are both bigger, but not by much); image quality wasn’t as sharp as on a standard DSLR; and for DSLR purists, the digital-only viewfinder and LCD take some getting used to.

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