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    DSLR vs Micro Four Thirds: head to head review

    | Reviews | 15/04/2010 09:29am
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    Both these cameras cost around £600 – but can a Micro Four Thirds hybrid really challenge a conventional DSLR?

    What’s the point of a big and bulky DSLR that looks like a decades-old film camera, when pocket-friendly compact cameras can do pretty much the same job? We pitched a Nikon D5000 SLR against a Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 Micro Four Thirds camera. But which one will come out on top in terms of handling, style, features and most importantly, image quality?

    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Introduction

    Back in the heyday of film photography, film naturally needed to be kept in the dark – apart from when you were actually taking a shot. In 35mm SLR terms, this meant a flip-up mirror, optical viewfinder and mechanical shutter were all essential. By contrast, modern digital compacts ditch all this paraphernalia and cut to the chase with a much smaller design, even though they don’t have the luxury of interchangeable lenses.

    Micro Four Thirds hybrids, like the award-winning Panasonic DMC-GF1 and Olympus PEN E-P2 rewrite the rules, combining the slimline form of a digital compact camera with the facility for changing lenses, so you can fit the ideal glassware for any shooting scenario. But, compared to a similarly priced D-SLR like the Nikon D5000, does a hybrid camera give you the best of both worlds or just a second-rate compromise? Find out on the following pages, where we put both systems through their paces.

    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Introduction


    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Handling and design


    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Camera performance


    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Image quality


    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Specifications and verdict

    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Handling and design

    If there’s one essential when trying to make the most of a stunning photo opportunity, it’s that you’ve got your camera handy at the time. Compact cameras score highly over D-SLR outfits because their pocketsized, lightweight build means you can take them anywhere, anytime. The Panasonic GF1 just about fits this criterion when mounted with the diminutive Lumix 20mm ‘pancake’ lens, but with the kit 14-45mm lens fitted it’s no longer a pocket camera, unless you have ludicrously enormous pockets.

    It’s still a lot smaller than the Nikon D5000 with its 18-55mm kit lens, and only about half the weight, but it certainly can’t be considered a ‘compact’ camera. There are distinct advantages in the D5000’s comparative chunkiness, in that it feels much more comfortable and natural in the hand. Combine this with the way the camera locks into your face when using the viewfinder and camera shake becomes much less of a problem at slow shutter speeds, especially when you take the lens’s excellent VR (Vibration Reduction) system into account.

    However, the GF1 fights back with a triple-mode stabiliser for giving full-time, record-only or panning correction when used with compatible lenses like the kit 14-45mm kit lens (but not the 20mm pancake lens). Even so, in our tests, the D5000 gave much more consistent anti-shake performance. When it comes to taking photographs, the biggest difference between the two cameras is naturally that the Nikon has a conventional D-SLR viewfinder, flip-up mirror and shutter, and the Panasonic doesn’t.

    Anybody graduating from a digital compact camera will feel right at home framing compositions on the Panasonic’s LCD rather than using an optical viewfinder. It’s not the greatest screen in the world, being too reflective for comfort in bright sunshine and having a merely average 460,000-pixel resolution, although this is still double the Nikon’s screen resolution. Our only real issue is that the refresh rate of the LCD makes panning difficult, because the picture is a bit jerky. For an extra £185 you can buy an optional DMW-LVF1 electronic viewfinder, but this proved even jerkier when panning in our tests. Also, because it mounts in the hotshoe, you can’t use the viewfinder and a flashgun at the same time

    The time-honoured, traditional SLR shape of the D5000 makes it a much more natural fit in the hand than the flattish GF1, but there’s more to effective handling than this alone. One of the things that sets most D-SLRs (especially upmarket models) apart from compact and hybrid cameras is that they have dedicated buttons for direct access to important shooting parameters such as ISO, metering and autofocus options, drive modes and white balance. Perhaps a little oddly, these are almost entirely lacking on the D5000 and the smaller GF1 puts many more options in easy reach of your thumb.

    Both cameras offer a ‘quick control’ arrangement, more recently adopted by the new Canon 550D, utilising the rear LCD screen and main camera buttons for access to shooting settings. Ultimately though, it’s not so much ‘quick’ as not overly laborious and there’s room for improvement in both models. Another factor is that the small, tightly grouped control buttons of the GF1 are best suited to slender fingers and you certainly wouldn’t be able to access the finer points of shooting settings when wearing gloves in cold weather.

    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Introduction


    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Handling and design


    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Camera performance


    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Image quality


    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Specifications and verdict

    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Camera performance

    System stand-off Both the Nikon and Panasonic are 12Mp cameras, but the GF1 is a Micro Four Thirds design. This means that you get a native aspect ratio of 4:3, more suited to conventional computer monitors and old TVs, but less ideal for widescreen viewing and popular print sizes. With this in mind, Panasonic has also added choices for 3:2, 16:9 and 1:1 aspect ratios in stills shooting, which makes for much more versatility than the Nikon’s standard D-SLR 3:2 aspect ratio.

    The downside is that you’re only using a relatively small area of the sensor, so you take a hit in the maximum available resolution. Arguably the most important reason to buy a ‘system’ camera rather than a digital compact is that it gives you access to just that – a complete system that includes alternative lenses and other accessories. Buy a D5000 or any other Nikon camera and you get access to a veritable warehouse-full of compatible lenses and add-ons, not only from Nikon but also from third-party manufacturers such as Sigma, Tamron and Tokina.

    The range of Micro Four Thirds lenses from Panasonic and Olympus are comparatively tiny and, while you can fit regular Four Thirds lenses via an adaptor, the Contrast AF system used in the GF1 means that only relatively few of them are autofocus compatible. On the plus side, autofocus speed is amazingly quick for a Contrast AF system and much faster than the D5000 in Live View, in which the Nikon swaps to Contrast AF and proves painfully slow.

    In video-shooting mode, the GF1 comes into its stride with the option of continuous autofocus, which is unavailable in the Nikon. Both cameras have a maximum movie resolution of 720p, which is second-best compared with the 1080p offered on some of the latest cameras. For outright video quality, the GF1 has the edge.

    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Introduction


    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Handling and design


    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Camera performance


    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Image quality


    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Specifications and verdict

    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Image quality


    Nikon D5000 (first picture):
    Colour rendition: Colour is punchy and natural, adding impact to shots taken in almost any light. This shot uses the Landscape picture setting.
    Autofocus: The 11-pointphase-shift AF is accurate, complete with advanced dynamic area, auto area and 35 tracking, although the kit lens’s autofocus is sluggish for a Nikon AF-S.

    Panasonic GF1 (second picture):
    Colour rendition: In Standard film mode, colour renditioin can be quite insipid. Even in Nature mode, this shot lacked vibrancy.
    Autofocus: The GF1′s autofocus is surprisingly swift for a ContrastAF system with a generous 23 AF points. Accuracy is generally precise, but it struggles with targets that lack detail.

    Detail and definition

    The combination of the Nikon’s image processing system and kit lens delivers great definition and plenty of fine detail. This is equally true when shooting in JPEG mode instead of resorting to RAW quality mode, which is just as well as Nikon doesn’t include free processing software. JPEGs from the GF1 look a lot softer by comparison, although there’s marginally more consistency through the sensitivity range, with fractionally less apparent smoothing at high ISOs. It preserves fine detail much better if you shoot in RAW and use the bundled Silkypix Developer Studio software to convert images to JPEGs.

    Nikon D5000 (first picture): Fine detail is retained well, even in deep lowlights and bright highlights, giving excellent apparent sharpness throughout.
    Panasonic GF1 (second picture): The GF1′s images look rather softer, especially when shooting in JPEG mode, putting more reliance on RAW capture for best results.

    Metering and dynamic range


    The light metering system on the D5000 is Nikon’s 3D Colour Matrix II, which uses a dedicated sensor to measure both brightness and colour information. This works brilliantly with the built-in, fully automatic or user-adjustable Active D-Lighting system to ensure that, even in igh-contrast shooting conditions, detail is retained in dark shadows without highlights being washed out. The GF1’s 144-zone multi-pattern metering system does a decent job, following  tradition by erring on the side of caution and preserving highlights at the expense of lost shadow detail.

    Nikon D5000 (first picture): Uncanny metering accuracy is boosted by Active D-Lighting, as featured on Nikon’s pro-level DSLRs, to enhance dynamic range.
    Panasonic GF1 (second picture): In our tests, the GF1 seemed almost paranoid about blown highlights, often delivering dull-looking images with lost shadow detail as a result.

    Both of the cameras offer a barrage of picture styles, such as Standard, Dynamic, Vibrant, Landscape, and so on – the GF1 going rather further with the choices on offer. However, in almost any setting, the Nikon delivers punchier results and its Active D-Lighting function does a much better job of rendering tricky, high-contrast scenes. In our tests, images also looked consistently crisper and sharper from the Nikon, by a clear margin.

    Metering and dynamic range The light metering system on the D5000 is Nikon’s 3D Colour Matrix II, which uses a dedicated sensor to measure both brightness and colour information. This works brilliantly with the built-in, fully automatic or user-adjustable Active D-Lighting system to ensure that, even in high-contrast shooting conditions, detail is retained in dark shadows without highlights being washed out.

    The GF1’s 144-zone multi-pattern metering system does a decent job, following tradition by erring on the side of caution and preserving highlights at the expense of lost shadow detail. The Nikon has a focal length conversion or ‘crop factor’ of 1.5x, whereas the Panasonic Four Thirds system is 2.0x. This means that the D5000’s 18-55mm lens has an equivalent zoom range of 27-82mm and the GF1’s 14-45mm lens gives a similar effective range of 28-90mm. The main difference is that, because depth of field is mostly dependent on ‘actual’ focal length, the Nikon gives a slightly tighter depth of field – great for blurring the background of portraits – whereas the GF1 will do a better job of keeping close and distant objects sharp in landscape shots.

    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Introduction


    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Handling and design


    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Camera performance


    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Image quality


    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Specifications and verdict

    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Specifications and verdict

    The Verdict:

    Is size really important? It certainly can be. For example, pop a pancake lens on a GF1 and it’s small enough to sneak into a venue that wouldn’t let you through the door with a clunky D-SLR. And despite its diminutive build, the GF1 is bristling with features. The ability to swap lenses puts the GF1 ahead of a regular compact but, without a mirror and shutter, there’s a perennial danger of dumping dust on the sensor even if the Panasonic (like the more protective Nikon) has a sensor-cleaning system.

    The Nikon handles more naturally, and an upside of using a viewfinder instead of holding the camera at arm’s length is that camera shake is less of a problem. An electronic viewfinder is available as an optional extra for the GF1, but it’s too jerky for panning and denies hotshoe access. As a ‘system’ camera, the real decider is that the D5000 gives access to a truly vast selection of Nikon and third-party lenses and accessories, whereas add-ons for the GF1 are quite limited and often very pricey. On top of that, the Nikon simply delivers better all-round image quality.

    What are the features like?

    Nikon D5000: From its pivoting ‘vari-angle’ LCD to its customisable shooting options, the D5000 is feature packed. 4/5
    Panasonic GF1: Panasonic must have used a shoehorn to squeeze so many features into such a small camera. 4/5

    How well do they perform?

    Nikon D5000: The Nikon produces spectacularly good images in the most challenging of conditions, and with little fuss. 5/5

    Panasonic GF1: Images can be pleasing, but the best results take a lot of coaxing, with liberal use of camera settings. 4/5

    Are they good value for money?

    Nikon D5000: Great value, the D5000 also gives access to one ofthe most cost-effective ranges of lenses and add-ons. 5/5

    Panasonic GF1: The Micro Four Thirds system currently lacks depth and breadth, weakening the GF1′s overall value. 3/5

    Specifications:

    Nikon D5000, 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR

    Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1, 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 Mega OIS

    Street price: £550 £575
    Image sensor: 12.3MP APS-C CMOS (23.6×15.8mm) 12.1MP Four Thirda Live MOS (18×13.5mm)
    Focal length conversion: 1.5x 2.0x
    Viewfinder: Pentamirror, 95% coverage Optional DMW-LVF electronic viewfinder (£185)
    Stills aspect ratio: 3:2 4:3, 3:2, 16:9, 1:1
    Lens mount: Nikon F-mount Micro Four Thirds
    Memory: SD, SDHC SD, SDHC
    Metering modes: Matrix, Centre-weighted, Spot Multi-zone, Centre-weighted, Spot
    Focusing modes: 11-point Single, Dynamic/Auto area, 3D tracking, Face Detection 23-point Single, Area, Tracking, Face Detection
    Video – max resolution 1280x720p, 24fps 1280x720p, 25/50/60fps
    Shutter speed: 30 sec to 1/4000 sec, plus Bulb 60 sec to 1/4000 sec, plus Blub (max 4 mins)
    Integral flash: GN12 at ISO 100 GN6 at ISO 100/td>
    Flash sync: 1/200 sec 1/160 sec
    Flash modes: Auto, on, off, red-eye, slow-sync, rear curtain Auto, on, off, red-eye, slow-sync, rear curtain
    Drive modes: Single, Continuous (4fps), Self-timer Single, Continuous (3fps), Self-timer
    ISO sensitivity: ISO 200-3200 (100-6400 extended) ISO 100-3200
    Exposure modes Program, Aperture, Shutter, Manual, plus scene modes Program, Aperture, Shutter, Manual, plus scene modes
    LCD monitor: 2.7inch, 230k pixels, vari-angle 3-inch, 460k pixels, fixed angle
    Body (WxDxH)/weight 127x104x80mm/560g 119x36x71mm/285g
    Drive modes: Single, Continuous High Speed (9fps), Continuous Low Speed, Self-timer, Quiet Single, Silent, High-speed (10fps), Low-speed Continuous (3fps), Self-timer (2 or 10 secs)
    Battery life: 510 shots (CIPA) 380 shots (CIPA)
    Power supply: Li-ion EN-EL9a Li-ion DMW-BLB13
    Weight: 1,180g body only 1,240g body only
    Transfer: USB 2.0, Video, mini HDMI Type C, PictBridge USB 2.0, Video, mini HDMI Type C, Pictbridge
    Software: Nikon Transfer, Nikon View NX PHOTOfunSTUDIO 4.0 HD, SILKYPIX Developer Studio 3.0 SE

    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Introduction


    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Handling and design


    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Camera performance


    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Image quality


    Nikon D5000 vs Panasonic Lumix GF1: Specifications and verdict

    See this head to head in the next issue of Digital Camera, Issue 99 on sale 4 May 2010.


    Posted on Thursday, April 15th, 2010 at 9:29 am under Reviews.

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