A Little Review… The Perfect Travel Camera, My Panasonic Lumix

Since I first left to travel in 2008, my camera gear used to capture images all over the world has changed quite a bit. In that first year, I left with a trusty Canon point-and-shoot camera. That worked really well. But over time I switched to the mirrorless, micro four-thirds camera systems because I wanted to increase the quality of my images and really explore photography, but without the addition of a huge bulky DSLR (which I had seen other travelers tote around for the first week of their travels until it was abandoned for a more convenient smartphone.)

On Making the Switch to a Mirrorless Camera System

Knowing that I wanted the flexibility to play with manual settings, learn more about photography basics, and find a camera I was willing to carry in my purse, I first looked straight at the new mirrorless camera systems I had seen raved on camera blogs. They won me over. Back then it was this pro photographer’s review, and since then this photographer’s review has me assured going to the micro four-thirds system was wise.

In 2010, I was an early adopter to the mirrorless line and first opted for the Panasonic Lumix GF series (a GF1 in fact). Since then, I loved the camera so much that I upgraded to a Panasonic GX7 in 2014 to coincide with an overland trip through Africa. The future models of the GF series became more mass consumer oriented, and the true predecessor to the GF1 moved to the GX line. Both lines have gorgeous cameras, but the GX series has more control and is made to shoot more easily in manual mode, where the GF series takes similarly gorgeous photos, but is easiest in auto or scene mode.

Double bonus, my Panasonic GX7 was named by National Geographic as one of the top 10 compact cameras for travelers.

Those other reviews I linked to are the professionals take on the camera system, but below I review this from the viewpoint of a self-taught travel photographer on the road for 6+ years now.

The short story on this camera?

Great depth of field, super compact, and really durable (it even survived a motorbike accident in Laos, getting soaked at Songkran in Thailand, and the windy red sands in Bagan, Myanmar. My GX7 survived dusty roads on safari in Tanzania and the waters of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe). The technology for micro-four thirds cameras is progressing rapidly and these cameras are increasingly popular because they so gracefully bridge the gap between professional camera gear (DSLRs) and simple point-and-shoots.

panasonic lumix review

Why I Upgraded My Camera?

Now, while I am far from a professional photographer, the photos I’ve taken these past 4+ years with my Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera are the best photos I’ve taken in my life. Since leaving in late 2008, I have taken bucket-loads of photos—I uploaded thousands of photos into my travel photo galleries. Each of those photos represents a pulse of life now long forgotten, or a rare and beautiful vista I captured forever in my lens, and still others function like a time machine, propelling me right back into the midst of some sort of existential conversation about life-family-humanity-politics-love with a friend met on the road.

camera review

My photos eloquently tell the story of my years on the road (and sometimes far better than my words if you happened to catch my writing in those early months). This blog has chronicled my journey and my handy point-and-shoot Canon camera served nicely as a pocket-sized, go-anywhere way to document each new place.

But a year and a half ago I upgraded my gear and invested in a camera with interchangeable lenses, full manual mode, and some other bells and whistles. I also commited to learning how to use Lightroom so I can (and do) post-process every single photo you see on this site since 2011.

Picking a new camera was tricky. So, in 2010 I researched and happened upon a professional photographer’s review of this new-fangled type of camera, the Panasonic Lumix MFT. His review is stellar because he has the fancy ones, but still loved aspects of the new technology (and took gorgeous photos). So I bought that exact camera and loved it to pieces. I would still be loving it but my dad gave me the newest version, the GX7 in January 2014 for my birthday and now I love that one to absolute pieces.

lumix depth of field review

Let’s get down to the meat of this review now and start with my overall opinion:

This just is one of the best travel cameras on the market if you want a bit more power and flexibility than a point-and-shoot but a camera light enough to carry everywhere.

What I Love About My Lumix

  • The cameras depth of field from my 20mm pancake kit lens; this lens took my food photography to the next level of drool-worthiness.
  • My lenses. The 20mm kit lens is versatile and took every single photo on this site from August 2010- January 2014. And, even zoom lenses are compact. I often now shoot with my 14-45mm, and it’s a good everyday lens. I debated on which zoom lens to get, and the 45-200mm zoom performed pretty well on my safari in Africa.
  • The camera is small and sturdy and kind of retro looking (people actually often think it’s old-school film!).
  • I take it everywhere because it’s light and compact (thanks to the micro four thirds technology).
  • The price was just right; although the GF1 is no longer on the market, the newer versions in the GF series are in the same price bracket (generally less than $800 for the body and one lens). And in upgrading to the GX7, the price was a bit higher, but all my lenses still worked!

Drawbacks to My Micro Four-Thirds

The main difference between a MFT camera and the large, professional DSLR lies in the mirrorless technology. The MFT manages to forgo some of the mirrors inside the camera body, and thus shrunk in size much closer to the pocket cameras, but still supports interchangeable lenses, captures RAW images, and takes a fantastic photo. Without the mirror though, and with the lighter weight moving the camera, there are some issues.

1) It borders on craptastic in low-light situations. That is noted in just about every review of this type of camera because of the technology needed to make it so compact (Jodi at LegalNomads has the Olympus PEN micro four thirds and reports the same!) On the flip side though, I took all the photos from Loy Krathong in Thailand last fall with the GF1, and they turned out beautifully, so it’s still not fully terrible.

1) UPDATED: It’s good in low-light situations. The newest micro four thirds cameras are a lot better now than the 2010 versions. I was an early adopter and the low-light performance was just a growing pain in the technology. My GX7 did very, very well on my Africa travels and I noticed very few disappointing low-light moments.

2) UPDATED: No viewfinder, just a LCD screen. The GF series continues to have just an LCD screen, and new versions articulate; I used this for years and made-due because only strong mid-day sun really made it inconvenient. Now that the GX7 has an electronic viewfinder though, I found myself using it a lot more than I thought I would. It was a nice bonus in the upgrade, though it does make the camera a little bulkier and it’s not quite as sleek with the viewfinder sticking out a bit.

3) You have to switch lenses. A professional will laugh at this comment, but if you love the ease of a point-and-shoot, the 20mm lens has no built-in zoom, so you have to switch over to a different lens, often in dusty, dirty travel situations, and it’s more work. But worth it.

panasonic lumix gf1

The Physical Side of My Camera

I love the weight of the camera (about 10 ounces with the 20mm pancake lens), and how it feels in my hand when shooting. And I love that it’s so much less intimidating in travel situations because it’s so low-profile. All of the buttons are easily pressed with just my right hand, and the dial on the top rotates easily to switch between the different modes (now done on the touch-screen of the latest release, the Lumix GF6).

This is what my GF1 looks like, the different buttons, and my lens so you can get a feel for the small and compact camera. Note that the newest models look similar, but have fewer buttons and a touch-screen LCD panel. Every button I need to quickly change controls is simple with just my right hand in most cases, and that little red dot near the shutter-button quickly activates video so I can rapidly catch special moments as they happen!

You can see what the GX7 looks like here, it has a viewfinder, but many of the same exact buttons as the GF1, which is why I love it as the predecessor to my GF1.

My Panasonic GF1 with a 20mm aspherical pancake lens.

Why the Micro-Four-Thirds is Great for this Traveler

  • Photography fascinates me and I love learning new things. With this camera I have the ability to sit in a pretty spot and play with composition, exposure, shutter-speed, aperture, and all sorts of different modes to craft a photo that accurately reflects what I see in front of me.
  • It’s opened me up to the art of photography, the crafting of an image as opposed to the more mindless act of documenting with a quick snapshot in each place.
  • It fits in my purse and I rarely groan about “how heavy it is” or wonder “if I should leave it behind for the day.” (In fact, with the pancake lens on, it fits inside a zoom-lens case I found at Ritz camera and this is where it has lived ever since when I am on the road).
  • The camera takes beautiful portraits, landscapes, and close-up food photos—that covers 85 percent of what I take when traveling.
  • It was affordable, the GF series is usually in the $500 range with a kit lens, the GX series comes in closer to $1000+ for the body and a lens.

GF1 review
I bought my Panasonic GF1 in August 2010 and there was a learning curve (heck, who am I kidding, there is still a learning curve!) but I love that it truly does make a bridge between the point-and-shoot cameras and a full (read: expensive) DSLR—when I’m flustered by the manual mode settings it’s a quick flip of the button into auto mode and it’s petite and light. It’s worth noting that I also now consistently use Lightroom and do post-editing, and that has made a big difference in photo-quality.

And now that I upgraded, I am so happy every day with my Panasonic Lumix GX7. It’s a gorgeous camera and many on-the-road travelers see the low-profile camera with so much power behind it and swear they’ll get one for their next trip.

I invested in this camera because I fell in love with photography over the many years since I left in 2008—without much theatre, acting, and dance in my life, photography slowly filled its place on the road. One day in the future, I may add in a full DSLR if my photography skills ever call for it, but right now this camera is serving exactly the role I need on my travels and I consider it a solid investment.

Do you have a micro four thirds? Thoughts on traveling with it? Any other travel sized cameras you particularly love?

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36 Responses to A Little Review… The Perfect Travel Camera, My Panasonic Lumix

  1. Barbylucedistelle May 15, 2012 at 9:38 am #

    I actually have a Nikon d3000 but want to buy a compact one that I can easily carry around. I checked the Lumix GF series and the description says they do not have a Image stabilization. Do you think it is a problem? I see you take beautiful pictures so I don’t know whether it makes any difference?

    • ShannonOD May 15, 2012 at 6:07 pm #

      The micro four thirds are a good combination between a larger one and something easy to carry. And, they do have in-body image stabilization, but it’s not the same as the large DSLRs, which is why low-light photography is a bit trickier. The biggest thing I have noticed is that I take a lot more photos just to make sure that I have one that’s crisp when I am low-light, which is a lot less of a concern when I play with my friends’ full size ones. They have their drawbacks as a camera, but I still love the sum total experience of having one! :)

      • Barbylucedistelle May 17, 2012 at 7:53 am #

         Okay, after reviewing a lot of cameras and options and details and dos and don’ts, I decided to go for a canon s95. I need something very small that stays either in my bag or my pocket. The s95 fits the bill too, which is a great advantage. We’ll see hot it goes.

        • Barbylucedistelle May 17, 2012 at 7:54 am #

           How, I meant, How, not hot :P

        • ShannonOD May 18, 2012 at 11:42 am #

          My friend had that one and really did love it. It’s small and compact, yet has so many different settings and manual — hope you end up loving it!!  :)

  2. Tom @ spirit sleep May 13, 2012 at 10:35 am #

    I’ve been opting to buy myself a new camera (to replace my old Kodak easy share c713) and this is a great one to have, I will have to check out the Lumix MFT so I can also capture great moments and pictures especially when I travel. Also, thanks for sharing the features and some of your adventures.

    • ShannonOD May 18, 2012 at 11:44 am #

      Thanks Tom! I really do love this line of cameras and think it has a lot to offer people who want something that takes beautiful photos on auto, but also allows for a lot of the DSLR features. Good luck picking one out! :)

  3. Jeremy Branham March 12, 2012 at 5:09 pm #

    I bought a MFT camera 2 weeks ago – and it arrives tomorrow!  I am so excited for this and wanted one for the same reasons as you.  I was deciding between the Lumix G3, the Olympus PENS, and the Sony NEX.  I went with the Sony NEX 5N because I think it does a little better in low light and has good ratings for video too.  I Love these cameras because they are perfect for someone who wants a smaller camera with SLR benefits.  Can’t wait to use mine!

    • ShannonOD March 12, 2012 at 8:12 pm #

      Yay! Congrats on getting one, you’ll have to let me know how you like it, I never even knew Sony had a comparable camera, can it interchange lenses with the Olympus and Panasonics? I have no doubt you’re gonna love how compact they are! :)

  4. Madeleine from Girlosophy March 1, 2012 at 7:10 am #

    Hi!  

    We really love your blog…in fact I just blogged about your blog on our blog!  

    You rock!

    Madeleine from the Girlo Team.

    PS:  I TOTALLY get the joy of having an awesome camera to work with!

    • ShannonOD March 1, 2012 at 11:22 am #

      Thanks Madeleine! Appreciate the kind words, and being included in your round-up! Safe travels and happy photographing! :)

  5. Heather Knight February 29, 2012 at 7:53 am #

    I bought an Olympus PEN shortly after returning from my RTW trip in 2010.  I took a Canon G10 on that trip and it did okay.  There were many days when I missed having my Nikon D90 and 50mm 1.4 lens….especially in low-light settings.  I was in Spain in October 2011 and took both my D90 and PEN , thinking I would be able to get some sweet pics in low light with the D90.  I used the camera once.  It was too bulky.  I took the PEN everywhere and got some AMAZING shots.  It will now be my go-to travel camera and I will leave the D90 for my concert photography hobby (it takes great pics in low light).  I am happy to hear other bloggers are seeing the benefits of the micro four-thirds cameras.

    • ShannonOD February 29, 2012 at 11:25 pm #

      I can’t think of a better story illustrating just how great and compact these cameras are, to know that you have the bigger one and never really felt the need to pull it out. The PENs look great too – very retro designs and I don’t know if yours has the touch-screen, but I love that aspect on the new ones!

  6. Bula February 28, 2012 at 3:45 am #

    Stunning shots! I have a Sony a20 SLR. It’s bulky and honestly, I find Canon SLRs are much better, with even just the starter lens. I think I am going to have to upgrade. 

    • ShannonOD February 28, 2012 at 9:59 am #

      Thank you Bula! I do love Canons when going the SLR route, but it’s unfortunate they haven’t/won’t join the micro four thirds route since it’s easier to stay within a family of cameras once you start buying lenses, so now I’m with Panasonic and have luckily been really happy with the camera’s performance! :) Good luck picking out a new one!

  7. Nomadic Samuel February 28, 2012 at 12:28 am #

    Great review Shannon!  I personally think the micro and mirror-less cameras are the way of the future.  I just upgraded my body and increased my frames per second rate by double in a smaller body.  I’m thrilled by that.  I’d prefer for every camera I purchase from now on to be smaller yet more feature packed.

    • ShannonOD February 28, 2012 at 12:51 am #

      I have to agree now…as travelers the fact that these cameras can pack in so many features, and still maintain a really strong image quality is fantastic…no doubt that more and more people will go to the MFT technology in the coming years as it becomes more standard! :)

  8. Si @thedepartureboard.com February 26, 2012 at 8:32 am #

    I travel with a Canon 350d, a few years old but a good un!  I am looking to purchase something smaller so the Lumix could be an option.  As always knowing how to use a camera is the most important thing!

    Love the blog, kind regards, Si

    • Anonymous February 26, 2012 at 10:32 am #

      I think it’s definitely worth going to the store and playing around with one, to see how it feels in your hand. As you said though, actually knowing how to use it goes a long way toward how effective the camera is! Good luck picking out a new one :)

  9. Leslie (Downtown Traveler) February 25, 2012 at 1:39 pm #

    Thanks for this detailed review! My old Canon G11 is not cutting it anymore and I’m in the market for a new MFT. I was wedded to the idea of getting a DSLR but I’ve come to realize it wouldn’t fit into my travel lifestyle. Appreciate your advice :)

    • Anonymous February 25, 2012 at 10:18 pm #

      Glad it was helpful Leslie! I really do love these cameras and anyone I’ve met traveling with one tends to feel the same way, that though there are drawbacks, it’s pretty awesome. Would be worth finding a camera store maybe and playing with one! (it rarely takes much to convince me to go play with gadgets :) Good luck picking out a new one!

      • Leslie (Downtown Traveler) February 26, 2012 at 7:46 pm #

         I *just* bought the GF2 at B&H Photo. I’ll let you know how it goes :) (PS- they actually recommended the GF2 over the GF3 because it allows for an external flash and it less expensive).

        • Anonymous February 26, 2012 at 9:36 pm #

          Oooh! Good to know. I will update the post with links to the other (I had no clue!) And I do love the external flash on mine. Have fun getting to know your new camera, and keep me posted on how you like it! :)

  10. Anonymous February 24, 2012 at 4:05 am #

    After seeing this up close–I absolutely love it. Amazing quality and so much easier to handle than DSLR! 

    • Anonymous February 24, 2012 at 10:57 am #

      Thanks Christine! It really is great when you get a feel for just how light it is comparatively with a DSLR. Hope you’re having a good time down south :)

  11. Holgs February 23, 2012 at 1:15 am #

    I travel with a Canon 5D mk2 and GF1 – Obviously there’s a big difference in size and resolution, but really short of getting a full frame DSLR (at $2500+) you’re not going to see much of an improvement at night from a DSLR. The main reason is that the 20mm lens on the GF1 has a faster maximum aperture than most of the lenses you’d be shooting with on a budget DSLR. If you want even better results, the same lens with an Olympus body that has in-body stabilisation is about the best solution currently available – the setup that JulieK mentions is perfect. Other than that, you’ll gain a lot by getting your settings right, making sure you don’t under-expose shots, and sometimes using a tripod or other camera support. 

    The lens selection for these cameras is now also much bigger than it was. In the last 12 months there’s been many new lenses both on the budget and high ends. What the system is missing is counterparts to som really high end lenses that Canon and Nikon have, but these are really $2000+ lenses that are too heavy for most travelers in any case. 

  12. Andi Perullo February 22, 2012 at 8:12 pm #

    Such a great review and btw your pics are AMAZING!

  13. JulieK February 22, 2012 at 11:59 am #

    I  bought a OLY PEN-PL3 (with the Pan 20mm lens) for my RTW beginning next month thinking that I could size down from my DSLR. But you’re right about the steep learning curve (and figuring out all those setting options). So for right now I’ll be bringing both. FYI… I’ve found that getting the right noise settings helped me get better low light/night shots.

    • Anonymous February 22, 2012 at 10:21 pm #

      Wow, you’re bringing both! That’s a lot of weight, but I understand it’s likely frustrating to try and learn to use the new camera’s interface after a full size DSLR. I know ThePlanetD traveled with both and found a use for each :) Good luck on your RTW!

  14. a wandering sole February 22, 2012 at 9:41 am #

    Love this review! My point and shoot is seriously on its last leg and I will probably need to get a replacement soon. This one sounds great!

    • Anonymous February 22, 2012 at 10:13 am #

      It’s worth at least looking at–I love it, and though it’s an investment, has been a great one :)