Last updated on November 15, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?