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Digital Life: Honey, I shrunk the camera. . .

Panasonic Lumix GF1, €800

Anyone with a passion for photography knows you can't beat an SLR (or Single Lens Reflex to the rest of us). Those big, black cameras stand head and shoulders above their little rivals for quality and flexibility but, dammit, their sheer size makes them a pain to lug around.

Those of you perplexed as to why some clever company hasn't yet devised a miniature SLR will be delighted to learn about Micro Four-Thirds, a burgeoning standard devised by Olympus and Panasonic.

By chucking out the mirror (which in SLRs directs the image to the viewfinder until the photo is taken) and applying the shrink ray in other departments, Micro Four-Thirds permits SLR-like cameras of a size previously impossible by the laws of physics.

You get the flexibility of a range of interchangeable lenses -- wide-angle, zoom, etc -- together with a large image sensor for superb image quality. And all this in a camera almost as pocketable as your common-or-garden compact snapper.

As we will see, though, with Panasonic's latest Lumix GF1, Micro Four-Thirds isn't quite the holy grail, but it comes awfully close.

The 12-megapixel GF1 occupies a middle ground between the svelte supermodel looks of the finest compact cameras and the rugby prop bulk of an SLR.

It feels surprisingly weighty and its retro styling (in black, red or silver) won't be to everyone's taste.

The Panasonic kit comes in two flavours, either with a fixed 20mm wide-angle lens or a 14-45mm lens. The variety of optional lenses compatible with Micro Four-Thirds is small but growing.

Digital Life tested the wide-angle kit, whose fixed view harks to the halcyon days of photography but takes some mental adjustment for those of us raised on zooms in even the smallest camera. Annoyingly, it doesn't have image stabilisation, as most Micro Four-Thirds lenses do.

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Perhaps the biggest disappointment for photo enthusiasts is the lack of a viewfinder (an optional €200 extra!). Sure, the large LCD frames pictures adequately but doesn't feel as natural to anyone raised on SLRs.

But just a few days with the GF1 is enough to overcome most misgivings. You'll end up loving its superb image quality, wide spectrum of controls from intelligent auto to full manual, top-notch high-def video and even that fixed lens.

True, it's more expensive than some SLRs.

But they say the best camera is always the one you have with you and you may never want to leave home without the very portable GF1.

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