How did the world’s first Micro Four Thirds camera with HD Video do in the field, on the street, and in the test lab? Let’s find out…
Panasonic Lumix GH1 Key features:
• 13.1 megapixel Four Thirds sensor
• Micro Four Thirds lens mount
• 3-inch flip-out 460,000-dot LCD monitor
• 1,440,000-dot Electronic Viewfinder
• HD video at 720p and 1080p resolution, 60 and 24fps, respectively
• Built-in stereo microphone, stereo external mic jack
• Face Detection
• Optical stabilization
• Live View
• Intelligent Auto mode
• Manual focus, exposure control options
• New lineup of lenses
• Compatible with standard Four Thirds lenses with adapter
• Dedicated flash
• Black, Red, or Blue body
Best Suited For:
• Street photography
• Low-light photography
Price (at time of writing): $1,495
Just a few short months ago, Panasonic's Lumix G1, currently around $640, the first interchangeable-lens Micro Four Thirds camera, was introduced. It forever changed the world of photography. Flangeback (distance from lens to sensor) was reduced and the mirror housing of a DSLR was removed and replaced with an electronic viewfinder, creating an entirely new category of camera. In our hands, in the street and in the lab, the G1 was a winner, focusing fast, and producing DSLR-quality images. Now comes Act Two, the GH1, adding HD Video.
As with the Lumix G1, the GH1 (which will cost around $1,400) uses the same Micro Four Thirds sensor as its bigger cousins, such as the Olympus E series of DSLRs. It can even, with an adaptor, use Olympus lenses designed for the standard Four Thirds or other mounts. You can even use a different adaptor to mount old Olympus OM lenses or Leica M lenses. In other words, the potential is for big-camera quality and access to a big-camera system in a small interchangeable-lens camera.
Can the GH1 do for video what the G1 is doing for still photography?
The Panasonic Lumix GH1 is virtually identical, ergonomically, to the G1 with one glaring exception. In the hand, the GH1 is well-balanced and light. It feels more like an EVF-type camera than a DSLR. Controls are a good size and generally logically placed, and the generous-sized grip makes the camera easy to hold.
The main addition to the back of the GH1 is the video button, which is unfortunately located on the thumb rest. Not only does it get in the way (especially if you have big hands) but it's easy to activate. I found myself accidentally recording videos without realizing it before discovering a custom menu option that disables this button. As with the G1, the forefinger dial that controls shutter speed and aperture when in manual mode is press-sensitive, and I found myself changing its modes accidentally a few times.
The eye-level 1.4-million-dot viewfinder is bright and easy on the eyes—it's one of the best I've seen—although as with other EVF cameras it blanks out the moment the shutter is triggered. In bright light, there's slight tracking (jagged motion when panning) although it is somewhat more pronounced in lower light when a slower shutter speed is required.
If you have the camera set on its default, the 3-inch LCD monitor is on in shooting mode until you bring the camera up to your face. If shooting the hip, you’ll need to hold the camera about 4-5 inches away from your body, or the LCD monitor will think the camera being held to your face, and turns off in favor of the EVF. Fortunately, there's a custom mode that overrides that. The LCD monitor provides a bright, high-resolution image that was moderately viewable in bright sunlight and easy to see in all other light.
Modes & Features
The GH1 offers a wide range of features designed to appeal to photographers at all levels. For those who understand exposure, manual exposure, aperture- and shutter-priority modes, are available. For those who want the camera’s benefits without understanding the underlying concepts, there are program, auto and iA (intelligent Auto) modes. Intelligent Auto uses sophisticated algorithms to recognize specific lighting situations and choose appropriately from the camera’s scene modes.
Then there's video. You can shoot in AVCHD, which is best for playback on HDTV (although it requires more computing power if you plan on doing serious editing), or Motion JPEG, which is better suited for e-mail and PC use. It's more compressed and better suited for video editing. Resolution settings are 1920x1080 pixels at 24fps, which gives you great detail although tracking is a bit jagged when panning the camera. It is 60 frames per second at 1280x720 pixel resolution, resulting in smoother rendering of camera movement; if you're shooting very active subjects, this setting is better.
A stereo microphone is built into the camera and it is very sensitive; it picks up camera handling sounds very well! Fortunately, Panasonic included a stereo external mic jack so you can plug in an off-camera mic and get better sound. Read our guide to microphones for still/video cameras.
But what really sets this camera apart from smaller digital cameras with video is the level of control. In addition to the wide array of lenses and focal lengths available, you can adjust the aperture and shutter speed for even greater control over the recorded footage. Simply go into the Motion Picture menu and select the exposure mode; aperture and shutter speed (down to 1/30 sec) can be controlled the same way it's controlled in still mode.
The My Menu feature lets you customize your settings for quick recall. So, if you want to shoot lots of black-and-white pictures with high contrast, you can switch between that and super-saturated color with limited ISO options and Histogram always on—for example.
Manual focus is intuitive and easy if you set the camera to enlarge the center of the image. Without this setting, manual focus is a shot in the dark. A switch on the left side of the top of the camera lets you choose focus mode; in manual simply turn the lens’s front ring, which controls focus. If you invest in a Leica M-lens adapter, to use an M-mount lens, you’ll need to keep the camera in the MF setting. Conversely, face recognition was fast and accurate in optimizing focus and exposure for people in scenes.
Lab Test Results
Since the GH1 straddles two categories—Four Thirds DSLRs and Compact system cameras—it’s important to compare it against both. The GH1 uses the same sensor as the G1 and the test results are identical. Compared to other Four Thirds cameras, the G1/GH1 put in a good performance that falls right in the middle, quality-wise; compared to other compact system cameras, it is the best in its class as of this writing. Lab analysis of RAW images at the sensor level conducted by DxOLabs.com (and are used with their permission) showed that the G1/GH1’s image quality is comparable to Four Thirds format DSLR cameras such as the Olympus E-420 and E-510. In fact, of the eight Four Thirds cameras tested, the fell right in the middle of the range, with a 53 overall DxOMark Sensor rating (the range was 51-57).
Measured ISO sensitivity was approximately 1/3 of a stop higher than indicated, consistently at all speeds. ISO 100 was actually 129, ISO 200 was 266, etc. The top ISO, 3200, actually measured as 4055. Digital noise levels are well controlled, dipping below acceptable levels after ISO 800 (which is actually ISO 1117). This jibes with my review of actual images shot at these speeds, which showed surprisingly little grain.
Dynamic range was an average 10 stops at ISO 100, but drops to only 8 stops by ISO 800. Color depth was very good, with a 21.1 rating out of a possible 28. Color sensitivity is the most accurate at ISO 100-400, although it deteriorates gradually through the higher speeds, a typical DSLR performance and outstanding for a smaller camera.
In The Field
I found the GH1 to be just as quick and responsive on the street and in the field as its sibling the G1—perhaps even faster, thanks to recent firmware upgrades. Focus was fast and in most cases decisive. Face recognition and all exposure modes were quick and accurate. Pre-AF Q-AF mode seemed to virtually eliminate all lag time. Look for my Street Photo Stress Test of the GH1 tomorrow!
High-speed photos were not as grainy as I expected, and in fact when shooting at ISO 400 and lower it was not noticeable. At 800 it was there but not objectionable.
The flip-out, rotating LCD viewfinder provided excellent resolution and was viewable in most lighting conditions. In direct sunlight the image quality was fairly good. The electronic viewfinder image was sharp and easy on the eye, with good overall image quality. As is typical with EVFs, image view quality degrades in low light. But in good lighting, the viewfinder view is outstanding, as one would expect from a display with 1.4 million dots! I kept the camera in the Histogram Always On setting so I could get immediate exposure feedback.
Overall, I felt that although the GH1 is loaded with high-tech features, the technology rarely got in the way of my ability to shoot sharp, well-exposed photos. In the field and on the street, it was a pleasure to use.
For still photographers, the GH1 is a solid picture-taker. DSLR owners may not even miss the lack of an optical view because the image in the electronic viewfinder is so sharp. The camera is responsive in the field, delivers big-camera image quality, and has cutting-edge features that make it easier for beginners to get great shots. All this in a camera that’s smaller and slimmer than any DSLR, and takes a wide range of interchangeable lenses.
But the GH1 is much more than a great still camera. It's also a very capable HD Video device, able to record sharp videos that will look stunningly crisp even on a big screen monitor. The ability to adjust apertures and switch lenses gives aspiring videographers unprecedented control in such a small camera, while the availability of an external mic jack means you can record audio that can be as high quality as your videos.
If you just want a still camera, you can save $800 and get the outstanding G1. But if video is in your future, the GH1 gives you jaw-dropping results in a very small package.