Panasonic GH1 Review
Last updated on 12/03/2010
This upgrade to the Panasonic G1 is the most advanced Micro Four Thirds camera so far.
By Joseph Ben Keough
In my review of the Panasonic Lumix G1, the world's first Micro Four Thirds camera, I stated that it was "a bold new step for the company, and for the digital camera market as a whole." While the same can't be said of its successor, the Lumix GH1, it's an impressive beast nonetheless, and one that builds well on its predecessor's best traits. Specs-wise, it's nothing too eye-opening. The sensor is different, but still offers 12.1 megapixels. The body's shape, weight, and ergonomics are nearly identical. The screen is still three inches diagonal, with an articulating hinge and a pretty nice resolution. However, big changes are afoot in a couple key categories.
To begin with, and perhaps most importantly, the GH1 corrects what many saw as the G1's major shortcoming—the lack of a HD movie mode. Not only did the engineers at Panasonic fix this glaring absence in the GH1, but they provided the camera with perhaps the best HD movie mode in any still camera available on the market today. The other major change is the kit lens included with the GH1. Rather than the G1's 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 kit, the GH1 comes equipped with a 14-140mm zoom that more than triples the reach of the earlier model. The real question is, are these improvements worth the slightly breathtaking price Panasonic's marketing gurus are asking for the GH1?
Note: Given the similarities between the GH1 and the G1, parts of this article are cribbed from the author's review of the G1 from earlier this year.
Design and Ergonomics
The chief motivation behind the creation of the Micro Four Thirds format was to create interchangeable lens cameras that are smaller and lighter than standard dSLR cameras. Like the G1, the GH1 certainly achieves this goal, but it's not that much smaller than the smallest dSLRs out there, such as the Olympus E-420 and E-620 or the Pentax K2000 and K-x. However, place it next to a larger dSLR like the Canon 50D, the Pentax K20D, or a behemoth like the Nikon D300, and you can immediately see a significant difference. Perhaps the biggest change is not in the size of the body (which has to stay above a certain size threshold to fit the contours of the human hand) but in the size of the lenses. On the G1, the 14-45mm kit lens (2x crop factor, for a 28-90mm equivalent in 35mm film terms) felt truly tiny compared to even the 18-55mm kit lenses found on most dSLRs. While the new 14-140mm kit that ships with the GH1 isn't quite as small, it's still amazingly compact compared to its APS-C equivalents (like Canon's 18-200mm zoom).
The body has a very solid feel in-hand, with a pleasing density and good balance. It has a wonderfully tactile feel thanks to a subtly rubberized coating on the plastic exterior. In general, the design is slightly boxy like most point-and-shoots, but still very ergonomic. The only real complaint I have about the layout is that the grip is a trifle shallow, especially for users with larger hands, but this issue is inevitable when the design is purposely compacted.
The control layout is straightforward, but with fewer dedicated buttons and dials than you would typically see on dSLRs. A hot shoe sits top center with dials on either side. The dial to the left controls the focus mode, allowing you to choose between AFS (autofocus single), AFC (autofocus continuous), and MF (manual focus, using fly-by-wire lens focusing). Manual focus works surprisingly well in spite of the lack of a viewfinder or range indicators on the lens barrel.
The mode control dial sits on the right-hand side of the camera's top edge, as do the on-off switch, shutter release, and continuous shooting toggle as well as buttons for the Quick Menu and "Film Mode," which controls a variety of color modes. The mode dial contains what would be an unusual number of modes for a dSLR: iA (Intelligent Auto), P (Program), A (Aperture Priority), S (Shutter Priority), M (Manual), Video, CUST (three sets of custom-programmable settings), My Color (allows adjustment of color, sharpness, and contrast), and SCN (Scene). The scene modes are actually broken up into two groups: five get dedicated mode dial settings and another five are accessible via the on-screen menu when the mode dial is set to SCN.
A huge 3.0-inch LCD panel dominates the back of the GH1. It can be conveniently flipped out and twisted around into virtually any orientation (even completely backwards, for self-portraits). Above the LCD is the EVF, which is flanked by an LCD/EVF toggle, a playback toggle, and an AF/AE Lock button. To the right of the LCD is a Display button (which controls the information overlaid on the LCD), the red video recording button, a four-way controller surrounding a main Menu button, and a Delete button below that. Each of the four-way controller buttons also doubles as a dedicated settings button. Starting from the top and going clockwise they are: ISO, White Balance, Custom Function (metering, by default), and Autofocus Mode.
The battery compartment and lens-centered metal tripod mount are on the bottom. USB and HDMI outputs sit to the left and the SDHC slot is to the right. All of the doors and compartments feel relatively solid.
Handling and Shooting Performance
The GH1's shooting performance is stunning in many regards. To begin with, I'd like to compliment its handling. As with the G1, shutter lag is basically non-existent, just like a dSLR. Though it's mirrorless, the camera has a physical shutter with satisfying little 'click' release sound—quieter than most dSLRs but much louder than a typical point-and-shoot. Continuous shooting mode performance is on par with the lower end of the dSLR market, averaging around 3 frames per second in "high speed" mode. The camera can shoot continuously in JPEG, RAW, or JPEG+RAW.
As with the G1, the GH1's contrast-detect autofocus system is a triumph of design, easily equaling in most shooting situations the best performance of traditional phase detect systems in an average dSLR. In good light, it feels instantaneous; in dim light it performs better than some dSLRs I've used. It rarely seems to hunt and give up on finding focus. Aside from a few rare instances, it takes about a second to lock on at worst. Really, I can't get over how good it is.
Framing shots with the GH1 is similarly painless. One of the big advantages of its total reliance on the LCD and EVF is that these views provide 100% coverage of the captured frame, as opposed to the approximately 95% coverage that typical dSLR optical viewfinders provide. Moreover, the GH1 provides a customizable grid overlay for aligning your shots. You can choose the number and placement of grid lines. The EVF's screen is something of a revelation, providing an unheard-of 480,000 pixel resolution and a jaw-dropping framerate of 180 frames per second. While it still isn't nearly as good as a pentaprism or pentamirror optical viewfinder, it is a huge leap relative to past EVFs and is extremely usable except in very low light.
The Intelligent Auto mode is as good here as it is on Panasonic's point and shoot models, cleverly choosing between various shooting modes based on the subjects you're framing. In most cases, it produces excellent exposures. The camera's program, priority, and manual modes are excellent as well, providing just as much customizability as comparable dSLRs. You can even manually fine tune the RGB settings in custom white balance mode, for example. In short, the GH1 should represent an extremely easy transition to advanced shooting for point and shoot users.
Playback is smooth, with virtually no delay when paging through the photos you've taken. Photos can be cropped and color-adjusted in-camera, which many point and shoot users will be familiar with. And like other Panasonic models, a picture-by-day calendar view is available as well.
One conspicuous shortcoming of the GH1 is its relatively short battery life compared to other cameras in its class. Whereas many dSLRs, including entry-level models, offer up to 800 or more shots on a single charge, the GH1 claims a life of 300 shots per charge. But even this reduced count can be further slashed by un-judicious use of the rear LCD, continuous AF, or video recording. I was frequently stymied in my testing of the camera by its tragically short charge, and it was one of the few true annoyances I had with it. This must be one of the compromises engineers make when they design a small camera (a smaller camera must have a smaller battery, right?) but it's still annoying.
Still Image Quality
I've gotten on Panasonic's case in past reviews of their point-and-shoot cameras for a tendency toward high noise levels and aggressive noise reduction. I expected the problem to be lessened by the GH1's much larger sensor and much lower pixel density, and it turns out that my hopes were justified. The image quality the GH1 produces is uniformly excellent up to ISO 800, whether shooting in JPEG or RAW, and generally matches the competition in the dSLR realm until ISO 1600. Beyond 1600, things begin to get grim, but images taken at ISO 1600 and 3200 are still far, far more usable than their point-and-shoot counterparts. Images are slightly soft out of the camera by default, but that's not uncommon in dSLRs across the board. Sharpness can be adjusted in-camera or in a program like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom.
The GH1 captures in four different aspect ratios: 4:3, 3:2, 16:9, and the extremely odd 1:1. This capability is a fortunate byproduct of the new sensor designed for video recording. All of the ratios allow the same angle of view because all of them (except the 1:1, which is simply cropped at the sides) use the full expanse of the redesigned sensor. The sensor is actually larger than the "effective" 12.1 megapixels, with a total of 14 megapixels—this allows the 4:3 aspect ratio to make use of the full height, the 3:2 to find a middle ground, and the 16:9 to use the full width.
The 14-140mm kit lens provided with the camera is very good—but not excellent. As a superzoom with a 10x zoom range, it makes certain compromises in its design, but for most users it will be sufficient for daily use. The lens is pretty sharp from wide open, contrasty, and doesn't seem to suffer from much barrel distortion at the wide end, pincushion at the telephoto end, or vignetting at the corners. Edge-to-edge sharpness appears to be very good, without soft spots at the corners. In one sense, it's frustrating that the GH1 is offered only with the 14-140mm lens, since it's undeniably a factor in the kit's relatively high MSRP. On the other hand, it's great to see a manufacturer shipping a camera with a lens that truly brings out its best qualities.
With the release of the GH1, the Olympus E-P1, and the Panasonic GF1, the stable of Micro Four Thirds lenses has increased substantially, though it's still quite small compared to most dSLR lens ranges. Be aware that these lenses can be very expensive (the Panasonic 7-14mm ultra wide-angle zoom retails for $1,200, for example) and that the available range is quite limiting relative to what you'd get when buying into the Canon, Nikon, or even Sony and Pentax systems.
Lenses made for (non-Micro) Four Thirds cameras may also work with the GH1, but not all will be able to make use of their autofocus capabilities. They will also require an adapter that retails for $170. Furthermore, a number of third-party lens adapters by Novoflex have come out for the Micro Four Thirds system, allowing enthusiasts access to an unparalleled range of legacy glass.
HD Video Quality
The video quality from the GH1 is easily as impressive as nearly all of its dSLR competitors, with the possible exception of the Canon 5D Mk II. While the "jello effect" that plagues all CMOS-based dSLR-type HD shooters is present, the result is comparable to any other camera's output. However, it's not the quality of the image that makes the GH1's movie mode special, or the camera so attractive. It's the unprecedented level of control over every aspect of video shooting that truly sets this little marvel apart.
For one, video can be recorded in either AVCHD (720p and 1080p) or Motion JPEG (720p only) formats, a feature not found on other cameras in this class. Also, most dSLRs with HD video recording modes don't allow manual aperture or shutter speed control during recording, nor do they allow for continuous autofocus while video is being recorded. The GH1 rewrites the rules, giving extremely intuitive control to the photographer (or in this case, videographer). You can use Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or full Manual modes in video recording, a first in this sort of camera. The camera autofocuses without a hitch in 720p mode, and generally works just as well in 1080p, provided you've got a HD-ready Panasonic lens mounted on the camera. The 14-140mm is the easiest to use, with silent focusing and HD-certified zoom.
The GH1 also includes onboard stereo microphones and a 2.5mm jack for the use of a higher quality handheld or hot shoe-based external mic, a feature only found on the Pentax K-7, Nikon D300s, and Canon 5D Mk II at the moment.
Like the G1 before it, the Panasonic Lumix GH1 is an impressive feat of engineering. Here, it almost feels natural to use a SLR-styled camera without an optical viewfinder. The size is, frankly, about as small as I think I-d want in a camera of this type—a nice bridge between the smaller dSLRs and the larger point and shoot superzooms (such as the Canon SX1 IS).
Image quality is excellent for its sensor size. Noise and noise reduction are well-controlled, and the camera produces punchy, well-exposed shots. Its automatic mode is ideal for those new to more advanced cameras, while its advanced modes have all of the depth of the other cameras in this price range.
Unfortunately, that price range may ultimately be the GH1's Achilles heel. For the cost, many consumers may simply choose a full-fledged dSLR now that a few of them rival the GH1's video capabilities and surpass its image quality and the depth its lens systems. Many popular models are at or below even the G1's current shelf price, including the Canon 500D and 50D, the Nikon D5000 and D90, the Pentax K-x and K-7, to name a few. While the GH1's EVF performance is stunning in context, it's still inferior to a true optical viewfinder in many respects. And while it is indeed smaller than any dSLR on the market, it's not that much smaller. The limited selection and high price of available lenses may hamper the usefulness of the GH1 to all but the newest and richest of neophytes to interchangeable lens shooting. Furthermore, while the video implementation is well done and improves on many shortcomings of other brands' attempts, it still exhibits the "jello effect" and other issues that make it inferior to the video produced by a dedicated video camera. I said it when I reviewed the G1, and it still applies here: it remains to be seen whether the public will judge Panasonic's experiment to be worth the cost. The G1 was a critical success, and the GH1 has been as well, but sales will tell the true story.
The Micro Four Thirds format is gradually capturing market share and improving in myriad ways, but it seems that the format has yet to assume its final form. While early models like the G1 and GH1 mimic dSLRs in form and function, recent innovations like the Olympus E-P1 and Panasonic's own GF1 look to the rangefinders of the 1970s for inspiration. It's entirely possible that both concepts can continue to exist side by side, but one wonders whether the Micro Four Thirds braintrust are dividing their small piece of the pie into entirely inedible bites.