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Panasonic Lumix GH2:
Hands On Review

The Panasonic GH2 mirrorless video/still hybrid rules its niche.
By Ben Keough

Last updated on 01/18/2013

The Panasonic GH2 marks the company's seventh foray into the rapidly growing and now-maturing mirrorless camera market. For those not already versed in the concept, mirrorless cameras are interchangeable lens shooters that dispense with the customary reflex mirror and optical viewfinder (OVF) and instead rely on the rear LCD and/or a high-quality electronic viewfinder (EVF). The advantages are numerous: mirrorless cameras are smaller, lighter, and cheaper to manufacture, and since they have fewer moving parts, they're theoretically more reliable than dSLRs.

Now, just a couple years after they were introduced, mirrorless cameras are already fragmenting into two distinct groups. On the one hand we have what could be called compact mirrorless cameras, such as the Olympus PEN E-PL1, Panasonic GF2, Samsung NX100, and Sony's NEX models. Compact mirrorless models tend to focus on pocketability and point and shoot operation, creating an upgrade path for snapshot shooters looking for a boost in image quality.

On the other hand are the system mirrorless cameras, represented by the likes of the Samsung NX11 and, yes, Panasonic's G2 and GH2. System mirrorless cameras are aimed squarely at enthusiasts and semi-pros -- buyers who are willing to spend extra for excellent image quality, and who demand a great deal of control over the shooting process. In the past, it was a foregone conclusion that such photographers would opt for an upper mid-level dSLR like the Nikon D7000 or Canon 7D. But in recent years, higher-end mirrorless cameras like the GH2 have proven that bigger isn't always better.

Unlike many of its rivals, whether of mirrorless or traditional design, the GH2 is conceived as a hybrid camera, with equal emphasis on stills and video. It is meant as a cheaper, smaller, and more feature-rich shot across the bow of industry titans like the Canon 5D Mark II and its little brother, the 7D. Whereas the camera's direct predecessor, the GH1, stepped onto the scene as the first mirrorless camera to offer HD video capture (and did so with considerable flair), the GH2 arrives a year and a half later and faces a market saturated with flashy HD-capable competitors. In response, the GH2 attempts to take manual control of video recording, as well as seamless continuous autofocus, to new heights.

Body and Design

Unlike the most popular mirrorless cameras, which look like bulky compacts, the GH2 resembles a standard dSLR, though smaller. Thanks to the smaller sensor and lack of a mirror, the engineers at Panasonic were able to produce a body that measures just 4.88 (width) x 3.53 (height) x 2.98 (depth) inches. This is nearly an inch narrower and shorter than a rival like the Canon 7D, and more than a pound lighter.

The body is very similar to that of the GH1, with a few key changes. To begin with, the material that makes up the majority of the camera's surface is made of strong polycarbonate with a "crinkle" finish, unlike the GH1's smooth rubberized plastic finish. However, the GH2's grip area has a new rubber covering that feels very secure in the hand. Around back, the widescreen flip-out LCD has a more pronounced bezel, which is no doubt designed to protect the screen from scratches and general abuse. Its hinge is quite sturdy, and the pivoting action is exceptionally useful when shooting video, taking stills at odd angles, or shooting self-portraits. Moreover, the display is now touch-sensitive, which facilitates one-touch access to a number of settings, tap-to-focus, and even tap-to-shoot. The EVF has also been redesigned, adding some extra pixels in width to accommodate widescreen image previews without excessive cropping.

The GH1's front control wheel has been moved to the rear on the GH2 -- an improvement in my book -- and this change has displaced several buttons. The Q.Menu button is now adjacent to the Display button on the rear of the camera, the dedicated video recording button is now on the top of the camera rather than the rear, and a new Fn1 (Function) button has been added up top to provide additional control options. Finally, the focus mode selector has been redesigned in keeping with the second generation G-series models -- located to the left of the EVF atop the camera, the dial now controls the AF mode (Face Detection, AF Tracking, 23-area Focusing, and 1-Area Focusing) while a ring surrounding it is used to select the focus mode (Manual Focus, Continuous AF, Single AF). While all of these changes felt fine to me, someone who has used the GH1 intensively might find it hard to adjust to the remapped control scheme.

If you're familiar with typical film SLR and dSLR control layouts, you'll be right at home with the GH2's main functions. The shutter release is positioned at the tip of the right-hand grip, while the mode selection dial is just behind it and to the left. The GH2 offers a number of modes to choose from, including all the usual suspects (Auto, Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual), three Custom shooting modes (C1-C3), and a dedicated Movie mode. Additional quick 'n easy modes include Macro, Landscape, Portrait, and "My Color," each with a number of sub-settings. The on-off switch rings the mode dial, as does the drive selector (single shot, continuous shooting, bracketed shooting, and timer). The back of the camera keeps it pretty simple. An EVF/LCD toggle sits to the left of the EVF, while the Playback button is to its right. An AF/AE Lock toggle is next to the rear control wheel, with the four-way control pad sitting below. Each button in the pad doubles as a direct access key for a vital setting (ISO, White Balance, and two user-customizable Functions). The center button serves as an "OK"/selection button and also brings up the camera's main menu. The trash button sits below this cluster.

Atop the EVF is a high-quality stereo microphone used during video recording. For those who are more serious about their videography, external microphones can be mounted in the flash hotshoe with a cord running to the 2.5mm audio jack found under a small flap on the left-hand side of the body. Panasonic's decision to employ a 2.5mm jack is a bit surprising, given that the more common 3.5mm plug is an industry standard. One can only assume that the miniaturization of the body necessitated the smaller connection, but annoyingly it means that many enthusiasts will need to purchase a 3.5mm to 2.5mm adapter to use their high-end mics.

The camera is slightly heavier than its predecessor, but still in a lower weight class than its dSLR competitors. When paired with the extremely compact Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 "pancake" prime, it feels almost as light as a chunky point-and-shoot. With the Panasonic 14-140mm superzoom it gains a bit more heft, but remains well-balanced. It's not pocket-sized, but it's much smaller than a mainstream dSLR.

User Experience and Performance

Shooting with the GH2 is mostly an intuitive experience. While the menus can be a bit dizzying in their depth, the ergonomics are logical and straightforward -- every control falls naturally under the user's fingertips. My only complaint with the physical layout concerns the power and drive mode switches, which are the same shape and placed close together; it's easy to confuse the two if you don't watch what you're doing.

Thanks to the combination of a high-quality EVF and touch-sensitive flip-out LCD, there are quite a few different ways to shoot with the GH2: The screen can stay folded in for and EVF-only configuration, like a film SLR. Users can also use both the rear LCD and the EVF to compose shots, thanks to a finely tuned eye-level sensor. Or the LCD can act as an info screen, like it would on a dSLR, displaying aperture, shutter speed, EV compensation, and other vital stats. In this mode, an array of touch buttons in the lower-left quadrant of the LCD accesses ISO and white balance settings, metering modes, and many more shooting options.

It's worth noting that the touch-sensitive screen gets in the way from time to time. Quite frequently, I inadvertently changed vital settings by rubbing against the screen. Some touch functions can be turned off in the menus, but there doesn't seem to be a way to universally disable touch input, since many of the camera's central controls are built around it. If it becomes a big problem, the panel can flip inward.

In practice, the new and improved EVF is a glorious thing to behold. Offering a 1,533,600-dot resolution and 100-percent frame coverage, it's almost as clear as the best dSLR optical viewfinders; in some ways, the GH2's EVF exceeds them. In particular, the EVF is a true joy to use for manual focusing: The center of the image is drastically enlarged, making it much easier to achieve pinpoint focus. This is an incredible advancement for macro shooting. The rear LCD looks a bit "last generation," sporting half the pixels compared to the screens on dSLRs like the Nikon D7000 and Pentax K-5. That said, the GH2's screen is plenty clear for everyday use and the refresh rate has been greatly improved, only slowing down in the dimmest scenes.

T he GH2 has several auto-focusing options, all of which work very well. In iA (Intelligent Auto) mode, the focus defaults to face detection and cannot be changed. When there's no face in the frame, it uses 23-Area autofocus, which is the standard let-the-camera-do-its-own-thing mode. AF Tracking mode works by tapping the desired subject on the touchscreen; the camera then tracks that subject until it leaves the frame, and does so with surprising accuracy. Single-area AF works in much the same way, but without the tracking: The user taps the spot that should be in focus, and the camera focuses on that spot, regardless of what's in the frame. Touchscreen capability has been built into the shutter mechanism as well; there's even a setting in the main menu for a single-tap focus-and-shoot setting.

Video recording can be very simple, or very, very complicated, depending on how much manual control the user wants. To keep things simple, put the camera in AFC focusing mode, hit the dedicated red Record button, and start filming in just a couple seconds. Continuous focusing mode works well in most situations, though the camera has trouble locking on to subjects that lack edge contrast, and can tend to lose sight of a subject that is moving too quickly across the frame. Users can set the focal point by tapping the screen, or the camera can do all the work. 

Manual focusing is also available for pros and those who prefer to do the hard work themselves. As with still-image capture, both the EVF and LCD work while framing scenes. The new Venus Engine HD II processor has a faster readout, which allows for much better framerates on both the EVF and LCD, so it's easy to see exactly what's being captured in most situations.

Video quality options vary depending on the shooting mode. From any of the standard still-image shooting modes, the user can set the recording type and quality via the main menu. Options include Motion JPEG recording in VGA (640x480, 30fps), WVGA (848x480, 30fps), or 720p HD (1,280x720, 30fps), as well as AVCHD recording in 720p or 1080i (60fps). When the main mode dial is tuned to the video recording mode, users can choose between Manual Movie Mode, 24p Cinema, and Variable Movie Mode. Manual Movie Mode allows the user to set the shutter speed and aperture, 24p Cinema records at 24fps for a film look, and Variable Movie Mode allows the user to record slow-motion and sped-up video, in-camera. In what I'd call a substantial engineering error, the GH2 doesn't allow users to dedicate the red Record button to shoot 24p Cinema, even though it is the highest-quality video the camera has to offer. A firmware patch could possibly fix this issue in the future.

One other unique feature is included in the GH2's video recording capabilities. Called "EX. TELE CONV." (or "ETC" for short) in the manual, it essentially captures only the central two megapixels of the 16-megapixel sensor. Whereas normal video recording uses 16 megapixels and then downsamples the RAW image to 1920x1080 pixels, ETC natively captures exactly 1920x1080 pixels, which is closer to 2 megapixels. Such selective recording has a number of knock-on effects. First, the camera's "crop factor," or the multiplier used to determine the effective focal length of the lens, is increased from the standard Micro Four Thirds factor of 2x to 5.2x. This means that, for instance, the 14-140mm kit lens becomes a 73-728mm lens (roughly) in ETC mode. For many applications, such as wildlife videography, this is an incredible gain. In addition, since there is no compression of the recorded pixels when shooting in ETC mode, the video quality may be superior to that of a downsampled 16-megapixel capture. Of course, ETC mode sacrifices wide-angle capability, so it's not suitable for all shooting situations.

Due to its exceedingly short mount-to-sensor distance, the M4/3 standard allows for the use of virtually any lens ever made, via adapter. I used a number of Nikon F-mount and Pentax K-mount lenses on the GH2, some as many as 50 years old, and the results were stunning. Canon, Minolta, Olympus OM, Leica, and even more exotic lenses like C-mount and tiny Pentax Auto 110 specimens can be employed. Of course, adapted lenses will not autofocus, but for dedicated enthusiasts this won't be a major concern. Adapters range from $30 Chinese-made eBay options to $300 Novoflex-branded versions. In my experience the cheap-o adapters do the job just fine. Adapted lenses work equally well for both still and video capture.

As with its predecessor, one of the GH2's conspicuous shortcomings is its relatively short battery life. Where many similarly priced dSLRs offer 800 or more shots on a single charge, the GH2 claims just 330 shots. This is a slight increase over the GH1, despite the fact that the GH2 employs a smaller, lower-capacity battery. (GH1 owners should note that their batteries will not work in the GH2, another barrier on the upgrade path.) But even this modest estimate can be slashed by excessive use of the rear LCD, continuous AF, or video recording. A smaller battery is one of the compromises inherent in a smaller camera, but it's frustrating that the GH2's rivals can capture 500 extra shots with ease.

Image and Video Quality

Remarkably, the GH2 is capable of producing still photos that are nearly as sharp and nearly as noise-free as the current crop of APS-C dSLRs. At base (160) ISO all the way up to ISO 1600, the camera renders beautiful images in most lighting conditions. Photos taken using ISO 3200 will show some amplified grain, but are still entirely usable with the right post-processing. Even ISO 6400 shots will suffice in a pinch. Using ISO 12800 is not advisable, but that's no surprise since manufacturers have recently begun to push their sensors one step beyond their usable range for marketing purposes. When images are properly exposed, dynamic range is pretty good. The GH2 can't pull as much detail out of shadows as current-generation enthusiast dSLRs like the Nikon D7000 or Pentax K-5, but they appear to match last-gen APS-C results. Taken as a whole, the GH2's sensor is a real achievement for Panasonic's engineers, and a nice surprise.

Despite the generally impressive sensor performance, some eagle-eyed forum members at various photography websites have noted that the GH2 produces grain in blue skies, even from base ISO. Living in sunny New Mexico, I had plenty of occasions to test this theory in my time with the camera. I have to report that the rumors are true: In uniform blue skies, there is very clear pattern noise. This seems to be an issue with the sensor's blue channel, which is noisier than the red and green channels by far. However, this noise is very film-like, and careful use of the noise reduction capabilities in Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom can completely remove it without affecting image detail (from RAW format, that is). Moreover, it's fine noise of the luminance variety, rather than the splotchy color noise known as chroma -- some folks might even like the character it lends to photos.

Using the default "Natural" Film Mode, colors seem a bit on the yellow/brown side and saturation is decidedly neutral. Color cast and saturation adjustments  can easily be done in post-processing. Alternatively, users can choose a different Film Mode, such as "Dynamic" or "Vibrant," which will result in slightly different saturation and color balance. You should try all of the various modes to find the one that suits your eye best. As always, shooting in RAW mode, or RAW + JPEG, is advisable for the greatest possible latitude in image processing.

Exposure accuracy is dead on when properly using iA, Program, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Priority modes. The camera's processor does an excellent job of balancing bright and dark areas in the frame and choosing the best possible compromise to get an evenly exposed image. In Manual mode, of course, the exposure accuracy is entirely up to the user. The GH2 also includes a couple of helper settings, Intelligent Resolution (or I.R) and Intelligent Dynamic (or I.DYNAMIC), to assist in achieving the best image possible. The former is not very well explained in the manual, but claims to produce "pictures with sharp profile and resolution," whatever that means. The I.DYNAMIC is similar to that found in many other cameras, boosting the brightness of shadows and dimming highlights to even exposure across an image. Both of these settings can be disabled, except in iA mode, where they're on by default.

Like the GH1, the GH2 allows for capturing in four different aspect ratios: 4:3, 3:2, widescreen 16:9, and even the square 1:1. This capability is a fortunate byproduct of a sensor designed for video recording. The sensor is actually larger than the "effective" 16 megapixels, with a total of 18 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. (Here's a diagram to help visualize the sensor usage.)

The 14-140mm kit lens provided with the camera is quite good, not much of a surprise coming from Leica. As a superzoom with roughly a 10x zoom range, it makes certain compromises in its design, but for most users it will be more than sufficient for daily use, and will cover most imaginable shooting situations. The lens is pretty sharp at the wide-open end, it's contrasty, and it doesn’t seem to suffer from much barrel distortion at the wide end or pincushion at the telephoto end. Vignetting is not an issue except at 140mm and the widest possible aperture, but even then, it's easily corrected in post-processing. Edge-to-edge sharpness appears to be very good, without soft spots at the corners. The lens has been specially designed to work with the GH2's exceptional video recording capabilities, engineered to be entirely silent when focusing and zooming. It also includes very good optical image stabilization (O.I.S), which allows for crisp stills at slower shutter speeds, and helps to stabilize the fluid image during video recording (though a tripod is always the best way to get stabilization).

The GH2's video quality is among the best in the business. It's little wonder that many pros and enthusiast videographers are making the GH2 their camera of choice for experimentation and even paid gigs: It's light, it's portable, and it's easy to rig. The broad range of manual control and class-leading continuous AF set it ahead of the hybrid pack. While APS-C and full-frame dSLRs have bigger sensors that can potentially offer better high-ISO shooting and shallower depth of field, the GH2 matches or betters those competitors in every other category.

The 24p shooting modes are clearly the best choice, offering the beefiest bitstream (24mbps) and the most film-like look. Still images plucked from these videos look almost as good as shots from some high-end compact cameras, which is saying a lot. Changing up the shutter speed allows for further control over the look. Generally speaking, shooting at a 1/50 shutter speed produces a natural look in 24p mode. A higher shutter speed like 1/500 will produces a choppy, gritty look akin to the battlefield scenes in modern war movies, while a slower speed like 1/15 will result in a dreamy blur.

Recordings in the other video modes vary in quality. 1080i/60fps video is quite good, except that on some displays and in some software players the interlacing is quite obvious. Stepping down to 720p/60fps eliminates the interlacing but it's not as high-res -- not a problem on many computer monitors. Both modes record at the same bitrate of roughly 13mbps on the lower quality setting and 17mbps on the higher setting. Motion JPEG recordings look good and are easier to work with than the AVCHD files, but they are also much less efficient, resulting in much larger files.

The onboard stereo microphone is a cut above the mics usually included in consumer cameras. It's quite adept at recording vocals, and seems to work best in quiet interior settings. Outside and especially in any kind of brisk wind, it quickly becomes overwhelmed with ambient noise, despite the two-stage wind noise reduction setting found in the menu. It will no doubt suffice for quick home video-style clips, but for anyone looking to do more serious work, I would strongly suggest investing in an external mic solution.

Conclusion

In the final analysis, the GH2 is an excellent camera. There's very little to dislike about it. I had a few minor gripes: The touchscreen got in the way more than it helped me; for its asking price the camera could do with a more solid build; and the inability to dedicate 24p video recording to the video button is an annoyance. Nevertheless, there's no other camera on the market that offers as complete a stills/video package the GH2.

The camera is available in a body-only configuration ($900 MSRP), with a standard 14-42mm kit lens ($1000), or with the 14-140mm superzoom mentioned above ($1,500). At those prices, the GH2 is in the same league as enthusiast dSLRs like the Nikon D7000, Canon 7D, and Pentax K-5. Video is the compelling reason to choose the GH2 over any of those cameras. None can match the GH2's video mastery or svelte profile. Though this is a hotly debated topic, some pundits claim that it even outperforms the venerable $2,500 Canon 5D Mk. II in terms of video quality.

That said, it is a niche product. Video needs to be one of your main interests to justify this purchase (and you should really go with the 14-140mm configuration, in that case). It shoots some very solid still images, but those shots aren't dramatically better than what you can shoot with cheaper Micro Four Thirds models, and can't match the quality of competing enthusiast dSLRs. 

Still, there is really no other camera on the market that can do what the GH2 does -- at least not at the same price point, or without adding a great deal of bulk and weight. For the budget-conscious videographer on the go, especially one who likes to dabble in stills, this is the one to get.

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