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Panasonic DMC-GH1 Overview

Reviewed by Shawn Barnett, Dave Etchells, and Zig Weidelich
Review Date: 06/09/09

Not long after announcing its first Micro Four Thirds camera in September of 2008, Panasonic started giving hints that a next-generation of the camera might include what seemed like a glaring omission from the Lumix G1: Video. Within two weeks, Panasonic showed a prototype camera at the Photokina tradeshow that promised a capable high-definition video mode with a stereo microphone. Equally interesting was a prototype 14-140mm lens shown on the unnamed G-series body mockup, which featured the letters "HD."

Lauded for its small size, light weight, and high-resolution, high-speed electronic viewfinder, the original Panasonic G1 was a superbly executed debut for the Micro Four Thirds system, created as a new interchangeable lens digital camera standard with partner company Olympus. Support for video mode seemed natural, and now Panasonic has made it real with the introduction of the Lumix DMC-GH1.

Like the G1, the Panasonic GH1 is technically a non-SLR digital camera that uses an interchangeable lens design. By eliminating the mirror box and pentaprism arrangement, the Panasonic G-series fulfills the size promise of Micro Four Thirds, allowing both smaller body and smaller lens designs. Into this compact body, the Panasonic GH1 fits a 12.1-megapixel image sensor, a 60 frames-per-second electronic viewfinder with 800x600 gapless pixel resolution, a 3.0-inch tilt/swivel LCD display, and HD video capture.

There's also Supersonic Wave Filter dust reduction, a built-in flash, plus a hot shoe, a 23-point high-speed contrast detection AF system with face detection and tracking modes, and ISO sensitivity from 100 to 3,200 equivalent.

As well as accepting Panasonic's new Micro Four Thirds lenses, the Lumix GH1 can also use existing Four Thirds lenses with a special converter. Not all Four Thirds lenses will be compatible with the Panasonic GH1's contrast detection AF, though; nor will they be fast enough for HD movie mode in most cases.

The Panasonic DMC-G1 stores images on Secure Digital or SDHC cards, and draws its power from a lithium-ion battery. Connectivity options include USB 2.0 High Speed, plus both standard and high-definition video. Panasonic will be selling the Lumix GH1 digital camera in kit form with the 14-140mm lens in the USA for US$1,499.95, with only one body color: Black. Red and Gold will be available elsewhere. Estimated availability is early June 2009.

 

Panasonic GH1 User Report

by Shawn Barnett

Note: as the GH1 and G1 are so similar in terms of their still photo capabilities, much of this User Report will be the same as the G1.

Shorter than the average digital SLR, but about as wide, the Panasonic G-series was designed to allow a smaller interchangeable lens digital camera system. Like the original Four Thirds system, Micro Four Thirds seeks to throw off the encumbrance of 35mm SLR design. Only now, in addition to rebelling against 35mm's large lenses, they're dumping its moving mirrors, expensive pentaprisms, and often complex, expensive solutions to the problem of integrating Live View into a digital SLR. Panasonic's first solution is the Lumix G1, a quite elegant little interchangeable-lens digital camera with much of what made the Lumix L10 interesting, most of what makes an SLR more useful, plus most of what's great about the standard enthusiast digicam, this time including video.

The beauty of an SLR is that it delivers a truly live image to the photographer's eye. A mirror stands in the way of the sensor, gathering light from the lens that will be used to make the image, and reflecting it onto a focusing screen, whose image is then reflected through a pentaprism to the user's eye. In the old days of film, this was perfectly reasonable, because there was no other way to see the image you were about to shoot; but now with imaging sensors that can deliver a live view to an LCD, and capture the image, it seems a bit silly to have this elaborate opto-mechanical system when it can be done electronically. As such, the Panasonic Lumix GH1 eliminates the mirror and pentaprism altogether, while still allowing lens changing.

Look and feel. As a kit with the new 14-140mm HD lens, the Lumix GH1 is quite a bit heavier than the G1 with its 14-42mm lens. The body with battery and card is almost exactly the same, at 15.1 ounces (429g), but the combined weight more than doubles with the 14-140mm lens attached, to 32.2 ounces (914g). The lens is a little heavier than the camera, but I haven't found it so bad that I fell like the Panasonic GH1 is off balance at all. The grip is so close to the lens that it doesn't twist away when held with one hand; though of course you'll want to two-hand this camera.

At first glance the Panasonic GH1 has an odd shape, with certain features out of proportion to the overall camera's size. The center flash/viewfinder hump is wide and low, the mode dial is unusually large, and the shutter button seems to stand out, while the lens mount seems disproportionately small. It's unusual, quite burly looking despite its small size. Note that we received the gold version of the GH1 for our testing, but I'm using the black shots from Panasonic to better represent what most US buyers will be able to find. I should note that I prefer the black version in this case; it's a shame they don't offer a blue one as they do with the G1.

The GH1's soft, rubbery skin has a sheen as elegant and warm as it feels. Though it is small, the grip is good, and the camera is sufficiently wide that it still feels substantial. My pinkie finger doesn't fit on the grip, however. The thumbgrip on the back has a nice bevel up toward the right corner, a design element that probably couldn't have been done better given the short stature of the Panasonic GH1.

The left front of the Lumix GH1 has a flat area that serves as a good grip while reviewing photos. Both sides of the Panasonic GH1 rest in my palms comfortably, thanks to the beveled bottom edges. Note in the shot above that the Panasonic GH1's shutter defaults to open, even when the lens is removed. It's also not very deep in the camera, which means it's quite vulnerable to scratches and smudges from fingers and other objects. It will also collect sand and dust more readily, so use care when choosing an area to change the Panasonic GH1's lens.

On the Panasonic GH1's top deck are two switches that surround the mode dial. One powers up the camera, the other sets the Drive mode. I just love switches, especially for oft-changed items. The mode dial is large, but it seems a little stiffer than I remember the G1's mode dial, so hopefully they fixed it. Since the Panasonic GH1 supports Movie mode, they managed to squeeze one more mode onto the dial between Manual and Custom positions. They also moved the Color mode between Intelligent Auto and Portrait modes, making it more readily accessible.

Mounted prominently on the Panasonic GH1's pop-up flash housing are the two microphones. This whole assembly pops up with the flash, so be sure not to accidentally deploy the flash while recording, as it makes quite a racket in the video.

The Panasonic GH1's shutter release button is mounted on a metal stand, slightly redesigned from the G1's, positioned out on the top of the grip.

Just below the Panasonic GH1's shutter button is the Front dial. In Manual mode, you press in on the dial to switch between Aperture and Shutter speed settings on the LCD; in Program mode, pressing in on the Front dial activates the EV adjustment mode. Because the grip is so small, operation is a little awkward, as there's just enough room for three fingers as it is. The dial feels a little cheap, more worthy of a digicam than a digital SLR replacement, but it functions well enough.

Though they're somewhat nostalgic, we here at Imaging Resource headquarters think that the floppy camera strap rings are a hassle, one that gets worse when the camera is small like the Panasonic GH1. I just take them off and put them back in the box until I need them. We prefer built-in strap lugs that require no accessory rings. This becomes more important when you start to record video on the Panasonic GH1, as the slightest motion makes these rings jiggle, with or without a strap attached, and all that sound travels through the camera body straight to the microphones.

Only one item on the back of the Panasonic GH1 is new relative to the G1: the Record button nestled in the upper right corner, at the peak of the rubber thumbgrip. Serving as something like a shutter button for Movie mode, you can begin recording a movie with a single press, without switching the Mode dial to Movie mode.

LCD and EVF. It's easy to forget that the Panasonic GH1 is not an SLR, but I'm reminded when it comes to choosing whether to use the LCD or the electronic viewfinder (EVF) to compose my images. Because it looks like an SLR and I know the lens is interchangeable, I'm wont to just bring the viewfinder to my eye by default, especially out in daylight. Eventually I learned that you can set the Custom Menu to allow automatic switching between the LCD and EVF, thanks to the infrared sensors on the right side of the EVF eyepiece. With the LVF/LCD AUTO option set to ON, the camera switches to the EVF when you bring the camera to your eye. That's more convenient than a live-view SLR, because you have to choose to turn on the LCD's live view mode, whereas here all you need to do is move the camera.

Status display. Use the Panasonic GH1's front dial to adjust the EV settings; use the navigator to move from item to item to adjust.

Both the LCD and EVF are remarkable in their clarity and sharpness, with the LCD resolving 460,000 dots and the EVF resolving 480,000 RGB pixels.

The Panasonic GH1's electronic viewfinder is particularly impressive, easily the clearest EVF we've seen. It uses an LCOS (Liquid Crystal On Silicon) chip to display the viewfinder image at a 60 frame per second refresh rate, besting most any other electronic viewfinder on the market. As I move my eye around behind the Panasonic GH1's viewfinder, there is a tendency toward barrel or pincushion distortion at the edges depending on where your eye is, so be sure not to confuse that with lens distortion when aligning objects such as buildings or horizon lines.

Another difference between the Panasonic GH1's EVF and LCD is the relative contrast ratio. When looking through the EVF at a scene with a high contrast ratio, detail in shadow areas falls off abruptly into relative blackness, while the same shadow scene on the LCD still holds detail. It's just a difference in the amount of contrast the LCOS chip inside is able to display compared to the LCD.

Swivel. The LCD has the best kind of swivel, which swings out and pivots to face most directions, even forward for self-portraits. You can choose to turn it inward to protect the LCD as well; though oddly the Panasonic GH1 won't automatically switch to the EVF at that point, until you raise the LCD to your eye. If you don't have it in LVF/LCD AUTO mode, though, you have to manually activate the EVF with the LVF/LCD button. The good news is that if you fold the Panasonic GH1's LCD inward, it does at least turn off.

The swivel hinge itself is firm yet smooth, with a solid feel, and it stays where you put it.

You can choose to leave the LCD off, and the EVF will only come on when you bring the LCD to your eye, or you can use the LCD panel as a status display. Just cycle through the modes with the Display button.

The LCD's 3:2 aspect ratio is the mode I'd choose to shoot stills, because it matches most SLRs, but you can also use 4:3 (as we did to shoot most of our test shots) or 16:9. Unlike the G1, which produced a constant pixel width of 4,000 in all aspect modes, the Panasonic GH1 has an oversized sensor, which allows for (almost) the same field-of-view at 3:2 and 16:9 aspect ratios when measured diagonally. Full resolution at 3:2 is 4,128 x 2,752 pixels or 11.4 megapixels, and 16:9 is 4,352 x 2,448 or 10.7 megapixels. Compare that to 4,000 x 2,672 pixels (10.7 megapixels) and 4,000 x 2,248 (9.0 megapixels) for the G1, respectively.

Diopter. I was impressed that the Panasonic GH1's diopter correction lens was able to compensate for my nearsightedness, and still have some wiggle room. It compensates better than any I've seen so far, from -4 to +4 diopter. Impressive.

Customize. I love how you can customize the histogram and the type of grid display you want.

Histogram. It's great that you get an optional histogram with the GH1, though I'm disappointed that only the background is translucent. What's a major bonus, however, is the ability to move the histogram around the screen to wherever you like. There's also a crosshairs gridline feature that you can move around the screen.

Focus. The Panasonic GH1 uses contrast-detect autofocus, but it still manages good speed and accuracy. With the new HD lens, autofocus shutter lag at both wide and telephoto extremes is faster, going from 0.372 and 0.357 to a slightly faster 0.336 and 0.320, respectively.

Snicking the Panasonic GH1's AF dial into Manual focus mode brings a nice surprise too, as it's very easy to get sharp focus via both the LCD and EVF. Just turn the focus ring on the front of the lens and the camera zooms to 10x. This is also true in Movie mode. I found it easy to make fine focus adjustments and actually see a difference onscreen, despite the fly-by-wire focusing ring. Even when the display gained up and got grainy in low light, there was still enough resolution and contrast to judge focus thanks to this zoom feature.

 

Panasonic GH1 Movie mode

Not only does the Panasonic GH1 offer high-definition video capability, but it does so with an extraordinarily robust feature set that includes continuous autofocusing capability while videos are being recorded. The 12.1-effective megapixel Live MOS image sensor in the Panasonic GH1 offers the same resolution and four-channel readout as that of the previous G1 model, but is said to be a new design. As with the G1, the Panasonic Lumix GH1 couples its sensor to a dual-CPU Venus Engine HD image processor.

Movies can be recorded at either 1080i (1920 x 1080 pixels, interlaced) or 720p (1280 x 720 pixels, progressive scan) modes. In the latter mode, the Panasonic GH1 can also offer an impressive 60 frames-per-second (NTSC; 50 frames per second for PAL). Note, though, that 1080i videos are actually captured at 24 fps progressive-scan (NTSC; 25fps PAL), and then converted in-camera to be written as 60fps interlaced (NTSC; 50fps PAL).

New Sensor. The Panasonic GH1's Four-Thirds Live MOS image sensor is a new design. The sensor is actually 14-megapixels total, allowing multiple aspect ratios (4:3, 3:2, or 16:9) with a similar angle of view.

The "HD" branding on the kit lens is an indication that it, too, is an important piece of the high-def video capabilities of the DMC-GH1. Specifically, the LUMIX G VARIO HD 14-140mm/F4.0-5.8 ASPH./MEGA O.I.S offers compatibility with the GH1's continuous autofocusing functionality, and features a low-noise AF motor so as to keep focusing sounds to a minimum, and not detract from the audio portion of videos captured with the GH1. Panasonic hasn't stopped at just offering continuous AF during movie recording in the Lumix GH1, either. Incredibly, the camera can use features such as Face Detection (linked to AF / AE / white balance), as well as Intelligent Exposure, Optical Image Stabilization, and even an Intelligent Scene Selector function -- all while recording videos! Panasonic's press materials also seem to suggest that still images can be captured during video recording, although it isn't clear as to whether this involves any interruption of the video, nor whether full-res still capture is possible during an ongoing video.

We're currently uncertain as to whether non-HD branded lenses will be compatible with continuous AF during video recording, or will simply offer lesser performance and more objectionable focusing noises.

Fast flash recycle. We were surprised in our testing with just how fast the Lumix GH1's flash recycled. After a full-power flash, it was ready to fire again in 2.3 seconds (the G1 was faster, ready in 1.4 seconds, but 2.3 is still pretty unusual). Most cameras take about five seconds. Flash range was good for a small strobe, exposing well at 12 feet at wide angle and 9 feet at telephoto.



Unique shutter: Panasonic had to create a new type of shutter for the Lumix GH1, one that is open at rest, rather than closed. The new mechanism uses at least two shutters: One closes from the bottom first, to prepare the sensor for image capture. Then that shutter falls first, and the second curtain follows after. Then the second curtain opens for the next exposure. This video of the G1's shutter shows two sequences, both with the shutter in High Speed Continuous mode. The first has the shutter speed set to 1/60 second, the second to 1/1,000 second. (Video was captured with the Casio FH20 at 420fps.) Because YouTube seems to remove a few frames, please feel free to download this video instead: PanG1_shutter.mp4

Not so fast. While we were impressed with the G1's high frame rate of 3.15 frames per second, the Panasonic GH1 hasn't been able to reach the same high speeds in our laboratory testing with the new HD kit lens. The fastest we've managed is 2.85 frames per second in JPEG Normal compression. Raise it to JPEG Fine, and speeds drop to 2.5 frames per second and remain there, regardless whether you switch back to JPEG Normal. We're still working this statistic out with Panasonic as of this writing, as our results don't match with their 3 fps claim, at least not with this lens. Switching to the 7-14mm f/4 improves matters, bringing the Panasonic GH1's top speed up to 3.02 fps. We don't have the 14-45mm kit lens to experiment, but it seems the GH1's top speed is affected by the lens mounted.

Fast shutter lag. While not quite up to current digital SLR camera standards, the Panasonic GH1's full autofocus shutter lag numbers are still good, better than most digicams. At wide-angle, the GH1 and its HD kit lens will capture a shot in 0.34 second, and at telephoto it's a little faster at 0.32 second. For contrast-detect with an SLR lens, that's pretty fast. These numbers are faster than the G1, incidentally, which turned in 0.37 and 0.36 for the same settings. Naturally it'll be different from lens to lens. Prefocus shutter lag is blazing fast, at 0.084 second.

Though it's a little bit of a drag that the screen blacks out before exposure to allow the shutter to close, I haven't found it a problem yet. The Panasonic GH1's autofocus is impressively fast and seems pretty accurate.

Image stabilization. Panasonic's Mega O.I.S. is impressive in most of the company's cameras, and the 14-140mm (28-280mm equivalent) stabilizes as well as expected. Whether at telephoto or wide-angle, I get a rock-steady image. Naturally it's a little less solid than the 14-45mm on the G1 at the 140mm telephoto setting, but still quite good.



Shutter speed preview: To see how motion captured at a given shutter speed will appear in your photo, try Shutter Speed Preview mode.

Depth-of-time preview. The Panasonic GH1 has a depth-of-field preview button, right below the five-button navigator on the back, which stops down the lens aperture to your current setting. But the GH1 also has a unique mode called Shutter Speed Preview. First press the Preview button to activate the depth-of-field preview, then press the Display button. The camera will then leave the aperture stopped down and essentially expose the sensor at the selected shutter speed, refreshing the display at the intervals set. For example, if you want to capture a waterfall at f/8 to get most of the picture in focus, and you want the water to appear as a soft cascade, you can set the camera to the aperture you want and see the live effect onscreen. If it's too bright or dark, you can make the necessary adjustments to ISO, aperture, and shutter speed and work out just how you want the photo to look without taking a bunch of test shots.

Missing. There are a few aspects I miss with the Panasonic GH1 that you'd get with an SLR. The first is the lack of a real-time optical live view of my subject. An SLR gives you the view at the speed of light, but electrical live view systems introduce some lag as the image is captured, processed, and written to the LCD. Extra lag means that you're more likely to miss the moment you see on the screen, adding to the overall shutter lag.

You also don't get a live view of moving subjects when shooting in Continuous mode. While it's great that you can capture 3 frames per second, the Panasonic GH1 only serves up the images you've captured while it shoots in Continuous mode; there's no return to live view in this mode, so you just have to aim and fire, hoping to get lucky, whereas with a digital SLR, the mirror moves back into position between frames, so you can keep the camera pointed at the subject. That's true even with the professional cameras that can crank out 10 to 11 frames per second.

We also encountered an error message that we have only seen previously on the Panasonic G1. If you accidentally press the lens-release button even slightly, a black screen comes up saying, "Please check that the lens is attached correctly." You can get around this error message if you set the SHOOT W/O LENS option to On.

 

Panasonic GH1 Size Comparison

Lumix GH1 vs Canon Rebel T1i. From the front, the Lumix GH1 isn't that much smaller than the Canon Rebel T1i, which is also video-capable. It's shorter, but the lens is larger (keep in mind it's a 10x zoom though, versus 3x on the T1i), and the GH1 is about as wide.

From the top you can see that the GH1 is a little slimmer front-to-back, thanks partly due to the lack of a mirror box inside. Note that the Panasonic GH1's optical viewfinder juts out quite a bit from the back, hence the substantial tilt up from the light table.

 

Panasonic GH1 Image Quality

Compared to its closest competition, the Panasonic GH1 comes in with better image quality than the Olympus E-30, and it's really too close to call when compared to the Nikon D5000, Canon XSi, and Canon T1i.

I picked a few more cameras than usual to make my standard ISO 1,600 comparisons, but I think you'll find the choices and results interesting. In summary, the Panasonic GH1 is better able to compete with the best from Nikon and Canon, and bests other Four Thirds players like the Olympus E-30 and even the Panasonic G1.

Panasonic GH1 vs Nikon D5000 @ ISO 1,600
Panasonic GH1 (12.1 megapixels)
Nikon D5000 (12.3 megapixels)
The Panasonic GH1 does very well against the Nikon D5000, which has Nikon's latest version of their 12.3-megapixel sensor. The GH1's 4:3 aspect ratio makes these 100% images appear larger than the D5000's 3:2 aspect ratio, despite the slightly lower resolution. Image quality overall is quite comparable. There's a little more luminance noise from the GH1, but more chroma noise left behind in the D5000's shadows. Color is slightly more vibrant in the D5000 shots, with the GH1 losing some saturation at ISO 1,600. Definition is also lost in the GH1's leaf crop. Noise suppression in the GHI seems to lose hold of the detail of this fabric, while the Nikon keeps more of the spirit of the design, though still losing fine detail.


Panasonic GH1 vs Canon XSi @ ISO 1,600
Panasonic GH1 (12.1 megapixels)
Canon XSi (12.2 megapixels)

While the Panasonic G1 did only reasonably well against the Canon XSi, the Panasonic GH1 does quite a bit better. Again, the aspect ratio difference creates a noticeable size difference. The XSi still left a lot of chroma noise in its images by default, while the Panasonic G1 makes great strides in this area. Colors are still muted compared to the XSi, but not bad at all.



Panasonic GH1 vs Canon T1i @ ISO 1,600
Panasonic GH1 (12.1 megapixels)
Canon T1i (15.1 megapixels)
Here again, the Panasonic GH1 does quite well against a heavy hitter, the 15.1-megapixel Rebel T1i. Advantage goes back and forth in these crops. Sharpness is a little better from the GH1, but color saturation is slightly more vibrant from the Canon T1i (not everyone will agree that's better, though). The Canon T1i is actually resolving more area, again thanks to the differing aspect ratios, though it appears slightly softer. The noise suppression on the Canon T1i has gotten so aggressive, it's hard to decide which is the better of the leaf shots. Looking at the darker red and pink swatches beneath the red leaf fabric gives a slight edge to the T1i, but it's really up to the viewer which is better. I call them comparable, both offering some of what the fabric has to offer, but not as much detail as the Nikon D5000.

Panasonic GH1 vs Olympus E-30 @ ISO 1,600
Panasonic GH1 (12.1 megapixels)
Olympus E-30 (12.3 megapixels)
This is the best illustration of how far Panasonic has come with the Micro Four Thirds sensor technology. The Olympus E-30 really pales by comparison at ISO 1,600 despite its relative newness. Before we'd have credited the smaller sensor size for this shortcoming, but we've just seen the GH1 trade jabs with three current APS-C-sized sensors, so its clear the GH1's sensor includes some significant advances.


Panasonic GH1 vs G1 @ ISO 1,600
Panasonic GH1 (12.1 megapixels)
Panasonic G1 (12.1 megapixels)
As if to underscore the advances made in the Panasonic GH1's sensor and image processor, here's the GH1 vs its months-old predecessor, the G1. Less luminance noise, less chroma blotching in the shadows. More detail in the center mosaic shot. It's really astonishing to see just how much better the GH1's sensor is than its predecessor. There's more to the GH1 than its video mode, something these crops bear out.


Shooting with the Panasonic GH1

Zoom. The two lenses I had offered an impressive ability to choose my angle of view: from 280mm equivalent to 28mm, and a sky-engulfing 14mm equivalent with the 7-14mm lens.

Taking the Panasonic GH1 out for a stroll really made me appreciate its small size and versatility. Having the two very special lenses to test it with made the experience superb. The 7-14mm f/4 Aspherical is a hoot to shoot, offering angles on subjects that you don't normally see. And the 14-140 offers a 10x range that makes your vision easy to realize. Overall I found the Panasonic GH1 a nimble and fun image maker.

The primary limitation was the lack of an optical viewfinder, especially in bright sunlight. It wasn't that I couldn't switch to the technically excellent EVF with ease, but that the viewfinder left me with too little information about the shadows when I shot. Images that looked to have plugged shadows when viewed on both the LCD in daylight and through the EVF were actually better than I thought when I got back to the computer.

Sunlight. Auto white balance had a tough time with this shot, rendering it too orange for my tastes. This didn't happen with most sunlit shots, so it's likely that the yellow/orange flowers overwhelmed the system.

The Panasonic GH1 did struggle with its exposures in bright sunlight, however, just as we saw in our Outdoor lab shots. Auto white balance also struggled a bit, sometimes rendering sunlit scenes too warm. Finally, I noticed a tendency for the exposure to jump dramatically between shots, as if I was bracketing when I was not. It's as if the camera had changed its mind for the second shot.

The zoom on both lenses was a little stiffer than I like, but they didn't creep at all when at rest, so that's a plus.

Most of the Panasonic GH1's controls are very nice. I appreciate the switches for AF, power, and drive mode, but I'm not crazy about the location of the Front dial or the Playback button. Both are in just the wrong position for easy use. There's not much to be done to fix these poor locations, it's just one of the drawbacks to a small camera with a large, articulated LCD. Overall, I think they did a great job with the GH1's controls.

Wide angle. I'm only a few inches from the girl's face at the 7mm setting. Just a few inches back and I was seeing the side of her face.

Shooting video with the Panasonic GH1 was easy. To focus first, I just half-pressed the shutter button. To start recording without focusing, I then pressed the red Record button on the rear. If you're in Movie mode, you can start recording with the shutter button, but you'll catch a little of the autofocus action at the beginning of the video, which is undesirable.

I wish the Record button were positioned where the AF/AE Lock button is, because activating it in the upper right corner does produce a little more camera shake than I'd like. But there's no arguing with the Panasonic GH1's versatility, since you can have as much or as little control over exposure as you like. That's right, all four exposure modes are available: Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority, and Manual exposure. No other interchangeable-lens video-capable camera on the market offers such versatility as of this writing.

Dave explored the GH1's video mode more thoroughly than I did, so see his special section on the GH1's video capabilities on the Video tab.

My time shooting with the Panasonic GH1 left me wanting more time. Despite the troubles with the EVF in high contrast situations the Panasonic GH1 is a fine camera platform, one that does shoot like a camera worth a lot more. Combined with the two optics I used, the GH1 is a kick. I'd like to shoot it with some high-quality primes to better investigate its true potential as a serious digital camera, but these two lenses were excellent in their own right.

The Panasonic G-series should make digital SLR manufacturers stand up and take notice, for this is one fine camera.

We got even better results when shooting RAW in terms of image sharpness. See our more detailed image analysis on the Optics and Exposure tabs, and see the Performance tab for timing data.

Analysis. We said the same of the G1, but it bears repeating: Panasonic has hit on a good combination that makes us appreciate the original mission of Four Thirds, which was to produce smaller cameras and smaller optics while achieving higher optical quality. The one element missing from the G1 was video, but the Panasonic GH1 fixes that. Indeed, the Panasonic GH1 offers a more complete video mode than any digital SLR or digital camera on the market, offering complete control over video exposure, from Program, through Shutter and Aperture priority, to full Manual exposure control.

The Panasonic GH1 has a soft, almost organic feeling, thanks to the rubber coating on most of the body. Though it's not much smaller than a Rebel, the lenses are smaller, making the overall package easier to carry around, and optical quality--thanks to lens design, system design, and post-capture processing--goes beyond what most kit lenses offer.

Image quality when printed is pretty close to what we get from the Canon Rebel T1i, which is pretty darn good. It's also surprising just how much better the GH1 is than its immediate predecessor, the G1, not to mention other Four Thirds cameras.

 

Panasonic GH1 Basic Features

 

Panasonic GH1 Special Features

 

In the Box

The retail package contains the following items:

 

Recommended Accessories



 

Panasonic GH1 Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Good noise performance vs other cameras with Four Thirds sensors
  • Full exposure control (PASM) in video modes
  • AF is live during video recording
  • 720p HD video is quite good, even in AVCHD
  • MOV (Motion JPEG) video option for better quality than AVCHD (but much larger file sizes)
  • High-resolution electronic viewfinder
  • High-resolution articulating LCD
  • Lens hood included
  • Built-in dust reduction
  • Physical switches for drive and focus modes
  • Full complement of exposure modes
  • Intelligent Auto with motion and face detection
  • Optional auto-switching between EVF and LCD
  • Excellent diopter correction of +/- 4
  • Optional live histogram display can be repositioned on screen
  • Fast autofocus for a contrast-detect system
  • Fast shutter response
  • Easy-to-use manual focus
  • Flash recycles quickly
  • No buffer limit with Large/Normal JPEGS and a fast memory card
  • Small and light: Compact, but comfortable for even larger hands to hold
  • Smaller lenses with Micro Four Thirds format
  • Innovative Shutter speed preview
  • High-ISO performance very competitive with SLRs, with excellent detail preservation up to ISO 1,600 (Noticeable improvement over original DMC-G1.)
  • Very low optical distortion in JPEGs
  • Low chromatic aberration in JPEGS
  • Very good auto white balance performance
  • High resolution
  • Good flash range
  • Very fast download speed
  • Good battery life compared to digicams
  • Optical image stabilizer in lens
  • Interchangeable lenses
  • Good grip
  • Soft skin is warm to the touch
  • External microphone jack
  • Variable wind-cut filter
  • Mini HDMI output
  • Autofocus during video is slow with AVCHD, much faster with MOV file format
  • Camera strap rings are a hassle, and add noise to video captures
  • EVF contrast is low, with plugged shadows
  • Noticeable optical distortion when using the EVF
  • Difficult to track moving subjects in continuous mode (no preview)
  • Uneven flash coverage at wide angle
  • Slow startup and shutdown compared to digital SLRs
  • Slow shot to shot cycle times, limited buffer depth at best JPEG quality
  • Shorter battery life than SLR with optical viewfinder
  • Limited lens selection, though the MA1 adapter will let you use Four Thirds lenses with some limitations. (Leica-mount adapter coming, but not clear it will be available in the US)
  • Definitely pricey when compared to SLR models competing with it (but none come with a 10x ratio zoom as the kit lens)
  • Kit lens has high barrel distortion and higher CA at wide angle in uncorrected RAW files vs in-camera JPEGs. (Bundled SilkyPix software and Adobe Camera Raw automatically correct it, though.)
  • Corners are soft with kit lens, particularly at telephoto focal lengths
  • Higher chroma (color) component to image noise at low ISOs
  • Occasional moire patterns visible in subjects with fine detail
  • Some color inaccuracy in yellows and oranges resulting in a slight greenish tinge
  • Some banding visible in shadow areas in images shot at ISO 1,600 and above
  • Autofocus slightly slower than most consumer SLRs (camera feels very responsive when shooting with it, though)
  • Manual could be more detailed, better at explaining specifics of what various features do

 

Panasonic's approach to the interchangeable-lens digital camera, the G-series, includes no mirrors or pentaprisms to weigh the system down, making the goal of simple live view easier to realize. All that was missing from the Panasonic G1 was video capability, a problem solved in the GH1.

However, adding that capability was not an easy job. Indeed, it required a new lens motor design to get an external, removable lens to focus quickly enough for the contrast-detect autofocus system to do its work, and the design had to focus quietly enough for video recording. Panasonic calls these HD lenses, apparently for the High Definition video capture they enable.

The good news is that the Panasonic GH1 and its kit lens are quite capable, easily rivaling digital SLRs from the other major players. The overall kit includes just about everything you want from a high-end digital camera: Live view, articulating LCD, electronic viewfinder, image stabilization, face detection, fast autofocus, excellent optics, high resolution, and sophisticated HD movie capability. About the only real criticisms are difficulty tracking subjects while in continuous mode and the strong blurring we found in AVCHD video mode when subjects move at all. Both criticisms are related to capturing subjects in motion, so it's safe to say that the Panasonic GH1 isn't necessarily the best interchangeable-lens camera for action. Workarounds include popping an optical viewfinder into the hotshoe for tracking moving subjects while you shoot in continuous mode, and shooting in Motion JPEG for clearer action video.

We were impressed with multiple aspects of the GH1, foremost of which was the pleasure in using the camera. It's small, light, and brings home great images. Optical quality is surprising. Autofocus speed is impressive. And though the electronic viewfinder doesn't do well with shadow detail, it's still the best we've seen in lieu of a true optical viewfinder. Printed output finalizes the impression that the Panasonic GH1 is an excellent digital camera, as it easily outputs 13x19-inch prints from JPEGs and 20x30-inch prints from RAW files. The Panasonic GH1 is an improvement on the already excellent Lumix G1, and a five-star Dave's Pick.


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