Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 Review

 
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Panasonic GH1 Optics

Lumix Vario G HD Lens

While the Panasonic GH1 is compatible with any Micro Four Thirds lens (and even standard Four Thirds lenses via an adapter), a new series of Vario G lenses have been designed especially for the GH1. These new "HD" lenses are designed for movie recording by incorporating a nearly silent inner focus direct-drive linear motor for continuous auto focusing, as well as seamless aperture adjustment. In fact, autofocus is not supported without an HD lens when shooting movies in AVCHD FHD mode. At the time of writing (May 2009), only one HD lens has been released, and it's bundled in the GH1 kit. The Lumix G Vario HD 14-140mm/F4.0-5.8 ASPH./MEGA O.I.S. has a 10x zoom and features optical image stabilization. As this review is being written, we've just tested it for SLRgear.com, and those results should be posted by the time this full review of the camera goes live on our main Imaging-Resource.com site.

Overall, the 14-140mm lens does very well, particularly for one with a 10x zoom ratio. It's particularly good from 14mm out to about 50mm, being quite sharp from corner to corner, even wide open. At longer focal lengths, its images are slightly softer, but still very good when compared with any other long-ratio zooms we've seen to date. (In fact, it's one of the best long-ratio zoom lenses we've seen, on any platform.) Some of its superior performance is doubtless due to the optical correction Panasonic applies in-camera: The camera itself corrects for a lot of the chromatic aberration, vignetting, and geometric distortion produced by the lens itself. Panasonic's own SilkyPix RAW converter and Adobe Camera Raw both also make these same corrections, so you should see similar performance when working from RAW with either of those two converters. Other RAW converters may or may not provide similar results.

Also announced at the same time as the Panasonic GH1 was the Lumix Vario G 7-14mm f/4 ASPH. We've also tested this lens on SLRgear.com, and it also did very well.

Micro Four Thirds

Given that the Panasonic GH1 is only the second Micro Four Thirds camera to be announced, it might be good to take a quick look at just what Micro Four Thirds is all about. (This section taken from the Panasonic G1 review, so you can skip it if you've already read that review.)

Panasonic and Olympus' Micro Four Thirds standard is aimed at allowing a significant reduction in the size and weight of interchangeable lens digital cameras, achieved by eliminating the bulky mirror box from the design. With the mirror box gone, the "back-focus distance" (or back focal length) of compatible lenses can be reduced. Technically, back focus distance is defined as the distance from the vertex of the lens's rear element to the sensor, but for practical purposes, it's easier to speak in terms of the distance from the lens-mounting flange to the sensor surface. In the existing Four Thirds system, this dimension was 40mm; for Micro Four Thirds, it has been slashed to just 20mm. Obviously, this change allows for a significant reduction in the size and weight of the camera body while retaining the same sensor size.

Smaller Lenses: This shot compares the G1's 14-45mm kit lens with an Olympus model of almost identical specs, but designed for the standard Four Thirds system. The two are about the same length, but the Micro Four Thirds lens is noticeably smaller in diameter. The difference in lens size is even more apparent as you move to more telephoto focal lengths.

That's not the only benefit, though. As well as smaller and lighter camera bodies, Micro Four Thirds offers the possibility of a significant reduction in the size and weight of the lenses, too. While the physical size of a lens depends somewhat on the size of the image circle it must produce, it turns out to depend even more strongly on the back focus distance the lens was designed for. Reducing the back focus distance can significantly decrease the length of the lenses needed to cover the area of a Four Thirds image sensor. Lenses for the new system can also be somewhat smaller in terms of diameter as well, and indeed the new mount is some 6mm smaller (44mm vs 50mm) than that called for in the original Four Thirds standard.

Thinner: The Panasonic G series doesn't use a traditional SLR mirror box, so the body can be thinner. Shown here are the Panasonic L10's Four Thirds lens mount, mirror box and sensor assembly (left) versus the G1's Micro Four Thirds lens mount and sensor assembly (right).

Removing the mirror box does have some potential disadvantages, though. Obviously, it removes the possibility for any Micro Four Thirds camera to offer a true through-the-lens optical viewfinder, with no way to divert the optical path to the viewfinder between exposures. Hence, Micro Four Thirds cameras will be limited solely to using a Live View function as seen on certain recent digital SLRs, where data streaming from the image sensor can be displayed on an LCD display, electronic viewfinder, or both. For similar reasons, with nowhere to put a phase detection autofocus sensor, Micro Four Thirds cameras are limited to using contrast detection autofocus. While this can offer higher focusing accuracy, and negates problems with front or back focusing, contrast detection has in the past always been slower than the phase detection systems found in digital SLRs.

Still, the Micro Four Thirds system promises interchangeable-lens cameras with good performance at significantly smaller overall sizes. With the Panasonic G1 and now the GH1, early indications are that the platform is off to a solid start.

Using your current Four Thirds lenses

This brings us to the issue of using current Four Thirds lenses on the new Micro Four Thirds system. It is indeed possible to use all your old glass, by virtue of the MA1 mount adapter, although there may be limitations with some lenses.

Micro Adapter. Standard Four Thirds lenses work via an adapter. Here, the adapter is shown along with the 14-50mm f/3.8-5.6 lens from the Lumix DMC-L10 kit.

The shots above show the MA1 adapter by itself, and attached to the 14-50mm lens that shipped as the kit optic with the Panasonic DMC-L10 SLR. The adapter is quite easy to use, just attach it to the lens and then attach the combination to the camera. Since all it's doing is adapting between the different flange sizes and adding 20mm of increased back focus distance, the mount adapter needs no optics in it, so it has no effect on image quality, lens speed, or any other optical characteristic.

Use what you have: Here's the little Olympus 25mm f/2.8 "pancake" lens attached to the GH1 with the MA1 adapter. Even with the adapter, it's still a compact package. With its firmware update, the 25mm Olympus lens worked fine on the G1, although it focused more slowly than the Panasonic kit lens.

That all sounds great, so what's the limitation? It turns out that not all lenses are able to move their elements quickly enough to work with the G series' contrast-detect autofocus. Normal phase-detect AF systems are fairly forgiving of focusing speed, because the correct focal distance setting is determined independently of the lens elements' motion: The camera looks at the subject, calculates the correct focal distance, commands the lens to move, and then snaps the shot once the lens reports back that it's moved to the correct setting.

With contrast-detect autofocus, though, the lens has to move multiple times, and must come to rest before the camera can take each "look" at the subject, to determine whether the focus is better or worse than it was at the previous focal setting. In order for the overall focus cycle to be performed quickly, the lens needs to be able to shift focal settings very quickly, multiple times per second. This is a demanding requirement, and not all lenses are up to the challenge. Olympus offers contrast-detect AF on some of their recent SLRs, but the feature only works with a few lenses that have focus motors both strong and fast enough to move the lens elements very quickly. Other manufacturers offer contrast-detect AF that works with any of their lenses, but at the cost of very slow AF times. (It's for this reason that Nikon refers to the contrast detect AF option in their SLRs as "tripod mode.")

A camera with your lens, Sir?: We couldn't resist this shot. The Olympus 150mm f/2 is quite a lens, if you've got the money, it's equivalent to a 300mm f/2 on a 35mm camera.

So, while some current Four Thirds lenses will work just fine on the new Micro Four Thirds system, with full support for AF operation, other lenses will be reduced to "guided manual" focus, in which the user will need to adjust the focus setting, looking to either the viewfinder (less accurate) or the camera's focus indicator (more accurate) for focus confirmation. And, without a firmware update, some Four Thirds lenses may not work with the Panasonic G series at all, because the camera won't respond to movements of the "fly by wire" focus ring on the lens. Fortunately, Olympus (the biggest Four Thirds lens maker by far) has committed to updating the firmware in their lenses to work with Micro Four Thirds standard cameras: Check with your lens manufacturer to see whether your current Four Thirds lenses are compatible.

Panasonic GH1 Autofocus

Like the Panasonic G1, the GH1 uses a very fast contrast-detect autofocus system, capable of adjusting focus sixty times/second. This fast AF is a key technology that enables live autofocus during movie recording. (Conventional contrast-detect AF systems on most digital SLR cameras are way too slow to perform continuous AF during movie recording, which is why no SLRs offer continuous AF during movie recording, at least as of this writing in late May, 2009.)

The Panasonic GH1 offers on-screen manual focus (with a very nice variable magnification of the LCD viewfinder display to assist in focus determination), as well as three AF servo modes; AF-S (single-shot focus), AF-C (continuous AF), and AF Tracking. In AF tracking mode, the camera will automatically track a subject after you've initially focused on it by half-pressing the shutter button.


AF Tracking: Watch a short YouTube video demonstrating the Panasonic GH1's autofocus tracking feature.

Panasonic's AF tracking is unique, in that it uses color and tone to track an object, so its less likely to be confused by a different-colored object momentarily passing between the subject and camera than would most conventional distance-only AF systems. The camera also continuously adjusts exposure as it tracks the subject, so the exposure will be correct, even if the lighting changes between when you lock the tracking and when you trip the shutter.

Besides its various servo modes, the Panasonic GH1's AF system sports several different focusing modes, including Face Detection, 23-area focusing, 1-area focusing, and Direct AF area. Face Detection AF works the way it does in most compact digital cameras, detecting up to 15 faces in a scene, and focusing on the most prominent one. When Face Recognition is enabled, the Panasonic GH1 goes further by trying to recognize individuals. Up to 6 faces can be registered, and the camera will display the person's name when it recognizes the face. In 23-area mode, the camera looks for the most prominent subject that's closest to the camera, even if the subject isn't in the center of the frame. Single-point AF is just what it sounds like, focusing on whatever is in the center of the frame.


Direct AF mode allows you to select the size and position of the active AF area.

Direct AF mode is a useful option that's set from the Custom Menu. When it's enabled, you can move the single AF area around the frame with the arrow keys, and change its size by rotating the front control dial. Size options range from quite small to relatively large, with a total of four sizes available.

As advertised, we found that the Panasonic GH1's AF system worked during video recording. We did notice, however, that the camera's AF system was much more responsive when recording to the Motion JPEG (AVI) file format than when recording AVCHD files, particularly when recording in "Full HD" mode (1920x1080 resolution).


Panasonic GH1 Sensor Cleaning

The Panasonic GH1 features an ultrasonic dust-reduction system, especially important since the GH1's shutter is normally open for full-time Live View. The system automatically runs at power-up, but can also be activated manually via a "Sensor Cleaning" Custom menu option. In the G1, manual sensor cleaning was combined with the "Pixel Refresh" menu option.

 

Kit Lens Test Results

Zoom
Excellent performance with the 14-140mm O.I.S. (Optical Image Stabilized) kit lens.

14mm 140mm 4x Digital Zoom

The Panasonic GH1 is sold bundled with a Lumix G Vario HD 14-140mm f/4-5.8 MEGA O.I.S. Micro Four-Thirds lens, the first Lumix G Vario with the "HD" designation. The kit lens possesses a very generous optical zoom range of 10x, and the 35mm equivalent focal range is about 28-280mm, because of the GH1's 2x "crop factor." Results were quite good at 14mm, with minimal corner softness and strong detail throughout the frame. Coma distortion in the trees was quite low, as was chromatic aberration. Results were also very good at the 140mm setting, with a hint of softness in the corners but no sign of visible coma distortion and very little chromatic aberration. The DMC-GH1 also offers a maximum digital zoom of 4x. Results at 4x were a bit soft (not surprising with that amount of interpolation), but almost artifact free. (Note that the camera focused on the leaves in this case, rather than on the house in the background.) Overall, an excellent result for a kit lens, especially a wide-angle with 10x optical zoom, and the optical image stabilization will come in handy for low-light photography, as well as subjects shot at full zoom.

Macro
An average area (for an "SLR" kit lens), with excellent detail. Flash throttles down well.

Macro with
14-140mm O.I.S. kit lens
Macro with Flash
14-140mm O.I.S. kit lens

As with zoom performance, the Panasonic GH1's macro performance will depend entirely on the lens in use. However, with the 14-140mm O.I.S. kit lens set to 140mm, the Panasonic GH1 captured an average size minimum area measuring 3.22 x 2.42 inches (82 x 61 millimeters). Resolution and detail were excellent, albeit with a little softening in the corners from the lens. (Most lenses have some softening in the corners at macro distances, the Panasonic GH1's kit lens has less than most.) The Panasonic GH1's flash throttled down for the macro area pretty well, and there was no detectable shadow from the lens barrel, resulting in a good exposure with the flash.

Geometric Distortion
Low geometric distortion with the 14-140mm O.I.S. kit lens in JPEGs, very high barrel distortion at wide angle in uncorrected RAW files.

In-Camera JPEG: Barrel distortion at 14mm is 0.5 percent
In-Camera JPEG: Barrel distortion at 140mm is practically nonexistent
Uncorrected RAW: Barrel distortion at 14mm is 2.5 percent
Uncorrected RAW: Barrel distortion at 140mm is 0.2 percent

When shooting JPEGs, the Panasonic GH1's 14-140mm O.I.S. kit lens produced about 0.5 percent barrel distortion at wide-angle, somewhat less than that produced by most cameras we've tested, and hardly noticeable in most of its images. At the telephoto end, there was hardly one pixel of barrel distortion, practically imperceptible. This is the tendency for the lens to bend straight lines outward (like a barrel -- usually at wide-angle) or inward (like a pincushion -- usually at telephoto).

We suspected the camera was correcting distortion in JPEGs (a good thing for JPEG shooters), so we converted RAW files with dcraw, which does not correct for distortion. (SilkyPix and Adobe Camera Raw both apply distortion correction automatically, so their results are similar to in-camera JPEGs.) As you can see, at wide angle, the barrel distortion is very high at 2.5 percent, however distortion at telephoto is still quite low, at only about 0.2%. (The extent of distortion correction required at wide angle may also explain some of the softness we saw in the corners at short focal lengths.)

Chromatic Aberration
Moderate but dull when shooting JPEGs with the 14-140mm O.I.S. kit lens at both wide angle and telephoto. Brighter in uncorrected RAW files.

In-Camera JPEGs
Wide: Moderate but dull,
top left
Wide: Moderate but dull,
top right
Tele: Moderate but dull,
top left
Tele: Moderate but dull,
top right

When shooting JPEGs, chromatic aberration in the corners with the Panasonic GH1's 14-140mm kit lens is low to moderate at the 14mm setting, with 4-6 pixels of fairly dull fringing. At 140mm telephoto, this distortion is perhaps a bit lower. (This distortion is visible as a slight colored fringe around the objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target.)

Uncorrected RAW files
Wide: Moderate,
top left
Wide: Moderate,
top right
Tele: Moderate,
top left
Tele: Moderate,
top right

Like the Lumix G1 and other recent Panasonic point & shoot cameras, we were not surprised to find the GH1 reduces chromatic aberration during JPEG processing (good for JPEG shooters). Above are crops from uncorrected RAW files converted with dcraw. Chromatic aberration is more obvious and visible at both wide angle and telephoto than in the corrected JPEGs. (As mentioned above, note that SilkyPix and Adobe Camera Raw perform similar corrections to those performed by the camera, so you'll only see CA and distortion like that shown above when using a RAW converter that doesn't apply such corrections.)

Corner Sharpness
Slight blurring in the corners of the frame at wide angle, moderate softening at telephoto with the kit lens. Some slight shading (vignetting) in the corners at maximum aperture.

Wide: Slightly soft in the
corners (upper left).
Wide: Sharp at center.
Tele: Soft in the
corners (upper left).
Tele: Center a bit softer
than at wide angle.

At wide angle, the extreme corners of our test targets were a little soft compared to the center. At telephoto, corners showed a bit more softness than at wide angle (with the left side being the softest), and the center was slightly softer as well. There was also some minor shading (vignetting) at maximum wide angle, as you can see in the top pair of crops: Note how it's darker in the corner than in the center. Despite the slightly soft corners, this is actually above average performance for a 14-140mm kit lens, especially considering the 10x zoom ratio, and that these shots were taken with the lens wide open. (Corner sharpness and vignetting typically improve when stopping down to a smaller aperture.)

 

The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 Photo Gallery.

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Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.

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