Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1Panasonic's innovative HD combo cam now faces stiff competition.
Dec 7, 2009
By Dan Havlik
Canon, Nikon and other traditional photo companies largely stood on the sidelines of new releases last PMA, instead ceding the show floor to product introductions from Panasonic, Samsung, and their consumer electronics' brethren. Indeed, the last PMA felt more like a photography version of CES than a traditional photo show and it's no small wonder that Canon has decided to completely skip PMA in 2010.
But I digress.
Though the GH1 was announced by Panasonic in March, it took me until October to secure a review sample of this Micro Four Thirds Pseudo-DSLR that had created such a stir in Vegas. These GH1 units seemed to be in short supply given that the red colored model I received on loan came in a tattered box that had looked like it had been plucked more times that "The Rose of Tralee." (Sorry, "Caddyshack" reference there.)
Before the Canon 7D with its multiple 1080p HD frame rates (including 24p) and its rich feature-set designed to attract photographers and videographers alike, the 12.1-megapixel GH1 was the "it" combo cam for shooting stills and recording video. Because it used the Micro Four Thirds sensor format, Panasonic was able to eliminate the mirror box in the GH1 to make the camera compact and portable. Though not a true DSLR, the GH1 could use interchangeable lenses like the big boys.
Along with being able to shoot 24p HD video—which mimics the look of film and is easier to transcode than 30p—the GH1 was the first DSLR-style camera to offer Continuous Autofocus and a built-in stereo microphone. Those features are still missing from HD-DSLRs such as the 7D and the Nikon D300s and they are a joy to use on the GH1, particularly Continuous Autofocus, which is silent and quick.
I also like that the GH1 can start recording a video during still-image capture with just the press of a button rather than having to switch modes with a dial. Built-in facial recognition, which optimizes skin tones and exposure for specific people and remembers faces later, works in both still and video capture with the GH; while a Wind Cut function can block out distracting background noise.
Though it's not as professionally handsome or as rugged as the 7D, the GH1 looks stylish even in surprisingly subdued red. Buttons and dials are laid out logically on the camera body, making it easy to change important features such as the Autofocus modes and the frame rate. There's also a 3-inch vari-angle LCD screen for overhead and down low capture.
Where the GH1's deficiencies began to stand out is when I compared it to my experiences with the 7D. Though I liked the Continuous Autofocus feature, the zoom control on the 14-140mm f/4-f/5.8 MEGA O.I.S. the GH1 ships with as a kit ($1,500) was slow and uneven. Though the sound of zooming didn't get picked up in playback, the confounded lens kept sticking, and the jerky movement looked amateurish. (Granted this could be due to the fact that the lens had been through several sets of reviewers' grubby paws before it came to me.)
With the 7D, I could use just about any lens in Canon's lineup. With the GH1, it's the 14-140mm and a couple of other lenses in the newly formed Panasonic stable and that's it. (GH1 adapters for Leica lenses had been released in Europe but I haven't seen any evidence that they're coming to the U.S.)
All my gripes about lens stick aside, the 14-140mm is not a bad piece of glass, though the fastest aperture it offers is just f/4. You're definitely not going to get the shallow depth of field with GH1 that you enjoy with a Canon 5D Mark II or a 7D and an f/2.8 or faster lens. Also, since the Micro Four Third format magnifies traditional focal lengths by 2x, the 14-140mm lens is actually a 26-280mm lens so if you want wide-angle stuff, it's not really for you.
Video and still image quality is also several notches below the two Canon 1080p models. (Currently, Canon is the only company to offer 1080p HD in a DSLR.) The GH1's video, which can be shot in Motion JPEG or AVCHD, showed some adverse signs of compression and didn't look nearly as crisp and creamy as what I've captured with the 5D II and 7D, especially in low light. The 12.1MP Micro Four Third chip in the GH1 was also significantly noisier than even the 7D which, on its own, struggled at above ISO 800. For video and stills, I would stick to ISO 400 or lower on the GH1.
And finally, one of the Micro Four Thirds format's perceived strengths is that it allows manufacturers to create smaller camera bodies. However, I found the smaller body of the GH1 harder to hold than the 7D while not being small enough to fit even in the large pocket of a coat.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Panasonic GH1 was a real head-turner when it first appeared at the PMA show nine months ago, offering technically advanced still and HD video capture in a sleek, attractive body based around the Micro Four Thirds sensor format. Now with more innovations appearing in the latest HD-DSLRs including the Canon 7D, the once cutting-edge GH1 is already starting to feel a little dated. Though it's still packed with useful features that haven't been matched yet by the HD-DSLR competition—including a built-in stereo microphone and effective Continuous Autofocus—the first-out-of-the-gate GH1 already feels a step behind in terms of versatility and image quality.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1
Pros: Built-in stereo microphone; quick and effective continuous autofocus; 3-inch vari-angle screen for capture high or low footage; one button switching between still and video capture.
Cons: Limited lens options; HD video showed detail loss because of compression; noisy images in low-light at high ISOs; kit lens couldn't produce shallow depth of field.
Price: $1,500 (with 14-140mm kit lens)