Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 Review

4.5
June 10, 2009 | Mark Goldstein |

Introduction

The new Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 is a new DSLR-like camera that can shoot both still photos and high-definition video. Based on the Micro Four Thirds standard, the Panasonic GH1 takes all the good points of the original G1 camera and adds a plethora of advanced movie-making functionality into the mix. Available now in black, red and gold for $1499.95 / £1299.99, Mark Goldstein finds out if the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 is the best ever DSLR / video camera.

When Panasonic officially introduced the World’s first ever Micro Four Thirds camera, the Lumix DMC-G1, in September 2008, they also revealed that a video version would be released in the not-too-distant future. Forward-wind to June 2009, and we’re now reviewing the new DMC-GH1 camera, which as expected can record both stills and HD video. The GH1 does so using Panasonic’s AVCHD format at 1080/25p or 720/50p, and it can also continuously autofocus during recording, importantly something that current DSLR cameras with video functionality can’t offer. The Venus Engine HD image processor at the heart of the Lumix GH1 has two CPUs to provide long-time movie recording in AVCHD with low power consumption. Rounding out the video-specific features are a stereo microphone for higher quality audio, ‘one touch’ Motion Picture button, Creative Movie mode in which the shutter speed and aperture can be adjusted, and a HDMI port. The Panasonic GH1 is only available in kit form with the new 14-140mm F4.0-5.8 lens, which has been designed in tandem with the video mode and features a silent and continuous auto-focusing function and seamless aperture adjustment. The DMC GH1 retains all of the G1’s stand-out features, including a 3-inch swivelling and tilting LCD screen, full-time Live View with contrast auto-focusing, a 12.1-megapixel Live MOS sensor, electronic viewfinder with a high-resolution 1,440,000 dots, built-in Optical Image Stabiliser to help combat camera-shake, and a Supersonic Wave Filter to remove unwanted dust. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 is available now in black, red and gold for $1499.95 / £1299.99 with the LUMIX G VARIO 14-140mm/F4.0-5.8 ASPH/MEGA O.I.S. super-zoom lens.

Ease of Use

In terms of its overall design and handling the new GH1 is virtually identical to the stills-only G1 model, so a lot of the comments that we made about that camera will be repeated here. The first thing that strikes you about the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 is that it isn't quite as small or light as Panasonic's marketing literature might lead you to believe. Measuring 124 x 89.6x 45.2mm and weighing 385g without a lens attached, it's 6mm bigger than the G1 in height and weighs the same. Compared to the DSLR competition, it's just a little smaller than the Olympus E-450 Four Thirds DSLR (which measures 129.5 x 91 x 53mm), but actually weighs 5g more. Compared to Panasonic's current 20x ultra-zoom compact, the DMC-FZ28 (which measures 117.6 x 75.2 x 88.9 and weighs 370g), the GH1 is both bigger and slightly heavier.

All of this number-crunching ultimately reveals that Panasonic have resisted the temptation to make the DMC-GH1 as small as possible (and to make any significant design changes since the G1), in order to ensure that users with average-sized hands can still operate it comfortably. I found that I naturally gripped the camera with the thumb, middle and fourth finger of my right hand, whilst operating the shutter button with my fore-finger and supporting either the lens or camera body with my left hand.

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 is a handsome yet understated camera, with the biggest surprise becoming quickly apparent when you first pick it up. The majority of the body is covered in a tactile rubber compound which I haven't seen used on a camera before (other than the G1). It adds a hard-wearing, protective coating to the GH1 and also makes it easy to grip, even with one hand. Overall the DMC-GH1 is extremely well-built, with a high quality metal body, lens mount and tripod socket. The only literal weak-point is the memory-card slot door, which I imagine could be easily snapped off.

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 is technically not a DSLR camera (because it doesn't have a mirror), making it the second ever compact camera after the G1 to feature interchangeable lenses, which happens to be confusingly just like a DSLR. The GH1 only ships with the new 14-140mm f/4.0-5.8 super-zoom kit lens (28-280mm equivalent in 35mm) - there is currently no body-only option.

While the body of the GH1 is comparable in size and weight to other DSLR cameras, the lenses are where Panasonic have really shrunk the overall system. Given the 10x focal length on offer, the new 14-140mm optic is relatively small and light, although it is actually heavier than the GH1 itself. The lens does extend a long way when zoomed to its maximum telephoto setting, making it a little conspicuous, but that's a small price to pay for such an overall compact package. The real downside from a specification point of view are the relatively slow maximum apertures of f/4-5.6, which limits the GH1's use in low-light conditions and makes it more difficult to effectively blur the background to help emphasise the main subject.

With the system being so new, there are only three other Micro Four Thirds lenses currently available - the new 7-14mm wide-angle and the 14-42mm and 14-200mm lenses which were released along with the G1. You can use regular Four Thirds lenses or even Leica D lenses via optional adapters, but lenses that are not compatible with the GH1's Contrast AF function can only be used with manual focusing and cannot use the Tracking AF, AFc (Auto Focus Continuous) or Continuous AF functions.

Optical image stabilisation is supplied via the lens, rather than being built-in to the camera body. It can be turned on and off via the Mega O.I.S switch on the lens barrel, with three different modes accessible through the DMC-GH1's menu system. When enabled, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 automatically compensates for camera shake, which is a slight blurring of the image that typically occurs at slow shutter speeds when the camera is hand held. There are three different modes, Mode 1 is on all the time including image composition, Mode 2 is only on when you press the shutter button, and Mode 3 compensates for up and down movements only (which in turn allows you to pan the camera).

In practice I found that it does make a noticeable difference, as shown in the examples on the Image Quality page. You don't notice that the camera is actually doing anything different when anti-shake is turned on, just that you can use slower shutter speeds than normal and still take sharp photos. Thankfully leaving the anti-shake system on didn't negatively affect the battery life, with the camera managing nearly 300 shots or 120 minutes recording time capacity in AVCHD SH mode using the supplied rechargeable Li-ion battery, just short of the G1's battery life.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1
Front Rear

Despite offering the same headline resolution of 12.1 megapixels, the GH1 actually has a different image sensor to the G1, utilising a new 14 megapixel sensor. This is both to accommodate the addition of the movie recording functionality, and also to offer four different aspect ratios for still photos (4:3, 3:2 and 16:9 and the new 1:1 square mode) without affecting the angle-of-view by cropping or interpolation.

The rear of the Lumix DMC-GH1 is dominated by the large 3 inch LCD screen. The rotating, free-angle LCD monitor, which is hinged on the left side of the camera (looking from the rear), can be flipped out and twisted through 270 degrees. You can use the screen as a waist-level viewfinder, holding the camera overhead, and even for turning the GH1 on yourself for arm-length self-portraits. There's also the added benefit of folding the screen away against the camera body to protect it when stored in a camera bag, preventing it from becoming marked or scratched.

I found that the 460K pixel, high-resolution screen coped admirably with the majority of lighting conditions. This screen is a great improvement on cameras with the usual 230K dot resolution, even being nice to use in low-light. The Auto Power LCD function automatically detects the current lighting conditions and boosts the LCD backlighting by up to 40% when shooting outdoors in bright sunshine, helping to keep the screen visible. The high-res, free-angle LCD screen is much more than just a novelty - it's a lot more versatile than the usual combination of optical viewfinder and fixed LCD, providing new angles of view and enhancing your overall creativity. Above all, it's a fun way of composing your images.

Instead of the bulky optical viewfinder of a conventional DSLR, the Panasonic GH1 has a smaller electronic viewfinder. The mere mention of an EVF is usually enough to elicit loud groans from any serious photographer, as they have traditionally been poorly implemented in the past, with low-res, grainy displays that were only really suitable for still subjects. Thankfully the electronic viewfinder on the GH1 is far better than any previous system. It has a large 1.4x (0.7x on 35mm equiv.) magnification, 100% field of view, and an unprecedented 1,440,000 dot equivalent resolution, resulting in a very usable display that won't leave you cursing. The EVF (and also the main LCD screen) operates at 60fps, twice the usual speed, which helps make it relatively flicker-free (although it is still noticeable).

As the EVF is reading the same signal from the image sensor as the rear LCD screen, it can also display similar information - for example, you can view and operate the GH1's Quick Menu, giving quick access to all the key camera settings while it's held up to your eye. The various icons used to represent the camera settings are clear and legible. The icing on the viewing cake is the clever built-in eye sensor, which automatically switches on the viewfinder when you look into it, then switches it off and turns on the LCD monitor when you look away.

The main downside of the GH1's EVF system occurs indoors in low light, as it has to "gain-up" to produce a usable picture, resulting in a noticeably grainier picture. In all other situations, however, the electronic viewfinder on the GH1 is the equal of and in many areas better than a DSLR's optical viewfinder, particularly those found on entry-level models which are typically dim and offer limited scene coverage. The truest testament to the GH1 is that I mostly used it by holding it up to eye-level, something that I wouldn't do unless the EVF was of sufficient quality.

As well as the LCD monitor and EVF, the rear of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 has an LVF/LCD button for manually switching between the two viewing methods (useful if you turn the eye sensor off), a Playback button, conveniently located AF/AE Lock button, Display button and a traditional 4-way navigation pad system with Menu/Set button in the centre. Pressing left, up, right and down on the D-Pad buttons selects AF Mode, ISO, White Balance and Function options respectively. The Function button can be configured to activate one of five key settings - I chose metering mode.

In shooting mode, the Display button alternates between turning the display off, the main camera settings as icons, no settings at all, and a useful Info Display which shows the current key settings in a clear graphical format. You can additionally press the Q.Menu button and then use the navigation pad to move between the onscreen options. The Delete button intriguingly has a second function - it doubles up as the new Preview button. This very cleverly toggles between showing a live preview of the effects of the current aperture (effectively a digital version of Depth of Field Preview) and the current shutter speed. The latter will prove especially useful for beginners, providing a visible way of checking how different shutter speeds will affect the capture of different subjects - running water is a good example.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1
Front

Rear

The single new addition to the rear of the GH1 is the Motion Picture button. As you'd expect, it allows you to start recording a movie with a single push of a button, and then stop recording by pressing the same button, regardless of which shooting mode is currently selected. This is a lot more intuitive than having to select the movie mode then press the shutter button, as on most cameras. I did find that I'd unintentionally started recording a movie a few times though, as the Motion Picture button is positioned right next to the rear hand-grip area.

The DMC-GH1 can record high-resolution full-HD 1920 x 1080 movies at 24 frames per second or smoother HD 1280 x 720 movies at 60 fps, both in the AVCHD (MPEG-4/H.264) format. In addition it can also record Motion JPEG movies at 320 x 240 at 30fps, 640 x 480 at 30fps, 848 x 480 at30fps and 1280 x 720 at 30fps, useful as this format can currently be shared more easily. AVCHD features almost double the recording time in HD quality compared with Motion JPEG, but software support is currently a bit thin on the ground. Panasonic describe it as the best mode for playing back on a HD TV direct from the camera, and Motion JPEG best for email and playing on a computer.

The new Creative Movie shooting mode allows you to set the shutter speed, aperture or both settings manually during recording (a Program option is also available). Changing the shutter speed is especially suitable for shooting fast-moving subjects, whilst the ability to control the aperture is convenient when there are several subjects at different distances. In practice this system works well, allowing some really creative effects, but there are a couple of major drawbacks. Firstly the operating sound of the control dial is very audible in the movie, so you'll need to edit the soundtrack later to remove it. Secondly, you can't set the shutter speed to below 1/30 seconds, instantly ruling out more creative slow shutter-speed effects.

The Panasonic GH1's Intelligent Auto mode also works in movies as well as for still photos. Simply select iA on the mode dial and press the Motion Picture button. The Intelligent Scene Selector automatically determines the most suitable Scene mode from five options - Portrait, Scenery, Low Light and Close-up or Normal modes. Face Detection automatically detects a face in the frame and adjusts the focus, exposure, contrast, and skin complexion. Intelligent Exposure continually checks the ambient light level and adjusts the exposure setting as conditions change to prevent blown highlights and blocked shadows. The Optical Image Stabilizer helps prevent blurring from hand-shake when using the zoom lens.

Stereo sound is recorded during video capture via the large internal mic on top of the camera, which is a big improvement on the rather muffled noises recorded by most digital cameras, helped by the new wind cut function which blocks out most of the noise from background wind. You can also add an optional external stereo microphone (DMW-MS1) to enhance the sound further. The HDMI port allows you to connect the GH1 to a high-def TV set, but only if you purchase the optional HDMI mini-cable.

You can obviously use the zoom lens during recording and really make the most of that versatile 28-280mm focal range. Focusing is set as for still images via the Focus mode dial on the top-left of the camera. On the negative side, you'll find that if you choose continuous auto-focus, areas of the video will be blurred before becoming sharp again as the camera tries to refocus. On a more positive note, the the GH1 is quite fast at re-focusing, and having this system is much better than not being able to auto-focus at all, as with all current DSLR cameras that offer video recording. Hand-holding the GH1 during movie recording inevitably leads to obvious shake, despite the optical image stabilizer, so for best results you'll need a dedicated video tripod.

Found on top of the Panasonic DMC-GH1 are the small Focus mode dial, external flash hotshoe and built-in pop-up flash, burst mode/bracketing/self-timer switch, on/off switch, and large tactile shutter button. There's also a traditional dial that lets you choose the different exposure modes. The usual selection of Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual are available for the more experienced photographers. This dial is a typical feature of SLR cameras, and enables you to quickly change between the various modes. The more beginner-friendly Scene modes and Intelligent Auto are also accessed via this dial.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1
Front Top

Additionally there is a custom mode, marked CUST, which allows you to configure your favourite settings and quickly access them, and a My Color mode which sets the brightness, saturation and color of the image before you take it. Also on the top of the camera is the Q.Menu button, a very welcome addition which provides quick access to most of the principal controls, including ISO speed, image size, image quality and white balance (there are 16 settings in total, depending upon the shooting mode selected). You can still access all of these options from the main menu system too.

Intelligent Auto mode tries to make things as easy as possible for the complete beginner. It allows you to point and shoot the camera without having to worry about choosing the right scene mode or settings. Intelligent Auto Mode automatically determines a number of key criteria when taking a picture, including selecting the most appropriate scene mode (from 5 commonly used presets) and ISO speed, and turning face detection (up to 15 faces), image stabilization and quick auto-focus on.

The Intelligent Auto Mode includes Intelligent Exposure, which increases exposure only in the under-exposed areas of the image, Digital Red-eye, which automatically detects and removes red-eye, and AF Tracking, which continually tracks a moving subject and keeps it in focus, without you having to hold the shutter button halfway down as on most other cameras. Intelligent Exposure and Digital Red-eye can also be turned on in the other shooting modes via the main menu.

Face Recognition is a new addition to the GH1's Intelligent Auto mode. This is a fun and genuinely useful new feature, which "remembers" up to 6 registered faces and then always prioritizes the focus and exposure for that person in future pictures. Very useful for group shots where you want your loved ones to be the centre of attention. You can specify the age of the registered subject, stamp the age of the subject onto your photos, change the focus icon for a particular person, and playback only the photos that contain a certain face. The camera will even automatically switch to Baby mode if someone registered as less than 3 years old appears in the frame!

In practice the Intelligent Auto Mode system works very well, with the GH1 seamlessly choosing the most appropriate combination of settings for the current situation. The 5 available scene modes are Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Night Portrait and Night Scenery, so obviously not all situations are covered by Intelligent Auto Mode, but it does work for the majority of the time. It makes it possible for the less experienced photographer to easily take well-exposed, sharp pictures of people, scenery and close-ups by simply pointing and shooting the camera. Also catering for the beginner are a total of 10 different scene modes.

Unlike a conventional DSLR camera which uses a phase detection auto-focus system, the DMC-GH1 employs the same Contrast AF that is commonly used by compact cameras. As with the EVF, experienced photographers will now be tutting loudly at the thought of having to use a traditionally slower system. I'm happy to be able to report that this decision hasn't resulted in a slow and unpredictable AF - quite the contrary in fact. There were very few occasions when the GH1 failed to lock onto the subject, especially when using the centre AF point. There are a wide range of AF modes on offer, including multiple-area AF with up to 23 focus areas, 1-area AF with a selectable focus area, Face Detection, and AF Tracking. The GH1 also has a useful Quick AF function that begins focusing as soon as you point the camera.

In a throwback to the days before digital took over the world, the top of the GH1 offers a range of Film Modes via a dedicated button, with 6 colour types and 3 types of monochrome to choose from. This applies to both JPEG and RAW files, so you can effectively shoot a black and white RAW file, for example, out of the camera if you wish (although I'm not sure why you'd want to...). As you select a different Film Mode, the effects can clearly be seen on the LCD screen. In addition, you can change the contrast, sharpness, noise reduction and saturation levels for each one, and even create 2 custom modes of your own. The Multi Film option takes up to three consecutive images using different Film Mode settings (this doesn't work in RAW mode though).

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1
Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

On the front of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 is the small focus-assist and self-timer indicator lamp, lens release button, lens mount, rubberised hand-grip, and most important of all, the front control dial. This is used for, amongst other things, changing the aperture and shutter speed by turning from left to right and back again. As with the shooting mode dial, this is a common feature found on DSLR cameras, so you'll be right at home if you've used any DSLR before - compact camera users will need to get used to using this dial, although it is possible (but rather long-winded) to set aperture/shutter speed via the LCD screen. The control dial can also be pressed in to switch to setting the exposure compensation, and is thankfully more difficult to inadvertently activate than on the G1.

On the bottom of the Panasonic DMC-GH1 is a metal tripod socket, importantly in-line with the middle of the lens barrel, and the battery compartment, and on the right side is the SD/SDHC memory card slot. On the left is the Remote /Mic socket for use with the optional remote shutter release or external microphone, and two connection ports, including a HDMI port for connecting the GH1 to a HD television or monitor. Unfortunately, Panasonic have decided to cut costs and not include a HDMI cable as standard in the box, which means that you'll have to purchase one separately to take advantage of this camera's HD connectivity.

The main menu system on the DMC-GH1 is straight-forward to use and is accessed by pressing the Menu/Set button in the middle of the navigation D-Pad. There are six main menus, Record, Motion Picture, Custom, Setup, My Menu and Playback. Most of the camera's main options, such as white balance, image quality, auto-focus mode and ISO speed, are accessed here, so the Record menu has 20 options spread over 4 screens, the Motion Picture menu has 7 options over 2 screens, and the Setup menu has 22 options over 5 screens. As an indication of how configurable the GH1 is, the Custom menu has 25 different options, allowing you fine-tune this camera to suit your way of working.

As mentioned previously, the addition of the Q.Menu button on the top of the camera speeds up access to some of the more commonly used options. Due to the large LCD screen and restricting the number of on-screen choices to five, the various options and icons are clear and legible. If you have never used a digital camera before, or you're upgrading from a more basic model, reading the easy-to-follow manual before you start is a good idea. Thankfully Panasonic have chosen to supply it in printed format, rather than as a PDF on a CD, so you can also carry it with you for easy reference.

The start-up time from turning the Lumix DMC-GH1 on to being ready to take a photo is impressive at around 1.5 seconds, although it's slower than the G1. The Contrast Auto-Focusing system is quick in good light and the camera achieves focus most of the time indoors or in low-light situations, helped by the AF assist lamp - the GH1 doesn't have any notable problems locking onto the subject in low-light situations. The visibility and refresh rate of the 3 inch LCD screen are very good, and the pixel count of 460,000 is excellent, with virtually no visible grain.

It takes about 1 second to store a JPEG image, allowing you to keep shooting as they are being recorded onto the memory card - there is a barely perceptible LCD blackout between each image. Storing a single RAW image takes around 5 seconds, but thankfully it doesn't lock up the camera in any way - you can use the menu system or shoot another image while the first file is being written to memory. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 has a pretty standard Burst mode which enables you to take 3 frames per second for an unlimited number of JPEG images at the highest image quality, or 7 RAW images. Overall the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 is about average in terms of operational speed compared to a DSLR, but much faster than a lot of compacts.

Once you have captured a photo, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 has an average range of options when it comes to playing, reviewing and managing your images. You can instantly scroll through the images that you have taken, view thumbnails (up to 30 onscreen at the same time and in a Calendar view), zoom in and out up to 16x magnification, view slideshows, delete, protect, trim, resize, copy and rotate an image. You can also select favourite images, change an image's aspect ratio, add a sound clip to an image, delete Face Recognition data, and set the print order. The Display button toggles detailed settings information about each picture on and off, such as the ISO rating and aperture / shutter speed, and there is a small brightness histogram available during shooting and RGBY histogram during playback.

Entry Tags

hd video, compact, 12 megapixel, dslr, lumix, micro four thirds, dmc-gh1, gh1, gh-1, panasonic gh1

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