More than any other camera I've reviewed lately, my opinion formation about the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 inevitably comes back to price. It's fast, but not as fast as other cameras that cost a lot less. It has great photo quality, but its high ISO sensitivity photos don't match that of comparably priced (or cheaper) dSLRs. It supports video capture, and delivers the most camcorder-like recording experience I've seen to date from a still camera. However, does the interchangeable lens capability for video make it worth the price of a comparable HD camcorder, especially since there's currently only one video-optimized lens available?
The GH1 ships with the Lumix G Vario HD f4-5.8 14-140mm lens. Though the camera body is compatible with all Micro Four Thirds lenses, as well as Four Thirds lenses via an adapter, only the HD lenses support continuous autofocus during movie capture and they are designed to focus more quietly than standard lenses. We also tested the camera with the new 7-14mm f4 lens, which isn't stabilized and not video optimized. (Here's a complete list of lens compatibility for the G1 and GH1.) I like the lenses quite a bit, but couldn't help wishing they had slightly wider maximum apertures and could focus more closely.
With a design identical to its lower-end sibling, the G1, the GH1's 15.2-ounce body, with dimensions of 3.3 inches high by 4.9 inches wide by 1.8 inches deep, is overall lighter and more compact than most midrange consumer dSLRs. It's made of sturdy plastic with some metal on the inside and on the mounts, with a nice-feeling rubberized coating over everything. It also has a large, comfortable grip, and offers a considerable number of direct-access button and dial shooting controls; I generally like their layout and operation.
There's an onscreen Quick Menu for accessing settings from a central location: white balance, ISO sensitivity, AF mode (face detection, AF tracking, 23-area AF, and single-area AF), metering (multi, centerweighted, and spot), Intelligent Exposure (low, standard, high, and off), flash, video and still image size and quality, self-timer, image-stabilization mode (active, on prefocus, and y-axis only) used in conjunction with the optically stabilized lens, and film simulation mode (standard, dynamic, nature, smooth, nostalgic, vibrant plus black-and-white versions of standard dynamic and smooth). The main navigation control is a jog dial that lies under your forefinger on the grip; depending upon what mode you're in you either press and scroll with it or simply scroll with it. I found it awkward when I was testing the G1; this time around, it didn't get in my way as much.
If you don't want to use the full onscreen display, you can also set the camera to display the settings around the edges of the screen and cycle around them that way. You can also set the camera so that the EVF display mimics the menu display, though you can't display settings on the LCD while viewing the scene through the EVF.
For video, you can set encoder type (AVCHD or Motion JPEG MOV files), quality (24fps 1080p at 17 megabits per second, 30fps 720p at three different bit rate choices, and various lower resolution options), metering, four levels of Intelligent Exposure, and four levels of wind filtering. While AVCHD is a more efficient encoder than Motion JPEG and you can record up to the capacity of the card, the AVCHD MTS files need to be transcoded before you can post them online or send them around to friends. (Panasonic provides two somewhat conflicting guidelines on SD card speed for movie recording: online it recommends 10 megabytes per second minimum, while in the manual it suggests a Class 6 card, which is 6MB per second minimum.)
There's a dedicated button for movie capture, so you needn't go into a specific video mode, but if you want to be able to set shutter speed and aperture or use exposure compensation, you will need to use the Creative Movie mode. The one disappointment here is that you can't drop the shutter speed below 1/30 second. That's fine for playing with depth of field--enabling faster shutter speeds allows larger apertures for a given exposure--but not for slow shutter speed effects.
The GH1 offers plenty of manual and semimanual features to please amateurs and enthusiasts, but you can run on full or semiautomatic if all the buttons and dials scare you. Several features stand out from the crowd, though. The 3-inch, 460,000-pixel flip-and-twist LCD is a big attraction, for one. It's a good LCD, but keep in mind that because it's a wide-aspect LCD, it pillar-boxes (crops with vertical black bands) standard-aspect photos so they don't display as large as on typical 3-inch LCDs. In other words, for displaying 4:3 or 3:2 photos it's equivalent to a 2.5-inch LCD.
There's also a mode that you can preview changes to settings such as aperture and shutter speed, to gauge the effects in advance. Though it's somewhat hard to see depth-of-field changes, and you can only get a general sense of the shutter speed affect because of the LCD refresh, the capability to preview exposure may be invaluable for some. Unfortunately, this only works in Program mode, rather than modes where you have independent control over those parameters. You can also save three sets of custom settings. While I'd rather be able to access them directly from the mode dial instead of just the single Cust slot with menu flipping to select one, this is much better than nothing. In addition to traditional exposure and white-balance bracketing, you can bracket three different film modes.
As far as EVFs go, the GH1's is pretty good; 1.4 million pixels with 100 percent scene coverage, bright and easy to see, with a relatively speedy refresh in bright light. In dim light, like all EVFs, the refresh rate slows dramatically. On the upside, with an EVF you can shoot video while holding the camera up to your eye, unlike the SLR experience. But for some reason Panasonic doesn't let you disable auto review while burst shooting, which means you're stuck watching what happened rather than tracking what's going to happen, making it very frustrating to shoot action photos.
While it's a little slower than typical good dSLRs, including less expensive models like the Canon EOS Rebel T1i and Nikon D5000, the GH1 nevertheless performs quite well. The autofocus system operates quickly, especially compared with the Live Mode AF of digital SLRs; unlike those models, it supports continuous AF during movie capture and is pretty responsive. It powers up and shoots more slowly than the G1, but that 1.8 seconds is still sufficiently fast. In bright light, the camera snaps a photo in 0.4 second; in low-contrast light, it takes 0.6 second. It typically takes about 0.9 second to shoot two consecutive images, with barely a second added for flash recycling time; these are high for a camera in this price range, but not really noticeably slow in practice except for action shots. Given its price, however, its 2 frames per second continuous-shooting rate disappoints, and the camera simply doesn't work fast enough to keep up with kids and pets--for still photos, that is. Panasonic CIPA rates the battery at about 300 shots, which is a bit low, but it seemed to last a lot longer, and the rating of 150 minutes of video shooting is comparable to most camcorders.
The GH1 uses a different sensor than the G1; it's a 14-megapixel model that lets the camera produce 12-megapixel photos regardless of aspect ratio. While overall the GH1 renders high-quality photos, the G1's strike me as just a bit better, with fewer noise artifacts at high ISOs and slightly better tonal reproduction. However, as with the G1, the lenses we tested with it produce sharp images across almost the entire frame, with absolutely zero fringing or bleed. With its latest revision of the Venus Engine, Panasonic seems to have tweaked the exposure and metering, delivering much better results out of the box. Like its sibling, it doesn't render exactly accurate colors. But they're within the bounds of acceptability and certainly pleasing if you like them vivid. Its weakest aspect is the noise profile. The camera is pretty good up to and including ISO 400, but above that streaks in the blue channel produce unwanted yellow streaks in the photos. This may be fixable with a patch at some point--we tested a production unit with final firmware.
The 30fps 720p 17Mbps video is quite good in both bright and dim light--comparable with any of the decent $600 HD camcorders--but as usual the 24fps 1080p quality is more of a novelty than a decent general-purpose shooting mode. The low light video doesn't exhibit much noise, instead displaying some color contouring. The stereo mic delivers pretty good sound, but the position on top of the camera in front of the hot shoe the seems to make it especially susceptible to wind noise. The GH1's wind filter helps, but doesn't completely eradicate it.
So what does this all add up to? The video shooting experience is better than that of any current dSLR, but while it has moments of excellence, the still photo quality and shooting experience doesn't consistently match that of cheaper models. It's a new technology and a new product line, so inevitably the price is high--but that combination also means it's not for a lot of people. If you need to be on the cutting edge, and are willing to pay a premium for it, then the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 certainly confers the cred. As long as you don't shoot sports or in dark venues, you'll likely be very happy with the purchase. If you're simply attracted by the not-to-be-underestimated flexibility of interchangeable lenses with autofocus and depth-of-field control for video, I'd suggest waiting a few months to see if the price falls, or perhaps to see what Olympus has planned.
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