Following up Panasonic's video darling, the DMC-GH1, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 delivers some important enhancements, including a much-needed HDMI connector. Its price and feature set--by accident or design--targets photo and video enthusiasts rather than the entry-level point-and-shoot upgrader.
The combination of a new sensor in the GH2 and some improved JPEG processing on Panasonic's part has resulted in some of the best image quality we've seen in the company's cameras to date. For example, in most Panasonic cameras--including the good ones, like the LX5--even the lowest ISO-sensitivity shots are riddled with color noise. That said, there's unfortunately still quite a bit of noise in midrange-to-high ISO JPEG shots; I can't suggest shooting higher than ISO 200 for JPEG unless absolutely necessary. However, depending upon the scene, you can buy about two stops of usability by processing raw files instead of using the JPEGs. You still lose some dynamic range and detail, but even a quick-and-dirty processing in software delivers far better results than Panasonic's internal algorithms.
And keep in mind that you can definitely get better results with a fast prime lens, even with the JPEGs. However, the GH2 rates just OK on color accuracy and auto white balance, and JPEGs develop an excessively yellow cast in low light because of the color noise.
The 14-140-millimeter kit lens (28-280mm equivalent) is pretty sharp, with nice geometry--there's probably some in-camera correction happening, but I don't see any of the artificial-looking straight lines that the correction usually produces--though there's some distortion around the edges, which can result in fringing. It's pretty good away from the edges, though. But it's also really slow; its widest aperture is f4.5 at 14mm, narrowing to f5.8 by the time you get to 140mm, which really limits the lens' flexibility. The 10x zoom range sounds really convenient, but not if you can only use it in very bright conditions. It's pretty quiet while focusing and zooming during video capture, though.
For video, the most important update in the GH2 is a new sensor that drives at a higher frame rate--it can natively output 60p vs. 24p, though AVCHD limits the actual recorded video to 1080/60i. That, and a bump to the AVCHD maximum bit rate of 24 Mbps (albeit only in 24p mode), delivers improved results over the GH1; it's equivalent to current AVCHD-based prosumer camcorders. The video does look exceptionally good, even in moderately low light (though you can see the same color shifts as in stills there). It's sharp and clean, with few artifacts--no rolling shutter or obvious moire. Note that 24p, with its progressive output and higher bit rate, delivers visibly better results than 60i, especially with respect to background detail. Panasonic's lens and body combination gives very good autofocus performance, doing better at locking and holding focus even in challenging conditions that can stymie some camcorders.
One of the more interesting features is variable frame-rate recording: 80, 160, 200, and 300 percent speeds based off 24p. It's silent, as you'd expect, and works seamlessly and well.
The audio quality with the built-in stereo mics is also quite nice--clear and crisp, if a bit bright. The mic is relatively sensitive, and there are five reference levels you can set plus four levels of wind filtering and an onscreen meter. There's no way to reduce its omnidirectionality, though, so if you plan to shoot interview-type footage you'll definitely need to plug in an external mic.
I also got a chance to shoot with Panasonic's Micro Four Thirds 3D lens, which consists of dual fixed-focus f12 12mm lenses (note that the 35mm angle-of-view equivalent is about 57mm because each lens covers less than half of the sensor). The camera simultaneously shoots a 2D JPEG using one of the lenses along with a standard 3D MPO file. It's nice for a lark--most of the random stuff I shot and viewed on a Panasonic 3D TV did display depth and novelty value--but you have no manual exposure controls when shooting in 3D and the camera doesn't support movie capture with the lens.
While not best overall, the GH2's still-shooting performance can certainly compete with class leaders, and is improved a lot over the GH1's. It's still a bit slow on start-up--it takes about 1.3 seconds to power on, focus, and shoot--but it can focus and shoot in 0.3 second in good light and 0.6 second in dim. JPEG shot-to-shot time runs 0.6 second, which increases to 0.8 second for raw; with flash enabled it jumps to about 1.5 seconds. For continuous shooting the camera averages about 4fps.
The camera is certainly fast enough for everyday burst shooting, and the EVF is pretty good--in low light the refresh does get a bit sluggish, though. But it's still an EVF, so keep in mind you'll have the accompanying framing issues--you can't visually tell what's happening, only what's happened--for continuous shooting. It does come in handy for shooting video, though, if like me you prefer the stability of eye-level shooting (sans rig).
Overall I like the GH2's design and operation, although there are a few potential major irritations. It's smaller and lighter than most of its competitors--and most digital SLRs--but it can get pretty weighty when paired with the 14-140mm kit lens. But it's generally comfortable to grip, with a nice shooting design. Although the grip is relatively featureless, it's deep, rubberized, and just high enough to work comfortably. I also like that Panasonic put the SD card slot on the side rather than in the bottom battery compartment.