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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.
|Canon EOS Rebel T2i||Panasonic Lumix DMC-G2||Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1||Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2||Sony Alpha SLT-A55|
|Sensor (effective resolution)||18-megapixel CMOS||12.1-megapixel Live MOS||12.1-megapixel Live MOS||16.1-megapixel Live MOS||16.2-megapixel Exmor HD CMOS|
|Sensitivity range||ISO 100 - ISO 6,400/ 12,800 (expanded)||ISO 100 - ISO 6,400||ISO 100 - ISO 3,200||ISO 160 - ISO 12,800||ISO 100 - ISO 1,600/12,800 (expanded)|
|Continuous shooting||3.7fps |
34 JPEG/ 6 raw
unlimited JPEG/ 7 raw
unlimited JPEG/ 7 raw
unlimited JPEG/ 7 raw
|6fps (10fps with auto exposure)|
35 JPEG/20 raw
magnification/ effective magnification
n/a/1.4 million dots
n/a/1.4 million dots
n/a/1.5 million dots
0.46 inches/1.2 million dots
|Autofocus||9-point phase-detection AF center cross-type||23-area contrast AF||23-area contrast AF||23-area contrast AF||15-pt phase-detection AF|
|Shutter speed||1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 x-sync||1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb up to 4 minutes; 1/160 x-sync||1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb up to 4 minutes; 1/160 x-sync||1/4,000 to 60 secs; bulb up to 2 minutes; 1/160 x-sync||1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/160 x-sync|
|Metering||63 zone||144 zone||144 zone||144 zone||1200 zone|
|Image stabilization||Optical||Optical||Optical||Optical||Sensor shift|
|Video||H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p/25p/24p @ 45Mbps (est); 720/60p/50p @n/a Mbps||AVCHD Lite 720/30p/25p or Motion JPEG MOV||AVCHD 1080/60i/50i @ 17Mbps; 720/60p/50p @ 17, 13, 9 Mbps||AVCHD 1080/60i/50i @ 17, 13Mbps; 1080/24p @ 24, 17Mbsp; 720/60p/50p @ 17, 13Mbps |
QuickTime MOV, Motion JPEG
|AVCHD 1080/60i/50i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1440x1080/30p @ 12Mbps|
|Rated estimated max HD video length||4GB |
|n/a||29m59s||29m59s||2GB or 29m, whichever comes first|
|Audio||Mono; mic jack||Mono; mic jack||Stereo, mic jack||Stereo, mic jack||Stereo; mic jack|
|LCD size||3 inches fixed |
1.04 million dots
|3 inches articulated |
|3 inches articulated |
|3 inches articulated |
|3 inches articulated|
|Battery life (CIPA rating)||470 shots||390 shots||320 shots||340 shots||330 shots|
|Dimensions (inches, WHD)||5.1x3.8x3.0||4.9x3.3x2.9||4.9x3.3x3.0||4.9x3.5x3.0||4.9x3.6x3.3|
|Body operating weight (ounces)||18.6||13.1||15.2||15.7||17.8|
|Mfr. Price||n/a||n/a||n/a||$899.95 (body only)||$749.99 (body only)|
|$899.99 (with 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 lens)||$720.00 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens)||n/a||$999.95 (with 14-42mm lens)||$849.99 (with 18-55mm lens)|
|n/a||n/a||$1,499.95 (with 14-140mm lens)||$1,499.95 (with 14-140mm lens)||n/a|
|Ship date||March 2010||May 2010||June 2009||December 2010||September 2010|
The GH2's controls are pretty typical for Panasonic, and easy to feel and operate. On the back right there's a four-way navigation control (which double as ISO sensitivity, white balance, and two programmable Fn controls) plus menu buttons, quick menu, display, and preview buttons. You can set the Fn buttons for functions like intelligent auto, film mode, focus area, aspect ratio, quality, single-shot raw override, metering mode, single-shot spot-meter override, flash, flash adjustment, ISO limit set, digital zoom, burst rate, auto bracket, and so on. Plus, there's an additional programmable button on the top. But despite the flexibility gained from being able to customize like this, with these types of designs I can never remember how I set them, and it ends up slowing me down rather than streamlining my shooting--and can get even more complicated since the assignments get saved when you save to the three custom settings slots. You really need LED text to label the current settings.
Under your thumb lies a jog dial for toggling between exposure compensation and whatever the primary dial function is; for instance, if you're in shutter-priority mode the primary dial function is changing shutter speed. As long as you're not prone to accidentally pressing it, it's a pretty efficient control mechanism. My twitchy thumb is prone to accidentally pressing it.
On the top are more direct-access controls. On one side you can set focus mode and focus area/type (face detection, tracking, multiarea, and spot). On the other you've got a somewhat crowded mode dial with the typical PASM, auto, and scene modes, as well as advanced movie capture and three custom-settings slots, plus drive and bracketing options. My one gripe here is that manual movie mode, where you can adjust a lot of parameters, is on the mode dial rather than available more directly.
While the GH1 had a flip-and-twist LCD, the GH2's is a touch screen that operates much like the DMC-G2's. On one hand, especially given the complexity of the camera, Panasonic makes one of the best touch-screen interfaces I've used. Everything is directly settable--for instance, you can just choose the desired ISO sensitivity from a matrix of values rather than having to scroll--the target touch areas are defined well enough that accidental selections don't happen too often, and the screen is responsive enough that you don't feel like you're continually poking it in frustration. Panasonic incorporates all the requisite touch-specific features as well, such as touch focus and touch shutter.
But I also hate the same thing about the GH2's touch screen that I did about the G2's: I generally only use the center focus area, but every time I inadvertently hit the touch screen the focus area moves. There's no way to disable touch focus, which is ridiculous since you can disable touch shutter and Quick Menu touch operation. It's so annoying that I simply stopped using the screen and used the EVF for everything (the alternative is flipping the screen to face inward, but that's more of a pain).
There are some nuanced features as well. The camera can bracket up to 7 frames in one-third stops, and it supports plus or minus five stops of exposure compensation in still mode (plus or minus three stops for movies). In the multiarea focus mode, you can select four area clusters, and the camera can save four custom white-balance settings. It also handles travel dates in a clever way: you define a date range in advance. That way you don't have to remember to toggle it off when your trip's over. And Panasonic remains the only manufacturer to offer face recognition (for six prerecorded faces) in addition to the ubiquitous face detection. For whatever that's worth. (For a full account of the GH2's features and operation, you can download the manual for the European version of the camera. Note that frame rates will be different for the U.S.)
To my mind, the Sony SLT-A55 poses the biggest competition to the GH2. For video pros and rabid hobbyists, Sony pretty much surrendered the field by not including 1080 progressive recording and maximum AVCHD bit-rate options, and the GH2's relative wealth of choices looks mighty attractive. Consumers who plan to use autofocus during movie capture should also note that Panasonic has been developing quieter lenses specifically for movie recording with its Micro Four Thirds cameras, while Sony has been concentrating that work on the NEX E-mount models rather than the standard Alpha (A) mount used by the SLT series. However, the in-body image stabilization used by Sony is a good perk, and though the sensors are the same resolution, Sony's is a larger APS-C model. Despite the A55's phase-detection-based autofocus system, it doesn't seem to deliver a clear performance advantage over the GH2. But all the ILC manufacturers need to improve the generally lame battery life of cameras like these.
The GH2 is an excellent choice for a combination still/video shooting device, or as a relatively inexpensive video-capture device with interchangeable lenses (with the caveat that it's harder to get shallow depth of field at short focal lengths with Micro Four Thirds cameras). But if you're primarily still-photo focused, you can get better quality from other dSLRs and ILCs.