As the second entry to the company's G-series, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 debuted at PMA in March and we held our collective breath for its UK release. This video-snapping shooter looks and acts like a dSLR, even though technically it isn't: it has dSLR-like design, controls and interchangeable lenses, but with the optical viewfinder and certain elements of the mechanism removed it's much smaller and lighter.
Available in June, it has 'impressive' written all over it. But with an astounding £1,300 price tag, is it enough of a stunner to empty out your savings?
The design is near-identical to its Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 sibling, but the GH1, with its 358g body and 124 by 90 by 45mm dimensions, is lighter and more compact than most entry-level consumer dSLRs. It's made of sturdy plastic with some metal on the inside and on the mounts, with a nice-feeling rubberised coating. It also has a large, comfortable grip and offers a considerable number of direct-access button and dial shooting controls.
There's an onscreen Quick Menu for accessing settings from a central location. 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 or simply scroll with it. While we found this awkward on the G1, we didn't find it troublesome with the GH1.
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 -- plus quality, 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.
There's a dedicated button for movie capture, so you don't have to 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 seconds. That's fine for playing with depth of field, but not for slow shutter speed effects.
The camera body is compatible with all Micro Four Thirds lenses, as well as Four Thirds lenses via an adaptor. Unlike most video dSLRs, the GH1's HD lenses support continuous autofocus during movie capture and are designed to focus more quietly than standard lenses.
The GH1 offers plenty of manual and semi-manual features to please amateurs and enthusiasts, but you can run on full or semi-automatic if all the buttons and dials scare you. Several features stand out from the crowd, though.
The 67mm (3 inches), 460,000-pixel flip-and-twist LCD is a big attraction. It's a good LCD, but keep in mind that because it's a wide-aspect LCD, it crops standard-aspect photos with vertical black bands so they don't display as large as on typical LCDs. It's like displaying 4:3 or 3:2 photos on a 64mm (2.5 inches) 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 we'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.
The GH1's EVF is pretty good. It's bright and easy to see, with good scene coverage and a relatively speedy refresh in bright light. In dim light, like all EVFs, the refresh rate slows dramatically. On the upside, you can shoot video while holding the camera up to your eye, unlike the SLR experience.
For some reason, Panasonic doesn't let you disable auto review while burst shooting. 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 500d and Nikon D5000 -- the GH1 performs quite well. The autofocus system operates quickly, especially compared with the Live Mode AF of digital SLRs. 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 seconds; in low-contrast light, it takes 0.6 seconds. It typically takes about 0.9 seconds 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 low, but it seemed to last longer, and the rating of 150 minutes of video shooting is comparable to most camcorders.
The GH1 uses a 14-megapixel sensor that lets the camera produce 12-megapixel photos regardless of aspect ratio. While overall the GH1 renders high-quality photos, the G1's strike us as being better, with fewer noise artefacts at high ISOs and slightly better tonal reproduction.
As with the G1, the lenses we tested with it -- including the Lumix G Vario HD f/4-5.8, 14-140mm kit lens and another 7-14mm, f/4 lens, which isn't stabilised and not video optimised -- produce sharp images. There's 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, the GH1 doesn't render exactly accurate colours. 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 good in both bright and dim light, 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 colour contouring. The stereo mic delivers pretty good sound, but the position on top of the camera in front of the hot shoe seems to make it especially susceptible to wind noise. The GH1's wind filter helps, but doesn't completely eradicate it.
What does this all the GH1's tricks add up to? The video shooting experience is better than that of any current dSLR, but beyond its 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. If you need to be on the cutting edge and are willing to pay a premium for it, then the 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 flexibility of interchangeable lenses with autofocus and depth-of-field control for video, we'd suggest waiting a few months to see if the price falls or perhaps to see what Olympus has planned for the future of Micro Four Thirds cameras.