Being the first mover with any new technology is a risky game — you risk buying into a system that's possibly not going to stand the test of time (cue Betamax tape) or you risk buying a product that will quickly be superseded with a successor that has all the bits that were missing from the first iteration. That's the case with the GH1, Panasonic's second Micro Four Thirds camera, behind the G1.
We've come to test this camera quite late in the process — it was announced in March 2009 — and has since been followed up with a smaller version of sorts, the GF1. The GH1 shares a lot of features with both cameras but adds a touch of professional movie maker to the mix.
Design and features
There are no prizes for spot the difference between Panasonic's G1 and GH1. Sharing exactly the same body, both cameras fit snugly in the palm of one's hand whilst still providing enough bulk to provide a comparable digital SLR shooting experience. In fact the only real additions to the GH1, at least on the outside, is the inclusion of the one-touch record button on the thumb rest, the corresponding movie mode option on the top dial, and the stereo microphone that sits above the hotshoe.
The new addition of the movie mode option on the top dial. Taken with the G1, how's that for post-modern. (Credit: CBSi)
The GH1 is covered in the same nice plastic as the G1 and is rather solid to hold, with reassuringly good build quality. It's shaped like a miniature digital SLR with the same faux-prism hump over the lens, a pop-up flash, hotshoe and the same sort of mode dial that's found on any consumer SLR. At the back is the flip out, rotating 3-inch LCD screen (again the same as the G1) which we enjoyed using. The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is also unchanged, with the same 1.4-million-dot resolution. Shooting options include Panasonic's intelligent auto, the standard PASM and scene modes, and the aforementioned movie mode. The menu system hasn't changed either, with the same intuitive interface that was originally so pleasing to use on the older camera.
Provided with the GH1 is the brand new 14-140mm HD lens which has been designed for use with the GH1, with quiet autofocusing. It's a much heavier combination than the G1 and its kit 14-45mm lens. With the help of additional adapters, existing four thirds lenses can be mounted on the camera body. There are also third-party adapters that let you mount non-four thirds lenses on the GH1.
Inside the camera things begin to change more: the main differences being the sensor (a 14-megapixel Live MOS sensor that resolves images of all aspect ratios to the same 12-megapixel resolution) and as mentioned, HD recording at full 1080p at 24 frames per second or at 720p at 60 frames per second, both in AVCHD. The GH1 can also autofocus whilst filming. Aspect ratios include the standard 4:3, 3:2, 16:9 and the square 1:1 format.
On the side, AV and HDMI out are provided, and like the G1 it uses SD/SDHC cards. Power needs are taken care of with a Lithium-ion battery that's rated at 330 shots. Using the video functionality eats away at the battery fairly quickly so keep that charger close by, or use the included cable that plugs into the battery socket and connects to mains power.
The GH1 is slower overall than the G1 and similar digital SLRs, but still faster than most compact cameras. It starts up and takes its first shot in 1.9 seconds, a lot slower than the G1 which manages to do it in 0.8 second. Individual RAW images take approximately two seconds to process, but the camera is still responsive and functional in this time. Shutter lag measures just over 0.1 second with pre-focusing — the rest of the performance results are below.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Time to first shot||Raw shot-to-shot time||Typical shot-to-shot time||Shutter lag (dim)||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Exposures are generally brighter than the G1 from our side-by-side tests, with the GH1 choosing wider apertures. However, the overall image quality (in terms of image saturation, colour rendition and sharpness) is much better on the G1 when comparing them both side by side. Take a look at the image of the tree below — the G1's image is the top and the GH1 is the bottom. Colours are much more accurate on the G1's shot and even though the sun is mostly blown out there's no flaring or fringing.
The G1 (top) and GH1 (bottom). (Credit: CBSi)
As for the lens, we were incredibly impressed by the level of detail it was able to resolve. With this tricky foliage shot, observe how the light is captured and the sharpness that's around the leaf itself.
At its full extension (140mm) some details weren't as sharp as at the wider end, like this shot which was taken at 1/400 at f/5.8, ISO 100. The shutter speed was fast enough to eliminate most of the potential hand shake, and the image stabilisation on the lens was also activated.
Thanks to the new sensor, the noise profile of the GH1 has also changed, making it slightly more susceptible to noise than the older camera. However, even at high sensitivities like ISO 1600 and 3200, the GH1 coped very well with only limited coloured noise across the image.
Dynamic range is also excellent in a wide variety of situations compared to similar digital SLRs, particularly in areas of high contrast where the GH1 didn't clip too many highlights despite some tricky lighting. White balance is a little off though, making some interesting colour casts when left on auto white balance — just look at the whites in the ISO chart above.
From the very beginning, video capability on digital SLRs has never been a gimmick — Nikon's initial implementation on the D90 was a little rough around the edges but still very good, Canon's EOS 5D Mark II took that a step further with full HD and (eventually) manual control, and the GH1 is just as exciting for film-makers and keen photographers alike. Video quality is incredibly good, particularly with the supplied 14-140mm lens that can resolve so much detail and has a smooth autofocus motion. Even though you probably won't want to zoom in and out during filming, it's still possible and a lot easier than having to refocus manually like on other cameras. Manual control is provided in movie mode via the mode dial (rather than the dedicated record button on the back of the camera).
Audio quality from the in-built speaker was very impressive too, with good, clear sound appearing on the recording, picking up nuances in the background without magnifying it too much. There's a fair amount of wind noise in blustery situations, which perhaps could be offset by the optional external microphone that mounts on top of the hotshoe. It's a more directional unit but we can't comment on its sound quality compared to the in-built microphone as we didn't receive a unit to test.
In low light situations the GH1 coped very well without too much noise over the image surface. In areas of fast movement, like when filming moving cars or running people, the GH1's video did suffer from slight artefacts and "jaggedness". Rolling shutter, a phenomenon that affects many digital SLRs, wasn't pronounced on the video.
If you want to shoot video on your digital camera and also want to be able to take some great quality images, the GH1 is a superb Micro Four Thirds camera. The GF1 has followed so quickly on its heels, and in a more compact form factor, so if you're looking for an entry point into the Micro Four Thirds world, don't buy the GH1. That said, if you're interested in dabbling in some professional video footage and also want some great still images to boot, the GH1 is a great investment. Just watch out for that incredibly expensive swing tag.