Panasonic GH1 Review

by on September 28, 2009

in Panasonic

Panasonic GH1

The Panasonic GH1 is a 12.1-megapixel camera built on the Micro Four Thirds platform.  The GH1 is Panasonic’s follow-up to the G1, which was the first Micro Four Thirds camera offered by the company.

What makes this platform unique is the camera body’s mirror-less design, which allow manufacturers to make smaller cameras while still using larger, DSLR-sized sensors.  Additionally, the GH1, like other Micro Four Thirds cameras, has a detachable lens and will accept other lenses with the same lens mount – or even different lens mounts if you use an appropriate adapter.

Another powerful feature for Micro Four Thirds cameras is the use of full time live view.  That is, the image that the lens sees passes directly to the image sensor rather than using a mirror to redirect it to the optical viewfinder.

The Panasonic GH1 adds 1080p video capture at 24fps to its predecessor’s spec list.  Additionally, the GH1 includes a new superzoom lens, specially designed for this camera – the 14-140mm f/4-5.8 HD MEGA O.I.S. lens.  The GH1 was met with a lot of fanfare due to its impressive spec list and overall potential.   While there is no doubt that the GH1 offers a lot of versatility and is fun to shoot with, it’s not without a few chinks in its armor.

Panasonic GH1 Key Features

  • 12.1-megapixel Live MOS sensor
  • Full time live view via electronic viewfinder or 3-inch 460k dot LCD
  • Tilt/swivel LCD
  • ISO 100-3200
  • 1080p at 24fps video capture
  • Built-in stereo mic (2.5mm mic out jack)
  • 2x crop factor
  • Compatible with SD/SDHC memory cards

Panasonic GH1 Size and Handling

Panasonic GH1

While one of the key attractions of the Micro Four Thirds system is supposed to be a more compact camera size, the Panasonic GH1 actually feels more like an entry-level sized DSLR, akin to the Nikon D3000 or Sony A330.  However, I think this size discrepancy is attributable, in large part, to the large 14-140mm lens included in the GH1 kit.  Take that large lens off and you feel like you are holding a much smaller camera.  Still yet, the GH1 is only marginally smaller than most entry-level DSLRs and I don’t really see the size advantage playing as big of a role here.

The GH1 handles quite well, even with the big kit lens attached.  I actually find the balance quite pleasant.  I don’t think the camera is too small to turn off most of the men who like a larger camera in their hands, and it’s not too large to rule out packing the camera for your family vacation.  In fact, this may be the perfect vacationing camera when you consider all that it will do for you.

While the Olympus E-P1 has a thinner body overall, Panasonic opted for the inclusion of a rounded grip on the right side of the GH1.  I, for one, welcome this compromise in size.  I find the GH1 more ergonomically appealing as a result of the grip.  With the E-P1, I always felt like I needed to hold on to something else other than just pinching the body in my hands.  The GH1, however, gives me something to grab hold of.

In addition to well balanced size, I also loved the control layout of the GH1.  It reminds me a lot of the more advanced Nikon cameras.  There are plenty of buttons and switches on the outside of the camera, which makes adjusting common settings a breeze.  There’s no digging through menus to make simple adjustments.  While newcomers may find the wealth of adjustment options intimidating, more seasoned photographers will appreciate the ease with which they can modify things like focusing mode, shutter release mode and ISO settings.

The inclusion of the 3-inch rotating and swiveling LCD is a plus in my opinion.  It makes the camera a more versatile in still shooting and video situations.  I found myself using it to get low to the ground for casual shots that I wouldn’t otherwise crouch or lie down on the ground to capture.  As a result, I caught more unique images in everyday shooting situations that I would have missed without the tilt/swivel display.  As I have previously observed when reviewing the Nikon D5000, such a display adds more comfort to video shooting situations as well.  Being able to hold the camera at other heights than eye level feels much more natural to me than awkwardly holding the camera out from your body as is required with the Canon Rebel T1i during video capture.

All-in-all, the Panasonic GH1 is an ergonomically sound camera.  While it’s not as compact as the Olympus E-P1 kit, it’s not really supposed to be – given the zoom range that the GH1 offers.  Throw a short prime lens on the GH1 though, and you’ve got yourself a much smaller package that’s closer to the E-P1′s overall size.

Panasonic GH1 Performance

Panasonic GH1

The GH1′s performance falls somewhere in between a fast point and shoot camera and a DSLR.  While I found the autofocus performance sorely lacking in the E-P1, the focus speed of the GH1 is much quicker and, overall, acceptable.  The biggest advantage of the GH1′s autofocus system as compared to the Olympus E-P1 can be found when shooting video.  The GH1′s continuous AF system actually works when shooting video.  The E-P1 was simply too slow to be of any use for video recording.  The GH1 keeps your scene in focus and it stays quiet while it autofocuses, which is something else that Olympus can’t do with its kit lens.

Shutter response is immediate with no sense of delay.  You get the feeling that you’re shooting with a DSLR when handling the GH1.  Motion tracking with the LCD and electronic viewfinder works pretty well.  As long as you don’t have a subject moving too fast, you can follow smoothly with the with either one.  Scurrying toddlers shouldn’t give you too much trouble; however, if you’re panning after race cars or motorcycles, then the electronic display system might have some difficulty keeping up.

The included 14-140mm HD MEGA O.I.S. lens performs pretty well for a superzoom lens.  I was pleased with the optical image stabilization results for the most part.  The biggest obstacle is finding suitable light at the long end of the zoom range when the maximum aperture is a rather dim f/5.8.  This means that shutter speeds in all but the brightest light are going to be quite slow.  As a result, it is difficult to use available light indoors when you’re at the long end of the zoom.  The 140mm telephoto point equates to 280mm on a 35mm camera, which means you might be able to stretch it down to 1/60s or 1/30s for the steadiest of hands with the help of image stabilization.  Chances are though, if you are down in this shutter speed range, you’ll have more luck getting your shots with the on-board flash turned on, especially if your subject is moving.  The lens has its pros and cons, and by far the biggest limitation I found was shooting indoors without flash.  I like the lens as a walkaround and think it really completes the GH1 as handy, family camera.

Overall, shooting with the Panasonic GH1 is a pleasure.  So long as you treat the GH1 like a casual camera, you never really get the sense that you’re handling something inferior to a DSLR.  While it won’t go toe to toe with prosumer DSLRs like the Nikon D300s and Canon 7D, the GH1 performs up to most of the expectations that I had for it.

Panasonic GH1 Image Quality

Panasonic GH1

Image quality is another point where we have to say, “better than a point and shoot camera, but not quite as good as a DSLR.”  The GH1 will cover your family vacation with flying colors; however, I wouldn’t book any weddings with the GH1 in hand.  Aside from the performance limitations, I never found the GH1 to be a real knockout with the images it produced.  I think part of that limitation can be chalked up to the lens.  Generally speaking, superzoom lenses suffer from a compromise in optical quality for the sake of convenience of having such a large zoom range at your disposal.

Again, this isn’t to say that it won’t serve most consumers well, and the quality is definitely going to be an improvement over your $150 pocket camera.  I just don’t see the potential for anything beyond hobbyist photography from the images taken with the GH1.  As a nod to E-P1 users, I thought the Olympus camera had better overall image quality than the Panasonic GH1.  While I didn’t have both cameras in hand for a side by side comparison, my general feeling was that the E-P1 with its kit lens outshines the GH1 kit by producing sharper images and images with lower noise throughout the range.

I also found ISO performance to be about par for the course with this camera.  It’s not going to best your Nikon D300s; however, it will show up your point and shoot camera throughout the ISO range.  To really test out the noise performance and sensitivity of a camera, I prefer to shoot in darker environments and see what shows up.  For the GH1, I took it out and captured several handheld shots in the city at night and then set the camera up on a tripod for an overlook of the cityscape and a full run-through of the ISO range.

The following images are the results of the low light test that I put the GH1 through.  All images were captured using auto white balance and JPEG large / fine quality.

Feel free to click on any of the images or the links below the chart for the original files to inspect for personal use (or, right-click and choose “Save as…”).  Please do not reproduce any images on the Internet or elsewhere without permission.

Panasonic GH1
ISO 3200 – f/5.6 @ 1/8s

Panasonic GH1
ISO 3200 – f/5.6 @ 1/30s

Panasonic GH1
ISO 3200 – f/5.6 @ 1/8s

Panasonic GH1
ISO 3200 – f/5.8 @ 1/40s

Panasonic GH1
ISO 3200 – f/5.6 @ 1/5s mounted on a tripod.  This image shows the scene used for the below ISO test.

Panasonic GH1 ISO Test

Panasonic GH1 ISO 100

Panasonic GH1 ISO 200

Panasonic GH1 ISO 400

Panasonic GH1 ISO 800

Panasonic GH1 ISO 1600

Panasonic GH1 ISO 3200

If you’re interested in seeing some more images from the GH1, you can see the prior post of Panasonic GH1 Sample Images.

Panasonic GH1 Video Performance

Panasonic GH1

The GH1 really impresses as a video camera.  The 1080p video looks very good on my computer monitor.  Unfortunately, the video editing software shipped with the camera is very limited and I was unable to get a video exported to share with you.  While the software allows you to upload directly to YouTube, it appears to downsize it to a very odd size, which is actually smaller than the YouTube player itself.  This was very disappointing when you consider the GH1 currently retails for $1500.

You can trim footage and burn DVDs directly from the included software; however, if you want to get fancier with the 1080p footage, which is encoded in AVCHD format, you’ll need to have a more serious editing program and some time on your hands.  You can more easily edit and process files that are shot a resolutions of 720p and lower with the GH1, which I wish I had done for the sample footage I shot with the GH1 for this review.  If I were using this camera on a daily basis, I think I would just use 720p video capture and enjoy an easier editing and file portability format.

Image stabilization and continuous, automatic autofocus really help out with making the GH1 a viable video camera.  The lens is practically silent for autofocus or zooming during playback, which is something the Olympus E-P1 can’t say.

Other than the hiccups working with the AVCHD format in 1080p files, I was very pleased with the GH1′s video performance.  So far, it is my pick as the best all-around photo/video hybrid camera, with autofocus being the kicker.  It’s a still camera that I would actually use to capture casual videos.

Panasonic GH1 Accessories

As noted above, the GH1 is part of the larger Micro Four Thirds system, which means the GH1 can use and Micro Four Thirds lenses.  Panasonic and Olympus’ lens line is growing, and you will probably be able to find something to fit your needs in the specific Micro Four Thirds lineup.  However, if you can’t find exactly what you need, there are a number of lens mount adapters dedicated to expanding the options for Micro Four Thirds users.

Items that you might want to pick up when purchasing the GH1 include an SD memory card and a spare battery.  I have a stash of Kingston SD cards.  There’s nothing really all that special about these cards, but they are cheap and work just fine in the GH1.  If you demand the utmost speed out of your camera, then you can pony up for some SanDisk Extreme SD cards, which help clear the buffer a little faster if you are shooting repeated photos or lots of video.  If you’re going to shoot a lot of video with the GH1, I would suggest getting larger memory cards since the HD video files can chew up memory fast.

The GH1 uses the DMW-BLB13 rechargeable  lithium-ion battery.  These batteries retail at about $55, which isn’t cheap, but it will save your neck if you’re out when the battery in your camera dies.  If you’re the type that recharges religiously, then you could probably skip this accessory; however, if you like the peace of mind of having a backup, it probably wouldn’t hurt to pick one up since you’ll be using a lot of juice with the electronic viewfinder and LCD as well as the image stabilization system.

Conclusion

Panasonic GH1

I was really pleased with the GH1 as a fun and capable alternative to a DSLR.  It’s certainly not a camera for everyone; however, it’s a camera anyone can pick up and start using.  If all the buttons are too intimidating, it’s easy to pick the GH1 up, set it to Auto mode and start shooting.  Users wanting to move up from a point and shoot camera to something with better image quality will instantly benefit from the GH1′s larger sensor.  Likewise, point and shoot owners will be familiar with the live view LCD on the camera’s backside, while those more familiar with DSLRs will appreciate the bright electronic viewfinder, which has a very “DSLR” feel to it.

After familiarizing yourself with what the Panasonic GH1 can and can’t do, weigh your needs and wants in a camera before you pull the trigger.  Those who end up purchasing the GH1 after due consideration will likely have the camera that’s just right for them.  It’s not a camera for everyone, but for the right crowd it’s a great gap filler between the point and shoot and DSLR worlds.

Where to Buy the Panasonic GH1

I recommend B&H Photo as a trusted online resource for cameras like the Panasonic GH1, along with a range of lenses and accessories to go with it.

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{ 1 comment }

1 David October 1, 2009 at 8:43 am

It’s a lot of money for a in-between camera

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