Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 Review
Look and Feel
If you've seen the DMC-G1, then you've seen the GH1 -- they look identical, save for the dedicated movie recording button on the back of the latter. That makes the GH1 a compact camera, but not as small as one would've hoped, given the possibilities of the Micro Four Thirds format. Below you can see a comparison of the GH1 next to the Olympus E-620, which is the smallest D-SLR with a rotating LCD:
As you can see, the GH1 is smaller than the E-620, but not significantly so. The most obvious difference can be seen in the top view, where the GH1 lacks the huge, bulging optical viewfinder of the E-620.
The good-sized grip makes the GH1 easy to hold (though can be a bit slippery), and there's a dedicated spot for your thumb to rest. Like on the DMC-G1, some of the controls aren't terribly well-placed. The worst offender is the control dial on the front of the grip. It's too low, and way too easy to bump. I found it pretty easy to bump the drive switch (which sits under the mode dial), as well. And while I'm at it, the four-way controller buttons are too small for my large, clumsy fingers.
In terms of build quality, the GH1 is well put together. The exterior shell of the camera is made of a kind of rubberized plastic, and the chassis is probably a mix of plastic and metal. While the original DMC-G1 was available in black, silver, and red, the GH1 will only be sold in black here in the States. In other countries, it may be available in red and gold, as well.
Alright, now let's see how the DMC-GH1 compares against other interchangeable lens cameras (that includes D-SLRs) in terms of size and weight. As before, I'm only listing cameras with live view support.
Not surprisingly, the GH1 has the same size and weight as the DMC-G1. Those two cameras are the smallest and lightest on the list (by far), though the Olympus E-420/450 (not on the list since it lacks a rotating LCD) isn't much larger.
Okay, let's start our tour of the DMC-GH1 now, beginning with the front view.
Here's the front of the DMC-GH1 with the lens removed. The Micro Four Thirds lens mount you see is smaller than a regular Four Thirds mount, and it has two extra electrical contacts, as well. One thing that hasn't changed is the 2X focal length conversion ratio, so the field-of-view will be twice that of what it says on the lens you attach (regardless of whether it's a MFT lens or a traditional FT lens). You can release an attached lens by pressing the silver button to the right of the mount.
In the center of the lens mount is the GH1's 12.1 effective Megapixel Live MOS sensor, which is different than what came on the DMC-G1. Ever since the G1 came out, I wondered how much of a problem dust would be, since the sensor is closer to the lens mount, and has no mirror to protect it. After using both the G1 and now the GH1, it doesn't seem any worse than any digital SLR. The GH1 does have the "Supersonic Wave Filter" ultrasonic dust reduction system, which shakes dust away when the camera is powered on, which no doubt helps.
Directly above the lens mount is the GH1's pop-up flash, which is released manually. This flash has a guide number of 11 meters at ISO 100, which makes it less powerful than its D-SLR competitors. Should you want more flash power, you can attach an external flash to the hot shoe that you'll see in a little bit.
To the upper-right of the lens mount is the camera's AF-assist lamp, which is used as a focusing aid in low light situations. I found it pretty easy to accidentally block the lamp with my fingers, so keep that in mind when you're shooting in low light. This lamp also serves as a visual countdown for the self-timer.
Over on the grip you'll find the GH1's sole command dial. As I said earlier, I'm really not a fan of its location -- it needs to be about half an inch higher -- but that's just my opinion.
One of the nicest features on the DMC-GH1 is its flip-out, rotating LCD display. While it may seem gimmicky at first, rotating LCDs are actually quite handy. You can take photos over the heads of people in front of you, or take "ground level" photos of your kids or pets. You can also turn the screen around to take a self-portrait. The LCD can rotate a total of 270 degrees, from facing your subject all the way around to facing the ground. It can be put in the more traditional position (shown below), or closed entirely.
And here is the LCD in the fixed position. The screen is the same one as on the DMC-G1, with 460,000 pixels. As you'd expect, everything is super sharp. Like all of Panasonic's screens, it has superb visibility both outdoors (with Power LCD turned on) and in low light (where the screen brightens automatically).
Above the LCD is what may be the best electronic viewfinder in the world (Panasonic calls it a Live View Finder). Panasonic lists the resolution of the viewfinder at 1.44 million pixels, though that's a bit misleading due to its "field sequential system" design. In reality, the resolution is more like 480,000 pixels -- still twice what you'd usually find. The design of the EVF allows for better color and sharpness, and an ultra-smooth 60 fps refresh rate. You may notice a flickering or rainbow effect on the EVF if you blink or quickly pan the camera around, and that's a side effect of the LCoS technology used. Something else nice about the viewfinder is the size: it's 1.4X magnification (35mm equivalent) is well above what you'll find on a typical digital SLR. The viewfinder has an sensor that knows when your eye is against it, so you can switch between the LCD and EVF without pressing a button. You can adjust the focus of the EVF by using the diopter correction knob on the left side.
Alright, now let's talk about the live view experience on the DMC-GH1. Since there's no optical viewfinder, you'll be using live view 100% of the time. Panasonic has done a stellar job implementing this feature, in so many ways. The LCD and EVF are both sharp, display 100% of the frame, and have excellent refresh rates. You can see your subject just as easily in bright light as you can in low light, though do note that that nice refresh rate will start to disappear in dimly lit rooms. The camera's 23-point autofocus system performs extraordinarily well, but more on that later.
|That histogram can go anywhere in the frame that you want||You can even create your own grid lines|
So what else can you do in live view mode? You can have a live histogram, even choosing where it goes on the screen. You have three choices of grid lines that can be superimposed, one of which is customizable. The icons that are at the top and bottom of the screen are actually menu shortcuts, which you can access by pressing the Quick Menu button on the top of the camera.
Frame enlargement in manual focus mode
If you're manually focusing, the center of the image can be enlarged by 2X or 4X. When you're zoomed in, you can move around the frame by using the four-way controller.
LCD info display
If you're using the EVF, you can choose to have the camera display its current settings on the LCD. Here you can also adjust any of them by pressing the Quick Menu button on the top of the camera. When you press your eye to the viewfinder, the info display disappears automatically.
Alright, back to the tour now. The button to the left of the EVF can be used to switch between it and the main LCD (the eye sensor can be disabled, by the way). Over on the opposite side we have buttons for playback as well as AE/AF lock. Continuing to the right, we find a new addition to the GH1: a dedicated movie recording button. Press it once to start recording, and again to stop. If you're already in movie mode (courtesy of the mode dial), you can use the shutter release button to start and stop your movie recording.
To the right of the LCD are two buttons, plus the four-way controller. The buttons are for Display (toggles what's on the LCD/EVF) and depth-of-field preview + deleting a photo. You can also use the DOF preview button to get a simulation of the current shutter speed. You'll use the four-way controller for menu navigation, reviewing photos that you've taken, and also:
- Up - ISO (Auto, Intelligent ISO, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200)
- Down - Function (custom) - by default this adjusts metering
- Left - AF mode (Face detection, AF tracking, 23-area, 1-area)
- Right - White balance (Auto, sunlight, cloudy, shade, incandescent, flash, preset 1/2, color temperature)
- Center - Menu / Set
There are two Auto ISO modes on the GH1. Auto ISO will boost the ISO as needed, up to a maximum of 400. Intelligent ISO, which is the default in the auto shooting modes, analyzes subject motion and adjusts the sensitivity accordingly. You can set the maximum sensitivity that it will use in the menu system.
The Function button is customizable. It can adjust the aspect ratio, image quality, metering mode, Intelligent Exposure mode, guide lines, recording area, and remaining display (more on those last two later).
|Focus point sizes||The camera locked onto all six faces|
There are four focus modes to choose from on the GH1. In 1-area mode, you can select not only the area in the frame on which to focus, but you can select from four focus point sizes, from tiny to huge. Next we have 23-point AF, which is good for everyday shooting. For people pictures, you can select from face detection or AF tracking mode. The face detection feature can find up to 15 faces in the frame, making sure they're properly focused and exposed. The system performed very well -- just like it does on Panasonic's point-and-shoot cameras -- locking onto all six faces in our test scene. The AF tracking option allows you to "lock on" to a subject, and the camera will follow that person as they move around the frame. If you've got "face recognition" turned on, the camera will identify any faces it remembers, and give them focus priority (though it misidentified someone in the screenshot above).
White balance fine-tuning / bracketing screen
The GH1 offers several white balance options, including the usual presets, two custom spots (for which you'll use a white or gray card as a reference), and the ability to set the WB by color temperature (from 2500K to 10000K). If that's still not enough, you can fine-tune white balance in the amber/blue and green/magenta directions, bracket for it, or both!
And that's it for the back of the camera!
Now let's look at the top of the camera, starting on the left side. The first thing to see is the focus mode dial, which has three options: single, continuous, or manual focus. Single AF locks the focus when you halfway-press the shutter release. Continuous AF is always trying to focus, even with your finger off the shutter release. Manual focus lets you use the "fly-by-wire" dial on the lens to set the focus distance yourself. Since there are no focus distance markings on the lens or on the LCD/EVF, you have to use your eyes to figure out what the current focus distance is.
Moving to the right, we find the GH1's hot shoe. You'll get the best results with one of the lenses I mentioned back in the accessory section of the review, as they'll sync up with the camera's metering system. If you use a third-party flash, you will need to adjust its settings manually. The GH1 can sync as fast as 1/160 second with an external flash.
Above the hot shoe is one of the new additions to the GH1: a stereo microphone. The camera records sound using Dolby Digital Stereo Creator, and there's a wind cut feature as well, for recording audio outdoors. If the built-in mic doesn't do it for you, then you can attach the external microphone (that I mentioned back in the accessory discussion) to the hot shoe.
Next up is the camera's mode dial, which has a ton of options for an SLR-like camera. Here's what you'll find on the dial:
Lots to talk about before we move on. The easiest things to explain are those manual exposure controls: they're all here, as you'd expect, from aperture to shutter speed. The custom spot on the mode dial can hold up to three sets of your most commonly used settings. While you can record movies in any shooting mode, the creative motion picture mode is where you can adjust things like aperture and shutter speed -- a feature that's most uncommon on digital cameras.
If you want a more point-and-shoot experience, then you may want to use Panasonic's Intelligent Auto mode. This combines several technologies into one, including face detection, auto subject tracking, automatic scene selection, Intelligent Exposure (which brightens shadows), and Intelligent ISO control. Point the camera at something close, and it switches into close-up mode. If there's a person in the photo, it will switch to portrait mode and lock on to their face. You can even have the camera track the face as the person moves around the frame. It's all very well done, giving you a real "point-and-shoot experience" on an interchangeable lens camera.
|The advanced scene modes give you more control that you'd usually get||The "creative" night portrait option lets you adjust the aperture in a simple manner|
There are plenty of scene modes to choose from, as well. The less-common ones can be found on a single spot on the mode dial, and include the famous "baby" mode, which records the age of up to two children into a photo's EXIF headers. The scene modes that get their own spot on the dial are called "advanced", and they give you more options than your typical scene mode. For example, under night portrait you can select from portrait, scenery, illuminations, or creative. The "creative" option lets you the user adjust the aperture, though you'd never know it by how the camera represents it (see above right).
The "My Color" mode is a point-and-shoot mode which gives the user "sliders" to adjust color, brightness, and saturation -- consider this the "easy" mode on the GH1.
Underneath the mode dial are switches for power and drive, though I found the latter quite easy to accidentally bump. The drive options include single-shot, continuous shooting, bracketing, and self-timer. First, let's talk about the continuous shooting mode on the GH1. There are two speeds to choose from -- low and high -- and here's how the camera performed:
The DMC-G1 won't break any speed records, especially when compared to similarly priced D-SLRs. The LCD does keep up well with the action, with a minimal blackout between each shot.
The bracketing option lets you take 3, 5, or 7 shots in a row, each with a different exposure. If you have a big memory card in the camera, this is a pretty good way to ensure proper exposure every time. You can also bracket for white balance (described earlier) and film mode (described below), as well.
Navigating the Quick Menu
To the right of the mode dial are two buttons. The top one opens up the Quick Menu, which allows you to adjust settings that are displayed on the screen (whether you're using the icon view or the info display) without having to enter the main menu. I'll tell you about all of those options later in the review.
|Adjusting Film Mode properties||Bracketing film modes|
The Film Mode button lets you select from various preset color and contrast settings. The choices include standard, dynamic, nature, smooth, nostalgic, vibrant, and black & white (standard, dynamic, or smooth). For each of these, you can adjust the contrast, sharpness, saturation, and noise reduction. If you don't want to mess with the originals, there are two My Film slots that can contain your own custom settings. The camera also allows you to bracket for up to three film modes in a single shot.
The last thing to see on the top of the camera is its shutter release button.
Here's the side of the DMC-GH1, with its 14 - 140 mm kit lens attached. I kind of feel that this giant lens sort of defeats the purpose of the Micro Four Thirds concept -- it's not such a small camera when you're using this large lens. The only thing to mention about the lens (aside from its size) is the switch for turning the Mega OIS (optical image stabilization) system on and off.
On the body itself are the camera's I/O ports, which are protected by rubber covers. Let's peel them back for a closer look:
The ports here include:
- External microphone + remote control (above my finger)
- Mini HDMI
- USB + A/V out
The GH1 can connect to a high definition television via its HDMI port. The necessary cable won't be included, so pick one up from someplace cheap like Monoprice, since Panasonic wants a bundle for theirs.
As you'd expect on a high end camera, the GH1 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, for fast data transfer to your Mac or PC.
On the other side of the GH1 you'll find its memory card slot, which is protected by a reinforced plastic door of average quality.
You can see just how huge the 14 - 140 mm lens is when it's fully extended -- it's a monster!
On the bottom of the camera you'll find a metal tripod mount (inline with the lens), plus the battery compartment. The door over the battery compartment is sturdy, and has a locking mechanism. You can see the DMW-BLB13 battery over on the right.