Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 Review

How Does it Compare?

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 is a compact, interchangeable lens camera that does double-duty: it takes photos and high definition video. Unlike most "hybrid" devices, the GH1 pulls both off quite well, though it's not without its issues. The GH1 takes good quality photos, offers a second-to-none live view experience, and has a host of automatic and manual controls. On the video side, you can record at resolutions as high as 1920 x 1080, with continuous autofocus, image stabilization, and all the zooming you can eat, courtesy of the new 14 - 140 mm kit lens. The main downside of the movie mode (at least at the highest resolutions) is that the AVCHD codec is a real pain in the you-know-what to work with (good old Motion JPEG is available for 720p and below, thankfully). Another big issue about the GH1 is its price: at $1500, it costs nearly twice that of the original DMC-G1. In other words, you're going to need to be pretty hardcore about video to spend the money on the DMC-GH1. If you choose to do so, I think you'll be pleased with all that the camera has to offer.

Like the DMC-G1 that came before it, the Lumix DMC-GH1 is a compact interchangeable lens camera that uses the Micro Four Thirds standard. While it's small compared to a digital SLR, it's not something you can put into your pocket -- especially with the kit lens attached. Speaking of which, the new F4.0 - F5.8, 14 - 140 mm kit lens is what makes the GH1 stand out from the crowd. It offers a 10X, 28 - 280 mm (equivalent) focal range, optical image stabilization, and the ability to quietly focus continuously while you're recording a movie. Unfortunately, this lens is on the soft side, and its maximum aperture range makes it less than desirable for shooting in low light situations. The GH1 works with other Micro Four Thirds lenses and with legacy Four Thirds lenses as well, both having a 2X focal length conversion ratio. While some of these lenses support continuous AF in movie mode, they won't be as quick or as quiet as the kit lens. The GH1 uses a newly designed 12.1 Megapixel Live MOS sensor, which seems to have less noise than the one on the DMC-G1. Since the sensor is a lot more exposed to the elements than one on a D-SLR, a dust reduction system is a necessity, and the GH1 uses the same Supersonic Wave Filter that has been around for several years now.

The GH1 is generally well put together, though ergonomics are a mixed bag. The camera has a nice sized grip (which is a big reason why the G1/GH1 aren't as small as some would've liked), though it's a bit slippery. Panasonic put a lot of buttons, switches, and dials on the camera, and some are too small, while others are too easy to bump accidentally. I'm not really a fan of the placement of the camera's front control dial, either. The GH1 is a live view only camera, and Panasonic didn't skimp on the LCD or the electronic viewfinder. The LCD can flip to the side and rotate 270 degrees, and it features a superb 460,000 pixel resolution. The large electronic viewfinder has roughly 480,000 pixels, and it's easily one of the best you'll find. Both the LCD and EVF offer very good visibility in bright outdoor light and in dimly lit rooms. The live view experience on the GH1 is truly amazing, with super-fast autofocus, face detection (now with a face recognition feature), and all the bells and whistles a point-and-shoot user is familiar with. If you've been disappointed with live view on a D-SLR, you'll feel quite different here. The GH1 also features a stereo microphone and the requisite hot shoe, which can also take an external microphone, for the serious movie-shooters out there.

As I mentioned, the DMC-GH1 really feels like a point-and-shoot camera, but don't worry, it has more than its share of manual controls. If you want the simplest shooting experience, just throw the camera into Intelligent Auto mode, and the GH1 will do the rest. That includes picking a scene mode, detecting faces, brightening shadows, and boosting the ISO based on subject motion. The face detection system works very well, and you can even "register" a face, so if they crop up again, the camera will give them priority, and store their name and age in the photo's metadata. If you'd rather pick a scene mode yourself, there are several to choose from, including some "advanced" modes that give you a bit more manual control. If you want real manual controls, the GH1 offers them, whether its for shutter speed, aperture, white balance, or focus. The white balance can be adjusted to your heart's content, with two custom settings, color temperature adjustment, fine-tuning, and bracketing. Like its D-SLR counterparts, the GH1 also offers "film modes" which let you have various sets of image parameters.

That brings us (back) to the GH1's movie mode, which is its standout feature. You can attach any lens to the camera and record a movie (which allows for lots of creativity), you'll probably want to use the 14 - 140 mm kit lens for best results. Again, this lens allows for continuous autofocus during filming, which you'll need if you zoom in or out, or if your subject is moving closer or further from you. While all this is nice, I much prefer using a powered zoom, like you'd find on a compact camera or camcorder, as it's difficult to smoothly operate the zoom on the kit lens. Want to adjust the shutter speed or aperture in movie mode? You won't need a firmware upgrade -- the GH1 can do it straight out of the box.

The GH1 records video at 1920 x 1080 (1080p), with a "cinematic" frame rate of 24 fps using the AVCHD codec until your memory card fills up (except in Europe). You can also record at 720p (1280 x 720) at 60 frames/second, with three quality settings to choose from. If you're hooking up the camera directly to an HDTV, creating a Blu-ray disc, or just putting your SD card into your Playstation 3, then the results will be stunning. If you plan on editing movies on your computer, prepare for some headaches -- AVCHD is already not the most editor-friendly codec out there, and the fact that the GH1 wraps its 24 fps movies in an interlaced 60 fps file makes things even more difficult. The good news is that you can use the more traditional Motion JPEG codec, though you'll have to drop the resolution to 1280 x 720 (at 30 fps), and deal with a 2GB file size limit. Naturally, you can also record movies at lower resolutions, as well.

Camera performance is very good. The GH1 is ready to start taking photos almost as soon as your finger has left the power switch. Like its predecessor, the GH1 focuses exceptionally quickly, with speeds rivaling that of traditional D-SLRs with their dedicated focus sensors. Even in situations where the camera struggles to focus a bit, it still completes the job in one second or less. You wouldn't expect any shutter lag on a camera like this, and there isn't any. Shot-to-shot speeds are minimal, regardless of the image quality setting or whether you're using the flash. The camera's continuous shooting performance isn't as impressive as other cameras in the GH1's price range. You can take up to four RAW and an unlimited number of JPEGs at just under 3 frames/second. While the DMC-GH1's battery life is nearly as good as what you'd get using the viewfinder on a traditional D-SLR, by live view standards, it's pretty good (though I'd recommend picking up a spare battery).

The GH1's photo quality was very good. Photos were generally well-exposed, though it did underexpose by a third of a stop on more than a few occasions. Colors were vivid -- no complaints there. The original DMC-G1 was a little soft, and the GH1 seems a bit worse, though I think the kit lens has something to do with that. If you agree, it may be worth turning up the in-camera sharpening a notch or two. While it's not quite as good as the best D-SLRs in terms of noise, the DMC-GH1 is competitive, and a bit better than the G1. You can safely shoot through ISO 400 in low light and ISO 800 in good light -- and shooting RAW will let you go a little higher. Panasonic cameras automatically remove purple fringing, so that wasn't an issue. I did spot some highlight clipping here and there, but it wasn't major. Redeye levels were mild.

If you're looking for a compact, interchangeable lens camera that can record movies in Full HD, then then Panasonic DMC-GH1 is the only game in town (yes, the Canon EOS-5D Mark II can do it too, but it's not in the same class). The GH1 is both a very capable digital still camera, and its video recording abilities are impressive, as well. The AVCHD video format is not for the faint-hearted, and you may need to purchase some pricey software in order to actually edit it, so keep that in mind. At least Panasonic gives the user the option of using M-JPEG, at least for 720p and below. The bottom line here is that the GH1 is a solid pick if you're after a camera/camcorder hybrid -- if you like the camera but don't need the video capabilities, then the much cheaper DMC-G1 is worth a look as well.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality
  • Compact body by D-SLR standards (though not so much with the kit lens attached)
  • Excellent live view shooting experience
    • High resolution, 3-inch rotating LCD display
    • Ultra sharp and very large electronic viewfinder
    • Fast refresh rate on both screens; very good outdoor/low light visibility
    • Super-fast contrast detect autofocus
  • Records movies in Full HD with continuous autofocus, image stabilization, and manual controls available
    • Stunning quality when connected to an HDTV
    • Unlimited recording time (unless you're in Europe)
    • 14 - 140 mm kit lens gets closer to the camcorder experience than any D-SLR
    • Choice of AVCHD or M-JPEG codecs
    • Adjustable wind cut filter available
  • Dust reduction system
  • Full manual controls, including numerous white balance controls
  • RAW image format supported, powerful (but clunky) editing software included
  • Intelligent Auto mode picks a scene for you, detects faces, tracks a moving subject, and brightens shadows, all automatically
  • Robust face detection feature, now with a "memory" option
  • Custom spot on mode dial, customizable function button, make-your-own grid lines
  • Optional external microphone
  • HDMI output

What I didn't care for:

  • Expensive
  • Images on the soft side, possibly due to the kit lens
  • Not quite as clean as the competition at highest ISOs
  • Slow kit lens; bulk takes away from the compactness of the GH1
  • AVCHD movies are a pain to edit, may require additional software purchases; bundled software can only trim movies
  • Design annoyances: poorly-placed front command dial and drive switch; small four-way controller buttons; AF-assist lamp easy to block
  • Burst mode could be faster
  • No focus distance shown on lens, or on LCD/EVF in manual focus mode
  • Limited lens selection at this point (though old Four Thirds lenses work with an optional adapter)

Some other cameras worth looking at include the Canon EOS Rebel T1i, Nikon D5000, Olympus E-620, Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1, Pentax K-7, and the Sony Alpha DSLR-A380.

As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera store to try out the Lumix DMC-GH1 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Check out the GH1's image quality in our extra-large photo gallery!

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If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.