Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 verdict
Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-GH1 is one of the most complete cameras we’ve tested, and one that achieves a number of ambitious goals. Unlike many rivals where features like Live View and video recording are often compromised and feel bolted-on to satisfy marketing demands, they’re core and very capable parts of the GH1’s specification. Then there’s things like the screen which is not just fully-articulated, but also large and detailed, when most cameras force you to choose one over the other. It’s not just about gadgetry either, as Panasonic has taken care over the traditional photographic respects with good controls and a stabilised super-zoom kit lens.
This becomes all the more impressive when you remind yourself the GH1 is only the second model to be based on the recent Micro Four Thirds Standard, and lest we forget, from a manufacturer that isn’t one of the original photographic brands. To succeed in today’s market, Panasonic needed to hit the ground running with the Micro Four Thirds, and it certainly hasn’t disappointed.
Much of what makes the GH1 special and unusual has been seen before in the original Lumix G1, the model which launched the Micro Four Thirds standard. Both cameras are virtually identical, other than the GH1’s video recording capabilities, which physically add stereo microphones and a record button to the exterior.
While the microphones increase the GH1’s height by 6mm over the G1, it remains a very compact camera. It’s roughly the same width as typical budget DSLRs, but a little shorter and much thinner, while still offering a comfortable grip. The G VARIO 14-140mm kit lens unsurprisingly increases the size and weight of the package much more than the G1’s kit lens did, but the overall combination remains roughly similar to a typical budget DSLR kit while crucially boasting a much longer 10x optical range.
One of Micro Four Thirds’ goals is ease of use, and the GH1’s permanent Live View system means it can inherit the best of the technologies available to today’s compacts, including Panasonic’s cunning Intelligent Auto mode, Scene and Face Detection. Switch the camera to Intelligent Auto and it’ll competently do everything for you, or head to traditional PASM when you want more control. It’s also nice to find tactile dials and switches for the AF and drive modes on such a compact body, when most manufacturers would rely on buttons and menus.
As we said in our G1 review, Panasonic has also done a great job in addressing the concerns of DSLR traditionalists over the loss of the optical viewfinder and phase-change AF system. Like the G1, you have the choice of a large, detailed and fully-articulated screen or the superb Live View Finder for composition, the latter in particular forcing you to reconsider any negative views on electronic viewfinders.
Admittedly in low light, the viewfinder can suffer from noise and a slower refresh, and we were also disappointed to lose the live image between frames in a continuous sequence, but for many the pros will outweigh the cons. Few DSLR viewfinders at the price are as large and none allow super-imposed colour graphics, nor magnified manual focusing views. And as we said at the top, most rival cameras force you to choose between a large and detailed screen, or one that can flip-out, whereas here you have both.
Contrast-based auto-focusing may have a bad reputation thanks to disappointing implementations on DSLRs with Live View, but here it’s as quick as the best compacts, snapping the subject into focus as quickly as phase-change systems do on budget DSLRs, while also boasting broad 23-area coverage and face detection that’s actually usable.
So far so good, but everything we’ve said to this point equally applies to the earlier G1, so what about the headline movie mode of the GH1? In terms of quality, the GH1’s movies can certainly look very good, although footage taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark II has the edge – you can download and compare samples from both in our 1080p shootout. What makes the GH1’s movie mode really special though is the ease with which you can film, along with the control and encoding options which are all but absent on rivals.
First things first: unlike most rival models, the GH1 can continuously autofocus while filming. There are a number of caveats to be aware of, such as needing an HD-certified lens to autofocus in the 1080p mode, and also that focusing is more responsive in the lower 720p modes, but at least the camera’s doing it at all.
Secondly unlike most rivals which only offer automatic exposures while filming – or force you to jump through hoops to make minor adjustments – the GH1 gives you full manual control. It’s a little odd to select P, A, S or M from a menu rather than the mode dial, but all four modes are available, allowing you to adjust the shutter and aperture to your heart’s content. Admittedly Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II now also offers manual control with a firmware update, but it’s a much pricier camera, and there’s still no Aperture or Shutter priority options – and lest we forget, while most cameras force you to the instructions to figure out how to actually start filming, the GH1 has a simple red record button the back.
Third, while most rivals only offer one HD quality setting, the GH1 offers the choice of 1080p or 720p, in addition to AVCHD or Motion JPEG encoding formats, although the latter only operates at a maximum of 720p. Fourth, unlike most cameras with movie modes, the built-in microphones are half-decent, and there’s also the option to connect an external microphone.
And fifth, Panasonic has actually thought about not just the body for video, but also the lens. Most interchangeable lenses were not designed with video in mind, and suffer from audible aperture and AF adjustments, along with noticeable jumps in brightness between f-numbers. Not so with the G VARIO 14-140mm kit lens, which as Panasonic’s first HD-certified model, operates quietly and with discreet aperture adjustments.
It all adds-up to the most complete video experience of any hybrid camera to date, and the effort bears-out in practice. There are of course some imperfections: most notably, the slower auto-focusing and occasional searching in the 1080p mode, not to mention the fact it needs an HD-certified lens to even attempt the AF process. So unless you can work around this, we’d recommend shooting in the 720p modes, allowing snappier AF and greater lens compatibility.
We should also note the GH1 is not immune to the infamous ‘jello’ effect, especially during handheld filming, and particularly when also attempting any twists of the zoom ring. So if you mostly shoot handheld and enjoy smooth and motorised zooming, then a dedicated camcorder remains a better bet. Enthusiasts and pros will also still prefer models like the 5D Mark II, not just for its much bigger sensor, but also the broader selection of lenses, at least without an adapter anyway. But again if you want the best all-round video experience from a hybrid camera, the GH1 is now the model to beat; for a detailed report, check out our GH1 Movie Mode page.
The video capabilities of the GH1 may over-shadow the stills, but they’re certainly very respectable. Despite having a physically smaller sensor, we found the GH1 roughly matched the output of Nikon’s D90 / D5000 models up to 1600 ISO, with the Nikon’s only taking a decisive lead above 1600 ISO. You can see a complete comparison on our GH1 High ISO Noise results page.
This is turning out to be a pretty glowing verdict, but there are some downsides to be aware of. Beyond the movie mode caveats mentioned above, the continuous shooting mode doesn’t show a live image between consecutive frames, which can make it tricky to recompose if necessary without stopping. This, along with the relatively slow 2.7fps shooting rate in practice, rules it out for serious action photographers.
The GH1’s default processing on still photos can also look a little restrained compared to rival models; they can certainly handle a boost in sharpening if that’s to your liking. While the processing on the earlier G1 also held back in this respect, the GH1’s kit lens is a little softer overall, especially in the corners.
Sticking with the optics, the kit lens may have a lot going for it, but equally it could prove to be the GH1’s Achilles’ Heel. At the time of writing, the GH1 was only available with the G VARIO 14-140mm, and the simple fact is the combination is noticeably more expensive than most DSLR kits. For around half the price of the GH1 kit, you could buy the Canon 500D / T1i, Nikon D5000 or Olympus E-620 kits – and that’s a huge difference.
But it’s crucial to remember the GH1’s kit lens isn’t a basic 3x model, but a considerably more powerful 10x super-zoom. As such we should really compare the prices of rival bodies when they’re equipped with a similar lens range, such as the Canon or Nikkor 18-200mm models. When you do this, the prices become roughly the same, but remember only the GH1’s lens has seamless and silent aperture adjustment while filming, along with discreet AF.
On top of that you’re getting all the advantages mentioned above including compact size, auto-focus while filming, and a large articulated screen. So when you compare like-with-like, the GH1 actually represents good value for money, but the fact remains many will take one look at its price tag and turn away without fully considering what they’d be getting. It’s a problem for Panasonic, and while the G VARIO 14-140mm is the perfect partner for the GH1, there should be an option to buy it in a cheaper kit, or indeed for other Micro Four Thirds owners to buy this handy super-zoom lens separately. At the time of writing, Panasonic announced no plans for either.
So before our final verdict, how does the GH1 compare to its rivals?
Compared to Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
The closest model to the Lumix GH1 is of course the original Lumix G1 – it’s essentially the same camera, but without the movie mode and sold with a smaller kit lens. The body, design and controls are identical (other than the record button and slightly raised head to accommodate the microphones), and both models sport the same fully-articulated screen and high resolution Live View Finder.
At first glance it would therefore appear to be a case of weighing up how much you want or need the movie mode and 10x zoom of the GH1 and whether it’s worth paying the extra. There is however one other small difference worth noting: the actual sensor resolution. As described above, the GH1 may output 4:3 images with the same 12 Megapixel 4000×3000 resolution as the G1, but unlike the G1, this isn’t the native resolution of its sensor. The GH1’s sensor is actually slightly larger with 14 Megapixels in total, allowing it to accommodate wider aspect ratios without cropping the image or compromising the field of view. A neat trick which we’ve seen on some of Panasonic’s compacts.
As for the G1, it may not have a movie mode, but if you don’t need the facility, it remains a superb camera we can highly recommend. Many will also find the smaller and lighter 14-45mm kit lens better-balanced for the camera’s already compact form-factor. As most of the attention is focused on the newer GH1, prices on the G1 may also tumble, so keep a close eye on them. See our Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 review for more details.
Compared to Canon EOS 500D / Rebel T1i
Canon’s EOS 500D / Rebel T1i is a popular choice for those who want a step-up from a budget model, with HD video, so is a natural rival for the Lumix GH1. There are however considerable differences between both models.
In its favour, the Canon 500D / T1i features higher resolution (15.1 Megapixels vs 12.1), a physically larger sensor with four times the maximum sensitivity (12,800 ISO vs 3200 ISO), a more detailed screen (920k vs 460k dots), slightly faster continuous shooting with a live image between frames (3.4fps vs 2.7fps in our tests), free PC remote-control software, longer battery life (with the optical viewfinder), an optional battery grip, and a much larger lens catalogue, at least without the use of adapters anyway. As a traditional DSLR, the 500D / T1i features an optical SLR viewfinder which traditionalists, action, or night photographers will prefer to the 100% electronic live-view system of the Lumix GH1. The standard 500D / T1i kit is also almost half the price of the GH1 kit.
In its favour, the Lumix GH1 has a smaller body without compromising comfort, a fully-articulated screen, an electronic viewfinder which supports super-imposed colour graphics and magnified manual focus assistance, a smoother 1080p mode (24 / 25fps vs 20fps), autofocus and full manual exposure control in movies, built-in stereo microphones, an external microphone input, the choice of video encoding formats, and a live view system with fast autofocus and usable face detection. The GH1 kit may also be comfortably pricier, but comes with a 10x super-zoom with quiet adjustments compared to the basic 3x lens with the Canon.
The choice between them is similar to the choice between the GH1 and other DSLRs with movie modes. A great deal boils down to your personal feelings about adopting a new system with 100% live view composition as oppose to a traditional DSLR with an established lens catalogue (at least without adapters). Some may simply prefer having an optical viewfinder, and it’s certainly better in very low light or when shooting action, but the flip-side to the coin is that features like Live View and video recording can’t help but feel bolted-onto a DSLR, whereas they’re built from the ground-up into the GH1. If these features are important to you, then the GH1 simply offers a more powerful and seamless experience.
As for the price difference on the standard kits, it’s once again important to remember the GH1 comes with a 10x lens compared to the 3x on the Canon. Fit the latter with something comparable and the prices become roughly the same – and we’d certainly recommend fitting a better lens to the 500D / T1i to make the most of its high resolution sensor. For those who prefer a traditional DSLR with modern frills though, the 500D / T1i is one of the best models around – see our Canon EOS 500D / Rebel T1i review for more details.
Compared to Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
If you like the idea of a hybrid camera for stills and video, but don’t need removeable lenses, a big sensor or manual control for movies, then Canon’s PowerShot SX1 IS is an excellent alternative to the GH1.
In its favour, the PowerShot SX1 IS has double the optical range with a whopping 20x zoom and motorised operation which prevents wobbles. The HD mode may only record video in full 1080p, but does so with a very mild compression rate. The continuous shooting rate of 4fps (confirmed in practice) is comfortably quicker than the 2.7fps reality of the GH1, although the SX1 IS is not auto-focusing between frames at this top speed. Some may also prefer its use of AA batteries. The major advantage though is price with the SX1 IS coming-in at almost one third of the price of the GH1 kit.
The GH1 is of course a considerably more sophisticated camera, with two extra Megapixels, a bigger and more detailed screen, a vastly superior electronic viewfinder, multiple video options including manual exposure control and the choice of formats, an external microphone socket, and of course the low noise and shallow depth-of-field benefits of a much larger sensor along with the potential flexibility of removeable lenses.
But while the GH1 is unsurprisingly a more powerful camera, it’s important to note the Canon SX1 IS may already do everything many people want in a package that costs almost one third the price while also boasting double the zoom range. See our Canon PowerShot SX1 IS review for more details.
Nikon’s D5000 and D90 models are also natural rivals for the Lumix GH1, although their video is limited to 720p only. Once again the same considerations listed in our Canon 500D / T1i comparison apply here, although this time the two Nikons give you the choice of either a fixed but large and detailed screen (the D90), or a smaller and coarser but articulated screen (the D5000). See our Nikon D90 and Nikon D5000 reviews for full details.
The relatively high price of the Lumix GH1 kit will inevitably have many people wondering if it’s worth spending more and reaching for the Canon EOS 5D Mark II instead. Obviously this is a much more expensive proposition, costing more than double the GH1’s kit with the standard EF 24-105mm f4.0L IS zoom, but there are significant benefits. Just for starters you’re getting almost double the resolution for stills with a considerably larger full-frame sensor, and in our view, the Mark II’s 1080p video looked slightly cleaner and crisper.
But for all its sophistication, the 5D Mark II is lacking continuous autofocus while filming and the choice of HD quality and encoding formats, not to mention built-in stereo microphones and an articulated screen – all of which you get on the GH1. If you demand superior stills and can live without the frills for video though, the 5D Mark II is hard to beat, and enthusiasts will love the larger format sensor and access to a broad lens catalogue. See our Canon EOS 5D Mark II review for more details.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 final verdict
As we said at the top, Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-GH1 is the most complete and well-rounded hybrid camera we’ve tested. Both the stills and movie capabilities are very well thought-out and implemented, with few compromises to mention. Considering this is only the second Micro Four Thirds camera on the market (and so closely based on the first), it’s an extremely impressive start for the youthful standard.
The GH1 simply appeals on multiple levels. Physically it’s compact without compromising comfort, and those wanting to travel light will greatly appreciate a kit that’s slightly smaller than rival DSLRs even when fitted with a 10x super-zoom. It’s easy to use with great automatic modes, yet has enough control and sophistication to keep enthusiasts happy. Still images could do with a boost in sharpening, but there’s plenty of detail and similar noise levels to industry leaders up to 1600 ISO. There’s a great screen, which doesn’t force you to sacrifice quality for articulation. Then there’s the movie mode which unlike most rivals, offers continuous autofocus, manual exposure control and the choice of HD quality and encoding formats. It’s also great to have a 10x super-zoom range in the standard kit, with the additional bonus of discreet AF and aperture adjustments.
So what’s not to like? Technically speaking the large and detailed Live View Finder may be a triumph under general conditions, but it does become slow and noisy in very low light, and there’s also no live view between frames during continuous shooting. So we’d rule-out the GH1 if you’re serious about action or very low light photography. There’s also a number of restrictions involving autofocus in the movie mode, particularly when using the Full HD 1080p setting – although it seems slightly churlish to complain when most rivals don’t attempt to autofocus at all when filming.
The biggest problem is the relatively high cost of entry. At the time of writing, Panasonic was only selling the GH1 in a kit with the G VARIO 14-140mm lens, and while they’re an ideal combination, the super-zoom lens inevitably makes the camera look expensive compared to rival kits. Once again, the fair comparison would be against a DSLR that’s also equipped with a 10x lens, at which point most combinations cost roughly the same.
But critically, rival DSLRs are available in much cheaper kits, whereas the GH1 is not. This is a shame as there’d be many who’d prefer to spread the cost by buying the GH1 body first with, say, the 14-45mm zoom, before investing in the 14-140mm at a later date. Such options would also make the GH1 look more competitive against rival models, whereas as it stands, many will be frightened-off by the price without even realising it includes a premium 10x lens.
Those who reject the Lumix GH1 on what looks like a high price or a departure from DSLR traditions will however be missing out. The GH1 succeeds in multiple respects, delivering a seamless stills and video experience that’s ultimately very satisfying and fun to use. If shooting video is equally important as stills, the Lumix GH1 is simply one of the best options so far. Panasonic has done a great job with its first two Micro Four Thirds cameras, and with the Olympus E-P1 joining the party, the new format really is shaping-up to be one of the most innovative and exciting on the market.
(relative to 2009 budget-DSLRs)
17 / 20
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17 / 20