Panasonic DMC-GH1 Micro Four-Thirds camera
HD video with a super smooth lens, what's not to like?
Review Are we at the point where people will only buy one product to film and take great stills? Instead of camcorders that can take the odd sub-10Mp image, camera manufacturers are coming at it from the other side and offering HD video on models previously only equipped for stills. The Lumix DMC-GH1 is the camera that Panasonic left the door open for with the previously 'photo-only' DMC-G1.
Video nicety: Panasonic's DMC-GH1
Sharing the same 12.Mp sensor as the DMC-G1, the DMC-GH1 is almost identical in specification, so rather than repeat all of its functions here, take a peek at our earlier DMC-G1 review for details. Yet its the HD video capabilities that are the real difference, which, combined with a growing range of interchangeable lenses, can shift us away from the ‘sharp throughout’ video capture we are accustomed to and deliver better images that have a look more akin to Super 8 or even 16mm.
This camera, as with the DMC-G1 before it, is of the Micro Four-Thirds variety, which is a branch of the Four-Thirds standard that Panasonic, Olympus and Leica have adopted; producing lenses and bodies for cameras that have a mix of DSLR looks and dimensions, only slightly smaller.
An additional adaptor ring will allow all other makes of Four-Thirds lenses to be used, but only ones with contrast-detect AF will constantly autofocus. The Lumix G Vario HD 14-140mm F4.0-5.8 lens is a 28-280mm 35mm equivalent and comes with the body in the basic lens kit. This lens has an incredible range and could be used for all sorts of wide close-up filming, as well as capturing at a very respectable distances.
Another zoom lens available, is the Lumix G Vario 7-14mm/F4.0 ASPH. It’s slightly faster and offers music video friendly wide angles, but it lacks the 'Vario HD' label for video, due to the absence of the smooth, ultra-quiet motor and seamless aperture adjustment. This is something to be aware of because the DMC-GH1 can continuously autofocus during recording of video with its near-silent Vario HD lens system.
Using LCD screen instead of the viewfineder soon becomes a habit
Even so, this camera can be adapted to work with all kinds of lenses, not just the Four-Thirds standard, including 16mm and 35mm PL mount cinema class glass. But Panasonic isn’t just pandering to the relatively small indie filmmaker market here. It is going to sell a lot of these to people who want the autofocus feature. That said, Panasonic must have been listening to filmmakers, as it has given them full manual control, right off the bat.
By design, the DMC-GH1only offers electronic 'Live’ view – there’s no reflex mirror to flip up. Consequently, its size and weight makes you feel like you are holding a big compact, as it is a light, inconspicuous, go everywhere camera that feels well-balanced when married to its 14-140mm zoom lens.
This versatile LCD Live view panel allows you to work in very tight situations
The DMC-GH1 shoots video in two flavours: AVCHD and MJPEG. This is genius. When wanting something you can share with anyone with a computer you shoot the MJPEG MOV 720p with a frame rate of 30p. When you are thinking you might make a Blu-ray out of your shoot and want the best quality available, you can choose the AVCHD 25fps 1080p option. You could even try the special effect attributes of 720p at 50 fps, which records faster moving objects more crisply or can deliver great slow motion when used on a 25fps timeline.
The DMC-GH1 does make beautiful moving images at any size, even down to the MJPEG 320x240 preset. AVCHD (H.264) is a fine acquisition and delivery format, just don't try editing it without transcoding it into something else first. This may slow users down enough to put them off, but persistent ones will find their way and love the smaller file size on card that is half that of MJPEG.
Another well-implemented feature here is the flip out LCD screen, not a first, but it does 270° round and 180° out, in a way that is intuitive and works well even in bright sunlight. You can shoot impossibly low, and over people’s heads and still have a very accurate compositional chance. Using the viewfinder alternative is strangely similar to that ‘analogue’ image on DSLRs, but just a bit too vivid. Having tried the flip-out LCD screen there seemed little reason to go back, apart from saving battery life perhaps or when you’d like people to think you are just taking stills. Beware the quiet ones who don't take the camera from in front of their faces.
Serious filmmakers will use everything in manual mode, including the focus and exposure, and, thankfully, everything can be locked. The average buyer will more than likely opt for various auto options to ensure they capture the event. Indeed, this appears to be the only camera to offer continuous autofocus and face detect whilst recording video – a real nod to making a product that rivals present camcorder technology, with the only downside being the maximum recording length.
The supplied lens is designed for smooth, quiet autofocus operation when filming
Hard disk camcorders can go for 15 hours, but still cameras with video, such as the DMC-GH1, when sold in the EU are restricted to 29mins 59 secs. MJPEG has a 2GB file size limit too. However, most things we record nowadays, apart from presentations and school plays, are attention-sensitive, down to 10 mins or less – certainly the case in storytelling with movies. Regarding storage, even though Class 6 is recommended a Sans Disk Class 4 SDHC recorded AVCHD quite happily, though.
Video and Lens Tests
In use, the menu and quick menu access on the camera are excellent. Lumix compact users will recognise these immediately, and others will find their way very quickly. There are menus for recording, playback and global choices. On the top is a Q Menu, which takes you to a step through of all functions on the screen without having to leave the Preview window.
Compact users will feel very much at home with the navigation menus
There is also a quick Film menu underneath it for getting into the different looks that come pre-programmed – Black and White, Vivid and so on, plus a couple you can customise yourself. It’s very nice for keeping consistency of a sort – sharpness, contrast, amount of saturation – though most may well shoot flat and then do all that in the editing post-production process to have more control. You can check out the sample shots to see the various preset flavours.
Another great feature that seemingly works better than the competition is the stereo microphone built into the flash pop up. Audio capture utilises the Dolby Digital Stereo Creator recording format and – while the mic itself has no separation to speak of – it does record what is in front of it very well. In situations where you have time, you would double track using a separate specialist audio recorder but, for run-and gun, this on-board mic is perfectly adequate.
That said, the DMC-GH1 really could do with headphone out socket to check the quality of the signal and to check that your external mic's batteries haven't died, as there is a mic input. Yet this appears on a 2.5mm jack, which is a bit unfriendly. Panasonic makes its own DMW-MS1 microphone, which is a perfect fit, of course, or with an adaptor you can add your own shotgun. Unfortunately, the recording levels can’t be adjusted manually but, to be fair, audio control like that belongs to semi-pro camcorders and beyond.
Apart from some AVCHD livery, the dedicated record video button is one of the few items that tell you this is a hybrid. You can shoot stills whilst it is recording video and you don't have to take your eye away from the viewfinder. Yet when gripping the camera it was easy to start recording by accident, so this function was soon disabled from the menu, which is an excellent option.
Mic input, but no headphone monitoring, alas
For stills there are the usual program modes available; varying in how much control you want. In Program AE, the camera automatically selects the shutter speed and aperture – you ride the ISO. Scene Modes offer a multitude of presets with camera taking care of business. Aperture and shutter Priority – sure you can guess – yet one important thing to note is the DMC-GH1 can shoot video in any record mode.
Flash is good for about 2.5m and features the usual red-eye reduction, slow synchro w/red-eye reduction and off. Flash exposure compensation has a ±2 EV range in 1/3 EV increments – quite a professional feature. Exposure too, has similar fine-tuning and bracketing that can be applied over three, five or seven frames. Good to see, but this is maybe a hang over from the days of film, as it’s unlikely 1/3 EV difference either side could be detected on most people’s dusty monitors.
A pop-up flash is there if you need it
When used with studio flash the DMC-GH1 produced very accurate colours – a little too sharp, but easy enough to tone down in the options. Firing a radio trigger off the hotshoe, the shutter sync was a very respectable 1/160th. Still, you should be able to go higher than that given that this camera has no mirror mechanism. Indeed, rather than go above ISO 800 on this camera, use a tripod or a wall if a slow shutter is needed or resort to flash. The sensor is a reasonable size, but it is still going to get a bit de-saturated and impressionistic up at ISO 1600.
The camera’s sensor can be set to shoot at four different aspect ratios for stills – 4:3, 3:2, 16:9 and 1:1. Serious users will want to use all of the sensor and avoiding cropping but others wont touch their pictures before they are printed, so these are artistic choices. Of course, the DMC-GH1 shoots RAW as well as numerous JPEG sizes, so almost all white balance issues can be processed later using the supplied Silkypix Developer Studio 3.0 SE software for and Mac and Windows. With a mini-HDMI connector, HDTV playback of video and images can be viewed but you can’t see live HD direct from the camera.
The lens is not amazingly fast in light terms, being much better at the wide-angle end of things. However, it's not cheap either and contributes a large part of the cost of this kit. Having said that, it is a great piece of engineering. The only downside is the current choice of lenses that are compatible with all aspects of video capture on this camera. Once this is extended, this camera system will be used in a lot of tight spots that are beyond the reach of ‘proper’ movie cams. Indeed, the DMC-GH1 proved its worth whilst working on the Howard Jones music video Soon You’ll Go and was given the task of the crane view shots shown in the samples page.
The Panasonic DMC-GH1 shoots very pleasing stills with excellent metering, yet where it excels is in being able to offer filmmakers something very cheap in comparison to pro video cameras with larger sensors. It features several frames rates and very acceptable audio for syncing which is perfectly useable for grab interviews. But the mastertroke is the two format video recording: the snatch and grab MJPEG 720p and the camcorder-quality 1920x1080 25p AVCHD.
This camera stole a march on its very new rivals, the Nikon D300s and Canon EOS 7D, so now the choice will be more about the lenses you already own, or intend to own. Given the big names behind the Micro Four-Thirds system, it looks like it’s here to stay. So, if you have an inkling for filmmaking, and are prepared to grow with this new format, then the DMC-GH1 is the camera for you. ®
James Cumpsty is a professional photographer and videographer working in the music industry.
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