Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1K Review

February 26th, 2010 · 2 Comments · Digital Camera/Camcorder, Product Reviews

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By Al Caudullo

Videographer Al Caudullo reviews Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-GH1 digital camera with an emphasis on its HDTV camcorder performance.

Panasonic really did its homework designing the DMC-GH1. It uses the Micro Four Thirds System standard, which eliminates the mirror box and employs an optical viewfinder, replacing it with a high resolution LCD eyepiece.  The result, a compact package that feels comfortable and solid.  For the consumer looking for a step up from the pocket camera but doesn’t want a big DSLR, this is just the right choice.

The interchangeable supplied 14-140mm Leica Vario lens is significantly heavier than the body. Panasonic didn’t scrimp by trying to make a light body and light weight lens. And as any pro camera person knows, the lens is what can make all the difference. You can have a great camera body but put a cheap lens on it and there is no way to get good quality results.

So what to shoot to put the GH1 to the test? I thought about it a while and called a few friends and asked if they would like to help. After some, “no really Panasonic sent me this camera to test…” I managed to get a few Thai models to meet me at a roof top pool in the heart of Bangkok.

Needless to say, shooting bikini models for a few hours to test the camera was a very fun way to go. The results as you can see above, were excellent (set the resolution pull down menu on YouTube to 720p resolution for the best view). The camera boasts a 12 megapixel sensor. It allows you to shoot in various formats including 1:1, 4:3, 3:2 and 16:9. The auto focus is quick and features a follow me mode which is very helpful when shooting video. The ISO sensitivity is good but not great. Moderate and strong lighting conditions provide excellent results. The low light images do get a little grainy but acceptable. Image capture is stored on SDHC card, which make it very easy for transferring your images to your PC when shooting is completed. The kit comes with a 14-140mm Leica lens which covered me easily in all the shooting situations that I ran into. But it is nice to know that you can change lenses for any situation that you may run into.

With the stills in hand I turned to the real reason for testing the GH1, the HD video.

The one thing about all digital video cameras is the assortment of frame rates and codecs. It’s kind of like going into an ice cream shop and just asking for “ice cream”. The puzzled look of, “well, what flavor?” can be frustrating. Even with the pros, the debate rages on about which frame rate and codec is best. I won’t debate that here.

The GH1 shoots video in two different formats, AVCHD and Motion JPEG.

There are two resolution settings for HD video. In AVCHD the highest resolution is 1920×1080 (recorded at 24fps then encapsulated in the 1080i format for compatibility) , the same as Blu-ray. And you also get 1280×720, which is the same as ABC, ESPN, Fox and other broadcast and cable HDTV networks.

Motion JPEG offers 1280×720, 848×480, 640×480 and 320×240 all at 30fps.

Simply put, AVCHD is fast becoming the flavor of choice for prosumer and pro digital video. Motion JPEG is not as highly compressed as AVCHD but with the right software AVCHD is definitely the way to go for good HD. Motion JPEG is captured on an .mov format and plays back easily on QuickTime player in your computer. For my testing I did both the 1080 AVCHD and the 720 Motion JPEG.

As for frame rates, pros and film people love 24 fps 1280 x 720 (60 fps). It gives that “Cinematic” look. Broadcast TV on the other hand lives in a world of 30fps (or more accurately 29.97fps). As to which is better? I can only say, do you like vanilla or chocolate ice cream? The opinions are as varied as the answer to that question.

The well laid out camera controls makes the shooting process smooth and easy. The zoom ring can be a little tricky and you will have to practice to get a steady controlled shake free zoom. But with some effort you can achieve it. The autofocus and subject tracking works very well and keeps you out of trouble in that area. I am a very big fan of the live histogram. I have it on my Pro Camera and it is a fantastic tool to keep your shots looking good. I also liked the auto switch built in to the EVF (Electronic View Finder). It made it easy to switch between the flip-out swivel LCD screen and EVF just by putting the camera to my eye.

Look at the results in this post, noting you are viewing it over the internet compressed for that delivery format. My judgment is that this camera performs very well for the image sensor size. It gives very good, crisp HD video in most shooting situations. The proviso is the same mantra of any digital video camera. You must have three things, good light, good light and oh yeah, good light. Without proper lighting the image quality falls dramatically.

AVCHD uses a keyframe-based compression. That means that it records full image information only every so often. In between these “key frames,” only frame to frame differences are recorded. The GH1 uses a constant data rate of 17 Mbits/second, when there is a lot motion, significant amounts of data gets discarded due to the limits of AVCHD compression. But, if most of the image is stationary, with only a little bit of motion, detail remains very good. For an improvement with high motion subjects, choose the 720p in AVCHD mode.

The GH1 has a built-in stereo microphone, located on the top of the pop-up flash, which does a very good job. The 14-140mm kit lens (equivalent to a 35mm 28-280 zoom), is essentially silent when autofocusing.

There is also a sub-mini stereo mike input, and Panasonic makes a stereo cardiod mike, which attaches to the hot-shoe and plugs into the mic jack.

The audio is technically pro quality at 44 KHz/ 16 bit no matter which mic you use. However, the better the microphone used yields better sound quality.

The only real problem is that audio is completely automatic. There are no level controls, making the GH1′s audio ok for amateurs, but not great. There is no way to turn the Auto Gain Control (AGC) off, and also no way to monitor audio while recording (no headphone jack).

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As an avid Nikon user I never really looked too far for a still camera. But after having some fun with the GH1 I have to tell you that I was impressed. The Micro Four-Thirds system is a big improvement over the previous systems. The still quality is excellent although the response rate of the camera is slow compared to its’ bigger DSLR cousins.

Although I would not use it in place of my Pro Cameras, it is a solid well designed camera. It made an excellent behind the scenes camera for my 3D shoot. It would most definitely give the average consumer a very high quality results whether still shots or HD Video. Coupled with the supplied Leica Vario lens the GH1 makes a sweet design earning a solid 4 out of 5 hearts ♥♥♥♥.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Patrick K. Callaway

    I held off buying a DSLR for years due to the size, cost, and complications. My past experience was with film SLR’s in the 70′s and 80′s. The DSLR’s just seemed like big slugs with too many buttons. MY point and shoot digital canon was just fine, thank you.

    I bought this unit because of its size and customer reviews. I am extremely happy with it. Compact enough, suitably automatic when needed, suitably manual when needed, extremely long battery life, reasonably easy controls, great picture quality. I bought two lenses (wide to slight tele and long telephoto zoom) and both are fine and I got an adapter for my old pentax film lens set.

  • james

    I have a Canon Digital Camera. I LOVE taking photos. I travel often, and I enjoy taking pictures of architecture, landscape, etc. I am by no means an expert, however, and wonder, with the recent influx of “Phone Camera’s”being used, whether there is any point in pursuing photography with an actual camera. I would very much like to learn the minutiae of photography, but if everyone is merely content to snap pics with their phone, is it a dying art?

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