Hands on: Panasonic Lumix GH1 review
25th May 2009 | 09:00
Panasonic adds video to its Micro Four Thirds stunner
When Panasonic's G1 camera was released at the tail end of last year, there was an exciting feeling that the device could open up the DSLR market to consumers who would never have thought of getting rid of their compact and upgrading to a mid-range shooter.
The beauty of the camera was that its compact size meant that it didn't scare newbie snappers away from the DSLR market. This is all down to Panasonic's much-heralded Micro Four Thirds system.
Its successor, the GH1, is the same in body as the G1 but in spirit it packs more of an imaging punch – in the form of HD video shooting.
SHARP SHOOTER: The Panasonic GH1 has video-shooting capabilities
Here at TechRadar, we have had many a reservation about why you would want this feature on a camera. It's the same the other way around – still-image shooting on a camcorder is rarely an enjoyable experience, more of an afterthought after you have shot all the footage you need.
But then we saw what the camera can do in the hands of a moviemaking expert. UK filmmaker Philip Bloom, who has worked for the Discovery channel HD and Channel 4 HD among others, demoed the feature to us in the guise of two short films, which were brilliantly conceived and superbly shot, completely turning the HD video setting from an apparent gimmick into a viable and valuable feature on the camera.
After an afternoon handling the GH1 at its UK launch, we were impressed with just how much well the camera performs. Although we were given a pre-production model to play with, everything that was right about the G1 is included plus that little bit more.
The body is impressively compact (3.3 x 4.9 x 1.8 inches) and light. The chassis is a mixture of plastic and metal, and the red style we were given meant that aesthetically the camera is pleasing – a nice change from the normal black.
SAME DIFFERENCE: The GH1 uses the same chassis as the G1
Using a 14-140 Lumix HD lens, shooting was fairly simple. There's a chunky Mode dial on the right-hand side, with the normal range of settings (Auto, Program, Manual. Scene etc), underneath this is the on/off button and connected to the dial is a quick switch to the various 'multiple shot' modes.
While you could spend hours tweaking and adjusting with the features the in-camera menus bring, for those who want to point and shoot, the option is there.
Capturing portraits is a cinch with the cameras 23-point autofocus system works extremely quickly, meaning that even the Mr Magoo's of the camera world will be able to film a friendly face in focus. Couple this with the Face Recognition feature and you are laughing.
And even though there are modes for both pets and babies, the cameras shoot speed feels a little sluggish at times, so unless you have patient subjects you are going to have some interesting photographs.
FOCAL POINT: The camera's autofocus is impressive, even when working overtime
Like its stable mate, the GH1 makes good use of an electronic viewfinder. Instead of lining up your shots with the LCD, put the camera to your eye and it will automatically squeeze the view into the eyepiece. It's a fair swap for an optical viewfinder – the reason the Micro Four Thirds system is smaller is that it has done away with the mirrors needed for an optical viewfinder – and worked just as well in the time we played with it, with little judder or grain you usually associate with this type of digital technology.
In fact, the electronic viewfinder is a bit of a plus when it comes to using the HD video function as it means you can view the video you are shooting either by the moveable three-inch LCD screen or the eyepiece.
In our tests both worked well. Using the 14-140 Lumix HD lens, the camera filmed movie footage well. Instinctively, it's a bit odd to shoot any sort of video on a DSLR body but what we shot was decent.
POINT OF VIEW: The electronic viewfinder is great for shooting video
For some reason the autofocus did rack in and out on occasion and no manner of different modes managed to stop this quirk. It wasn't enough to ruin the footage, however.
We would definitely recommend purchasing a video camera tripod to use the camera on, as this will stop any slight movement in the shots ruining focus.
Be warned, as well, there's only a small selection of lenses currently compatible with the movie mode – the Lumix lens we used being one of them.
Once you have shot your movie, there's a mini HDMI connection on the left-hand side of the camera to plug and play the footage straight to a HDTV.
DIGITAL DETAIL: Both images and video were sharp and well-detailed
There are a number of movie modes available for shooting video, and the inclusion of a 60fps mode, which means you can slow down footage by half in the edit suite with ease. And as Philip Bloom pointed out in his glowing speech for the technology: "everything looks good in slow motion".
Unless you have a high-capacity SD card, however, you will soon find space to be a premium, with the AVCHD files eating memory. Also, when we used the video option, the battery seemed to drain much quicker than if you were just shooting stills.
In the end we grudgingly gave back the GH1 to Panasonic, impressed with its ease of use and filled with nothing but praise for what it brings to the camera market.
If you are completely non-plussed about having video capabilities on a 'not quite technically speaking' DSLR, then give the GH1 a miss and point your focus to the G1.
Panasonic has been pitching its G1 and GH1 cameras as "Like an SLR only SMLR". At £1,299 the GH1 is an impressive machine perfect for the mid-range camera enthusiast. We only wish the price was also that little bit SMLR.