Panasonic GH2 £899
7th Feb 2011 | 14:21
Panasonic's latest Micro Four Thirds camera is good - but pricey
Panasonic GH2 Review: Overview
Panasonic has spent the last two and a half years pushing its Micro Four Thirds series as a credible alternative to the DSLR, and its models seem to have won over novices and hardened enthusiasts alike. Now, in its second generation of mirrorless cameras, the company claims to have improved on its original concept, with the benefit of user feedback from its debut offerings.
The latest GH2 picks up where its GH1 predecessor left off. The GH1 was a significant model in that it was the first in the G-series to offer video recording, and it went beyond simply including the function as an aside to stills functionality.
With full-HD resolution, a sound-dampened kit lens, continuous autofocusing and stereo recording as standard, it was clear that Panasonic's intentions were on the GH1 being as much about video recording as it was about still images.
Yet, with Samsung, Ricoh and Sony all having launched competitors in the meantime, the company has sensibly not rested on its achievements but updated the GH1 with a handful of improvements to create a successor.
Panasonic GH2 Review: Build quality and handling
The most immediate difference between the GH2 and the model it replaces is the articulated LCD screen, a feature inherited from the G2. While still at 3-inches in size and 460,000dot in resolution, the user is free to pivot the screen around a joint on its left hand side, turning it forward for self-portrait shots or against the camera to protect it while not in use.
By incorporating touch-screen functionality, many options may be accessed through the screen, which include setting the focus point and releasing the shutter, as well as magnifying directly into an area of the user's choosing while manually focusing. This technology proves to be particularly helpful when shooting portraits, and is far more preferable to selecting a focus point manually, although if Face Detection is activated the camera generally has no trouble locking onto the subject anyway.
The system only falters once a captured image has been magnified, as the screen's responsiveness tends to wane when zooming in and around the frame. Furthermore, some of the touch-sensitive controls are small and clearly designed to be operated with the supplied stylus than a larger finger, which isn't likely to please everyone.
Direct access to key controls is something many photographers appreciate, and thankfully the GH2 squeezes in an awful lot on the back and top-plate of the GH2. Between these controls and the Q. Menu option there's little reason to venture into the main menus while shooting, although the downside of having so much functionality on such a small body is that it will necessarily result in small and fairly cramped controls.
This is particularly noticeable if you're used to the greater breathing space afforded to the controls on a DSLR; with the possible exception of the mode dial it'd be hard to make any controls smaller without operation verging on awkward.
Even turning the mode dial any way but cautiously can easily mean knocking the drive mode switch out of position. At this price, some may also expect a slightly sturdier construction than the GH2's plastic shell, although this does help to keep the weight down to just 392g without a lens mounted.
The changes Panasonic has made since the GH1 was released are, on the whole, positive. With the command dial now on the rear of the body, the movie recording button has replaced the Q. menu button conveniently beneath the shutter release, and a customisable Fn button replacess the previous Film Mode option.
This Fn button is in addition to the two other function buttons which can be assigned to one of 18 options, and complements three Custom Settings on the mode dial and a My Menu option. Together with an assortment of custom functions in the menu system, this level of personalisation comfortably equals that of the average mid-range DSLR.
Panasonic GH2 Review: Controls and features
Arguably the most significant upgrades that Panasonic has made concern the GH2's sensor and processor, particularly as many of the company's claims for the new model concern these.
The 18.3MP Live MOS multi-aspect chip has more than 4 million more pixels than the GH1's sensor, which results in an effective resolution of 16.05MP over the same 17.3mm x 13mm area. As with the GH1, the 'multi-aspect' moniker refers to the camera maintaining the same angle of view with any chosen focal length, as different aspect ratios are selected.
Given the increase in pixel count, the expansion of the camera's sensitivity range – now from ISO 160 to 12,800 – may concern some, although Panasonic claims that revisions to both the sensor and processing technology mean that the camera can nevertheless turn out images with less noise than the GH1.
Specifically, changes to the architecture of the sensor are said to improve signal to noise ratio, while separate applications of noise reduction to chrominance and luminance noise allow for more effective noise reduction for different areas. Also, with three CPU's handling processing, Panasonic claims that its Venus Engine FHD boosts speed and performance in general.
In good light the LCD screen displays its feed with clarity and plenty of detail, and maintains good stability even when longer focal lengths are used. The same is also true of the upgraded live-view finder, now a little wider and at 1.533million dots, which does an excellent job of displaying detail right up to the corners and edges, and with no unsightly artefacts common to many other electronic viewfinders.
Understandably, as lighting conditions drop so does the performance of the two, but it's impressive how quickly the feed stabilises itself as the camera moves around a scene. Not only that, but even in darker shooting conditions the amount of noise visible on either device is surprisingly minimal.
Next to the same images presented on a calibrated monitor, however, the LCD can be a little cold in its reproduction of colour; quite how significant this is is debatable, although it's perhaps worth remembering when selecting white balance options in camera.
Panasonic has also made some noise about the GH2's focusing capabilities, and put to the test it's hard not to be impressed. With the Lumix G Vario 14-140mm f/4.0-5.8 optic fitted, the camera is able to swing from one end of its focusing scale to the other in a similar time to that of a comparable DSLR and optic.
AF tracking is also available in conjunction with continuous focusing, and as on previous Lumix models it does an excellent job, staying with the target as it travels around until it moves towards the peripheries of the frame.
During the test the only time the system was thrown off course was when shooting a white duck in a pond, as it became confused by the similar intensity and movement of surrounding reflections, but even here the system did brilliantly to keep track on most occasions.
Thanks to its far-reaching AF-assist light, the system continues to shine in poor lighting conditions, although it's here where it shows its shortcomings too. If the focusing point has been selected the camera generally can get it right, and get it right fairly quickly too, although when left to its auto setting it either struggles to work out where it should focus, or alternatively, claims to be in focus when it clearly isn't.
Whether it outclasses the performance of a DSLR in this area - as Panasonic claims - is debatable, but it can certainly hold its own in good light, and it does pretty well the rest of the time. Just that it can manage to compete with its DSLR peers is praiseworthy in itself, when you consider the physical disadvantage of its contrast-detect AF system.
Movie recording is arguably what the GH2 is all about, and the system makes a positive impression. The GH2 records full HD footage at 1920x1080 at 60i/50i for NTSC and PAL systems respectively, while 720p footage is recorded and output at 60p/50p.
For cinematic results straight out of the camera, a new Cinema Mode captures at 24fps, while stereo sound is recorded the camera's internal microphone as standard. A port for attaching external microphones is included, as is a HDMI output for transferring images and videos out of the camera.
Viewing video footage on the camera's LCD screen - both while recording and in playback - is a pleasure, thanks in part to the clarity and contrast of the screen itself, but also to the smoothness of the video. Moving subjects, or the camera moving in relation to some subjects, does introduce a touch of smearing, but otherwise subjects are captured well and with plenty of detail.
Just how smoothly the camera captures video is only apparent when the footage is viewed on a larger display, where the quality of sound recording can likewise be appreciated. With the 14-140mm optic there's with no distracting whirring from the lens's focusing motor, although certain situations do benefit from changes to the sensitivity of the camera's microphone and the wind cut filter, to cut down on ambient noise.
How the camera brings subjects into focus is likely to be a contentious issue. The priority is placed on speed rather than a gradual fluidity between focus on different areas, in contrast to Sony's SLT system, for example, whose cameras attempt to bring subjects into focus with a little more discretion.
Of course, this is only really relevant when the camera is left to its own devices, and it's less of a problem if the subjects all fall within a certain range of distances. Videographers using the camera in any professional capacity are also more likely to give greater consideration to the right lens choice for their requirements, manual focusing and so on, which again makes this less of a concern.
The relatively small sensor and comparatively poor availability of wide-aperture lenses does make it harder to isolate subjects in the way a full-frame camera can manage, although with a plethora of adapters now available for mounting many older objectives, this latter point too is surmountable.
Finally, although three guide line options are selectable from the menu system, the omission of an electronic levelling function is a disappointment, particularly as the articulated LCD means that the camera is likely to be held in unorthodox positions. This is fast becoming a standard feature on DSLRs and high-end compacts, so hopefully it'll make an appearance on future Micro Four Thirds models too.
Panasonic GH2 Review: Image quality
In averagely-lit conditions, raw images display no visible noise up until around ISO 800 where slight coloured patches begins to develop in shadow areas. Noise levels continue to rise steadily until ISO 6400 where dense chrominance noise begins to obscure details, and this becomes particularly heavy at the maximum sensitivity of 12,800.
Despite this cast, images details are still visible, just obstructed rather than destructed. For such a densely populated sensor, it's remarkable that images are able to maintain such quality at these settings, although, predictably, any attempts at processing away this noise require that some detail be taken with it.
In-camera JPEG processing does an excellent job of removing virtually all chroma noise from high-sensitivity images, though images lose a little of their bite because of this. Even so, the overall standard of JPEGs is above average, with fine details compromised to a lesser degree than perhaps expected.
We found JPEGs also show pleasing and accurate colour, with the Standard Film mode providing a welcome boost in contrast over Raw files. The choice of black and white modes is also sure to please monochrome enthusiasts, particularly the Dynamic Black and White option which produces high-contrast, atmospheric images straight out of the camera.
Exposures are balanced and consistent in a range of situations, and even when challenged with tricky scenarios the metering system can only be persuaded to slightly underexpose. The camera's auto white balance system can also be relied upon to provide consistent results in natural lighting, although some may find the more faithful results lacking a little of the punch of other cameras, where images are optimised a little to be more pleasing to the eye.
Under tungsten lighting the camera does impressively well and records the scene as it appears, and even under a mixture of different sources the camera makes good judgements as to an agreeable balance. Only certain fluorescent sources seem to lead the camera's auto white balance astray, although in this respect the GH2 is hardly alone.
The camera is available with the Lumix G Vario 14-140mm f/4.0-5.8 lens as part of a kit option, and not only does it offer a capable focal range but it proves its worth as an all-purpose lens. Its detail resolution is excellent, particularly at the centre of the frame, and sharpness is maintained at slower shutter speeds thanks to the lens-based MEGA OIS image stabilisation system.
At its telephoto extreme, the system produces sharp images at up to 1/25sec with ease, and even manages a few reasonably sharp results at 1/13sec. When the focal length conversion of the Micro Four Thirds system is taken into account, the represents an advantage of between three to four stops of usable shutter speed past the usual limits, which is on a par with comparable systems.
Panasonic GH2 ISO performance - Raw files
Panasonic GH2 ISO performance - JPEGs
Panasonic GH2 Review: Image quality test
As part of our review process we've implemented a new testing procedure. To test the Panasonic GH2 image quality, we shot our resolution chart, each with the Panasonic Lumix G Vario 14-140mm f/4-5.8 lens.
If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 160 the GH2 is capable of resolving up to 26/27 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.
Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:
ISO 160: 26
ISO 200: 26
ISO 400: 24
ISO 800: 22
ISO 1600: 22
ISO 3200: 20
ISO 6400: 16
ISO 12,800: 16
ISO 160: 28
ISO 200: 28
ISO 400: 26
ISO 800: 26
ISO 1600: 24
ISO 3200: 24
ISO 6400: 22
ISO 12,800: 20
Panasonic GH2 Review: Sample photos
1/160sec at f/5.6, ISO 160 (Click for full-res image)
1/1600sec at f/5.6, ISO 6400 (Click for full-res image)
1/2500sec at f/5.8, ISO 3200 (Click for full-res image)
1/25sec at f/7.1, ISO 160 - Nature Colour mode (Click for full-res image)
Panasonic GH2 Review: Verdict
As with the GH1, the Panasonic GH2 price will no doubt discourage a few. Current Panasonic GH2 prices are a penny shy of £1100 with the 14-140mm lens, but a significant portion of that cost is accounted for by flexibility and video-optimisation of the optic.
Becuase of this, the GH2 can be considered better value if both the video and stills functionality are required, rather than just the latter. A separate kit option with the 14-42mm lens can be found at £799.99, which makes it a little more attainable.
That the GH2 can manage such image quality is impressive in itself, but combined with stellar video output and an excellent focusing system really elevates it to a different level. There seems to be little reason not to recommend it for high-quality macro and still-life work. Indeed, it could even be argued that the articulated LCD and the breadth of focusing functionality on offer even make it preferable to some DSLRs.
Of course, DSLRs will continue to evolve alongside hybrid systems such as these, but if the Panasonic GH2 is a sign of things to come then we should all be looking forward to whatever happens next. With an abundance of functionality and superb image quality, the GH2 is one of the finest hybrid cameras that's we've seen yet.
Build quality: 4/5
Image Quality: 4/5
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