Photographers and camera manufacturers have been talking about building bridge cameras for more than forty years. Bridge cameras cover the gap between two drastically different types of photographic tool - like combining an auto exposure point and shoot digicam with a manual exposure interchangeable lens dSLR.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 was designed to provide the flexibility, manual exposure capability, modularity, lens interchangeability, creative functionality, and individual control of a dSLR without sacrificing any of the convenience, features popular with digital camera buyers, video options, or ease of use casual shooters expect from an "auto-everything" point and shoot. The Lumix GH1 updates the Panasonic Lumix G1. There are only few differences between the two cameras, and those are in the video arena.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The polycarbonate body of the GH1 looks and feels something like its historic predecessor - the iconic Olympus OM1 (the first compact 35mm SLR), but the similarities end there. The feature-rich little GH1 is a Micro Four Thirds format dSLR that is as compact and easy to use as many of today's long zoom Point and Shoot digital cameras.
One of the problems with the first generation of dSLRs with Live View LCDs was that they needed to drop the reflex mirror into the light path after the image was composed and the shutter button had been pressed to auto focus the lens. This made them slow and difficult to use for shooting anything other than basically static subjects in live view mode.
The premise behind the Micro Four Thirds camera design (conceived and developed by Panasonic and Olympus) was to do away with the reflex mirror - and the super complex Rube Goldberg mechanics needed to drop it into and flip it out of the light path to permit both live view and auto focus. This new approach made it possible to design smaller and thinner camera bodies that relied on Live View for both composing images and automatically focusing the lens.
Ergonomics and Controls
The Lumix GH1 features a polycarbonate body shell over a metal alloy frame with a stainless steel lens mount. The GH1 (which is just marginally larger than Canon's PowerShot G10 prosumer point and shoot) feels solid and substantially heavier than expected. This camera feels good in the hand. The integral grip nicely balances the camera when the 14-140mm kit lens is mounted.
The user interface is, in a word, busy. The GH1 has lots and lots of buttons and most of them are large enough, clearly marked, and reasonably placed for right-handed shooters. The two exceptions are the instant on video button and the IS (image stabilization) on/off switch on the kit lens.
The instant on video button is the GH1's most egregious design flaw. This button is too small and situated just below the top of the right side of the GH1's rear deck. This puts it in exactly the position where your thumb naturally rests with your fingers curled around the integral grip and since the GH1 can capture video in any shooting mode this means that you'll end up with a lots of video clips of disembodied feet, passing traffic, the ground, and the sky. A suggestion for the designers at Panasonic for the GH2 would be to move the instant on video button half an inch to the left and make it larger. This will allow the right thumb to anchor the shooter's camera grip and will require only a small shift of the thumb to access the video button.
The IS on/off switch on the 14-140mm kit lens is more of an irritation than a real problem. I carried the GH1 in my backpack when I wasn't using it. On a couple of occasions the IS switch was moved from the on position to the off position, inadvertently, when I pulled the camera out of my backpack.
Menus and Modes
Like most current digital cameras, the GH1 uses a two-stage menu system - a basic menu for quick access to commonly changed/adjusted settings and a full menu for complete access to more obscure options/functions. The GH1 has a very high tweakability quotient so the menu system is unavoidably complex.
The full menu is a bit clumsy and unintuitive at times since you must follow the page sequentially, starting at the top and scrolling your way to the bottom of each screen. The basic "quick" menu works much better in most cases since it provides direct access. The good news is that the GH1's menu pages provide large and easy to read text.
Here's a breakdown of the GH1's shooting modes:
I used the GH1 primarily in Program AE mode and in general the camera does an exceptional job in the auto exposure department. I did note a slight tendency toward underexposure (generally by about 1/3 EV) in the Program AE and Auto modes. This shouldn't be problem for the GH1's target audience since slight underexposure produces more intense colors, harder contrast, and better preserves highlight detail.
The other side of that coin is that even minor underexposure causes some loss of shadow detail, so shooters who are concerned about the GH1's very slight tendency toward underexposure in the Auto modes can simply dial in +1/3 EV of exposure compensation (in Program AE mode) or shoot in one of the manual exposure modes.
This is where the GH1 absolutely shines. The eye-level EVF and the fully articulated live view LCD screen really set the GH1 apart from its competition - in a class all by itself. One of the young athletes at the local extreme park stated (after watching me shoot a few images with the LCD screen in various positions) that the GH1's LCD was "da bomb" - I couldn't agree more.
The GH1 provides an eye-level high-resolution (1.44 million pixels) electronic viewfinder with approximately 100% field of view. Brightness, contrast, saturation, and hue can be adjusted to personal preferences and there's a diopter adjustment (for eyeglasses wearers) with a ±4.0 (m-1) range. Finally, there's an eye detection sensor that automatically turns off the LCD when you hold the camera up to your eye or you can turn the eye detection sensor off and utilize the EVF/LCD switch on top of the camera.
The GH1's camcorder style flip-out rotating (460K) 3.0 inch LCD screen tilts/swivels 180 degrees horizontally and 270 degrees vertically (the screen nests into the camera's rear deck when not in use and folds out, like opening a book, when deployed). The screen can be nested into its well (facing out) for traditional LCD viewing, or tilted/swiveled through a variety of shooting angles. When not in use the LCD can be flipped around and popped back into the monitor well (face-in) to protect it from scratches, smudges, and fingerprints.
The screen is bright enough to be used outdoors, in good light, but a better anti-glare coating would have noticeably increased the LCD's usability. The GH1 provides a very useful record mode (live) histogram display that converts the image area into a graphic representation of the composition -- making it easy for users to spot (and adjust for) under or over exposure. Both EVF and LCD automatically gain up (boost brightness) in dim/low light.
The GH1's LCD is bright, sharp, and can (unlike many dSLRs) be used as a viewfinder - to frame and compose images, just like with fixed lens Point and Shoot LCD screens. The LCDs on most digital SLRs can be used only for menu navigation and post-exposure image review. Flip out and position the LCD screen and then zoom, frame, compose, and expose - it's that simple.
The EVF/LCD info display provides so much data (everything anyone could possibly want to know) that it begins to eat up composition/Image review real estate and become a distraction - I kept it turned off most of the time.
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