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.
For those who love gadgets and the folks looking to buy a video camera that also captures still images, the Panasonic Lumix GH1 was designed for you. If video isn't your bag then the almost identical (but much cheaper) G1 is probably a better bet.
The GH1 comes in right in the middle of the pack in terms of timing - a bit slower across the board than most of its competition. This is due primarily to the lack of phase detection auto focus. Slower contrast detection AF (and the need to supply a video feed to the LCD/EVF to provide a TTL live view) cause the GH1 to behave more like a point and shoot than a dSLR. The GH1 is quick enough to capture most action and (in good light) quick enough to capture extreme sports.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Panasonic Lumix GH1
|Panasonic Lumix G1
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Panasonic Lumix GH1
|Panasonic Lumix G1
|Panasonic Lumix G1
|Panasonic Lumix GH1||5
* Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.
Freezing the roller-blader in the middle of his 360 degree flip was a lucky shot. I saw him skate over and position the girl at the edge of the bowl so I locked focused on her and then tracked him across two bowls at full speed until he started his flip. I tripped the shutter and the physical lag (me), shutter lag, and AF lag added just enough time to the exposure for him to reach the apex of his flip.
The GH1's built-in TTL pop up flash has a guide number of 10.5 @ ISO 100 meters (with the 14-140mm zoom) and a maximum range of just shy of 8 feet. The flash is enabled manually and provides a fairly standard selection of external lighting options including: On, Auto, Red-eye Reduction, Slow Synchro w/Red-eye Reduction, and Off. Standard flash synch is 1/160 of a second, but the top flash sync speed is a blazing 1/4000th second. Flash exposure compensation can be adjusted (via the Record menu) over a ±2 EV range in 1/3 EV increments. The GH1 is equipped with a hot shoe for the dedicated Panasonic DMW-FL220 flash.
The GH1 draws its power from a proprietary Panasonic DMW-BLB13PP 1250mAh, 7.2V battery pack. Panasonic claims battery life is approximately 300 exposures or 120 minutes of video. The included battery charger needs about 2.5 hours to fully charge the battery.
The elimination of the reflex mirror makes it impossible to utilize phase detection auto focusing, leaving the GH1 entirely dependent on contrast detection auto focus. The GH1's 23 AF point/1 AF point contrast detection AF system locks focus accurately and quickly in most lighting conditions, but like all contrast detection AF systems performance deteriorates as light levels decrease.
Lens Mount/Kit Lens
I had the GH1 and two lenses - the 10x f/4.5-5.8/ 14-140mm (28-280mm 35mm equivalent) kit lens was especially designed to complement the GH1's video capabilities - very low noise zooming and AF while filming and continuous rather than distinct aperture changes for smooth video in changing light. I also had the Lumix G VARIO f/4.0 7-14mm ASPH (14-28mm equivalent) ultra-wide zoom.
I really liked both lenses, but the 7-14mm (not surprisingly) has serious barrel distortion issues and will keystone horribly if it isn't absolutely even and on plane. There is also an older f/3.5-5.6 14-45mm (28-90mm equivalent), and an f/4-5.6 45-200mm (90-400mm equivalent), and a soon to be released Lumix f/1.7 20mm. Olympus Micro Four Thirds Lenses can also be used and (with an adaptor) Four Thirds format lenses can be mounted.
The GH1's kit zoom exhibits moderate barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range and noticeable pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center) at full telephoto. Very minor chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is visible in high contrast color transition areas at the wide end of the zoom, but is essentially undetectable at the telephoto end of the zoom. Corners show some highly typical softness, but are acceptably sharp. There was no visible vignetting (dark corners) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range.
Macro shooters will probably be disappointed with the GH1, since there is no true macro capability with the kit lens. It is possible to shoot decent close-ups at the telephoto end of the kit lens, but depth of field is agonizingly shallow. Panasonic has announced a Leica DG Macro-Elmarit 45mm f/2.8 ASPH Mega O.I.S. lens, so those waiting for a true Macro tool can look forward to the release of that lens.
Exceptional video capability is the primary reason for choosing the GH1 over its competition - and in the video arena the GH1 is the top dog. It's the only currently available dSLR featuring HD 1080P/24fps video, Dolby Digital stereo audio, real-time autofocus during filming, focus tracking and face detection (in video mode) and a kit lens designed to facilitate video capture with a smooth stepless iris and ultra-low-noise focus motors.
The GH1 provides users with an impressive selection of white balance options including auto, daylight, cloudy, shade, halogen, flash, custom 1, custom 2 and color temperature (2500 -10000K in100K steps) plus white balance bracketing (3 exposures - +/-1 to +/-3 in either blue/amber or magenta/green axis). The GH1's auto white balance mode, intelligent multiple metering, and iA auto exposure system work nicely together to produce consistently very good to excellent photos even for beginning photographers. But like most consumer digital cameras, the GH1's auto white balance setting produces slightly warmer colors than those seen by the naked eye.
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light
This shot of a balloon sculpture at the Kentucky State Fair was shot in auto white balance mode under mixed window light and cool fluorescent lighting - the colors are fairly accurate.
Here's where the GH1 really differs from its competition - most dSLR color interpolation tends to produce native (default) color that is close to neutral - in other words the colors are pretty close to what you would see in real life. The GH1's native color interpolation is bright, bold, and slightly over-saturated with harder contrast - like point and shoot colors (what veteran photographers call consumer color). Intense reds, bright blues, and snappy greens dominate.
Image quality is dependably very good to excellent (outdoors in good light) and images are sharp. Shadow detail is decent, but there is a slight tendency to clip highlights and some very minor chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is visible in high contrast color transition areas.
The GH1's auto exposure system is noticeably better than average and the nifty intelligent Auto (iA) mode makes taking very good to excellent images simple, even for absolute beginners.
Image noise levels are above average at all ISO settings. Images shot at ISO 100 show reasonably low noise levels, vibrant color, sharp resolution, acceptable highlight detail, and decent shadow detail. At the ISO 200 setting noise levels begin to rise a bit, but image quality is still very good.
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1250, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO 2500, 100% crop
ISO 3200, 100% crop
ISO 400 images are noticeably noisy and some detail is lost, but they are still usable. ISO 800 images are soft, colors are flat, and detail loss is evident. ISO 1600 images are noisy enough to look a little mushy with flat pastel-like colors. I didn't try the ISO 3200 setting.
Cameras (like sports cars, camping/adventure gear, professional musical instruments, and top shelf audio/video components) get much more interesting (and expensive) as they increase in complexity - the GH1 is a case in point.
The bottom line here is that the $1500 GH1 is a near perfect choice for shooters graduating from a prosumer/long zoom digicam to their first dSLR. For more serious photographers who eschew video in favor of still photography, the GH1 might not be their best option.