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Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 Review
by Allison Johnson -  2/27/2011

The Lumix GH2 is the seventh - yes, seventh - Micro Four Thirds G-series camera from Panasonic. Introduced at Photokina 2010, it replaces the GH1 and it offers some step-up advantages to the Lumix G2.

Panasonic Lumix GH2


The GH2 offers a jump up in sensor resolution over prior Lumix Micro Four Thirds models, with 16.02 megapixels to the GH1 and G2's 12.1 megapixels. The sensor, of course, has remained the same size. While it dwarfs any compact point-and-shoot's sensor, the GH2's Four Thirds sensor is somewhat smaller than the Sony NEX and Samsung NX's APS-C sized imagers. An increase in megapixels could potentially result in more noise at high ISO sensitivities for the GH2.

Pixels and specs don't tell the story, real-world images and controlled test results will. Keep on reading our full review and see how the Panasonic GH2 fares.

BUILD AND DESIGN
The Lumix GH2, more so than its GF1 and GF2 counterparts, is built on the form factor of a traditional DSLR. The lack of a mirror box and everything that makes Micro Four Thirds so micro means that it's substantially smaller than any currently available DSLR. You won't forget that you're not shooting with a DSLR though. The user must compose his or her shot using the 3.0-inch vari-angle display or an incredibly bright and sharp electronic viewfinder. This is where the GH2 will feel more like an oversized point-and-shoot.

Panasonic Lumix GH2

New to the GH2 is a 16.05 megapixel Live MOS sensor. The ISO range stretches up to 12800, and the new sensor offers a faster readout speed bumping up full-resolution burst shooting to 5 frames per second. The rest of the system is not terribly different from previous generations, and the exterior has changed very little since the last iteration.

Ergonomics and Controls
The buttons, levers and dials on the top and back of the GH2 may intimidate a first-time user, but once you start shooting the layout, is easy to adapt to. The mode dial on top rotates through a full 360 degrees with various scene modes, Panasonic's iA Intelligent Auto mode, program mode and manual exposure options at the shooters disposal. There are three custom setting modes in addition to basic shooting modes.

Panasonic Lumix GH2

The top deck is almost identical to the layout we saw on the Panasonic G2. The iA dedicated button has been changed to a user-assigned Fn1 function button, and the mode dial has no less than three custom setting modes. Aside from that, the switches for drive and focus modes are unchanged. A dial on the left side determines focus area, and a dedicated movie record button is positioned just behind the shutter release.

The only change on the back control panel is on the four way controller. The "west" position is no longer a shortcut to processing mode, rather it's now the second Fn2 customizable button, with the third at the south position.

Panasonic Lumix GH2

The GH2's touchscreen is one of its primary differentiating features from the GH1. The touchscreen offers touch shutter and touch AF functions. You'll either like these options and use them or ignore them completely, and that's just fine with Panasonic. More than enough physical controls are provided, making the touchscreen a take-it-or-leave it feature.

Our review unit arrived with a 14-140mm f/4-5.8 kit lens, smaller than a traditional piece of glass with comparable coverage, but still hefty for the size of the camera. The weight of the camera body itself, just under 14 oz, balances out the lens fairly well. A substantial handgrip with a small indent for the middle finger offers some additional balance and sturdiness.

Menus and Modes
The Lumix GH2 offers enough customizable function buttons, dials, levers, submenus and pages of menus to make a beginning photographer dizzy. The basic structure is straightforward and intuitive, though a new user might need some time to adjust to it.

A button on the back panel calls up a quick menu, bringing up a number of shortcuts to commonly used settings like white balance and metering. The number of controls you'll have access to depends on which mode you're using. You'll have fewer options in iA intelligent Auto mode, as you'd expect.

Here are the shooting modes available to GH2 users:

Full manual mode offers the most flexibility. Changes to shutter and aperture are made via the command dial on the back panel thumb rest, and depressing the dial will toggle between shutter and aperture.

Adjustments to settings can also be made through the touchscreen. A small "Q Menu" icon is docked to the side of the live view shooting screen. Touching that icon will bring up the same quick menu of options with larger text icons. The quick menu option can be turned off entirely, as can the touch shutter, if you're not interested in these functions.

I found it easier to forget about the touch quick menu in most cases and just use the physical controls. The icons are small, and anyone with large fingers will find it frustrating. Thankfully, Panasonic recognizes that not every GH2 user will want touch controls and makes it possible to leave them turned off.

Pressing the menu button at the center of the four-way controller will bring up many, many pages of camera settings. They're sorted into tabs such as record, playback, setup and custom. Again, the exposure mode that you're using will impact the number of settings you'll have access to in each tab. In iA mode, the record tab has just one page of options. Manual mode will offer five pages of settings.

Lots of pages means that you'll need to spend some time familiarizing yourself with the menu system before you start shooting. The quick menu puts most-often accessed options at your fingertips, but anything beyond that could be hiding under five other pages of menu options. Somewhat addressing the problem is a menu tab called "My Menu." The controls you accessed most recently are stored there.

Display/Viewfinder
The Lumix GH2 is equipped with a 3.0-inch tilting/swiveling LCD with 460k-dots. The screen is bright and fluid with a fast refresh rate. The flexibility of the LCD came in handy on more than one occasion, and it's certainly a help for framing stills and video in awkward positions. The LCD can be flipped closed when it's not in use, which is a good feature for keeping the screen from getting bumped and scratched. There's a small indent in the frame of the outer corners of the swiveling panel, and I had a little bit of trouble with it slipping under my fingers each time I tried to release it and pull it out.

Panasonic Lumix GH2

The EVF is a bit wider than that of its predecessors, with a 1.533 million dot resolution. It's very bright and sharp for both composition and reviewing images. Exposure information is displayed through the EVF, and a sensor next to it will automatically switch into viewfinder mode when you bring the camera up to your eye.

Both the screen and the viewfinder suffer in low light conditions. In good light, the image is fluid when panning across a scene. Low light will cause the image to become jerky, an effect that is more noticeable through the viewfinder.

The monitor is usable outdoors, but bright sunlight will wash it out and make it almost impossible to judge exposure and detail accurately. We measured the LCD panel's peak brightness at 315 nits, a number that typically signals poor performance in bright sunlight. Thankfully, the EVF performs beautifully under these conditions. The GH2 is bulkier than its GF2 and Olympus Pen companions, but the EVF is worth its weight in gold when you're shooting outdoors on a bright day. We found an overall contrast ratio of 525:1 for the LCD.

PERFORMANCE
Despite the point-and-shoot characteristics and ease-of-use, the GH2 shoots like a DSLR. Auto focus speeds don't match the fastest DSLRs, but they're definitely competitive in the entry-level class. There's certainly no shortage of dials, controls and buttons on the camera's top and back panels, but I never felt the controls getting in the way.

Shooting Performance
Panasonic's Lumix G cameras have never let us down in terms of speed and the GH2 is no exception. Shutter lag is practically non-existent at 0.01 seconds, and AF Acquisition is leading the pack at 0.18 seconds. The system slows down somewhat in dim light, but an assist lamp keeps it acceptably fast and accurate.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Olympus E-PL2 0.01
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 0.01
Sony alpha NEX-5 0.05
Samsung NX10 0.05

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 0.18
Sony alpha NEX-5 0.39
Olympus E-PL2 0.41
Samsung NX10 0.50

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 6 6.0
Samsung NX10 12 3.3
Olympus E-PL2 16 3.2
Sony alpha NEX-5 2.6

*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.

Panasonic claims the GH2 will shoot in burst mode at 5 fps. Our own test clocked it at 6 fps for six full-resolution JPEGS at high compression. A reduced resolution offers up to 40 fps.

Two auto focus modes are available to the shooter on the focus mode lever: AFS (single) and AFC (continuous), along with MF for manual focus. Continuous AF will continuously adjust focus even as you zoom in and out. It takes a moment or two for the camera to catch up if you do this quickly, but it's fairly accurate. Dim lighting conditions can pose a real problem for this mode, and it may automatically revert to AFS if it senses that continuous focus can't be achieved.

Panasonic Lumix GH2

Auto focus was generally accurate with a very rare "misfire" in poor conditions. I personally didn't find AFC useful, but that might just be me. There are several options within the two AF modes. They are Face detection, AF Tracking, 23-area-focusing, 1-area-focusing and Touch focus. They're self-explanatory, and each mode worked just the way it should in my testing.

Face detection locked in on faces in my scenes with a better-than-average rate. I did a brief self-portrait test of the the Facial Recognition system and once my image and name were registered in the camera, my name would pop up in review of subsequent photos I took of myself.

Touch focus, with touch shutter enabled, is extremely fast. Beginners may find these features more attractive than advanced users, and they won't be let down by the way the system performs.

Lens Performance
Our review unit included a 14-140mm f/4-5.8 stabilized zoom lens. Coupled to the GH2, that equates to a range of 28-280mm in 35mm terms. As I noted in the First Look, barrel distortion is quite noticeable at the wide end of that range.

Panasonic Lumix GH2

As an all-purpose kit lens, the 14-140mm performed very well. It produced images with good contrast and detail, turning in some very nice results at a museum exhibit. I was impressed by the level of detail and the reproduction of the rust colors in the photo of the helmet below.

Panasonic GH2 Sample Image

The photo above was taken in Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt at the Cincinnati Museum Center

There's some definite softness at the corners of images captured at wide angle, but at longer focal lengths edge-to-edge sharpness is better. The closest focusing distance is 1.65 feet, so anyone buying into this kit may want to consider adding another lens for close-up photography.

I was hard pressed to find any evidence of chromatic aberration in my shots, coming up with only a few instances viewable only when those images are enlarged to 200%. Suffice it to say, it's not a real problem for the 14-140.

The lens is as sizable and somewhat heavier than your average 18-55mm kit lens, but it packs a bigger punch than those lenses. It offers Panasonic's Mega O.I.S. stabilization system, toggled on and off by a switch on the side of the lens barrel. The build quality and finish match the price tag. At the time of this writing, the lens is available on its own for around $770.

The GH2 is of course compatible with any Micro Four Thirds lens produced by Panasonic or Olympus, and it's available body-only for those who would rather not buy into the kit zoom.

Video Quality
The GH2 is touted by Panasonic as a device capable of capturing high quality still images as well as HD video. There's no shortage of movie recording options either. Video files can be captured in either AVCHD Light or Motion JPEG at 1080 resolution. A Class 4 memory card or higher is recommended for video recording in AVCHD, Class 6 is recommended for Motion JPEG recording.

Overall, video looked very good. The video I shot outside on a rainy day is acceptably smooth and sharp. I captured the sample clip in 1080 at 24p in Motion JPEG form.

The video in the player above has been compressed and re-encoded for streaming online. To download the file in its native resolution and format, click the link below.

Sample Video File Download

The GH2 definitely won't put Panasonic's line of 3 MOS HD camcorders out of business, but quality is more than acceptable for home movies and amateur uses.

Image Quality
Image quality overall was very impressive. The GH2 and its accompanying kit lens capture images with pleasing depth of color, good contrast and fine details. The GH2 goes above and beyond the ability of any point-and-shoot and is competitive with the entry-level to mid-level DSLR set. Noise performance was good up to ISO 800, but beyond there the GH2 begins to show its colors as a not-quite-DSLR.

I saw some tendency to underexpose by a stop or two in situations like the one below. The GH2 also tends to over-saturate certain colors, especially red, in the default standard film mode. There are other options, including smooth, nature, nostalgic, dynamic and vibrant. I stuck with standard for nearly all of the shots in this review.

Panasonic GH2 Sample Image

The GH2 uses the same 144-zone multi-pattern metering system that each G-series Lumix has used since the introduction of the G1. It's a very reliable system, maintaining highlights in some tricky high contrast situations. The most challenging of situations will push it to blow out some highlights, but the GH2 does very well up to that point.

Panasonic includes a couple of newer processing options in the GH2, carried up from the Lumix point-and-shoot line. Intelligent Resolution, or I. Resolution, is available to enhance sharpness and resolution. Panasonic's materials put it this way:

With the Intelligent Resolution technology, 3 areas - outlines, detailed texture areas and soft gradation areas are automatically detected. Apart from the uniform enhancement of sharpness, the innovative technology Intelligent Resolution precisely performs signal processing pixel by pixel in the most effective way according to the area. As a result, images are naturally clear and crisp in both photo and movie recording.

It's available in varying levels of strength, and it will be turned off by default in Program and manual exposure modes. Below are a couple of images for comparative purposes - the first shot was captured in Aperture priority mode with Intelligent resolution off, the image on the right was taken with I.Resolution set to high.

Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
Intelligent Resolution Off
Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
Intelligent Resolution High

The image with High IR enabled definitely shows some more sharpening than the image without IR. The product doesn't look unnaturally sharp at reduced size or even viewed at 100%. iA Intelligent Auto mode will keep I.Resolution enabled at default, so it's just another processing option if you're shooting outside of the camera's most automatic mode.

Panasonic's in-camera dynamic range tool isn't so much a creative feature as it is utilitarian. It's designed to correct for backlighting and even out exposure in situations with high contrast between light and dark. The tricky thing about this feature is that even if you've enabled it in your quick menu of options, the camera can deem the lighting conditions too difficult and refuse to engage it. The Intelligent Dynamic-Range Control will engage automatically and the icon on the quick screen will turn yellow.

Two shots below demonstrate the effects of I.Dynamic range, in the righthand image the feature is engaged at the highest level and in the left it's turned off.

Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
Intelligent D-Range Control Off
Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
Intelligent D-Range Control On

As promised, exposure is evened out slightly. Shadow areas are warmed up without overexposing the bright white highlights in the Styrofoam. I felt that the camera's metering system generally did a good enough job to leave I.Dynamic alone for the length of my time shooting with the GH2.

The camera also offers a number of creative processing modes for still and video capture - these are the "My Color" filters available through the portrait icon on the mode dial. They include expressive, retro, pure, elegant, cinema, monochrome, dynamic art, silhouette and custom. Below are two images captured using in-camera processing.

Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
Dynamic Black & White
Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
Silhouette

White balance seemed to be one area of inconsistency. The Auto White Balance setting performed under most lighting conditions outdoors just fine. Indoors, under more challenging circumstances, the GH2 seemed more unsteady. The photos of the framed bird drawing below were taken back-to-back without changing any settings in camera, and one image is decidedly warmer than the other.

Panasonic GH2 Sample Image Panasonic GH2 Sample Image

There's also no preset setting for fluorescent, though the user guide includes a scale of approximate Kelvin color temperatures of typical lighting sources as a means of adjusting for lighting conditions without a preset option. Aside from Auto, there are daylight, cloudy, shade, incandescent, flash, Kelvin and four user-set white balance settings.

Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

The GH2 offers ISO sensitivities from 160 to 12800. Noise levels up to ISO 400 are well under control for the most part. Fine details are clean and color reproduction is good, albeit a bit saturated. I did see some unusual color noise in blocks of grey color - check out the grey coin in the full-resolution ISO 400 image below. That same level of noise isn't found anywhere in the white or dark portions of the image, and I only noticed on a rare occasion in my shots, and only at 100% enlargement.

Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
ISO 160
Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
ISO 160, 100% crop
Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
ISO 200
Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
ISO 400
Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
ISO 800
Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
ISO 3200
Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
ISO 6400
Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
ISO 6400, 100% crop
Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
ISO 12800
Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
ISO 12800, 100% crop

The jump from ISO 400 to 800 is almost imperceptible at 20% enlargement, with some flattening of color and contrast. Noise and color fringing become apparent in the details of the playing card at 100%. By ISO 1600, the GH2 starts to clip the colors visible in the flowers on the Whitman's box. Noise is still well-controlled, but some fuzziness around details has definitely crept in. ISO 3200 is more of the same, with noise clearly accumulating, and ISO 6400 introduces even more noise and color flattening. ISO 12800 is best left untouched - even at a reduced size, the image is extremely grainy and color quality is poor.

Additional Sample Images
Panasonic GH2 Sample Image Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
Panasonic GH2 Sample Image Panasonic GH2 Sample Image
Panasonic GH2 Sample Image Panasonic GH2 Sample Image

CONCLUSIONS
The Panasonic GH2 surpasses the quality and performance of a point-and-shoot and just about every entry-level DSLR on the market. A high quality - though not perfect - kit lens, and an excellent 16 megapixel sensor and processing engine help the GH2 succeed. There's a touchscreen for those who want it and a familiar array of controls for those who don't. Right now, it's safe to say that there's nothing else like it.


The GH2 isn't flawless. The kit zoom lens is prone to some edge softness, and we saw some noise at ISO 400 and 800 where it shouldn't have been. Menus are dense and the control layout has something of a learning curve. And don't forget the price tag - it's well north of typical entry-level DSLR MSRPs. However, the positives outweigh the negatives in this case, earning the Lumix GH2 an Editors' Choice award.

Pros:

Cons: