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Panasonic DMC-GH2 Micro Four-Thirds Camera
Tuesday, May 10, 2011  

If you have been waiting for a camera that offers DSLR quality and flexibility, exceptional video capabilities, and great ergonomics, your wait may be over. Grab your checkbook or credit card and check out Panasonic's Lumix GH2.


Panasonic's Lumix DMC-GH2 is the best camera we have tested to date!


The GH2 introduces a new sensor and improved JPEG processing. The image quality, overall, is as good as we have seen on any Panasonic camera to date. The ability to shoot and record RAW images gives serious photographers the ability to do complex post-production work for those who would rather not rely on Panasonic's internal JPEG algorithms.

The price of the GH2 is targeted at serious photo and video enthusiasts rather than beginners. Fortunately, the feature set and capabilities of this camera will more than live up to the lofty price.

The GH2 is basically the same size and weight as the former GH1. With nothing available for direct comparison, you might be tempted to think the GH2 is just another entry-level DSLR. However, when side-by-side, you can immediately see there is a lot less bulk and heft with the GH2. But don't be fooled into thinking that its smaller size and lower weight translate into a compromise. The GH2 may be more comfortable to hold and shoot, but it can also match virtually any DSLR on features, and perhaps surpass some of them.

Size and weight have been trimmed from the GH2 thanks to the absence of a mirror and optical viewfinder. Based on the Micro Four Thirds platform, all Lumix "G" series cameras have a shorter distance from lens to sensor and offer "live view" through an electronic viewfinder, or the LCD screen on the back of the camera body. The GH2 is compatible with all Micro Four Thirds lenses which are offered in a wide range of focal lengths and configurations. There is a also a choice of optional lens adapters allowing for the use of "larger" lenses from other formats.

When equipped with the 14-42mm kit lens, or even more so with one of Panasonic's pancake lenses (20mm or 14mm), the advantage of a mirrorless camera becomes obvious. So equipped, the GH2 can easily be slipped into a much smaller bag, or even a large pocket, albeit with a bit of persuasion.

Micro Four Thirds lenses have a field of view that is 1/2 that of a traditional 35mm lens. Therefore, at 14mm, you will receive the same coverage of a 28mm lens in 35mm format. Our 14-140mm test kit lens delivers an effective range of 28-280mm. This lens, while heavier and bulkier than Panasonic's other kit lens (14-42mm), proved to be an excellent companion to the GH2. When shooting video, the continuous AF was completely silent and lightning fast. We did not have the opportunity to test the other smaller kit lens, but cannot imagine how it could deliver any better performance.

The battery included with the GH2 claims to offer a little less punch that the one included with the GH1. However, Panasonic claims that 320 images (using the LCD) are still possible on a single charge. During our test period, we never found battery life to be an issue. The included portable AC charger is a welcome accessory that allows you to charge a second battery outside of the camera.

The  3in, 460k dot GH2 LCD screen has not changed since the GH1. The fully articulated screen can literally be viewed from any direction. Self-portraits or self-video become simple by twisting the screen to the forward-facing position. The side mounted hinge works well when using a tripod. Shooting 3:2 photos will completely fill the screen. However, when shooting 16:9 images or video you will see thin black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. We found the screen to be crisp, clear and bright enough to be used outdoors, even in bright sunlight.

Panasonic has decided to make the LCD touch sensitive. In fact, Panasonic seems to be embracing the idea of touch screens across its entire camera line. While tapping the screen to confirm a choice, or choose an AF point, seems like a novel idea, we find it cumbersome in real-world application. I suppose it is a matter of personal preference. I seemed to have more inadvertent taps on the screen which caused problems, than intentional ones. Panasonic has kept plenty of buttons and dials allowing all functions to be handled without tapping the screen. The only thing they have overlooked is the ability to turn-off the touch-screen feature for those of us too clumsy to keep from accidentally changing our focus point. On the upside, those with reasonable dexterity will benefit from the ability to simply tap to pull focus.

Purists who think using an LCD to compose a shot is blasphemy may be able to live with the GH2's electronic viewfinder (LVF). In essence, the viewfinder is a tiny electronic monitor that displays 1530k dots in a 4:3 format. Shooting 3:2 will place small black bars on each side of the LVF. While not nearly as crisp as a DSLR "through the lens" view, the LVF provides a nice image that is reasonably accurate. While professional photographers are less likely to give up the accuracy of a mirror and optical viewfinder, the rest of us will find the LVF a fitting compromise for the benefit of a smaller, lighter camera body. The coolest feature of the LVF is that it can detect when your eye approaches it and automatically turns itself on (and turns off the LCD screen). There is also a button allowing you to toggle manually between the LVF or the LCD screen.

Auto-Focus

The boys and girls at Panasonic have been working overtime to make the AF on the GH2 fast and silent. This is no easy task since mirrorless cameras cannot take advantage of autofocus sensors like the ones used on DSLRs. The GH2, and other mirrorless cameras, have to rely on contrast-based methods to achieve auto focus, historically slow in comparison. Panasonic has somehow accelerated the contrast-based system on the GH2 to the point that we could not detect any lag on AF. In fact, the AF felt much faster than on a recently reviewed Canon 60D! And, to make a good thing even better, autofocus on the GH2 is virtually silent, at least with the 14-140mm kit lens. And, the benefits of fast and silent AF extend beyond snapping photos and make shooting video a dream.

Video Capabilities


The GH2 can capture Full HD video with continuous autofocus. Professionals will appreciate that the GH2 offers full manual control over exposure while shooting video.

The GH2 offers three main options:


  • AVCHD 1080i - encodes interlaced 1920x1080 video at 50i / 60i @ 13Mb/s or 17mb/s
  • AVCHD 720p - encodes 1280x720 video at 50p / 60p
  • Motion JPEG - QVGA (320x240) , VGA (640x480), WVGA (848x480) and HD 720)options, all encoded as progressive files at 30fps
A dedicated MOVIE RECORD button next to the shutter release allows you to start shooting video regardless of the mode you are in at the time. You are able to snap low-res photos without interrupting your video shooting by pressing the shutter release. It is possible to capture high-res photos while shooting video, but you will notice a brief interruption in your video.

With the mode dial set to Creative Movie, you can choose Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or full Manual. You can choose shutter speeds from 1/25 to 1/4000, and aperture can be set within the limits of the installed lens. The GH2 puts you in total control over the exposure, sensitivity and depth of field. Serious independent film makers will appreciate the Cinema mode which records progressive video at 24fps at either 17 or 24Mb/s.

And, while on the subject of pro film makers how about having the ability to output pure 1080i over HDMI while recording video? Now you can use an external monitor to compose studio shots in real time. And, the GH2 will drive the external HDMI monitor while still delivering an image to the camera's LCD. Has Panasonic left anything out?

The biggest advantage, and there are several, the GH2 has over traditional DSLRs when shooting video is in the area of continuous (and did we mention silent?) autofocus. The Lumix GH2 focuses quickly and quietly, at lease it did with our 14-140mm kit lens. Pulling focus is as easy as tapping on the LCD screen where you want the camera to focus. Of course, you can manually pull focus using the focus ring on the lens, but this is one area where the touch screen can come in pretty darn handy. There is a tad of visible "hunting" for focus when using the touch screen to move from one subject to another, but it is a cool feature nonetheless.

Conclusions

Panasonic's Lumix DMC-GH2 is the best camera we have tested to date. Period. The combination of quality photos, crystal clear video and ergonomics make it a camera that is at the top of my wish list. I mean, the VERY TOP of the list. This biggest disappointment is that as of this writing, they are not available! Damn tsunami!

In terms of autofocus, Panasonic has defied logic by delivering a contrast-based mechanism that rivals AF systems on traditional DSLRs. As a Micro Four Thirds-based camera, the GH2 was designed and built to use Live View for composition. Live View on traditional DSLRs is like an afterthought that is hacked together giving the user a less-than-desirable (in some cases) experience. Now that Panasonic has dealt with the contrast-based AF speed issues, why go back to a mirror? This is the future. Panasonic has literally doubled the AF speed from the popular, and capable GH1.

The Lumix GH1 had already gained strong support from videographers and film makers, and now Panasonic has made a good thing even better with impressive continuous autofocus and unrivaled manual control over exposure. The introduction of 1080 24p mode, audio recording levels and HDMI output will have the competition playing catch-up for quite some time.

About the only negative we can see would be for those who need a camera primarily for shooting live action still images, like sporting events. The Live View system simply does not have the ability to display a live image in between frames. This can make it difficult to follow fast, live action while continuous shooting is employed. So, if you are shooting auto races, football games or other high-speed action events, a traditional DSLR might be a better choice.

However, for the rest of us who need a great camera that can do everything else and do it well, the Panasonic Lumix GH2 will be hanging around our necks!

Sample Photos


 
 
 


Sample Video


Reviewed by Chris Dikmen
Managing Editor of CruiseReport.com
     
     
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