Panasonic GH-1 coming soon, I’m buying one

Written by Gary on June 7th, 2009

I was tossing up whether I should add a Canon 5DMII full frame to my camera collection to supplement my Canon 1DMIII and provide some extra resolution and wide angle coverage, plus a bit of crippled video functionality, or get the tiny fully-video-enabled, incredibly versatile Panasonic GH-1.

The GH-1 won!

At the end of the day, the camera you have with you will take better photos EVERY time than the camera you didn’t bring because it was too big and heavy!

It is small enough to not be too intrusive at social events or for travel while still having excellent image quality and ability to have a relatively noise-free ISO 100-800 range unlike smaller point and shoot cameras.

Whilst the Canon 5DMII is a great camera, it is still a big, heavy camera which requires you to carry big, heavy lenses, and for 90% of most people’s photography at ISO 100-400, most people will not notice that much difference in image quality between a GH-1 and the 5DMII, at least for prints up to 11″ x 14″ and perhaps larger.

I was a little concerned that the 14-140mm 10x zoom lens that comes with the GH-1 and is unique in being optimised for real time contrast detect AF during video with almost silent AF motors, may not cut it optically, particularly when I have been spoilt by the excellent Olympus lenses for Four Thirds.

But this Micro Four Thirds kit seems to have produced brilliant image results for a 10x zoom – see’s tests.

Whilst the electronic viewfinder (EVF) will not be everyone’s cup of tea, it does have some benefits – for example, live histogram, and automatic brightness adjustment for low light situations which together with the short lens flange distance, makes these cameras, THE MOST ADAPTABLE interchangeable lens cameras ever made.

Not only can you fit Micro Four Thirds lenses and via the Four Thirds adapter, the Four Thirds lenses, and via Four Thirds adapters all the legacy lenses such as Nikon F, Leica R, Contax, Carl Zeiss, Canon EOS (albeit fully open aperture only on the EOS), but now for the first time, there is an almost affordable digital camera that can use Leica M, Voigtlander, Canon FD/FL (and focus at infinity without optical devices), and when adapters become available, Olympus Pen, and virtually any other 35mm rangefinder interchangeable lens you care to think of. You can see results of using it with Zeiss PL video lenses here. “When you put on full frame slr lenses from Canon or Nikon onto the Gh1 you get a 2x magnification factor as the four third sensor is about half the size of a full frame SLR sensor. But with the PL lenses you get about a 16-17% increase in focal length as movie 35mm size is much smaller than a full frame SLR 35mm”.

When using these legacy manual focus lenses, you need to manually stop down the aperture which in most cameras will make the viewfinder very dim, but not with these EVF’s.

Furthermore, you will be able to take HD video in manual focus with any of these lenses – so that includes some unique fun lenses which I intend to add to my arsenal which will have important uses in my employment by being able to selectively blur details in videos without me having to do this in post-processing:

  • Leica 25mm f/1.4 for Four Thirds has contrast-detect AFS on the GH-1 via FT adapter
  • I was going to get the new Voigtlander 50mm f/1.1 Nokton in Leica M mount via Leica to MicroFourThirds adapter
    • OK, I could have gone for the larger, heavier, more expensive ($US1700 vs $US1149) Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L which would AF on my Canon, albeit relatively slowly, but that is 545g instead of 428g and takes a 72mm filter instead of 58mm, and I would not be able to stop it down on the GH-1 – it would be interesting to see how the optics compare wide open!
    • Given the purely mechanical design of the Voigtlander, it would be more likely to be fully functional in 10-20 years than the Canon
    • my heart is with the Voigtlander, but I decided the Leica 25mm f/1.4 would be just what the GH-1 needs and it will work beautifully on my Olympus E-510 as well.
  • the new LensBaby series in Canon EF mount (via EOS to MicroFourThirds adapter)
  • Canon EF TSE 17mm tilt shift lens via EOS adapter

If you can’t do something creative with these, then there is something wrong!

In addition, you will see some nice results of video using the Olympus 50-200mm ZD lens and the Olympus ZD 7-14mm lens with the GH-1 on Youtube.

How good is it for video?

“This is a consumer camera with some incredible features…it’s not a Canon 5dmk2 killer but it has features that every Canon 5dmk2 users are salivating for. 24p (25p in UK), full manual controls whilst shooting (no need for exposure lock) and amazing ,whilst shooting, autofocus features.” – Philip Bloom (note: Canon has since released firmware that adds manual control).

It has the BEST AF video performance of any interchangeable lens digital camera – far better than that on dSLRs such as Nikon D90 or Canon 5DMII, and given my other cameras, a camera with good video performance is important to me at this time.

It has most of the features serious videographers need and which are missing on most consumer level camcorders:

  • ability to change lenses to almost any lens and even if one uses manual focus, this is often preferred by the serious videographers anyway
  • full control over camera settings – eg aperture, shutter speed, ISO, color characteristics – you can change the shutter and iris manually WHILST filming, no exposure lock needed.
  • ability to use 1/50th sec shutter speed to reduce annoying flicker from flourescent lights
  • good low light performance – better than most consumer camcorders – “The camera performed well…it’s not bad in low light. Nowhere near as good as the Canon 5dmk2 but better than just about any video camera that I have used.” – Philip Bloom
  • an optimum sensor size which allows good depth of field for wide angle shots and narrow depth of field for portraits (when used with an appropriate lens eg. 50mm f/2), while still giving good results at ISO up to 800. In fact the sensor size is very similar to shooting on a standard 35mm film motion picture camera (which has frames 22mmx12mm which is only a tad larger than the Four Thirds sensor size of 18.8mmx10.6mm – so lens field of view on each will be close). It is also comparable in size to the much more expensive pro Red One S35 sensor which is a tad larger again at 24.9mmx18.7mm, while it is much bigger than the Scarlet 2/3″ sensor which is 10.1mmx5.35mm – see comparative size chart here
  • It has an autofocus that works pretty well whilst recording, both in centre frame mode and using facial recognition mode – you can set it to AF on a subject and it will track that subject even if there are foreground objects moving around – very nice indeed! What’s more, if you select a subject to focus on, not only will it track that subject but optimise exposure for it when using auto mode.
  • unlike dSLRs, you can look through the viewfinder whilst recording allowing for more steady hand held shots
  • unlike the Canon 5DMII, it has a fold out LCD screen for ground level or over head shots as well as self-portrait/family shots, and unlike the useless design on the new nikon D5000 it will be visible on a tripod
  • an external microphone capability to avoid in-camera noise from adjusting settings. While the built in mic is way better than both the Canon and Nikon ones, good sound recoding is better with an external mic.
  • skew on fast pans no worse than consumer camcorders although not as good as a pro camcorder worth 8x its price. Rolling shutter skews is much better in 720/60p mode than in 1080/24p, and is better than that on Nikon D90.
  • you can get some slow motion video by shooting 720p at 50fps then reconform to 25fps in cinema tools – see here
  • image stabiliser – albeit an optical one not CCD-shift
  • sensor that detects when you are using the viewfinder and turns off the LCD saving on battery
  • optimised kit lens for silent, fast contrast-detect AF – the first of its kind, and I’m sure many more to follow from Panasonic and perhaps Olympus
  • “The image out of the camera is utterly terrific, so clean and noise free. Also very sharp. It’s a dream to use operational wise and the auto functions make it even better. I am never a fan of auto but when running and gunning it can be useful.” – Philip Bloom
  • you can use the Genus matte box with an adapter to accomodate the zoom of the kit lens – see here
  • when shooting in 16:9 aspect the “S” size jpeg is a perfect 1920×1080- and the quality is amazing! This is really good news because it sets up a perfect workflow for shooting timelapse for HD delivery, the 16:9 1080p stills can be imported strait into Quicktime pro and you dont even have to resize or re-crop to get HD time-lapse footage. Thats really a time saver!
  • it has a 2x or 4x in-camera crop mode. When using the 2x crop mode your effective sensor size is about the same as 16mm film or 2/3″, that means by using an adapter you can use all of the old super fast 16mm zooms- and ultra wide c-mount film and security lenses at the sensor crop they were designed for. To better explain this, in addition to the sensor 2x crop factor compared to 35mm film lenses, as HD video is only ~2 megapixels per frame and the sensor can do 12 megapixels, the camera allows you to select a further 2x or 4x crop in HD video – presumably without loss of resolution. This means then that when using the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.1 lens, it will have focal length reach in 35mm terms of 100mm lens when used for still images, and either 100mm, 200mm or 400mm when used for HD video depending on the in-camera crop mode you select! Now imagine using it for planetary photography through a telescope with a 2x Olympus ZD EC-20 teleconverter and 4x in-camera crop in motion jpeg (unfortunately, only in 720p video though, not HD as I dont think you could stack AVCHD video frames – pity it doesn’t do live HDMI out for this application which would be better) then doing a stack of the sharpest 100 or so images as is the usual method for digital planetary photography.

NOW, before you take my recommendations, it MAY not suit YOUR needs:

If you don’t need video or 10x zoom, you may be better off with the smaller lens on the much cheaper Panasonic G1 which will be even easier to carry around.

ONE user found an issue with AF inaccuracy which may be an issue although it may be only with an early batch or may require a firmware upgrade to fix – but don’t rely on it, my Canon 1DMIII still does not AF as it should! If you plan to do AF close up work a lot (eg. self-portraits), maybe check your camera does not have this problem

There is currently no AF 1:1 macro lens, true portrait lens or low light wide aperture lens designed for Micro Four Thirds and there are still many Micro Four Thirds lenses needing to be made, but one would expect a number will be available within the next 12 months. So a BIG issue at present but one which I would expect to be resolved soon.

Whilst its contrast-detect AF system is probably the fastest yet made, it is still no match for moving subjects – mind you, even expensive dSLRs can have trouble with consistent results with moving subjects.

If you plan on a lot of low light or action photography requiring high ISO, fast burst rates or fast motion AF, then you may want to consider a much bigger dSLR designed for such work such as a Canon 1DMIIn.

If you don’t like EVF or looking at the LCD screen on the back then get a true dSLR with optical viewfinder – maybe consider the Olympus E620 or Nikon D90.

If you are looking for professional quality AF performance in your videos then you will still need a professional video camera. BUT it seems the video quality is better than the Canon HV-20 digital camcorder and you get better control over depth of field to boot.

Be aware that moving the manual focus ring of a lens during video may produce clicking noises, but then added noises will happen changing settings of most cameras.

The video codecs may not be to your needs – seems Panasonic may have kept them at prosumer level to avoid cannibalizing their pro video cameras – you have choice of 23mbps 720/30p motion jpeg which is said to be better for moving scenes such as panning the camera and also has better AF performance apparantly, or the more compressed, smaller files AVCHD codec which seems to give better video for rather static scenes but can be more difficult to edit as it requires special software.
To shoot full HD, you need to use AVCHD codec at 1080/60i (interpolated from 24fps sensor output) and this has a relatively low bit rate at just 17mbps (instead of the preferred 24mbps) in the GH-1 so it won’t stand up to any heavy grading in post processing. You can also shoot AVCHD at 720/60p at 9, 13 or 17 mbps compression.
Furthermore, this camera does not process b-frames (nor does the Canon 5DMII) which may account for lower quality with dynamic scenes – perhaps the programmers ran out of time to incorporate them or the computing power of the camera is not adequate to achieve it or it may be a marketing decision – perhaps a firmware update may remedy this.

Only Micro Four Thirds and Four Thirds lenses designated as being capable of contrast detect AF will auto focus when used with the GH-1 – see compatibility chart and even then, AF tracking will be slower, AF noisier and AF not possible in HD mode UNLESS it is a HD-compatible lens such as the 14-140mm kit lens.

It currently does not allow HDMI output during recording, only mini HDMI socket for playback, and European PAL versions are limited to 30min recording for tax reasons (the Australian PAL version will do up to 2Gb in motion jpeg – 23min in VGA, and AVCHD HD modes are limited only by card size, so 32Gb could do 4 hours at 17mbps) – but then the Canon 5DMII is limited to 12min on HD, and the Nikon D90 to 5min.

In addition to using an external microphone, you may wish to consider an audio input adapter to control volume levels such as Beachtek DXA-2S or DXA-6A phantom power adapter.

No in-built CCD-shift image stabiliser – you will have to wait for an Olympus model for that, and that should be coming soon – but will it do HD video as well as the GH-1 does?

The first Olympus MFT camera (the E-P1) seems to be an Olympus Pen styled camera with a 17mm f/2.8 lens, 720p art filter enabled stereo video and separate optical viewfinder – see here. See the rumours here.

For some comparison, here are’s comments on the latest Canon with movie mode – the Canon 500D:

  • “Unlike the EOS 5D Mark II the 500D comes with a dedicated movie mode. Turn the mode dial to the corresponding position and press the record button on the camera rear to start or stop recording. Once in video mode you get access to movie settings such as recording size or AF mode by pressing the MENU button.”
  • “Auto focus during movie recording works in the same way that it does in normal live view mode, meaning that if it is activated in live view mode, it is available during movie recording (press the AF-ON button to focus). Since all sounds are recorded during movie recording, and any in-camera sound is magnified (including the aperture changing), using AF with the internal mic is not recommended, neither is using in-lens IS. You’ll also pick up the clicks of the control dial if you change exposure compensation while recording. Unlike a conventional camcorder there’s no continuous focus option, and to be honest the focus is so slow that you would never use it whilst filming. “
  • Like the Nikon D90 and the EOS 5D Mark II the EOS 500D can suffer from distortion caused by its rolling shutter. The readout of the sensor means movies are created with a rolling shutter (horizontal lines of the image are scanned, one after another, rather than the whole scene being grabbed in one go). The upshot is that verticals can be skewed if the camera (or the subject) moves too fast – the top of the image has been recorded earlier than the bottom, so moving vertical lines can be rendered as diagonals. It’s not quite as bad as on the Nikon D90 and you need to pan pretty quickly to notice the effect.”
  • THUS, no external mic means no useful audio recording, no usable real time AF, noisy lenses, HD mode only 20fps, minimal manual controls in movie mode, 12min max. video in HD (4Gb limit) – makes the 500D movie experience a bit gimmicky and definitely NOT in the same league as the Panasonic GH-1.

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