Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 Review: A $1500 Misfit

The micro-four-thirds standard created by Panasonic, Olympus and Leica has intrigued us but its mightiest product to date, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1, leaves us scratching our heads.

Camera Be Still When it comes to still shooting, there is no difference between the GH1 and the G1 that Mahoney reviewed last November. It has a digital viewfinder instead of an optical one, which takes some getting used to but tends to work. It's got a huge number of manual and automatic options, as well as some uniquely digital settings, like "film mode" where you can manually adjust the colour balance, saturation, contrast and noise reduction of the "film" you're using. Because the sensor is 4:3 (hence the format's name), you can change the aspect ratio to 16:9 for a wider view, but of course you sacrifice some pixels in the process.

The camera has many of these novel options to keep track of, but it doesn't pay a huge dividend to those who do. As Mahoney said in the original piece, its high-ISO shots are a bit more noisy than most DSLRs, and the lens selection is paltry compared to Canon and Nikon. As someone who carries mainly entry-level DSLRs (and generally wants for nothing more), I found myself simultaneously overwhelmed and unimpressed, though I did manage to eek out a few halfway decent shots, which I've stuck in the gallery below.

All of the above features and capabilities can be found on the $US800 DMC-G1. What I tested, though, was the $US1500 GH1, with an "H" for "Highdefinitionvideo."

It's Got an H In It The H makes a big big difference, as David Pogue mentioned, and as Mahoney lamented.

The 1080p video is, in fact, astonishingly good, when you're shooting in the right light with a decent lens. I used two lenses, the highly functional 14-140mm kit lens, and a playful 7-14mm wide angle lens with a touch of the fisheye.

The video comes in AVCHD format, which some people don't like. I don't mind it, though when I previewed it in VLC, it appeared to have a painful amount of compression artifacts. I was going to condemn the camera for that, until I wrangled the video in VisualHub, and found that all of the playback artifacts disappeared in conversion, and probably wouldn't appear in other software. (Panasonic sent me GH1 software, but it was for PCs only, and I didn't have a chance to check it out; some of you already know what to do with AVCHD vid anyway, so I wouldn't make a big deal out of the included software either way.) As you can see in this quick up-close video of Wynona—dropped from 1080p to 500x280 and converted to FLV for your consumption—you can certainly get a lot done:

The rustling you hear is me playing with the camera strap to attract an otherwise lethargic cat's attention; over the weekend, when I shot video of my family, the stereo mic array worked well, as long as I kept my own stinkin' trap shut. Its placement, facing upwards, on top of the flash, means that the shooter's voice is far louder than that of his or her subjects.

Video certainly is the GH1's coup de grace, as others have proclaimed. Practically speaking, it's a damn sight better than the video from the Canon T1i and the Nikon D5000, which are fine for quick snips but lack the autofocus necessary for a nice fluid continuous shot (Touch of Evil opener, anyone?). The GH1 dynamically refocuses well enough, though as you can see in the Wynona video, it can't go super-macro with that 7-14mm lens.

Stupid Money Still, we're back to the same dilemma here: If moderately video capable DSLRs are selling for MSRPs around $US900 (also with decent kit lenses), how can this baby be worth $US600 extra? Still-only DSLRs cost in the $US600 range—how can the GH1 be $US900 more than those?

It's a powerful camera, but I certainly didn't feel as comfortable shooting with it as I do with Canon and Nikon DSLRs, and the video is, after all, video. The argument for video on other DSLRs is their compatibility with all kinds of lenses; here, it's more like a decent video camera without a huge number of lenses. As Mahoney mentioned in the G1 review, you can get a lens adaptor and use some nice Leica lenses, but do you really want to go to all that trouble? We'd be better suited for some a handful of interesting, made-for-micro-four-thirds primes.

Even if we get all that, though, the price remains prohibitive. If you are tempted by the video capability of this camera, you are still better suited to buying a nice DSLR and a true HD camcorder of your choosing from Panasonic or Sony or Canon. I wish I could say that the excellent 1080p video tips the scales, but it doesn't. [Product Page]

In Brief:

HD video performance is exceptional for a high-end still camera, and notably better than "competing" DSLRs

Lots of manual digital manipulation means a lot to read up on and remember—it's not easily hidden from the beginner, but in the hands of an undaunted shooter, there's a lot of potential

The camera's entry cost is far too high to justify when it's not a big winner in still shooting, and when HD camcorder prices are dropping

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