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Conclusion - Pros

  • JPEG output shows impressive detail at base ISO
  • Good resolution, even slightly more in RAW
  • Good balance between noise reduction and detail retention at higher ISOs
  • Good control over high ISO noise reduction
  • Smaller dimensions and lighter than comparable DSLRs
  • Good build quality and handling
  • Intuitive user-interface that combines compact and DSLR features
  • Large number of external controls including a very useful 'push-and-turn' dial
  • Intuitively structured menu system
  • Very useful status panel and quick menu allow direct access to many important settings
  • Currently highest resolution swivel-screen
  • Excellent electronic viewfinder (bigger than any comparable conventional DSLR)
  • Excellent movie mode, AVCHD, 1080p, full manual control, fast AF
  • Video-optimized kit lens with stepless aperture control and silent focusing
  • External microphone socket, stereo sound
  • Fast contrast detect Auto Focus (on par with entry level DSLRs), movable AF area and tracking
  • Very usable manual focus magnification
  • Very snappy performance throughout (only average continuous shooting though)
  • Effective image stabilization on kit lens
  • Highly customizable - up to three custom modes and many user-definable options
  • Movable live-histogram
  • Selectable aspect-ratio (true multi-aspect sensor)
  • Shutter-speed simulation
  • Comprehensive software package included

Conclusion - Cons

  • Comparatively steep tone curve (JPEG) can lead to highlight clipping
  • Relatively small amount of RAW headroom
  • Fairly low powered flash (but good flash metering)
  • Electronic viewfinder difficult to use in low light (noisy image and greatly reduced refresh rate)
  • Fairly unreliable auto white balance (in artificial light) and no fluorescent white balance preset
  • Battery life worse than most entry-level DSLRs (330 CIPA standard)
  • Intelligent exposure very difficult to trigger
  • Still fairly limited choice of lenses and accessories
  • Kit lens struggles to resolve sensor detail (but no worse than comparable lenses)
  • Fairly loud shutter sound for a non-SLR camera
  • Exposed sensor requires care when changing lenses
  • Image parameters offer only relatively small variation range
  • Price

Overall conclusion

When Panasonic launched the first Micro Four Thirds camera, the DMC-G1, in September last year the lack of a video recording capability was a surprise to consumers and reviewers alike. After all this feature is usually available on even the cheapest digital compact cameras and there was no apparent technological reason for its omission on the G1. Therefore it was hardly a surprise to anyone when Panasonic six months later announced the GH1 which (apart from a few fairly minor changes) is pretty much what it says on the tin - a G1 with an added HD video mode.

Consequently the GH1's performance is in almost all areas very similar to its sister model. In most shooting situations the camera produces high image quality out of the box and the camera's user interface manages to combine the ease-of-use of a digital compact camera with the control, flexibility and speed of a DSLR.

So the 'only' really big news on the GH1 is the HD video mode. However, it's fair to say that this is the best implementation of video on a 'non-compact camera' that we've seen so far. Since Panasonic's new G-series has been designed around live view from the beginning the video feature appears much less of an add-on than on the current crop of video-enabled DSLRs and integrates much more seamlessly with the stills photography functions. Most controls work in both modes and there's a video button to start/stop video recording whatever setting the camera is currently in - easy.

The contrast detect auto focus, especially in combination with the new 14-140mm lens, has been optimized for video operation as well. It's much quicker than on DSLRs and actually very usable, which makes the GH1 a much better all round video camera than any of the video DSLRs we have seen so far (their contrast detect AF systems are so slow that they are only really usable with static subjects). The interchangeable lenses (although only the 14-140mm kit lens is currently optimized for video), swivel LCD, manual video controls and the optional external microphone will all be very appealing to serious videographers and amateurs alike, and make the GH1 a true video/stills hybrid.

It's not all sunshine though. Limited lens support is still a bit of a problem for the entire Four Thirds system as there is currently only a very limited number of lenses available for the system, none of which offer really fast apertures; and when using standard four thirds lenses with the adaptor, most don't autofocus and are somehow out of proportion to the GH1's small body.

The GH1's biggest problem though could be its suggested retail price of $1499.95 (including the 14-140mm kit lens) which at first sight makes it look ridiculously overpriced compared to its competitors in the 'upper entry level' DSLR segment such as the Canon EOS 500D/T1i or the Nikon D5000. However, there are three reasons why this is not really true, and Panasonic can only hope consumers are aware of them.

Firstly, quite a large proportion of the kit price is spent on the lens, which is much more expensive than the cheapo kit lenses of the DSLR competition. Equip a 500D/T1i with the Canon 18-200mm lens (which would be Canon's equivalent to the Lumix 14-140mm) instead of the 18-55 kit lens, and this will take you much closer to GH1 territory in price. Secondly, as usual, the suggested retail price will certainly pretty quickly drop into more attractive regions once the GH1 hits the shops in significant numbers, and thirdly and most importantly the GH1 is not only a pretty good stills camera but can also, depending on your requirements, be an adequate alternative for a stand-alone camcorder.

Handling

The GH1 is smaller than even the smallest DSLRs but, thanks to its good sized grip and reassuring weight, always feels solid and stable in your hand. From a user interface point of view the Panasonic offers the best of two worlds. You can use it with your eye to the viewfinder and control the settings via the various external controls. Despite being built around Live view the GH1 will pretty much behave like a DSLR (with the low light limitations of the electronic viewfinder). However, if you stick it on fully automatic, ignore the wealth of options and pages of menus and use the LCD for framing you can shoot with the GH1 as you would with a compact camera.

No matter if you're coming from a compact or DSLR, the entire user interface including menus has an intuitive and concise design and within a few days of shooting with the GH1 you'll know your way around the camera very well and will probably have developed your individual 'style of operation' using a mixture of external and Quick Menu controls.

Image Quality

Like its sister model G1, the GH1 delivers solid image quality in most situations and there aren't any major image quality issues to report on.

At default settings and at low sensitivities the GH1 produces consistently high quality out-of-cam without a need to alter any of the image parameters. The JPEG output shows natural tones and colors and is free from any kind of processing artifacts. Detail is even slightly better when shooting in RAW.

However, the GH1 is sometimes slightly let down by its 14-140mm kit lens. While it's not any worse than equivalent lenses such as the Canon or Nikon 18-200mm zooms away from the center it struggles to deliver the resolution that the GH1's Live-MOS sensor would theoretically be capable of. A 28-280mm equivalent zoom range is extremely useful and the lens has been optimized for shooting video (stepless aperture, silent focusing). Therefore some loss of detail towards the edges of the frame is a price that many users will be happy to pay for the extra flexibility.

In low light and at higher sensitivities the GH1 is not doing a bad job either. The noise that is produced by the Panasonic Four Thirds sensor is fairly effectively counteracted by the imaging engine's noise reduction algorithms and the GH1 can keep up with the better entry level DSLRs. Its high ISO images show an appealing balance between noise reduction and detail retention. At ISO 1600 noise starts to kick in much more aggressively (especially 'bands' of chroma noise in the shadows) but even the ISO 3200 output is still usable for smaller prints or web albums.

The GH1's metering almost always works in a very reliable manner but the camera's fairly steep default tone curve results in a tendency to clip highlights a little earlier than most APS-C sensor DSLRs. There's no need to worry too much about this but it's useful to be aware of the issue and, where necessary, counteract with a bit of negative exposure compensation.

The final word

The GH1 offers the same ease-of-use and solid image quality as its sister model G1. On top top of that you get the best implementation of a HD video mode that we have yet seen on a large sensor camera. You pay a fairly hefty premium for this feature, but for anyone who is planning to make good use of the camera's motion picture capabilities, the GH1 has to be highly recommended.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1
Category: Mid Range Interchangeable Lens Camera / DSLR
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Performance
Movie / video mode
Value
PoorExcellent
Good for
Serious HD movie making with a high quality SLR thrown in for good measure.
Not so good for
Everyday photography needs: it's too expensive.
Overall score
72%
Expensive compared to most comparable SLRs, the key to the GH1's appeal is its class-leading HD movie capture. The fact that it has the best sensor of any Micro Four Thirds camera is just the icing on the cake. Somewhat niche? Sure, but it makes most other SLR movie modes look like toys.

Original Rating (July 2009): Highly Recommended
Click here to learn about the changes to our scoring system and what these numbers mean

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