Live View

While live view on DSLRs still often looks like something that has been bolted on after a last minute request from the marketing department (for instance, in most cases the AF is so slow that it's not usable at all for moving subjects), the GH1 is a camera that has been designed around live view from the beginning and it shows. With the dedicated Micro Four Thirds lenses the GH1's contrast detect AF is as quick as the 'traditional' phase detect systems on most DSLRs. Operation is always coherent and not too dissimilar to Panasonic's compact cameras.

Live view display modes

On the GH1 you can chose between a viewfinder and LCD type display and you can set those independently for the EVF and the rear LCD. Commendably, the behavior in all screen modes is remarkably consistent - the command dial controls exposure compensation in most 'scene' modes, or one of the shooting parameters in the 'P, A, S and M' modes. In these modes, pressing the command dial toggles to control exposure compensation, the other shooting shooting parameter or program shift, depending on the mode. Accessing the other settings just requires pressing the Q.Menu button at which point the arrow keys or command dial allow navigation and a press of the 'set' button or command dial engages the setting.

Note that not all settings are available in all modes (Scene modes and Intelligent Auto modes have a reduced set of options).

LCD mode with detailed shooting information and histogram Viewfinder mode with detailed shooting information

No shooting information Grid type I
Grid type II Grid type III

One really neat feature is the ability to position the live histogram anywhere in the frame. You can also add framing guides (including custom guides you position yourself).

Live view magnification

Just as in playback mode you can magnify live view by pressing the enlarge button (or back out again with reduce). While magnified you can use the multi-controller to move around the live image.

The live view can, naturally, be magnified.

Live view Depth-of-Field preview

One very useful feature is depth-of-field (DOF) preview. When the DOF preview button is pressed the camera stops the lens down to the selected aperture which provides you with an accurate representation of the depth-of-field of the final image. This system has advantages over the optical viewfinder in that it doesn't darken and can correctly represent the effects of large maximum apertures.

One totally unique (as far as we know) feature is the G1/GH1's shutter speed effect preview. This changes the refresh rate of the live view to mimic the shutter speed selected, producing a fairly accurate representation of how blurred subject movement will be in the final shot. This is exactly the kind of feature that shows how a truly 'ground up' digital camera system can offer significant advantages over the current crop of 'one foot in the past' digital SLRs.

Normal Live View DOF preview button held at F22
Press Display to preview the effect of the current shutter speed (here the spinning players appear as a total blur). This isn't a still; it's a live view with blurring.

Other options

The introduction of live view to SLRs has seen an increase in the prevalence of compact camera-like features and the ability to preview parameter changes on the image. The GH1, as a live view only system camera, has more than its fair share of toys and (inevitably, this being Panasonic) a plethora of scene and subject modes.

Pressing the Film Mode button brings up this menu from where you can choose one of six color and three black & white color modes. In each case you can also change the contrast, sharpness, saturation (color modes only) and noise reduction in 5 steps (from -2 to +2). There are two 'My Film' memory registers for creating and saving custom color modes. A final 'Multi Film' mode offers film mode 'bracketing' (up to three shots in your choice of film mode). My Color mode (accessed from the main mode dial) offers a quick way to experiment with three tonal parameters; Color (hue), Brightness and Saturation. In each case you get an 11 step (-5 to +5) range to play with.
As with most recent Panasonic compacts there are five 'Advanced Scene Modes' (again accessed from the mode dial) - Portrait, Scenery, Sports, Close-up and Night Portrait. Each of these has four or five sub sections with more specialized subject modes. With any scene mode selected pressing the DISPLAY button brings up a short description of the mode. The Scene mode (SCN on the mode dial) offers five rather specialized options: Sunset, Party, Baby 1, Baby 2 and Pet (the last three give the option to overlay the age of the child or chihuahua on the shot).

Contrast Detect AF

Aside from the viewfinder, our biggest worry about the viability of the GH1 - and all non-reflex interchangeable lens cameras - is the reliance on sensor-based contrast detect autofocus. Our experiences so far - with the live view modes on current DSLRs - haven't been promising; all are painfully slow and most are close to unusable for any non-static subject.

When we visited Panasonic in Osaka last year to talk about the development of Micro Four Thirds we were assured that our concerns would be unfounded; this is a system designed from first principles on the basis of live view only operation, and a lot of work has gone into the design of new contrast detect focus algorithms. This, we were told, along with the extra processing power of the new Venus HD engine, would mean contrast detect AF that was at least as fast as current entry-level digital SLRs using the traditional phase detect AF.

The good news is that Panasonic's engineers have kept true to their word; the focus is not only astonishingly fast for a contrast detect system; it's easily as fast as any conventional SLR in this class. And unlike even most mid-range SLRs you get 23 area auto AF and the ability to place a single AF point almost anywhere in the frame - and that's before you throw in Panasonic's remarkable subject tracking AF and Face Detection. Panasonic seems to have overcome the main problem currently associated with using live view on an SLR (focus speed) and in so doing produced a truly usable live view-only camera.

Focus modes

The GH1 offers four focus modes; Face Detection, AF Tracking, 23-area-focusing and 1-area focusing.

In Face Detection mode the camera will identify and lock onto a human face. In single area AF mode you can set both the position (using the SET button then the arrow keys) and the size (using the dial) of the chosen area.
In 23-area AF the camera automatically selects the right area(s) of the scene from 23 points. Panasonic's unique AF Tracking mode starts with a central focus area.
Half press and the focus point will 'lock on' to the subject. Even if the subject - or the camera - moves, the focus point will continue to track it. It works well and is very fast.

Manual Focus

Manual focus is performed using the focus ring on the lens. If you've activated the MF assist function the image will be magnified to 5x or 10x as soon as you turn the focus ring. It's surprisingly usable.

Live view AF video clip

Below you will find a (very) short video clip showing the contrast detect autofocus in action. The clip starts a fraction of a second before the half-press activation of the focus system (with the focus preset to infinity) and ends after the 3 second record review has ended and the live view has returned. As you can see, the focus moves very quickly from infinity to its closest focus point.

Please note that this video has been taken from the Panasonic G1 review. The AF operation on the GH1 is identical.

Overall handling and operation comments

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 control interface point of view the Panasonic offers the best of two worlds. You can use it almost exactly in the same way as you would use an SLR, with your eye to the viewfinder and controlling the settings via the various external controls; despite being built around Live view the GH1 will behave in pretty much the same way. However, if you're upgrading from a compact camera and don't want to change the way you operate your camera, you can simply use the LCD to frame a shot and control settings on-screen via the Quick Menu and status display, just as you would on a compact. The GH1 offers various control options and you simply pick the one that suits you best.

While on the new generation of movie-enabled DSLRs the operation of the movie mode can not always exactly be called straightforward, on the GH1 the motion picture capability has been integrated with the stills image controls almost seamlessly. The movie button at the rear of the camera can be pressed at any time, without turning a mode dial into movie position, to start and stop recording. Video is often shot from a slightly lower position and therefore the swivel screen, which can occasionally be useful for taking still images, suddenly becomes a must-have feature, although in bright sunlight the electronic viewfinder makes a viable alternative.

All in all, 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.