Panasonic DMC-GH2 Review
Conclusion - Pros
- Excellent multi-aspect ratio sensor with good resolution and high-ISO performance in compact body
- Good build quality and handling
- 'Hands on' interface offers plenty of physical control points
- Advanced and effective touch-screen implementation (but can be ignored if not required)
- Large, high-resolution EVF
- Much improved CD-AF system (compared to GH1/G2)
- Exceptionally 'deep' feature set allows a lot of customization
- Fast and responsive operation
- Excellent raw image quality at ISOs up to 3200
- Versatile 1080i/p video capability with excellent built-in stereo microphone
- Exceptional amount of manual control over video shooting
Conclusion - Cons
- Uninspiring JPEGs in some situations mean Raw conversion needed to get best results
- Auto White Balance can be too blue, especially outdoors
- 24P Cinema mode only available in Manual Movie Mode (set on exposure mode dial)
- Although the finish has been improved, plastic body still feels cheaper than some competitors
- Only one control dial
- No PC flash sync socket
Overall conclusionThe GH2 might not be a revolutionary development (in all essential points it is very closely related to its predecessor, the GH1) but we're confident in saying that it is the best mirrorless system camera that we've ever tested, bar none. With the GH2 Panasonic has finally demonstrated that it is able to compete with the APS-C format competition when it comes both to resolution and critical image quality. Although the GH2's Micro Four Thirds sensor is smaller than those found in cameras like the Canon EOS 60D and Nikon D7000, it runs them both pretty close. Up to ISO 3200 in fact, we'd stick our necks out and say that the GH2 can hold its own against any of the current crop of APS-C format cameras on the market, which is high praise indeed.
Obviously, one of the major selling points of the GH2 is its versatile video mode and in this respect, we have very few complaints. The GH1 was an impressive video camera with a large following amongst both casual and serious filmmakers, and the GH2 improves upon it in several ways. It offers a more convenient codec, and improved high ISO image quality, amongst other, smaller tweaks. Before we tested it, we would have said that the GH2 looked a little overpriced. Having been immersed in its capabilities now for several weeks, we're less concerned. All things considered - the impressive depth of its feature set, effective touch-screen ergonomics and its excellent still and video image quality - we think it represents very good value for money.
In terms of the critical output of their sensors, Panasonic's Micro Four Thirds cameras have tended to lag behind APS-C and full-frame competitors. Typically, in our testing, we have complained about high noise levels at medium to high ISO settings, restricted dynamic range, and poor in-camera JPEG processing.
In specification terms alone, Panasonic has made some major leaps forward with the GH2. At 18MP, it has the highest pixel count of any Four Thirds or Micro Four Thirds camera, and it is is only the second model to offer an output resolution of greater than 12MP. As far as ISO sensitivity is concerned, the GH2's maximum ISO setting of 12,800 (equivalent) is also the highest of any of its brethren. Happily, the advances that Panasonic has made in specification pay off in meaningfully better image quality than we've come to expect from other cameras in the G-series.
As far as noise is concerned, the GH2 offers the best performance that we've ever seen from a Micro Four Thirds camera. Up to ISO 800, images are essentially noise free, and although noise is visible in images shot at ISO 1600 and 3200, it is only at ISO 6400 and above that it really becomes problematic.
Putting aside noise and detail, the GH2's image quality is pretty much what we've come to expect from the G-series. Colors are generally accurate, but not always attractive, and the default tone curve in the standard film mode can give rather muddy, uninspiring JPEGs in certain situations. At its default settings the GH2's weakest point is the rendition of skin tones. In general, caucasian skin is rendered somewhat yellow. This has a tendency to produce slightly anemic-looking portraits, which require color/saturation tweaking post-capture. Although each film mode is customizable, it is not possible to adjust the GH2's color response beyond a fairly basic universal low/high saturation slider.
As far as metering is concerned, in most situations the GH2 is able to deliver JPEGs which are tonally very well-balanced. However, the GH2's metering system appears pathologically incapable of allowing blown highlights, which means that it tends to deliver relatively dark midtones in scenes which contain both dark and very bright areas. On a purely technical level, this behaviour is usually preferable to the opposite - punchy images with bright midtones but blown highlights - but it does mean that often, the GH2's JPEG output looks a little murky. Low contrast scenes, especially, are frequently so dark as to be virtually unusable straight from the camera. The same applies to video files too - very often, we have found that a little positive exposure compensation is necessary to give the GH2's files the 'lift' that they need.
The major engineering challenge with video modes in conventional DSLRs is that the mirror must be flipped out of the way in order to capture it. With the optical finder blanked out, you must use the rear LCD for composition. For the casual video shooter this is far from ideal for two main reasons. Firstly, for handheld shooting the camera becomes a less stable platform, because you have to hold it out, away from your body. Secondly, LCD screens have limitations. The image on an LCD screen can be tricky to see in bright light, and even if this isn't a problem, critical focus is hard to judge, too.
In our opinion, the interchangeable lens cameras that do video best are those like the GH2, and Sony's Alpha SLT-A33 and A55, which offer electronic, rather than optical finders. Electronic finders offer all of the benefits of a live 'through the lens' view, but in a more comfortable position, safely shielded from glare. This doesn't matter for more advanced shooting (where a sturdy tripod and LCD composition might make more sense) but it makes a big difference for more casual, handheld video work. On those occasions when you'd prefer to use the LCD, the GH2's screen is fully articulated, making it easy to compose video (and of course stills) from virtually any angle.
The GH2 is easily the best video-equipped stills camera that we've ever used. The depth of its feature set is impressive, but more importantly, it creates great looking video. Movies shot at default high quality settings look fantastic, and the 60fps sensor output ensures nice, smooth footage, even when it comes to fast-moving subjects (like the skiers in some of our video samples). The rolling shutter effect is well-controlled, and interestingly, despite the fact that the GH2's is primarily designed for still image capture, video footage shows virtually no moire, at either 720 or 1080.
A word on video file formats though - depending on how you use video, you might find that it is more convenient to switch from the GH2's AVCHD capture mode to Motion JPEG, which produces files in the MOV format. There are two downsides to this - Motion JPEG compression is less efficient, so the files can get pretty big pretty quickly. Also, you have to accept a drop in resolution from 1920 x 1080 pixels in AVCHD to 1280 x 720. The benefit is that the MOV files are much more compatible, which makes them a better choice for sharing, or uploading to sites like Flickr or YouTube.
The GH2 doesn't present any major surprises as far as handling is concerned. Apart from the repositioning of the control dial and movie record button, the GH2 offers almost the same handling experience as its predecessor the GH1, and is similar enough to the G2, G10 and even the GF1/GF1 that anyone coming from another camera in the G-series should be able to adjust to it very quickly. Quite apart from its control layout, we think that the GH2's revamped textured finish and thick rubber grip make it the most satisfying of the DSLR-styled G-series to pick up and use.
Despite its compact dimensions, the GH2 is amongst the most 'hands on' of any camera at this level, and it is notable amongst its peers for a large number of external control points. Not only do these physical controls allow fast access to key shooting parameters, they also provide quick visual indications of the currently selected AF and frame advance modes. As a general point we love external controls, and we're pleased that despite adding a touch screen, Panasonic has retained the GH1's 'traditional' DSLR-inspired aesthetic in the GH2.
The GH2's touch screen isn't the best we've ever seen, but it is one of the best we've ever seen on a camera. Compared to the touch screens which are becoming common on phones and tablet computers, the GH2's is a little laggy, and when manipulated with a finger, not 100% precise. Precision improves when the included stylus is used, but we never got the hang of this way of working, and we suspect that most GH2 users won't bother with it. Technically, the GH2's screen is not touch-sensitive but pressure sensitive so unlike the Apple iPad, for example, you can't just touch your finger against an option to activate it, you actually have to physically press down. You don't need to apply a lot of pressure, but simply brushing against the screen won't do.
Although this makes the GH2's touch-screen slightly slower to use than we'd expect from a capacitive design, it does has the twin advantages that you are less likely to inadvertently press anything that you don't mean to, and it can be manipulated with wet/gloved fingers. Overall we really like it, especially for setting the active AF point, where adjusting by touch feels very natural. Crucially though, unlike the GF2, where the touch screen is more central to the camera's ergonomics, the GH2 still offers the same amount of external control as the GH1.
The Final Word
The GH2 is a complex camera. Not only does it offer the most advanced specification of any G-series camera so far, it is also amongst the most customizable of any model in its class. Judged purely as a stills camera, the GH2 is satisfying in almost every respect. Where it falls down, like previous G-series cameras, is slightly murky JPEGs and a color response that favours accuracy over attractiveness which can be problematic in some situations (especially portraiture). The GH2 isn't the fastest camera in the world either, and cannot match the Canon EOS 60D or Nikon D7000 when it comes to continuous shooting performance.On the plus side, the GH2's unique multi-aspect sensor is capable of capturing a lot of detail. The sensor's full pixel count of 18MP is never used (output size tops out at 16MP in 4:3 mode), but viewed critically, image quality is excellent in all of the available aspect ratio modes. In the past we might have regarded a 16:9 shooting mode as something of a gimmick, but the beauty of the GH2's sensor is that resolution in this mode remains high, at 14MP. As such, we love shooting stills in the 16:9 aspect ratio with the GH2, and the same goes for 3:2 - the multi-aspect design means that you simply don't need to worry about a significant drop in resolution. Obviously the GH2's output resolution takes a hit in 1:1 mode, but even then, 9MP is still perfectly adequate for most purposes.
We've already said that the GH2 is a very satisfying stills camera, but a huge part of its appeal lies with its advanced video capabilities. Taken as a whole, the GH2 offers arguably the best video specification available outside of a dedicated video camera. Enthusiasts and casual users will the convenience of the GH2's EVF, the high quality of the 1920 x 1080 60i video footage, and will be grateful for the abilities of the (surprisingly good) inbuilt stereo microphone. But the expert will appreciate the depth of field control possible with a large format sensor, the high-quality 24P Cinema mode, the generous amount of manual control over shooting settings and the provision for an external microphone.
In summary, we really like the GH2. It offers a highly competitive specification, including (crucially) greatly improved AF compared to previous G-series cameras, and in most respects it is at least a match for the best of its DSLR competitors when it comes to still imaging. It wouldn't be our first choice for shooting fast action, and we wish that Panasonic's JPEG color and tone curve more closely resembled that used by certain other manufacturers (we're thinking specifically of Olympus)) but these are relatively minor grumbles. As far as video is concerned of course, for the time being the GH2 is in a class of its own.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2
Category: Mid Range Interchangeable Lens Camera / DSLR
Ergonomics & handling
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Movie / video mode
The GH2 is the best G-series camera to date, and the improvements that Panasonic has made compared to the GH1 and G2, especially regarding AF performance and movie shooting, are meaningful and very welcome. We love the combination of physical control points and touchscreen operation, and ultimately, only murky JPEG output in low-contrast environments lets the GH2 down.
Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
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