Panasonic’s DMC-GH2 camera
The current fascination with, and adoption of, DSLR’s for video shooting has to do with several needs: a smaller and more compact form factor, larger sensor, shallower/deeper depth of field, better image control, interchangeable lenses, and a specific “look.” Until recently, the field has been absolutely ruled by Canon and Nikon, companies who broke the ground for hybrid cameras and acquisition. Last year, Panasonic upped the ante by introducing the Lumix DMCGH2 as a successor to, and improvement upon, their GH1.
The GH2 is a Micro 4/3 format, mirrorless, 16 megapixel, interchangeable lens, hybrid still/video camera. Micro 4/3 is a designation for sensor size and format—it’s a thin, 4:3 aspect sensor (19-by-13 mm) that can produce still and moving images natively, without crop, in multiple aspect ratios, including 16:9, 3:2, and 4:3. There is no reflex mirror in the design, which makes for a smaller and lighter package and also a shorter flange focal length. This allows the use of lighter lenses and greater ease and lower cost in adapting different mount systems.
The GH2 is small (approximately 5-by-3.5-by-3-inches without lens). It weighs in at less than two pounds with the 14–140 mm lens used in this review. The body features an LCD viewfinder and a very sharp, swivel-out 3-inch TFT monitor (3:2 aspect ratio), which doubles as a touchscreen control for menus. While the menus control the bulk of features and options, there are enough manual controls and programmable buttons so that full manual shooting— with control of aperture and focus— is very possible.
The GH2 can shoot both stills (JPEG and RAW) and video (M-JPEG and AVCHD) at varying quality levels, frame sizes, and, for video, frame rates, with 24p and 30p providing the highest quality, and with a recent firmware update, at 24 Mbps. The camera sports all the usual programmed shooting modes for both stills and video— shutter priority, aperture priority, full automatic, and full manual—as well as numerous auto-focus modes. The ISO can be set anywhere from 160 to 12,800.
The camera records to SD, SDHC, or SDXC cards, with capacities of up to 64 GB at the time of this review. AVCHD video recording to a card is virtually unlimited by time constraints.
The camera includes a 2.5 mm microphone input jack,smaller than the now standard 3.5 mm mini plug, which does double duty as a remote control jack. There’s an HDMI minijack, which provides a very clean, real-time, live HD signal for use with an external monitor or recorder; an AV plug with an included cable for outputting composite video and stereo audio, and a USB port to facilitate transfer of card contents. The inclusion of a clean HDMI output sets the GH2 apart from most other compact hybrid cameras. While there’s no provision for easy live audio monitoring, there is a tiny speaker for playback. And there’s a pop-up flash that activates automatically when shooting in program modes, and which can also be manually activated.
As with any camera—and in particular with any compact hybrid camera—operation involves a bit of a learning curve. Proper and informed setup and experience will ensure that you know where to find controls when you need them in the heat of shooting. There are numerous resources available for tutorials, setup, and use, including Panasonic’s Website.
I used the “stills” mode to familiarize myself with the camera and to achieve a good working setup on controls for video shooting, which was my main aim. The review unit came with a stock Panasonic Vario lens (14–140mm, f-4/5.8), which I found to be an excellent, all-purpose lens—very sharp and free of chromatic aberrations. As with the other kit choice (14–42mm, f-3.5/5.6), it comes with an excellent optical image stabilization system. Shooting stills in the automatic and program modes was as straightforward as with any other camera and the results—both RAW and JPEGs—were excellent. It’s very easy, with the top of the camera dial, to switch between modes, based on the environment. Menu choices for fine tuning parameters such as white balance and ISO are logically laid out, quickly accessible, and are mode-specific, which means you don’t have to wade through menu choices and parameters that don’t apply to the chosen mode. In addition, mode-specific settings are remembered each time you switch to that mode.
Burst mode can be engaged simply by shifting the drive lever on the top left of the camera. There are several preset speeds, with the fastest for JPEGs providing up to 40 frames per second; however, real-world use with RAW files yields four to five images per second. Autofocus and metering functions, both of which can be useful in still and video shooting modes, are two things that set the GH2 apart from similar cameras. There are four focusing modes aside from manual, all of which can be selected from a knob on the camera’s top. These include “1 area,” or single area, which can be expanded and positioned using the touchscreen LCD; “23 area,” actually up to 23 areas of focus scan; “AF tracking,” the area of focus is set using either the touchscreen or a half-press of the shutter button, and “face detection and face recognition.” The video mode offers the option of using (or not) continuous autofocus while shooting. In addition, there is an exceptionally useful focus assist function. The first three modes—and the fourth, with some caveats—are quite fast and surprisingly accurate and useful, even in video shooting modes, thanks in part to the kit lens’s extremely quiet focus motor. Noise is undetectable in action even by the GH2’s built-in microphone.
Metering modes, selectable for manual still or video shooting, are “Multiple,” a complex algorithm that analyzes metering over the whole frame; “Center Weighted,” a simpler algorithm that gives priority to the central area of interest in the frame; and “Spot,” a simple algorithm that meters one selectable spot and does no averaging of other light sources in the frame. The results can be viewed on an optionally displayed— and very usable—histogram, and with the optionally displayed zebra stripes.
As was noted, the GH2 can shoot video in automatic or manual modes. Some of the manual modes are what Panasonic refers to as “Film Modes.” Other manufacturers call them picture profiles and the like. They include semi-customizable presets for specific environments and situations such as “Standard,” “Smooth,” and “Dynamic B&W,” “Dynamic,” “Smooth,” “Nostalgic,” “Standard,” along with “Smooth and Dynamic” color.
Of these, I customized and saved “Nostalgic” and “Smooth” color to memory locations for quick access and switching.
Shooting with the GH2 took a bit of practice, not just for familiarity with controls, but also for grip, monitoring and moving techniques. My first use of the camera was as a locked-down, wide-shot, second camera matched to my main Sony EX3. This was a fairly simple assignment, thanks to the variable white balance and the histogram to match exposure. A small Sennheiser mic mounted on the top hot shoe gave me acceptable audio for sync purposes in the edit.
One side note about audio—as with most compact hybrid cameras, the GH2’s audio functions are less than useful, comprising a choice of four preset levels for auto gain, a wind-cut filter, and on-screen audio meters. For more precise audio recordings, a second system recorder, or one of the many interface boxes is a must.
Shooting handheld with a small camera such as the GH2 in manual mode has its own built-in challenges. The first thing that becomes very clear is that for anything more than casual shooting, a support device is necessary. There are just too many things to take care of, hold, adjust, and monitor. Fortunately I had an old shoulder brace system that worked just fine. Thanks to the use of the programmable function buttons on the GH2 body, one on the top and two on the back, which I set to control the “Focus Area,” “Film Mode” selection, and “Metering Mode,” I could concentrate on the usual functions of shooting and worry less about adjusting aspects of camera operation.
Video shot on the GH2 can be captured in 1080 or 720 resolutions, and in one of several qualities of AVCHD or M-JPEG compression. I found the recorded image to be excellent through a wide variety of settings, with an easy-to-achieve shallow depth-of-field and smooth bokeh, smooth motion, and very few artifacts--chromatic, compression, or anything else. The more practice I got with the camera, the shorter the reset moments had to be.
Due to sensor and camera body design, creating lens adaptors for the GH2 and other micro 4/3 cameras, is easy and inexpensive. The average price for such adaptors falls in the $25 to $50 range without electronics connections, of course, and this greatly facilitates experimentation. I was able to try several old Nikon and Canon lenses I owned, and while all worked perfectly, they were not always well suited to the GH2’s form factor. For example, a Canon 28–135 mm unit worked great with an EOSM43 adaptor, even giving me manual control over the Canon lens iris. However, one of my favorite long outdoor lenses—an old Nikon 80–200 mm model that I regularly use on my EX3—worked perfectly with a $25 adaptor, but was incredibly tricky to use successfully with the GH2 for stability reasons--the lens is larger and heavier than the camera.
There’s an interesting feature on the GH2—“Ex-Tele Mode” (extended tele-conversion), which uses a 1:1 center crop of the sensor to give—in effect—a 2.6x extra telephoto reach for any lens attached. Since this is a sensor center crop, there’s no digital zoom artifacting, though it seems to produce the cleanest image under good light and with a relatively low ISO.
Another thing to note is that the GH2, unlike video format cameras, does not have a built-in neutral density filter, which is pretty much essential for flexible outdoor shooting. The best solution I found to this, and to avoid constantly having to swap out and screw on different density filters, is a variable neutral-density filter—the kind you twist to achieve different amounts of light reduction.
I’m extremely appreciative of the GH2’s clean HDMI output on two accounts: it can be used to feed a small field monitor for much more precise monitoring and focus than the otherwise excellent camera foldout touchscreen display can provide, and it can feed a field recorder for higher quality and/or better or more useful codec. I used the HDMI output to feed a Convergent Design’s nanoFlash, recording at 100 Mbps, and looped the output of the nanoFlash to my LCD monitor, for absolutely clean and excellent-looking QuickTime footage that was ready to edit.
An interesting online community has formed around the GH2, with one of the most useful sites (www.personal-view.com) featuring modifications of the GH2’s firmware. It’s led by Vitaliy Kisilev. These developments allow the GH2 to shoot at much higher bit-rates with much higher quality, and with customizations for specific shooting conditions, frame rates, compression, and “looks.” There are very clear instructions for applying and using these donation-ware modifications, which greatly expand the GH2’s already excellent image quality and usefulness.
The GH2 is well worth a hard look for anyone wishing to break into the new world of compact hybrid cameras, or for anyone looking to add another look to their shooting toolbox. It’s extremely reasonably priced (recently there have been body-only specials of $700), very flexible, and produces very nice looking video with a wide variety of lenses.
Michael Hanish operates Free Lunch, a video/audio/multimedia production house near Guilford, Vt. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
16 megapixel still/video camera
Interchangeable lenses; compact; high quality video, clean output; manual image control; multiple formats and frame rates; large, sensitive sensor.
MSRP $1,449 with 14 to 140 mm, f-4/5.8 lens
Panasonic Solutions Co.