Panasonic Lumix GH1
The Current ComboCam King
If you want a peek at what the future of both still and video cameras might look like over the next few years, drop into your camera dealer and have look at the Panasonic Lumix GH1. To my mind it's the first Combocam that "gets it", delivering both image quality and functionality that don't represent a considerable compromise on one side or the other.
Almost every new DSLR that has appeared during 2008 and 2009 has had video capability, but as is unfortunately so often the case with new technologies, they seem sometimes to be added by manufacturers because they can, rather than because they make sense, or because someone said, "Here's how to make this work right." The perfect example of this has been the Canon 5D MKII, which many people are very turned on by because of its video image quality, but which is as frustrating to use as a functional video camera as can be imagined (or at least until their recent firmware upgrade, which turned it into something that can at least walk on crutches).
I have been using the Panasonic GH1's predecessor, the G1, since late 2008 and my review can be found here. I've also written about using it with a mount adaptor so as to be able to use Leica M lenses (more on this shortly). There is also another article here in which the G1 was featured, about doing available light shooting. Needless to say, I am enjoying the G1 and find myself using it quite a bit in a great many situations, especially when traveling.
When the G1 was first introduced there was an almost unanimous asking of the question – where's the video? It wasn't more than a few months later that Panasonic announced the GH1, hardly before the first stock of G1s had hit retailer's shelves.
Now, in July, 2009 the Lumix GH1 has been shipping in Asia for a few months and stocks are starting to slowly appear in Europe and North America. Slowly being the operate phrase at the moment, but likely to reach full distribution before Q4.
Changes From the G1
The following is my report on the Lumix GH1 considering it primarily as a video camera. As a still camera it is little changed from what I wrote about in my initial review. The sensor is new, though still effectively 12MP. This allows the camera to shoot various still aspect ratios, from 4:3 to 3:2 to 16:9, all with the same coverage angle. The new sensor also seems to have given the camera somewhere between a half stop and a full stop of extra ISO, at last in terms of low noise. ISO 800 on the G1 was acceptable but not great. Now on the GH1 it is on a par with cameras in the APS-C sized sensor category from other manufacturers, and ISO 1600 is acceptable, which before it was not.
That's about it for upgrades from the G1, so if you'd like to learn more about the still photography side of the GH1 please read my original G1 review and then come back here to learn about the video side of things.
Frame Rates & Codecs
This can be as confusing as hell. HD video is not just one standard, but many. The highest resolution is 1920X1080, which the GH1 can shoot at 24fps in Progressive mode. But, while the camera is recording 1080P/24 it actually is wrapping it in 1080/60i for AVCHD encoding. Panasonic also does this with their latest tapeless HD camcorders, the GH20 and HF10. For more on video jargon and standards have a look at my essay on Understanding Video for Still Photographers. Also see the section below titled Support Software for information on how best to use this footage in an NLE (Non-Linear Editor).
The GH1 can also shoot in either AVCHD or Motion JPG. The advantage of Motion JPG is that it is not as highly compressed as AVCHD and therefore can be edited right out of the camera – no transcoding is necessary. Be aware though that in Motion JPG the camera records at an actual 30 FPS, not 29.97 FPS, which is the industry standard. This seemingly very tiny discrepancy can lead to a loss of audio sync as every thousandth frame is dropped to compensate. This means that audio will build up a delay against video of one frame every thousand frames, which seems like a lot but is only just over 30 seconds worth of footage.
Secondly, you will only get half as much time on a card as when shooting AVCHD as the files are really large, and no one video clip can be more than about 8 minutes in length. Also, Motion JPG can only be shot in 1280 X 720 / 30 while AVCHD can do full HD. And finally, MJPG just doesn't look as good as properly transcoded AVCHD. It's only real advantage is that it removes the transcoding step, sort of like the convenience factor of shooting JPG rather than raw with stills.
1080 vs 720
This is one of those almost religious battles and there's no clear cut winner or loser. In North America there are two broadcast standards for HD TV; 720P and 1080i. ABC, ESPN and FOX television, which do a lot of sports coverage, have gone with 720P, based on their testing – which shows that even on a large screen the increased clarity of 720p's progressive scan trumps the increased resolution of 1080i. NBC and CBS have gone with 1080i. There is no broadcast 1080P because it would simply use too much over-the-air bandwidth, and is beyond what the MPEG2 and US broadcast standards allow.
Which brings us to the Lumix GH1. It can shoot both 1080P and 720P, but at different frame rates. On 1080p/24 footage where the subject matter is stationary, or slow moving, image quality is superb. The quality of the camera's large sensor really shows through. But, when there is any form of rapid motion, either on the part of the camera or the subject, the use of 24fps really shows. This is somewhat inherent in 24fps footage vs the use of higher frame rates, and 16mm and 35mm cine cameras show this as well, as do older DV cameras shooting at 24P.
Also, it appears that the GH1 uses an implementation of the AVCHD codec when shooting 1080P/24 which does not utilize "B" frames. The reduces the codec's ability to predict motion. Low motion images are unaffected, but rapid motion, either on the part of the subject or the camera, produce what some people are calling "mud" – a loss of detail in areas showing motion.
The GH1 is the only video DSLR, at the moment, that can shoot 1080P/24. The Canon 5D MKII, for example, can shoot 1080P/30, but 24P is the Holy Grail for indy film makers looking for the "cinematic" look. 30P is still pretty much there, but 60P, which the GH1 does in 720 mode, has much more of a video look than a filmic look.
720P/60 from the GH1 on the other hand is truly excellent with motion, and it shows almost as good resolution as 1920 X 1080 on anything other than a large monitor or TV screen. Subject and camera motion are both as smooth as anything I've seen, and because the GH1 shoots 720P at 60FPS you can place this footage on a 30 FPS time line, slow it down by 50% and have very smooth slow motion – an added bonus.
The bottom line for the GH1 is that it is a superb camera in terms of image quality at 720P, and this will likely the sweet spot for most people. Those interested in producing cinematic productions, maybe even feature films for theatrical release, will embrace 1080/24P. But, be aware of its motion limitations, which those used to shooting traditional video may not be used to.
24P Sidebar :
If you're interested in an in-depth tutorial on converting 30P, and especially 60P to 24P, this discussion by Jack Daniel Stanley will be of great interest.
If you're going to shoot 1080/24P, and you recognize the issues associated with rapid subject and camera motion (as cinematographers have for decades) my very strong recommendation is that you operate the camera in manual movie mode rather than any of the standard stills shooting modes, such as P / A or especially iA.
The reason for this is that in the automatic modes you'll be shooting at an unknown shutter speed, and this can make your footage look like crap. It's a trap that most amateurs will fall into with this camera and others like it, and endless discussions will appear online by people who don't understand the reason for the problems that they're seeing.
Set your shutter speed to 1/50 sec and use Auto ISO if you don't want to have to set everything manually, and in bright light do use an ND filter so that the lens isn't forced to shoot at very small apertures, unnecessarily increasing depth of field and more importantly reducing resolution because of diffraction effects.
Finally, if your NLE doesn't do pull-down removal automatically (as is the case with Final Cut) then you'll be better off simply batching your files through NeoScene, as described below. That's what I do.
Almost as soon as I got the GH1 I was on my way up to Muskoka, Ontario, where we have a summer house and spend much of the season.
The very brief video below was shot on the drive up and edited over the next day or so. Neither great shooting nor editing skill is shown, but the footage is representative of what the camera can do with a variety of lenses. It was shot at 720P/60.
No Jello For Me, Thanks
The GH1 uses a CMOS sensor, and like all CMOS devices it records data sequentially from the top to the bottom of the frame. This is not an issue for stills photography, but it can be for video because if the camera is panning, or the subject is moving from one side of the frame to the other, the bottom of the image will be recorded after the top, making objects in the scene wiggle and bend.
The GH1 is as good as I've seen any CMOS based video camera to be in this regard. There's hardly any shimmy visible, right up there with what I've seen from the best high-end video cameras using CMOS sensors.
And before folks with CCD based camcorders crow too much, be aware that these can suffer from vertical light streaking, so nothing is perfect.
Dealing with AVCHD
The AVCHD codec is both a blessing and a curse. It allows for very high data compression (required for the huge data rates of HD video) while at the same time providing manageable file sizes. But, it would require tremendous processing power to edit AVCHD directly in real time – more than even an 8 core, 3Ghz, dual processor computer can handle.
For this reason AVCHD needs to be transcoded; ie: turned into a format that while much larger is more easily handled by ones editing computer. Some non-linear editing programs can now handle this in an automatic or semi-automatic manner, including Sony Vegas, Final Cut Pro and IMovie 9. If your editing software can't handle AVCHD directly (or properly) you'll need to use a batch transcoding program such as NeoScene, which is discussed below under Support Software.
The Resolution Myth & Sensor Size
One of the bits of misinformation going around is that Combocams, because they have larger and higher resolution sensors than video cameras, is that they are somehow capable of producing higher resolution video.
The GH1, for example, has a quite large chip by video standards and a 12MP sensor, but in the end produces a 1920X1280 (2MB) image from its 4000 X 3000 sensor (12MB). This is done by scaling the image. So, while it might appear that this camera is capable of what is, in video terms, 4K resolution, it still is in the end just a "Full HD" device. As with all DSLRs that can also shoot video the trick is in how efficiently and effectively the camera can scale its very large image down to HD video size.
The real issue with using large sized sensored cameras to shoot video has to do with depth of field. The "filmic" look in large measure has to do with shallow depth of field. 1/4" and 1/3" CCD sensor camcorders have very short focal length lenses and therefore great depth of field. Everything is almost always in focus. 2/3" sensor camcorders start to have enough DOF for dramatic scenes, where one wants to separate individuals, and it isn't till one gets to cameras like the RED, with its APS-C sized sensor, (24.4mm x 13.7mm), about the same as Super 35mm motion picture film, that one gets truly cinematic DOF.
The GH1 has a 4/3 format sensor which has a 2X factor over full-frame 35mm. APS-C is either 1.5X or 1.6X. This makes the depth of field possible from a GH1 a bit less than a RED, or Acadamy format motion picture film, but far greater than 2/3" sensors used to shoot a great many TV products.
The other attractive aspect of large sensors is their comparatively low noise as compared to the very small sensors found in camcorders. This can easily be seen when GH1 footage is compared to that from just about any video camera with a sensor smaller than 2/3". Noise levels, even at ISO 1600 (+18db) are quite acceptable, and when a f/1.4 lens is attached means that shooting in just about any light condition is possible.
Following the release of the GH1 in North America and Europe, in late June, 2009, there were firmware updates made available for the camera, its kit lens and also the 14-45mm lens. You definitely should download and install these updates for optimum performance.
It's a dirty little secret, but if you want to do more with your GH1 than play with it, shoot some home movies, and attach it to your HD TV and watch Jimmy play baseball, you're going to need some additional software tools.
In other words, you're serious about producing quality video, just as you are when producing quality still photographs. On that side of the ledger you no doubt have purchased programs such as Aperture, Lightroom and Photoshop. With video this means first and foremost having a good quality NLE (non-linear editing program). If you're on a Mac the entry level is iMovie, the mid-ground is Final Cut Express, and the top end is Final Cut Studio (meaning Final Cut Pro, but which is now only sold as part of Studio). There are of course other products, but I'm not directly familiar with them and so can't offer advise.
On the Windows side there are programs such as Adobe Premier, Sony Vegas, and a host others, which again I can't advise you on as I have no hands-on familiarity.
In addition then to an NLE, if you have a GH1 you need at least one additional pieces of software, NeoScene ($129).
When the Panasonic GH1 shoots 1080/P24 the files are stored in a 1080/60i envelope, and something called Reverse Telecine is needed to convert the footage from 60i to 24P for editing and output. Panasonic doesn't provide any software for doing this, and to my knowledge none of the NLE's do so automatically or even conveniently while transcoding AVCHD.
By the way – when you watch a movie on TV you're seeing 24P embedded in 60i. Panasonic just uses the inverse technology on the GH1 and some of their other AVCHD camcorders.
NeoScene ($129) will take your GH1 AVCHD files, transcode them, and apply deinterlacing and a reverse telecine conversion, producing a proper 1080P/24 file for editing. There may be other ways of doing this, but NeoScene seems to be the simplest and least expensive way of doing this on both Macs and Windows machines.
Just point NeoScene at your .MTS files, load them into NeoScene, and with the OUTPUT tab set as shown below, batch convert your files.
Take a break, and when done your files will be transcoded, deinterlaced, and converted to 24P.
Note that if you select Deinterlace instead of Pulldown Removal from the above dialog you'll end up with 30FPS instead of 24 FPS footage. This may be preferable for those seeking to mix footage with 1080/30P material shot with other cameras, such as the Canon 5D MKII or the JCV-HM100 review here recently.
Be aware as well that NeoScene upsamples the GH1's chroma from 4.2.0 to 4:2:2, which will make it more robust when grading (colour editing) or for chromakeying.
One final point on NeoScene; one has the choice of converting the file to either Cineform 422 or ProRes HQ. ProRes HQ files are much larger, but the files are much easier to work with when doing more than simple edits. For example, in Final Cut files can be speeded up or slowed down and no rendering is needed for playback. With Cineform files, because they use wavelet compression, and are therefore smaller, any speed changes will have to be rendered, slowing down the editing process. With 1 Terabyte drives now costing around $100, large files are no longer the hassle that they once were (though they do take longer to copy when making backups), so I opt for ProRes just for the editing convenience. But, the files are in ProRes 422 HQ which is total overkill, and which can also prevent the files from playing back properly in Final Cut because of the greater overhead.
Be aware that converting 60i footage to 24P is relatively easy. But, converting 30P to 24P is difficult. If you have 30P footage, such as from a 5D MKII, and want to convert it to 24P (to edit along with GH1 footage at that speed, for example), have a look at Philip Bloom's tutorial.
Another program for doing AVCHD transcoding is VoltaicHD. At just $35 it is less expensive that NeoScene, but if you're going to be shooting the GH1 in 1080/24P NeoScene does a better job of converting the 60i envelope into 24P. Voltaic claims that it does, but it doesn't work for me, and a query on this to the publisher, Shredworx, has gone unanswered. Also, when you shoot 720P/60 it converts the files to 30 FPS. Possibly this will have been fixed by the time that you read this, so do give Voltaic a try, but be aware that as of late July, 2009 these issues existed in the Mac version (1.86).
This is a good time to mention that you should not delete your .MTS files and the enclosing PRIVATE directory after transcoding in your NLE, NeoScene or Voltaic. If you've done one type of conversion and then at some time in the future decide you need the other it will be much easier to work from the original .MTS rather than a .MOV that might not produce the highest quality conversion. This is much like not deleting your raw stills files once you've produced a TIFF or JPG from them. As stated above, at $100 for a one Terabyte drive, storage costs are inconsequential. (That's 10 cents per gigabyte, so offloading an 8GB SD card, which holds an hour of AVCHD video, will cost you 80 cents for long term storage.)
As for whether one should work in 24P or 30P (you really should never work in Interlaced), it's a debate without end. Some people like the slightly more filmic look of 24P (read – more motion blur), while others feel that the extra temporal detail of 30P has advantages. Do some tests and make the decision for yourself.
And with reference specially to the GH1, 720P on this camera is a much more practical proposition for most shooting situations and users, and generally produces higher quality video. My recommendation would be to stick to that format unless you deliberately need the higher resolution of 1920X1080 and will therefore take the extra care needed to deal with rapid motion issues.
I've seen some people online complaining about the (relative) high price of the GH1. What needs to be borne in mind is that the camera comes with a very fine lens, a 14-140mm (28 - 280mm equivalent) f/4.5 – f/5.8. While on the slow side, this lens is relatively small, has a decent wide end, and a 10:1 range. It also has continuous rather than discrete aperture changes, which are necessary for smooth video in changing light conditions, and the lens is essentially silent when autofocusing while filming. This lens alone is worth half the price of the camera.
I've found its picture quality to be very good indeed. The lens is larger and heavier than the old 14-45mm f/3.5-f/5.6, but much more versatile.
The other lens which works well with the GH1, and once the firmware is updated autofocuses during video, is the 45-200mm f/4 – f/5.6. This is the lens that I've used more than any other on the G1, and now on the GH1. Because of its equivalent 400mm at the long end, and very narrow depth of field at wide apertures, it continues to be a favourite.
Two other Panasonic lenses have now joined my GH1 system, the new Lumix G VARIO 7-14mm F4.0 f/4.0 ASPH and the older Panasonic Leica D SUMMILUX 25mm F1.4 ASPH (which requires a firmware update and also the DMWMA1 Mount Adaptor for 4/3 lenses to Micro 4/3 cameras). The ultra-wide angle of the 7-14mm is a real treat when shooting motion because having a lens this wide (14mm equivalent) is rarely found on video cameras.
The 25mm f/1.4 (50mm Equiv) is just the ticket for low light shooting. It is more than three stops faster than the G1's kit lens, which makes it ideal for available light work as well as when one wants very shallow depth of field. Be aware though that both the AF and auto-iris are NOISY, and the on-camera mikes are not going to be what you want to use when this lens is mounted in anything other than a static focus situation. This is an issue, because though AF doesn't work full-time while videoing, you can press the shutter release part way while filming and cause the lens to refocus, though noisily. Curious, but welcome behaviour if one needs to refocus during a shot. f you have the camera on full Auto exposure or Shutter priority, and the light changes, the aperture is both noisy and non-continious. For this reason I always shoot with this lens at fixed aperture in full Manual mode.
Because the 7-14mm isn't available yet in North America as of July, 2009, and the 25mm f/1.4 is an older lens that seems to be out of stock almost everywhere, you may find it necessary to use a Japanese retailer on eBay to find one. That's what I did, and in both cases had the lenses in less than a week. The 25mm f/1.4 is from the days several years ago when Panasonic and Leica were close buddies. It's a real Summilux lens in terms of wide aperture and image quality and shines when used in low light conditions. One of my favourites! Just remember to update the firmware for the GH1 so that autofocus works, and also remember to purchase the 4/3 to Micro 4/3 adaptor. Together this will come to about $1,400, but still a lot less expansive than an M or R series lens from Leica directly, and one-shot AF is available.
I also use two Leica M lenses on the GH1, as written about in this article. Because of its short back focus distance just about any lens from any camera system can be mounted on a Micro 4/3 camera. I happen to have a couple of fast Leica M series lenses, (from my now departed M8), the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux and the 90mm f/2 APO Summicron, equivalent to 100mm and 180mm respectively on the GH1. These lenses are astonishingly good for low light level video (as well as stills of course) with the only compromise being the lack of AF. But, the fact that the GH1 can provide a greatly magnified view for focusing on either the EVF or the LCD makes achieving accurate focus quick and not at all inconvenient. All one really loses with these lenses is auto-aperture.
If you own Leica M, R, Nikon, or Canon FD or even EOS lenses, not to mention PL mount film and video lenses, there are mount adaptors available. This is one of the very compelling features of the G1 and GH1 for lens lovers looking to mount some of their orphan glass on a contemporary digital camera body, for either stills or video.
The brief video above was shot after I'd had a few days to become familiar with the GH1 and its various capabilities. It was shot in 1080/P24, and edited in Final Cut Studio. Music was created in Muse. Lenses used were the 14–140mm and 45–200mm. The video has not been graded.
Focus and Face Tracking
One of the ways in which the GH1 differs from even the firmware-upgraded, hacked, Canon 5D MKII is that it is capable of real-time autofocus while shooting video. This is especially efficient with the kit 14-140mm lens which is specially designed for this purpose, with stepless iris and ultra-low-noise focus motors.
The GH1 also has focus tracking and face detection during video recording. This means that the camera can track an object or face, even while the camera or the subject is moving.
I've done some experimenting with this but have not come to any firm conclusions about its usefulness. There are times that it works amazingly well, and there are times that the camera loses its focus lock, especially when the subject or person leaves the center 50% of the frame. So, while camera assistants and focus pullers aren't quite out of a job yet, those of us working as one-man-bands can, with some practice, produce highly effective tracking shots that hold focus.
Be aware that while the GH1's contrast detection autofocus system is quite good, it is not as good as the best DSLR phase detection technology. This probably isn't the camera for sports and action still photography, but for normal stills work and especially video, it's just fine. In 1080/P24 mode though, AF is a big more sluggish than in 720/P60, probably because of the slower frame rate not providing enough updates to the AF system. Compared to the anemic AF on other video DSLRs though, it's a fireball.
Hooray. The GH1 has a live histogram. I regard this as a virtual must for achieving proper exposure when shooting video, and any camera that doesn't have it gets marked down in my book. The GH1 even lets you position it anywhere on the screen.
There is no zebra warning, which anyone coming from a camcorder will miss, though the live histogram goes a ways in making up for the lack. Maybe next generation.
Electronic Viewfinder and Articulated LCD
When the G1 came out in late 2008 many people critiicized it because it wasn't a true DSLR. In other words – no optical viewfinder and reflex viewing through a mirror. A valid criticism, even though the G1's electronic viewfinder is spectacular, as bright and sharp as anything on the market and quite usable in any light.
Now, with the GH1, and its video capability, the shoe is on the other foot. All other DLSRs can only shoot video using the camera's rear "live view" LCD screen. This is far less convenient than also having an eye level viewfinder as a shooting option.
The LCD on the GH1 is also highly articulated, allowing the camera to be positioned at almost any angle while still maintaining a comfortable viewing position. Just about every other ComboCam at present has a fixed LCD, which when combined with the lack of an EVF makes them less than amenable to comfortable and productive shooting positions.
It should be mentioned as well that the GH1 has an eye detect mechanism so that the LCD switches off and the EVF switches on when it is brought up to one's eye. Very convenient, and with manual override available as well, well thought out.
These two features together, a full-time eye level electronic viewfinder and an articulated LCD, raise the GH1 above all other current video capable DSLRs in terms of shooting convenience and practicality.
One disappointment is that the GH1 can not output via its HDMI port while shooting. This would mean that an external monitor could be used for monitoring, something that people doing productions value, as the director can watch what the cameraman is seeing. Maybe on the GH2.
The GH1 has a built-in stereo microphone, located on the top lid of the pop-up flash, which does a a surprisingly good job, and when using the 14-140mm kit lens, the lens is essentially silent when autofocusing. Other lenses may transmit focusing sound to the built-in mics. (Most other video capable DSLRs record mono audio, and some don't even have a speaker for playback).
There is also a sub-mini stereo mike input, and Panasonic makes a stereo cardiod mike, the DMCGH1, which attaches to the hot-shoe and plugs into the mic jack.
Audio, regardless of mic used, is technically pro quality at 44KHz / 16 bit.
The real problem is that audio is completely automatic. There are no level control, making the GH1's audio capability adequate for amateurs, but not great. There is no way to turn the Auto Gain Control (AGC) off, and also no way to monitor audio while recording (no headphone jack).
If you want to really produce good sound you have to record dual system, which means doing the sound with a separate audio recorder and mics and then syncing it up in post.
One area where ComboCams fall short of true video cameras is their lack of motorized zooms. While most amateurs zoom far too much, having a slow smooth zoom capability is often welcome. Doing manual zooms with a still camera lens while shooting video just isn't smooth enough most of the time.
I am really taken with the G1 and GH1's size. Its small, but not too small. Combine this with the smaller lenses that the Four Thirds format allows and one has a camera that is just right for most people's hands. In fact I don't use a neck strap with the G series cameras, instead using a wrist strap and simply holding the camera in one hand. A couple of additional lenses fit in a jacket pocket, and one is then ready for just about any sort of candid shooting.
Its only when the GH1 is on a tripod that it seems almost ridiculously small, especially on a large Sachler tripod with a fluid head for video filming. But, the camera's small size is a real bonus when it comes to being inconspicuous. "That little thing can't be a "pro" camera, so you must be an amateur. Sure, go ahead and shoot. No permit required."
Shooting Modes and Looks
The GH1 can shoot video in any shooting mode, Ai / P / A / S / and the full range of creative modes. This means that you can be merrily shooting stills in whatever mode you like, and when you want to record video just press the conveniently located red video record button under your right thumb.
But the most interesting and useful mode for videographers is the Manual Video mode settable from the top dial. This makes everything potentially fully manual – aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Knock yourself out.
There is also a top panel button marked Film Mode which allows you to choose from a wide variety of "looks", from hyper-saturated to B&W. Each can be customized with different settings for contrast, sharpening, saturation and noise reduction.
In trying to match the so-called "cine-gamma" setting on some of our video cameras I have found that the Smooth Film Mode with -1 Contrast and -2 Sharpening gives me a look that I like best. Just as when working with JPG stills, it's always better to start with a low contrast, low sharpness, low saturation image and then juice it up if you wish, since doing the inverse leads to much poorer image quality.
So, until we have raw video, season to taste. Well done Panasonic for making all of this available and work so smoothly on the GH1.
The Video Quality Verdict
With stationary or slow moving subjects the GH1's 1080P/24 footage is exceptional, better than just about any video camera under about $8,000 in terms of resolution. But when there's rapid subject or camera movement there can be some annoying visual artifacts, probably caused by the codec's lack of B frames.
At 780/P60 image quality is extremely high, and resolution doesn't suffer much at all. In fact, because of the much increased temporal resolution the overall image quality can better than in Full HD mode on smaller screens. My recommendation would be that unless you are confident shooting in 24 FPS (see below), and simply intended your projects for web presentation and home viewing, stick with 720/P60.
The camera also excels in low light as compared with 1/4", 1/3" and even some 2/3" camcorders. The larger sensor with its comparatively large photo sites simply produces cleaner video. In normal light levels it is buttery smooth and even at ISO 1600 more than acceptable when shooting available light video.
But, there are limits. Once your widest aperture and ISO 1600 are reached the GH1 doesn't handle underexposure well. Be forewarned.
One question that many ask is – how does the GH1's video quality compare to that of the Canon 5D MKII? I really can't say. I abandoned using the 5D MKII for video early on because of its initial limitations, including a limit on single clips of about 10 minutes (making accelerated motion animations impossible except in stills mode – something I enjoy doing, and which is seen in the two clips associated with this article).
Since June, a firmware upgrade has removed some limitations, and with some hacks available that expand usability even more the Canon is starting to become a highly usable though specialized video camera. In fact it is being used to shoot quite a number of films, and even parts of some high-end Hollywood productions.
But, there are some concerns. Critical eyes see quite a few artifacts in 5DMKII video. This is because the camera apparently only uses every third line of horizontal resolution to scale the image down to 1920 X 1080, discarding the other two. But, the camera's antialiasing filter is full strength because the sensor has three times that resolution, which some claim to cause issues.
The Panasonic GH1, on the other hand, appears to scale its full image down to the required resolution without dropping lines, producing what is, to my eyes at least, extremely clean and artifact free footage.
Finally, we know that the Canon 5D MKII has been used to shoot several feature films as well as numerous music videos and TV commercials. The Panasonic GH1 has only been available outside of Japan for a very short time (as of July, '09) but already there is at least one feature film being shot with it, and the quality from the preview clip looks very good indeed. There is also some behind the scenes footage from that shoot that is well worth watching.
If you're interested in using a video DSLR such as the GH1
to produce professional quality
video sequences then a rig like the one pictured above from Red
The use of precision focus knobs as well as mounting rails and a matte box
with 4" filters
makes using any ComboCam for production video much more efficient and convenient.
Sensors – How Big is Too Big?
I had an interesting chat while I was writing this with someone who is closely involved with the film production industry. He said that, as attractive as the 5D MKII was, many theatrical film cinematographers were finding that the depth of field was in fact too shallow when lenses are used wide open. If the lenses are stopped down this solves the problem, but it means that light levels on set have to be raised, which raises costs and which is against current practice of using minimal artificial lighting.
This is one of the reasons that the RED camera is popular. It has a frame size the same as APS-C and Super 35mm motion picture film. This appears to be the sweet spot for balancing depth of field and light levels. The GH1 is slightly smaller at 2X vs. RED's 1.6X but still very much in the ballpark. Sometimes one can have too much of a good thing.
Panasonic has chosen to use in-lens stabilization for its four thirds and micro four thirds cameras. My experience is that this is extremely effective; as good as the IS on Canons and Nikons. It is in fact superior to the stabilization on my JCV HM100 video camera, that costs 3X as much as the GH1.
Above is a video comparison taken with both the GH1 and the HM100, the JVC at its longest focal length (380mm Equiv) and the GH1 using the 45-200mm lens at its longest focal length (400mm Equiv).
Only use these clips for comparing stabilization as no attempt was made to equalize DOF or even ISO; (The GH1 was accidentally left at ISO 640 from a previous test, while the GH1 was at its base sensitivity.)
As can be seen, the Panasonic's stabilization is significantly better than that of the much more expensive JVC camcorder. In fact, I have no trouble handholding the GH1 with the 45-200mm lens at its longest focal length (400mm Equiv) and getting acceptably steady shots for most purposes.
The ND Gottcha
As convenient as ComboCams are, and they can be very convenient – especially the GH1 because of its small size – there is a hidden "gottcha" that may not be obvious, but which is found in every camera to date from every manufacturer.
Here's the issue. Video cameras have built-in neutral density filters which can be dialed-in as needed, and ComboCams don't. Why are they needed? Because just as with any camera, still or video, there is a shutter speed to be considered. The rule of thumb with video is that the shutter speed is twice the frame rate. So, if you're shooting 1020P/24 then the shutter speed would normally be 1/48th of a second. If you're shooting 720P/60 the shutter speed would normally be 1/120 second (though if you're going to be converting 60P to 24P in post you should stick to a 1/50sec shutter).
But, if you're operating the camera in any mode except the fully manual video mode (thank you Panasonic) the camera will simply give you whatever shutter speed it thinks best. On a bright sunny day you might find yourself shooting video at a1/1000th second shutter. This potentially can make your video look awful, with stroby motion. Video and film require a certain amount of blurring between frames for motion to appear natural, and high shutter speeds, especially those that one doesn't control oneself, are the enemy of good image quality in motion pictures.
But having said that, I have done numerous sequences with the GH1 in bright daylight with moderate apertures, and therefore high shutter speeds, and don't see much in the way of juddery motion, except when there is fine detail (such as pine needles blowing in the wind). Maybe not as filmic as some might like, but nothing to seriously bother me.
The solution if high shutter speeds does concern you is to switch to fully manual video mode and set the shutter speed yourself, along with the ISO. But, in bright light this might mean having to use a very small aperture (something that you may not want for DOF purposes) which will cause the lens to become defraction limited.
The only solution then is to dial in an ND filter. Oops. No ND filter. This means buying one or more to attach to your lens (and in sizes for each lens that you use, or with adaptor rings as needed).
This is one of the dirty little secrets of shooting video with a ComboCam that no one talks about, but which you may find to be of concern.
Anyone that simply hits the rear red video button in P / S or A mode and expects to get quality video is going to be disappointed. Sure, it'll be fine for home movies, but the GH1 is capable of so much much.
Here then are some tips on how to set and operate the camera so as to optimize video quality.
– Shoot 1080/P24 if you're after a cinematic look and know how to shoot rapid motion and action properly. Otherwise, and especially if your outlet is going to be the web and there is any rapid camera or subject motion, 720/P60 is preferable.
- Shoot in the dedicated video mode, not in the still modes. This provides you with almost total control over shutter speed, aperture and ISO. In P / S and A modes, and especially Ai, you have no control over the shutter speed, which should be set to 1/50 second.
My recommendation is to shoot in video mode and then set the camera to Shutter Priority at 1/50 second (for 24 FPS). The camera can then set the appropriate aperture, and if you wish you can set ISO manually or automatically.
Better yet is to shoot in full manual mode under the dedicated video setting, with manual control of both aperture and ISO once you've set the shutter to 1/50th. But, in Manual you lose the ability to set Auto ISO, which I find convenient much of the time.
When shooting 720/P60 set the shutter speed to 1/60 sec, but if you plan on converting the footage to slow-motion set the shutter speed to 1/125 sec.
Set the AE lock button to AE only, not AE + AF, and then do most of your shooting with AE lock set. There's nothing that looks more amateurish (other than zooming) than a shot with the aperture pumping as the light in the scene changes.
– Choose your focusing mode carefully. Face tracking works well and is worth trying. Locking focus is possible by half pressing the shutter release to focus and then setting the top focus knob Manual. Don't be a slave to Autofocus.
– Keep the histogram on and monitor it. You're shooting the equivalent of JPGs, not raw, and so proper exposure is very critical because ones ability to correct after the fact is limited.
– The GH1's auto white balance is decent, but if you have the time set a custom white balance using a gray card or even a piece of newspaper.
– Buy a three stop ND filter, or at least a polarizer, so that your bright daylight footage doesn't have to be shot at f/16 or f/11. This is well into diffraction and will lose a lot of resolution, not to mention probably giving you more depth of field than you might otherwise want – or maybe not.
– Unless you like a hard video look, set the Film Mode to "Smooth", and experiment with setting contrast, saturation, and sharpening to -1 or -2. It's always easier to add each of these than to reduce them in post production (grading).
– If you're shooting 1080/P24 use Neoscene to convert to proper 24P. To my knowledge no other method currently deinterlaces, applies reverse telecine, and corrects gamma properly.
– Neoscene produces two types of transcoded files; Cineform 422 and ProRes 422 HQ. ProRes HQ files are very large, and are overkill for this application. Why they are in HQ is beyond me. Regular ProRes 422 would have been fine. Cineform 422 files are half the size but require more rendering when special effects and grading are applied. Neither is the perfect solution though, I'm afraid.
The GH1 is Panasonic's first hybrid, so there are bound to be oversights. I could spend all day listing them, but many are minor. A few that stand out are...
– No locator pin on the base plate. Video cameras have locator pin holes just forward of the tripod mount thread. This allows for tripod mounting plates, Stedicam units and the like to be attached without torquing. The GH1, like most stills cameras (strangely) doesn't have one.
– When shooting AVCDH, each time the card is formatted the numbering of the files returns to 0000. This means that you end up with dozens, if not hundreds of files with the same names. Video cameras allow you to have continuous numbering. That the GH1 doesn't appears to simply be an oversight on Panasonic's part, and hopefully remedied in the next iteration of this model.
– Come on, Panasonic. If this camera is to have any pretentious to Indy and semi-pro applications it has to have a standard headphone jack for audio monitoring while recording. Also, we need some way to do basic audio level settings with AGC override. Maybe this level of camera doesn't need XLR connectors and a full audio mixer, but right now it's crippled on half of its capabilities.
– Live HDMI out – please! Productions need to be able to monitor the camera in real time. The cameraman is not always the director, even on budget productions, and without live video out there's no way for two people to be looking at the LCD simultaneously. There should be no technical reason not to produce live HDMI. Also, wouldn't it be great to be able to bypass AVCHD and send uncompressed camera output to a stand-alone recorder?
In This Corner – RED
As I've already written, I believe that Panasonic is the only major camera maker so far that "gets it" when it comes to the rushing freight train that is stills / video convergence. Though they were first with the D90, Nikon hasn't produce anything more since that shows that they understand convergence. Canon shook everyone up with the 5D MKII, and there's no denying that to date it produces some of the best video quality from a Combocam, but even with the recent firmware update that liberates manual controls, it's still primarily a DSLR, and a video camera reluctantly at best.
With the GH1 though Panasonic has shown that a very small, very high quality device that can competently shoot both stills and video is not only possible, but it is here, now, today. I wouldn't be surprised to see Panasonic build quickly on the GH1 in the coming convergence battle. Their competitors will eventually bring out devices that also have electronic viewfinders, articulated LCDs, autofocus while filming, a solid CODEC, and a range of full manual controls. By that time Panasonic will likely be ready to move to the next step, which will be raw video. Which brings us to the elephant in the room.
Of course the elephant is RED and the forthcoming Scarlet, the first of what the company calls their line of DSMC (Digital Stills Movie Cameras). If you have any interest whatsoever in the future of either still photography or film making on video this is where the future appears to lie.
The Scarlet and Epic build on the remarkable success of the RED ONE professional video camera that has taken advertising, creative film making, and Hollywood by storm. The Scarlet is likely to do so for the rest of us who are coming from a stills background but who are looking to embrace motion capture as well.
Though the company has gone quiet since their announcements of last October, there is every reason to believe that in late 2009 to early 2010 they will have the potential to rock the rest of the industry. The S35 Scarlet will have a 30X15mm sensor (bigger than APS-C), will cost $7,000 for the body, will have a 13.8 Megapixel sensor, and will shoot 30FPS stills and video in raw mode. If you've read this far and it doesn't make your mouth water, you probably don't have a pulse.
And what are Canon, Nikon et all doing in the meantime? Hard to say, but if they are not scrambling to produce something competitive they're going to find RED capturing a big chunk of the high-end of the prosumer stills and video market. Another warmed over 5 series camera from Canon just isn't going to be competitive.
Because Nikon doesn't have an existing video camera business to protect from the ravages of convergence you'd think that they would be in the forefront. But, given what we've seen so far Nikon seems to simply be playing a holding action rather than innovating when it comes to video. At least not yet.
Which brings us back to Panasonic.
First, an anecdote. Back about 30 years ago I was National Sales Manager for the Video Division of Panasonic in Canada. (This was industrial and broadcast; there was no consumer video at the time). I was then always frustrated by the fact that Sony and JVC would have cooler gear and have it first, bringing new features and innovations to market sooner than Panasonic.
After several years with Panasonic, and on a visit to headquarters in Japan one time, I voiced this concern to a senior executive and asked why this had to always be the case. He smiled wryly and responded that as the world's largest electronics company Matsushita felt no need to be first and coolest, but would emulate the turtle, not the hare. Slow but sure wins the race. He also said that the company chooses its battles carefully, but when they target a particular market they play to win.
We may be seeing echoes of this corporate sentiment with what Panasonic is doing today in the current stills / video convergence area. The GH1 stands apart from the crowd, offering not only a high quality stills solution, but is also the first convergence stills / video camera that doesn't need to apologize for the functionality or image quality of its video side.
A Personal Note
While I fully expect to purchase a Scarlet I also intended to continue to work with the GH1 or its successor. The Scarlet will not be a small camera, or very discrete to use. The GH1 on the other hand is almost pocketable, and along with a wide range of small and fast lenses is an ideal travel companion, and highly useful for where stealth is appropriate when shooting either stills or video.
Blame it on The Internet
Not only is the writing on the wall, but it is there in large, glowing fluorescent letters, and only a blind man will miss it. Both camera technology and the demands of the marketplace are leading in one direction, and that's convergence. The fact that virtually every DSLR released in 2008 and 2009 has video capability is no coincidence. We can only expect the trend to accelerate.
This can be regarded as a disruptive technology. The camcorder industry (with many of the same players, such as Canon and Panasonic) is about to be stood on its head. Because of their larger sensors, better low light sensitivity, shallower depth of field, interchangeable lenses, and multifunction capability, Combocams are going to attract first pros and then amateurs. The RED Scarlet, as we've already seen, will simply be the the tipping point, because it will be the first to add raw workflow to the equation, along with greater professional level modularity.
The other side of the coin is the business of photography itself. Once, the print marketplace was where photographers wanted to see their work. Magazines and newspapers were it. Today, the newspaper industry is in terminal decline and magazines get thinner by the month. For most people the Internet is now their primary source of not just news and information but increasingly entertainment.
The music industry is little different. Traditional music publishing is going the way of the horse and buggy. Music now lives online.
Yes, there will always be amateurs and fine art practitioners for whom the "print" is the ultimate objet d'art. But for those who make their living behind the camera, simply shooting stills for use on the printed page is a dwindling market, and soon to become almost totally marginalized. Photographers who can shoot stills and motion are the ones that are going to win the bids, and of these, those that understand how to communicate in each media properly will be the winners. The camera makers are simply providing us with the tools to make this happen.
Panasonic Lumix GH1 – The Bottom Line
It's difficult and more than likely foolhardy to write a bottom line comment on a product that has only been available for a short while, and even then is still not in full distribution. My few weeks with the GH1 though, shooting stills as well as video, has given me an appreciation for what Panasonic has accomplished.
At some $1,500 with its provided lens the GH1 offers tremendous value both as a stills and video camera. As with any product though, there are compomises. Some will want a larger sensor and higher resolution on the stills side, but at 12MP and with its smaller and lighter lenses the GH1 will meet many photographer's needs. The Micro 4/3 format's ability to take just about any lenses is also a plus not to be ignored.
On the video side image quality equals that of any other current video capable DSLR, and in terms of resolution and low noise leaves consumer camcorders in the dust.
With its articulated LCD and electronic viewfinder it trumps the 5DMKII in terms of shooting practicality, and also other models from Nikon, Canon et al which suffer from similar shooting inconveniences as well as an inability to shoot true 1020/P24. Sure, the GH1 will be superceeded soon enough, but for the moment it is the king Combocam.
There are two very good online resources in the form of discussion forums that concentrate on the Lumix GH1 and its video capabilities. These are DVXuser.com , which has four separate sections on the camera, and DVInfo.net. In addition, this site's discussion forum has a growing group of photographers sharing information on the use of Combocams.