Panasonic GH2 Revisited
Two Months, 3000 Frames, and Lots of Video Later
Panasonic GH2 with 14-140mm @ ISO 500
Regular readers will have noticed that since late December '10 I have been living and working in Mexico, and shooting exclusively with the Panasonic GH2. When I came down to San Miguel in mid-December I knew that I was limited in the kind of equipment that I could bring with me. I intended to shoot documentary stills as well as video, and knew that I would be doing a lot of walking and hiking. This meant bringing a light weight, low bulk, versatile system that could shoot both high quality stills and video during the four months that I would be living in Mexico.
Just days before I left to drive down to Mexico I was able to take delivery of a Panasonic GH2. I had reviewed a pre-production sample in October, and had written a follow-up about its video capabilities and also about its 1:1 ETC video mode in December.
Now, about two months later, having shot some 3,000 frames of stills and quite a bit of video, it's time to revisit the GH2 in print and discuss my experience working with it in real-world rather than quick-first-test conditions.
I have been a fan of the Panasonic GH1 since mid-2009, and it became my camera of choice when needing to shoot video as well as stills. It was flawed in two ways though – poor high ISO performance and crippled video. With the GH13 hack video performance was much improved, but it still wasn't where I and others wanted it to be. We had high hopes for the anticipated GH2 though, and when it started to ship just before the end of 2010 we found that we weren't disappointed.
I won't write too much more here about the video capabilities of the GH2 since I've already covered this in previous reports. Let it be enough to say that with a fast lens (for shallow DOF) it is to my mind the best video capable DSLR type camera on the market. It's the only one that has true 1080P/24 capability, fast autofocus while filming, and numerous additional video related features that put it in a class by itself.
As a stills camera the GH2, like the GH1 before it, has a lot to recommend it, especially its small size and low weight combined with a very likable and full-featured user interface.
This really is the key to what makes the GH2 such a compelling choice in the crowded DSLR marketplace. (I know it's not accurate to call it a DSLR, but it's convenient – so sue me.) There are any number of small APS-C sized DSLRs from other makers whose camera bodys come close to the compact dimensions of the GH2. But, they all feature compromised reflex viewfinders. Of course the size and weight of their lenses systems is also a major factor, and one of the things that really sets the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) system apart. More on this shortly.
Night Traffic. San Miguel de Allende. February, 2011
Panasonic GH2 with 14-140mm @ ISO 200
Potentially the most controversial aspect of the GH2 is its electronic viewfinder. The way that MFT cameras with viewfinders achieve their small size is by replacing the usual mirror box and prism assembly with an electronic viewfinder – essentially a small video screen similar to what one finds on a video camera.
Digicam EVFs tend not to be of very high resolution or brightness, but the one on the GH2 (and the GH1 originally) is very good indeed. In fact, I would say that it is in many instances preferable to the dismal (meant literally) and small optical viewfinders found on the smaller and usually inexpensive DSLRs.
The EVF on the Sony A55 is also very good (though I haven't had a chance to do a side-by-side comparison), and similarly I would prefer these any day to a small and dim optical reflex system, especially those on cheaper systems that use pentamirrors instead of true prisms.
No – these EVFs are not as bright and clear as a good bright reflex system, especially one on a full-frame body. But, the trade-off in size and weight is considerable. Also, the ability to have display overlays, such as a live histogram, goes a long way to making this new alternative viewing system attractive.
Frankly, the writing is on the wall. It won't be more than a few years until the vast majority of new camera model with viewfinders dispense with prisms and mirrors and replace them with EVFs.
Get used to it. It's not that we as photographers are necessarily asking for this (though EVF display technology is getting better all the time). It's just the pressure of industry economics. Price competition is fierce. Moving mirror assemblies and glass prisms are expensive to manufacture and assemble. High quality EVFs are not exactly inexpensive at the moment, but as with all high volume silicon based products, prices will inevitably fall. When that happens mirrors and prisms will be relegated to only the high end, where users are willing to pay for special capabilities.
About 90% of the time I am not displeased using the GH2's EVF. It's even possible to forget that there's anything different going on. But in low light things get a bit weird. With a fast lens (like the remarkable Nokton f/0.95) the view actually becomes brighter than reality and the final result not what one expects.
Nap Time. San Miguel de Allende. February, 2011
Panasonic GH2 with 14-140mm @ ISO 160
How a camera fits in ones hand, where the controls are found, and how they operate, is to my mind one of the most important aspects of a camera. It's right up there with image quality and reliability. If a camera gets in the way of fluid picture taking, then its a fail, even if the image quality is first rate.
I know that this isn't a universally held view, otherwise we wouldn't continue to have so many badly designed cameras. It also isn't something that a lot of newcomers to photography are all that sensitive to. I hear this all the time when I chastise certain designs, and people write that I must be biased against a particular company, because they don't see any problem.
Yes, I am biased. I'm biased toward good design and biased against poor ergonomics. And after using, testing, and writing about camera design for some 30 years I know a thing or two about it. (Some camera makers seem to agree, since they hire me from time to time as a consultant on new camera design).
So, with that off my chest, I'll say that the GH2's user interface design is among the best currently available in a digital camera. It doesn't have the elegance and stark simplicity of a Leica M9; in fact quite the opposite. But, given that it is a small form factor DSLR style camera with full features, not only for still photography but for video as well, it does a remarkable job of satisfy sometimes contradictory needs.
LCD / EVF
The articulated LCD should be mentioned. It's hinged to the left, making viewing from almost any and every angle possible, including a closed position for safety and battery saving. The EVF has eye detect, so that the LCD turns off and the EVF on when raised to ones eye. This works very well most of the time, and also has an override button for manual control.
Not to be overlooked is that the LCD is a touch screen. This means that you can touch focus as well as do things like move the histogram with your finger to a part of the screen that you prefer. Very cool.
On the downside is the fact that often the screen is touched by the buckle on the lens strap or a button on your shirt and you can find the camera focusing and shooting, seemingly with a mind of its own. Turning off the LCD or reversing it is a solution, but just be aware of the issue.
Knobs & Levers
Focusing and metering modes are accessed though a concentric knob and lever on the top left panel. Their labeling is clear and the feel and location distinct, and they have enough resistance so that they are rarely accidentally dislodged from their intended positions, something that happens all too often with some other maker's designs.
There is a lever concentric with the main mode dial that controls shooting speed – single, high speed, bracketing and self timer. Again a very obvious-to-use design that tells one at a glance what mode the camera is in. In fact that's one of the appeals of this camera's control design; the lever positions on the top panel tell you instantly how the camera is set. There is no need for an LCD panel.
When camera makers struggle to reduce camera size (a continuing trend) they do this first by removing the top panel settings and information LCD. The problem when doing this is that many designers then relegate the information and controls accessible via the top LCD to the rear LCDs menus. This is a poor solution, since often needed settings get buried away on long scrolling menus.
Panasonic's solution of making the controls separate levers and knobs does tend to complicate the design a bit, but for the photographer that demands complete control of the camera in as intuitive and rapid manner as possible, it's a first rate design.
Menus and Custom Modes
Panasonic has always excelled when it comes to their menu design, and the GH2 is no exception to this. The layout is mostly clear and logical, and Panasonic's signature Q(uick) Menu button provides almost instant access to frequently needed secondary settings.
Having three programable custom function buttons (one on the top panel, two on the rear) is appreciated, but even more so are the three Custom Settings on the main mode dial. This allows you to set the camera to almost any shooting configuration and then program these into a setting. I have one programed for fully automatic shooting, a second for fully manual, and the third for customized 24P video. Instantly switching between them is a joy when working quickly. Given that you still have the usual PASM setting positions also available means that once you become familiar with the camera there is almost no combination of settings that can't be pre-programmed and also instantly activated.
My main complaint with this is that the shutter speed one sets isn't independent for each mode. So, for example, if you have set a fast shutter speed in C1, and then go to S mode and choose something else, the C1 speed changes as well.
Temple Wall. Mexico. January, 2011
Panasonic GH2 with 7-14mm lens @ ISO 1600
I find that the batteries on the GH2 last around 200 – 250 frames. This is poor relative to some current DSLRs, but then they also have larger bodies and therefore larger batteries. The simple solution is to always carry a spare battery, or even two.
I've owned the GH1 for a couple of years and now the GH2. Both have been totally reliable, as have all the Panssonic lenses that I own, with the exception of the new 100-300mm. It failed just a few days after I got to Mexico, with a locked-closed aperture, and no amount of contact cleaning and re-seating can make it right. It's off to the Panasonic repair shop when I get back to Canada.
Fortunately I had my older 45-200mm with me, so I wasn't denied a long lens these past months in Mexico.
One of the joys of the MFT system is that its short back focus design means that just about any lens ever made for any camera can be fit though the use of relatively inexpensive adaptors. As a Leica M user for many years I have a collection of superb Leica lenses that all have found new use on the GH1 and now the GH2. Not, there's no AF, and aperture setting is of course manual as well, but so what? Also, with the aperture always at its shooting position depth of field is easily seen, and the auto-gain of the camera's viewing system means that the image is always quite bright and viewable.
In addition to the various MFT lenses available from Panasonic and Olympus all previous full-sized Four Thirds lenses can be used with an adaptor, and autofocus and auto-aperture are available on most of these lenses. Adaptors for Canon EF and Nikon lenses that retain aperture control are also available. These are increasingly becoming very popular in the film industry among video shooters who have been using the Canon 5DMKII or 7D and who now want to use their Canon glass on the GH2, and especially the new Panasonic AF100 large sensor pro camcorder. (Review coming).
As this was being written in early February, 2011, there was a flurry of announcements that several additional lens makers were planning making their lenses available in MFT mount, including Carl Zeiss, Schneider Kruznach, and Sigma. Clearly momentum is building, and the MFT format is proving to be attractive not just to photographers but also other manufacturers.
While there are a vast number of available lenses for the GH2, for someone just getting into the MFT format I'd highly recommend the Panasonic 14–140mm f/4-f/5.8 (28–280mm equivalent). It offers a great range, isn't too large or heavy, and has quite decent quality. It is on the slow side, especially at the long end, but for anything other than low light work it is as close to a universal lens as one could want to mate with the GH2. The lens is also the ideal lens for all-around video work with this camera, because it is designed to have essentially silent AF and aperture.
Though the GH2 uses contrast detection AF, you wouldn't know it from its speed. There isn't a Live View DSLR on the market that can touch it, and one would be hard pressed to fault the camera in any autofocus test. Add to this the camera's brilliant focusing magnification mode, which appears when you touch the focusing ring in MF mode (or optionally when any non-AF lens is attached), and you have focusing flexibility usually not seen elsewhere.
There isn't any, because this is, of course, a mirrorless camera. This is not an insignificant aspect of camera design when it comes to ensuring optimum image quality. Mirror lock-up on DSLRs is very important at certain critical shutter speeds, and naturally when shooting with long lenses. DSLR Live View mode does this of course, but then those cameras tend to have glacial AF in this mode. Mirrorless cameras like the GH2 suffer from none of these issues.
The above photograph was taken hand-held at the equivalent focal length of 400mm at 1/5th second.
In-lens stabilization certainly helped, but the lack of mirror slap definitely made this shot possible.
This is where the rubber meets the road, or, less poetically but more accurately – where the photons hit the silicon.
Let's start by stipulating that a 4/3 sensor, because it is smaller than APS-C, will – all other things being equal – always have slightly lower IQ at any given resolution. Similarly, APS-C will have lower IQ / resolution than full frame 35mm, and medium format etc, etc. You get the picture.
That's the fundamental compromise of the Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds formats. They are smaller than the competition. This means that with the same Megapixel count, they will not have as high image quality as larger sensors, especially low noise at higher ISOs. That's the bad news.
But – is this difference visible? I would suggest that at normal print sizes (up to 13X19") the answer is likely no. Theory is one thing, but practice is another. Do you regularly print your work at 20X24" or larger? Great, then you should be using at least a 24MP camera and likely medium format. Smaller? Then, unless you're pixel peeping, the difference between APS-C and MFT is de minimis.
The good news is that the smaller sensor size means smaller and lighter bodies, and much smaller and lighter lenses. For example, the Panasonic 100-300mm f/4-f/5.6 is small enough to fit in the palm of ones hand and can be comfortably carried on a GH2 body all day. Since this lens is equivalent to a full-frame 200–600mm zoom the possibilities are amazing. Imagine going on safari with this lens as opposed to one of the behemoth 500 or 600mm lenses that one might otherwise have to schlep half-way round the world.
White Bug. San Miguel de Allende. January, 2011
Panasonic GH2 with 14-140mm @ ISO 160
Whether a GH2's image quality is good enough depends on one's definition of "good enough" and what one plans on doing with ones images. Because of my writing, reviewing, teaching and consulting activities I am fortunate to have access to a range of cameras, including a 60MP Phase One P65+ system, a 24MP Sony A900, and an 18MP Leica M9. Can the GH2 compare in image quality?
Well, that depends. It depends on the size of print being made, the amount of cropping, the ISO needed to be used and the intended purpose. These considerations then need to be contrasted with ones intended use for the images.
I could have brought any one of these systems with me to Mexico, but I choose the GH2 because of its suitability for the type of shooting that I intended on doing there. The Leica M9 would have been my ideal choice for street shooting, but I also wanted the use of long lenses for landscape work and video capability as well, so the Panasonic became my choice instead.
I have an Epson 3880 printer here, and have been making 13X19" prints, with a number of them now framed and hanging on my walls in San Miguel, as well as several given and sold to friends and acquaintances here. No one has yet said – Gee, I wish you'd shot these with a larger format camera.
Is the GH2's image quality good enough? Yes, it is for me, and for my purposes while I live in Mexico this winter. If I need higher resolution or better high ISO capability then I'll have other choices available down the road, but for the type of shooting that I bought it for it excels.
Supply and Demand
The biggest issue with the Panasonic GH2 is that a great many people that want to buy one, can't, because these cameras seem to constantly be in short supply. The forums continue to be filled with people asking where one can be found. Since it's hard to imagine that a company the size of Panasonic is manufacturing constrained, the only thing one be assumed is that the global recession of the past few years has made company management gun shy, and they are deliberately restricting production to minimal demand forecasts.
I suppose that if I were a Panasonic shareholder I might applaud such cautious planning, and no doubt there are competitors who are forced to offer instant rebates on their products to move inventory that wish they had a similar problem. But Panasonic seems to chronically underestimate their product demand forecasting, and so enthusiasts should simply make sure that they get their orders in early when a new Pany product is announced.