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Panasonic GH3 Preliminary Field Report

Pushing the Hybrid Camera Boundaries

It's been exactly two years to the month since I field tested the Panasonic GH2 and then posted my Revisited follow-up article a few months later. That camera went on to become a favourite among both still photographers and videographers. It was arguably the best "hybrid" camera of its time, and now, two years later, Panasonic is set to up the ante once again.

Because this is clearly designed as a camera to appeal both to still photographers wanting a Micro Four Thirds SLR style camera system, and also cinematographers looking for a small form-factor camera for shooting high-quality shallow-DOF videos, I am going to break this brief review into three general sections; Introduction, Still Photography and Cinematography.


Caveat

Please note that this field report, done during mid-October 2012, was with a pre-production camera running firmware V0.5. Both the physical camera and its operating system are operational but not yet near final. Though Panasonic has placed no restrictions on what can can or can't discussed or displayed, it's only prudent to recognise that the camera that I was using was still a work-in-progress, and that there is no way of knowing what will be issues in the final product and what won't. For this reason I will not be discussing any obvious firmware bugs or operating anomalies. If there are any left when the camera ships I'll cover these in my follow-up report. 

Also, other than the printed Quick Start guide, I do not have a user manual of any sort. I have been though all of Panasonic's online documentation and spec sheets, but there are a great many features of this sophisticated camera that remain opaque or incompletely understood by me.


Blowing in the Wind. Georgean Bay, Ontario
Panasonic GH3 with Olympus 12-60 Zuiko @ ISO 800

The List

I will not be reporting on the following items, because as of the date of first publication these are either not yet implementedincomplete, undocumented, or unavailable. No inferences should be drawn from this list other than the fact that I am unable to test them and therefore cannot report on how they work.

– Wi-Fi

– My Menu

– Mic level Display

– ISO above 1600

– Consistency of contrast and saturation between video standby and recording

– Cine-gamma

– fully functioning clean HDMI out

– Auto ISO in video mode

– visibility of the camera set variable in video S and A shooting modes



Introduction

Rather than play in the ever expanding – I have more megapixels that you do – war that some companies are pursuing, Panasonic has stuck with a 16 megapixel sensor. As we'll see this is a sensible move, since 16MP is both more than than sufficient for most people's needs, and large enough to make an excellent double page spread in a magazine or 16X20" fine art print. Indeed it wasn't that long ago that a 16MP medium format back was an object of lust. Wow, 16 megapixels. Cool.

The advantage of staying at a reasonable 16MP is that it has allowed Panasonic to improve the sensor's low light ability. Again, Wow, and this time not meant sardonically. More on this below.

In hand the GH3 is a bit of a Goldilocks; not too big and not too small. Held beside the diminutive Olympus OM-D it is chunkier, but then some people find the OM-D too small and the control too cramped. I much prefer handling the OM-D with its vertical grip and battery base. But, this is one of those things that each user needs to compare for themselves.

The GH3 is slightly larger than its predecessor the GH2; about the same size as an entry-level APS-C camera. But there's nothing "entry level" about the GH3. In terms of build quality it features a weather-sealed magnesium alloy body and enough features and capabilities to daunt a web reviewer – me. For that reason I won't even attempt to list them, let alone report on them all. If you want all the specs and Panasonic's propaganda check this page. What I will do here is discuss the more important features (as I see them). 

Because this is a hybrid stills / video camera by design, there are features and capabilities that are cross-over between the two disciplines. Things like AF speed, and screen refresh rate. I'll discuss some of them in the Stills section and some in the Video section, so do read both, even if your interest lies predominantly in one area or the other.


Build Quality & Key Features

While there was nothing shabby about the GH2, the GH3 ups the game with a magnesium alloy body rather than a plastic shell, and has also been made splash and dust resistant. Because there is more body real estate there is room for more buttons and controls. There are now five physical Custom Function buttons and two additional  "soft" buttons that are part of the touch screen. These latter two are especially handy because they allow the photographer (especially when shooting video) to alter settings without turning dials and pressing buttons, which keeps vibration and on-camera noise to a minimum.

Both the rear LCD and EVF use OLED technology, and the LCD now has a capacitive touch surface (like a smart phone) so it is much more responsive. Not only can the focus point be indicated by touching the screen but the shutter can be released as well. More than a gimmick, this is very handy for tripod work and when shooting at difficult angles. Though neither screen is the highest resolution out there, both are more than adequate, and the extra contrast provided by the use of OLED technology is even more welcome than just resolution alone. The screen's refresh rate is also very high, and this means little if any visual smearing when panning. (I am increasingly finding that enhanced contrast range and high refresh rate are much more important on camera screens and EVFs than simply resolution alone).

I was also impressed with the fact that anywhere on the screen can become a precision focus point, even right to the corners. Touch, focus, shoot. Nice.

The extra body size over the GH2 means that there are now two control dials. This makes for a different work flow if you're coming from the GH2's rear push-and-turn wheel, but is easily adapted to.


Still Photography


Waiting for Snow. Clearview, Ontario
Panasonic GH3 with Lumix 12-35mm @ ISO500

Let's be clear. This is a DSLR style stills camera in terms of its fundamental design; it's not a camcorder. But, like so many such cameras, it is capable of shooting excellent quality video - in truth only limited by the creativity of its user. Yet Panasonic has taken the highly favourable market response to the GH2 as a cine camera and refined its features and capabilties to the point where it may well be at the top of the pile when it comes to large(ish) sensor cine cameras.

The fact that the GH3, like the GH2 before it is designed with many features for the videographer, does not in any way reduce or restrict the camera's stills capabilities. If anything they enhance them, because the powerful processors required for high bandwidth video only make the stills recording ability that much faster and robust.

I did a couple of series of ISO tests, running up to ISO 1600, which is the highest that my review camera was capable of. Frankly, there's no point in reproducing them here since they look virtually identical. This new sensor is very good indeed, and it's my guess that it won't be until at least ISO 6400 that we'll likely see any serious noise. More on this when a production camera becomes available. (The release date for the GH3 has now been pushed back to mid-December, so my guess is that few if any will end up a Christmas stocking stuffers this year).

And speaking of the sensor, there is lots of speculation that this is essentially the same sensor that's in the new Olympus OM-D EM-5. It may well be, but no one in-the-know is saying. This would be no-bad-thing because that sensor is excellent. Indeed I did some side-by-side shooting with the two cameras, and while there is a slightly different look to the files, it's de-minimis. I wouldn't choose one over the other for its stills quality. (Though the GH3's video quality is far superior to that of the Olympus).

Because this camera is pre-production, I didn't run any other rigorous performance tests. AF seems snappy, face tracking effective, exposure accurate, and just about all the other bread-and-butter issues within the range that typical users will find necessary to meet their expectations. Once the testing labs gets their hands on a production camera and DxO Labs publishes their sensor report, those folks that judge and buy cameras by the numbers will be satisfied. In the meantime I found very little that would dissuade me from buying a GH3 for its stills performance.

What struck me as curious though, given what a professional tool the GH3 is and is designed to be, is that Panasonic has hedged its bets and equipped it with the common amateur High Dynamic, Toy Effect, Retro, Relaxing Tone, Sweet Child's Face. This is clearly a Pro tool, so I would suggest to Panasonic to leave off the soccer mom glitz. They likely do not harm though, other than to Panasonic's otherwise pro-oriented marketing message.


Video

While the GH3 is an excellent Compact System Camera from a still photography perspective, matching and even surpasing any contenders up to Full Frame 35mm in terms of image quality, auto-focus and other important parameters, it really shines when it comes to video, both specs and performance.

This is as it should be, because the GH2 took the independent video production segment by storm, offering very good image quality with less of the annoying large sensor niggles than most. Indeed in several independent "blind" shoot-outs, including against dedicated and expensive broadcast level video cameras, it ranked in the top few in most cases. 

The GH3 takes that as its starting point and builds from there. Clean recordable HDMI, frames rates up to 1080/60p and (drum roll please) data rates up to 72 Mbps using an All-Intra codec, wrapped in a .MOV file. OK, let's translate. (Mbps = Megabits Per Second)

A number of broadcasters regard a data rate of 50 Mbps as the minimum acceptable for on-air use from outside sources of programming. The BBC is a prime example of this. The Panasonic GH3 is capable of 50 Mbps at 1080/60p, but up to 72 Mbps at 1080/24p or 1080/30p.

All Intra means is that there is no interframe encoding. In other words each frame is a stand-alone, not using fancy data compression called LGOP (Long Group of Pictures) where the amount of compression used depends on how information much changes between frames. AVCHD is such a codec, and while very good, and sometimes indistinguishable from an Intra codec, it is not a very good editing codec. Until recently it required very fast computers indeed to edit AVCHD without transcodeing, and therefore almost everyone doesthat as a matter of course. This takes time.

The most desirable codec that is used by the GH3 is not only All Intra, but also files are in the form of a QuickTime .MOV wrapper. This means that files can be played just by clicking on them on any PC or Mac, and to edit a file, just drop it onto a timeline in your NLE, no transcoding required.

The GH3 also has AVCHD/2 at 17, 24 and 28Mbps, but it's hard to imagine why anyone would use these (at least in terms of image quality) when much higher quality is available from the All-I and IPB codecs. Oh yes - it also has MP4 available for thems as wish it.

The Downside of Intra

Be aware of the downside of Intra though. Card space. In All-I 1920X1080 24/p the camera records about 525 Megabytes per minute. A 16 GB card will therefore only be able to record about 32 minutes of video. My suggestion therefore is that for a full day of shooting at least a couple of 128GB cards are needed. And note that these need to be a minimum of Class 10 or UHS-1 speed. Figure about $150 per card at today's prices.


Slow-Motion

Unusually in a video DSLR (or whatever one calls it) slow motion and fast motion are available, but only in 24P and 30P. There are settings for -80%, -48% and -40% slow-mo, and also +160%, +200% and +300% speed up.


Time Code

Also unusually for anything but a dedicated video camcorder the GH3 can record Time Code; free run, rec run, count up, and also drop frame. If you don't know what these are, you likely don't need them, but for people working in multi-camera environments this can be a big deal.


Shooting Modes

There is a dedicated Movie button as well as the regular shutter button. In any of the usual PASM shooting modes just hit the red button and you'll be recording video according to whatever rates and codec you have set for Video mode. Exposure will be at the most appropriate setting that the camera wants to set, but in bright light likely with too high a shutter speed for normal motion cadence and too small an aperture. Remember, there are no built-in ND filters.

There is a dedicated Movie Mode on the top mode dial and in this setting you have complete control of the camera. My preference is to shoot in fully manual mode, setting the shutter angle to the equivalent of 180 degrees (50 fps) in 24P mode. Alas, shutter angle isn't something that one can set directly. This still is a video DLSR, indications otherwise not withstanding.


Winners. Toronto. October, 2012
Panasonic GH3 with Lumix 12-35mm @ ISO500

Not a World Camera

Sadly, the GH3 is not a "world camera". In other words it is sold in versions for either PAL or NTSC. This is an antiquated differentiation, I know, since the world is now pretty much digital, but the differentiation comes in when it comes to setting frame rates. US and Canada imported cameras shoot 24P, 30P, and 60P, while European cameras shoot 24P, 25P, 30P and 50P. 

Ah Ha, you say. So it is a world camera. Both NTSC and PAL versions have 24P. This is true, because so many people around the world want to be able to shoot 24P "cine" mode for universal compatibility. But why Panasonic then restricts the other frame rates can only be seen as a market control consideration rather than a technical one. Or, there may be a more benign answer in that models sold in Europe must be limited to under 30 minutes of video on a single take due to EU tax rules. Non-EU models have no such limitation, other than that due to using FAT32, no one file can be more than 4GB and no one shot can be more than 8GB (two automatically linked files). 


Extra Tele-Converter Mode

The GH3, like the GH2 before it, has something called ETC (Extra Tele Converter) mode. I wrote about it in detail more than two years ago. In brief (if you don't feel like skipping to another article while reading this one) ETC crops the center 1920X1080 segment from the camera's sensor. This increases the apparent focal length of the lens in use by 2.6X but also means that the data is straight from each individual pixel, no downressing, binning, resampling or line skipping.

Now, a 2.6X magnification may be just what the doctor ordered if you're shooting sports or wildlife, but it means that this isn't a mode that you're likely to use for everyday shooting, even with a wide angle lens. Just think of it as an essentially lossless teleconverter.


Use with External Recorders

One of the GH3's capabilities will perk up the ears (and eyes) of serious videographers is that the camera puts out a clean recordable HDMI signal (4:2:0 colour space and in 8 bit). One could have wished for 4:2:2 and 10 bit, but not at this price point, I suppose.

I tested the GH3 with my Atomos Ninja 2 (review coming soon) and with the exception of a major bug in the camera's pre-release firmware it worked well. Unlike the Canon 5D MKIII which inexplicably can't put out a "clean" recordable HDMI signal (an upgrade is coming), and the Nikon D800, which can, but only with the memory card removed from the camera, the GH3 can output a clean signal for recording and can simultaneously record to the camera's memory card. In other words, an external recorder becomes an on-site backup as well as a primary if you so desire.

The problem is though, if you have highlight warnings turned on you then may have a scene with flashing highlights and the flashing will be recorded by the external recorder. In other words, the HDMI signal output isn't completely clean; it transmits flashing highlights. Panasonic has been made aware of this issue but has indicated that this is the way the camera was designed. Keep highlight warning turned off and you'll be fine.

One other thing to bear in mind is that while the camera can record 1080/60p, the Ninja 2 can not. The highest it can handle is 1080/60i. 1080/24p and 1080/30p can also be recorded fine. Only much more expensive recorders ($5K+) can record the bandwidth of 1080/P60. The Ninja 2 is only USD $995.


For Now

If this review seems a bit thin, I have to apologize. My time was limited and the camera that I had for testing had a number of limitations because of its early pre-production nature. Some features were simply not yet available for testing. But, there's no doubt in my mind that the new Panasonic GH3 is a significant step forward from the GH2, and may be well be the most versatile and highest performing video-capable DSLR-style camera currently available. While it lacks the full frame ultra-shallow DOF of the 5D MKIII and D800, its other advantages make it a compelling offering, especially at the price.

We have two GH3's on order for our own video production needs, and as soon as they are in house and in regular use this report will be followed by a more comprehensive real-world user report without the fudges necessary when a pre-production camera is tested.

October, 2012

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Concepts: Camera, Frame rate, Video, Video camera, Camcorder, Photography, Single-lens reflex camera, Cameras

Entities: Panasonic, Canon, BBC, Nikon, Europe, US, Canada, ISO, OLED, NLE, Georgean Bay, Christmas, EU, Michael Reichmann, Zuiko, D800, soccer, Olympus, Ontario, Panasonic GH3, operating system

Tags: camera, video, Panasonic GH3, sensor, pre-production camera, stills, refresh rate, report, codec, recordable hdmi, video cameras, button, clean recordable hdmi, cine cameras, magnesium alloy body, HDMI signal, new panasonic gh3, mode, world camera, image quality, recordable hdmi signal, SLR style camera, small form-factor camera, entry-level aps-c camera, card, acoustic camera noise, video-capable dslr-style camera, camera ships, Compact System Camera, Mbps, physical camera, sophisticated camera, camera screens, review camera, Intra, shutter angle, external recorder, Panasonic GH2, focus point, video production