The GH2 is the latest Micro Four Thirds camera to market. With its new 16MP sensor, touchscreen LCD, 'Light Speed' Autofocus and 1080p movie mode is it a true DSLR-beater? The What Digital Camera Panasonic GH2 review...
Panasonic Lumix GH2 review – Features
The GH2 is far more than a GH1 with a quick lick of paint. Indeed, one look at the brand new 16.05MP LiveMOS sensor reveals that upgrades have taken place. We were perhaps a little surprised at the increase in resolution, given the smaller size of the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) sensor, but this latest sensor is actually physically slightly larger than other MFT sensors. The ‘multi-aspect ratio’ means it’s a little wider in order to accommodate 16:9, as well as 4:3, 3:2 and 1:1.
Processing also sees a major overhaul as the GH2 has three CPU cores that provide a variety of benefits: on the first hand the sensor is able to output at twice the speed, upping from 60 fields per second to 120 fields per second. In reality this means there’s twice as much information that can be utilised during autofocus, thus ‘light speed autofocus’ being twice as fast as before. It’s also a benefit for churning through data at great speed – something required to sustain the 5fps continuous shooting mode and high quality 1080p movie. Now dubbed the Venus Engine VI FHD it’s possible to shoot from ISO 160 all the way through to ISO 12,800 at full resolution. And, should you own Panasonic’s 3D lens, then the GH2 can capture 3MP 3D images as MPO files to display on your 3D TV or device too.
In tandem with the change in sensor the new 100% field of view electronic viewfinder has an increased resolution over the previous GH1 model, though this doesn’t provide a greater pixel density as such, rather more the extra pixels to encompass the wider format. To complement this is a vari-angle LCD screen with a 460k-dot resolution that, as per the previous generation GH1, can rotate through 180degrees horizontally and 270degrees vertically for full coverage at any angle. However the GH2’s screen technology is better and can display a colour gamut some 40% larger than its predecessor for more accurate colour reciprocation.
In addition to fully manual control, the GH2 also has point-and-shoot Scene modes and Film Modes, as well as intelligent Auto (iA) and a one-touch movie button to make all the action easy to capture whatever your level of ability. But the technology here is certainly aimed at the more serious enthusiast, something that the Compact System Camera hasn’t particularly dabbled in with great success… until now.
Panasonic Lumix GH2 review – Design
The GH2 is somewhat an amalgamation of the GH1’s original design with the updates included in the Lumix G2 model – the very first touch-enabled G-series – also added. The body size is the same small design of the GH1 in terms of shape, but the control layout has slightly changed: on the top left side is a dial to quickly adjust focus area (Single Point, Multi Point, Subject Tracking and Face Detection), and there’s an adjustable collar around this to flick between single (AFS), continuous (AFC) or manual focus (MF). On the opposite side is a sizeable mode dial with all the major options on top, while a drive mode switch is tucked around its side to swiftly turn burst shooting options on or off. Behind the shutter is a one-touch movie button, and behind this again is a user-assignable Function (Fn) button.
For the main controls the GH2 features a single thumbwheel on the rear of the camera. In all honestly we’d have much rather seen the inclusion of twin thumbwheel design – one on the front and one on the rear would have made for much improved control, especially in manual mode. Instead depressing the thumbwheel like a button toggles it for use between shutter/aperture/exposure compensation depending on the current selected mode.
On the rear of the camera is a Q.Menu button to bring up the various camera options and these can be flicked through using either the buttons or by physically applying finger to screen. It’ll be personal preference as to whether using the touchscreen in this way is truly desirable – it’s more during focus point selection, movie focusing and quick ISO selection that the GH2’s touch-enabled LCD design makes the most sense. But the fact you’re never forced to use touch means that there’s always a button-press combination available too, ensuring that the camera’s intuitive to use whatever your personal preference.
For those lesser-used settings the GH2’s main Menu is simple enough to navigate and, given that most of the settings are quickly accessible elsewhere on the camera, it’s not a menu you’ll be dragging up that often once you’ve found your feet.
However the GH2’s build quality is probably the only slight qualm with its design. Even though it’s a metal-framed camera, the plasticy finish on the outside doesn’t look nor feel like the £1000+ of equipment it is. Also the small body design can lead to both plus and minus points when it comes to long lenses: on the one hand lens sizes are kept small and wider aperture values are easier to produce without the physical size required of larger-sensor systems. But on the other hand the GH2 body is small and feels fairly outweighed (in mass) by the 14-140mm kit lens that generally comes as part of the kit option.
Panasonic Lumix GH2 review – Performance
In use the GH2 has its high points and low points: The most prominent and positive feature has to be the sheer speed at which the contrast-detection autofocus system can operate. It’s near instant, doesn’t over- or under-focus to a great degree and is generally very reliable indeed. It’s so much faster than before that it’s impossible to overlook just how much better this system is. Saying that, the standard 23-area array for focusing is still very centrally-arranged over the sensor, which vastly limits the focus sensitivity towards the frame’s edges. Bringing up the focus areas immediately shows the out-of-bounds border box to the outer edge of the LCD screen, which doesn’t option as much versatility as, say, the Nikon D7000‘s 39-point AF system has available at (crucially) a very similar price point. In single focus the Lumix GH2’s green focus box is very prominent to represent where focus has been attained, while in continuous focus this presence can be far more intermittent. Furthermore continuous focus can ‘flutter’ at rapid speed in and out of absolute focus, particularly when shooting at more telephoto focal lengths and even when subjects are relatively stationary.
However the way that the GH2’s focus point can be selected using the touchscreen is fantastic. A simple light press of the finger and you’ll see the focus areas move accordingly – it’s even possible to quickly resize the focus area for more accuracy without any need to digging through menus. This comes into an even fuller effect in movie mode, where pressing the focus point on a subject and then to the background performs seamlessly smooth focus transitions.
As previously mentioned, the GH2’s sensor has double the refresh rate of that in the GH1 (it now runs at 120 refreshes per second rather than 60), and this doesn’t only benefit the autofocus system, but also the fluidity of the electronic viewfinder and LCD screens too. Fluidity is certainly an improvement, but there’s still no getting away from lag and a ghosting-type lag that’s prominent when panning in lower light. It’s one of the relatively unavoidable downsides of an electronic viewfinder system, something that a DSLR’s optical system does not suffer from. And yet the GH2’s electronic viewfinder is actually very successful in what it does. The 100% field of view is great to have and the physical size of the viewfinder itself is generally very impressive, plus the 1.53m-dot resolution (852x600px) is certainly as high as they currently come. In good light it’s a pleasure to use, but it’s in dim conditions or when panning that it can become a downside. However, test it out in your local camera shop to decide whether or not it’s for you or not: it’s tricky to convey just how different the systems are or, indeed, how much better the EVF systems have become over the last few years.
The GH2’s LCD is a similar story to the viewfinder in terms of lag and, while the increased colour gamut is a step in the right direction, there are still some subtle issues in what the LCD’s exposure and colour balance shows compared to the final image on a computer screen. Unlike many fixed screens on competitor cameras, the GH2 has a vari-angle screen which brings a variety of benefits: it’s possible to stow the screen face-down against the camera for protection, while the variety of angles means shooting is possible from innumerable points of view for self portraiture, overhead, waist level and similar shots.
The GH2’s 5fps burst mode successfully captured a consecutive seven Raw + JPEG frames before a brief pause and capture of the eighth. Pop the camera into ‘SH’ burst and it can capture 40 frames in under a second at a lower 4MP resolution that’s then presented as a stacked slideshow in the playback menu (individual images can also be extracted).
Panasonic Lumix GH2 review – Image Quality
Panasonic GH2 review: Tone & Exposure
The GH2’s 144-segment metering does a good job at outputting images that are well exposed. There aren’t usually blown highlights, while midtones are well-held. In bright sunlight the LCD can be hard to assess and so the use of the Histogram and employing modes such as Exposure Bracketing can assist in always getting the right shot. As the GH2 is SDXC compatible it can accept cards up to 64GB and it’s therefore possible to shoot a huge number of files without the need to swap over.
Panasonic GH2 review: RAW/JPEG
The RW2 Raw files can be read using Photoshop or similar programs, or the included SilkyPix software.
The Raw files are ‘flatter’ than their JPEG counterparts – the latter clearly receive a push of colour, contrast and added sharpness to produce appealing final images straight from the camera. However it’s with the Raw files that a lot more detail is available and above ISO 800 this is a particularly good source to get the most out of your images.
Panasonic GH2 review: Colour & White Balance
Colour is punchy in the right circumstances, but not to the point of unrealistic. There are also multiple modes to change colour using the GH2’s in-camera options: the Film Mode offers entirely customiseable Standard, Dynamic, Smooth, Nature, Nostalgic, Vibrant, Cinema, Standard B&W, Dynamic B&W and Smooth B&W as well as ‘My Film’ options that can be saved and used at any time. A nice touch is that up to three Film Modes can be stacked together for particularly dynamic effects.
If unconvinced of the GH2’s Auto White Balance performance then there’re also high-end settings such as White Balance Bracketing.
Panasonic GH2 review: ISO Sensitivity & Image Noise
The GH2 can capture from ISO 160-12,800 at full resolution. As the Micro Four Thirds sensor is smaller than APS-C sized sensors there have often been some reservations as to its potential image quality limitations. As the GH2 crams in 16-megapixels into this space the light able to reach each node is limited and, therefore, the expectation would be for this limitation to pass over to the final image quality. However, the GH2 seems to tear up the rulebook here: its images from ISO 160-800 easily match that of competitor DSLRs at a similar price point. ISO 1600 arguably does as well, though very close inspection reveals more softness due to noise reduction processing. However, all things considered, even ISO 3200 produces more than useable images that are very clean and void of much image noise, albeit at the expense of sharpness.
The top-end ISO 12,800 seems to have been ‘tagged on’ at the end however, and is considerably noisy, soft and devoid of punchy colour. But all in all the performance by the brand new sensor is mightily impressive indeed, far exceeding previous generation models and setting a new standard for Compact System Cameras.
Panasonic GH2 review: Sharpness & Detail
The 14-140mm kit lens is a decent piece of glass and lends itself well to producing crisp images. There are instances of light falloff at the wider end and softness to the edges, however the resolved detail is very good indeed. Where this dwindles is with the rise of the ISO sensitivity, based on image noise reduction. Anything above ISO 800 shows a notable dip in sharpness. But if you’re shooting Raw then the untouched files, despite their obvious coating of image noise, retain a very good amount of detail high into the ISO range.
Movie/Video Mode Quality
Panasonic Lumix GH2 review – Movie/Video Mode
Panasonic GH2 review: Quality
An area where the GH2 can certainly show off is with its video quality. The quoted data rate of 23Mbs/sec is up there at the same standard as many prosumer digital camcorders, and the files we pulled up at 1080p varied from showing between 55mbit to 73mbit data rates – meaning that much more data is being crammed into the file than most competitors for utmost quality.
Panasonic Lumix GH2 review – 1080p24 video/movie mode example at f/5.6, 300mm (600mm equiv)
Figures aside, simply looking at the final files reveals their true quality. It’s very impressive stuff indeed. However, the GH2, when set to AVCHD, will require a formatted card to retrieve its unprocessed MTS files, otherwise your videos may be ‘lost’ in terms of third party video editors’ capabilities to read the files.
Panasonic GH2 review: Record Time
In all of the available movie modes it is possible to record up to 29mins and 59secs of footage in a single take. Although the Panasonic site claims a much longer record time than this, this does not apply to the UK (or European) versions of the camera due to UK tax laws. This is also apparent for the Variable (Speed) Movie Mode, although the final playback of these files will either be longer or shorter depending on the percentage speed selected.
Panasonic GH2 review: Focusing Modes
Choose between AF-S (Single), AF-C (Continuous) or M (Manual) focus when in movie mode, though this isn’t entirely controlled using the same collar as when shooting in stills mode. Instead a touch of menu digging needs to take place in order to turn AF-S either ‘on’ or ‘off’, while Manual focus is selected from the focus mode collar. The fact it’s possible to easily flick into manual focus during recording is a nice touch for fine-tuning focus as desired. However the continuous focus option can have the occasional blip or ‘flutter’ during recording, much in the same way as this occasionally happens when shooting stills.
Panasonic GH2 review: Manual Control
Three main controls sets are available when clicking the GH2’s Menu button: Manual Movie Mode for interlaced capture, 24P Cinema for progressive capture at 24fps and Variable Movie Mode that can shoot at a slowed-down 80% or sped-up 160%, 200% or 300% options. In each of these modes it’s possible to bring up a secondary menu using the Q.Menu button to select from P, S, A and M exposure modes.
The Manual setting means it’s possible to fully control exposure, whereas the other three options will always bring exposure up to a particular level by auto-adjusting the settings – of course Aperture or Shutter and independently controllable in the A and S settings respectively. It’s possible to adjust the aperture and or shutter in real time during recording, though, with the exception of the Manual mode, the Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority settings will attempt to auto-meter and recover exposure to a standardised level utilising other variables where possible (not always desirable).
Three metering modes are also available, as are all of the Film Mode settings meaning that shooting in Black & White and other colour options is also possible.
Panasonic GH2 review: Sound
Stereo sound is the order of the day, and closer inspection suggests this is captured in 16bit stereo at 48,000hKz which is around the same quality as a standard audio CD recording. Of course wind and surrounding noises or interference can get in the way, and the distance between the L (left) and R (right) channels of the microphone on top of the flashgun is minimal (which doesn’t provide much separation between the two). However plug a microphone in using the 2.5mm mic jack and a variety of off-camera or on-camera directional microphones can be utilised for better overall quality. Our only qualm here: that the mic socket is 2.5mm, not the more commonly used 3.5mm size.
Value & Verdict
Panasonic Lumix GH2 review – Value
There’s no avoiding the fact that the GH2 is going to cost a fair wedge of cash: with the 14-140mm lens it’s anywhere between £1120 and £1350. Take that lens out of the equation, however, and the 14-42mm kit price is around £760 – which certainly provides a wider range of options for purchasers. There’s even a body-only option that’s a little harder to track down but can be picked up for around something in the region of £680.
The difficulty in evaluating the GH2’s overall value is how it weighs up against DSLR ‘equivalents’ – the Canon 60D is an obvious comparison due to the vari-angle screen and it’s very similarly priced, but instead offers an optical viewfinder which may be an essential for some. The introduction of the new Canon 600D may further throw up some comparison issues as this too has a vari-angle screen.
Panasonic Lumix GH2 review – Verdict
The GH2 really is as good as Compact System Cameras come. Those doubting the Micro Four Thirds concept will be impressed at the improvement in image quality (as it can genuinely rival a DSLR for much of its ISO range), and the new ‘light speed’ AF system is better than on any other contrast-detection system in the market – and that includes all compacts, Compact System Cameras and DSLRs.
Using the latest 100-300mm lens gave further scope into how small a 600mm equivalent can truly be, something that the GH2’s concept more than delivers upon. However the overall plasticy external finish of the camera does leave something to be desired.
Videographers will also be best pleased at the potential scope the GH2’s movie mode delivers. The 23Mbps output at 1080p24 quality is immense, and the increased control over the GH1 is also a bonus. The only ‘fault’ to speak of here is the ongoing inclusion of a 2.5mm microphone jack (standard 3.5mm in the future please!).
All in all the GH2 is the best Compact System Camera that money can buy. But money you will need – at over £1000 it’s a serious purchase to contemplate and certainly has more than a lot of DSLR-based competition to fight off too. It certainly wins some battles, but just not quite all.