High definition video is no longer just a quirky addition to the feature list of a digital camera. After the first inclusion of video on a DSLR back in 2008, models of every level from professional through to entry-level cameras are boasting HD movie abilities. The introduction of mirrorless interchangeable models, or Micro System Cameras (MSC), have led to further advances, as without the hassles of a mirror in front of a sensor, capturing video can be as natural for these models as taking stills. Our exclusive test back in the April 2010 issue of What Digital Camera revealed the Lumix GH1 to be the best camera option for HD video fans but, with the arrival of a new challenger, the Canon EOS 550D, will the GH1 maintain its title. Or, will this new cheaper option from Canon steal the show?
For this test we will focus purely on the video abilities of the two cameras, rather than the cameras as a whole and will be looking at functionality, control and quality, as well as value for money.

Click here for the full review of the Canon EOS 550D

Click here for the full review of the Panasonic GH1

Or click on the links below to see the head-to-head test of their video functions

Panasonic GH1

Panasonic Lumix GH1

The Lumix GH1 was only the second MSC model to be launched, and has now been on the market for over a year. Despite another nine models entering the market since, the GH1 is still to be beaten for video. It uses the AVCHD format as its main video file type, though Motion JPEG is also available. Recording is at 1920×1080 pixels, though interlacing its 50/60 frame capture into the 25 or 24fps output to do so, therefore officially classed as 1080i. Choosing a recording size of 1280×720 (720P) allows full progressive output and also offers a 50/60fps output for slow motion filming. It also has by far the longest recording time of any DSLR/MSC camera, offering just a second short of 30mins per clip. For sound, the GH1 is still one of just a few models to offer a built-in stereo microphone and uses its Dolby digital stereo creator to produce full 48kHz audio. There’s also an input for an external microphone, though this is a 2.5mm jack rather than a standard 3.5mm, so you’ll need an adapter for anything other than Panasonic’s own external mic.

Click for video sample

Focusing in video continues to be an issue for DSLR and MSC cameras compared to their
camcorder counterparts. The GH1 is the only model to offer continuous auto focusing. This is, in part, thanks to the 14-140mm lens with near-silent focusing, though even using the face detection setting, focus can drift to the background during shooting. Single AF is easier as it allows you to specify when to refocus, by half pressing the shutter button and is surprisingly good, especially when combined with the face detection.

In terms of shooting options the GH1 provides a full range, from full auto to fully manual, with shutter, aperture and program modes filling in the gaps. ISO is also fully adjustable (but not the 3200 setting) or can be set to Auto, and the same goes for the White Balance settings. The on-screen display provides metering information, as well as the ability to provide exposure compensation. As the GH1 is a mirrorless camera, the electronic viewfinder can also be used for video composition, and therefore allows a more natural holding position. The rear LCD features a tilt/rotate bracket, so it can be easily positioned for easy viewing from almost any angle. This is especially useful for low/high level shooting, or when placed on a tripod. The only problem is that despite the adequate 460k dot resolution or 1,440k equiv on the viewfinder, the screen doesn’t truly represent the final result. On the camera the picture can look pale and colour cast, when in reality the results are rather impressive once you have them on a computer. The danger here is that you may try and compensate for these colours in camera and spoil the result unnecessarily.

GH1 video grab 2

Overall video quality from the GH1 is impressive. Colours are punchy with a deep black and bright, saturated primes. The lens provides sharp detailed subjects, though the aperture range and smaller sensor mean that shallow focusing is difficult to achieve. ISO performance is good up to around 800 but after that does show some signs of noise in shadow areas. AVCHD is a more laborious format to convert for editing but is becoming more widely supported and its quality and compression certainly seems to justify it.

Despite recent drops in the GH1′s street price, this is still quite an expensive camera, though the added price is somewhat justified by the inclusion of the 14-140mm lens. Now just under £1000 it may be difficult to justify for all but the video enthusiast but it does come at nearly half the price of Canon’s EOS 5D MkII with a lens.

GH1 video grab 3

Canon EOS 550D

Canon EOS 550D

This is now the forth EOS to offer HD video but is by far the cheapest. The 550D is an update on previous 500D and at least part of this upgrade was the in the video functionality. Unlike the GH1, this is a fully-fledged DSLR, complete with mirror box and optical viewfinder; therefore it is slightly larger and considerably heavier than its counterpart. It uses the Quicktime MOV format for recording and offers full 1080P (1920×1080) at 30, 25, or 24 fps and also offers the lower 720P HD or 640×480 recording at 50fps for fast moving subjects or slow motion possibilities. It also features a cropped mode, which records at 640×480 with a 7x magnification for increased zoom. The recording time is specified as up to 24mins, but this for VGA (640×480) recording. High definition recording (1080P or 720P) offers a maximum of 12mins recording time per clip. Sound is recorded via a mono internal mic at 44.1kHz (Linear PCM), though full stereo can be achieved via the 3.5mm mic input with use of external devices.

Click for video sample

Unlike earlier video-capable DSLRs, the 550D offers some auto focus functionality during capture, though this is slightly limited. The Quick focus live view method of flipping the mirror back down can only be used before recording, but the contrast-detect method, known as Live mode can be achieved during. Face detection can be deployed in this mode too, allowing quicker and more accurate focusing onto faces in the scene, though the focusing is slow to react and struggled to lock on in low light, compared to the GH1. In practice I found manually focusing quicker to use, thanks to the short rotation of the front element for focusing.

It is nice to see creative exposure video options for the 550D rather than being limited to just an auto setting, and therefore some may question the benefits of the 7D over it for video. It features a choice of Manual or Auto, with white balance and ISO also fully adjustable. Like the GH1 it also has a direct record button on the back but the camera still needs to be in Movie mode, otherwise this just acts as a Live View mode selector. The Quick menu allows you to change the main video options without leaving the live screen, though some functions, still require full menu access.

 

550D video grab 2

The rear screen on the EOS 550D doesn’t have the benefit of a tilt and swivel mechanism. However, the screen quality is superb. In fact, the image on the back almost looks more impressive than the final result. The colours are accurate and the exposure is spot on though, so there’s no danger of you ruining your image trying to correct the screen. The screen is also much higher resolution than on the GH1, standing at 1024k-dot resolution providing, in theory, a sharper image. However, fine focusing is still difficult using an electronic screen as with all non-optical sources.

The finished video does look impressive with good colour depth and exposure. Noise was prevalent using the higher 3200 and 6400 but at lower values remained crisp. Images were perhaps not as crisp as expected, and even when using a more professional lens, they lacked the crispness shown from the EOS 7D and 5D MkII models. The MOV format does make previewing easier, as they can be viewed straight from your browser using QuickTime player or even Adobe Bridge. This does come with the penalty of larger file sizes and reduced clip lengths, however.

The EOS 550D is one of the more affordable ways to gain full HD video recording and with an impressive arsenal of lenses available, it certainly opens up creative possibilities. The kit lens is limiting though, and a better lens, the price difference with the GH1 is negligible.

 

 

550D video grab 3

 

Video specs

Panasonic GH1 product shot

Panasonic Lumix GH1

Price £970
Sensor 12.1MP LiveMOS (MicroFourThirds)
Format AVCHD / QuickTime Motion JPEG
Video Size
AVCHD 1920 x 1080, 50i/60i (output is 25fps/24fps), 1280 x 720, 50p/60p
Motion Jpeg 1280 x 720, 30fps / 320 x 240, 30fps / 640 x 480, 30fps / 848 x 480, 30fps
Audio Dolby Digital Stereo creator
Input 2.5mm stereo Mic
Output miniHDMI (1080i), USB 2.0
Max clip length 29.59min
Aperture control Yes
Shutter control Yes
ISO control Yes (Auto, 100-1600)
Quick record button Yes
LCD 3in TFT 460k
Dimensions 124×89.6×45.2mm
Weight 385g (body only)

 

Canon 550D

Canon EOS 550D

Price £690
Sensor 18MP CMOS (APS-C)
Format MOV (Video: H.264, Sound: Linear PCM)
Video Size   
Mov (quicktime) 1920 x 1080 (29.97/ 25/ 23.976fps), 1280 x 720 (59.94/ 50 fps),
640 x 480 (59.94/ 50 fps)
Audio Linear PCM
Input 3.5mm stereo Mic
Output miniHDMI, USB
Max clip length 12mins (HD) /24min (VGA)
Aperture control Yes
Shutter control Yes
ISO control Yes (Auto, 100-6400)
Quick record button Yes
LCD 3in TFT 1024k
Dimensions 128.8×97.3x62mm
Weight 530g (body only)

 

Sound and Verdict

Sound Quality

Sound is something that perhaps hasn’t been top priority in the advancement of DSLR/MSC video modes, and as a result it can often be fairly poor. Early models relied on a single mono source on the body and no option for external inputs.

The GH1 is a slight exception as it includes full stereo sound and a Dolby digital surround creation built in to the body, it also offers an external mic input, such as Panasonic’s own mini boom mic. Though due to the 2.5mm socket, most third party mics will require a 3.5 to 2.5mm adapter to connect them.
The 550D sticks with the basic mono microphone built into the body for general use but it does, at least, offer external stereo input via a 3.5mm socket.

Both models record the sound at a relatively high sample rates simular to that of CD quality. However, despite the superior stereo microphone, the GH1′s audio sounded slightly muffled compared to the 550D when played back via headphones. Though this may have been a result of the surround sound processing. One thing missing from any of these type of cameras, is a method of monitoring the sound when recording – something that would be almost a necessity for any serious filmaker.

gh1 audio 

Panasonic GH1 audio sample

550d audio 

Canon 550D audio sample

 

Verdict

The results of this test were far closer than we ever expected and, as such, making a clear-cut decision on the best model for video is not easy. We had to be very clear that these scores were for the video use only, as both cameras have already been tested and overall we believe the EOS 550D to be the stronger camera.

In video terms the GH1 does have some advantages over the 550D: the focusing is quicker in low light, and offers continuous focusing – though not overly effectively; the inbuilt microphone is stereo; the lens is far superior; clip length is longer and files smaller; the LCD screen can be angled for viewing, and the electronic viewfinder can be used during video too. On the EOS 550D’s side: the screen quality is much higher and gives a more accurate representation of the image; the ISO range goes higher for low light shooting; the mic input is a standardised 3.5mm; it offers a greater array of lenses; it offers a full progressive HD capture in a more useable MOV format, and it is cheaper to buy.

The actual size difference between the two cameras is actually less in practical terms than the specs would suggest, and once lenses are taken into consideration the weight is practically the same. In real terms you would be happy with the results from either of these cameras. The Canon’s videos are slightly more natural where the Panasonic’s are punchier but neither come close to HD video produced by the EOS 5D MkII, or even the EOS 7D, and therefore both are a compromise. As a complete package, the Lumix GH1 offers everything you would need. However, If you are looking to expand into a video system, by adding more lenses with a move to upgrade to the likes of the 5D in the future, the 550D makes perfect sense and, being the cheapest here, it is a better starting point for most.

Scores

Panasonic Lumix GH1

gh1score

Canon EOS 550D

550dscore

 

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Panasonic GH1
  3. 3. Canon EOS 550D
  4. 4. Video specs
  5. 5. Sound and Verdict
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  • Goran Wahlberg

    If the sound pictures are real, then it seems that the Canon is clipping the peaks, which may cause distortions.