I finally decided to take the plunge into DSLR territory and get my first serious camera. I looked at a lot of models, and I finally decided on a Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2. I’ve owned it for a week now so I’ve had some time to get used to it and test out its performance. This is really the first SLR-style camera I’ve even handled – it’s definitely a big jump from point & shoots. The body and lens put me back about $1350, which is pretty reasonable for what this camera can do.
In researching camera models my main concerns were image quality, portability, and good video capabilities. Oh, and a price point that wasn’t in the upper stratosphere. The Micro Four Thirds format excels on these points. The image sensor is a little smaller than traditional SLRs which allows for less weight, smaller size, and more compact lenses. This format is only a few years old, but in that time quite a few MFT size cameras have been released along with lenses and (importantly) lens adapters for use with non-MFT lenses. Panasonic was the first to market this format with the Lumix DMC-G1 so they’ve had some time to see what works.
Coming from a small Canon point & shoot, initially the thing seems massive. You won’t be putting it in your pocket, especially not with the kit 14-140 mm lens. By DSLR standards it’s quite small though, and it feels like a good size when you actually start using it. The center of gravity is at the base of the lens so it’s natural to hold with one hand cradling the lens and the other on the body. Another difference is the lack of a power zoom but it’s easy to adjust to a manual one. You get much more control over the zoom range.
Compacts are moving more towards touchscreens and away from physical buttons, to the point where sometimes all you have on the back is a screen. DSLRs are moving this way too, but not to the same extreme. In this case there’s a good reason to retain a number of buttons and knobs: speed. On the left of the GH2 is a knob just for focus settings, and controls for burst mode and image stabilization are on the body. There’s a wheel on the back right hand side for changing exposure compensation and zooming into photos among other things. These controls allow for much quicker changes to camera settings compared to scrolling through menus.
The screen is another selling point. It’s an articulated screen which is very handy when shooting at awkward angles like over a crowd or down low. It’s touch sensitive as well, which is invaluable for scrolling around photos and setting areas of the scene to focus on. You can use it while shooting video to “rack focus” to different focus distances.
When I first brought it home, the manual suggested leaving the battery to charge for a couple hours. I think I got through 20 minutes before ripping the charger out of the wall and bringing my baby to life.
The first thing I did was to take shots indoors without a flash – actual usable shots that weren’t clouded with noise and motion blur. Almost impossible with a point & shoot.
Next I brought it outdoors where it really shone.
(Check out my gallery here to see some of my pictures.)
The improved colour quality and sharpness are one of the reasons why I went for a DSLR. Everything has better saturation, and highlights are captured much more effectively with less clipping. Larger sensors tend to have more dynamic range which allows for better pictures in high-contrast situations. And then there’s the all important bokeh (no really, that’s a word) – the shallow depth of field associated with larger sensors.
Although that’s kind of an obnoxious example, it can be used to great effect in the proper context:
I had a hard time putting this camera down the first couple of days. I wanted to see what it could do and what kind of pictures I could create. Sort of like getting a new pair of glasses and seeing the world fresh again.
The Panasonic GH2 is highly touted as producing some of the best video of any DSLR on the market, which was a major consideration for me. Although I take many more stills, I’m starting to use video increasingly to capture the complete story when there’s motion involved. After taking some pictures (and properly charging the battery), I got out a tripod and started recording video clips. Here are my first few test clips – make sure to watch in high def.
The GH2 can shoot in both 30 and 24 frames per second, the latter of which gives that highly desired “movie” look. Many independent film makers are using DSLRs for their shallow depth of field, low light capability, and numerous lens options in lieu of more expensive semi-pro camcorders. Seeing a market opportunity, Panasonic has gone all out with the movie options on the GH2. It has full manual control of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings along with a variety of frame rate options. The kit lens has silent continuous autofocus and also stepless aperture adjustment which gives it smooth reactions to changes in light. The video quality is better than many cameras twice its price point. Video is so engrained in this camera there’s even a dedicated movie button right behind the shutter release.
As I soon found out, autofocus is sort of important for DSLRs due to their small depth of field. Unless you’re planning to focus manually shot to shot, a good AF system is crucial to getting what you want to be in focus in focus. With point & shoots this isn’t as much an issue since more of your scene will inherently be in focus. It’s often hard to blur out the background with a smaller sensor.
DSLRs usually sport a fast phase detection autofocus as opposed to the slower contrast detection of compacts. The GH2′s autofocus is very fast despite being a contrast detection system – in adequate light, focusing takes about a tenth of a second. This is one of the fastest contrast based AF cameras on the market, and it surpasses some phase detection systems. It also does a decent job in video mode with continuous autofocus. It’s not as steady as dedicated camcorders, but in good lighting it can track fast moving targets with ease.
I feel like I’ve only touched the surface of what this camera can do. It takes some practice to create good photos and you can’t just leave it on auto if you want the best results. Not that the GH2 doesn’t have an excellent full-auto mode, but you’ll get better results if you get intimate with white balance, ISO, focus modes, metering modes, etc. There are a bunch of scene modes for everything from night portraits to pets and each one will give you slightly different results.
I’ve started playing with raw files for the first time too, and in doing so I found something interesting: For all the slight differences in noise, colour reproduction, sharpness, and exposure between the cameras I looked at, you can basically wipe them all out if you shoot in raw. For starters, you can get WAY more fine detail out of your pictures in raw over the in-camera jpegs. Even shooting at the highest quality jpeg settings won’t capture as much detail as the raw files. Plus you can change white balance, exposure, and noise reduction algorithms after the fact, making an image hugely different than the original. It’s more work to shoot in raw first and then convert to jpeg, but the results are worth it.
So I’m enjoying the GH2, and it’s interesting to experience photography at the near-professional level. Overall it’s an excellent camera for the price point, and if you’re into videography it’s a serious alternative to $5,000 camcorders. Expect to see more photos and videos over the coming months.