In the Field: Panasonic Lumix GH2
Posted Feb 14, 2011

Panasonic Lumix GH2DSLRs have blazed through the landscape of event videography for a few years now. Although they offered amazing imagery and new possibilities, they also introduced some new problems: Aliasing, moiré, and audio monitoring are challenges that most of us didn’t have to face prior to adopting DSLRs. Panasonic Corp. of North America has been a part of the DSLR market for a while with its Lumix DMC-GH1K. Interesting as this camera was with its video autofocus functions and articulated LCD, the poor implementation of an AVCHD codec hindered its effectiveness in more challenging environments. It wasn’t until the firmware got hacked and the GH13 was born that it became a serious contender. Although here at Ever After Video Productions we have used the more ubiquitous Canon offerings, we eventually settled on this unsung DSLR hero that will happily use pretty much any lens ever created. With the Lumix DMCGH2, Panasonic released the second generation of this camera. As with all new technology, in the beginning there’s always plenty of room for improvement. Did Panasonic deliver with the GH2? Oh yes, it certainly did!

GETTING TECHNICAL
Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way first. The GH2 is a Micro Four Thirds camera, which has a crop factor of about 1.9 when compared to a full-frame 35mm stills camera, or just about the same size as a 35mm film camera. This means that the depth of field is a tad deeper than the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, but it’s pretty close to the EOS 60D.

The touchscreen is an improvement on the GH1: It’s sharper and now offers touch focus when used with a compatible lens. The kit lenses offer some interesting features such as stabilization, touch focus, push-auto style focus, and complete autofocus, all of which are surprisingly well-implemented. As with all stock lenses, they are quite slow, and I would not recommend using them indoors. A variety of faster Micro Four Thirds and full Four Thirds lenses are available, but obviously they are more expensive.

The implementation of the codec is a mixed blessing. There’s a 24p Cinema mode that gives you a gorgeous native 24p image at either 24Mbps or 17Mbps. You can also use a 1080i60/i50 or 720p60/p50 (NTSC/PAL), but these are limited to 17Mbps. If you ever come across a Panasonic engineer that has a good explanation for this, please give him my number! I’m sure that we’ll see a hacked codec soon that will address this, but as most of us want to have a cinema feel anyway, it’s pretty much a nonissue.

Another great idea from Panasonic was to create a new battery type instead of sticking with the GH1 style. I can only see one advantage there and that’s for Panasonic, not for the user. If I start to sound bitter, let me correct you straightaway: I love this camera. Yes, Panasonic made some odd choices, but read on and you’ll see why we’d happily live with those choices.

GOODBYE ALIASING AND MOIRÉ
You read that right: Unlike all the other current offerings in the DSLR market, this camera handles aliasing and moiré issues extremely well. It’s become all but invisible in just about all circumstances and is no longer an issue. From intricate brickwork to stripy suits, this camera will happily film it all.

If you underexpose and throw your camera about like a monkey with an itch, you can still create problems that the codec doesn’t deal with very well. But I’d like to think we’re all a bit better than that.

WHAT ABOUT THE AUDIO?
The GH2 has a built-in stereo mic. It’s nothing like a RØDE NTG-2 shotgun, but if you have to use it, it actually does give you quite usable audio if you’re close enough to your source. I’d rate it somewhere in between the Canon built-in mics and the RØDE VideoMic.

The GH2 does have a 2.5mm mic input and, more importantly, you can set the levels in four steps (for the built-in mic or an external one). You can also see level meters on your display alongside a very useful histogram and a basic zebra system. When you plug in your external mic, it even reminds you to power up that mic if needed. But there’s still no headphone socket, and you can’t adjust the audio levels while recording.

DOUBLE THE LENS STOCK AT NO COST!
The GH2 has a 16MP sensor, and its image is scaled down for filming. But Panasonic came up with a great idea: Why not have a 1:1 crop function? The result is a video mode where only the middle 1920x1080 pixels on the sensor are used, which is more amazing than it sounds.

There is no aliasing or moiré at all, and the focal length of your lens is multiplied by about three. This means a 50mm prime becomes a 150mm lens at the touch of a button without degrading the image when shooting 1080p24. If you shoot 720p60 (or 720i50), the camera will sample the center 1280x720, which will give a factor of about 5 instead of 3.

LIGHT SENSITIVITY
With the GH2, Panasonic has made its camera a lot more light-sensitive. It’s in a different league than the GH1, with the ISO ranging from 160 to an extremely clean 3200 when filming in the regular film modes. When using Crop Mode, grain becomes apparent anywhere above 400 ISO.

HDMI OUTPUT
The HDMI output of the GH2 is uncompressed while filming, which makes it an interesting choice for those nanoFlash or similar recorders.

RUN AND GUN
Ever After specializes in films with no retakes, uncontrolled sets with mixed lighting, and actors that can be very camera-shy; in other words, we produce weddingday films. Having a camera that can be quick and versatile is a must, and the GH2 delivers. The articulated screen and vastly improved electronic viewfinder (EVF) are great when it’s just too sunny outside, and it’s a pleasure to work with.

There are no overheating issues or warnings, and the battery life is not too shabby (about 2.5 hours of filming per battery, and a battery grip is rumored to be available soon). The only recording limit that you have (NTSC version) is dictated by the size of your memory card (SD). If nothing else, that makes the GH2 one of the few options for an unoperated DSLR camera. The PAL version does have a 30-minute recording limit (thanks to some old stupid tax laws), which I’m sure will be hacked out of the way soon. A 16Gb card will give you 2 hours of recording at 1080p24, the highest setting.

LCD SCREEN COMPARISONS
At this point I have to mention that the LCD screens on the Canon DLSRs are superior, no doubt about it. I would go as far to say that the LCD is the weakest point of this camera. We’ve had several instances where the LCD showed aliasing and banding (due to its lower resolution), but when we previewed the footage in the NLE, it looked gorgeous with no traces of these artifacts. These issues seem to stem from a line-skipping system that is used for the LCD screen, but not for the encoding of the footage.

Panasonic Lumix GH2

As a rule of thumb, I would suggest that you use the EVF in low light. The eventual footage still looks better than that, but it will give you a far better indication than the LCD. Of course, you can use the full quality HDMI output with an external monitor to avoid all of these issues, but we found that we knew how to translate LCD quality to actual footage quality after a few shoots.

Panasonic Lumix GH2

LENSES
As I mentioned before, the stock lenses are useful but slow. At present, we use a variety of vintage lenses (some fast zooms but mainly primes), and I can’t say that I miss the auto functions. Focusing a vintage lens can be done easily with an expanded zoom function, which you can point anywhere with the touchscreen. But as with all DSLRs, this option is not available while recording.

The camera and stock lenses are very light, and while at first they can feel like they were manufactured at a Fisher-Price plant, they are actually quite robust. They do have their uses, especially outdoors where the optical image stabilizer (OIS) allows for some handheld shots that would otherwise fall apart.

Due to the crop factor, users often comment that it is difficult to get a wide-angle shot with Micro Four Thirds cameras. Again, this is where the kit lens comes in handy as it starts at 14mm. There are several other options (such as a 9–18mm zoom); the key is to search for native Four Thirds or Micro Four Thirds mount lenses.

We use our GH2 on a variety of rigs: tripods, monopods, DP Slider, Glidecam, and a DvMultiRig. It’s easy to use and balance on all of these, and it’s especially nice to have a very light Glidecam system if you want it.

Susan & Michael, St Augustine from EverAfterVideos on Vimeo.

Mirrorless vs. DSLR
As the GH2 uses a mirrorless design, technically, the term DSLR is incorrect. Panasonic markets the camera as a mirrorless DSLR, and Canon is rumored to be releasing such a camera later this year.

IS THE GH2 THE PERFECT CAMERA FOR EVERYONE?
No, it isn’t. For us, the GH2 has redefined the possibilities of DSLR shoots. The solved aliasing and moiré issues, audio monitoring, zebras, no recording limits, improved low-light shooting, 1:1 crop function ... these are all reasons why we bought a second GH2 after one shoot with our first. I’m slightly disappointed that the LCD screen is not of the same quality as Canon’s, but this is only an issue in low light situations where the EVF will rescue you and your footage will be better than expected. An external monitor (even a bargain-basement one) will make this a nonissue for $150.

Due to the massive market share of Canon DSLRs, it’s difficult not to compare the GH2 to Canon’s offerings. Without a doubt, Canon has the edge when it comes to taking stills (something we’re not bothered about), robustness, and, in very rare occasions, the hair-sharp DOF of a 5D Mark II can be cool. Apart from this, I would say that the GH2 gives Canon a run for its money from user-friendliness to image quality and anything in between.

The recently announced Birger Engineering, Inc. adapter will even make the use of Canon lenses (including IS and auto functions) possible on the GH2 and other Micro Four Thirds bodies. So although it might not be perfect, it comes pretty damn close.

Niels Puttemans (niels at everaftervideos.co.uk) runs Ever After Video Productions of Sheffield, U.K. with his wife, Sylvia Broeckx. 2009 EventDV 25 Finalists and winners of IOV Ltd. (Institute of Videography) and WEVA CEA awards for their wedding-day films, Niels and Sylvia were presenters at WEVA Expo 2010.