Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's even more fun than it looks.
The Long Version: It all started with the Olympus E-330. That ugly duckling was the first SLR that could be used, awkwardly, like a cheap point-and-shoot. But even though it was lightly mocked at the time, 'Live View' has since been integrated - more or less - into most SLRs. And for years Panasonic has been supplying these revolutionary sensors to their Four Thirds 'partner' without getting any respect for their own 4/3 cameras, which always came off as poor copies of older Olympus models. But now the format has literally been redefined, and Micro Four Thirds is Panasonic's chance for revenge.
The Pansonic GH1 is the Mark II of the m4/3 world - an obvious feature bump of the first groundbreaking camera that added a movie mode. It still represents the 'high end' of these little cameras, being the only one on the market with a hand grip. Panasonic's GF1 and all Olympus models have fallen for an old-school rangefinder aesthetic, making them perfect for thin lenses but ungainly with anything larger. That's a really promising direction that appeals to a lot of people, but after significant flirting with the smaller form-factor, I picked the GH1. I know myself, and I love having accessories.
While review sites and manufacturers try to work out an appealing acronym for the new technology, I prefer one that's been used for years. I was reading web musings about SLR-like cameras using electronic viewfinders way back when an eight megapixel sensor was a big deal. With the prescience of the people who pontificate, this new breed of reflex-mirrorless cameras were an established concept long before anyone actually made them. Electronic Viewfinder, Interchangeable Lens - they were called EVIL then, and it's still good enough for me.
While EVIL may not be the most marketable acronym, it's an accurate way to differentiate this new type of viewing system from cameras with optical viewfinders and interchangeable lenses, or OIL for short. Naturally, EVIL and OIL have a lot in common, and seem to be irretrievably linked - Olympus currently insists that it won't be moving its 4/3 cameras away from optical viewing, meaning that it will be splitting its resources to developing and marketing two different platforms. To quote Milton's horrible elderly mother in Cordelia Strube's great novel, "You say that now." It was her stock answer every time someone denied that they would let her fall into neglect and abandonment, and for some reason I can't stop thinking about it now... but I digress.
There's two different ways to look at the GH1 - it's the largest micro-4/3 camera, but it's small for an SLR (excuse me, OIL), especially when equivalent lenses are added on. Physically, it's just a little taller than the GF1, but with the larger right-hand grip that makes it look like a Canon Rebel or SX20. With the 14-140 lens attached but not extended, the GH1 has almost exactly the same footprint as an entry-level OIL with an 18-55 lens. One of the cute little pancake lenses on a GH1 will still project beyond its grip and flash, letting it fit in almost the same box as a GF1 or Olympus Pen. The GH1's personality, and how people will approach it, can completely change depending on the lens attached to it. So there you are: it's stark raving sane.
If you're on the fence about an Olympus Pen or Panasonic GF1, try it in a camera store that will let you switch the pancake lens for the 45-200 or another longer zoom. Rack it in and out a couple of times, and the appeal of the GH1's grip becomes apparent. While it's not as sexy as the washboard cameras, the extra leverage is great in the hand. It won't pass for a compact camera, but as soon as anything bigger than a pancake lens goes on, nobody is likely to mistake any micro-4/3 for a happysnap. Of course, if you're unlikely to use a larger lens, then the little cameras are justifiably popular.
The 'prism' hump houses the electronic eye-level finder, which has very high resolution and is a blessing in sunlight. Even though the LCD is very good, I only use it when I don't want a composition that's 5'5" from the ground. That in itself is fairly frequent, and has been enough to make me turn off the auto-sensing switch to activate the EVF when it's brought near an object. Closing the LCD face-in activates the EVF, and opening it turns on the LCD. While it's a hindrance for chimping, it's easier to use a camera that isn't trying to be overly helpful.
When I start to look at specifics, not everything is rosy. I did a rare thing, and ventured into the forums on Amazon's camera website, and discovered that I'm not the only one with loose lugs. The attachment points for the shoulder strap wiggle slightly on mine, and apparently some have failed outright. Even accounting for the echo-chamber amplification of web forums, it seems to be a common issue with earlier camera bodies, although newer ones have been fixed. A trip to the spa is needed for a retrofit, so I know mine will go in for service this summer. Not a happy time, to be sure, and if I actually used the shoulder strap to carry the camera it would be a much higher priority.
The strap attachment is also a design failure for a completely different reason. It's exactly the same as on the G1, a metal stud with a metal split-ring triangle to attach the strap to. Apparently nobody influential at Panasonic thought about the self-noise from metal-on-metal links during video recording. Considering that its movie mode is the big step-up feature of the GH1 over the G1, and the cost of its video-optimized 14-140 lens with its continuously-variable aperture, that's a huge little oversight. Fortunately, there are plenty of aftermarket straps that can fix the problem, like the one that I found at a local shoe-repair place, 2 for $3.
I haven't quite come to terms with Panasonic's controls, and there are some odd decisions built into them. I'm not sure why the AF mode selection merits its own dial, while AF points, position, and tracking mode are accessed through a separate button. 'Film Mode', which is irrelevant for raw capture but effective for movies, has its own button, but changing the aspect ratio of the sensor is buried in the 'quick' menu. The quick menu itself is reached by a button that's awkwardly behind the shutter, while the multi-page full menu is accessed easily though the centre button on the four-way controller. Canon got their cameras right years ago, and they reverse these positions.
Another annoyance that I have is with the control dial on the front of the camera. It's very clever, and can be pressed like a button to toggle its function. But cameras, like art, shouldn't depend on being clever to work. It's impossible to know what variable the wheel will be controlling without looking at the camera and thinking about what's in yellow instead of green; even if it's always used for controlling the same thing, it can be bumped in the bag or just in general handling. It also means that the dial needs to be turned with a minimum of pressure, otherwise the function can be switched even while the wheel is turning. I get tired of writing this: the fastest way to annoy me is to make a control behave differently based on conditions that aren't immediately obvious. A simple two-position toggle switch to change the wheel's function - perhaps in place of the quick record button - would be an immense usability improvement.
On the positive side, I love the way the drive-mode selection works. It's a lever around the front-right of the mode dial, and is easy to flip from position to position. Single shot and self-timer are at the two ends, right where they should be, and bracketing is on there as well. Have I mentioned recently that I needed to set the bracketing on a custom function button on my D700? Way to go, Panasonic. And while I'm at it, I like having the Chimp button back near my right thumb, where it should be. The GH1 is a camera that can be used with a single hand when needed, leaving the other free to control the lens or adjust the LCD. Very nice.
Micro Four Thirds cameras are being defined by their lenses, and in this case, the 14-140 has a lot to answer for. It's big, heavy, expensive, and doesn't test nearly as well as the 20/1.7 that has seen the GF1 flying off the shelves. There's no getting away from the fact that it's an inherently dark lens that needs its image stabilization just to get out of bed some days. Still, it's smaller and better than any 18-200mm lens, and the m4/3's in-built correction further helps it out. All you APS-C users, just try to imagine a 10x zoom lens with essentially no chromatic aberration or optical distortions. Even without a test bench, I can see that it's a little softer at its full telephoto reach, but that's true of almost every long zoom. On the other hand, take another look at the photo of that nasty-looking pigeon. I got lucky with the distances, but look at how the foreground and background concrete just melt into each other. This is at f/5.8 on a sensor that people irrationally claim has 'too much' depth-of-field. Not too shabby, even though the photo is otherwise worth deleting on sight.
A defining point for the m4/3 lens mount is that it can be made to wear almost anything. Using a Voigtländer F adapter, I've tried the GH1 with just about every current Nikon AF-D lens, as well as every Panasonic G-series lens on the market. (Group write-up to come.) My overall impression with manual focus is that it's good to have the option, but without the camcorder-feature of 'peaking' for focus confirmation, even the magnified live view isn't the most reliable. I've come to use the changing colours of chromatic aberration to tell me if I'm in front or behind my target, because 'in focus' doesn't always mean 'sharp' on a sensor with double the pixel density of a D3x or D300s. Cheap legacy glass isn't going to produce results as good as the modern stuff, even though it's frequently good enough, and gives a huge increase in the m4/3 options.
The other common-knowledge fault of the 4/3 size sensor, aside from having things in focus, is that they're weak at high sensitivities. This is a case of 'time heals all wounds'. DxO says that it matches or beats the Canon 7D on a per-pixel level, which is not a bad boast to make. It's still not going to win in a toe-to-toe fight with a D700, but for its size it's a brilliant little performer. The tonal range and detail from the GH1 is at least as good as my Olympus E-3, and its raw files can withstand more exposure adjustments. That's a very good thing, since I often find that I want to boost the exposure by as much as 1EV when I'm working with its photos in Lightroom, even though I'm watching the histogram when I shoot. I haven't yet decided if that's because the metering is inherently conservative, or if my D700 has completely removed my ability to evaluate a scene for myself. I have been trying to adjust the jpeg profile ('film mode') to better reflect the actual sensor levels, but without much success. Why, in 2010, are we still saddled with a histogram that displays information based on an arbitrary tone curve and 8-bit clipping levels?
Something very special about the GH1 sensor is that it's only the second camera on the market - its cousin, the LX3, is the other - that has a sensor that can capture different aspect ratios. (Updated: just a few days after this was written, a few more Panasonic P&S cameras have gained this feature.) Four Thirds User has a great page on the subject, but here's the short version: with just those two exceptions, every other camera simply crops down from the same rectangle to produce other shapes. A camera that produces a 4:3 image that's 4032 pixels wide will capture 3:2 or 16:9 images that aren't as tall, but they'll still be 4032 pixels wide. Panny don't play that.
For the GH1, 3:2 images actually gain 128 pixels across - 3.2% - while 16:9 images are 8.8% wider. This conserves more pixels in the narrower formats and preserves the angle of view, so that a 16:9 'panoramic' photo actually includes parts of the scene that are outside of the 4:3 image. For people who are used to shooting with 3:2 ratio OIL cameras, this EVIL machine will still provide 11.4 megapickles in their legacy ratio, and the equivalent focal lengths will be composed the same way. If you're an architectural tourist, the GH1 will give the cathedral-friendly squarer format; if you're hiking for hours before sunrise to capture that vast badlands landscape, you can exchange that huge rectangle of blank sky for a wider print.
Coupled with the 7-14mm lens, the variable aspect sensor might make the GH1 the best practical wide-angle camera of the last decade. It lets the GH1 blend seamlessly with whatever ratio your project needs, whether producing work for the web, print, or are shooting stills that will be incorporated into a video or movie. The only part that has stumped me is the 1:1 aspect ratio option. I know some photographers see this as a great feature with their E-P2's, and I can respect that. I've used it to shoot photos for upcoming reviews, and it was more convenient than cropping. But that's the source of my confusion - all the GH1 does is crop the image, and it actually captures less height than the 4:3 aspect ratio. Okay, so it's only eight pixels shorter, but it's still weird.
For personal and professional reasons, I read a lot of camera reviews. (Okay, I read the conclusions page of a lot of camera reviews. Who has that kind of time?) When I first started toying with the idea of a micro four thirds camera for myself, I was blown away by the raves that the Panasonic GF1 was getting. There are a lot of good cameras out there, and there are plenty that produce better images, but the GF1 was being credited with making the reviewers enjoy photography again, even to the point where they've bought their own after sending their free sample back. (Here at thewsreviews.com, we buy the product and then review it.) The Olympus E-P2 is also generating a huge amount of enthusiasm, and people who would never have considered getting a Four Thirds OIL are picking up their EVIL cameras. Manufacturers who once me-too'ed their way into the market with legacy lens mounts are hurrying to create entirely new systems based on the EVIL idea. While it's still too early to distinguish a revolt from a revolution, there's no question that the combination of small size, great sensors, and interchangeable lenses has started a fire.
So with the distinct impression that the GF1 is a great camera and riding the wave of the future, I didn't buy one. Call me stubborn.
For people who are just looking for a compact package with great image quality, the smaller cameras are perfect. I knew from the beginning that I'd be happier with a 'system' camera and additional lenses. The Panasonic GH1 combines the best of the GF1's autofocus and high-resolution LCD with the better eye-level viewfinder of the E-P2, and adds a lot of great features of its own. The tradeoff is a larger size, but it's not really any bigger than the other cameras with their optional viewfinders and the same lenses. It's more expensive than the stock Pens or GF1, but adding viewfinders or equivalent lenses quickly equalizes that as well. The one thing that the GH1 won't ever have is the sex appeal of the smaller cameras, but it's finally time for me to embrace getting older.
I like to have different tasks for all of my different cameras. I have far too many of them, so if a camera doesn't offer something compelling, then it won't get used. That was the situation that my E-3 found itself in last year: my D700 gives better image quality, metering, and autofocus, while my E-1 is tougher and quieter. It hung on because of my superb Olympus SHG lenses, but even they weren't getting much use. They were just too big and too valuable for casual carry-anywhere photography.
Which brings me to my GH1. It's a camera that's perfect for carrying, and creates great images. I can slip an entire kit in my little Billingham bag without it getting a second glance, and I rarely wish that I was carrying anything else. While I can't boast that I ran out and bought my own Panasonic after reviewing it, I did give up my Olympus 35-100 to pay for the GH1, and I've replaced my Olympus 7-14 with its Panasonic equivalent. That was a huge decision, but as Miss Piggy once said, 'never eat more than you can lift'. The GH1 is a very good little camera, it's different, and it really does make photography fun again.
You may also be interested in the thewsreviews' illustrated collection of observations on a wide assortment of lenses: "Quick Thoughts on Lenses for Micro Four Thirds Cameras".