The Panasonic GH1, a Few Months In
There is no question in my mind that cameras like this are the future for many of us.
By us I mean those interested in both still and motion picture photography. I’ve been into both fields for a while, both by hobby and trade, and it still blows my little mind to think I could afford a thing like this. It’s been a long, gradual and perhaps predictable time coming, but that doesn’t make it seem any less crazy. When I was in university we shot on VHS, and people were saying Hi-8 video was the future. Then it was the DV “revolution”. I split on a cheap DV handicam with some friends. But you still couldn’t get a nice image with these things – you could imitate video stuff, but never convincingly film. For that you needed to shoot film, which was a mulit-thousand-dollar proposition for camera rental & processing. Soon, we were lucky enough to be able to shoot on early pro HDCAMs like the Sony F900, but that was still a half-million dollar camera. A few short years later, the Red is here at $20,000, which is mind-blowing to anyone in the industry.
And now we have sub-$2,000 video SLRs like the GH1. Cameras with great optics, all-digital workflow, 1080p24, compact size, full manual control. Interchangeable lenses, decent low-light shooting. Total craziness.
These are amazing cameras, but they have kinks. I’m sure in a year or two this category will have stabilized, the feature set will be clear, and choices will be easier. The next iteration of the GH1 (might I guess GH2?) will solve a lot of the problems with this thing. Because yes, there are problems.
- no video out – you can put HDMI or composite out when reviewing shots, but not while capturing. This makes it very hard to do a lot of things where the director and camera operator are not the same person.
- poor audio support – the GH1 has a surprisingly decent built-in mic, and an optional mountable shotgun mic, but most of the time, I’d want to hook up a wireless lavalier mic. You can do that, but the audio in is a minijack that auto-levels the signal. For best sound, you need to record into a separate audio field recorder and then sync in post. That’s a couple hundred extra and a big pain in the ass.
- low bitrate – the camera has great optics, but the files it saves are too low a bitrate. Sometimes this bites you, sometimes it doesn’t.
- AVCHD – I find this to be a shitty codec, which causes headaches in post as it must be converted to something Final Cut can use (still haven’t figured out how to get it into the Avid). When you combine AVCHD’s interframe compression with the low bitrate, especially in 1080p24 mode you get compression mud in certain situations, like fast camera movement and/or complex detail (grass, especially). This sucks. There is an MJPEG mode that is mud-free, but it’s only 720p30 and is still low bitrate.
I don’t want to sound complainy here. The GH1 has a lot going for it. Mainly:
- I found the still modes to be awesome. I may not be the best judge, not having used a lot of DSLRs, but I’ve gotten some great photos out of this thing.
- The flip-out LCD is a lifesaver. Every camera should have this.
- the kit lens is impressive. It’s the equivalent of a 28-280mm zoom, which gives you a lot of options. Its silent autofocus is another engineering marvel for an SLR. I really never thought I’d use autofocus, but it’s quite smart.
- An advantage of the category in general: these cameras are really small compared to video cameras, and thus really stealth. You can get away with a lot. Except you’ll have to put up with people posing as they wait for the ‘click’.
- This is another categorical feature, but one that compares favourably to most video cams, even much more expensive ones: interchangeable lenses. I’ve picked up a fast 50mm FD lens and the results have been really satisfying.All the cameras in this category, which right now includes the Canon 5DMkII and the new 7D, suffer from strange, idiosyncratic drawbacks.
Like I say, I’m figuring in a year or so the dust will have settled, each manufacturer will have figured out the featureset they need, and eliminated the needless problems. Red’s cheaper camera Scarlett will theoretically be on the market, too. No matter how you slice it, it’s a great time to be shooting, and it will continue this way for the forseeable future. Perhaps one day we will simply exhale a fine mist of microscopic flying camera bugs and then let our algorithms cut it together, but until then…