Runnin’ & Gunnin’ with the GH2

March 11, 2011 at 1:15 pm  •  Posted in Cool Gadgets by

Last month I spent a week in Japan and saw some amazing sights. It was anything but a photographer’s dream trip, however. The silver lining was that it was a great opportunity to put Panasonic’s Lumix GH2 through its paces under less than ideal photography conditions.

I was part of a cultural delegation and the schedule was full and tightly scripted by the host, so I had little time to myself. Most of the photo ops were while we were on the move — walking from one venue to another, in transit or breezing through heritage sites. Pondering the ideal camera position or waiting for the right lighting were simply out of the question.

Most days we left the hotel around 9 am and didn’t return until 9 pm. It became apparent on the first day that a single battery wasn’t going to cut it. Fortunately, the first city on the schedule was Tokyo, where camera shops abound, so I picked up a spare (for $10 more than what I would have paid in Canada — I found a lot of photo equipment more expensive there). Two batteries usually provided enough power, although if you intend to shoot a lot of video, it may not be enough.

Photography was permitted in most of the historic sites I visited, but flash units and tripods most often were not. The 14-140mm lens (officially the Lumix G Vario HD 14-140mm F4.0-5.8 ASPH MEGA O.I.S) is image stabilized, and the GH2’s sensitivity goes to ISO 12,800. I didn’t shoot beyond ISO 3200 but the noise pattern up to that point is generally very tight and quite film-like — I really like the look. I had the image stabilization on almost all the time, and have handheld shots down to 1/10 second at 14 mm (28 mm equiv) and 1/60 sec at 140 mm (280 equiv) that are sharp. The most extreme settings that produced what I’d consider an acceptable handheld photo was 0.6 sec at 17mm focal length.

The GH1’s video prowess has been well documented, and the GH2 promises to build on that. I shot everything in 720 AVCHD rather than the higher resolution 1080, but image quality was nonetheless gorgeous. One member of the delegation hosts a community cable show, and I offered to shoot some location video for her. We set up in my hotel room one morning before we had to catch the train to our next destination, and did some talking head segments with everyone in the delegation. I used a Zoom H1 field recorder to also record the audio separately, and used a slate app on my iPad to generate a clapper sound for sync. This is one of the few times I was able to use the Benro Travelling Angel carbon fibre tripod I carried with me. The tripod might be a tad light for a full-size SLR rig but it and the GH2 are well matched.

AVCHD is relatively easy to deal with these days. There are other ways to do it but I copied the entire AVCHD folder from each memory card to its own separate folder on an external Firewire drive, then used Apple Final Cut Express’s Log and Transfer function to bring in the video.

I think the GH2 will more or less silence the debate over phase-detect versus contrast-detect autofocus systems. AF was never an issue for me, even though I was rushed through many photo-worthy locations. The GH2’s implementation of contrast-detect AF is fast and accurate.

Likewise the GH2’s electronic viewfinder doesn’t make me miss the SLR’s optical system much. A trick I first learned with my Olympus E-P1 is that you can feather an AE point in and out of dark (or light) areas of the scene and the viewfinder gives you real time visual feedback of exposure as the frame darkens or lightens. Once you get a look you like, you simply hit the AE lock button, reframe and nail the exposure.

The GH2 is a 16 megapixel camera but its sensor, like the one of the GH1, is oversized, allowing the camera to shoot different aspect ratios while maintaining roughly the same diagonal dimension. In other words, it has multiple native aspect ratios. Other cameras that offer multiple aspect ratios typically crop a single native ratio on the top and bottom or the sides, which also reduces the pixel count.

I left the camera on 4:3 and shot raw, which yields an image dimension of 3456 x 4608 pixels and file size of approximately 18.5 megabytes. I managed to bring back 1,300 photos and just over half an hour of video, totalling about 40 GB.

My current cameras have 12 megapixel sensors, and I can definitely see the effects of the GH2’s higher resolution onscreen. How much will carry over into a 13×19 print, I can’t say since I haven’t printed any of the images yet, but I’m confident the camera is easily capable of competition-quality prints at that size.

I’ll limit my comments on user interface because I didn’t have much time to familiarize myself with the camera — the loaner arrived from Panasonic Canada the evening before I flew out (in fact, a neighbour from down the block dropped it off at 9pm — the courier flipped the last two numbers of the address and delivered it to his house by mistake).

Getting used to the fine points of the camera proved to be a lesson in “don’t take a sophisticated piece of gear into the field without studying it first.” I downloaded the PDF manual onto my iPad, which was a blessing, plus I have also worked with the GH1, so the “Panasonic way” of doing things was not totally new to me.

And surprisingly, the list of things I wished I’d studied more is relatively short. I could have got better sound if I played with the microphone settings. The AE lock settings threw me a couple of curves, so I had some very over-exposed images that had to be trashed. I was occasionally hitting a button inadvertently that was changing the white balance settings (an annoying inconvenience rather than a big problem because I was shooting raw). If I took the time to set up the ISO settings better, I could have tested ISO 12800, but I used the “intelligent ISO” feature which caps the upper setting at 3200. I would also have played with the touchscreen features, if I had more time. These aren’t just for menu access and navigation, but allow you to control camera functions such as setting an AF point or actually firing the shutter.

The Compact System Camera category has shown remarkable growth, and looking at the Lumix GH2, one can understand why. This is a premium model, but categories aside, it is also a very satisfying camera. It has enough “traditional” camera features so that you are not completely lost coming from an SLR, yet it pushes the technology content forward in a photographically meaningful way — the advances in electronic viewfinder and contrast-detect autofocus being two significant examples.

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