Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 review

4.5 out of 5
£1120 (with 14-140mm lens)

For

Incredibly fast autofocus, impressive image quality to ISO 1600

Against

2.5mm mic port, on the expensive side, plasticy exterior

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 builds upon the GH1’s movie prowess by offering some quirky features: a touchpanel LCD screen, super-fast autofocus and Full HD 1080p top-spec movie recording. Is this 16-megapixel hybrid camera good enough to see off Samsung, Sony and Olympus’s competitor models?

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 updates the GH1 of old – a camera that we reviewed some 16 months ago and were most impressed with except, by and large, for its hefty price tag. Fast-forward to now and the Lumix GH2 carries the same £1300 RRP but can be found for around £1120 with a 14-140mm lens in the box or, shrewdly, Panasonic is also offering body-only and 14-42mm lens options that help keep down the price significantly. In many ways this helps to alleviate our pricing quibbles of yesteryear, yet for the top-spec kit you’re going to need to be a serious amateur to want to fork out over a grand of your hard earned cash. 

Pricing bombshell out of the way and there are a lot of very good things to be offered by the GH2. It’s comparable, in terms of price and spec (in some areas), to the Canon EOS 60D, Pentax K-5 and Nikon D7000 – but can a mirrorless hybrid camera really challenge the DSLR main fold and come out on top?

Tucked away inside the camera is a multi-aspect 16-megapixel Live MOS sensor that offers high resolution stills at 3:2, 4:3 or 16:9. There’s one big difference with the GH2 over the GH1 however, and that’s that its Venus Engine VI FHD has a seriously juiced up set of CPUs at its core. What this means is that the read-out from the sensor is much faster than before – twice as fast in fact, at a 120fps readout. May sound boring and ineffective, but what this means in real terms is that the contrast-detection autofocus system has twice as much data to play with in the same period of time and this makes the autofocus doubly quick. This may sound like a marketing ploy, but it’s far from it. The first thing you’ll notice about the GH2 is just how lightning fast its AF system is – it truly does blow all the other competition out of the water in this field.

The 3-inch, 460k-dot LCD screen is of a reasonable resolution but also comes hinged on an angle-bracket so it can be used to frame up shots overhead, below eye level or even around corners. Panasonic has put more work into the screen quality, however, as it can now display some 40% more colours for more pin-point colour-matching accuracy. 

Above this is an updated viewfinder, now of a 1.53m-dot resolution that translates into a slightly more wide aspect ratio fixture than before that’s ideal for movie recording (and matches the multi-aspect ratio sensor’s capabilities). However, there’s no getting around the fact that this is an Electronic Viewfinder (EVF), not an optical one (OVF). Traditionalists may turn their noses up at the very thought of this. Although the overall preview quality doesn’t match that of an optical equivalent, there’s a lot to be happy about here: the GH2’s EVF is physically large in size, provides a full 100% field of view, the improvement of the sensor means that the real time preview is smoother than before, plus it’s possible to use an EVF during movie recording (something not possible with DSLR cameras).

Talking of movie mode, the Lumix GH2 certainly goes in for the kill to offer a very highly-specified capability indeed. Not only is Full HD 1080p at 24fps recording available with stereo sound using a data rate of an impressive 23Mbps – that’s a very similar spec akin to what decent quality camcorder offers. Full manual control is also at your fingertips to adjust aperture and ultimately the exposure, alongside the ability to capture 1080i50 and 720p50. Couple this with the touch-panel LCD screen and it makes focusing a breeze. By running your fingers across the screen it’s possible to select the focus point for some super-smooth transitions, especially if you have a bright aperture lens on the front. Our one annoyance is that the microphone port is a 2.5mm diameter rather than the more common (and useful) 3.5mm standard.

In use the menus are very decent, and it’s possible to use either the touchscreen or buttons depending on your preference. Even a combination of both can work very well indeed. The on-screen buttons have undergone a slight redesign and sit further into the screen to make for quick and easy pressing.

The top panel now has a customisable Fn (Function) button next to a one-touch movie button so grasping the controls is both accessible and customiseable.

However the GH2 camera body itself feels a little plasticy (that’s not to say flimsy however, as it’s a sturdy build beneath this finish) and lacks the finished aesthetic appeal of a more tough and ruggedised DSLR camera. It’s also a shame that the body feels fairly out-weighed by the 14-140mm lens too, as it’s much heavier and can pull on the wrist due to the body and grip size.

The GH2 can shoot from ISO 160 right through to ISO 12,800 at its top end. The Micro Four Thirds sensor is smaller than a DSLR sensor, so other models have been known to suffer from poorer performance at the higher ISO settings. The GH2, on the other hand, does a mighty fine job in maintaining image quality. This can be attributed to the brand new sensor that is an entirely different one to that found in any previous G-series models.

It’s actually good enough to keep up with its peers from ISO 160-1600, and put side-by-side by APS-C cameras such as the Canon 60D and Nikon D7000 really does hold its own. Frankly we were pleasantly surprised, as it shows that there’s plenty more potential to come from Micro Four Thirds yet.

However, it’s not perfect: the ISO 6400-12,800 settings are relatively pointless as the top-end setting is so noisy it’s almost useless. ISO 6400 is certainly better, but a fair amount of detail is lost. Furthermore images aren’t the sharpest in the world, the 14-140mm lens has notable corner light falloff at the widest setting and there’s an overall lack of pep in contrast and images can look a touch “washed out” at times.

However, let’s take a step back here: the GH2 certainly sets the image quality bar high, and would not only give other hybrid cameras a run for their money, but is actually comparable to APS-C DSLR cameras too. Impressed? We’d say so.

Verdict

The GH2 succeeds in pushing Micro Four Thirds (or indeed any hybrid cameras’) capabilities up a peg or two. The latest autofocus is very fast; so impressively so that it’s impossible not to notice just how good it is.

From stills to movie and the GH2 really holds its own as far as moving images are concerned. The touchscreen capability helps to override the ongoing issue of camera shake when attempting to manually focus – here it’s a case of simply putting finger to the focus subject on screen for great transitions (those unfazed by the touchscreen needn’t use it at all as there are button-based work around options for every scenario).

It’s not perfect though: the body is nowhere nearly as tough and rugged as that of a similarly-priced DSLR camera, and the GH2’s small size means the 14-140mm lens outweighs the body by quite some degree. And then, of course, there’s the cost: anything over a grand is going to raise your average customer’s eyebrow. Although the 14-140mm lens is a solid and decent piece of glass, the cost of this drives up the overall package. However, if money’s no object then, in terms of both performance and image quality, the GH2 is certainly the best hybrid camera that money can buy and you’ll certainly get what you pay for.