Panasonic GH1 Declared Micro-King

January 28, 2010

The model designations of Panasonic’s recent Micro Four Thirds cameras can be a bit confusing. In order of release so far, there’s the G1, the GH1, and the GF1.

The GH1 is the largest, and most video-oriented of the three. The newer GF1 is the compact model, lacking the faux-SLR hump on top. The GH1 is a model fewer people seem to know about, at least in still-photography circles.

Anyway, DxO Labs just announced their rating of the GH1 yesterday, and it’s a bit of a bombshell. DxO ranked the GH1 as the best-performing Four Thirds sensor they had ever tested— “Micro” or otherwise. Their discussion of the results makes for quite an interesting read.

Lumix GH1

Panasonic's GH1, Best of the Micros

DxO, based in France, does very “numbers-oriented” performance testing on camera sensors—but only in RAW mode. This means the quality of the in-camera JPEG conversion is not evaluated.

Depending on what you are trying to photograph, different aspects of a sensor’s performance might matter to you most: Its resolution; its usable dynamic range from dark to bright; or its noisiness in low light. But DxO also attempts to assign a one-number “DxO Mark Sensor” rating, ranking overall image quality.

Anyway, you can look at a direct comparison between the GH1, the original Panasonic G1, and the Olympus E-P1 using this link. (They have not yet tested the GF1. The E-P2 and E-P1 are presumably quite close.)

Micro Four Thirds Comparison

Micro 4/3 In the Test Lab

Anecdotally, the GF1 appeared to lag a bit behind its µ4/3 peers in high-ISO performance. It seems safe to conclude that the GH1 is truly about one f/stop better than the GF1 in low light; that is, the GH1 images look much less grainy at ISO 800 and above.

While pixel size is still the single biggest determinant of image quality, this does demonstrate that sensors in the same size class can still show differences. Different technologies may offer greater pixel sensitivity or lower read-out noise; and it’s clear the GH1 is wringing everything possible out of its 4.3-micron pixels. (in contrast, APS-C cameras might have pixels 5 or 6 microns wide.)

This GH1 news is both exciting and exasperating for me.

It’s exciting because it proves it’s at least theoretically possible for a µ4/3 body to give what I need: A no-apologies ISO 800 setting, for available-light shooting.

I also really like the GH1’s “aspect agnostic” sensor. By making the chip a bit oversize, it’s possible to switch between 4:3, 3:2, and 16:9 proportions without changing the diagonal angle of view. (See the bottom of DP Review’s introduction for a diagram.)

In most 4/3-and-smaller cameras, the 2:3 ratio is just a crop out of a native 3:4 sensor. I prefer the classic film proportions, and would like to use that option without penalty.

On the exasperation side, the GH1 is the largest and most expensive Micro Four Thirds camera now made.

You can’t even buy it unbundled from its expensive zoom—which only opens to f/4.0. Videographers might appreciate its 10x zoom range; but for me, it’s just a boat anchor.

Panasonic GH1 Side View

GH1: Not Small

The GH1 is only a tiny bit smaller than some true DLSRs, such as the Olympus E-420 or the Pentax K-x. (Compare this to this.)

Wasn’t making cameras more compact (while keeping sensors large) the entire point of µ4/3?

After all, you are losing true reflex viewing. And the Four Thirds sensor still pays a penalty from being smaller than APS-C. Several current Nikon DSLRs earn DxO Mark Sensor scores over 70, compared to the GH1’s 63.3. So without a significant size advantage, µ4/3 is hard to justify.

My other irritation is this: I thought the superiority of the GH1 was going to stay “my little secret.” As other µ4/3 models came out, I had a fantasy that the GH1’s price would tumble, and I could snap one up as a bargain closeout.

Ah well, I guess that won’t happen now.


4 Responses to “Panasonic GH1 Declared Micro-King”

  1. PhotoDude Says:

    Interesting, The GH1 compares well to my D40. I would of thought that the D40 would of done better with its bigger pixels.

    • petavoxel Says:

      The GH1 has the benefit of two more years of technology development, of course. But it’s also “best in classs.”

      The D40 was engineered for affordability, with a CCD sensor; but over time cameramakers apparently have been able to get a little more out of CMOS (e.g. in the D90).

  2. petavoxel Says:

    DxO Labs now can give a direct comparison of the GH1 with the GF1 and the Olympus E-P2.

    Note how much higher the GH1 high-ISO score is. Seems to be about 2/3rds of a stop better. (Note, this is based on raw files, not the in-camera JPEGs.)

  3. petavoxel Says:

    And here’s an interesting comparison with two current Olympus DSLRs.

    The GH1 is definitely doing something right.

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