I have made no secret of my frustration with DSLRs for making motion pictures. I’ve wanted to love them, sure. In my quest to find a small camera I could love, I’ve bought and sold (or returned) a Canon 7D, Panasonic GH1, and a Nikon D7000. The Canon and Nikon were each impressive in their own ways, but I gave them both up because I could never fully trust the image that I saw in their LCDs. After being burned a few times by outrageous moire that only appeared once I could view footage on a real monitor, I gave up trying to shoot with those cameras.
The GH1, which I tested last summer after my frustrations with the Canon cameras, was more promising, especially with the ballyhooed firmware hack that surfaced last year. That camera didn’t have problems with moire or aliasing, and its mirrorless design (the GH1 is not, technically speaking a DSLR at all) opened up the opportunity for using several different types of lenses (PL-mount cine lenses, Nikons, Canons, and many more).
Unfortunately, the camera clearly felt like the product of a “consumer” division of a large electronics company. Parts of the camera felt shoddily put together, there were reports of design issues with the lugs that held the neck strap and, worst of all, the camera exhibited a nasty fixed pattern noise problem that made any dim area in a shot have strange vertical blue streaks. Hacked or not, the camera didn’t seem ready for prime time. Hope springs eternal, though. I thought, Panasonic might be onto something if only they would fix some of these glaring problems.
In December, I managed to get my hands on the GH1’s successor, the still-hard-to-find Panasonic GH2, shortly after they arrived in the US. A month or so later, here are my thoughts on the camera as a tool for filmmakers.
The GH2 is not a perfect camera — no such thing exists — but it does fix a lot of the GH1’s problems. As such, I feel like I can finally endorse a DSLR for motion picture use. (And yes, I know, it’s not a DSLR. But the term “hybrid camera” just sounds weird.) I think it’s the best camera you can buy for under $1000. It might be the best camera you can by for three or four times that. Lest you think this is going to be a rave review, let me lay out my curmudgeonly gripes about this camera:
– Size and build. If you are used to the rugged build quality of a Nikon D7000 or Canon 7D this camera feels like a toy. It’s a bit too small for my tastes and the buttons feel a little flimsy. I’d pay $500 more for it to be as rock solid as a Nikon or Canon. Furthermore, the lug nuts that hold the shoulder mount seem to follow the same design as the GH1. There may be improvements on the inside, but simply seeing the same parts and placement doesn’t inspire confidence. If you insist on wearing a neck strap, I recommend purchasing a Black Rapid RS7 strap, which screws into the camera’s base.
– Lens selection. The Micro 4/3 format lacks the robust catalog of lenses that one finds with APS-C and full frame sensor cameras from Nikon and Canon. As most readers probably know, the M4/3 system effectively renders lenses with a 2x crop factor when compared with 35mm still photography. (M43 is much closer to the size of 35mm motion picture film.) Since a 20mm lens on a GH2 has the field of view of a 40mm lens on something like the Canon 5D Mk II, the question of how wide one can go with the M43 format is a legitimate question. Compounding this issue is the fact that Panasonic’s “pro” M43 zooms (14-140 and the 7-14mm) are slow. Olympus makes a great couple of fast zooms (f/2.0!), but they require a 4/3-to-Micro4/3 adapter. Probably the sexiest native lens for the camera is Voigtlander’s super fast 25mm f/0.95. Regardless of which of these you choose, you’re spending from anywhere near $1000 to $2500 for a lens that won’t work on either of the other major camera systems (e.g., Nikon or Canon). If the next great camera that comes down the road isn’t a Micro 4/3 system camera, but something with a larger sensor (and this is considerably likely) an investment in M43 glass may not repay long term dividends. That said, there is a solid work-around solution. More on this later…
– Programmability. The programmable function buttons on the GH2 can only be set to engage functions that are fairly useless for filmmakers. The ability to customize the camera’s buttons falls far, far short of something like the 7D.
– Power. The battery does not last long, especially if you are using a native M43 lens like the Panasonic 14-140 that ships with some kits. That lens has image stabilization and it drains the battery fast. Even with lenses that don’t pull power you’ll need to buy at least a couple more batteries. And you’ll probably also want a AC/DC power adapter. Panasonic doesn’t seem to be making or selling those yet, so chalk that up as yet another (hopefully temporary) frustration associated with the camera.
– Documentation. The acronym RTFM takes on new meaning here, as the manual included is one of the most poorly written technical documents I’ve ever read. I hope the authors never try their hand at writing the instructions for heart defibrillators or how to perform CPR. Compounding this fact, the American edition is not available as a PDF. I resorted to essentially writing my own translated version of the manual for the camera and threw out the “official” one Panasonic.
– Gamma Shift. The camera has a strange bug in which the gamma shifts after you press the record button. Will this be fixed by a firmware update? Who knows. If it came from Panasonic’s pro electronics division, I would expect one. Coming from the consumer division I have less confidence, particularly since releasing firmware could open the camera to another firmware hack. (Don’t get me started about the idea that a company wouldn’t want its users to tinker with, and better, its products.)
– Recording Media. I’m not crazy about using SD cards. CF cards (like those used by the Canon 7D and 5D Mark II) are are more rugged and they’re harder to lose. But the D7000, as well as the Canon 60D, T2i, and even the Panasonic AF-100 use SD cards, so I guess I need to get over this. SD cards are less expensive, I’ll give them that.
– Recording standard. Though it may not affect us Yanks, there is no 25P mode for PAL users. I can’t understand why Panasonic would be so short sighted as to ignore this feature.
– So-so stills. As a stills camera, the GH2 isn’t going to compete with something like a Nikon D7000 or a Canon 7D or 5D Mark II. But this fact doesn’t bother me so much. My photography is mainly limited to location scouting, holiday snapshots, and photos around my home, documenting the change of seasons and the comings and goings of friends, family, and animals. The GH2 is enough for me, but if you want a camera for serious, professional photography, you will probably look elsewhere. Personally, if I needed something heftier, a Nikon D7000 or a Canon 7D would suit me fine. Though they are more expensive cameras, they’re not that much pricier, and you get what you pay for.
Yet, most these complaints have work arounds, particularly when you consider what the GH2 has going for it over other DSLRs:
+ No more rainbows. Far less — and far, far less offensive — moire. It’s simply not an issue. I don’t worry about it. At all. I actually feel like I can trust the image I see in the LCD or viewfinder. What a concept!
+ Less aliasing. ‘Nuff said.
+ No overheating. The camera acts as if it actually wants to stay on and let you continue filming as long as you want.
+ Sharper. I’ve not shot any charts, but to my eyes the image looks sharper than that of the Canons and Nikon, particularly on wide shots.
+ Adjustable LCD. Like the GH1 before it (and like the Canon 60D), an adjustable LCD means you can put your camera in tight spaces and continue to watch the footage. Plus, you can see your footage in bright daylight; there is no need to purchase a Z-finder (or similar).
+ ETC mode. The camera’s 2X crop “ETC mode” gives you, in effect, two lenses for every one you own. I find it only somewhat usable because of the increased noise, but no other camera (that I’m aware of) even has such a feature and it’s far better than any digital zoom.
+ 24p filming. This is an improvement on the GH1, in that cinema mode filming isn’t contained in an interlaced wrapper. It’s true progressive.
+ No fixed pattern noise. This is the GH2’s biggest improvement over the GH1. There’s no need to try to use voodoo on your camera to make the noise go away.
Also, for those that want it, the GH2 has autofocus in video mode when using native M43 lenses. I don’t care about AF and I’ve found it to be slower than advertised. But it does work.
As I see it, these are all very big gains over most other DSLRs.
Finally, let me address two issues others have raised about the Micro 4/3 format:
One complaint is that the sensor is too small to get shallow depth of field. Eh, this is not much of an issue to me. First, you can get shallow DoF with the camera. It’s far more than you’re used to with any 1/3″ or 2/3″ video camera. Can you get razor thin DoF like on the Canon 5D Mk II? No. That’s a VistaVision sized sensor, there’s no comparison. But having your subject in focus is, these days, a somewhat underrated concept. Micro4/3 strikes a nice balance between allowing you to render backgrounds out of focus and allowing your performers room to move.
As for the complaint about lenses — which I myself made above — so far I have found that the best price/performance option is to purchase manual focus Nikon glass (say, a 20mm, 28mm, 50mm, 85mm, and a 105mm) along with a Nikon-to-Micro4/3 adapter. You can even get an adapter for Nikon G-series lenses (i.e., lenses without an aperture ring), which would be most useful with something like a Tokina 11-16 f/2.8 lens. Users of Canon glass are limited to something like a Kipon adapter, which fakes an aperture, only somewhat successfully. The great thing about Nikon glass is that it’s usable on Canon cameras, too, as well as, of course, Nikons. Should either of those manufacturers step up and invent the next great HDSLR, you won’t miss a beat.
In the end, I would say the GH2 is a step forward for DSLR filmmaking. Even if I can’t help but feeling at times like it succeeds in spite of itself (or, more accurately, in spite of its manufacturer) I like the camera and the image it produces. But, it’s just a camera. If you’ve been making films with the 7D or the T2i — or whatever camera — and you love it, well, use that. There is no need to switch if something is working for you. If, however, you’re a filmmaker that, like me, has longed to work with DSLRs because of their small form factor, but you’ve been put off by their frustrations, the GH2 is worth a look.