Panasonic GH3 is a Video-Optimized Powerhouse
Long championed by a loyal cadre as an under-appreciated black sheep in the filmmaking world, the Panasonic GH2 had its retribution moment this past summer, when a hacked version of the camera was the surprise belle of the ball in Zacuto’s Revenge of the Great Camera Shooutout. Pitted against cameras up to a hundred times its price (really), it managed to win over none other than Francis Ford Coppola and other exclusive audience members in attendance as the favorite at Zacuto’s live optimized screenings, where each camera was presented anonymously against its competitors to prevent bias. The caveat was that the results were also highly influenced by how each camera team chose to add to the base lighting of the scene. In the test comparing the cameras apples-to-apples under one constant lighting scenario, they corresponded more closely to their price points. Still, it showed what the GH2 could be pushed to do.
Zacuto’s test propelled the GH2 into the spotlight. Just in time to capitalize on the massive upset, Panasonic has unveiled the successor, a camera drastically upgraded and reconfigured in practically every area and geared unapologetically towards video shooters (though its the top of the line stills camera from Panasonic as well). The GH3 is a full-fledged response to practically any complaint its lauded predecessor had leveled against it during its two year run.
The vibrant GH2 hacker community exposed massive unused potential in sensor and processor by unlocking higher bit rates and increasing high ISO range, among other enhancements. The result was pure magic, with video that was sharper and cleaner than cameras many multiples its price. The grain at higher ISOs had a natural film-like feel. With a healthy array of native system lenses, as well as adaptors for every other mount, the Micro Four Thirds standard was the most glass-friendly system on the market. The result was a sleeper hit whose success snowballed as word-of-mouth accolades spread.
Panasonic made the admirable decision this time around to shirk the common industry practice of limiting features to protect its higher end product lines and push all the on-board processing power to the max, directly out of the box. The result is perhaps the best video-optimized DSLR-level camera on the market. Hacking will not be necessary this time around.
The 17.2 megapixel sensor is slightly larger than Micro Four Thirds, meaning an effective 16 megapixel readout among the various aspect ratios (4:3, 3:2, 16:9, 1:1) to be natively used without cropping into the image. Panasonic’s stated goal with the new sensor is suppressing noise across the entire 200-12800 (25600 extended) ISO range.
The GH3 joins the list of cameras that have Wi-Fi built in, allowing external control from iOS and Android devices. This is quickly becoming a standard feature in the prosumer market (we called for it a couple years back).
The GH3 has generous codec support, able to shoot in a wide range of codecs at various bit rates MOV (h.264), MP4 and AVCHD 2.0 formats with time code available on all but MP4. The VENUS quad core processor allows for 70 Mbps in 30/25/24p ALL-I modes which grab full images rather than using interpolating motion algorithms found on most DSLRs. It also allows clean HDMI recording to an external recorder, though its unclear at what chroma subsampling ratio (e.g. 4:2:2). The camera is the first to join Sony among DSLR makers in offering 1080p at 60fps, but uniquely at 50 Mbps in MOV (H.264).
The camera is a rare worldcam, capable of shooting in both the NTSC (24/60 fps) and PAL-friendly framerates (25/50fps) as well.
The GH2 had powerful technology under the hood, but its cheap-feeling exterior and diminutive size was a knock against it for serious pros. The GH3 aims to take this problem out of the equation. It is a rare example of a digital device reversing the conventional design trajectory of smaller and smaller bodies. Panasonic opted for a Beefed up, DSLR-like chassis, acknowledging that the trend towards miniaturization is not always in the best interest of ergonomics, durability, battery life or c0mpatibility with existing peripherals.
Aesthetically and functionally, the GH3 is leaps and bounds beyond its predecessor. The toylike plastic of the GH2 has been replaced by a grippy, weather sealed, magnesium alloy body. The inelegant, boxy edges of the former design have been replaced by a muscular and ergonomically sensible design. A heat dispensing design allows for superlong recording times (approximately 220-240 minutes in AVCHD).
The completely reconfigured button layout adds an extra control dial behind the shutter, as well as a wheel/dpad combo on the back body, in addition to the Nikon-style thumb grip dial of the previous incarnation, meaning a lot more intuitive and quick manual control. Five function buttons programmable to pretty much any conceivable parameters will translate into a highly customizable experience.
The EVF and rear articulated screen are now both OLED and come in at a respectable, if not bleeding edge, 1.7 million dot viewfinder and 614k rear swivel touchscreen. Panasonic was an early adopter of touchscreen interfaces among cameramakers, and we can expect a highly developed implementation here.
The Best Video DSLR?
DSLR video had somehow become a boring category since the 5D Mark II bomb hit exactly four years ago. The Mark III proved to be a minor update, with Canon seemingly investing a lot of its energy in its new digital cinema cameras. Nikon has so far seemed content just to match Canon’s specs. Sony has emphasized video the most, with features like EVFs, articulating screens, 1080/60p and peaking added to the lineup over a year ago with the NEX-7 and A77, and a search for new product categories with its latest releases. But for all Sony’s cutting edge technology and emphasis on features, the image quality simply lagged behind the hacked GH2. Check out this video from EOSHD comparing the NEX-7, 5D Mark III and GH2, where the GH2 is the clear winner:
Without Sony’s features like peaking (unclear at time of writing), class-leading viewfinder/rear screen resolution, killer IS like the EM-5 or other differentiators like 10 bit video, LOG recording and the like, what would make the GH3 the best video all-rounder available in this category?
Philip Bloom had a chance to shoot a short film with Bruce Logan, A.S.C. using a pre-production version of the GH3, putting it through its paces with a wide variety of lighting scenarios. As you can see, the image looks stellar:
Besides allowing no mistakes or glaring omissions in any area, the final result, the image quality, will be the clincher. We’ll wait to see some side-by-side comparisons, but judging from the early samples, it looks like we may have a new leader. At $1,299, the camera is a steal for filmmakers.
What do you think? Is the GH3 to Photokina what the Black Magic Cinema Camera was to NAB, a message to other companies to step up their game? Let us know in the comments!