Sunday, 28 April 2013

Autofocus during video comparison, GH2 vs GH3

When the Panasonic GH1 was announced in April 2009, it had a unique selling point: It was the first and only consumer system camera which could autofocus continuously while recording videos. Since this time, the competition has improved a lot, of course, and all mirrorless system cameras can autofocus while recording videos. But they use different technologies, and the performance varies.

The Panasonic GH3 was released with a claim to have the best AF performance of mirrorless cameras ever, as usual for a new premium mirrorless camera. And the AF performance for single still images is very impressive indeed. However, this doesn't really matter. All current Micro Four Thirds camera focus more than fast enough for static still images. Except possibly with the Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens, due to its combination of a fast aperture and an old school focus construction.

What's still a challenge, though, is continuous autofocus during video recording, and focus tracking of moving subjects, in AF-C mode.

The Sony SLT cameras solve this by using a fixed translucent mirror, which means being able to use phase difference autofocus (PDAF) also during video recording. This system is able to track moving subjects very well during video, due to the genuine SLR PDAF technology. However, the cameras are not mirrorless, being DSLR systems with fixed mirrors, which means having larger camera bodies, and, usually, larger lenses as well.

The Nikon 1 system and Canon EOS M system solve this by having on-chip PDAF sensors, directly on the imaging sensor. With this technology, they can combine PDAF and CDAF, however, the real world benefits of this system are still undecided.

Panasonic and Olympus have so far used pure CDAF, with no specialized hardware to aid the focusing. They rather rely on image processing to speed up the autofocus. With the Panasonic GH3 being the most recent premium model, let's see if it actually does improve upon the predecessor GH2. To test the cameras head to head, I mounted both on a plank using Manfrotto Superclamps:



On both cameras, I used the Lumix G 14mm f/2.5 pancake lens. The lens focuses very quickly. Even with the same lenses, the GH2 has a slightly wider field of view in video mode, due to the multi aspect sensor feature, which the GH3 misses.

Here are the results in terms of autofocus performance during video recording:



As we see, the Panasonic GH3 performs much better than the GH2 in term of autofocus. Even with the same basic technology, the GH3 has a better image processing capability, which enables it to focus better while recording videos.

Notice that the GH2 needs to jog the focus back and forth to confirm the focus and settle. This is a typical sign of CDAF focus technology. The GH3, on the other hand, appears to nail the focus straight away, as if it was using PDAF. Which it doesn't.

I think it looks like the GH3 is a revolution when it comes to continuous AF during video for Micro Four Thirds. It may be the first camera to make AF during video truly possible.

And this does work well in real life situations. Here, I have recorded a concert using the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 at f/2, ISO 3200. The light was very dim, around EV2. The autofocus was left on during the video, and it generally keeps the image well in focus. In my experience, the GH2 would not have handled such a situation well:



Keep in mind that AF-C while photographing moving subjects is a totally different subject. I would expect the Panasonic GH3 to perform better here as well, as it is capable of AF sampling at up to 240fps with the most recent lenses, the Lumix X 12-35mm f/2.8 and Lumix X 35-100mm f/2.8. However, I have not tested this feature yet.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Panasonic GH3 review

The Panasonic GH3 was released in December 2012, two years after the predecessor GH2. While the GH2 was an incremental improvement over the GH1, the GH3 is a completely new camera.

This is for better and for worse, of course. The camera has grown significantly in size over the GH2, but it also adds better ergonomics and more features. Whether this is good news for you, or bad news, depends on what you want from the camera. If you want a camera which has a good grip, and a good layout of buttons and control wheels, then the GH3 is for you.

On the other hand, if you came to the Micro Four Thirds system for the smallest camera with a good photography and video recording performance, then there are other cameras that may fit your needs better, e.g., the Panasonic G5 and G6 (announced April 2013) or the Olympus OM-D E-M5.



Panasonic GH2 (left) and GH3 (right)

Friday, 19 April 2013

Third party battery for GH3

A spare battery for a digital camera is a good thing to have. If the battery runs out, the only way to charge it would be to remove it from the camera and place it in the charger, provided you are somewhere with a power outlet. This means not being able to shoot for an hour, at least.

If you carry a spare, charged battery with you, you can just exchange the battery in a matter of seconds, and be ready to shoot again. However, original batteries often cost a lot. The GH3 battery can easily cost US$80 new.

With the GH2, the third party batteries did not let the camera see how much power was left, hence, you would not get any "power bars" in the camera display. And even worse: When the battery eventually run out of juice, the camera would just die instantly, and the images in the buffer, not yet written to the memory card, would be lost. If you were recording video while the battery died, you would lose the video footage.

With the GH3, though, third party batteries are available cheaply, and they let the camera see how much juice is left. So, from the point of not losing data when running out of juice, they are safe to use. Just like when using original batteries, the camera will warn you that the battery power is low. And, eventually, the camera will stop video recording and write the data to the memory card before shutting down.


The battery I tested is marked with "FOR BLF19", indicating that it replaces the original battery called Panasonic DMW-BLF19. Just like the original battery, it is marked with 1860mAh, i.e., the same power reserve.

Here it is next to the original battery, original to the right:


The third party battery feels a bit lighter, but otherwise they appear to be identical.

I have not formally tested if they carry the same amount of power reserve, but so far, the third party battery appears to be as capable.

The third party battery is a good alternative to the original version. It appears to perform as well, and is good to have in the camera bag as a replacement power, for the times when you need it. At the low cost, I would recommend getting a second battery for spare power.


Sunday, 14 April 2013

High ISO performance of the GH series cameras

When new camera generations get launched, everybody expect the high ISO image quality to improve over the previous generations. While we would use a low ISO as possible at all times some years ago, it is generally quite safe to use ISO 800 with newer generation cameras. Let's take a look at how the Panasonic GH series handles high ISO.

To test this feature, I rigged the Panasonic GH1, GH2 and GH3 on a tripod, using the Sigma 30mm f/2.8. I left the lens wide open, it tends to be quite sharp. To be able to compare the cameras, I set both in the Shutter speed priority mode (S), at 1/10s and auto-ISO. The camera would then select the ISO needed for the exposure to be sufficient. I used Auto White Balance (AWB).

Here are the three images:

GH1, 1/10s, ISO 1250
GH2, 1/10s, ISO 1600
GH3, 1/10s, ISO 1600

These are the out of camera JPEG images, with standard image settings. The histogram below shows that all cameras expose the scene pretty similarly. The GH3 exposes it a bit brighter, though:



Another thing to note is that the GH1 uses the lowest ISO value of the three, 1250. This confirms again that the Panasonic GH1 had a somewhat conservative ISO scale, compared with other Micro Four Thirds cameras.

Looking at the image quality, we can compare 100% crops from all three images. I rescaled the GH1 image, to make it comparable with the 16MP output of the other cameras.



I think we can see that the GH2 images look sharper, but at the expense of shadow details. The GH3 appears to give a higher dynamic range, with more usable details in the dark parts of the image. With the advances of high ISO image quality, I feel quite confident using ISO values of 1600, and even 3200 when needed, with the Panasonic GH3.



Saturday, 6 April 2013

GH2 vs GH3 video quality comparison

When Panasonic released the GH3, it was expected to raise the bar even further in terms of video quality. To compare it against the GH2, I connected both cameras to a piece of wood, using Manfrotto Superclamps, so that they would record the same scenery for comparison.



On both cameras, I used the Lumix G 14mm f/2.5 pancake lens, a favourite of mine. I focused on "infinity", and then set both cameras to manual focus. The lenses were set to f/5.6 for the best sharpness, and I used the base ISO on both cameras. With the ambient lighting, the shutter speed was usually around 1/120s. Both cameras had the same settings in terms of sharpening and saturation. It was all recorded in 1080p, 25fps.

Even if the cameras have identical lenses mounted, they still have different field of view during video recording. This is due to only the GH2 having the an over-sized, multi aspect sensor, giving a wider field of view in video mode.

Here are the videos combined, for easy comparison:



Some may doubt that the quality of the YouTube rendering of the video is sufficient to really tell the difference between the cameras. I agree with that, and to assist in comparison, I uploaded parts of the video at 200% size, which probably makes the video image quality easier to assess. And I made some 100% crops from the original out of camera video files, uncompressed in PNG format below:





This last image comparison is from the ISO 1600 footage:



Conclusion


Just like I have concluded previously, the GH3 features somewhat less rolling shutter artefacts in video mode. Further, I think it looks like the GH3 handles high contrast better, and the overall sharpness of the video stream is better. Not unexpected, since the GH3 can record at up to 72Mbps bitrate, as compared with 24Mbps for the GH2. I used 50Mbps with the GH3 here, though. Of course, the bitrate is not everything, the sensor, AA filter, downsampling algorihm and compression algorithm are also important.

I also like the colours of the GH3 better. At high ISO, the GH3 does provide more details.

As far as I can see, the GH3 does deliver on the promise of delivering even better video quality than the predecessor GH2.



Monday, 1 April 2013

AF during video, comparison GH2 vs GH3

Recent Micro Four Thirds cameras have very good autofocus performance for still images. Mostly, the performance is among the best in this class, certainly better than DSLR cameras in live view mode. However, there is one area where mirrorless cameras don't perform well at the moment, and that is continuous autofocus: Both during video recording, and for photographing moving objects, e.g., for photographing sports and birds.

Some camera manufacturers have been trying to solve this by adding phase difference sensors (PDAF) on the imaging chip, like the Nikon 1 and Canon EOS M cameras. However, the real world benefit of that solution is still undecided.

Panasonic have said in interviews that the on-sensor PDAF solution is not going to be used for Micro Four Thirds, at least not anytime soon. Rather, Panasonic expects to achieve better continuous autofocus performance by using faster image readout from the chip, better image processing algorithms, and more processing power. Have they achieved this with the most recent Panasonic GH3?

To compare the autofocus performance during video recording with the GH2, I used a Lego Technic contraption to move a cardboard box back and forth at a steady pace. I then set up both cameras, in turn, with the Lumix X 12-35mm f/2.8 lens at 35mm f/2.8 at close range, and recorded video at 1920x1080, progressive, 25fps. Comparing the resulting footage, it is easy to see which camera better finds the focus during the movement. Here is the video footage, for comparison:



It's easy to see that the GH3 achieves correct focus more often than the GH2, in fact, about twice as often, according to my frame counting. The GH3 also has a better overall sharpness: It is possible to see the offset printing pattern more easily with the GH3. This could be partially due to the multi aspect sensor feature that the GH3 misses: It means that you get slightly narrower field of view when using the GH3, as compared with the GH2, and hence, more enlargement of the subject.

One of the new features of the GH3 is the 240fps contrast detection autofocus (CDAF) sensor readout. The GH2 only does 120fps, maximum. The smaller print in the GH3 specifications state that the 240fps is only possible when using the newest f/2.8 zoom lenses, the Lumix X 12-35mm f/2.8 and the Lumix X 35mm-100 f/2.8.

And can the camera use the 240fps feature during video recording? Probably not, since the sensor is busy reading the image at 25fps for the video stream anyway. I previously compared the GH2 video AF performance during 25fps and 50fps video, and found that it does better at 50fps, indicating that more frequent image readout is better for the AF performance. As long as the shutter speed is faster than the video rate, there is surplus time between the frames for CDAF readout. Perhaps the GH3 camera can utilize this for better AF performance?

Conclusion

The Panasonic GH3 camera appears to be able to focus better during video recording than the GH2, even at the same frames per second (fps) rate.