Canon 60D versus Panasonic GH2 – Full Review – Part 1

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On the surface, the 60D appears to be the better camera. Picking up the 60D and GH2 for the first time, the Canon feels more serious, the GH2 more light-weight…

The 60D’s screen gives a beautiful image on it’s superior LCD, which is better than what the GH2 produces on the surface, and the build quality is more robust. The 60D’s lens mount is tougher and the camera feels like the real deal.

Then the surprise hits you just how far ahead in technological and image quality terms the GH2 is. Virtually the only thing better on the 60D for video is the high resolution LCD with fantastic colour reproduction.

Trying out the GH2’s feature set and watching the footage back in a monitor away from the cheap consumer touch screen LCD is a sobering affair for a 60D owner.

1:1 resolving power

Crop mode is like having a 5K Super35 and 2/3″ sensor video camera, with a 400mm F1.4 telephoto lens, and an 85mm portrait lens, and a 2:1 macro lens, all in one package the size of a small biscuit tin.

1:1 crop mode on the GH2 is like cropping 2K from a 5K 35mm sensor. 1080p is the output of course, but the GH2’s hardware can also do 40fps at 4 megapixels (close to 3K) for short bursts in stills mode, so it is possible that if heat isn’t an issue, a hack can do something more with that and increase video resolution further. That is some serious hardware for $1000.

1:1 crop mode enables you to change between a portrait field of view and extreme telephoto at the press of a button, and the telephoto view comes without sacrificing detail (quite the opposite!) and maintains the aperture of the lens, so a Zeiss 85mm F1.4 for example becomes a Zeiss 400mm F1.4 yet for $500 and the size of a beer can.

So to say the least, 1:1 crop mode in 1080p has added a whole new dimension to shooting with a DSLR. I find myself flicking back and forth between the two modes so much I’ve assigned it to the programmable function button.

On the GH2 a 85mm F1.4 is already 170mm effective compared to a full frame 5D Mark II and 400mm in crop mode – so here to give you an idea of how powerful this feature is macro and telephoto, are some frame grabs direct from the 1080p footage.

2/3″ 1:1 crop mode OFF

2/3″ 1:1 crop mode ON

820px wide 1:1 crop of 1:1 crop mode (confused yet?)
Shot with Zeiss 85mm F1.4 – that hill is over 2 miles away!

Be sure to check out the macro demonstration video above shot on the GH2. It’s a very basic test but it does give you an idea of the huge creative possibilities offered by the feature. Viva la revolution and thank you Panasonic engineers – you didn’t have to put this feature in, it’s not a headline grabber on the box or for average consumers but for us it is just SO exciting. ‘The creative machine’ indeed. I was beginning to think we’d never see one.

And it is incorrect that you cannot get a nice shallow DOF in crop mode. You can!

$20 Canon T2 ENG zooms

Another benefit is that super-fast broadcast ENG and TV zoom lenses can now be used which previously didn’t cover the Micro 4/3rds sensor. I have some older c-mount TV lenses, which are T2 constant 10-150mm. How much is something like that going to cost on a 7D or 5DMkII? My Angenieux Paris cost $150 and the quality is superb. Two months ago I picked up a Canon 17-102mm T2 zoom for $20 in a junk shop and now it is a serious practical high performance tool again, with the GH2. Those prices are not going to stay low for much longer.

Although crop mode is more demanding on your lens, because of it’s very high resolving power, it actually resolves even more clean detail than the normal full sensor mode. It is free of moire and aliasing, although noise is a bit more noticeable at ISO 1600 and you need a very steady tripod with such a telephoto field of view.

AVCHD 1080p Cinema Mode

Normal 1080/24p mode too is remarkably free of nastiness relative to the 60D. No longer can it be said that all DSLR video modes deliver a soft image plagued by moire which falls well short of a professional video camera. Dirty words like line-skipping, aliasing and 720p from a 1080p image no longer apply, because the GH2 has fixed all of this.

Panasonic have also added their famous cinema gamma skills to the GH2 by ways of a new Cinema picture profile. I love it and it genuinely makes for a more gradable image in post. Also the AVCHD format is native 24p, not contained in a 60i wrapper like before.

ISO 3200 is fine, better than the 60D and maintains more detail, also the noise reduction on the GH2 is better (again, thanks to image processors which are 2 years newer). As with all CMOS / NMOS sensors, noise almost vanishes in the highlights or well exposed areas of the image. You can shoot a well exposed image in day light at ISO 3200 on the GH2 and hardly see any noise, which is quite mind boggling at first. Then you realise the noise lives predominantly in the shadows and over under exposed surfaces. So of course low light shooting at ISO 3200 isn’t free of noise but as you can see below, in it’s natural habitat of low light ISO 3200 looks fine and it doesn’t lose colour saturation in the same way the GH1 did at ISO 1600.

GH2 ISO 3200 on Zeiss 50mm F2.0

LCD woes

The 24p image from the GH2 is simply magnificent. You just wouldn’t know it so much from looking at the screen, because the image from the 60D just looks so magnificent on it’s high quality LCD. The GH2’s screen is decent and serviceable but has a few issues…

First, the LCD live view of 1:1 crop mode is a digital zoom and the 1:1 resolving power only comes onto the LCD when you hit record. That seems a bit silly. Manual focus assist works well however and is much snappier than on the GH1 in low light.

In standard 1080p mode without the 1:1 crop, the LCD does a good job but the image sometimes shows a few moire patterns (which are not recorded, it is just on the low resolution live view feed). Panasonic should have put a 920k dot screen on the GH2, instead this is a modest upgrade from the GH1. It does however have 2 saving graces, in that the touch screen operation is good and that colour & contrast are improved over the GH1.

Sensor

Hitting manual focus assist on the 60D reveals what the sensor is capable of if Canon had got a DIGIC HD chip in a DSLR sooner and it gives Canon users a good idea of what the resolving power of the GH2’s 1:1 crop mode is like. But the focus assist on the 60D has an annoying operational quirk in that you have to fiddle with the zoom buttons to come back out, often requiring two presses rather than a brush of the shutter release or a single press of the record button. Very annoying, since I use manual focus assist a lot.

Stills are good on the 60D, which again proves that Canon have come up with the goods sensor wise, but stuck a 2 year old image processor in it.

HDMI output on the GH2 is uncompressed 4:2:2 8bit like the AF100. On the Canon it is unfortunately not as good, and falls short of full resolution whilst recording. This is because the 60D has a single core CPU which drives image processing, whilst the 7D has a more powerful dual core CPU which drives better HDMI output, and the GH2 has a 3 core CPU designed around a hybrid video / stills approach.

Because the 60D has a slightly larger sensor, you do get shallower depth of field all things being equal. But the GH2 is capable of insane shallow depth of field with the right lens. On a 50mm at F2, the depth of field is shallow, as you can see here.

At 85mm at F1.4 it looks like a 5D Mark II – really very narrow focus plane. So all this nonsense going around that a Micro 4/3rds sized sensor doesn’t do shallow depth of field, is just that!

The GH2’s recording format has been fixed this time around, because frankly the GH1 was awful until the hack. I haven’t seen any signs of mud this time, and 24Mbit is high enough for AVCHD when the encodiing is sophisticated enough, which the GH2’s is. B-frames, proper encoder chip, no major bugs like last time – the lot. Same as the AF100 in that respect.

With an external recorder like the KiPro, the GH2 delivers 100Mbit ProRes 422.

So by this point in the review, you may be expecting me to say something more positive about the 60D but I am really struggling because there are so few areas where it excels relative to the GH2.

If you take the GH2 out of the picture, then the Canon would be king by virtue of it’s sensor, but now that Panasonic have caught up sensor wise and fixed so much else like the dodgy AVCHD implementation and live uncompressed HDMI output it’s hard to recommend the 60D when it’s video image processing hardware is 2 years behind the competition. It doesn’t just fall significantly short in image quality, but handling and feature-set too.

When DIGIC 4 came out with the 5D Mark II it was the first time ever 1080p had been grabbed from a DSLR CMOS and shoved onto a memory card. Likewise when Nikon made the D90, that was the first time 720p had been hacked off a CMOS into a Quicktime file for consumers to upload to the web. DIGIC 4, like with the Nikon D90, is 99% designed and optimised for stills. That’s why the 60D’s image quality is so much better in stills mode, beating the GH2. But the video processing talents of DIGIC 4 are frankly… awful. All the DSLR goodness we’ve known from the 5D, 7D and 550D comes from the sensor and the image processor does the absolute minimal to give it to us.

Future

Future prospects for Canon video DSLRs are looking much brighter.

Panasonic remain about 10 months behind on sensors. The 60D’s sensor debuted a year ago in the 7D and it has taken Panasonic until now to bring one out in the same league.

Image processing wise, Panasonic are doing a quicker refresh of the Venus HD engine than Canon are with DIGIC, but you can bet your bottom dollar that DIGIC 5 is going to be astoundingly good.

Image processing, not the sensor, is where improvement in DSLR video was needed the most and the GH2 delivers that. It is the true 2nd generation video DSLR, when really the 60D is still strictly version 1.0

What is frustrating for Canon now, is that the GH2 is going to go pretty much unchallenged on the market for a good few months. Even the 5D Mark II has a sensor which is really crippled by poor image processing relative to the GH2, so you will get a much higher resolved and more detailed image from the GH2 than on the 5D Mark II. And it’s not just detail – dynamic range, colour – everything suffers if the image processing is not up to snuff.

Compare the RAW stills output of the 5D Mark II to it’s video mode and you will see how much effect image processing chips have and how important it is to optimise them for video. This requires horse power, quick speeds, and high bandwidth.

The Nikon D3S is a good example of this too – great stills processor, rubbish video encoder.

It doesn’t take an engineer to work out that these traits were not around in as much abundance 2 years ago when Canon fabbed the DIGIC 4 than today.

So they will catch up it’s just a matter of waiting.

Conclusion (part 1)

For now, I recommend the GH2 over the 60D in every respect, even if you have Canon lenses. You can adapt the Canon lenses to work on the GH2, and they’ll look beautiful. There is an adapter coming soon which allows AF, OIS and aperture control on the GH2 with Canon EF, EFS and L series lenses. You can already use them wide open and with manual focus on the existing $55 adapter (available on eBay here from the original manufacturer JINFINANCE).

Final word of consolation for Canon owners is that the 60D, like the Canon video capable DSLRs before it is still capable of stunning results. It’s just not nearly up to the vanguard created solely by the GH2 in 2010.

I’ll reveal more and summarise the GH2 versus 60D in Part 2 next week.

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About Author

British filmmaker and editor of EOSHD, Andrew works in Berlin on his own self funded filmmaking and video projects.

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