Buyer’s Guide – Canon 5D Mark II or Panasonic GH1?

One of the biggest ownership dilemmas I ever had was between these two cameras. I loved the silky smooth shallow depth of field image from the 5D Mark II and the fun factor of the very usable Panasonic GH1. The low light performance of the 5D Mark II was completely absent of banding and colours looked incredible on a big screen. The GH1 had a significant cost and handling advantage plus some ‘interesting’ lens options. Hours spent hunting down old Canon FD lenses and C-Mounts!

With the ‘jailbroken’ GH1 it’s main problem is solved so it’s time to reassess the cameras. The GH1 has gone from having one of the worst codecs (along with Nikon’s) to the best codec of the bunch. AVCHD at high bitrates gives you the best of both worlds – long recording times and good image quality. We were dreaming of 24Mbit native 24p from the GH2 and now we have 44Mbit native 24p from the GH1 for free!

According to Wikipedia the 5D Mark II has a 35Mbit H.264 codec but I think it’s up in the high 40’s since the latest firmware update. 12 minute maximum recording time, not really suitable for event filming whilst the GH1 is more suited to events, interviews or run & gun documentary stuff.

In terms of image quality, the GH1 has the better scaling and now it also has the better codec. It’s not just the 44Mbit bitrate but native 24p improves the colour sampling and pixel binning improves moire. Very little coloured moire or sparkly aliasing. Much better than Nikon and better than Canon’s line skipping significantly for certain textures. Plus the new native 24p plays back flawlessly in VLC Player on my Mac. Something it just could not handle with the strange interlaced wrapper of earlier days. The Canon’s H264 does too though quite CPU intensive.

Form factor
I am quite tall and prefer static shooting to handheld. I prefer a tripod with a small footprint and light weight so this means it’s never more than 5ft tall. I don’t like to be hunched over a camera, I like to survey the scene in front of me, thus removing the obstacle of the camera altogether‚Ķ feels more intimate. For me, this is why the articulated screen pointing upwards on the GH1 is such a big deal. I glance down to frame the shot and glance up again, it’s quick and my back remains untroubled. Getting unusual shots at ground level or above my head is also a lot easier with the GH1. I also felt that I shot better footage because of it.

An articulated screen is almost top of the list for the next Canon video DSLRs even up there with raw or uncompressed HDMI out.

The 5D’s controls are solid and traditional. Definitely more of a stills camera than a hybrid. Works very well with the Zacuto Z-Finder and has better build quality than the GH1.

You look cooler with the 5D out on the street. With a small lens though it looks a bit silly. The GH1 looks like a consumer toy, abiet quite a cool one. Sorry, were you expecting the other kind of image!?

Image Quality
The 5D has a beautiful image, no doubt about it. Some of the images I’ve seen out of this camera have really stuck in the memory. Shallow depth of field concentrates attention to easily digestible (and beautiful) portions of the scene. It’s a great cinematic tool. It has fantastic dynamic range, edges the GH1 despite chucking a lot more away. In RAW stills mode the sensor soundly thrashes the GH1 on dynamic range, in video it is closer. Colour looks very natural but a bit muted, I prefer the range of picture presets on the GH1 as I’m not that into grading, I make a lot of decisions on the spot. The 5D has a better (playback) HDMI output, the GH1 has a wanky one with washed out colour and lots of compression. It has a better quality screen but it’s not articulated, the live image on the 5D simply looks more life-like. But now, with the GH1’s compression issues fixed, things are even more of a dilemma. The 5D doesn’t have the run-away wow factor on image quality that it had before.

Previously the GH1’s footage looked even worse on a PC screen, which gives a ‘warts and all’ view.

At ISO 100-800 the GH1 and 5D are pretty equal on noise.
ISO 1250 onwards and the 5D pulls out a lead but it has brighter noise. The GH1 doesn’t have the red speckle stuff going on but it does have a lot of banding and grain.

Here is a video comparison:

If you over expose slightly on scenes with brighter details when there is a decent light source on certain scenes you will be hard pressed to see the difference even at ISO 1600 between the two cameras but the GH1 definitely has a slightly muddier look and it’s high bit rate MJPEG mode doesn’t do a very good job of noise reduction. Dim the lights or underexpose with a higher shutter or lower aperture and the GH1 looses especially on patches of darker colours or grey which show banding and noise up quite clearly.

This is previously another area where the GH1 fell down but now it’s pretty much equal. Log & Transfer in Final Cut Pro gets the job done and quickly. It took far too long to do pulldown and de-interlace the GH1’s 24p prior to the 24p patch.

Slow motion
The 720p 60p is the best of all the cameras in the GH1. Flawless scaling and just looks flat out better than the 7D or 550D. The 5D unfortunately doesn’t have 60p, and I like slow mo so this is a shame.

Battery life
The GH1 runs for longer in live view. It has a less power hungry screen and sensor.

It’s amazing how far these cameras have come. The Canon 5D Mark II was released with no manual controls and 30p. The early GH1 models had banding galore and 17Mbit/per second 60i. Now we have native 24p on the 5D, and 44Mbit native 24p on the GH1.

Personal factors influence this decision like crazy. What’s your budget? What lenses do you prefer? What’s your shooting style? So here rather than me dictating a conclusion to you here is a list of pros and cons for each camera:

+ Very respectable image quality
+ 44Mbit native 24p AVCHD with long recording times
+ Compatible with very well priced FD lenses and some interesting c-mount options
+ Small and light, very usable especially thanks to articulated screen and a good kit lens with video features
+ EVF built in
+ 3:2 aspect ratio screen
+ Incredibly cheap – astounding image quality at the price point
+ Clean image up to ISO 800, you can get away with ISO 1600 for certain scenes
+ Crop factor good for telephotos and macro
+ Slightly sharper image at 1:1 than 5D Mark II
+ More manageable depth of field, more practical

– Noiser sensor at high ISOs than 5D
– Lack of full frame may disturb those who haven’t yet found a lens selection to work around it
– Fast wide lenses impossible to find, although Tokina 11-16 F2.8 comes closest
– Mainly plastic build quality and looks a bit like a toy
– Cannot change aperture on most modern Canon EF/EFS or Nikon mount lenses

5D Mark II
+ Shallower depth of field at same aperture and focal length as GH1
+ Better low light performance in terms of colour saturation and fixed pattern noise
+ Better dynamic range
+ Better build quality
+ Fast wide angle options available, some very affordable like Sigma 20MM F1.8
+ Very nice stills camera free with all purchases

– No slow motion capability due to lack of 720/60p
– Flat back screen is a pain in the neck for tall people or shooting on smaller tripods
– Handling is very traditional, needs good support and Z-Finder
– Still very expensive compared to 550D and GH1
– Slightly muted image, duller than GH1 with same settings & lens, not as bright
– Recording format limited to 12 minutes per clip
– Live view operation is a bit clunky
– AF and OIS very noisy and AF not operational at all during recording
– Needs more expensive lenses to get the most out of image quality and must cover full frame sensor