Saturday, May 26, 2012

Panasonic GH2 impressions

I've now had the Panasonic GH2 for a little under three months and have used it enough to give my first impressions. This is no real review, since I don't do those, but the internet is full of reviews anyway. Dpreview is a good source for those.

My move to the m43 world occurred in August last year and I haven't looked back. For my purposes the size and image quality balance is very suitable. I started with an Olympus E-P2 and liked the camera a lot. It certainly had the hard-to-define fun factor and I certainly think the pictures on this blog from last fall shows that it is a very competent camera. Sometime during last winter I became more interested in video making, and started to investigate the options. A video camera never seemed very interesting for me, since I also wanted it to be a competent still camera. The wish to be able to use a short DOF also steered me away from pure video cameras, since that is not easily achievable with the very small video camera sensors.

I knew of the Panasonic GH2 and had read something about its video capabilities. Some more reading on the internet showed that this actually was one of the best video capable system cameras available. The actual video resolution of the GH2 is much better than that of the other system cameras  (not one comes even close to the nominal 1920x1080 pixels of the FullHD resolution), but the color reproduction are generally considered slightly weaker than that of the Canon EOS cameras. The GH2 was also the best m43 still camera until the Olympus EM-5 came out. However, the Olympus EM-5 was no alternative, because of the lacking video capabilities, even though the camera otherwise in most aspects is superior to the GH2 and has an extremely cool image stabilizer. The GH2 is shaped like a traditional DSLR, but is significantly lighter and smaller. The body (including battery) weigh 453 g, the Olympus 9-18 mm lens shown below is 190 g and the Olympus 14-150 mm lens is 280 g. Compare this to the body only weight of the Canon EOS 60D, 755 g, and the Canon EF 15-85 mm lens, which weighs 575 g. The weight savings of an m43 system is quite large when you bring more than one lens. The EOS 60D has a slightly better image quality than the GH2, but the video quality of the GH2 is noticeable superior.

I decided to purchase the Panasonic GH2 in the end of February. A local camera shop ordered it for me and it arrived one week later. I did a first video with it and the result is found here:

Despite not really knowing the camera and therefore using somewhat suboptimal settings the result is quite good, I think. The technical quality of the video cannot of course be evaluated from Vimeo, because of the low bitrate, but a video generated with full quality is very good technically.

As a still camera, I had some difficulty getting the hang of it. The GH2 contains lots of features and is very different from the Olympus. One positive aspect compared to the EOS 60D is the autofocus accuracy, which is a lot better. The EO 60D occasionally suffered from front- and backfocus problems, since the autofocus sensors are not exactly in the same plane as the sensor. It occasionally affected the images. The GH2 also lacks the in-body image stabilization of the Olympus, which I personally think is a big omission. The image quality is better, though. The resolution is better, as is the high ISO performance and dynamic range.The GH2 also features a sensor allowing multiple aspect ratios without simple cropping like most cameras do. This is possible through an oversized sensor. It took a while to start using this feature efficiently, but now I think it is very nice to have.

Ordinary 4:3 aspect ratio (16 MP).

3:2 aspect ratio (15 MP).

16:9 aspect ratio (14 MP).

The camera has a fairly good EVF (electronic viewfinder. The EVF is big and bright, but the colors are not as good as those of the Olympus VF-2. The LCD on the back can be swiveled and tilted to a lot of different positions, which often comes in handy and is especially useful for video filming.

The video mode is the most interesting part of the GH2, since that is one area where the difference between different cameras is still big. With the firmware 1.1 it got a 24 Mbps 1920-1080 25p mode, which is a lot better than the same video mode of the EOS 60D, despite the 60D having a higher bitrate (and probably poor video compressing software and processors). The real video potential is unlocked by applying one of the unofficial firmware hacks. These hacks reprogram the image processors with different scaling and quantization matrices and raise the bitrate, which enables more details in the video file. The cost of this is the need for faster memory cards and larger video files. I've used the FlowMotion 1.0, Sanity 5.1 and now the FlowMotion 2. In addition to these, there are a lot of parameters that are relevant, like sharpness, noise reduction, saturation and film mode (which affects the tone and color curves). I don't have the time nore the drive to try out all these by myself, but there is a lot of stuff written about it on the internet. You just have to choose a method and stick with it.

Another cool thing with the GH2 is the ETC mode. This is sort of a digital zoom that is of no use when taking stills, but for videos it is great. It just uses the central 1920x1080 pixels of the sensor, instead of reducing the pixels from the full sensor area down to a HD resolution. The result is a strong tele effect, which in good light theoretically could be superior to the ordinary video picture. In poor light noise becomes a problem. This enables closeups in video mode with only moderate tele lenses.

Note that the reduction of the bitrate down to 5 Mbps from 40 Mbps was not kind to this small clip. The details in the feathers of the second Canada Goose are obviously too much for the compression algorithm.

The battery life of the GH2 is not great. On my latest outing, I ran out of batteries the third night (I brought two batteries). I did a fair bit of filming, but I still think the batteries ran out too quickly. I guess I have to order a few more.

I guess there is a lot more to say about the camera, but these are my impressions after almost three months with it.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

May Days

I took the train from Turku on a Monday afternoon and arrived at Karis/Karjaa at 18:00. Ahead of me was a few days out riding my bike and checking out some new places. Finding the time off from work and family isn't always easy, but the timing turned out to be good. The nature was rapidly turning green after a prolonged spring.

I started on some trails towards Billnäs and then continued on roads to Fiskars.

After Fiskars some smaller roads followed and soon I was on trails, in the southern part of an area that on the map looked very interesting. In this area I did my first multi-day (well, two nights) solo backpacking trips almost 25 years ago.
The interesting part of the area is the amount of lakes. Despite having lived at the coast for my entire life, I'm drawn more to the archetypical Finnish forest and lake landscape.
The Canada Goose originally lived only in Norther America and was introduced into several places in Europe. It now does very well in Scandinavia, due to the similarity in climate and landscape to its original surroundings.

Looking at the map, Långsjö seemed to offer many nice camping spots, but I had trouble finding a good one.
Unfortunately, most places were destroyed due to logging. I spent more than one hour searching, but ultimately returned to the one I first dismissed.
Despite starting the ride pretty late at 18:00, I got around four hours of actual bike riding and pushing. After a sandwhich I went to sleep around eleven in the evening. There were no mosquitoes around.

The night was full of interesting sounds. Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus) and especially the Arctic Loon (Gavia arctica) woke me regularly. I got up around seven the following morning.
A perfectly fine morning.
Using the BushCooker is easy in this dry and calm weather: Just put some dry grass and twigs in it...
... and one match later you are heating water...
... for your excellent French roast morning coffee. The coffee should preferrably be enjoyed without hurry.

After a slow morning I started to ride again at around nine. I worked my way along the north side of the lake, occasionally pushing the bikes along mostly animal trails not found on the map.
This lake hadn't been entirely spared from recreational cottages, though in this case it didn't limit access anywhere and was only a minor aesthetical annoyance.
Otherwise the lake was nice.

After Långsjö I continued on some smaller roads and trails, though several of the trails were victims of logging. In general, it looked like the outdoor recreational value of this area had been destroyed for a long time due to the logging activities. I soon turned south again and continued on mostly small roads towards the Västerby area.
About halfway I took lunch at another beautiful lake and also filtered some more drinking water. It is very unlikely that the water in these lakes would contain any really bad pathogens, but when the stomach is used to the excellent tap water we have in Finland, real natural water might still be a little too much. The water purifier is quite small and light, and it is not much trouble using it.

After lunch I continued towards the Västerby area on roads. I did have a purpose with going to Västerby again. Aside from it being a nice area, which I know from my childhood, I also wanted to check out some potentially nice tent spots for backpacking outings with the kids.

The map showed no trails along the north side of Långträsket, but I decided to check it out.
I did find some weak trails and could ride for maybe two thirds of the section.

Blueberry blossom.

After this section I continued westwards on mainly small roads, until I came to Vitsjön (the third one). My plan was to find a camping spot on the other side.

A camping spot was found where I thought there would be one. I put up the tarp and made a dinner consisting of spiced up couscous and some beef jerkey. The food tasted well after a little over eight hours of actual saddle and bike pushing time.
After dinner I read a little in Andrew Skurka's book, but had trouble keeping my eyes open (not the book's fault) and went to sleep not much after ten in the evening.
There were a few mosquitoes around, but I wore a simple head net and had no trouble sleeping during the night. In fact, I slept with very few interruptions until eight in the morning, after which I got up and made porridge and coffee.

This time I had a late start. The weather was cloudy, but quite warm.
I had planned to go in another direction, but then found a faint trail probably going nowhere. I decided to follow it.

Viola tricolor.
The trail ended, but the terrain was easy enough to ride in that I continued in a direction that would lead to a small road.
A short road section followed until I came to the trails around Lappvik/Lappohja. The sand beach at Högsand is a little over one kilometer long.

The time to turn back came. On my way along roads, I came upon a small gas station with a restaurant. I gave my packed freezedried meals a (very) quick thought, and a little later found myself eating a tasty panini. A lot cheaper and tastier than a Blå Band-meal.

The ride continued via Källviken, to get fresh water from the spring. I forced the tank blocks meant to stop Stalin's tanks without problems.

Riding on a road?
Cooling down my feet. I should have taken summer MTB shoes.
Continuing back on the Västerby trails, my goal being Västerby Storträsket, where I planned to camp.

Some time before I arrived, it started to rain. I arrived maybe around 19:30 and just got the tarp set up before it started to rain harder.
For the rest of the evening and night it rained quite intensely, with only brief periods of lighter rain.
Now the mosquitoes were out and the next time I will take a simple tarp will probably be in September or October. The tarp has its good sides, but it is not the final solution for me. If I would bring all the extras needed (bug inner tent, ground cloth or bivy bag, though not all at the same time), it would not be that much lighter than my Tarptent Double Rainbow. The Double Rainbow seems more and more like the ultimate summer solution for me. It is not too heavy (the 1-person model would be lighter) and can be a very open and airy, but still totally bug free, shelter. It has also kept me dry in serious rain. Compared to a tarp, the Double Rainbow is flexible and easy to set up. The tarp needs either trees in the right places or sticks (which might not be immediately found) to set up, since I have no walking poles when riding a bike. To handle both rain and a little wind,  the tarp would need to be a little longer, alternatively have a beak, since I'm fairly tall with my 192 cm. Well, that is my take on simple tarps.

I slept quite poorly during the night, since it was too warm for my 600 g XL-sized down bag. Sleeping partially outside the bag was no option due to the mosquitoes. I got up a little after six in the morning. The rain had taken a brief recess.

The Arctic Loon with its eerie sound is one of my favorite wilderness birds. I don't mind its sound during the night, even though it occasionally might wake me up.
After a slow breakfast, it started to rain again and I rode to Ekenäs/Tammisaari in less than an hour for a second breakfast and soonly thereafter back to Turku by car.

I did a good amount of video filming (some of the above pictures are video frame grabs) and will put something together in a few weeks.