The Hidden GH1

One of the more interesting developments taking place on the internet this past week has been the continuing evolution of a firmware hack that turns Panasonic’s GH1 mirrorless hybrid camera into a much better video camera than anyone thought it could be.

If you’re a gadget geek or a video professional, this story, which began in April but really began to pick up steam over the past few weeks, is probably old news to you.  But if you haven’t heard about it yet, it’s definitely worth your attention.

For a real sense of the excitement this has generated, spend a little time in the DVXuser thread that started it all (today, it’s at 253 pages long and still going strong!).  Also, you can read Philip Bloom’s recent post on the topic.

The GH1 was Panasonic’s first micro-four-thirds hybrid camera.  There isn’t any general consensus as to whether or not to refer to it as a single-lens reflex camera, in that there are no mirrors inside the body, and, hence, the image doesn’t need to be reflected as it passes from the lens to the sensor. But it sure looks like a DSLR, and, because it shoots HD video, it’s often referred to as an HDSLR as well.

If Canon’s 5DmkII is considered the king of the HDSLR landscape, and Canon’s 7D the prince, then Panasonic’s GH1 is seen by many as perhaps an upstart, an outlier — a camera that has many fine specs but can’t quite match the Canons at crunch time.

The knock on the GH1 is that it shoots in a highly compressed consumer codec known as AVCHD, and, on top of that, at an extremely low bitrate of 17Mbit, contributing to a phenomenon known among GH1 users as “mud.”  If you’re ever seen the mud in question, you know how awful it can be, especially when the camera is panning or in some type of motion.

Also, although Panasonic advertises the GH1 as a 24P video camera, it’s really only a 60i camera.  It shoots 60 frames of partly interlaced footage per second and relies on its users to remove all those extra unwanted frames in post.  This includes finding and deleting the interlaced footage interspersed throughout the progressive frames, and if the software you’re using chooses the wrong frames to be deleted, you can easily ruin your shots.  Compressor, along with a handful of other software solutions, has stepped up to the plate to try to remove the pulldown, but the results, at least for most users, were never consistent.

On the other hand, the GH1 has a lot to recommend it.  For one thing, the electronic viewfinder doesn’t shut off in video mode, meaning that users aren’t stuck choosing between an expensive LCD magnifier and an even more expensive HDMI-input portable monitor (update: not being a GH1 owner, I didn’t realize that HDMI output functionality is disabled in recording mode, so an external HDMI monitor would be useless).  Also, as Illya Friedman from RotRod Cameras quickly discovered, the mirrorless design of the GH1 made it a perfect candidate for a PL-mount adapter that could simply screw onto the camera, allowing for the use of just about every PL-mount lens under the sun (Illya has also recently posted his own take on the GH1 firmware story).  It shoots on relatively cheap SD cards, not compact flash cards than can cost three or four times more, and it doesn’t cut out at the 13 minute clip mark, making it suitable for some event or even wedding videography use.

If only that darn bitrate could be increased…  If only the camera could shoot in native 24P…

Cut to more than a year later: a programmer who goes by the name Tester13 has finally cracked the GH1 firmware, and what he found was nothing short of extraordinary.  Native 24P?  No problem.  Higher bitrate recording.  Done.  It turned out the camera was even capable of shooting footage in a different codec, Motion JPEG.  The internet is currently buzzing with an ongoing debate about whether AVCHD is the way to go, or whether to shoot in MJPEG, but that part of the story almost seems beside the point.

What’s fascinating, at least to me anyway, is that camera manufacturers have been playing this bait and switch game for over a decade now, ever since digital technology began to grow into its own, and they’re still playing the same game.  A technology is invented, but then it’s seemingly handicapped in order to protect the more expensive cameras that are being sold by the same manufacturer.  We’re all familiar with this scenario by now — cheap camcorders without external mic inputs or a 24P option — but this time it seems Panasonic may have gone further than any previous company in hobbling its own product line.

Did they do it intentionally?  I think they did, but that’s just baseless opinion on my part.  Read Andrew Reid’s post on the subject at EOS HD for his take.  But whatever Panasonic’s reasons, it’s nice to see someone coming up with a workaround. What if you bought a car that was prevented from going 80 miles an hour so that the same car company could entice you to buy a faster car?  What if your computer had the internal hardware to operate twice as fast as advertised, but the manufacturer pretended it couldn’t so you’d buy a more expensive configuration?

The iPhone is constantly getting “unlocked” — hackers staying one step ahead of Apple — but not necessarily to improve the operating system.  Unlocking allows for additional unauthorized capabilities, such as installing software not approved for sale in the App Store, or getting phone service from a provider other than AT&T.

But what if hackers unlocked the iPhone and discovered that the five megapixel camera was actually a ten megapixel camera programmed to shoot at five?  Or that the iOS operating system was perfectly capable of displaying Flash videos, or multitasking six or seven programs at a time without any loss of performance, but Apple decided to hold those features back until future models?

Customers would be furious, and rightly so. And yet camera manufacturers get away with this behavior all the time.  When the 5DmkII was first released, and could only shoot at 30P, a programmer named Tramm Hudson worked diligently to hack the firmware to allow for manual audio levels and a few other important features that professionals desperately needed.  The aim of that project, known as Magic Lantern, was of course to discover a way to shoot in 24P, but eventually Canon decided it was in their best interests to release that upgrade on their own.

Is it me, or does it seem as if every new piece of new digital hardware these days is capable of being hacked?  It’s a truly astonishing phenomenon — these programmers are incredibly talented — but I guess I’m wondering why companies haven’t got the message yet.

Stop hiding features from your customers!  Don’t you want people to get the most out of your products?  Doesn’t Panasonic want to have the same success in the HDSLR market as Canon?  What is the possible justification for hobbling a camera, especially if programmers will eventually hack into the firmware and upend your plans anyway?

This particular story as it relates to the GH1 is really only in its infancy.  If the camera is indeed shown to be able to capture pristine footage in native 24P, and can be outfitted with a relatively inexpensive PL-Mount adapter, then that is going to be of a lot of interest to professionals.

Because one thing that GH1 users have known for a long time is that the camera does an excellent job with vertical patterns.  The Canon 5D and 7D, due to their line-skipping technology, are susceptible to moire in wide shots, especially if there is some type of repeated pattern, such as a brick building, in the background.  The GH1 uses a different technology to create its 1920×1080 image — something apparently called pixel binning (I sound like I know what I’m talking about, but I’m really just trying to keep up) — and it does this with minimal moire.  One could easily imagine a situation, then, where a Canon is being used on set to capture close ups, and a GH1 is being designated for the wides.

But we’re not quite there yet.  Personally, I’m not going to be buying a GH1 anytime soon.  Yes, there are adapters for Canon and Nikon lenses.  But with the 7D I’m already shooting in native 24P, and I’m pretty satisfied with the codec’s bitrate (though it could certainly be better).  I’ve definitely come across moire patterns in my footage before, but that’s something I’ll live with for the time being.  Yes, I hate the imposed 13 minute clip limit, and of course I’m not happy that I can’t look through the viewfinder while shooting, but my guess is that if I switched to the GH1 for those two features, some other quirks of the GH1 would annoy me just as much.

In the end, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me to replace one CMOS sensor camera for another CMOS sensor camera, especially if their specs are essentially the same (I think the 7D’s sensor is a bit larger).  After all, the rolling shutter effect is just as bad on the GH1 as it is on the 7D, and, to me, that is the Achilles’ heel of all CMOS sensor technology.  Not to mention I’ve already made a sizable investment in Canon lenses.

But I will say this: maybe I’m being naive, but if it turns out that Canon has been intentionally hobbling the 7D — line skipping when it could be binning, shutting off the viewfinder in video mode when it could find a workaround to keep it on, handcuffing the bitrate of its H.264 codec, cutting off clips at the 13 minute mark — then, yes, I’ll be a little pissed.

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2 responses to “The Hidden GH1

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