REVIEW: Panasonic GH4 - AkihabaraNews.com

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This review is also available in French/français and Japanese/日本語.

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GH4! 
When the GH3 came onto the market, there was no denying that Panasonic was deliberately targeting the pro market. The GH2’s consumer-like colorful smoothness gave way to a magnesium body that was larger, more ergonomic, and dressed like Darth Vader.

Their online marketing material included testimonials from professional photographers and filmmakers from around the world, giving further evidence to the notion that it was a professional device.

By and large, they succeeded and found their niche in the market as purveyors of the best (arguably only) true hybrid photography system.

Now, a year and a bit later, Panasonic is about to unleash the GH3’s successor It’s called the GH… wait for it… 4!

Presenting:
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4

The Sum of it’s Parts
Externally, save for a new mode dial, the GH4 is practically identical to it’s predecessor. Internally, however, it’s a different beast with a brand new 16MP CMOS sensor and a fancily named ‘Venus 9 Engine’ to crunch the lite into pixels that shooters can see on the 23.6MP EVF or 3-inch,1.04MP OLED adjustable display. It also has something Panny calls DFD or ‘Depth From Defocus,’ which is essentially black magic that allows it to focus really really really fast (0.07s). Its ISO sensitivity is way over 9000 (25600 to be specific), it can fire off 12 shots per second, has /8000 seconds max shutter speed, and can tether to your smart devices via Wi-Fi and NFC.

More of the above:

It also does video. A lot of video. In ways that has never been done before on an interchangeable lens camera. It does 2 flavors of 4k in either MP4 or MOV wrappers. 4096x2160 at 24p, as well as 3840x2160 at 23.97p to 30p - all at a bitrate of 100mbps. Okay, it’s an Interframe codec, but all things considered that’s still better than anything else that the target market can afford.

In addition to the 4k, it can capture a massive selection of HD from 2 to 96p (using it’s nifty VFR variable frame rate feature as well as the standard framerates ranging from 23.97 to 60p). All of this in bitrates ranging from 12 to 100mbps on interframe compression. Not enough? No worries! There is a staggering 200mbps ALL-I option up to 50p, too.

And all that is before you attach the add-on pro dock which allows for external uncompressed recording. Nice, nice.

Great specs are all well and good, but how about reality?

Firstly... DAT NEW SWITCH!!!
While Olympus is faffing about trying to figure out where to put their power switches, Panasonic took a design hint from their EM-1: along with just about every pro-targeted interchangeable lens camera on Earth, they did right and added a lock to the mode dial. This simple little change could quite possibly be the best feature of the camera… well, maybe after the video prowess… but only just. It seems small, but for a shooter who always has their camera in hand or ready to go with a quick pull from their bag (like this reviewer), knowing that when you draw the camera it will actually be in the mode you want means you’re less likely to miss critical moments while fiddling with a mode dial that got nudged out of place.

It shares the same metal frame and weatherproof rubber bits, and thanks to some inclement weather on our second day of testing, we can say with certainty it’s as good as the GH3 in that department. Just don’t go swimming with it.

It handles almost identically to the GH3, even with the added features, navigating menus and using the new features won’t challenge anyone that has used Lumix cameras in the past.

Physically, it’s like the GH3 in just about every way. This means it’s quite big for a micro 4 thirds camera but quite small compared to the things that the flappy mirror companies put out at similar price points. It’s by no means a pocketable camera, but in a camera bag you can carry an extra lens or accessory because of the system’s small size compared to DSLRs.

And comparing to other digital offerings:

More of the above:

The GH4 can also interface with the GH3’s battery/vertical shooting grip but it’s new DMW-YAGH pro video I/O grip is not backward compatible with the GH3.

Before getting into the specifics, we should note that we reviewed a pre-production model nearly a month before the camera launches. Naturally, we expect that some of the issues we had will be fixed in a final firmware update before the camera reaches your door.

Momentary images frozen in time. (Photo)
The GH line is all about hybrid photography, but the majority of big improvements over the GH3 are targeted at video more than photo. That’s not to say the photo side hasn’t improved; it has. It just feels more incremental.

Photo quality has improved slightly with the new engine, and it’s now up to the same level as the GX7. When paired with quality glass, the level of detail that the smaller micro 4 thirds sensor can achieve is quite impressive. It's not to say that the little m4/3 sensor is ready to toe to toe it with the medium format and full frame imaging monsters, but it is as good, if not better than the vast majority of APS sensors being released.


GH4 with the Olympus M.ZUIKO 25mm f1.8 prime lens (full-res here). 

Panasonic has FINALLY given us focus peaking which, while shooting manual, became an invaluable aid. While, especially at long ranges, it is not pinpoint accurate when used with panasonic’s focus magnification feature, peaking not only improved manual focus accuracy, but also the speed at which I was able to acquire the desired focus. Incidentally, peaking works while shooting video too, and yes: it was excellent. The GH4 also displays zebra stripes to help manage how shots are exposed.


Peaking and zebra stripes.

The new DFD focus system truly does feel faster than the GH3. This is not a scientific observation, but it really felt faster. It struggled a bit with accuracy though, especially when using the long-ranged Lumix 100-300mm f4.0-5.6. Even when a specific focus point was selected, the focus sometimes seemed to get distracted and hunt about a bit. That said, it’s entirely likely that it was a pre production firmware issue.

Focus speed aside, the beefier silicon running all the gizmos inside sped just about everything up. The GH3 was not an unresponsive camera, but it does feel a little lethargic compared to the GH4. The speed is also noticeable when shooting higher ISO photos. The older GH cameras tended to lag when taking shots at the higher end of their ISO ranges, but with the GH4, all the way up to ISO 25600, you can focus and fire off shot after refocused shot with no speed lost. That alone makes the higher ISO options vastly more usable than they have been on previous Lumix GH cameras.

The images themselves, however, are less so:


Very unscientific handheld iso test (full-res here).

In truth, regardless of the camera, ultra-high ISO ranges are less about quality than about manufacturers showing off big numbers; ISO 12800 and 25600 on the GH4 are no exception.

And they are noisier than the Shibuya crosswalk on a Saturday Night. 6400 is on par with or just a little worse than the old 3200 noise levels on the GH3, and the shots can be useable if you know what you’re doing both while shooting and in post. From 3200, however, the camera is beyond capable, and while there is slight noise, it can be managed - particularly if displaying your shots on a screen is the primary purpose.


GH4 with Lumix 14-140 f3.5-5.6 @ 6400 iso - full-res here.

Test/example shots:

 

Images of time captured in motion. (Video)
The video half of the GH4s hybrid chops is where the big changes are. As was mentioned earlier, IT DOES 4K! And it does it well.

At 100mb/s, it has a higher bitrate out of the box than many other cameras do at 1080p, let alone 4k. Drawing on their vast experience with video, as one would expect from Panasonic, the quality of the footage is exceptional.

Proof you say?
Well, here we’ve made available two 4K footage files as-as, straight off the SD card. Go see for yourself: 
(sorry, files are no longer available)

About that 4K...
Its 4K prowess is great, and as a feature of the GH4, the 4K capability means a longer potential lifespan and makes it a camera worth considering as an investment for the next few years, but on it’s own it isn’t enough of a feature. True to their reputation, Panasonic improved video meaningfully across the board instead of simply adding 4K and marketing that point to death (to be fair, they and everyone else are marketing 4K to death anyway).

...and Back to Video in General
Panasonic has a huge list of options for HD shooting; the two standouts are the 200mb/s ALL-I encoding, and the Variable frame rate shooting.

The former is going to be a big hit with indie filmmakers on tight budgets who really like to work on their footage in post-production color grading software. The high bitrate means there are more 1s and 0s in each frame to be manipulated, teased, and exploited to allow producers to achieve more in post.

There are video-specific color modes on the GH4 as well. While Panasonic has decided not to include RAW, it does have new CineLike D and CineLike V modes which allow (supposedly) 15 stops of dynamic range and control over the highlights and shadows to produce a flatter, more cinema-like image.

Panasonic GH4 4k Video Modes

The one drawback is that all internal codecs are still 8-bit, so it’s still not quite full-on cinema-league quality. If your inner Spielberg longs for the silver screen (and he has a fatter wallet), you can always attach Panasonic’s new DMW-YAGH add-on I/O brick thing and get a fully uncompressed 10-bit output stream that can be recorded externally as well as XLR mic inputs and a bunch of other broadcast-level connections.

VFR, or variable frame rate shooting is the other really nice addition to the HD arsenal. The GH4 lets shooters specify a frame rate between 2fps and 96fps, allowing for some great timelapse and slow-mo footage, all rendered in-camera. This lets shooters not only preview how the shot will look when viewed on a normal timeline, but also use the footage as-rendered in post. Yes, it doesn’t take much for anyone proficient in modern non-linear editing software to do it on their own… but this is quicker, and it allows creative options for new shooters without the need for 4 extra clicks and some annoying math :p

Panasonic GH4 Slow VFR

Panasonic GH4 Fast VFR

Yes there is more… much much more but those are more incremental upgrades or need the new I/O brick thing which panny didn’t give us and being that we’re a tech website, not a film studio, we wouldn’t have the extra kit needed to take advantage of it.

The only con to the video is the SD card. To take full advantage of the high bitrates and resolutions you need to get one of the newest UHS-II speed 3 cards which will require a sizeable chunk of money on top of the price of the camera.

So it’s all roses and bunnies? (Darc gets personal) 
A look at Panasonic’s GH4 special site shows that, like the GH3, they are using rugged old(ish?) men with interesting names and professional credentials exalting the camera; and in doing so they are adding to the marketing hype that this is indeed a ‘professional’ camera. But we all know that there are lies, damned lies and marketing. While I am not as rugged looking nor have I as interesting a name as the guys on the site, I am a professional photographer who uses the Lumix GH3 as my workhorse camera, and as such, I have put it through it’s paces for over a year, have not babied it as many consumers do with expensive tech investments, and I have found the biggest flaw in the GH3 and potentially the GH4 has nothing to do with the camera.

Cameras are things. Use them hard and they break. But they can also be fixed. The way panasonic handles the fixing in Japan however, is not currently up to scratch with the marketing image of the camera.

Exhibit:
My display died 1 month after I got it. It was fixed under warranty, but the service, while polite, was not very informative for someone who pays the bills with his camera. I’ve sent it in for repairs 3 times in total. The second time took a month, and I got zero feedback on timeframe, what was wrong, or anything for that matter from Panasonic’s service department. Every week I called and got a “please wait, we’re sorry” from an uninterested telephone operator. At the time I was so enraged that If there was a viable rival for the GH3 in the same price range, I would probably be using it instead solely due to Panasonic’s less than professional support structures. The third repair went better, mostly because I behaved like an angry gaijin with the phone operator when he gave me the standard stock lines to my queries. He then found me a service centre with a backup body pretty quickly.

And thats the thing. If Panasonic really wants to tempt people away from likes of Canon and Nikon, they need to provide comparable pro support. Technologically and price-wise, the GH4 is possibly one of the greatest imaging tools available. But the lack of even optional pro service would make me, a 5 year Lumix shooter with a decent investment in the system, want to at least see what else there is out there - even if it’s slightly inferior spec wise.

Pro service could cost extra (like AppleCare), or even be a subscription giving access to an extended warrantee and priority repair centers that provide backup bodies (in major markets, at least). In setting up some sort of official pro support structure, they could also develop an official community that gets other Lumix pros talking, sharing expertise, and learning from each other with Panasonic’s support and, for example, official workshops offering technical support for exceptional projects.

At the same time, however, for consumer-level support, Panasonic is good, and as efficient as they can be, all things considered. It’s just not quite what us picky, self righteous pros think we deserve.

 

TL:DR:
Panasonic has (arguably once again) done what no other camera manufacturer seems keen to do, and they've delivered an easy to use, madly capable true hybrid photography camera that can go toe to toe with specialist systems in both stills and video. On top of that, the GH4 delivers quality at a price point that makes the more traditional, expensive products that are associated with ‘professionals’ seem like a complete waste of money for all but the smallest minority who truly need that extra performance.

More test/example shots here:

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All photos by Nayalan Moodley. Jump over to our flickr to see all the above and much more in full-res.

Thanks to Mr. Hamada at Panasonic for providing AkihabaraNews with a GH4 prototype.

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