Review: Panasonic GH4 Video

Akihabara News (Tokyo) — Until the magical Canon 5D Mark II, the video camera world felt like it was going nowhere. But then BOOM!, thousands of people around the world now had, thanks to Canon, the chance to own a powerful Full HD compact video camera with the flexibility of both interchangeable lenses and memory card recording. Bye-bye expensive shoulder mounted camera, and bye-bye tapes!

While Canon was the real “king” with its full-frame 5D MKII, Panasonic quickly jumped into the market and launched the Lumix GH1, its first pro-oriented Micro Four Thirds camera, and a true challenger to the more expensive full-frame camera from Canon.

Granted, the GH1 was not as good in low light that the 5D MKII, but in good sunny conditions, the GH1 was a stunning little beast.

Almost six years has passed now, and while Panasonic and Canon have respectively improved their offerings, at this point, Panasonic is by far the real winner with the GH4!

Sharp and beautiful video is what makes the GH4 a killer

What makes the GH4 an amazing camera is the capacity to shoot 4K videos at 100Mbit/s 30fps in an ultra-compact product. To be honest, at first I was a bit skeptical and I completely skipped the GH4 for its more affordable competitor, the Sony AX100. And to be fair, the Sony AX100 is a GREAT video camera, and its latest firmware update made it even better since the camera is now capable of shooting 4K 30fps video at 100Mbit/s instead of the previous 60Mbit/s. It’s fast, easy to use, has great image stabilization, and I would recommend the AX100 to ANYONE who wants to take great 4K videos on the spot.

However, even though the AX100 is a great camera, the Panasonic GH4 offers far better performance, but it comes at a certain cost that may discourage many casual shooters.

First, before wowing with the amazing things about the GH4, let’s talk about the downsides:

The GH4 AF (autofocus) sucks. Sony’s AX100 is way better and faster when tracking objects. The only way I found to get it work correctly is to use the AF Tracking mode and select the moving object you want to track.

The GH4 crashes, and crashes OFTEN! I have experienced this on the GH1, GH2, GH3, and now on the GH4… for some unknown reason, the GH4 may from time to time freeze or will tell you that it cannot record video correctly on the card forcing you to either wait a few seconds before being able to shoot again, or forcing you to remove the battery and reboot the camera.

Forget about IS (image stabilization) when recording videos – use a tripod!

Like the GH1, GH2, and GH3, the GH4 sucks like hell in low light! DO NOT, I repeat DO NOT go above ISO800. Everything above ISO800 will be filled with noise.

The internal microphone is bad and not well placed. If you hold the camera close to you, the mic will only record your breath, not the surrounding noise.

It needs SUPER-FAST and expensive SDXC cards. Any card below 60MB/s recording capacity will crash your camera.

The Rec button is too small and not easy to push, especially when you are wearing gloves, even thin ones.
Average Full HD Video capability. Yep, even at 200Mbit/s, the GH4 Full HD mode is just average… but who cares when you can shoot in 4K! (will explain this later)

Now what about the good, sorry, the GREAT things about the GH4 that made me sell my Sony AX100?

First and foremost, the GH4 has AMAZING 4K video quality and colors that are even better than the Sony AX100. The GH4 offers stunningly sharp videos, which some have complained are too sharp! Seriously guys? Too Sharp? This is freaking 4K here not SD!

When shooting with the AX100, I often had to slightly color correct each shot as well as tweak the overall contrast, which was really time consuming, especially if you are not a professional colorist. With the GH4, however, I rarely color correct my videos, unless I completely screwed something up or forgot about setting the correct white balance.

In that regard, Panasonic made the extra effort to offer nine different video modes to choose from when recording, giving you more flexibility on what you want to shoot. However, you will quickly realize that CineD (perfect for low light) and CineV (perfect for everything except low light) are effectively the only two modes you will ever need.

Another aspect that made me jump on the GH4 like a fly on a pot of honey was the possibility to change lenses. While Panasonic’s lineup is not yet as cool as Canon’s or Nikon’s, they and other manufacturers offer a decent number of lenses to choose from.

Of course, for those who are more adventurous than myself and do not mind losing your camera’s AF function, there are several lens adapters that will let you use Canon or Nikon’s wonderful lenses on your GH4.

The GH4 shines in other many aspects, too. For example, Panasonic made sure to weatherproof the camera, and when mounted with one of the two Lumix G X Vario lenses mentioned above, within limits, you will be able to shoot gorgeous video in dusty, rainy, or snowy places without fear. Another great, yet simple feature that the GH4 has but is sadly missing on the AX100 is the artificial horizon – it’ll help you to level your camera in any condition.

Finally, and before we jump into the last part of this review (why 4K matters), I would strongly advise you to get Panasonic’s Lumix DMW-WS2 external mic if you want to record some good quality audio for your videos. What I like about this mic is, unlike the previous model sold for the GH1, is that it does not require any additional batteries – the GH4 will power the mic and you will no longer risk any lost of sound if you tend to neglect this part of your microphone!

As you can see, I am really amazed by the GH4, despite its limitations, which are in my case the lousy AF, poor IS, and limited ISO. Now, as far as I am concerned, and for the kind of videos I am taking, I am able to overcome these limitations and adapt my shooting style accordingly, and good lord I am happy with the results!

So why does 4K matter? Granted, there are not many affordable 4K TVs or monitors available on the market yet. Shooting and editing in 4K require a very powerful computer, a speedy SSD, and an insane amount of storage for your rush. So, why move to 4K and get a GH4? Well, first of all, unlike 3D, 4K is not going to fade away: in the next five years 4K will be everywhere. Everything you are recording today in HD will feel blurry and outdated in the next two to three years. Sure, by then we will have better 4K cameras, but at least everything you shoot today in 4K will still look good in five years!

Second, shooting in 4K in an HD world allows you way more flexibility! You can actually blow (zoom), crop, and rotate a 4K image in an HD (1080p) workflow without ANY loss in quality and still have access to 4K rush in the future – this, my friends, is a HUGE advantage of 4K over HD.

Another thing to take into consideration with the GH4 is, as I mentioned earlier, its only “average” 200Mbit/s Full HD mode. Indeed, for a reason that I do not understand, shooting video in 4K at 100Mbit/s and converting to HD will result in better and sharper video than if you were recording in native HD 200Mbit/s with the GH4. I am sure that there is a good explanation for this, but for the time being stick to 4K even if you will export in HD.

Okay, now before you get too excited, I would like to re-stress an important fact: editing in 4K requires a powerful high-end PC, so before you go and buy any 4K Camera, get ready to spend a lot of money on additional hardware.

One more major thing to consider when shooting in 4K is image stabilization. Just like when we jumped from SD to HD we realized that a tiny little vibration on the tripod will result in jerky images, in 4K things are even worse. If you shoot in 4K to edit in a HD workflow, then no worries – your NLE IS plugin will fix it for you at no quality loss. But, if you stick with 4K, invest in a GOOD Manfrotto tripod.

Bottom line: The GH4 is an amazing camera, not perfect, but once you know how to work with its limitations, it will give you great, sharp 4K videos. If you can’t live with the GH4 limitations and need a good IS and AF, then go for the Sony AX100. Can’t afford a GH4 or AX100 but still want to shoot in 4K? Guess what: Panasonic has what you need with their very powerful DMC-FZ1000. Granted, the FZ1000 comes with a cheap look and feel, but it delivers very good 4K images!

So, now it’s time to pick one of the above cameras and shoot at will!

(Reviewed by Gonzague Gay-Bouchery)

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