While ultra high definition video—you know it better as 4K—has been making steady inroads among the pro ranks for years, it hasn't yet hit with the masses. The Panasonic Lumix GH4 wants to prove that the ability to capture 4K video is something every shooter needs, whether they own an 85-inch 4K TV or not.
The GH4 is a $1700 mirrorless camera that shoots 16 megapixel stills, but is really geared toward recording video in 4K or 1080p. It has a micro four-thirds sensor which is compatible with tons of lenses from Panasonic or Olympus. It'll appeal most to filmmakers and videographers with a bloodlust for 4K—and those ranks are growing.
The ultra high-definition format is just making its way into consumer cameras, and the GH4 is the first system camera offering a solid mix of great 4K image quality, ease-of-use, small form factor, and all at a price that's not out of reach for young pros or upstart video makers.
The GH4 looks pretty much the same as 2012's GH3. In fact, aside from the locking mode dial on top, it's exactly the same. Where the appeal of most micro four thirds cameras lies in their relatively small, stylish, retro bodies—see the Olympus PEN or OM-D series—the GH4 is large and kind of boring, more like a DSLR.
It would have been nice if Panasonic showed some inventiveness and spruced things up a bit, but as far as utility goes, everything here is perfectly functional. The beefy rubberized grip is comfortable to hold, and most of the buttons are well-placed so you don't have to stretch your fingertips too far. The touchscreen LCD display flips out and rotates, which is key for shooting video at tough angles, or you can look through the brilliantly clear electronic viewfinder, whose 2.3 million dots put it right up there with the best viewfinders found on the Olympus OM-D EM-1, Sony a6000, or Fujifilm X-T1.
There are one or two slight residual ergonomic issues from the GH3 that the GH4 should have remedied, like the rear control wheel, which suffers from being too flush with the rubber backing. It's nothing to spoil your supper, though.
We're going to focus on video here, because that's where the GH4 flexes its muscles, and why you'd considering buying it over its prime competition. That's not to say it can't be an everyday shooter; as a still camera, it's pretty fantastic, showing off the best of what the micro four thirds system can do.
In terms of image quality, it's on par with other high-end m4/3 cameras like the Olympus OM-D E-M1. Great colors, and crisp detail. Low-light performance is good, although just a shade more noisy than cameras with larger APS-C sensors, which include Fujifilm and Sony's mirrorless lineups, as well as most mid-range DSLRs. It also uses Panasonic's new DFD (depth-from-defocus) technology which uses data embedded in each lens that tells the focus motor just how far to go so that it doesn't have to hunt around too much. The result is a 49 point auto-focus system that's super fast, although it only works with Panasonic's own lenses. And frankly, most people won't notice the difference between it and the (already very nimble) auto-focus offered by most m4/3 cameras.
It's hard to find complaints about the overall photo-shooting experience of the GH4. It hits the ceiling of what micro four thirds cameras can do with image quality, though it's better by any significant margin than other current-generation models from Olympus or Panasonic. It's responsive, thanks to an upgraded Venus Engine processor, and almost every button is customizable, just how seasoned shooters like it. There are a lot of buttons to learn, but the differentiation in shape and texture helps, so that you can tell what you're pressing even when looking through the viewfinder. I absolutely love placement of the two primary control dials, which fall directly beneath your thumb and forefinger. You know, right where you need them.
Some have faulted the GH4 for a video record button that's too inset into the body, but I never had a problem with it, and you can always start recording using the shutter button. If I have a qualm, it's with the touch-screen controls, which are crowded and not very intuitive.
All of that's a sideshow though. Let's talk about the main event: 4K video.
It's terrific. It really is. The detail is so great to gawk at, even if you don't have a 4K monitor. I like to shoot leaves of trees to test video detail, and when reviewing my 4K footage of boring old arboreals I just wanted to gaze all day at the cascading greenery. And I don't even have a 4K monitor!
That's an important point; this format downscales to 1080p in a way that still gives you an image that is way more detailed than 1080p. Most cameras record 1080p by selectively sampling pixels off the sensor. This can cause cruddy-looking jagged lines and weird rainbow-like moire patterns. By contrast, the GH4 uses its sensor's entire pixel readout to create a 4K image. Downscaling that to 1080p in your favorite editing program makes for a more detailed, cleaner image than pretty much any other DSLR or consumer mirrorless camera.
The benefits don't stop there. Shooting in 4K and editing in 1080p allows you to crop in on the image without significant quality loss. You can apply software stabilization, or even emulate a two-camera shoot by cutting between your original shot and the cropped version. For single-camera crews who want some flexibility in editing, this can be invaluable.
There are a few format options when shooting 4K with the GH4. The highest resolution is Cinema 4K mode, with a widescreen 4096 x 2160 frame, but most people will use the UHD 4K mode, which is the more common aspect ratio of 16:9 and a resolution of 3840 x 2160. A reality of all micro four thirds cameras is that their smaller sensors yield make it more difficult than cameras with larger sensors to attain super shallow, creamy out-of-focus backgrounds (unless you have really bright lenses or stick to telephoto shooting). On the other hand, it will be easier to get your whole scene in perfect focus when you want to, an often-overlooked benefit to smaller sensors. Either way, you won't get as wide a field-of-view as you would with larger sensor cameras like ones from Sony, Nikon, or Canon. This really only matters if you are adapting those lenses to the GH4, in which case the focal length of those third-party lenses is effectively doubled.
There are ways to gain back some of that field-of-view, like Metabones Speedboosters. They let you adapt Nikon lenses (Canon adapters are in the works) to micro four thirds bodies and use an added glass element to mimics the field of view you would see on APS-C cameras. They're a cool but expensive (a few hundred bucks) solution that has other drawbacks such as lack of auto-focus.
For a nice wide lens, we had success with the $1000 Panasonic 7-14mm f/4, which we were able to try out courtesy of Borrowlenses. We also used the $1600 Leica Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 and the $1000 Panasonic X Vario 12-35mm f/2.8 for everyday shooting.
If 4K really doesn't interest you at all (even though it should), you can switch to 1o80p mode. Shooting in Full HD has minor advantages like higher bit rate recording at 200 Mb/s for more flexibility in post. But the image isn't as beautiful as 4K by a long shot. Moire patterns are more apparent and there is much less visible detail. The best reason to shoot in Full HD is the variable frame-rate options. The GH4 allows for up to 96 fps sampling that will automatically conform to lovely slow-motion at 24 fps, without the aid of special software. The higher that sampled frame rate, the more the image degrades in quality, though even at 96 fps the footage is still usable, and at 6o fps it looks pretty great. These slow motion options are a tremendous added value for the GH4. They don't require any messing around in post-production, and you can see the results right after you shoot. It's great.
Many videographers who have seen 4K on the horizon have been concerned about the practicality of the files—specifically, the file sizes—these cameras would produce. It was assumed that 4K would require insane amounts of storage space and extremely expensive flash media to accommodate the high data rates. The GH4 manages to avoid these pitfalls. Its 4K files are about the same in size as video files from the Canon 5D Mark III. A 30 second clip is about 300 MB. Media is stored on high-speed SD cards which are relatively cheap these days. The second big surprise was the battery life. It's actually really great, and a stark contrast to the Sony A7s which rips through batteries. If you shoot continuously, the GH4 battery should last well over two hours.
Still frame from the Canon 5D Mark III (100% crop)
Still frame from the GH4 (shot in 4K, output at 108o, 100% crop)
I must acknowledge the compression police, who will be quick to point out that the GH4's 8-bit 4:2:0 internal codec doesn't cut it for robust post-processing. That's a fair grievance, but one that will only hamper a small fraction of users. For those that need better, Panasonic offers a weird-looking dock that provides SDI output for 10-bit 4:2:2 4K recording (recorder not included), as well as XLR inputs and some other super-pro connections. The thing costs $2000. Yeah, moving on.
If the GH4 has an Achilles' heel, it's low light performance. It just can't hold a candle to larger sensor cameras, especially the 5D Mark III and even more so, the Sony A7s. This should give you pause, because as opposed to image characteristics like detail or color reproduction, low light performance can actually affect where it's possible to shoot. It's a damn shame to have to pass up a shot because there's not enough light. The GH4 behaves itself up to ISO 1600, but pushing it farther will yield exceedingly splotchy results, and the beautiful 4K detail turns soft.
4K mode isn't just a gimmick, and the GH4 gives it to you admirably. There's almost no moire to speak of, and rolling shutter is less noticeable than on most consumer cameras. It contains many nods to video shooters, like the Cinelike picture style and zebra patterns for highlight control. Stills are are up there with the very best micro four-thirds can offer. Slow motion in HD mode is well-implemented and easy to use.
Image quality in low light degrades fast after ISO 1600. The smaller sensor size and further crop when shooting in 4K means that field of view is narrow and very shallow depth of field is harder to achieve. It looks exactly the same as its two year old predecessor, with no improvements on ergonomics or control layout.
Should You Buy It?
The GH4 is a great choice if you are looking for high-quality video and stills in one complete package. Certain types of shooter will find things complain about—low light performance in particular—but the great aspects of the GH4, especially the 4K image, will wash over you like a summer breeze. You'll love shooting with it.
If low light is of the utmost importance, take a look at the Sony a7s instead, which has a full-frame sensor and tops the charts of unbelievable low light sensitivity. It's a bit more expensive, and only shoots 4K on a $2000 external recorder (which isn't even out yet), but for Full HD, it's terrific.
Otherwise, there really aren't any cameras that can compete on full terms with the GH4. right now. There will be, though, in the coming months. But the GH4 isn't just one of the first practical 4K shooting hybrid still/video shooters; it also managed to get most things right on the first try. There's very little chance you'll end up with early adopter remorse.
My only caution is to keep the following in mind: No amount of detail or resolution is going to make the story you tell any better. Compelling content can be created with any camera. If you tell a story well, no one will give a damn about the image quality. Choose a camera that will help you shoot the things you want to shoot easier. And if it does it in 4K? That's just icing.
Thanks to Borrowlenses for lending us some micro four thirds lenses to test out with the GH4. Check em out!