Panasonic Lumix GH4 Review: 4k for the rest of us

by | May 7, 2014

It was only a matter of time.

Like the Model T heralding the arrival of a new form of transportation for the masses, Panasonic’s new flagship camera aims to democratize 4K video production. No longer is this a technology reserved for the filmmaking elite. Unlike the automobile, though, 4K in itself is not a paradigm shift. It is simply more of what we already have and use. More pixels, more resolution, more hard drives, more makeup, more time. However, the GH4 is also more than just a budget 4K camera. It is one of the most forward-thinking cameras to emerge since the Panasonic G1, which ushered in the mirrorless era.

Panasonic Lumix GH4

The GH4 is a very capable still camera, but I’ll get to that later. First, let’s talk a little about what 4K video is and what it is not. On paper, this new standard represents a fourfold increase in spacial resolution over full HD (1080p). That means there are literally four times as many pixels being displayed in each frame of video (a little more for “Cinema 4K”). It is not, however, nearly as noticeable a jump as going from standard to high definition was. This is because most people don’t sit very close to their televisions—close enough to tell the difference between SD and HD, but generally not close enough to see the difference in 4K. But, what about being able to use larger screens? Well, typically, the larger the screen, the farther back people sit—size is relative, and so is apparent resolution.

So should you even care about 4K? The quick answer is, it doesn’t matter. Sooner or later, 4K will become the de facto standard, just as HD has, regardless of whether you can notice the difference or not. It has already begun trickling down into smartphones (I know, right?!). Beyond the simple logic of “more is better,” there are some legitimate reasons to be excited about 4K video. First, you can think of it as having a still camera that shoots 8MP images at 30 frames per second. I remember making 8x10 prints from my 6MP Nikon D40 that looked fantastic (or at least, I thought they did), so 8MP is plenty for basic printing. This could be huge for shooting action and sports—just roll at 30fps and then scrub through the footage later to find the perfect frame to save and print.

Visually, 4K does offer advantages over HD that can be more noticeable than the extra crispness. One of these is the reduction of moiré, the rainbow-like color artifacts that occur when a camera can’t resolve the fine detail in a pattern. This was made clear to me in a demonstration by Panasonic, which placed two GH4s side-by-side, one running at 1080p and the other at 4K, both live-feeding video into two 60” TVs. From about ten feet away, I honestly could not tell the difference in resolution, but I could see a huge difference in moiré. The cameras were pointed at a jacket with a very fine mesh weave, but even in this extreme test, the 4K feed had no evident moiré. Impressive.

To further reduce the occurrence of moiré and maximize sharpness, Panasonic made a technical choice to record 4K at a 1:1 pixel sampling level, so no pixel binning occurs. This does mean that the image is slightly cropped when shooting in 4K, so the standard 4/3” crop ratio of 2x goes up to about 2.3x. Some people will see this as unfortunate, but for cinematographers, just throw some legacy glass on a Metabones Speedbooster and you’ll be right back at the Super35 standard frame equivalent. When shooting with Micro Four Thirds lenses, though, you will lose a little of your wide angle.

Any DSLR-like camera that aims to shoot both stills and video is always an exercise in making compromises. Those compromises usually come in the form of sacrificing some video functionality and quality in favor of maintaining high still photography performance. This was the approach that Panasonic had taken previously, but each iteration of the GH series camera has moved a little bit closer to achieving parity between its still and video modes. The GH4, at last, fully embraces its identity as a video camera. It is a hybrid camera without compromise.

Panasonic Lumix GH4 top

For the first time in a long time—maybe ever—it feels like a camera company actually listened to all the feedback from filmmakers and videographers begging for added functionality. I imagine the insatiable filmmaking community frothing at the mouth and blurting out demands for 4K, faster frame rates, higher bit rates, flatter tone curves, and then finally asking to have it all for under $2,000. And instead of laughing incredulously, Panasonic just sat back and said, how about all of that for $1699?

If only shopping for a car were that easy.

The pro-oriented video features of this camera are nearly too numerous to count: both Quad Full HD and Cinema 4K resolutions; 4K at 100mbps and Full HD at 200mbps internally; 10 bit, 4:2:2 output over HDMI for both 4K and HD; up to 96 FPS at Full HD that can be conformed in-camera to 30p or 24p for slow-motion; true 24 frames-per-second (the camera actually reboots in a 24hz mode); focus peaking with multiple color options; the ability to display video, photo, or cinema style exposure info based on user preference (shutter speed vs. shutter angle, ISO vs. gain); color bars with tone output for HDMI monitors; and even a master pedestal level adjustment (also called “black point”). These are simply not features you would ever expect to find on this type of camera, especially at this price. Notably omitted from that list is a global shutter. Until the technology of CMOS processing improves, that will remain in the realm of higher-end cameras. The GH4 may be the most expensive Micro Four Thirds camera ever made, but it offers a lot of bang for the buck.And And that’s only half the camera. Let’s not forget: this is a still camera, too.

At the heart of the GH4 is a new, 16MP sensor that delivers image quality to rival the best Micro Four Thirds cameras out there. The ISO and dynamic range performance is right up there with many APS-C cameras, and the new processor is fast enough to shoot full resolution images at 12 frames per second. That’s Canon 1D-X speed! Granted, the smaller sensor does mean there are both objective and subjective quality differences compared to a full-frame camera: more noise at high ISO, a deeper depth-of-field for equivalent fields of view, and a resolution hit at small apertures due to diffraction. Still, after shooting with the camera for a couple of days, I found very little to not like about it.

The styling is perhaps the one area where Panasonic did not outdo themselves. It represents a refinement of the GH3, not a revolution over it. The best way to put it is, it’s very utilitarian. I cannot fault the design, just like I can’t fault the design of a Toyota Camry. It is a machine made to be practical. The GH4 has a magnesium body, weather proofing, plenty of direct access control, ergonomic grip—everything you need, if not necessarily everything you want. If you are in the market for a mirrorless camera, the classic look of the Olympus OM-D series may win you over—provided you don’t need professional level video functionality. But when it comes to usability, the GH4 really can’t be beat, and current GH3 users will feel right at home. And actually, the 2015 Camry actually looks pretty good.

One small yet big design upgrade the GH4 offers over the GH3 is the locking mode dial. These are in vogue right now, but there seems to be a divide between photographers who appreciate them and photographers who find them annoying. Basically, a locking mode dial prevents accidental exposure mode changes when you pull the camera out of your bag, but it adds an extra step to changing modes when you intend to. Panasonic came up with a pretty clever solution: the lock can be toggled on or off. This way you can set it to your preference, maybe just activating it before you put the camera in your bag. Problem solved. Another minor but appreciated change comes to the drive mode dial, which now has a dedicated position for time-lapse/stop-motion photography, in addition to the usual positions for single shot, continuous, and timer.

The screen and viewfinder are also vastly improved. The 2.3 million dot EVF is not only higher resolution, but it also refreshes much faster than on the GH3. I stubbornly still prefer an optical through-the-lens viewfinder for still photography, but I really can’t complain about the EVF here. And for video, it’s simply a joy to use.

Panasonic Lumix GH4 tilt screen

It would have been easy for Panasonic to neglect the still photography side of the GH4 when it came to adding new features; with so much effort being put into video, nobody would have blamed them. And yet they didn’t neglect it. Among the new features for still photographers is an auto-bracketing mode that offers of up to 7 exposures at a spread of up to ±3 stops. There is also a 3-shot HDR mode that actually works quite well, as well as a multi-exposure option. The shutter is now quieter and more responsive than before, and the option to switch to the electronic shutter remains, which lets users shoot absolutely silently for situations that require discretion. This could also be great for photographing wildlife that may otherwise be startled by the sound of a camera. (For normal use, stick with the mechanical shutter, as “rolling shutter” can be a problem with the electronic shutter).

So, what’s not to like about this camera? One thing I would have liked to have seen is sensor-shift stabilization. Even if not the full 5-axis stabilization found in some Olympus OM-D models, a basic implementation of it would have been nice. While Panasonic has many stabilized lenses, a high number of people will be adapting Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Leica, and other lenses to the GH4, and could have benefitted from in-body stabilization.

On the video side, the rolling shutter “jello cam” effect is still present, thanks to the CMOS sensor. While Panasonic has doubled the sensor readout speed, in 4K the sensor has to output four times as much data, so the added speed only helps to maintain the status quo: extreme camera or subject motion can still be problematic. Even so, every camera has limitations, and as long as you know what they are, you can work around them. At any rate, the rolling shutter is certainly no worse than on any other DSLR-style camera.

Panasonic has clearly targeted the independent and low-budget filmmaking crowd with the GH4, but novice users may find themselves confused by all the high-end features. Sometimes, a simple solution is the best solution, and while the GH4 can be as easy to use as any other camera, I can’t help but wonder if many shooters will waste time scratching their heads as they try to figure out what the proper master pedestal level is, or what system frequency they should be in, or if they need SMPTE, EBU, or ARIB color bars and, wait, why do I need color bars at all? I think one of the reasons cameras like the Canon T2i appealed so much to beginning filmmakers was the same reason they didn’t appeal very much to seasoned pros: without all the options, you don’t have as much to worry about—but you also don’t have as much control. The GH4, both as a still camera and a video camera, is definitely a pro-focussed machine, and this may make it a daunting option for some current Micro Four Thirds shooters looking to upgrade. That said, despite the enthusiast-level price point, the market for this camera is the professional market, and Panasonic has chosen to appeal to the right audience.

When you think about it, the fact that Panasonic even has a professional MFT camera is somewhat bewildering. A few short years ago, the system was focused entirely on consumers. To look at the GH4 today, knowing what came before it, is kind of like watching your kid graduate from college. It’s MFT all grown up and ready for the real world, ready to take on the entrenched old-timers, to bravely stand up for a new way of doing things. It’s no longer afraid of being different. For professional videographers, there is virtually no reason to shoot video on a traditional DSLR anymore. And for still photographers, if you can live without a full-frame sensor and optical viewfinder, the GH4 offers all the functionality you need in a smaller, lighter, but just as durable body. And it does it all for well under $2,000.

If you had told me a year ago the final specs and price for this camera while it was in development, I would have said no way, that’s too good to be true. But the GH4 is here now; it’s definitely true, and it’s incredibly good.

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