In short, no it is not. But a few minor dealbreakers are all that stand between leaving this camera on the shelf, and making it best digital camera in its class.
After nearly a month of capturing video, stills, and timelapse media with the Panasonic GH4, I laughed, I cried, and I almost threw it off a mountain. At times it was a joy to shoot with, and other times it wouldn’t even power on with a full battery. I’ll give you a complete, unbiased rundown in my full review, complete with video samples.
I’ve been excited about the GH series of digital cameras from Panasonic for a while now. I felt that they had features that Nikon and Canon were missing for a long time, yet for some unknown reason the GH2/GH3 remained the runt of the litter in the video-DSLR pack.
When offered the chance to review the latest Micro Four Thirds mirrorless offering from Panasonic, which touted a full 4k resolution recorded in-camera, and 96fps at 1080p, I jumped on it. I expected to fall in love and consider throwing my Canon kit up on Craigslist, replacing it with a lighter, smaller, and cheaper, video-centric unit. If it weren’t for just a couple of issues, I would have.
How I approached testing the GH4 kit
Several other sites had received pre-release GH4s for testing, and already posted their results and footage well before mine was even shipped. In particular, Andrew Reid over at EOSHD did a fantastic writeup, and Phillip Bloom put together a good review as well. Definitely check them out too if you're considering buying this camera– multiple opinions are better than one. For this review, my approach was to simply use the GH4 and Lumix lenses to create a video project that would make use of its standout features. In doing so, I would be able to work with the GH4 at many different locations, shooting stills and video clips in real world shooting situations. My niche is outdoor adventure and documentary projects, so my GH4 didn’t see the inside of any studios. I took it up a mountain, I had it on the water, and shot out of moving vehicles. I approached creating this video just like I would have most other personal projects I work on.
The concept I decided to undertake with the GH4 kit was to highlight outdoor recreational opportunities in Montezuma County. I’ll be using the footage to hopefully pitch some project ideas or sell some clips as stock to their visitors bureau and tourism officials. I thought this would be a perfect application for the video features of the GH4, but also to test the portability of the kit.
The featured video above was the color-corrected, final version of my video. For comparison, below I've included the textless, uncorrected version. All images are straight out of the camera, except for the timelapses.
As with any other shoot, charging batteries, cleaning lenses, setting up the picture styles, and customizing the camera body were the start to most days I shot.
The GH4 battery charged fast and lasted long. On one occasion I used it for several hours for a timelapse at night, and then shot footage the following morning and afternoon, with the battery still showing 2/3 full (at 2 bars out of 3.)
Right away I noticed a major difference in this kit compared to my Canon kit. The GH4 was about half the size and half the weight. Same went for the lenses! My GH4 kit included the following items, and weighed in at only 4.2 lbs.
A comparable Canon kit (with a 60D, 24-70mm, 15mm fisheye, and 70-200mm) weighed in at 9.2 lbs, more than double the GH4 kit. The size difference was astonishing as well. I could pack all of the Panasonic kit into a single small ICU from F-Stop Gear. This was eye-opening for me, and I especially noticed the size/weight savings when I hiked about 12 miles with 3,000+ feet of elevation gain to the summit of Mt. Hesperus at 13,327 feet. Click the image below to enlarge.
Even though the lenses and body were small, they didn’t feel like toys or fragile. They have a nice, professional look to them.
Menu System and Camera Settings
The menu system on the GH4 is deep, and at first it felt a bit overwhelming, but once I started to learn what submenu certain functions were under, I was able to move about quickly. The directional controls I felt were a little small as I often would press the incorrect button on accident– I wished they were raised slightly to make them easier to press. Of course I could have used the touch screen, but when you’re holding the camera, it’s only natural to use the right hand controls. I’m not a big fan of touch screens on cameras, but pinch/expand motions when previewing images was a fun feature.
There are a plethora of options available to control the look of your recorded image, including dynamic range controls, custom curves, setting pedestal levels, and more. Through these I was able to set a relatively flat profile. That was important to me as I knew many of my shots would be outside in full sun, and harsh shadows and blown out highlights would make for poor footage. This is something that my Canon cameras would not have dealt as well with, as you get a very contrasty image out of them (unless you use the Picture Style Editor and use something like the Superflat picture style.)
For those of you who like to manipulate the camera settings and create a "base look" for your productions, you will enjoy these features quite a bit.
In my video, footage was shot with the following settings:
Curves: Highlight -2, shadow +2
i.Resolution: off (this is sharpening)
Master pedestal: +5
Handling and Capturing Stills in the Field
Once I dialed in the main functions of the camera, it was just fine to use. The GH4 provides users with the usual array of shooting modes like Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, etc., but more importantly it has 3 custom mode settings. I set C1 to all manual settings at 4k, and then C2 to the same, but at 96fps @ 1080p. I liked using this method, but you also can use a “quick menu” system to access certain features like recording resolution, focus mode, and more.
Another interesting feature to me was the electronic viewfinder. There is no mirror, so the image in the viewfinder is exactly the same as the one in the LCD. Consistency here was helpful once I got used to the data overlay style, which has a few different overlay styles you can choose from.
Since I shot outside most of the time, I would use the viewfinder to check my settings and framing, as in full sun the LCD is hard to check. I did use a screen loupe for the LCD, but for some reason it made my LCD image flip upside down… perhaps it was the magnets inside of it? The GH4 would also jump between displays from a small sensor near the eyepiece– there were times this was problematic as my pressing buttons activated the sensor and caused the switch, even with the sensitivity set to low. This was annoying to work around when I was in awkward positions. In general I liked the LCD and felt it was sharp enough to judge focus, especially when using peaking or magnifying options.
Speaking of pressing buttons on the back, being able to map several function buttons to things like your histogram display is a dream come true. I loved that feature. Image playback and review however I did not love. Compared to my Canon, it felt very slow. It had trouble keeping up with me, and when I just wanted a quick preview of a clip or two, it made me a bit impatient.
I only took a handful of still images outside of the timelapse shots, and honestly I wasn’t too impressed. I felt they were OK, but as with most cameras, if you light and compose something well, it will look good even on a $80 point and shoot from K-Mart. If I wanted great stills, I’d use my 5D; if I wanted a compact 4K/HD video solution, I’d look closely at the GH4.
Shooting 4k and Slow Motion
The two standout specs for this camera are obviously the 4k resolution option, and the ability to shoot 96 frames per second at 1920x1080p. I used these two features more than any other. Interestingly, the frame does change slightly (goes a bit wider) when switching to 4k from 1080. I won’t get in to the reason for this, but the point is, if you have a shot framed up in 4k, and want a quick slow-mo cut of it in 1080, the framing will change. (Of note, there are a multitude of recording options on this little beast of a camera, including a "Cinema" 4k, which is 4096 x 2160, as compared to the regular 4k at 3840 x 2160. The frame ratios are 17:9 and 16:9, respectively.)
You don’t really notice a difference between shooting 4k and 1080 until you get into the edit. More on that later. As for the slow-motion, adjusting settings and previewing clips woked well. The touch screen fast-forward controls were tricky to use sometimes, but it was a minor issue.
With a 32GB SDHC Class card, I was able to record plenty of slow motion fotoage when needed, as well as a reasonable amount of 4k footage for what I was shooting. Here is link to a post with record times if you’re interested in that.
This camera does also have an extended tele conversion mode, for using a 1:1 crop, which will extend the length of your existing lenses. I didn’t use this feature, but as someone who owns a physical extender for my Canon kit, I could see myself using it in the right situations.
I should take a moment and talk about the lenses I used as noted in my list above. The 12-35mm was my workhorse lens, and I got 85% of my images with that lens alone. I felt that it was sharp, responsive, and the OIS was solid for me to shoot handheld, which I did often. Remember that the GH4 has a micro-four-thirds sensor, so your lenses are approximately doubled in focal length, relative to what you'd get on a full frame DSLR. This made the 12-35mm more like a 24-70mm.
The 8mm fisheye was sharp, and gave me a great wide angle for tight spaces, but didn’t get too smeary from distortion I felt. This lens was helpful for shooting in weird places like overhanging rock formations and the inside of a tent.
The Vario 100-300 performed rather poorly the few times I used it. The “Mega OIS” didn’t work very well for me for video, and most shots with it were scrapped since there was too much shake. I also didn’t care for the focus action of it- I would have to turn it a ton for a rack focus shot, and most takes didn’t turn out because it took too long to focus and the action was gone before I could catch it. Saying that, just like the rest of the GH4 kit, this was much smaller and lighter compared to a Canon lens– I would perhaps try a different lens next time. In the clip below, see the shake I got. I was shooting out the back of a truck that was driving in a smooth road, and had the OIS turned on.
Due to the small diameter of these lenses, I didn’t have any filters on hand to use, so I wasn’t able to shoot wide open out in the sun without cranking the shutter speed. If the GH4 had a built in ND, this would be an incredible addition to an otherwise amazing video system. I guess I’ll keep dreaming…
I made a point to shoot a few low-light shots for my video, to see how much I could push it before footage started to look bad. I recorded a simple campfire scene on a moon-less night, so the small fire was the only light source. Unfortunately, I felt that the GH4 fell apart at ISO 3200. Noisy purple grain appeared everywhere, and the image got a bit soft too, so I didn’t even bother trying to clean it up. In my opinion, it was unusable at ISO 3200 or beyond. (In the video below, Vimeo compression crushes the blacks so much that you can't see the purple noise, but in the original I can see it very clearly)
I dabble in timelapses, and enjoy including them in my videos. I shot several for this video project, and the GH4 has some convenient features to make them easy to capture. With a dedicated mode for timelapse/stop motion, you can set the number of images you want to take, and at what interval. It will then display at what time the timelapse will finish. Very handy to have built in, but that’s not even the coolest part. Once the timelapse has completed, you are prompted to create a movie from the stills. If you say yes, the GH4 will take a few minutes to process a video, and then you’ll have a 4K movie file (only at certain frame rates though, there is no 24p option currently, a terrible omission) in-camera. Watch your creation back right there before leaving your location or even moving the camera!
This was sweet, however I would personally only use this for preview, and still take the time to process RAW images properly and do post work in After Effects, getting the most out of my images. For the enthusiast or someone just getting into it, this is a useful and time saving feature. For everyone else, know that if you make a 4k movie, all of your stills remain on the camera, so you can still process them manually later.
There was a major problem I noticed when doing post work on a particular timelapse, read on for that…
Connecting the GH4 to my iPhone 5 was pretty simple, and being able to control, preview, and even make image collages was really cool. There are social media options so you can post directly to those outlets if you're into that. If I had a GH4 as a B-camera or POV camera in a multicamera studio shoot, I would absolutely use the wifi control feature. There was only about a second of lag on the iPhone preview, which I felt was impressive.
Connecting the GH4 to my macbook pro took a bit of work, but finally I had it where images I would shoot would magically appear in a folder on my computer after about 5-10 seconds. It might be easier to just use Eye-Fi cards, but the option is there and it does work.
Working in post
Scaling 4K to 1080p looks great. To me, it appears to be very, very sharp HD footage, and is the closest I've seen to a "moving-still image" that is as sharp as a still photo but as a video clip. When previewed on a 1080p plasma TV, the downsampled 4k looked tack sharp. When exposed and focused properly, the 1080p footage looked just as good to me. I would intercut this with my FS700 footage any day. With 4k, you can double the scale and it still looks acceptable- again, as long as your exposure and focus are in check. The ability to adjust cropping, composition, and even your rotation is like cheating, but it’s damn cool, and could potential save a messed up shot.
In the image below, I increased the scale and rotated the original 4k footage on a 1080p timeline. There was no perceptible quality loss. Click the image below to see it larger.
In the example below, the first clip is a 4k video scaled into a 1080p timeline. The second version of that clip shows the same video, but scaled up and with a fake pan up created with a couple of keyframes in Adobe Premiere.
Most people won’t shoot for scaling, but I would absolutely use this features on interview shoots, as going from a wide shot to a med-cu, just by scaling up the clip in Premiere, is a useful and easy option. I have done that with scaling a 1080 clip on a 720 sequence, so this is even better.
The slow motion in my opinion looks very good, and I was a total sucker for using it. 96fps is a great frame rate where things look very elegant when slowed down, but it isn’t so slow that you get these ridiculously long clips. It may be just a touch soft, but I didn’t mind it much, given the dreamy feeling slow motion has anyway.
Because these clips range in the neighborhood of 100-200Mbps, they can chug a bit in your NLE. I’m on a 2.4 MBP with 16GB of RAM with GPU acceleration, with the files linked via a Firewire 800 hard drive. The bigger files can get a bit choppy during previews, and rendering of course takes a hit.
The DMW-YAGH Interface Unit
This DMW-YAGH is bigger, heavier, and more expensive than the GH4 body itself! If you require HD-SDI for your production or timecode input, then you will want this. If you’re only interested because of the XLR inputs however, I’d recommend saving your dough and going with an XLR adapter, like this one from juicedLink. There are lots of options under $500 for receiving 2 inputs, adjusting those signals, and even providing phantom power on some of the units.
Bottom line – if you’re doing green screen or work for heavy color correction, plan to invest a bit of money for this unit and a recorder for a higher quality recording. (Keep in mind that you can get 10-bit 4:2:2 out of the HDMI port on the GH4 body - Thanks JB) If you are doing some interviews or other audio heavy capture, get a cheaper adapter. There’s no need to pay for outputs and features that you won’t use.
I shot a timelapse of the night sky, making 25 second exposures of the scene below.
When I processed several hundred stills in After Effects to make a video clip, I realized that there was a color shift that appeared to be flickering in the sky. Upon closer inspection in Lightroom, sure enough, every few images the dark area of the sky shifted from green to magenta, or vice versa. I couldn’t find any way to fix this, and am still hoping for a solution. This is a serious issue (which I’ve found to be documented with the GH3) and major dealbreaker for anyone looking to do timelpase work with this camera, as color shifting is unacceptable. Below are two sequential frames from my timelapse that show what I'm talking about. Click to enlarge.
***UPDATE*** Thanks to some commenters here and on other forums, I was informed that Panasonic recently released a firmware update which "improves the reliability of camera performance" hopefully that fixes the freezing and card reading problems I note below. Here is a link to the firmware update.
My other problem was that on no less than 5 occasions, often when I had a person ready to act or had limited time for capturing a setting/rising sun, the camera had some form of an error. There were times it would not power on (with a full battery), the camera would freeze in the middle of a take, and at least 4 times I was told there were memory card errors. Even with a recently formatted card, the GH4 would fail to recognize the fact that there was a card inside of it, and it even suggested it was corrupt. These issues were corrected only by the removal and reinsertion of the battery. This was extremely inconvenient, and alone was the dealbreaker for me. As someone who is paid to capture images, how can a client rely on me if I can't guarantee that my camera is going to work and not corrupt a full days worth of shots?
My guess is this was a firmware issue, so it should hopefully be resolved, or if I got a lemon, perhaps this will be an isolated case. Nevertheless, it left a sour taste in my mouth and I would feel very nervous about having that system out for a shoot where you only get one take, one chance to nail a shot.
This review has gone on for way too long, and I barely scratched the surface. I’ll try to get right to the point with my final thoughts here.
Right now the GH4 sells for $1,700. In my opinion, right now, it is in a class all on it’s own with 4K recording in camera and the option of 96fps at 1080p. That combined with the lightweight, compact size make this a steal for image quality relative to price. For someone who travels, I could EASILY pack a whole GH4 kit along with a change of clothes into a carry on bag.
The stills definitely leave something to be desired, so if that is more important to you than video, look elsewhere. If the firmware problems I encountered are fixed, and Panasonic addresses the magenta/green shifting in timelapses, I would sell my 60D kit (keeping my 5D for stills though) for the GH4 with that 12-35mm lens for outdoor adventure projects where I’m concentrating on video acquisition. In a heartbeat.
Are you interested in the GH4? How do you feel about this compared to the a7S from Sony? The Sony doesn’t record 4k in camera, shoots only 60fps at 1080p, and costs about $800 more… but it’s full frame… Leave me a comment and let me know what you think! And thanks for reading the full post!