Panasonic GH4 Long Term Review: The Best Mirrorless Camera Ever?

Discussion in 'Micro 4/3 News and Rumors' started by napilopez, Jul 22, 2014.

  1. napilopez

    napilopez Contributing Editor

    826
    Feb 21, 2012
    NYC Area
    Napier Lopez
    Panasonic GH4 Long Term Review: The Best Mirrorless Camera Ever?

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    If you read my early impressions of the GH4 (or heck, virtually any review out there), you’ll know it’s a great camera in every right, mirrorless or not. Still, a few days with a camera is often not enough to form a full impression of its abilities. So after spending much more time with it, has my opinion changed?

    Well, no.

    If anything, the added time has cemented my opinion of the GH4 as the mirrorless camera to beat. It is all around one of the most versatile and reliable cameras I’ve ever used, marred by few real weaknesses. Most of this will focus on the GH4’s viability as a pro and action camera, as that’s where the GH4 really shines. As such, I’ll revisit some performance points and add some anecdotes from the review period.

    Focusing, revisited

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    The GH4 is still the quickest focusing camera I’ve used overall, but that statement doesn't really mean much – most mirrorless cameras using modern lenses focus at least as quickly as comparable DSLRs anyway. We must keep caution with specs and quantitative claims; what does focusing in 0.07 seconds matter if it a camera can’t focus at all in low light? Thankfully, the GH4 has both the specs and honest performance to lower that raised eyebrow.

    A solid argument could be made that the GH4 is the most versatile focusing camera on the market (especially for its price range). Throughout my 5 weeks or so with the camera, I used it to work three small weddings, a Microsoft conference, a 5K run, two engagements, a dimly lit award ceremony, and much of my everyday casual shooting. The GH4 handled all of these with aplomb.

    Firstly, the GH4’s AF laughs in the face of low light. I’ve never been in a situation where the camera refused to focus in the dark. Rated at going down to -6 EV, it may slow down a bit, sure, but accuracy remains top notch, and its speed better than any camera I’ve used without invoking the AF lamp. This adds to M4/3’s already strong advantage when it comes to being discrete.

    And then of course, there’s the AF-C and tracking performance. Let this sequence do the talking:


    You can also check out the full 15-shot sequence here. Spoiler alert: every shot is in acceptable focus: https://www.flickr.com/photos/118359258@N03/sets/72157644488787237/

    This certainly isn’t a fully representative selection; there were plenty of sets where the hit rate was only in the 70% range or so. But even then, at a 7fps burst rate, that’s a solid number of keepers. No CDAF-only system could achieve this performance before now, and Panasonic deserves some credit for sticking to their guns. It's a testament to how well the system works that I preferred to leave AF-C + Tracking on even when I didn't really need it.

    Perhaps more surprising then the actually-good AF-C performance from a CDAF-only system, the above sequence was shot on the Olympus 45mm F1.8. For once a manufacturer has undersold a camera’s performance. If you’re not aware, Panasonic emphasized the Depth From Defocus system which allegedly only works with their own lenses, but in many cases Olympus lenses focus nearly as quickly and accurately as the Panasonic ones. The Olympus 45mm F1.8, for example, focuses more quickly than the 25mm F1.4, even in C-AF and tracking modes. Though DFD may be the marketed feature, it really seems much or most of the improved continuous focusing performance actually comes from the added processing power and improved algorithms.

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    While this doesn’t mean you’ll be beating the very best DSLRs (and I’m talking Olympic-class cameras, most others it should at least match) at traditional AF-C performance, weighing the GH4's worth as it compares to PDAF cameras does the camera’s flexibility a disservice. After all, contrast-detect has its own benefits, such as being able to track focus around the entire frame. Additionally, the camera has a legitimately useful mode that allows you to create a focus area that looks virtually however you’d like it to.

    It’s not all perfect though, and sometimes the faults of the contrast-detect nature of the system shows. For instance, it can be difficult to begin tracking a subject from very far away if it initially only takes up a tiny portion of the frame – CDAF uses focus 'areas' rather than tiny points like PDAF systems do. I remedied this by simply resetting focus if I needed to. The GH4 will also sometimes hunt a little if you miss your aim and focus on something with no contrast, like the sky.

    It's also up to you to learn when it’s better to use AF-C and when to use AF-C plus tracking. In general, I found that I preferred AF-C in situations where I’d have to try to pan the camera along with my subject. If your subject is very erratic (like my two small dogs), you’ll have trouble keeping your own eyes on the subject, let alone the camera’s AF system. Like with any other camera, there are idiosyncracies you’ll need to embrace and work around.

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    If Panasonic is listening, one thing that could make the GH4’s hit rate much better in specific contexts is to have a mode that allows you to set the expected movement of your subjects, like some pro DSLR’s do. While I was more than happy with the focus capabilities of the GH4, that seems like it a very simple way to significantly increase the camera’s hit rate.. As an occasional sports photographer, if I know all of my subjects in a given time period are going to be running in a specific direction (such as in the 5K photos above, where I was stationed in a single spot for much of the shoot), the camera would have to work less at predicting what I’m trying to track. I can think of no technical reason why Panasonic wouldn’t be able to add such a feature through a firmware update.

    The GH4 also means manual focus becomes a viable option for shooting moving subjects, since the peaking is one of the better implementations I’ve seen. And of course, it provides an even more obvious advantage for videographers.

    By the way, for more tips on getting the most out of the most out of the GH4’s focusing performance, check out this post I wrote on the second page of my original review. If you’re a GH4 owner, you could find a lot of the information there valuable: https://www.mu-43.com/showthread.php?t=64316&p=643227#post643227

    Other performance notes and comparisons

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    AF accuracy isn’t the only thing the GH4 has going for it as a pro camera; there’s an all-around thoughtfulness that seems to have gone into the camera’s design. Subtler details emerge as you use the camera for an extended period of time.

    For example, while the EVF experience didn’t initially stand out much in light of the humongous EVF on the X-T1, after spending an equal period of time with both cameras, I found myself actually preferring the EVF on the GH4 for most scenarios. Yes, it’s smaller, but it’s not small, and any difference in latency is nigh imperceptible. The thing is, the X-T1’s super low latency feed is completely useless during continuous shooting at high frame rates, which is the only time you’d probably care about or notice any latency in the first place! On the X-T1, the A6000, and plenty of other mirrorless cameras you don’t actually get a live view feed when shooting at its maximum burst rate. Instead, the camera simply displays the last image it shot, and you’re left using the delayed visual feed to try your best guess as to where your subject is actually moving

    On the GH4, if you set the burst speed to medium (which will still give you the maximum 7fps AF-C burst), you get a live view feed while the shutter clicks away during AF-C. It makes the experience feel much more like using an optical viewfinder. In practice, that means that you can actually follow your subject while shooting a burst, something that is utterly essential for anything that moves erratically; tracking performance means little if you can’t keep your subject in the frame. The X-T1’s live view feed also gets very grainy in low light, which can make manual focusing and focus checking difficult, whereas the GH4 remains clear, albeit at a slightly reduced frame rate.

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    Tracking the crazier of my two dogs was easier on the GH4 than any other Mirrorless camera I've tried, mainly because I could see where she was going.​


    Additionally, the body provides you a huge amount of control, with plenty of buttons as well as customizable touch screen functions. One of the most useful features is the ability to change your focus point by using the touch screen while looking through the EVF – essentially turning the rear LCD into a touch pad - which easily works more quickly and accurately than any directional pad or knob on other cameras and makes adjusting focus points in between individual shots much more viable.

    In another pleasant surprise, the GH4’s Wi-Fi app is bar-none the best implementation I’ve seen on a mirrorless camera. Not only is the display lag surprisingly low, but you get control over almost everything you can do on the actual camera body, even allowing for manual focus if you’re using a native fly-by-wire lens. Images then transfer quickly to your phone. I’m sure some people would still like or prefer to have a way to tether to an actual computer, but I found myself using the Wi-Fi functionality a ton during my shoots. For the 5K run referenced earlier, I was able to perform quick edits using the VSCO Cam app on my phone, and have finalized photos I was happy with transferred to my clients within minutes. While for that type of time-sensitive shoot I’d normally provide SooC jpegs (which the GH4 is legitimately great with), this time I could work on quick edits right from my phone. In another instance, I was able to provide quick images for social media purposes to my wedding clients. Again, other cameras have Wi-Fi, but the GH4’s implementation is so well done that I actually wanted to use the future.

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    Wi-Fi normally takes a toll on battery life, but even using the feature lightly didn’t stop the GH4 from having the best battery life of any mirrorless camera to date. I never felt at risk of a battery draining on me. In one wedding shoot where I was using it along two other cameras, I shot approximately 1200 frames before the GH4’s battery even went down a notch, whereas the E-M5 died out around 600 shots, and the X-T1 around slightly less (with much less time turned on). Although one should have backup batteries anyway, I never have to worry about whether my battery is going to last me through an event or casual shooting day with the GH4. From what I’ve consistently heard, these claims apply to video recording as well, even in 4K.

    The GH4 has but one true Achilles’ heel: there’s no in-built image stabilization. I’m an E-M5 user, and the stabilization on that camera is second only to the E-M1. I had hoped that over time, I’d get used to the GH4’s lack of IBIS by using Panasonic’s stabilized lenses or wider primes. But it just wasn’t enough for me. While the GH4 performs noticeably better (though not hugely so) than the E-M5 at high ISOs and low light, with maybe half a stop less noise and much better color retention, the fact of the matter is that practically speaking, you don’t have to to push the E-M5 to such high ISOs thanks to its IBIS.

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    5-Axis consistently works as well as or better than Panasonic’s best Power O.IS. lenses. And for a system so dependent on its excellent primes, many of which are non-stabilized Olympus lenses, it’s a difference I simply can’t ignore. On the E-M5, the 5-axis is the great equalizer. It means that for many of my favorite lens combinations, I get end-results that could beat a similar full frame kit, let alone an APS-C one (so long as my subject isn’t moving much, obviously). Of course, Panasonic shooters are used to this brand distinction, but it becomes ever more so noticeable on the GH4 because it’s so close to being the perfect camera of the category.

    This even becomes an unfortunate anecdote for video too. The GH4 obviously has potential for exponentially better video than what the E-M5 can produce, but that doesn’t mean it starts out that way. For impromptu video shooting without any additional gear, the truth is that the E-M5 will probably produce better looking results – I’ll take a lower bit rate with IBIS over 4K shakycam for quick amateur and casual video. 5-Axis produces video that almost approximates Steadicam at most focal lengths, and ultimately contributes to better looking videos. I’m well aware of the technical issues preventing the GH4 from having IBIS, but I really hope they bring their best efforts to remedy this on the GH5. If they’re really good about it, they can one-up Olympus by providing combination in-body + optical stabilization for even better results.

    Final thoughts

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    What makes a camera 'good' isn’t just defined solely by how many good pictures you get out f it – we all know (I hope) that the photographer matters more than the camera, and that spectacular images have been created using anything from an iPhone to a Hasselblad. Instead, I’ve always defined a good camera as one that least impedes a photographer from achieving his creative vision. Of course, that vision will vary by person and shoot, but what makes the GH4 such a great tool is how flexible it can be for almost any type of photographer.

    If the E-M1 brought Micro Four Thirds (and by extension, the mirrorless category) into semi-pro territory, the GH4 confidently settles into that ground. It matches or exceeds the performance of competitors in most cases, and even brings additional functionality to set itself apart instead of just playing catch-up.

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    A lot of us tend to look for the great “everything camera”, the one camera to fill all our needs. The GH4 isn’t quite there yet, but compared to the competition, it’s about as close as you can get. Matters of preference will still come into play - I continue to gravitate towards cameras with IBIS, but that doesn't stop me from recognizing the GH4 for what it is. Not only is this camera undoubtedly the absolute best video camera you can get anywhere near its price, it will also be the best stills camera in its price range for many photographers of all kinds as well. It might just be the best mirrorless camera ever.

    I can’t wait to see what they come up with for the GH5.

    The GH4 is available for $1698 from B&H. Please note that buying camera gear by visiting a sponsor through links on Mu-43 helps us keep growing and is much appreciated; your price remains the same.

    [​IMG]
     
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  2. val

    val Mu-43 Top Veteran

    548
    Dec 19, 2013
    Australia
    William
    thanks for your long term review.

    While I have no intention of leaving M43 for the next few years, I am curious to see how the rest of the industry responds and how Panasonic go from here.
     
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  3. napilopez

    napilopez Contributing Editor

    826
    Feb 21, 2012
    NYC Area
    Napier Lopez
    Personally I'm wondering about Olympus - they've said for quite some time now that they will release a video-centric camera when the time is right.

    Also, the pressure for Canikon to go mirrorless is stronger now than ever. The GH4 has really been quite the sleeper hit after the initial underwhelming response, especially now that people realize how good of a stills camera it is too.

    I suspect the entire industry will be making improvements though, particularly to the overall user experience instead of just better specs and features.
     
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  4. hunyuan7

    hunyuan7 Mu-43 Regular

    140
    Aug 31, 2011
    Thank you for the review. I am thinking about a larger m4/3 set up and am leaning towards the GH4 for using longer focal length lenses and shooting video--especially the capability of taking pictures while shooting without the video getting interrupted. Other than the IBIS advantage of the E-M1, do you think that the GH3 can hold up in the rain and cold as well as the E-M1?
     
  5. nstelemark

    nstelemark Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    May 28, 2013
    Halifax, Nova Scotia Canada
    Larry
    Fantastic review - thanks.

    The GH4 is clearly very capable as a stills camera, I am frustrated that they did not apply the DFD algorithms to PDAF lenses. The lack of real tele options for m43 other than the excellent 4/3 glass makes the ability to drive a PDAF lens paramount if you are shooting tele, in my mind. The DFD software clearly approximates PDAF because you know which way to drive the lens, it is not simply "adjust back and forth" for contrast. IBIS of course is pretty important for this as well as you noted :smile: .

    There was a thread about the lack of progress in the m43 space [​IMG]. The E-M1 and GH4 should underline the rapid, radical progress this space is making. Not to mention the large array of fantastic glass
     
  6. Steven

    Steven Mu-43 All-Pro

    May 25, 2012
    USA
    Nice review. Thank you . I hope some of these features find their way int lower priced cameras as well .
     
  7. dougjgreen

    dougjgreen Mu-43 All-Pro

    Jun 5, 2013
    San Diego
    Doug Green
    Well, maybe it's the best video-centric Micro 4/3 camera, but it still lacks some key features to match the E-M1 as a still-centric camera, and those are good IBIS and PDAF.
     
  8. yorik

    yorik Mu-43 Veteran

    461
    Dec 23, 2013
    Scotts Valley, CA
    Yonatan
    Great review!

    But, was it really necessary to add more G.A.S. to the fire smoldering in my wallet? :smile:
     
  9. napilopez

    napilopez Contributing Editor

    826
    Feb 21, 2012
    NYC Area
    Napier Lopez
    Don't disagree with you about IBIS, but unless you're referring specifically to using legacy PDAF 4/3 lenses, the the GH4 focuses as well as or better than the E-M1 by all accounts. The E-M1 is better with some lenses, the GH4 is better with others. Not to mention the GH4 has much better battery life.

    Don't fully disagree with you though, IBIS is still very important to me as I work in low light very often. I also prefer the E-M1's handling. But I'd still classify the GH4 as being overall as good of stills camera as the E-M1. The GH4 is better at some things for stills, the E-M1 is better at others.
     
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  10. noohoggin1

    noohoggin1 Instagram: @tomnguyenstudio

    325
    May 21, 2012
    MN
    Tom
    thanks for your review; I rented the GH4 a couple weeks ago, and was impressed with it enough to ::gulp!:: place an order this morning. When I get a chance, I may add additional thoughts.
     
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  11. darrellc

    darrellc Mu-43 Regular

    112
    Aug 21, 2012
    I have both GH4 and EM1. I shoot mostly stills but want video capability in a camera as well. I haven't picked up the EM1 since I started shooting with the GH4. I'm considering keeping one of my two older EM5 bodies as a backup body and for IBIS and selling the EM1 (I'd intended to sell the EM5's once I had the EM1/GH4 combo). From a usability perspective, the GH4 just flows in use (and I've been shooting with the EM5 as my primary body for probably 18 months).
     
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  12. napilopez

    napilopez Contributing Editor

    826
    Feb 21, 2012
    NYC Area
    Napier Lopez
    I assume you're preferring to keep the E-M5 over the E-M1 because it's smaller? (not to mention the E-M1 will sell for more). I suppose you also won't care too much about C-AF performance in low light, so it's not like the E-M1 would give you advantage there, besides slightly improved IBIS performance.
     
  13. T N Args

    T N Args Agent Photocateur

    Dec 3, 2013
    Adelaide, Australia
    call me Arg
    A brilliant review, thank you Napier ..... BUT ...... those dogs are a worry. :wtf:
     
  14. wildwildwes

    wildwildwes Mu-43 Veteran

    456
    Jun 9, 2012
    Brooklyn, NY
    Thanks for sharing your opinions on the GH4. I also own both the E-M1 and the GH4.

    No doubt whatsoever that the GH4 reigns supreme over the E-M1 when it comes to video capture (hell, one highly respected "youtube" reviewer recently declared that he's selling his Canon 5D mk3 and collection of lenses in favor of the GH4, which he asserted bettered his Canon in every regard except in very low light...).

    As for stills, I still (no pun intended) MUCH prefer the IQ signature of the E-M1. Furthermore, Oly's 5 axis IBIS makes an already excellent PRO quality camera even better and if one's keeping track, puts another check-mark in favor of the Olympus. Olympus has been in the business of manufacturing still-photography optics and cameras since 1919. One learns a thing or two about building cameras and lenses after being at it for over 95 years! Panasonic on the other hand has been manufacturing video cameras for decades. This is definitely their area of expertise and they've truly raised the bar with some of the "video-centric" features implemented in the GH4.

    Each (GH4 / E-M1) is obviously excellent, and in the hands of a skilled photographer, either will capture images that will endure, inspire and take us back. The best mirrorless camera ever is the camera that enables you to capture your vision.
     
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  15. T N Args

    T N Args Agent Photocateur

    Dec 3, 2013
    Adelaide, Australia
    call me Arg
    Interesting.... does your comment on 'IQ signature' refer to jpeg files? I normally think of 'IQ signature' as referring to jpegs and lenses. If you are seeing something different in (16 MP, modern, µ4/3) raw files, it is probably your choice of converter and conversion settings, rather than anything in-camera.

    The comment about company history, I don't give weight to it. Frankly, it's biased thinking, if we want to be objective about camera performance.
     
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  16. napilopez

    napilopez Contributing Editor

    826
    Feb 21, 2012
    NYC Area
    Napier Lopez
    I think what impressed me with the GH4 IQ is how far Panasonic jpegs have come since the early days of M4/3. I seriously disliked the jpeg output from my old G3 (not GH3), and the GH4 is miles ahead of those. I've always been a huge fan of Oly jpegs, thinking they had the best rendering on the market, and their overall signature has hardly changed since the E-P1. But the GH4 is the first Panasonic camera I truly feel produces top class jpegs to match olympus'. I prefer them to Fuji JPEGs, which is saying something. While the preference of Panasonic vs Olympus JPEGs remains subjective, I think anyone would be hard pressed to say the GH4 produces bad jpegs. It also handles white balance and low light colors much better than my E-M5, although of course the E-M5 has an older JPEG engine. Greens are still kind of icky yellowish in some light though. I still lean a bitttt more towards olympus.

    Args is right that the RAW output should really not be very different, however one thing to note is that if you use Lightroom, Adobe now supports an extensive Olympus profile so you can FINALLY get real Olympus colors from Lightroom that are very close to the jpegs. Panasonic still doesn't have a profile, so while adobe's standard processing on the GH4 is better than it was with Olympus cameras, it's still not as good as the jpeg output under normal conditions.

    Still we have great options!
     
  17. darrellc

    darrellc Mu-43 Regular

    112
    Aug 21, 2012


    The GH4 jpegs are vastly improved over previous Panasonic bodies. I couldn't stand GH2 colors - certainly not JPEG and even the basic color science for RAW seemed off - I had a hard time getting colors right (for me) from GH2 RAW files.

    I was surprised to learn I really like the GH4 jpegs... they remind me of my Sony FF cam RAW colors (A7, esp. RX1), with a more muted, natural palette with smoother tonal transitions (guess that's how I'd describe it) vs. super punchy, contrasty Oly jpegs. But I really like the Oly jpegs too, just different and my preferences will vary by individual picture.

    My current preference for GH4 over EM1 is more about user experience and functionality.

    I share a bunch of MF lenses across m4/3 and FF bodies, and prefer the manual focusing aids implementation on the GH4. Focus peaking, for example, is a joke as implemented on the EM1.

    I love the ability to select a focus point on the lcd screen while using the EVF. I need to search to see if this is possible on the EM1 - it is a fantastic feature I use all of the time.

    I have my Oly cameras set up pretty well so I don't have to go into the menu structure, but the Panasonic menus are much easier to navigate - I usually have to hunt a while to find things in the Oly menus.

    I prefer the grip on the GH4 to the EM1.

    The silent electronic shutter is like IBIS - once you have it, you never want to do without!

    But IBIS is amazing, so I'll probably keep the EM5 body around as a backup when I'm traveling without my A7s (my low light camera that negates much of the IBIS advantage). I currently have a GM1 as my backup m4/3 body, but I miss a viewfinder and it really isn't pants pocketable with a lens attached (EM5 w/o grip will fit in a jacket pocket with a small lens attached), so I may sell and keep an EM5 as backup body.
     
  18. wildwildwes

    wildwildwes Mu-43 Veteran

    456
    Jun 9, 2012
    Brooklyn, NY
    Arg,

    I don't shoot JPEGs...

    As for your comment about being "objective" -- REALLY?!? What's objective about someone's opinion of a camera?!? What IS being objective is what I stated about Olympus (the company). They've been in the business for a long time and have created along the way cameras and optics that are highly respected. This is part in parcel of the evolutionary process that went into their current photography gear. The same is true of why Lumix cameras have excelled at "video" capture (Panasonic has been making video cameras for decades...) NOTHING biased about it mate! :rolleyes:

    Cheers-

    Wes
     
  19. M4/3

    M4/3 Mu-43 Top Veteran

    713
    Sep 24, 2011
    I've been using a GH4 daily for 2 months and I also have an E-M5. My E-M5 has been collecting dust mainly because I shoot video 90% of the time and because I have become totally addicted to the still photo like clarity of 4K footage.

    To get me back into their camp, Olympus needs to come out with a 4K model. And to blow the doors off the GH4, Olympus needs to combine 4K video capability with 5-axis or at least 3-axis image stabilization. With my GH4 I am forced to haul around a 3 foot long, 4 pound, $200 Benro Monopod to get steady footage. Panasonic enthusiasts are living in a world of denial when they claim the Power OIS lenses of Panasonic are a match for Olympus's 5-axis stabilization system. Just like they live in a world of denial about Panasonic jpegs being a match for Olympus.

    Ergonomically, the GH4 is a delight to use compared to the tiny, rubbery buttons of the E-M5. I really hope Olympus fights back with maybe an E-M2 that shoots 4K video because without 4K Olympus will fall into obscurity. The jpeg color advantage of Olympus is still there and will automatically carry into any 4K video model Olympus comes out with.

    Also worth mentioning is that while the GH4 is a class act video camera and a good still shooter, Panasonic warranty repair service is not. One GH4 reviewer on Amazon said it took 6 weeks for Panasonic to fix and return his camera and that it was a major nightmare trying to reach the Panasonic repair center by phone to place a repair order.

    The GH4 is selling like hot cakes because it shoots 4K and the public loves 4K. Hope Olympus realizes they will never have a hot selling high end model again unless it shoots 4K at a medium to high bitrate and has at least 3-axis image stabilization like the E-M10.
     
  20. T N Args

    T N Args Agent Photocateur

    Dec 3, 2013
    Adelaide, Australia
    call me Arg
    Then what do you think you are 'much preferring the IQ signature' of? Same lenses, both Panasonic sensors of same size and MP, shooting RAW ..... nothing to prefer?

    Perhaps there could be a characteristic exposure difference due to the way their metering works, but that's a difference that disappears the moment we load into PP and touch the exposure to what we want. Shoot on M and that slender differentiation disappears, too. (Oly cameras often had low ISO sensitivity so their images came out about a stop low and it gave them an illusion of 'rich colour', but with these two models having Panasonic sensors that difference is gone)

    Chill, friend! We can certainly be objective about whether your observed difference is happening in-camera or post-camera, and hence whether it is actually the cameras causing the 'much preferred IQ signature' of one over the other.

    We can also be objective about whether a recent entrant to a market is making a better product than an older company in that same market, without saying it's impossible because of their relatively recent arrival.