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