4k for under $2k: The Panasonic GH4
With all the new options for affordable 4k cameras, frequent forum contributor Eric Shepherd was wondering what the best DSLR camera is on the market right now. Taking cost and quality into consideration, he was kind enough to write this fantastic review of the GH4.
Take it away, Eric!
Having worked with cameras for years, I’ve been on the fence for a long time about which affordable 4k camera to buy. For me, being able to shoot in 4k has been incredibly helpful. 4k scaled down to 720p gives me a 5.6x zoom in post before exceeding 100%. That means I can turn my wide shot into a medium without losing quality. Recently, I’ve been shooting a lot of orchestral and choral performances. Being able to lock off a camera in a wide shot shooting at 4k is a game changer. With that running, I can roam with a second camera and in post, I can resize and reframe the footage from the 4k locked-off camera. That’s just not in the cards with 1080p.
I currently own Canon’s professional cinema camera, the EOS C100. I love the image quality and the ability to use Canon EF and EF-S lenses. It’s been a great camera on many shoots, including quite a few alongside the venerable Canon 5D (Mark II and III).
But… the C100 is too expensive for most folks and extremely lacking in still photography. It shoots 1920×1080 at best, and the images aren’t all that great. My Samsung Galaxy takes better photos.
This sent me on a…
Quest for the perfect DSLR camera
I realize that no single tool is ideal for every scenario, but I’d like to find the camera that’s closest. I’ve been looking into DSLRs seriously since last summer, and now, nearly a year later, I’ve narrowed it down. Here are my criteria:
- Shoot 1920×1080 at 24 and 30 fps, minimum
- Shoot 4k
- Use common lenses, preferably Canon EF mount because that’s what I own
- Full manual control
- Easy to access functions
- Buttons to reach common functions
- Headphone output
- Clean video output (no overlays)
- Look and feel like a serious camera
Over this past year, I tested and concluded the following:
There were countless others, but those are the ones that stuck out as contenders. This brings me to my…
Regular person’s review of the GH4
My approach was fairly straightforward: “let me see what I can do with this without ever looking at the manual.” I started off by shooting a few things inside and outside of our home, mostly macro shots of flowers. Things in nature always make good subjects. They don’t as get bored or tired as friends.
My first proper task was to shoot photos of my step-daughter and her boyfriend before their prom. Let’s start with…
Most of the pre-prom pictures I shot in iAuto mode, so the camera automatically chose the best iris, ISO, and picture settings for what it was seeing. Buy why use iAuto right off the bat? There are two reasons. First, I didn’t know if I could completely trust what I was seeing on the LCD, (though the histogram and peaking features were certainly helpful).
Secondly, we were in a hurry to get great shots with a camera I wasn’t super familiar in unpredictable lighting conditions. This was a great opportunity to see how well this camera would handle run-n-gun situations where I don’t have time to dial in everything manually. Conclusion? The GH4’s iAuto performed really well.
This is the original, unmodified JPEG image. I wanted you to see exactly what kind of quality comes from the camera and lens before any adjustments are made. More on the JPEG quality later.
Between the Menu, the Quick Menu and some other things, I found myself hunting for some settings. As with any camera, I imagine this would become more logical over time and cease to be a problem. The menus do seem a bit more convoluted than on other Panasonic cameras I’ve used, though they’ve all been video-only cameras.
After taking nature shots in the yard, my second real-world test of the GH4 was with my friend’s Audi RS7.
The RAW images have a lot more detail than these JPEGs do when I zoom in. I’m quite surprised actually at how rough the JPEGs look up close. It seems the compression algorithm they’re using isn’t as good as other DSLR cameras. Thankfully, the RAW images were great, but I expected more from the JPEGs. Not a deal breaker, but a consideration. One factor may be that it’s more forgiving on skin tones than on the car’s sharp chrome, so it’s more noticeable zooming in on images of the Audi.
At the time of this article, the GH4 is the only camera in its class that can record 4k internally. The Sony A7S is capable of 4k, but requires an external recorder. For the price, the GH4 stands alone and well ahead of any other DSLR on the market for shooting video.
Once you get the hang of the menu system, the 4k shooting quality is predictably awesome. Luckily, it’s pretty simple to get the camera in and out of 4k mode.
In the settings, the GH4 can be modified a little bit to look more “creamy” and “film-like,” and also shoots razor sharp footage with less moire’. So if you consider the “film look” is being soft and true 24fps, this camera can be dulled down a bit in-camera (or in post) to nail the look. I would definitely use an external 4k recorder if I was doing high-end film work or shooting for a 4k display. But I feel from what I’ve seen, and what other reviewers have said, that the 4k internal recording is perfectly fine for most projects I would encounter.
And here is some 4k video footage shot by Philip Bloom.
The GH4 shoots 23.97fps as well as true 24fps for those of you working in a cinema workflow. The 24fps mode is a little more roundabout to access, in that you have to go to the system settings and change the frequency from 60Hz or 50Hz to 24Hz and reboot the camera.
This video was shot in true 24fps.
96 Framer Per Second?!
The GH4 can shoot up to a whopping 96 frames per second at 1080p. For reference, the 5D Mark III can only hit 60 frames per second and that’s at 720p unless you have 1000x cards, so the GH4 blows it out of the water. The slow motion has been reported by some as being a little bit soft. But a larger group of people have been happy to see the ability to overcrank this camera to get smooth slow motion. I fall in the latter category. If there is any softness, it’s negligible. Sure, it’s not a Phantom HD slow-motion camera. But it doesn’t cost $200k either.
The footage above was shot by Philip Bloom. Using the nature theme, I came across a nice little bee’s nest being made and thought it would be another great test of the slo-mo capabilities. I’m quite impressed with the results here, as well:
I found the 12-35mm f-2.8 Lumix lens that came with the GH4 was very smooth throughout the entire zoom range. It could be built into a rig with a remote zoom control easily. The optical image stabilizer (OIS) worked quite well and I don’t believe I had more than a few still photos with motion blur out of the 1,500 or so pictures I took with the camera.
At f-2.8, the lens is fast enough to use in low-light situations, and the glass is of excellent quality.
The GH4 can also be purchased with a cheaper and slower 14-140mm zoom lens. But don’t let the long zoom range fool you. It’s f/3.5-5.6, which is too slow for many low-light situations. If you can spare the change, I’d go for the 12-35mm any day. If you need a longer lens, get a prime to bring along with you.
If you’re a Canon user, you should know that when Metabones’ active EF to MFT (Micro Four-Thirds) SpeedBooster adapter is released, your Canon glass will mount to the GH4, and will have a faster speed at the same time (lower f-stop/larger aperture opening). If you haven’t looked into these, they’re quite fascinating little pieces of gear.
The articulated LCD is huge for low or high angle shots. If you’re not working with an external monitor, just tilt the LCD so you can compose your shot from just about any angle.
The GH4 sports a 16.05 MP MOS micro four-thirds (MFT) sensor. Pixel count alone doesn’t determine image quality. While the GH4’s sensor is powerful, the MFT size comes with an upside and a downside.
Let’s start with the good news. If you’ve ever worked with a full frame camera like the Canon 5D, you know how insanely shallow the depth of field is. Even though it’s meant to replicate the shallow depth of field of film cameras, it’s actually more shallow than 35mm film. When your depth of field is that shallow, it makes it nearly impossible to keep your shot in focus. Good luck in unpredictable situations. The GH4’s smaller MFT sensor still gets you a shallow depth of field, but it gives you some breathing room. And if you want a deep depth of field, that’s possible too.
Ok, now onto the bad news. Take a look at the image to the right. It’s comparing Super 35mm at 16:9 to MFT at 16:9. There’s a crop factor of 2x a full frame sensor, meaning footage shot on a 35mm lens meant for full frame camera will look like it was shot on a 70mm lens on the GH4. It’s not a huge issue, but if you’re going to be swapping out lenses, you need to be aware that the smaller sensor will punch in the shot size quite a bit compared to full frame sensors.
The remote functions via WiFi were really handy. My only experience with this is using a GoPro Hero 3 Black Edition last summer, which was quite unrefined, but a valiant effort, nonetheless.
I used my Samsung Galaxy S5 (Android) phone to connect to the GH4, the setup was VERY easy. I’ve heard horror stories about the Canon 70D when setting up a network between a mobile device and that camera. Not the case with the GH4. Setup was a breeze, and the image updating was faster than on the GoPro. It had a slight delay from what the camera was seeing, which could be critical for getting the perfect shot from a distance, but not a show-stopper if you’re aware of it.
The best part was being able to review footage from my Galaxy S5’s larger screen. This would work great with a tablet on on a shoot. Imagine being able to hand the client a tablet for review. Or being able to adjust props on set while looking at the frame in real-time. Awesome.
This is the biggest sticking point with this camera, and it’s one Panasonic is scrambling to fix. No matter what mode you’re recording in, the GH4 produces a buzzing sound. Doesn’t matter what mode you’re recording audio in. The best fix is to keep the gain as low as possible and make sure you’re recording a strong audio signal, which will bury the buzz in the recording.
To totally avoid it, record dual-system sound and sync in post. The Tascam DR-60D is a great choice because it records high quality sound, but you can still mount it to your camera and tripod. Then just use the camera sound as a scratch track to assist syncing.
As you know, high quality mics use balanced low-z XLR cables, which the GH4 doesn’t have inputs for. So if you do want to record high quality sound with the camera, you’ll need a quality XLR adapter like the BeackTek DXA SLR Pro that will convert the low-z signal coming in through your mic’s XLR cable to a high-z signal, which runs through a short 3.5mm cable that plugs into the GH4.
BeachTek DXA SLR Pro
The Final Verdict
So what is my final verdict on the Panasonic GH4? Let’s look at some contenders:
I really the Canon 70D because of the cool dual-pixel autofocus system and the ability to use all of my Canon EF glass. But even though it seems like a steal at $1,000 online, the 70D is doesn’t get you 4k, slo-mo, or audio monitoring. It also doesn’t have a clean HDMI output, so higher quality external recordings or sending a feed to a live switcher for IMAG or live streaming functions is out of the question.
The A7S has the crazy low-light capabilities, but it’s more expensive and requires even more money to record the 4k output to a separate recorder. If I had the budget for an external recorder to use its 4k abilities, I’d be all in. But for my immediate purposes, I want something a little lighter on the wallet.
Canon 5D Mark III
Even though this is the reigning king of DSLRs, it doesn’t shoot 4k and is much more expensive than the GH4. The camera is tested, tried and true, but I want the next big thing.
Black Magic 4k Production Camera
The Super 35mm sensor, Canon EF lens mount and 4k capability make this a viable contender. It’s a fantastic choice for anyone looking for a high-end cinema camera. But it doesn’t shoot stills, which I do often, and at $1,000 more than the GH4, it’s a bit more than I need.
My final verdict is, at less than $2,000, the Panasonic GH4 is really too good to pass up, especially since Panasonic has been responsive about the audio buzz issue.
I will be ordering my own GH4 tomorrow morning.
Eric J. Shepherd
Eric (at) NewOrderDesign (dot) com