Panasonic GH4

19th May 2014 | 11:40

Panasonic GH4

Panasonic has given its top-end CSC a 4K revamp

TechRadar rating:

4.5 stars

The GH4 has some of our most sought-after features; a high-resolution EVF, a vari-angle screen that's touch-sensitive and Wi-Fi connectivity. It's also weather- and dust-proof and takes great-looking images.

Like:

4k video recording; Focus peaking; Durable build with 200,000-cycle shutter life

Dislike:

Smaller than APS-C sensor; 'Just' 16Mp

Introduction

Ratings in depth
Design 3.5Features 5Performance 4.5Usability 4Value 3.5

The Panasonic GH3 is widely regarded as a great compact system camera for shooting video, but its stills capability has been rather overlooked. Despite the fact that its headline specification is its ability to shoot 4K video, Panasonic is hoping that the GH4 will gain greater respect for its ability as a stills camera.

The company has clearly invested a lot of time and effort in improving on the GH3 for the GH4, and the new range-topping camera has an extensive list of new or enhanced features. However, some may be surprised to learn that the sensor's pixel count has stayed the same, 16.05 million, even though the sensor is completely new.

Features

Panasonic has coupled the new 16.05-million-pixel Digital Live MOS sensor with the Venus Engine IX processor. This is a new processing engine, as the Panasonic GX7 has the Venus Engine VIII and the GH3 has the VII version. According to Panasonic this enables the GH4 to produce the best images quality of any G-series camera.

Panasonic GH4 review

As it has four times as many pixels in every frame than Full HD recording, 4K video is very demanding on processing power. Consequently the Venus Engine IX is a quad-core processor. In addition, the sensor has twice the readout speed of the GH3, reaching 200Mb/s.

According to Panasonic's Michiharu Uematsu, this sensor and processor combination enables the GH4 to produce very slightly better quality images than the GX7, which was previously claimed to produce the best quality images of any G-series camera.

Clearly the company is confident of the GH4's noise control, as sensitivity may be set in the native range of ISO 200-25,600, with ISO 100 as an expansion setting. In comparison the GH3 has a range of ISO200-12800, with ISO125 and ISO 12,800-25,600 being available as expansion settings.

In single-AF mode the GH4 can shoot continuously at up to 12 fps (frames per second) with a UHS-III SD format card installed. This rate drops to 7.5fps in continuous autofocus mode. Panasonic will introduce a UHS-III card when the GH4 comes to market.

One of the challenges for compact system camera manufacturers has been to improve the speed of their autofocusing, because they use the traditionally slower contrast detection system. Panasonic has introduced a new approach for the GH4, which uses its novel DFD (Depth from Defocus) Technology.

This system looks at the contrast of the scene at two different defocused points to help it calculate the correct focus point more quickly. Panasonic claims that this enables the GH4 to achieve a focus time of 0.07 sec whereas the GH3 achieved 0.09 sec.

Panasonic GH4

The faster processing engine, quicker sensor read-out and cleaner signal should enable the camera to focus its lens in poorer light, and Uematsu says that the GH4 can focus down to -4EV. Uematsu is also keen to emphasise that all the improvements required to allow 4K recording have a positive knock-on effect for still images.

In addition, the camera has a 49-area AF system (the GH3 has 23 areas) and the selection method may be set to Face/Eye Detection, Tracking, 49-Area, 1-Area, Pinpoint or the new Custom Multi mode. In the latter mode the active AF points can be limited to a row or column of points, or two a group (or two) or pattern defined by the user. The row or column option could be especially useful when panning with a moving subject and wanting to keep one plane sharp.

Focus peaking was high on the list of demands for the GH3, but it never arrived in a firmware update. Happily, the GH4 has focus peaking to help with manual focusing and video recording by highlighting the areas of highest contrast. This is accompanied by the picture-in-picture view first seen with the GX7 to allow the whole scene to be seen while an enlarged view is visible.

In addition, there's also now a Zebra view which indicates bright areas in the scene that are in danger of burning out.

Panasonic has improved both the electronic viewfinder and the three-inch vari-angle screen since the GH3, giving the two devices in the GH4 higher resolutions of 2,359,000-dots and 1,036,000-dots respectively. As before, both are OLED units and the main screen is touch-sensitive.

Panasonic GH4

The GH4 is capable of shooting video at a range of resolutions, including Full HD, in addition to 4K, and there are options to shoot in MOV, MP4, AVCHD Progressive (4K can be shot in MOV and MP4) formats at a range of frame rates.

To maintain the best image possible Panasonic crops the GH4's image to create the 4K rectangle. As a result the focal length of the lens effectively lengthens by approximately 17%.

Cropping the image produces better quality footage than using zooming or interpolation technology. Those who want the very best video quality, however, will need to invest in the optional Interface Unit that bolts onto the bottom of the camera. This enables clean, uncompressed 4K footage to be recorded to an external device.

Panasonic GH4 review

It also has two XLR microphone ports, a phantom power supply for mics and four SD video-out sockets. This unit also adds audio monitoring and control capability, as well as the ability to use an external timecode to synchronise several cameras.

Panasonic will distribute the GH4's Interface Unit through its professional video and channel, as it will appeal to professional videographers who plan to use the GH4 as part of a rig with an external monitor, recording facility and so on.

Like the GH3, the GH4 has Wi-Fi connectivity built in, but this is joined by an NFC chip to enable quick connection to other NFC devices such as Android phones and tablets. As before, the GH4 can be controlled remotely using Panasonic's free smartphone app via a Wi-Fi connection.

As it sits at the top of Panasonic's camera line-up, the GH4 is aimed at experienced photographers and, naturally, it has the usual program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual exposure modes. However, there's also Panasonic's Intelligent Auto (iA) mode to help less experienced photographers and the Creative Control options that apply digital filter effects (Rough Monochrome and so on) to JPEG images.

As a Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera, the GH4 is compatible with a wide range of optics from Panasonic and Olympus, as well as a handful from Sigma, Tokina and Voigtlander.

Because the sensor is smaller than full-frame, there's a 2x focal length multiplication factor. As a result, the Panasonic Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm f/2.8 Asph lens, for example, has a focal length range equivalent to a 24-70mm optic on a 35mm camera when shooting stills. Meanwhile the 14-140mm lens, which is available as a kit with the GH4, gives an angle of view similar to a 28-280mm optic.

Build and handling

There are only a few noticeable differences in the appearance of the GH4 in comparison with the GH3, they are very closely matched in size and weight and have an almost identical control layout.

The eye-cup around the electronic viewfinder (EVF) is slightly larger on the GH4 to offer a little more shade from strong sunlight, for example. There's also a lock button at the centre of the mode dial to prevent it from being knocked out of position. This lock is our preferred type that clicks to lock or unlock so the button doesn't need to be held down when rotating the dial.

There's also a new Time Lapse Shot option on the drive mode dial on the top-plate of the camera. Time lapse recording can be set to start immediately, or it can be delayed by up to 23 hours and 59 minutes. The recording interval can also be set from 1 second to 99 minutes and 59 seconds with a maximum of 9,999 images being possible.

As before, the GH4 has a magnesium alloy body that is dust- and splash-proof. It has the same solid feel as the camera it replaces. However, Panasonic has bolstered the GH4's durability by giving its shutter a life-span of 200,000 cycles, double that of the GH3.

Panasonic GH4

We found that the GH4's 2.359-dot electronic viewfinder (EVF) gives a very clear view with plenty of detail in most situations, but left eye users may come across a few occasions when their eye isn't completely straight towards it, causing some parts of the scene to look soft or slightly distorted.

The 3-inch 1,036,000-dot LCD screen also offers a very clear view and images look great on it as there's a pleasing level of contrast. It's also very responsive to the touch, making it a great way of selecting AF points and other setting options.

Because the screen is on a vari-angle hinge it's useful when composing images at unusual angles in portrait and landscape format, and it encourages more creative shooting. There's also an electronic level that turns from yellow to green when the camera is held level, so you can be sure that the horizon will be on an even keel. There are a few occasions, however, when it would be nice to make the level's indicator line a little more visible than it is.

The arrangement of the button and dial controls on the GH4 is the same as on the GH3 and it all makes good sense. In addition to the exposure and drive mode dials there are buttons on the top-plate to reach the white balance, sensitivity and exposure compensation options.

A switch on the back of the camera also provides a quick and convenient means of selecting single or continuous autofocus or manual focus. In addition, there are five physical buttons that can be customised to access your most commonly used features. However, we found the default options were a good choice.

Panasonic GH4

There are a further five virtual function buttons available on the screen. Two of these have default purposes, but the remaining three are free.

The Quick menu, which by default is accessed by pressing the Fn2 (Function 2) button (also marked Q Menu) also provides a route to a useful collection of features, but even better news is that this can be customised to reach your favourite options.

Although the GH4's control layout is generally good, there is some room for improvement and aspects of the operating system could do with a rethink. It seems strange, for example, that it's possible to shoot in aperture priority mode in most of the Creative Control modes, Miniature Effect being the exception, but the effects are only available via the Creative Control option on the mode dial and exposure has to be adjusted via the menu.

It would be simpler if the Creative Control options were accessible when the mode dial was set to aperture priority (and preferably the other exposure mode options) in the same way as the Photo Styles. After all, both of these feature sets allow raw and JPEG recording simultaneously, and both affect aspects such as colour, contrast and sharpening. It would make more sense to the user if they were accessed via the same route.

Similarly, despite the complexities of achieving 4K movies, the user will find it strange that Full HD options can be accessed in program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual exposure mode, whereas the 4K recording options can only be accessed when the mode dial is set to Video. Similarly, 4K recording is only possible in video mode.

Panasonic GH4 review

The GH4 has an NFC chip to enable speedy connection to other NFC enabled devices, but it can also be connected quickly and easily to iOS devices because the screen can display a QR code which conveys all the necessary information for the initial set-up. Panasonic's free Image App enables the GH4 to be controlled remotely by a smartphone or tablet with control over key features and images to be transferred for sharing.

Performance

As a general rule the GH4 produces great looking images with good exposure, pleasing contrast, natural colours and good detail.

Zooming into 100% on-screen reveals that some JPEG images don't have quite the fine detail or micro contrast that we see from other cameras, but at sensible viewing sizes they look great. As is often the case, simultaneously captured raw files have more detail. At higher sensitivity settings they also have more noise, but this can be dealt with on an image-by-image basis to produce a good result.

Noise is controlled well throughout the sensitivity range, but detail isn't maintained quite as well as by the Fuji X-T1, for example, at higher sensitivity settings.

Panasonic GH4 review

At 100% on-screen JPEGs look good up to around ISO 3200. Above this figure softening becomes more apparent. Raw files have chroma noise visible at 100% from around ISO 800, but it's within acceptable limits, and as mentioned before, can be subjected to reduction as required.

By ISO 12,800, however, raw files need more careful editing to conceal noise and preserve detail. The highest value (ISO 25,600) produces respectable results, but as is often the case, it's best kept for emergencies.

Panasonic claims that the GH4's AF system can operate down to an incredible -4EV and our testing indicates that with the right lens it is quite a bit better in low-light than previous G-series cameras. We were impressed by how quickly it was able to focus with the new Leica DG Notricon 42.5mm f/1.2 ASPH O.I.S in very dim conditions, but this is a super-fast lens with a high price to match.

The 12-35mm f/2.8 lens, which gives a focal length range equivalent to the popular 24-70mm on a full-frame camera, also delivers sharp subjects quickly, but we found the new 14-140mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens a little more variable – especially at the telephoto end.

In good light the AF system is generally very fast and it can keep pace with moving subjects when the AF point is in the correct location. Tracking AF mode has also improved, but it can't be relied upon to follow a fast moving subject around the frame.

Panasonic GH4 review

The autofocus system changes pace when movies are being recorded and a touch of the screen to change focus point sees the focus shift smoothly and (comparatively) slowly, creating a professional looking result.

Panasonic's metering and white balance systems have been found to be good performers in the past, producing well-exposed, natural-looking images. The GH4 doesn't disappoint as it's automatic white balance system produces natural-looking results in a wide range of lighting conditions. In natural light the results when shooting using the automatic settings are often indistinguishable from those taken using the daylight setting.

Although the GH4 has the usual trio of metering modes (Multiple, Centreweighted and Spot) we found that the general-purpose 1,728-zone multi-pattern metering delivers great results in most situations. In fact there were relatively few times when we had to use the exposure compensation facility to adjust exposure.

As usual the GH4 is supplied with Silkypix software for editing images and converting raw files. In reality few users are likely to use this software, preferring Adobe's more refined and better specified options: Photoshop CC, Lightroom 5 or Elements 12. Silkypix has most of the controls that you need but it isn't especially intuitive or pleasant to use and prospective GH4 owners will be looking forward to the Camera Raw update that makes raw file processing possible with Photoshop.

We haven't been able to test the GH4's video capability extensively, but it's clear that it produces high quality footage. As with still images, exposure, white balance and colour is good and there's plenty of detail visible.

Image quality and resolution

As part of our image quality testing for the Panasonic GH4 review, we've shot our resolution chart. These images were captured using a full-production sample of the camera.

For a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them, check out our full explanation of our camera testing resolution charts.

Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:

JPEG

ISO 100

ISO 100

ISO 100, Score: 28. Click here to see the full resolution image.

ISO 200

ISO 200, Score: 28. Click here to see the full resolution image.

ISO 400

ISO 400, Score: 26. Click here to see the full resolution image.

ISO 800

ISO 800, Score: 26. Click here to see the full resolution image.

ISO 1600

ISO 1600, Score: 26. Click here to see the full resolution image.

ISO 3200

ISO 3200, Score: 24. Click here to see the full resolution image.

ISO 6400

ISO 6400, Score: 22. Click here to see the full resolution image.

ISO 12800

ISO 12800, Score: 20. Click here to see the full resolution image.

ISO 25600

ISO 25600, Score: 16. Click here to see the full resolution image.

Raw

ISO 100

ISO 100, Score: 26. Click here to see the full resolution image.

ISO 200

ISO 200, Score: 26. Click here to see the full resolution image.

ISO 400

ISO 400, Score: 26. Click here to see the full resolution image.

ISO 800

ISO 800, Score: 24. Click here to see the full resolution image.

ISO 1600

ISO 1600, Score: 24. Click here to see the full resolution image.

ISO 3200

ISO 3200, Score: 24. Click here to see the full resolution image.

ISO 6400

ISO 6400, Score: 22. Click here to see the full resolution image.

ISO 12800

ISO 12800, Score: 20. Click here to see the full resolution image.

ISO 25600

ISO 25600, Score: 16. Click here to see the full resolution image.

Noise and dynamic range

We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.

A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.

For more more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests.

Here we compare the Panasonic GH4 with the GH3, Fuji XT-1, Olympus OMD-EM1 and Canon EOS 70D. These images were captured using a full-production sample of the Canon 6D.

JPEG signal to noise ratio

Signal to noise

This graph shows that the GH4 produces JPEG files that compete very well with the other cameras in the group, indicating that images are fairly clean. However, it seems that is at the expense of detail at higher sensitivtiy settings.

Raw signal to noise ratio

Raw signal to noise

The GH4 is the clear winner for raw file (after conversion to TIFF) signal to noise ratio, indicating that noise is controlled well. However, comparing its resolution scores with those of the Fuji X-T1, for example, reveals that it cannot record as much detail at the higher sensitivity settings.

JPEG dynamic range

JPEG dynamic range

These results show that the GH4 has a generally high JPEG dynamic range, but there is some variation which may arise from slight changes in image processing.

Raw dynamic range

Raw dynamic range

The GH4's raw files (after conversion to TIFF) are unusually consistent across the sensitivity range. This means that images captured at high sensitivity settings have only slightly fewer tones than those captured at low levels. However, the range of tones in real world images captured at the highest ISO values have a lot of noise which masks the tones and detail.

Sensitivity and noise images

ISO 100

Full ISO 100 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.

JPEG

ISO 100

ISO 100 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 200

ISO 200 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 400

ISO 400 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 800

ISO 800 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 1600

ISO 1600 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 3200

ISO 3200 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 6400

ISO 6400 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 12800

ISO 12800 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 25600

ISO 25600 Click here to see the full resolution image

Raw

ISO 100

ISO 100 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 200

ISO 200 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 400

ISO 400 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 800

ISO 800 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 1600

ISO 1600 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 3200

ISO 3200 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 6400

ISO 6400 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 12800

ISO 12800 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 25600

ISO 25600 Click here to see the full resolution image

Sample images

Focal length

The GH4's 2x focal length conversion helped with this shot taken at the telephoto end of the 14-140mm kit lens to give a nicely filled frame. Click here to see the full resolution image.

White balance

The automatic white balance system has produced an excellent result here. The colours look natural and the exposure is perfect. Click here to see the full resolution image.

Noise

This handheld shot was taken at ISO 1600. Noise is very well controlled and the details look great at normal viewing sizes. Click here to view the full resolution image.

Contrast

Pushing the contrast setting of the Monochrome Photo Style to its maximum setting has produced a great result-in-camera, but it was nice to have the raw file with all the colour data to convert post-capture if necessary. Click here to view the full resolution image.

Exposure

Rather than underexposing in the face of the bright sky and reflections, the GH4's metering system delivered a bright result. In fact we dialled in -1/3EV exposure compensation to retain a bit more of the sky. Click here to view the full resolution image.

Low angle shot

The vari-angle screen proved useful here to allow a low angle shot. The AF point was set with a tap of the screen and the level view ensured that the horizon looks right. Click here to view the full resolution image.

AF system

This scene proved quite tricky for the GH4's AF system with the 14-140mm lens at it's maximum focal length even though the AF point was set at the edge of the man's silhouette to give contrast. Click here to view the full resolution image.

Macro lens

There's an excellent range of compatible lenses for Micro Four Thirds cameras these days. This shot was taken using the Panasonic 45mm Macro lens. Click here to view the full resolution image.

Verdict

Although Panasonic may want to promote the GH4 as a stills camera, the fact that it is the first compact system camera to record 4K video means it has grabbed the attention of keen videographers.

The company has also boosted the camera's video capability with focus peaking and zebras – both of which are of use to stills photographers, but which have their origins in video. Plus there's the Interface Unit to allow serious and professional video shooters to build a professional rig around the camera for a fraction of the usual cost.

The fact that the company has stuck with the same pixel count as the GH3 on its sensor means that it doesn't make really significant strides with detail resolution, but the images do look a little nicer straight from the camera and noise is better controlled.

It's interesting to note that while the Nikon D800 was greeted with great enthusiasm, not least because of its 36Mp sensor, and there are numerous cameras available with 18-24Mp sensors, 16Mp sensors are still widely accepted. The Nikon Df is a particular case in point. However, the Df is a full-frame sensor (36x23.9mm) that allows the pixels to be large (comparatively), whereas the Four Thirds sensor in the GH4 is smaller than APS-C format at 17.3x13mm, so 16Mp is pushing its capability further.

There are significant benefits to having a smaller sensor, the smaller size of the camera and lenses being the most obvious. There's also the opportunity to have better image quality across the whole frame because (with the right design) the sensor can cover the lens's image circle more easily. However, a small sensor limits the potential size of the pixels and this gives Panasonic a challenge when it comes to controlling noise.

Panasonic GH4 review

The GH4 can resolve a similar amount of detail to the Nikon Df at lower and mid-range sensitivity settings. However, neither it nor the Df can quite match the Fuji X-T1 for detail.

Panasonic has also taken a step forward in autofocusing with the GH4. It's fast and accurate in most situations and can keep up with moving subjects when the active AF point is in the correct location. It can focus on subjects in pretty low light.

As we have found before with Panasonic G-series cameras, the GH4 has a very capable automatic white balance system and the multiple-zone meter system can be relied upon to deliver correctly exposed images in many situations.

We like

The GH4 has some of our most sought-after features in a modern camera; a high-resolution EVF, a vari-angle screen that's touch-sensitive, the ability to shoot raw and JPEG images when using Creative Control filter effects and Wi-Fi connectivity that allows the camera to be controlled remotely. The camera body is also weather- and dust-proof so it can be used in a wide range of conditions. All of these aspects combine to encourage creativity.

We dislike

While the GH4 is comfortable to hold, its SLR-like design lacks the attractiveness of some retro-styled models like the Fuji X-E2, X-T1 and the Olympus OM-D E-M1. It's also a little bigger than most compact system cameras, it can't be tucked in a jacket pocket or small bag as easily as the Olympus OM-D E-M10, for example.

We'd also like Panasonic to look at how some of the GH4's features are accessed so that similar options, such as the Photo Styles and Creative Controls, are located together and afford a similar level of control.

Verdict

Holding the GH4 doesn't instil the same level of excitement in us as picking up the Olympus E-M10 or one of Fuji's X-series CSCs, but it is an excellent camera that makes it easy to shoot high quality images in a range of situations.

The fully articulating touchscreen is extremely useful when shooting from awkward angles in either portrait or landscape format and is a real bonus for creative photography. It's also great to be able to control the camera remotely via a smartphone and share images quickly on social media sites via a Wi-Fi connection.

Further good news is that our tests reveal that Panasonic's claim that the GH4 produces the best image quality of any of its G-series camera is true.

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