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Panasonic Lumix GH4: Truly A Professional Camera?

Lumix GH4, Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens, f1.8, 1/5000s, ISO 200, JPG straight from camera.

I’m working on a post that will explain why I’m in the market to replace my D800. In the meantime, I’ve been utilizing LensRental.com’s excellent service to try out some of the hot cameras on the market right now. This week I was lucky enough to get my hands on the brand new Lumix GH4. I’m pretty sure I was even the first one to use this item. It’s hard to tell, though, because everything I get from LensRentals is always in pristine condition. In fact, my favorite thing about renting from them is that the camera sensors are always spotless, and the lenses are always clean and flawless (that’s more than I can say for my own equipment).

You may have heard that the GH4 is Panasonic’s hot new Micro 4/3 camera body. If so, you probably heard that it also shoots 4K video (in fact, you may have heard all this on the recent Photofocus Podcast). If you’re like most of us out there, however, you’re probably wondering what I’m talking about and why I’m considering a camera that’s not a Canon or a Nikon, and you’re probably wondering what the heck 4K video is, too.

Nikon and Canon watch out!

Mirrorless is an unfortunate description for these cameras–they are basically the same as a Digital Single Lens Reflex camera, but they lack the mirror that reflexes when you press the shutter button. Calling them Micro 4/3 (four thirds) is little better; why is it named for the ratio of one side to the other? It shoots an image that is 4 units on one side and 3 units on the other, whereas DSLR’s shoot an image 2 units by 3 units. This is the same shape that the most common medium format cameras have used for decades. However, Mirrorless and Micro 4/3 (or MFT) are the names we’re stuck with for now.

Panasonic GH4, Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens, f/3.5, 1/125s, ISO 200.
Panasonic GH4, Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens, f/3.5, 1/125s, ISO 200. Click on the images in this post to view them larger.

The huge advantage to the mirrorless setup is that the viewfinder is an LCD screen and what you see is exactly how your image will appear–the exact exposure you see is what the camera will record. Yep, no more guessing if the light meter is right or ruining a whole set of images because you bumped a setting and didn’t realize it. You get to chimp as you shoot, and that is marvelous (although, if you mount a flash trigger it automatically switches to allow you to see what you’re focussing on since the exposure with flash will be nothing like the what you see before the flash fires; this is good, and far superior to my experience with the Sony a7r).

Nikon and Canon cameras allow you to use live view with similar results (on some bodies) but you have to look at the large LCD, and if you hold your camera out in front of you at a wedding and look at the screen to compose your picture I will personally fly down and confiscate your camera. Nothing screams “inexperienced newbie” like using the back LCD, which is also the least stable position for making sharp images. But with the live viewfinder you get that WYSIWYG advantage without giving yourself away. (Caveats: Yes, Nikon has the 1 system, but I’m not interested in an even smaller sensor, and Canon’s M body was intriguing, but huge lenses on a small body are not better; this is a whole different form factor and it’s not a compromise).

One more dig on Canon and Nikon: this camera is fully weather sealed…including that articulating screen that the big boys claim is so difficult to weather proof.

Two sneaky advantages for Pros

Pro’s know when they press the shutter button that the picture will be perfect, right? Well, with this live viewfinder they definitely do, but one huge advantage is that you can review the images in the viewfinder, too. every function that happens on the large LCD can be done inside the viewfinder. That means that I can review images and do my chimping without my client seeing that I’m staring at the LCD screen. Also, viewing the images in bright sunlight is easy in the viewfinder–my Hoodman Hood Loupe may find its way to CraigsList.

Although I said above that using the large LCD screen on a DSLR to compose a picture is unprofessional looking, using the fully articulating flip out LCD on the GH4 is a really powerful way to compose. Think waste level compositions, and also 90 degree candid shooting–looking straight down at the LCD, while the camera is pointing sideways at your subjects. I’ve been getting terrific pictures with kids this way. So I can compose sneakily and also sneak peeks at my pictures without alerting my clients and subjects.

Did I say sneaky? The GH4 has a silent mode which records images without making any noise. At all. Totally silent. Golf, movie sets, weddings, sleeping infants, private investigators…everybody will love this.

Can I use it on a pro shoot?

I used this camera this week on three shoots for my best clients. The image from the top of this post is one of the portraits we made on the side during a shoot–it’s the art director. This image is straight from the camera with no processing at all. The jpgs are the best I’ve seen. look at the smooth transition of colors in the skin from very light to very dark. There’s color there all the way across without losing the subtle changes in color and tone. Also, this is shot wide open on the incredible Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens. WHAT?!?! You can use Olympus lenses on a Panasonic camera? Yep, all MFT lenses work on all MFT bodies, which is pure genius. If Canon L lenses are so good, don’t you think Canon would want to sell them to Nikon users, too? Not so. In this system, however, any lens is up for grabs, and this 75mm is definitely on my wish list. Look how sharp it is even wide open!

GH4-7

A concern I’ve thought of is showing up at a job with a small camera like this and wondering what the client will think. Firstly, Giulio Sciorio is one pro who has been using MFT cameras for big shoots for several years and he’s never had a problem. My clients had no problem, either: they hired me, not my camera. Secondly, I think I’d say something like, “Oh, yes, those big cameras are cool–they’re the same style my grandfather used. This, however, is the latest technology. Nothing but the best for your images.”

How were the controls? Was it easy to use?

I’ve been teaching beginner photographers for five years, and I’ve used every model of Canon and Nikon DSLR since 2009. I can pick up any of those cameras and get the settings to where I want so I can shoot the way I like. Autofocus is the most important setting I need to adjust. The GH4 fit right in, and I was shooting comfortably within minutes of loading an SD card. I can adjust the focus point with ease and the other controls are all very intuitive. It’s a pleasant mix of Canon and Nikon styles, and I think anyone coming from either of those platforms would figure it out pretty quickly.

The large LCD is also a touch screen. I’ve been annoyed with touch screens on the Rebels I’ve used–it always seemed that they were sensitive in the wrong ways and they blacked out every time I waved my hand across the screen to indicate something to a student because the viewfinder sensor was too sensitive and blacked out the screen for shooting. This screen is just about perfect. It’s useful when I want it, but I can use the buttons I’m familiar with instead. The sensitivity is good, too, and I don’t have trouble with the black outs. I love folding the screen away and knowing that it won’t get scratched if I bump into something.

Panasonic GH4, 7-14mm f/4 lens, f/8, seven frame HDR, ISO 200. Me in front of one of my images plastered on the side of a building at Utah State University. The 7-14mm is very nice, and very small. Photo by Erin Holmstead.
Panasonic GH4, 7-14mm f/4 lens, f/8, seven frame HDR, ISO 200. Me in front of one of my images plastered on the side of a building at Utah State University. The 7-14mm is very nice, and very small. Photo by Erin Holmstead.

There are two controls I love on this camera: the top mounted control dials. The one on the right is pretty standard for switching between Manual, Aperture Priority, Shutter Speed Priority, etc. But it’s got a little button in the center that locks the dial. Press it once and the button pops up and the dial spins normally, clicking into place for each option. When you’ve got the one you want, just press the button again and it locks the dial from spinning. This is simple and intuitive and nicely done.

Even better is the left side dial. It’s got the continuous shooting modes, Single Shot, Continuous Shooting (12 frames per second!!!), and that’s pretty normal. It’s also got the Timer setting. Where it stands out is that the auto bracketing setting is also on this dial–just set it and whatever settings you’ve previously chosen are loaded ready to go. Awesome! No sub menus or dials. But it gets better: the last setting is for the Intervalometer. Just dial it up and press the shutter and the last settings you used for making your time lapse images will be set in motion. This is a huge time saver and really makes it simple to set up a time lapse interval. Two thumbs up way up.

Now, I’ve only had it a few days, and there are a few things that I haven’t gotten the hang of, yet, but overall I think any experienced DSLR user would feel at home quickly. My only real complaint with the controls is that some of the buttons on the outside of the camera aren’t very positive–sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’ve pressed it because it doesn’t feel like it moved. After a fews days’ use, it doesn’t bother me, but I was surprised at first.

Dedicated HDR switch, eh?

You know we love HDR around here. Here’s how cool that dedicated HDR switch is. Sam and I were driving around the county looking for pictures and happened upon this one just as the light was about to be gone. Had I been using my D800, I would have had to press and hold the bracket button, and then used both the front and rear dials to adjust the number of brackets and how far apart they should be (then after I shot, I’d have to do the same in reverse, or, more likely, forget that I set them and shoot a few pictures in the wrong mode). But with the GH4 I simply turned one dial and started shooting. My settings are almost always the same for HDR, so this dial is awesome. I was in time for the light.

Panasonic GH4, 12-35mm f/2.8 lens @33mm, f.8, seven frame HDR, ISO 800.
Panasonic GH4, 12-35mm f/2.8 lens @33mm, f.8, seven frame HDR, ISO 800.

Okay, it’s professional…but why would I switch?

The images appear to be every bit as good as my DSLRs. However, this GH4 is only 16 megapixels. That means the images are less than half as large as my D800 images…and still larger than my D700 images were, and I made lovely 30×40 prints from that! It takes a lot of time to process my D800 images; it takes significantly less time to process the 16 megapixel images through my finishing workflow. That’s time I could spend reading Photofocus, or shooting more pictures, or playing with my family. Plus, it means buying new hard drives half as frequently. Speed of workflow is one reason to switch.

Reason number two? everything about MFT is smaller, lighter, and cheaper. And it’s not just a little lighter: the GH4 with the 70-200mm f/2.8 equivalent lens feels lighter than my DSLR 70-200mm f/2.8 lens without the body. It’s soooooo much lighter. Wearing the D800 with grip and 70-200mm on my Spider Holster is tiresome; wearing the same on the GH4 is unnoticeable. My DSLR kit takes up a huge bag that barely fits the carryon regulations for airplanes (and far exceeds the weight limits), but the same kit for MFT fits in my laptop bag. Seriously. My petite female students often complain about using the 24-70mm or 70-200mm lenses all day at a wedding; this kit is ideal for cutting weight without cutting quality.

On the right is my D800 with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens attached. It's huge and heavy! The GH4 with 35-100mm f/2.8 is on the left. These two lenses should make similar pictures (though I haven't compared them side by side, yet).
On the right is my D800 with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens attached. It’s huge and heavy! The GH4 with 35-100mm f/2.8 is on the left. These two lenses should make similar pictures (though I haven’t compared them side by side, yet).

Did I mention that everything costs significantly less, too? The Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 is $2400. The Panasonic 35-100mm f/2.8 (which is the same field of view as the 70-200mm) is just $1400 and is smaller and lighter than a can of Coke. Oh, and the lenses all seem to be 58mm filter threads, and those are a lot cheaper than 77mm filters for DSLRs. I could sell my whole DSLR kit and replace it with MFT gear and have money left over to take a trip to China and make great pictures.

Holy moly! I almost forgot: many of the lenses are made by Leica and are exceptional. You think L lenses are nice? You haven’t even lived until you’ve tried the Leica glass.

Reason number four to switch: WiFi

I’ve been using EyeFi cards for years to beam images from my camera to my iPad. Clients love this, and it’s a valuable tool to make sure we got the shot. However, it’s always buggy and sometimes won’t work at all. The GH4 has a built in wireless transmitter that you simply connect your iPad or phone to, launch the free app, and you’re connected to the camera. But not only can you see the images on the device, you can also control the camera from the device. All the shooting settings can be changed and you see the live view feed from the camera, and it’s awesome. I used this with Sam the other night while light painting his car. My tripod was low to the ground and it was chilly out. But I got to stand upright and make exposure changes and trigger the camera and even use the autofocus. It was very comfortable and the app worked flawlessly. I’ve used the app on both my iPhone and iPad.

Panasonic GH4, 7-14mm f/7 lens @7mm, f/11, 7 minute exposure, ISO 800. this image is straight from the camera without processing.
Panasonic GH4, 7-14mm f/7 lens @7mm, f/11, 7 minute exposure, ISO 800. this image is straight from the camera without finishing.

By the way, battery life has been really good. I shot all morning, all afternoon and in the evening, then went out with Sam for the long exposure stuff and used WiFi the whole time and the battery was only down one third on the indicator. Not bad at all.

Landscapes…Adults…Long exposures…how about real life? How about family portraits?

For the first part of my career all I photographed was families. I still photograph families–daily for my own. My camera must perform well enough to focus and react quickly to fast moving kids and impatient parents. And it’s got to work with strobes, too. Well, I photographed this little family in the setting sun and the GH4 was perfect.

Panasonic GH4, Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens, f/6.3, 1/125, ISO 400.
Panasonic GH4, Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens, f/6.3, 1/125, ISO 400.

I followed kids around and made pictures on the fly and it kept up just fine. Better still, seeing live the image I was making allowed me to change my shutter speed significantly between shots to let the right amount of light in even as I was changing from facing the sun to back lit to side lit. This is a feature with immeasurable benefits. Also, there’s something about the large LCD that makes it easier to see so my clients can review a few images now and again.

Panasonic GH4, Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens, f/3.2, 1/160s, ISO 200.
Panasonic GH4, Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens, f/3.2, 1/160s, ISO 200.

In these images, the sun is low and filtered through some thin clouds which many photographers think is the perfect light for portraits. I find it boring. There’s little depth and it looks like everyone else’s flat light portraits. In these, I’ve placed a speedlight on a stand behind and to the right of the subjects. This gives just a little rim light that adds depth and a little hair sheen. I used the cheapest possible setup: a YongNuo Speedlight with Cowboy Studio triggers. The trigger sits in the hot shoe on the camera, and the speedlight sits atop a receiver which triggers the flash. This simple setup works on all cameras with a hot shoe, and the GH4 functioned really swell. I wasn’t sure what the sync speed was so I kept it below 1/200. Now I know it’ll sync at 1/250, which is faster than any Canon or Nikon DSLR under $2500.

I’ve been using the 75mm to chase kids around the park today, and the images look great, but it had a hard time keeping focus on the swings. I used the 35-100mm f/2.8 to photograph a little league soccer game, however, and it performed really well. I’ll have to experiment more with it more to know it’s full limits. In the meantime, I had great success using manual focus and the focus peaking feature which shows an outline in the viewfinder on things that are in focus. It’s really cool, and makes it possible to actually use manual focus on a digital camera.

Panasonic GH4, Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens, f/2.2, 1/1250s, ISO 400.
Panasonic GH4, Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens, f/2.2, 1/1250s, ISO 400.

It may not have the focussing system of a D4s or 1DX, but it’s also under $1,800, and it still shoots 12 frames per second. Oh, it also has minimum shutter speed of 60 seconds, compared to 30 seconds on all DSLRs. I think that’s great.

I talked to the guys at Panasonic…

I was fortunate enough to meet a few engineers and a marketing director for Panasonic from Japan the other day at a workshop Giulio was teaching in Portland. These guys flew over from Japan to talk to several users about the cameras and what suggestions and feedback they have. What? A camera company flew three guys from the mother company in Japan to several places in America just to get feedback? Yeah, it’s really cool. I was honored to be invited to come and spend some time with them, too. They were genuinely interested in what I want in a camera and how I use it and what’s important to my profession. I may be easily moved, but this gesture has really been a big influence as I’ve considered this camera. Who wouldn’t want to support a company that is actively seeking to make a better product? It’s nice to work with the guys in second or third place because they really try hard to keep your business.

We talked about many things, but three things I think would be cool in a camera are an integrated 39mm Arca Swiss style tripod mount, a corner mounted viewfinder (like the GX-7) so my big nose doesn’t interfere with the back of the camera, and, of course, more medium format options (like a retro looking twin lens reflex–who’s with me, huh?)

The Downsides

There are just a couple of things holding me back a little bit. Firstly, all the images you see here are jpgs from the camera. I’ve done a little finishing (except on those that say otherwise) and then exported a new jpg from Lightroom. Normally, I prefer to start with the RAW files, but Lightroom doesn’t recognize the RAWs from this camera, yet. I found out the hard way, too, and was almost forced to use the in camera processing to generate jpgs for my client. Actually, the built in RAW processing is quite good, and I liked using it with the touch screen. Fortunately, Giulio Scoirio pointed me towards Silky Pix, which was able to read the RAWs and exported jpgs for me. It was super slow, though, so I can’t recommend it unless you’re in a bind (it may be included with the camera, but since I rented it, I didn’t get that disc). Nevertheless, the jpgs are really good. I’m pleased to tell you also that the monochrome settings include color filters so you can shoot very fine black and white images, or even process them in the camera after capture.

The other downside is also tentative. Look closely at the light painting image above and you’ll see that it’s pretty noisy. I haven’t corrected that in any way in this image for demonstration purposes. Usually I work from the RAW image (see above) and I also did not use any in camera long exposure noise reduction (which usually takes as long as the original exposure to process). I shot at higher ISO’s in low light and they look really good. I think this noise may be a result of the super long exposure. I’ll need to do more trials to know for sure, and also see the RAW images.

Panasonic GH4, Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens, f/2.5, 1/320s, ISO 1000, black and white conversion in camera with orange filter.
Panasonic GH4, Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens, f/2.5, 1/320s, ISO 1000, black and white conversion in camera with orange filter.

Conclusion

The images are great. The interface is intuitive and quick and out of the way. The features are valuable, not bloating. The weight is half. The price is half. The cost of keeping heavy DSLRs will tell over time on your body and your hard drive. I think it’s really a winner. Head over to LensRentals and try it out for yourself. I think you’ll find yourself wondering why you’ve got two heavy and expensive DSLR’s in the other room.

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