The GH4 – A Valuation after one Year of Use
After about 1 year of using the Panasonic Lumix GH4, I honestly can say, that this is the best digital video camera I had so far. Reviewing cameras and gear is not my business as I do not own a lot of equipment and therefore it is rather difficult to really compare devices with each other. But like a lot of people around the globe, I also took part of what we call the DSLR revolution and the beginning for most of us probably was a 5D or some other Canon body. Today the 5D Mark II seems like an out of date camera with it’s weak codec and poor datarate. Compared to a GH4 or a BMPCC the picture is so mushy, that it would be pretty hard to step back to it. But if I would be beginner, a used 5D body still would be a great choice if one would unlock the potential of the camera with Magic Lantern and just add a cheap prime lens. What has been a gamechanger in 2008, can’t be that bad in 2015. I still love Canon’s colour profile and on my oppinion it is better than the colours of any Panasonic Model. As it comes to Cinema Raw when using a Blackmagic camera, you probably do not rely on a DSLR picture profile anymore, because Raw makes you achieve pretty much whatever look you want for your footage.
The footage from a GH4 isn’t that cinematic but rather clinical, especially if you use mft-lenses like the popular Panasonic 12-35 zoom. The size of the sensor and the signal processing just can’t deliver the asthetics you get out of a fullframe Canon or Nikon DSLR. But there are plenty of vintage lenses which can be adapted with ease and if you really need shallow DOF you can speedboost some of them or get a superfast prime lens from Voigtlander or SLR Magic.
However, my special interest is macro cinematography and for that purpose I do not need a specific filmic impression. A neutral in camera profile and a codec free of artifacts is what I am looking for. Further, having the abbility to use 4K is absolutely key to me, no matter if I just downscale to 1080 which brings me a super clean and crisp image or if I use the higher resolution for reframing my shots. As I am recording spaces which are sometimes even smaller than a coin, I need the best optical processing I can get and sharp macro lenses with a long focus throw. Using a 100 mm macro lens provides an equivalent field of view of 230 mm if you shoot in 4K on the GH4 and depth of field typically is super narrow. That’s why you just can’t shoot wide open and need bright light to compensate an f-stop of 11 or 16. But even then, hitting focus remains pretty difficult. It really makes a difference if you want to focus on the surface or the botton of a drop of ink and you just can’t go without an external monitor to display every detail in your shot. I noticed, that my lens has kind of a minimal drift over time, so it might happen, that I get out of focus a touch without even realizing it while recording. But that’s where the GH4 really shines with it’s focus peaking and the touch screen, giving you the possibiltiy to precisely scroll to the area you want to focus on. Eventhough I miss in camera magnification while recording (like Sony cameras offer), I never had the chance to work that precise before. The focus peaking works pretty well for such a small camera, especially if you know how to judge the tool and change the peaking value to high or low frequencies. Same with the zebra function and the histogram: they are accurate in indicating clipping highlights and I use these tools a lot because I do not have a professional monitor which is able to unequivocally display overexposed areas. Compared to Magic Lantern, the in camera tools of the GH4 are on a totally different level. Technically they might not be better but the in-picture visualisation of the values is way more accurate.
The picture of the GH4 is a little noisy in low frequency areas, even at ISO 200. What you might not notice while recording, becomes obvious when processing your footage in post. But that’s not only due to the sensor, grading an 8-bit codec just can’t give you the flexibility you wish. And in comparison to my 60D, I really cannot complain about luminance or color noise because with the Canon APS-C camera, it was worse. A micro four-thirds camera needs good lighting conditions to perform at it’s best, no wonder that the GH4 isn’t good in low light. If possible, I would avoid using this camera above ISO 800 because the image quality drops significantly with higher ISO values. But that is the same with all other cameras of this type, no matter which brand you choose. The Sony A7s is an exception of course. But as it can’t deliver 4K straight out of the camera, it is no choice for me because I can’t afford an external 4K recorder.
That being said, the GH4’s 100 Mbit codec with 8 bit still is the maximum you can get by now if you want to shoot 4K video on a budget, and at NAB 2015 there was no company showing up with a comparable alternative. So it is a good buy until the GH5 follows or some another company releases an interchangeable system with a better production value. Concerning the fast technological change, it is remarkable that after one year on the market, the GH4 still has a unique selling point.