I’ve been waiting longer than most for the arrival of Panasonic’s new Lumix DMC-GH4 interchangeable-lens camera ($1999, MSRP body only). It all started in 2009 when Panasonic Japan sent me two of the first Lumix DMC-GH1’s to come off the assembly line–along with a custom underwater housing. All three were used to shoot photos and Full HD 1080 videos for two U.N.–sponsored documentaries, the first on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and the second on the Wet Tropics of Queensland, Australia.
The original GH1 was ahead of its time, and earned its place in history as the first interchangeable-lens “SLR-style” model from any manufacturer to feature Full HD 1080p video recording with autofocus and a built-in stereo mic. Using it, I was able to track a subject, compose, adjust exposure settings, and quickly switch between shooting stills or recording auto-focusing video– all while keeping my eye on the high resolution, electronic viewfinder and holding the camera, housing, and lights with one hand. That was a more elegant solution than being forced to compose and manually focus a camera via its LCD monitor (requiring two hands), as was the case with other video-enabled DSLRs at the time. The GH1 also stored video in the advanced AVCHD format, and amazingly held most of those distinctions for more than a year before Sony arrived on the scene with its competitive SLT models. However, despite all of its innovations and capabilities, I found that topside the GH1 wasn’t really designed and built with a pro photographer in mind. It lacked a tough, weather-resistant body and had several controls buttons and dials that were easy to activate by mistake. Plus, in still mode its AF system was slower than competitive DSLRs and its LVF sluggish in burst mode.
Last year, the Lumix GH3 moved much closer to pro-level status with its ruggedized magnesium alloy frame, weather and dust-resistant seals in all the right places, a protective finish, and improved control and dial arrangements. But it wasn’t until I held the new Lumix GH4 in my hands at Panasonic’s pre-launch briefing in Feb. 2014 that I felt the same excitement I had once had for the GH1. In addition to sharing the rugged build, seals, and controls of the GH3, the Lumix GH4 boasts several state-of-the-art features that will certainly attract both pro photographers and videographers. These include a sharper, more responsive OLED live viewfinder, a faster and more sensitive AF system, a new 16MP CMOS sensor with improved low light sensitivity, a more detailed, capacitive-touch 3-inch swiveling OLEC monitor, and a more powerful Venus image-processor. Last, but not least, it follows in a tradition started by the original GH1 by being the first in its class to capture up to 4K Ultra HD video.
All of these features are housed in a remarkably compact body that feels well balanced and is easy to grip and control with one hand. The control buttons are all in the right places and easy to reach, but not so delicate that you activate things like exposure compensation while trying to turn the shutter speed dial (one of my pet peeves with the DMC-G6). The GH4 also has nearly all the connections treasured by pros, including a PC-Sync jack for external flash triggering, a remote control input, HDMI and AV-out connections, stereo mic input, and even a headphone-out jack for monitoring sound input. The two mode dials on top of the camera are also large and knurled, making it easier to turn them with gloves on, or when your eye is pressed up against its super-sharp OLED live viewfinder (LVF).
And what a viewfinder it is! At 2360-K dots, it’s technically as sharp as Sony’s current OLED LVF, but appears to have slightly higher contrast, better color, and a larger virtual image. I didn’t have time to test it, but the LVF response time appeared extremely fast when I shot a burst of 16MP images at 12 fps–easily allowing me to keep my on a moving subject even when shooting at the highest burst rate. According to Panasonic, the GH4’s advanced AF system uses a 3-dimensional approach with 49 AF points, and features new DFD (depth from defocus) technology combined with precision Contrast AF. Basically, DFD technology rapidly detects the distance to the subject by analyzing two defocused images, then Contrast AF takes over and adjust focus precisely. The end result, according to Panasonic and confirmed by my limited hands-on time, is a much faster AF than on previous GH models, and, according to Panasonic, should allow up to 7fps in AF tracking mode compared to 4.2fps in the same mode on the GH3.
New sensor and processor improve detail and low light performance
According to Panasonic, the GH4’s newly-designed 16MP (4608 x 3456 pixel) Digital Live MOS sensor boasts a readout speed that’s twice as fast as the sensor in the GH3, plus wider dynamic range, improved color, and a reduced rolling shutter effect. Paired with the latest Venus processing engine, the GH4 also features lower noise at higher ISOs and can be set to 25,600 ISO for low light shooting , plus it can capture images at up to 1/8000 sec at up to 12fps in burst mode, with a buffer that handles up to 50 RAW + JPEG images before slowing down. In bulb mode, it can also be set for up to 60 minutes for extremely long time exposures!
Other features that should appeal to pro still photographers and videographers include:
1) A sharper, (1040-K dot) and bright 3-inch, capacitive-touch OLED monitor that swivels all the way around, or can be tucked in against the back to protect it. The capacitive touch means you can activate and change settings (or choose a focus point) without jarring the camera.
2) A higher durability shutter (up to 200,000 exposures) and a CIPA rating of up to 500 shots per charged battery.
3) Wi-Fi and NFC built in. Everything but GPS…But its wireless features let you control the camera and view images directly from your cell phone, tablet, or other wireless device using available apps, plus transfer media quickly to other devices using NFC.
4) Accessories that include a battery grip with vertical shutter release, and a new DMW-FL580L external flash with wireless control and LED video light. There’s also a plethora of sharp lenses to choose from, most with built-in I.S. and several with quiet focus, electronic zooming, and weather/dust seals.
LAST, BUT NOT LEAST–4K ULTRA HD VIDEO!!!
As I mentioned earlier, the new GH4 jumps ahead of its competitors once again as the first mirrorless, interchangeable lens camera to feature 4K video recording (and even faster AF in video mode). It also features adjustable frame rates, external video monitoring while recording, and an accessory Interface Unit with HD-SDI video output, plus XLR, DC-In, and Time Code inputs for use in professional video studios.
Now, you probably don’t have an Ultra HD 4K TV to show off the videos from this camera in their full glory, but someday you, your friends, and just about everyone else will. That’s when you’ll wonder how you ever got by with “only” Full HD 1080p video. The fact that Ultra HD TVs are still on the pricey end isn’t the problem–it’s the shortage of good 4K video available to fill those screens. And that’s why cameras like the GH4 will be in high demand. Even if you don’t yet own a 4K Ultra HDTV you can find comfort in the knowledge that every frame of 4K video contains 8.3MP of resolution (3840 x 2160 pixels), enough to make decent-quality 8 x 10 prints, or crop in further than ever before while maintaining great image quality on your current 1080p HDTVs. On the other hand, 4K video could also slow your current video editing system to a crawl (just like those AVCHD clips from the GH1 did to mine back in 2009.) But the incredible image quality is worth the extra efforts it may take to edit and share files.
To get an idea of what a 4K video brings to the image-quality table, check out the video at the top of the page from Panasonic shooter Bryan Harvey. Make sure you adjust the YouTube settings (lower right corner of video screen) to the 4K setting, and remember that despite the mind-blowing detail you’re about to witness in his video, most computer monitors can only display half the detail that a 4K monitor can display.