The ultimate explorer's camera? A review of the Panasonic GH4.
There is no such thing as a perfect camera.
OK, hold up! Before you stomp away from your monitor, outraged, just think: that’s not something you really believe, is it?
After all, like anything you’d pack for any production, a camera is just a tool—a means to an end. We’ve said it before: what matters most to any filmmaker is the beating heart behind their camera.
So, then, why are we reviewing Panasonic’s new GH4?
First and foremost, the GH4 has the potential to bring stories to life in much the same way the first GoPro digital camera did 7 years back: enabling storytellers to capture stories that seemed, up until that point, totally inaccessible.
When you choose a camera to tell a story, you’re not only deciding which features matter most, you’re admitting which features you can live without.
Historically, this means that as soon as you prioritize a compact camera size, you're labeling yourself a “hobbyist”. And with that label comes cameras with less than stellar image quality, or high ISO performance, or a particular build quality, or certain advanced features, or the lack of the same, etc.—the list goes on and on. The point being that for every one feature you have to sacrifice another.
For example, a GoPro is a dependable choice in full sun, for sharing the “big” picture. But working with little available light or trying to capture even littler details? It might prove a bit disappointing.
So, with a compact camera typically came the knowledge that should you find yourself experiencing something incredible—something you may never experience again—you may not have the option of truly capturing that experience in all of its glory.
This doesn’t mean just those grand, epic experiences, those treks up the Himalayas or those treacherous journeys on a raft, solo, across the Atlantic, but the adventures we all have: camping trips with friends, family picnics, walking our dogs through a park we’ve never visited before.
There is the potential for beauty and awe in even the most common of excursions.
As a recent transplant to Oregon, I’m often overwhelmed with how much there is to see within a 2-hour drive from Portland. Every chance I get with Michelle, my wife, to explore a new part of this new home, I take. We’re never disappointed.
And as storytellers, it’s in our bones: we’re compelled to capture those experiences so that later we can share them, somehow help others tap into the same feelings that once bowled us over.
Not that we don’t have access to cameras and equipment capable of producing some astounding video—that’s not even the issue. What is? Most cameras capable of telling the full story of our experience are too large to lug into the thick of the action. And that’s not even factoring in the possibility of “kitting out” these cameras to make them, for lack of a better word, “usable”.
An iPhone camera just wouldn’t cut it. Which is why the Panasonic GH4 caught my eye.
Behold, I thought, a glimmer of hope! And with it I wondered:
Have camera manufacturers finally realized that compromise is possible, that a compact body doesn’t make the user a de facto hobbyist?
As soon as I could, and with full faith that we’re approaching a brave new world for explorer storytellers, I pre-ordered the GH4 to see for myself. After it arrived two weeks ago, it hasn’t left my side since. Which in and of itself is a testament to its size and portability.
In fact, the following film was captured over the course of a 24-hour adventure to the Oregon coast with the GH4 and the MoVI M5.
But what about the GH4’s other features? What about, more importantly, the features it lacks?
Here are the top 5 camera features required by every visual explorer, and how well the Panasonic GH4 delivers on each.
1. Size / Weight
The Red EPIC is an incredible camera.
Every time I load up REDCINE and review what I’ve captured, I’m blown away: the detail, the latitude, the tonality—it’s all absurdly marvelous. But even that kind of quality won’t make it worth carrying with you on your next adventure. It’s bulky, it’s heavy, and if you take it with you everywhere you will likely start to resent it.
Another camera capable of stunning visuals is the Canon 1DC, but compared to the EPIC, even at half the weight and significantly smaller, it’s still not meant for such mobility.
But here’s the thing about the size and weight of a camera: these factors don’t work in a vacuum. A camera requires lenses, batteries, stabilization rigs—all aiding, or, as is most often the case, debilitating the portability of the camera.
Batteries for the Red EPIC and Canon 1DC aren’t small, and, logically, heavier camera packages demand heavier stabilizers. Even in the case of the 5D Mark III, the camera and batteries are smaller than that of the 1DC, but they use the same lenses, which, while quite dazzling, either amount to a kit full of slight and light prime lenses, or 1-2 larger zoom lenses—the result being a difficult camera to heft through the excitement of some sort of spectacular happening.
On the other hand, the GH4 is light and unobtrusive size-wise.
At only 1.2 pounds, it’s a camera that caters to mobility and avoids excess strain. It’s not so small that it's awkward to hold, or that it demands you remove required control dials (independent aperture, shutter dials, etc.). Most of all, it’s comfortable: in both my hand and fitting in the messenger bag that follows me everywhere, which safely houses my 13” MBPr.
When it comes to size and weight, the GH4 is a perfect fit for explorers.
But, again: the vacuum. So how did the lenses, batteries, and stabilizers needed to support the package stand up?
As a dedicated Canon L series lens shooter for the past 7 or so years, to grant that I was skeptical of what the Panasonic 12-35mm would deliver is an understatement.
I assumed it’s modestly sized, affordable (comparably to Canon and Nikon equivalents), and packed a lot of features (zoom, constant 2.8 aperture, and IS). So, of course, I expected that something had to give.
As the old adage dictates, you can have two of the three—cheap, fast, and good, never all at once.
Yet, with the Panasonic 12-35mm, I beg to differ.
In just about every scenario I’ve tackled with this lens attached to the GH4, I have not once been disappointed with what I've captured.
To be 100% transparent, though, it’s not like I’m filming charts or still life—I’m using the camera for exactly the reasons it originally so intrigued me. I’m filming my explorations.
We’ve all been there before—we’re in the midst of something incredible, and we’ve even brought a camera capable of capturing the extent of what’s astounding us. But, alas, it just won’t hold up in the environment.
Rain, snow, and sand; humidity, muck, and the untold menace of Mother Nature—all are fair game on explorations and adventures.
Enter the GoPro, which has excelled in the durability department. You can literally drop the camera from Outer friggin’ Space and it still films the fall—the entire time. The Red EPIC, not so much.
So how durable is the GH4?
In the 2 weeks I’ve had it tucked comfortably in hand, it’s joined me on a variety of terrain and through a cavalcade of conditions: ice caves, sand dunes, waterfalls, camping on the Oregon coast—no interstellar travel, at least not yet.
Throughout all of this, it’s gotten wet to varying degrees—slow drips in the ice caves, splashes under the waterfalls, downpours from simply existing in Oregon—and it’s become fairly friendly with sand and mud.
Never once has it failed to film any of my adventurers. Yet, more than just competently film them (heck, a GoPro could have done the same), it goes above and beyond.
Whether tumbling down a dune or emerging from a waterfall’s spray, the GH4 can capture the story of my time in the wild with some seriously impressive aplomb.
Since I’ve only had the camera for 2 weeks, stable temperatures—no severe cold or days above 80 degrees—have limited my scope in putting it to the test regarding heat- or cold-related issues.
I have also not dropped the camera (not yet...it’s only a matter of time), so I haven’t been able to gauge how well it holds up to more than typical wear and tear.
Of note: I’ve been filming primarily on the Panasonic 12-35mm 2.8, and it’s performed just as well. It, like the camera, is weather sealed.
You will drop your camera. It will break. This is inviolable fact.
When this happens is determined by the durability of the camera, and by extension how far you’re willing to push that durability for the sake of the story you’re trying to tell.
Are you game to take the sometimes necessary risks, plunging your camera through unknown dangers, to capture the beauty in front of you?
As any insurance salesman will tell you, risk is a factor of price: how soon the camera will break depends on the price of the camera, because the price will, consciously or not, encourage or deter you from the amount of risk you’ll subject it to.
Consider the 1DC: it’s weather sealed and literally built like a tank, but it’s also $10,000, so who would stomach the possibility of needing to replace it for the sake of testing its tank-like aspects?
While not cheap, the Panasonic GH4 is certainly affordable, which means that it leaves plenty room for risk: both an explorer’s best friend and greatest motivation.
I’m less worried about pushing the camera to the max when I’m filming with it, and this means I’m telling stories I wouldn’t have been able to claim otherwise.
4. Image Quality
As we prefaced earlier, as an explorer, you’re often witness to occurrences that will likely never occur again—or, at the very least, will never happen the same way twice.
Which puts significant importance in selecting a camera capable of truly capturing a story—not just to remember a moment long gone, but to have the opportunity to once again become immersed in it.
For that, image quality is crucial.
When the GH4 was announced, a buzz arose in the filmmaking community:
A micro four thirds camera capable of shooting 4k, internally, for less than $2K? Huh? Say what now?
Really, it’s probably why you’re here, reading this review. Admit it: you want to know what the footage looks like
But before we get to that, I want to reiterate a point I made earlier: my experience with the Panasonic GH4 is hands-on, real-world-based. I took the camera into the field, exposed it to conditions that were less than ideal—because those are exactly the types of conditions I will only ever experience with this camera. All of these “tests” are my own, for my own sake, and so aren’t entirely exhaustive and comprehensive.
For me, the 3 most imperative factors in image quality when it comes to selecting a camera meant for exploration is resolution, ISO performance, and latitude.
Regarding resolution, the Panasonic GH4 performs exceptionally. The footage, frankly, looks beautiful.
Having 4k internally means that when you’re stuck—physically, by a barrier or a body of water, say, as is the case in filming on the Oregon coast—you still have options in post for cropping.
But for my sake, as I’m currently only creating 1080p films, 4k means a remarkable amount of detail is captured and crammed into the final picture.
No more imagery mushiness for this explorer.
In the case of my trek to the Ice Caves, I have the chance to admire the setting on both a macro- and microscopic level: seeing the ice formations in total is spectacular, but studying how every tiny detail comes together to make each ice formation unique is absolutely fascinating. It’s this unity, this mosaic of perspective, that I set out to convey in my stories.
Despite the GH4’s 4k resolution, it still captures images on a Micro 4/3 sensor. As a small-ish sensor, it’s going to be more prone to noise at higher ISOs.
But by how much?
Well, not much. Don’t get me wrong, though, it’s not as competent as the Canon 1DC when it comes to high ISOs, but I’ve been pretty spoiled in the high ISO department for years, shooting primarily on full-frame cameras.
After taking the Panasonic GH4 through several severely low light conditions, ISO1600 is completely usable, and ISO3200 is not something from which I’ll shy away.
Part of this goes back to working in a 1080p timeline. In addition to all of those 4k details getting crowded together, so too is any noise, which greatly enhances the ability to use this camera at higher ISOs and still retain the detail I need for my stories.
Our eyes see—and our brain processes—a ton of detail. Even in full sun, we can still observe the bits and pieces of the darkest of areas.
If only that were the case with cameras.
Whenever I take a camera with me anywhere, one of my primary goals is to capture the story as I felt it in that moment. Which has been difficult in the past with dealing with latitude, or dynamic range—in other words: not getting even remotely close to catching on film what I saw with my own eyes.
Working with a Red EPIC (and DRAGON) is a dream in that sense. You truly have to push that thing hard for it to crush blacks or blow out whites.
And yet, the GH4, while no Red Dragon at 16.5 stops of dynamic range, has an incredible 12-12.5 stops.
Being able to dial in a picture profile to retain as much as that detail as possible, combined with a live histogram on screen, ensures that I’m retaining as much visual information as possible.
When I consider all three together—resolution, ISO performance, and latitude—the GH4 is a tool massively capable of allowing me to both capture and share the beauty I see in the world...just as I see it.
5. The Little Things
Fundamentally, the Panasonic GH4 is just a camera. Obvious, I know.
It’s our responsibility as storytellers—not our camera’s—to take our viewers to the places we want them to go.
Yet, the process of exploring and capturing a story is complicated enough as it is, so carrying a camera accompanied by a bunch of “little things” will undoubtedly make that process more fun than burden—more motivation than excuse.
Turns out, the Panasonic GH4 is loaded with little things.
An SD card can be a boon for explorers when recording 4k to it internally.
Plus, due to the compression of the camera (more on that in a moment), you’ll fit quite a bit of footage on each card—which also means less downloading, less changing cards, and less storage space.
In the field, less is always more.
Built-in Timelapse Function
Being able to create a timelapse in camera is not only a relief for post workflow, it’s a handy way to confirm that “all is perfect” in the field.
No more getting back to the office only to find an unexpected bump in the middle of your timelapse which would otherwise render the whole thing unusable.
Focus Peaking and Zebra Bars
In keeping my camera kit small—which might as well be the whole point of this review—there’s no room for an external monitor. Historically, that’s meant losing out on some of the “bonus” features a monitor provides.
Built-in focus peaking and zebra bars ensure I am capturing exactly what I intend to. What’s more, it provides a more than suitable substitution for a bulky monitor.
But better than that, I’m able to customize these features to my liking, in terms of both the focus peaking level and color—the zebra bar percentage is a sweet perk too.
Being able to shoot 60 FPS and 96 FPS in camera is one of the those buzz-worthy features included in the GH4 that is worth getting hyped about. Still, most of what I’ve filmed thus far hasn’t called for Slow Motion, which means I don’t exactly have a ton of experience with the option.
What I can attest to, though, is that there is a noticeable decrease in the detail and sharpness this camera can get when filming at 1080p, which will always affect my desire to film in slow motion on a regular basis.
That being said, this is a feature I will definitely use—when the situation calls for it of course.
A camera, or any tool, should never dictate one’s story. Instead a storyteller should listen: to the adventure, the excursion, the outing, or the exploration—it will tell you exactly what you need.
Phew! You made it. So, what’s the verdict?
Is the Panasonic GH4 the perfect explorer's camera?
“Perfect” may be on the extreme side of things—but yes, for sure, it’s a really wonderful piece of gear.
Like GoPro did 7 years ago, I think Panasonic has set a precedent with the GH4. Finally, we can have our cake (a compact camera) and eat it too (ditch that “hobbyist” label).
But what’s a review without weighing both sides of the argument? So, while the exceptional features are many, the GH4 is not without its faults. As we asserted above, the true test inherent in camera selection is balancing what you can and cannot live without.
Here are 5 features you’ll just have to live without when using the Panasonic GH4 camera.
1. Intense Grading Potential
Internal 4k recording is 100 mbps 8bit 4:2:0.
OK, so that was on the techy side, and we’re not really techy people around these parts, but what that means if you're filming in 4k there is just less room in post for grading, as it’s easy to introduce artifacts and banding into your footage.
An external recorder, such as a Atomos Shogun, can greatly improve on this issue, but that’s just one more thing to purchase (at—gulp—a higher cost than the camera itself) and one more thing to pack as you head into the field.
2. Detailed 1080p (in camera)
Shooting 4k and downsampling to 1080p will look fantastic—in terms of detail and sharpness—but shooting in camera at 1080p, both in regular and off-speed, leaves something to be desired in image quality.
Also, when you have to shoot 4k—especially if you’re not going to be delivering in 4k—creating a detailed 1080p film introduces a lion’s share of unneeded headaches and complexity. After all, having something be “too good” is always a consideration.
3. DSLR Lenses
To really take advantage of the size and weight of the GH4 system, you’ll need to get yourself some micro four third lenses.
Great glass, absolutely, and significantly smaller than the Canon glass I’m used to, but this means going out and purchasing an entirely new set of lenses and filters. Not exactly a cheap solution.
4. An LCD (in the sun)
In some conditions, the LCD is fantastic. On a sunny day? It’s practically unusable.
With built-in Focus Peaking, you can find some luck in focusing under sunny conditions, but overall it’s a gamble.
This is the kind of situation that will demand a Zacuto Z-Finder, or lens hood, which I didn't have as you can see below.
5. Built-in ND filter
A built-in ND filter is an incredible feature.
Any filmmaker can probably tell you: filters are overall pretty annoying to deal with—remembering them in the first place, screwing them on in the field, trying not to get fingerprints smudged everywhere, dealing with reflections and ghosting from lights—the frustrating list seemingly never ends.
Above all, the only way you’ll ever know what you can and cannot live without is to, simply, live.
So, boom! There you have it: Story & Heart’s first camera review.
We hope that not only you found this useful, but that you’re compelled to sprint into the wild and test out your gear and tools on some sort of adventure—be it on some epic journey or just around your block.
We look forward to hearing your thoughts about the Panasonic GH4 in the comments below. Or, if there’s anything we missed, or any more information you’re seeking, don’t hesitate to let us know.