Panasonic Lumix GH4: a hybrid camera with 4K video features

Panasonic aims at professional photographers and videographers with its all-new hybrid Lumix DMC-GH4

Panasonic’s new Lumix G Series camera is the DMC-GH4, and it packs features that make it more than just a camera for still photographs. It’s presented as a ‘hybrid’ model, meaning it can be used just as effectively for video (in particular, 4K video) in addition to regular photography. Not only that, its video features are touted as being broadcast quality, so you can get yourself a camera with professional features, without having to shell out a typical professional price.

The new 16-megapixel camera has magnesium alloy on the front and at the back of the body, and it 's weather sealed so that it can be used in environments where splashes of water or particles of dust are common. The durability extends to the shutter, which is now rated for 200,000 releases. It’s a lightweight camera that feels easy to hold for long periods of time, especially if a small lens is attached to the Micro Four Thirds mount on the front. In other words, it’s gear that’s well suited to adventure, and to those of you who want to create documentaries in the outback or anywhere else heavier gear can be a burden to cart around.

Some new features in the DMC-GH4 include a shutter speed of 1/8000 of a second (up from 1/4000 in the Lumix DMC-GH3), improved focusing modes (including selective focus and eye detection), and greater speed.

The Lumix DMC-GH4 can fire off over 100 JPEG shots in about 15sec before the buffer fills to capacity. It can do 40 RAW shots in a row before it starts buffering. Its rating is for about 12 frames per second (fps) when using single-point auto-focus. This drops down to about 7fps when using continuous focus. To paraphrase what professional photographer Ken Duncan said at the camera’s Sydney launch: if you can’t get a good shot in the 100 or so frames that the DMC-GH4 can capture in quick succession, then you should probably take up bowling instead. (This writer probably will.)

Using burst mode.
Using burst mode.

As far as Lumix G Series cameras go, the GH4 has a similar body shape and control layout. You still get the hinged screen on the back, an electronic viewfinder, a built-in flash, a stereo microphone, and lots of manual controls. The mode dial now has a lock on it.

Getting the most out of this camera can take a while until you familiarise yourself with all the features and settings of the camera, but the menu system is clear in its layout and the learning curve isn’t that high. Many of the features might be bamboozling to some uninitiated users, though, especially in the video menus, but as we mentioned earlier, it’s a camera that has broadcast quality features that allow it to be used professionally. The menu can even be customised to reflect the terminology you're used to in your work background, whether it's video or still photography.

Some of the more consumer-friendly features include the ability to ‘paint’ your own focus areas on the screen (there are 49 focus points compared to 23 on the Lumix GH3). This is the camera’s new ‘Custom Multi mode’ focusing feature, in which you can tap on the touchscreen on any square that coincides with a part of the frame that you want to focus on. It’s quite fun to use, but there is a temptation to go overboard and paint ridiculous focus patterns that the camera might not be able to handle properly.

You can tap on multiple focus points to easily bring an area of interest into focus.
You can tap on multiple focus points to easily bring an area of interest into focus.

An example of the effect of selecting a row of focus points on the screen.
An example of the effect of selecting a row of focus points on the screen.

Another feature is focus peaking, which is something we’ve seen before on other cameras (the Olympus OM-D E-M1 has it, for example), and this puts a colourful, shimmer-like effect on parts of an image that are in focus. It’s useful when you are in manual mode and want to make sure that the focal point of your image actually is in focus. There is a focus mode for detecting eyes and making sure that they are always in focus in your shots, and even this can be customised to the point of selecting the left or right eye.

Other focus features are available for shooting video, such as the ability of the camera to detect faces and keep them in focus as they track around the frame. Panasonic says that this feature in particular can be of use during interviews when your subject is not keeping completely still.

The camera’s firmware has information stored on the specifics of Panasonic’s Micro Four Thirds lenses. These lens profiles allow the camera to know the exact blur characteristics of each lens and how much it needs to move to achieve a perfect focus. It helps speed things up while focusing, and especially during continuous focus operations.

The 4K video feature is perhaps the most interesting overall, and it’s what sets this camera apart from the competition. The higher video resolution comes in handy for many purposes, such as offering more extensive editing abilities. For example, shooting in 4K provides enough information about a shot to allow for edits like tilting, and cropping, and even motion stabilisation, while still keeping a high video quality. Stills can also be isolated and extracted from 4K video within the camera, and the end result is an 8-megapixel photo that can be printed with good definition at a size up to A3.

For Full HD shooting, there is an option to use higher quality bit rates such as 200Mbps, which is said to be an advantage especially during editing processes, and professionals can choose a bitrate suitable for the production type they need.

Other video features include global frame rates, variable frame rates up to 96 per second, which can be used for slow motion. There is support for broadcast features such as time coding, zebra pattern, and there is an interface unit (AG-YAGHG) available for the camera that can facilitate a professional workflow. It features balanced XLR input terminals, and can do 4:2:2/10-bit video output.

The Lumix DMC-GH4 also has a newly developed 2,359K-dot OLED electronic viewfinder, which photographer Ken Duncan said is as good as looking through a digital SLR’s optical viewfinder when it comes to clarity. The rear screen is also OLED, and it has a 1,036K-dot resolution. You need the good clarity and colour not just for framing your shots, but also because you can perform significant edits to photos within the camera. In particular, if you shoot in RAW mode, you can now process the shots directly in the camera.

Pricing for the Lumix DMC-GH4 starts at $1999 for the body only (DMC-GH4GN-K). The single-lens kit with a 12-35mm f/2.8 lens (DMC-GH4AGN-K) costs $2999. There is also a professional kit available (AG-GH4UEN), which consists of the body and the Interface Unit, and it costs $3999. The interface unit (AG-YAGHY) costs $2649 when purchased separately.

Panasonic also has Gold Series SDUC cards that handle 4K video recording available in capacities up to 64GB (that card costs $259 and is available now).

The body and all the kits will be available to buy in May.

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