After waiting 2 months for the Panasonic GH4 to arrive, I didn't waste any time getting to work and seeing what this little camera has to offer in the stills department. Obviously the headlines for the camera always revolve around its stunning video capabilities but in this first part overview I wanted to focus on its sensor and overall stills performance.
Canon 24-70mm mk2 F2.8
Panasonic 12-35mm F2.8 (24-70mm equivalent)
All images shot at F5.6
Now I know there are some people out there with nothing better to do that will say this is a stupid comparison etc. That may appear to be the case at first glance but in reality the GH4 and 1Dx can trade punches all day long when it comes to comparing features and capabilities.
Now I will say straight up that I don't expect the GH4 to really stand a chance in IQ when comparing it to one of the best full frame sensors on the market coupled with what could be the sharpest zoom lens on the market to date. What I am really interested in is how the GH4 stacks up when taking into account its vastly cheaper price, compact dimensions and amazing features. Hang in there for my review of the GH4 video and other features, I will be testing this in the field shortly!
When it comes to build quality, there really isn't any comparison to the 1Dx unfortunately, it is built like a brick, weighs as much as a brick and really is a workhorse camera. I have shot in downpours in the middle of the ocean, ice fields and volcanic dust etc and it always performed as expected.
The GH4 certainly has a nice build quality with its magnesium alloy body, it feels solid yet light, it does however have some plastic areas such as the screen assembly and pop up flash. The biggest issue I found was the lack of weather seals around the SD card door and flash. The battery compartment does feature a rubber seal but I would think the areas on the top and side would be more important than the bottom in the rain?
This is pure speculation of course as I have no intention of soaking my baby fresh GH4 (not yet anyway). I have found that water is great at penetrating even the tightest gaps on cameras and the only thing that will keep it out is rubber seals and inter-meshing covers.
Obviously this is heavily dependent on lens choice also but this is one area where the GH4 punches above its weight offering a 49 point AF system against the Canons 61 point AF system.
The GH4 has a larger AF focusing area along with a new system called DFD (Depth From Defocus) which gives the camera an incredible focus speed, honestly it makes the 1Dx with its 24-70mm feel like a slug by comparison, focusing is almost instantaneous when you press the shutter. The GH4 really gives you confidence in its focusing, it moves with authority and knows exactly where to focus. I always encounter slight hunting on Canon DSLR's at the very least.
Things are a little different when you throw focus tracking into the mix, the 1Dx offers a wide range of options to customize the autofocus for tracking in different scenarios etc. In my limited testing though I found the GH4 actually a little snappier moving to focus but it does work differently. By this I mean you will track a subject and the camera will go through a quick period of being out of focus then it suddenly snaps into focus again.
The 1Dx by comparison is always on the hunt with the motor clicking away, I was expecting this to be faster overall but in reality it wasn't. The 1Dx tends to hunt back and forth looking for focus eagerly while the GH4 just goes straight to focus.
I found this all incredibly surprising given the 1Dx is the best Canon has to offer and is renowned for its AF performance. Not only this, the 1Dx has a higher voltage battery designed to drive the AF motor faster for a quicker response. Bear in mind however this is only with 1 lens on each body in consistent lighting.
Another great feature of the GH4 is the incorporation of focus peaking, automatically activated when you switch to manual focus mode, its the little things like this that make the experience so much better. Why Canon can't get off their high horse and introduce this stuff into their medium - high end bodies is beyond me...
Now this is an area of great debate with the new generation EVF systems going head to head with older tech optical viewfinders along with the 1Dx having one of the best optical viewfinders on the market. In this comparison the GH4 really has the advantage to be honest, EVF is simply a superior technology offering greater flexibility with what is displayed.
The GH4 viewfinder is much brighter, incredibly sharp and has no discernible lag 95% of the time and allows you to incorporate things such as spot magnification when manual focusing and live preview of exposure and aperture. Being able to have basically anything displayed in the viewfinder such as focus peaking and zebras really gives you the most flexibility when shooting.
The only downsides I found to EVF are that it does tax a battery a little more and I did notice some issues with AC light sources and refresh rates. They really are minor though most of the time.
Some may say the optical viewfinder offers a more accurate preview but in reality it is simply not true. An EVF display shows you exactly what you will capture in the frame as it is reading directly from the sensor, this is handy in photo / video modes also when the crop factor or aspect ratio changes. Not to mention getting accurate preview of exposure and DOF is a nice luxury.
Sensor IQ / ISO Performance:
Now obviously the tiny micro four-thirds sensor always has an uphill battle against a full frame sensor and the results back this up, there are however some interesting things in the results that are worth looking at. Also bear in mind that there are differences in depth of field due to the sensor size of each camera, I chose to use the same aperture for each camera to show the real world difference between each format using the same settings.
The Panasonic offers 16MP vs the Canon's 18MP which isn't too far apart in the real world but the first thing that became immediately clear in testing is that the GH4 has more dynamic range / shadow detail straight out of the camera. Now this can be attributed to the optics also but unfortunately I can't test the same lens on each platform.
The first thing that came to mind was that the GH4 was softer when the image first popped up but in reality it was due to the lack of contrast, after correcting the results were very similar at low ISO.
Another thing to notice on the GH4 is that the built in chromatic aberration correction is doing its job as my lighting tends to cause this in most lenses including the Canon 24-70 as seen in the photos.
Things get interesting once we start pushing up the ISO on the GH4, images tend to become softer rather quickly which I would guess is due to built in noise reduction as there is a lack of noise being visible, I have not seen a setting for this in the menu other than long exposure noise reduction. There are some image options for JPEG processing however.
By ISO 6400, the image becomes quite soft and we start to see colour noise creeping in also, going to 12800 things just get worse. I would say the absolute usable would be ISO 6400 preferably ISO 3200.
The 1Dx obviously holds in there longer with more detail, you can work some magic with the GH4 images though and get some very similar results...
The softening becomes really apparent by the time you reach ISO 12800.
Conclusion for today:
So what conclusions can we draw from this so far? Well I'm actually really impressed with how the GH4 holds up against a camera costing 3-4x its price. The 1Dx is more of a bruit camera, relying on older technology with a large sensor, big glass and generally making everything bigger and more powerful.
At the same time however the 1Dx always delivers in areas where you need to rely on your camera, large batteries, dual memory cards and solid construction really do make the difference when the pressure is on and the world is against you
The GH4 by comparison is sleek, light, efficient and full of smart technologies. Things are well thought out and you get the impression that Panasonic have made the camera as good as it can be with current technology. I never get this impression from Canon as they tend to hold features back even in their top level cameras.
In outright noise performance, the GH4 simply can't match the bigger Canon sensor. The camera does excel in so many other areas though such as dynamic range, autofocus, EVF, dimensions and overall flexibility.
What I would really love to see in the future is Panasonic or another lens marker bringing out some fast telephoto lenses for this body, I think the autofocus potential is really there, the camera just needs some great glass to hang off the front of it.
Plenty more to come as I dive further into the camera features and get out in the field and put it through its paces!
See below for larger ISO comparison images: