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Panasonic GH4 First Impressions

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April 1, 2014 5:15:15 PM PDT April 1, 2014 5:15:15 PM PDTst, April 1, 2014 5:15:15 PM PDT
The GH4 Lumix camera and I/O adaptor created a storm of interest after its announcement in February. Since then we've been inundated with phone calls and emails about the "when?" and "how much!" details. We could only speculate and reassure customers that pricing should be inline with that all important global metric - B&H Photo. Thankfully Panasonic have put the speculation to rest and we now know that the retail price for the camera body-only is under $2000 incl. GST. It means pricing will be competitive with the rest of the world - something that doesn't always happen with other manufacturers. We also have a tentative shipping time frame of early May. Given the recent excitement we approached the pre-production sample optimistically, but with the Videocraft "caution" filter firmly intact.
“[The adaptor] marks the first time a manufacturer has acknowledged that their lower end gear is being used for serious production work”
Easy To Assemble NSW State Manager Andy Liell took charge of assessing initial quality and design. A veteran of numerous product launches, he was able to quickly assemble the camera and adapter without reading the manual - ease of use is a critical evaluation tool, as the last thing you want to be doing in the field is searching for the manual, let alone actually reading it! Click Here For Full Specs.
Compact Size The form factor is smaller than typical DSLRs used for video production, as the micro 4/3 sensor and lack of a prism mirror reduce weight and mechanical complexity. The body is the exact same size as the GH3, which should bode well for those with accessory cages that fit the older model. It also means that the GH4 will fit into the GH3 specific gimbals from Zenmuse and others. The compact size makes it light and nimble to handhold, although the small body dictates that buttons don't offer as much real estate for fat fingered operators. Having said that, we found the button layout easy to use and the OS very responsive with no lag.
The I/O adaptor Although the adapter looks like a DSLR battery grip, it requires a separate 12V 4 pin XLR power supply to work. The front of the unit has two threaded holes, so we expect rails for attaching V-Lock plates, follow focus and mateboxes will appear in the coming months. The right-hand side of the adapter offers two XLR audio inputs, timecode in and four HD-SDI outputs for monitoring in either HD or Quad HD. The back of the unit is home to a segmented LED display for audio levels, level control dials and switches for mic/line/+48V selection. In that regard, the adapter is very functional for shooting HD or 4K. The ability of one box to provide proper power, monitoring, audio and timecode I/O is a first for a DSLR. It's also the first time a manufacturer has acknowledged that their lower end gear is being used for serious production work.
Finding Focus The first thing you'll notice is the sharpness of the rear OLED screen and viewfinder. In fact, I would say these are the best displays of any camera out there. While the number of pixels is on par with competitors, the contrast and colour reproduction performance of OLED makes the older TFT/LCD technology look pre-historic in comparison. Focusing with either the viewfinder or rear screen was superbly easy and is further enhanced by using one of the several built-in focus modes. For example, when the lens is set to manual focus, touching the focus ring can automatically engage magnification of a selected area up to 10X without any apparent loss of detail. The camera includes professional tools not seen in competitor products such as peaking, zebras and colour bars. Panasonic have not held back features to "protect" their other camera lines. Nor have they made assumptions about who will use it, or for what purpose. If you want to shoot home videos or feature films, all the video tools (plus some new ones) are there to help you achieve your goals.
Internal Codecs and Resolutions

This is where the camera enters a league of it own as the number of internal recording options are varied. To simplify, 4K can be recorded in MOV or MP4 format in the 4:2:0 colour space at 100Mb/s. 4K comes in two flavours: The cinema standard which is 4096x2160 pixels or the UltraHD standard of 3840x2160 pixels. The cinema standard can only be recorded at 24P whereas UltraHD can be recorded at 25P and 24P (along with the compariable NTSC frame rates). HD can be recorded in MOV, MP4 and AVCHD formats in the 8 bit 4:2:0 colour space. MOV or MP4 formats have a selectable bit rate of 50, 100 or 200Mb/s. AVCHD has a selectable bit rate between 17-28Mb/s. All of the HD formats have a selectable base frame rate of 24, 25 or 50 frames per second with variable frame rates from 2-96 frames per second. Keeping up?

8 Bit or 10 Bit HDMI Flexibility doesn't stop with the codecs. Even without the 4K adapter installed, the GH4 offers a switchable HDMI output for monitoring or external recording. For example, when HDMI is set to 8-bit 4:2:2 it is possible to record 4:2:0 to an SD card as a proxy while recording the 4:2:2 signal to an external recorder such as the Atomos Ninja or Convergent Design Odyssey. When HDMI is set to 10-bit 4:2:2, no internal recording is possible. This mode is solely for capture to an external device at a bit rate that would be suitable for compositing work or for heavy grading of the built-in Cine-Like Gamma curve during colour correction. As two of the I/O adapter's SDI outputs are 3G capable, it may be possible to record a signal of greater colour precision with a capable recorder. Our Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q saw 4:4:4 colour space when 2 SDI cables were plugged in, so technically it should be possible.
The Right SD Cards

The camera will accept SDHC or SDXC cards but it's worth mentioning that 4K will require a new speed of card. SD card speeds are assigned classes. Most of the cameras we use today use Class 6 or 10 cards which are adequate for Full HD 1920x1080. 4K recording will require an SD card with a speed class rating of UHS3. Conveniently, Panasonic has released new UHS3 compliant cards in 16, 32 and 64GB versions. For reference, a 64GB card should hold about 80 minutes of 4K.

Why We'd Buy The versatility of the camera is worth the price of entry alone. Look at it this way: The ability to record decent quality 4K or HD internally with all the proper video evaluation tools for less than $2000 is phenomenal. An Additional $2500 adds XLR audio, timecode and SDI compatibility. The HDMI port can output 4K for monitoring and recording, so why buy the I/O adapter? Apart from adding professional audio and timecode in, SDI monitoring is preferable to HDMI due to the simpler cable, more robust connector and longer cable runs. It'll make life a bit easier despite its looks. For less than $8000 all up, add an external recorder to own a camera that can record uncompressed 4K or HD. Oh, and don't forget it takes awesome stills. Keep an eye on our Twitter page for the arrival of demo cameras, then decide for yourself. https://twitter.com/videocraftaust

by Michael Curwood