A dispassionate look at the differences between the GH3 and the GH4. Not in the lab but out on a job.

The King Kong, Mr. Spock and Beyoncé of the Micro Four Thirds Universe.
This is a must have if you are shooting m4:3 for a living.

Blog reader, David E., asked me in an e-mail just what the differences are between the GH3 and the GH4 and whether or not the GH4 was worth the extra $1000 represented by current pricing models between the two cameras. Interesting that I should come home last evening to that question because I spent the day shooting both of the cameras side by side. Same subject matter, same lighting and the same ISOs and settings.

It's been a full week of shooting and post processing at VSL. If you are a regular reader you know that I had a four day shooting assignment that started one week ago. That was followed by a full day of post production and comparisons between three cameras, the Nikon D7100, the Panasonic GH4 and the Olympus EM-5.  After studying my results I started packing for the full day of photography we did yesterday. 

In many ways the assignments were quite similar. Both were conferences about finance and business but yesterday's conference was about diversity and mentoring for minority MBA students at colleges like Harvard Business School, The Kellogg School, The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and many more. The job brief called for a range of images to include team building exercises under mixed lighting, speaker and panel photographs, audience reaction shots and coverage of the keynote speaker's address to the group. The project took place at the meeting and conference facilities of a global financial services company which hosted the 120+ students as well as speakers and facilitators. 

The group started at the crack of dawn with the arrival of the attendees right at 7 am. Yes, I was there by 6:30 to scout, do some preliminary custom white balances of the three major areas we'd be photographing in and also to meet, face to face, with a brand new client.

98% of what we shot was done with available light but we did sneak in some flash on the group shots of 120 people.

In my camera bag were only two camera bodies and only two lenses. I brought the GH3 and the GH4 along with the 12-35mm f2.8 X Vario lens and the 35-100mm f2.8 X Vario lenses and used them interchangeably for everything. I brought a dedicated Olympus flash (600r) which I never took out of the bag and a Yongnuo XXX (manual only) which I used at half power, bounced off white ceilings or at full power bounced off the ceiling in the big conference room for the group. I wish we could have done the group shot outdoors because the facility has a wonderful outside amphitheater but we had a wonderful, soaking rain yesterday and (delightful) sixty degree weather. 

I used both cameras in their manual modes and both lenses mostly between f2.8 and f4. I stayed in the 1250 ISO range except for my group shots, which were done at 400 ISO. While there are subtle differences in image quality in favor of the GH4 the noise looks very similar (small, black grain pattern noise, no color splotches...) between the two cameras. If you were to judge on image quality only and your use of video precluded the need to go to 4K I'd say you would be very happy using either camera interchangeably and, if you chose the GH3, keeping the extra grand in your wallet.

But life is never so simple for people with too many choices....

So, let's jump into the litany of differences that might make the newer camera more appealing for you. And there are operational differences that make the GH4 more fun and better. I haven't found a single metric by which I would judge the usability of the older camera to be better.

To my mind one of the major reasons to use a mirror less style camera is to take advantage of continuous live view through the EVF of the camera. That makes the quality of the EVF image; its sharpness and accuracy a major part of a camera's capability profile. A poorly done EVF undermines the rest of the experience and if you can't trust its feedback then why go down the mirror less pathway to begin with?

While the GH3 has an EVF that was competitive when launched the EVF area of camera design has evolved very quickly. The GH4 has nearly twice the resolution of the GH3 in the finder. It also is user settable to have double the refresh rate of the older camera's finder. That means less lag and faster response. The combination of higher resolution and faster refresh rate gets one closer to the look and feel of the traditional OVF. And of course both iterations give you all the benefits you want from an EVF including incredible amounts of information in the finder as well as pre-chimping abilities. 

The GH4 finder is just plain better all around. I am better able to see how the camera will deliver the final file while I am shooting. By that I mean that the newer EVF tracks color and exposure more accurately which means I can apply compensations while shooting that preclude the need for excessive (and in some cases, image damaging post processing).  Neither camera is perfect but that is also a result of the human eye making accommodations while trying to incorporate the finder image and the ambient (actual) image simultaneously. The GH4 just does it better. 

While on paper the GH4 has a faster frame rate than the GH3 it's pretty much meaningless to me as I tend to shoot in the S-AF, single frame mode almost all the time. But here's the difference between the two, the newer camera has a faster shutter mechanism and a faster internal processor and that makes the camera seem more responsive. The shutter seems a little more instantaneous and the appearance of a review frame happens quicker. In essence the shutter is real time while the faster processing reduces black out (present in both mirrored and mirror less cameras both, just in different manifestations...).  That makes the newer camera feel more responsive overall. 

Both lenses should be working with the new focusing method of the GH4 and both do seem fast and assured, even under low and low contrast light sources, but I never felt that the GH3 was particularly show to focus. Maybe that is more a result of the way I use the cameras than changes in the cameras. 
I did try using continuous focusing with face detection on both cameras and found that the GH4 gave me a much higher keeper rate (defined by very fast, on the money focusing lock and shoot performance). 

Moving on to file processing.  I shot both cameras in the raw mode because I somehow convinced myself (incorrectly) that I wouldn't be shooting that many frames and since the lighting was low and mixed and the range of complexions ran from light to very dark and I thought I might want some play room for precise noise reduction, etc. I ended up shooting more than 1500 images between the two cameras and, for the most part I ended up with the default noise reduction. I did shoot a few shots in Jpeg for myself to see the difference between the two cameras when setting the iResolution control to the standard setting. The appearance of correct and incisive sharpness was much better on the GH4. I chalk it up to the faster processing and evolution of the camera software. I noticed that the iRes is also functional in raw so I stayed with standard in the GH4 and "low" in the GH3.

I was happy with the camera choices for sharpening in the GH4 and I did some mild sharpening in Lightroom with the GH3 files. 

Looking side by side at similar shots from both cameras at 1250 ISO I don't see a lot of difference between the raw files in color, contrast or overall tonality. 

I chose these cameras for my job because I knew that the fast feedback loop of the EVF viewing and pre-chimping capabilities would be very useful. I enjoy composing on the screen and like being able to see how my settings on the camera will be implemented in the files before I commit. I knew that I could get the quality I needed from both cameras if I was careful to custom white balance and make sure I nailed exposure as well as possible. I did three custom white balances on each camera because the three different auditoriums I worked in each had their own mix of LEDs, fluorescent lights and some small MR-16 tungsten spots.  Working with good custom white balances takes some of the difference between cameras out of the mix. In the auto mode the GH4 is a bit more accurate in most instances than the auto WB in the GH3. Applying custom white balances when shooting minimizes or eliminates that difference. In daylight situations the cameras are equal. It's only under nutty mixed lighting scenarios that I see and difference and I'm not always sure which camera is most accurate or if I'm happily trading accuracy for a pleasing color rendition. Which I almost always prefer. 

Had Panasonic not come out with the GH4 I would probably have kept my 3's (mostly for video) while picking up and EM-1 for the better EVF and image quality improvements. Even owning a GH4 I am intrigued by the allegedly better finder of the Olympus EM-1 and might have to get one. I'm on the fence because the longer I use the EM-5s the better I am able to predict the results of the final images based on that camera's EVF presentation. The sensor in the EM-5 is also very nice for portraits (while the tonal distribution is a bit heavy in the shadows...).

To sum up...and to answer David's question: I was happy to shoot the GH3s and especially happy (thrilled) to shoot 1080p video with them. In fact I think the GH3 and the GH4 are pretty much head to head for many (ample light) video situations in 1080p. I think the GH4 is worth the money if you shoot professionally. The handling and ability to more accurately predict results from the GH4 over the GH3 are the deciding factors for me. The faster, more assured focus and the "crisp" handling feel of the camera are bonuses. 

While I might really love an EM-1 (and I have now, grudgingly, mastered the awful Olympus menus..) I do love the body of the GH series cameras. It fits my hand perfectly for a full day of shooting. 

Wrap up: How do I know I like a certain camera more than others? I shoot with it. If you add up the five days of shooting I did this week I spent over 40 hours with cameras in my hands just this week. 
I spent another sixteen hours picking my way through and post processing or throwing away some part of over 5,000 images. With this kind of use you see what works and what doesn't. After you shoot enough images from any camera you know that your two best strategies are to precisely nail exposures and color balance. No matter which cameras you use a darker exposure that must be pulled up in post always looks noisier and lacks some shadow detail. No matter how great your sensor in your camera is it's always better to absolutely nail color at the time of shooting instead of dicking around in the raw processor trying to find some elusive sweet spot. All the cameras on the market right now have the capability to provide the image quality you need for most jobs. The real issue is usability. That's the point so many people miss. Especially in the arguments around mirror or no mirror. To me it's not really all about smaller and lighter it's mostly about predictability and reliable color.  The EVF is a powerful tool. Much more powerful than smaller lenses. 

But the ability to enjoyably hold and use a camera for a long time+the advantage of real time viewing and pre-chimping is what makes the whole equation work for professional event shooters. The GH4 and the EM-1 are the best of the breed. Get either if you do still work. Get the GH4 if you see yourself doing more and more video work. The GH3 is a generation behind. You'll notice it more if you shoot it a lot. It's a lot like color sense. Humans are horrible at discerning color shifts without a referent but they are extremely proficient at seeing the differences between two things that are sitting right next to each other. The GH3 is a highly capable camera----until you use it on the opposite shoulder from your GH4. 

David, I hope this answers your question!


Mike said...

I don't want to tempt you, but my E-M1 has had to go back as the cable release stopped working on the first day of a holiday last week(body issue, not release), and the thing I really notice reverting to the E-M5 is how much smaller and dimmer the viewfinder seems after the superb one on the E-M1. Also the grip on the E-M1 is much more substantial - I have the add-on grip for the E-M5, but having it right in the camera itself seems better.

Dave Jenkins said...

The GH4 is tempting, but I have a pair of Oly E-M5s which would only bring about $500 each on the used market -- not enough to buy even one GH4. Anyway, the Olys do a good job, I like their size and handling (no grips!), and after two years I seldom need to go menu diving. The first few months were pretty frustrating, though.

Mark Levison said...

Kirk you've opened the hen house door on this one. Thanks.

As a frequent reader you're slowly tempting me down the path of Panasonic and the GH4 in particular. One question that I just over on TOP:

Kirk just how is the autofocus speed of GH4 for moving kids in a cruddy gym lighting? The camera it would replace is Nikon D300, with good technique and a great lens 85f1.8 my hit rate is 30-40% at a basketball game. Would the GH4 fare any better :-)

Honeybadger said...

As a satisfied user of the EM-1 with the gorgeous 12-40 2.8 zoom, I am really getting a kick out of your baby steps toward the Oly. I really enjoy and respect your reviews, and written word in general, and I breathlessly await your take on the EM-1. Come on Kirk, ya know you're going to do it.

Dave said...

Thanks Kirk! I will probably pass on the GH3. There are so many promising new systems for hybrid shooting with competent video. The lack of auto-ISO in manual mode is also a big downside for me as well as no focus peaking. If I'm going to go hybrid I thought I'd regret going last generation. I really appreciate your insights, they confirmed what I was already beginning to think.