the panasonic gh4 micro four thirds camera – still crazy (good) after all these years

As I wrote in my last post, I have a Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4. You can look that up if you want all the gory details, but this is a hybrid (stills and video) micro four thirds camera announced in February 2014. That means it’s over five-and-a-half years old. Nothing wrong with that, as it still works like it did the day it was introduced. With all its firmware updates, it works even better.

Why buy this camera?

  • Cost – The price of the body has dropped from its introductory MSRP of US $1,700, body only, to US $700. That’s right, it’s $1,000 cheaper than it was five years ago.
  • Overall Quality – When it was first introduced it was considered the bee’s knees with regards to overall quality. Reviewers raved about it, and DPReview gave it a Gold Award. Even after five years, and for $700, it’s still a damn fine camera.
  • Build Quality – Unlike the newly announced Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark 3, or the earlier Panasonic Lumix G95, the GH4 is solid metal magnesium with plenty of environmental sealing. The E-M5.3 is all plastic, while the G95 only has magnesium on the front panel.
  • Ergonomics – A fancy word to wrap up how it feels when you use it. When used the way it was intended to be used it feels and operates superbly.
  • Performance – It auto focuses and shoots stills and videos (in 4K) with superb performance.

I’m beyond spending large sums of cash for camera equipment (it’s a thin line indeed if you consider $700 not a large sum of cash; it depends on what bills are due at the end of the month vs how much is left in checking). The GH4 is still on sale, new in a box, at places like B&H Photo. And there are plenty of inexpensive zooms and primes you can use with the body.

If you look for one used, if it’s in good condition or better, it will usually sell for $200 to $300. If you can find one from a reputable dealer in good to excellent condition then that’s also an excellent buy. But the catch is finding it in good to excellent condition.

As for lenses, may I make just two recommendations. The first is the Panasonic Lumix G 25mm f/1.7 ASPH. Lens. Normally retailing for $250, there are many times it’s on sale for $100 off, bringing the price down to a reasonable $150. It’s equivalent to 50mm in 35mm film, and at f/1.7 is decently fast in low light. In normal light it’s great. It’s only “flaw” is lack of in-lens image stabilization, but that won’t be a problem in regular lighting, and for low lighting you can get good results with a bit of what Ming Thein calls “shot discipline.” That’s what we all practiced back in the days of film to get those sharp images in low light.

The second is the Panasonic Lumix G Vario 45-150mm f/4-5.6 ASPH. MEGA O.I.S. Lens for $250. This is the regular price. It’s 2 1/2 stops slower than the 25mm at 14mm, and it’s $100 more. But it has in-lens stabilization (that’s what MEGA O.I.S means), and it covers a range of focal lengths from wide angle to long telephoto. It’s a decent travel lens for both stills and video.

The only other item I would recommend is a second Panasonic battery for the GH4. And get the Panasonic battery. Third party batteries are junk and fail when you need them most. As for a camera strap, use the one that comes in the box with the camera. Don’t be an effete snob and get a “proper” camera strap. The Panasonic’s are more than strong enough, and nobody will give hoot in hell if the word “Panasonic” is stitched across your camera strap. If they do then they deserve to be avoided at all costs.

The GH4 hits all the good points for a camera: built like a tank, excellent stills and video capture, a huge catalog of lenses to chose from, and all for a decent price point. The question not asked is why is this five-year-old camera still in the market for $700? The answer is the market for cameras like this is collapsing, and for everyone, not just Panasonic. Everything is at fire-sale prices to cut down on inventory in the channel and on store shelves. Once that inventory is down, the prices for what’s left starts heading up into the thousands just for the body. So if you’re in the market for a good interchangeable lens camera get it now while you can.

Or else wait a year for the prices on Apple’s iPhone 11 to drop and get one of those. The latest iPhone camera is awesome. The camera software still has some issues with portraiture (i.e. the computed bokeh still wipes out detail near the subject it shouldn’t) but when it works, it works quite well. The GH4 with that 25mm lens will provide the same capability wide open, and do it without the flaws that are sometimes introduced with all computational photography.

back button focus doesn’t work for me

I have a Panasonic Lumix GH4, and today I fixed it. Why did I have to fix it? Because I followed “advice” on the Internet and YouTube about how I should configure my GH4 to make it work as fabulously as possible. The problem is while that “fabulous advice” might work great for those giving that advice, it never seems to work so fabulously for me.

Case in point: back button focusing. Back button focusing is the act of using a separate control (usually a back button on the camera body, hence the name) for the specific task of electronic focusing. Cameras don’t come this way when you purchase them. You have to separate the actions of autofocus and shutter activation. Cameras come initially with both functions tied to the shutter button on the front of the camera. When you begin the process of composition, you aim the camera towards the subject you wish to capture, and then as you begin to squeeze the shutter button the camera begins to auto focus. As you press further the auto focusing stops and the shutter it tripped. The process is fast enough that under most circumstances the proper focus is quickly reached right when the exposure is made.

But there appear to be certain use cases where this doesn’t work well enough. On the GH4 (and the G9, which I also own) you can separate the autofocus from the shutter, assigning autofocus to the AE/EF Lock button on the back of the camera to the immediate right of the eyepiece. You thus have to learn to hit the back button focus button first with your thumb, then trip the shutter with your forefinger. Two actions that require the development of muscle memory.

With back button focus you can literally focus on your subject, then trip the shutter as many times in rapid succession as necessary to capture that “decisive moment” in the action, or to begin video recording. It can overcome a problem with high-speed continuous shooting, where digital cameras will stop focusing if the continuous shooting rate goes above a certain frames/second. It’s not so much that the camera can’t keep up, but the lens itself can’t go through its mechanical focusing fast enough. This side-steps that issue by allowing the photographer to focus on the area of interest, then fire off a rapid sequence if necessary. For video, especially on cameras using contrast detect autofocus, the lens can hunt during a recording sequence and ruin that bit of video on playback.

The problem with back button autofucus is two-fold. First, there’s no guarantee (no matter what the camera makers promise) that autofocus will be 100% accurate every time. If you’re just a little off the focus mark, then every exposure or video clip after that will also be a little off. Second, and more significant for me, the back button focus button (or the AF/AE Lock button) is right next to the video record button. You don’t know how many times I tripped the video record before I was ready, or tripped it when I was trying to make a regular photograph. In the end I got tired of those misses and having to go back in and delete the unwanted footage, and put it all back the way it was.

Now, I do my pre-focusing the old school way by putting my lenses in manual focus and using the GH4’s focus peaking, where the camera outlines whatever is in focus with a color (orange in my case) showing what it believes is in focus. That’s good enough for subjects far enough away and with reasonable depth of field. Closer in, and with enough time, I can “punch in” or magnify the center section of the subject and use that to fine tune the focus onto exactly what I want.

The key is manual focus lenses. I have a collection of Olympus micro four third lenses (1.8/17mm, 1.2/17mm PRO, 12-40mm PRO, 12-100mm PRO) that have a focus clutch on the front end of the lens. Pull the clutch back and I’m immediately in manual focus. Push it back and I’m immediately in auto focus. No having to set a special button or go menu diving. For me I’ve discovered that manual focus is far better than back button focus, and that my muscle memory is better served when I use two hands to handle both focus and exposure.

The biggest lesson from all of this is stay away from the self-proclaimed experts and learn the camera on your own. It comes with a manual, and it’s clear enough reading. Do your own work learning how to use the GH4 (or any other camera for that matter) instead of being lazy and leaning on somebody else.