The Panasonic GH4 vs the Olympus E-M1: Rivals or Best Buddies?

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E-M1 & 12-40/2.8; ISO 200, f10, tripod

 By Carsten Krieger

Shortly after its release I got myself the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4 as an addition to my full-frame DSLRs. I am mainly a stills shooter working in the tourism sector and covering anything from landscape and wildlife to portraits and food… and more. Video is becoming ever more important and the GH4 seemed to be a future-proof and handy solution to shoot short video and time-lapse clips. Unfortunately (well… not really, but you will see where this is going and the situation became very unfortunate for my bank account), I took an instant liking to the small camera and after some months exploring the possibilities I decided to invest more into the micro four-thirds system. For a few weeks now I am proud owner of the GH4 and the Olympus OM-D E-M1. This is a quick field comparison between the two MFT flagship cameras.

The Gear

Off the bat, the GH4 looks very tidy and the button layout just makes sense. In addition the GH4 feels very familiar if you have been using DSLRs. The E-M1, on the other hand, is a bit overwhelming and confusing at first, with its buttons, half buttons and levers. With its retro design the E-M1 also doesn’t look comfortable to hold.

To my surprise, however, I much prefer to shoot with the E-M1. Once I had spent some time with the camera and customized a few buttons, things were making sense and – even better – worked in actual shooting situations. More surprisingly, the E-M1 handles very well and feels very comfortable to hold, even over a long time. The only thing I would change is the LCD screen which is slightly awkward to use. A swivel screen like the one on the GH4 would be easier to use and more versatile.

The screen is the only body part on the GH4 that beats the E-M1. Especially the small WB, ISO and exposure compensation buttons, that look very neat side-by-side, don’t work in the field. I never hit the right one without actually looking at the buttons. In the field this means you most likely miss the shot. The dial to change drive modes looks very clever initially and would make sense for single, burst shooting and timer. For multiple exposures and time lapse, however, you have to make your settings in the menu first and then change the drive setting via the dial to actually shoot multiple exposures and time lapse. Sounds simple but it happened a few times that I dialed in my time lapse settings, pressed the exposure button and was wondering why the time lapse sequence didn’t start… oops, I have to move the dial as well!

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E-M1 & 12-40/2.8; ISO200, f10, tripod, HDR from 3 exposures

Shooting Experience

A major concern for many is the autofocus speed and accuracy with mirrorless cameras. For me these concerns are forgotten. Especially the E-M1 is spot on most of the time and doesn’t have a higher failure rate than my DSLR. You have to use native lenses though. Autofocus via adapters just isn’t usable and you would probably be quicker focusing manually. With native, I actually mean native: a Panasonic lens on the E-M1 works fine but an Olympus lens on the E-M1 works better (and faster) and the other way around. The difference isn’t major but it is there. Using autofocus is similar on both cameras but I find the AF system on the E-M1 more intuitive and therefore easier and quicker to use and it is a bit snappier in most situations.

The main reason I fell in love with MFT (and mirrorless in general) is the number of features these cameras have: focus peaking and zebras are just wonderful to use and make focusing so much easier, especially in low light situations. The built-in level finder is also very helpful but should be checked and calibrated before trusting it, the one in my E-M1 was way off… The EVF not only shows you what you are photographing but also gives you a lot of information (more than any DSLR). Both the E-M1 and GH4 have these features and more. It is these little things that make life so much easier and photography more fun.

Image Quality

In the end the most important thing with any camera is always image quality and the MFT system is at some disadvantage here due to its small sensor. I have been working 35mm full frame and medium format all my life so I was sceptical.

What I have found out over the past months is that it very much matters what you are shooting with MFT. I am shooting a lot of landscapes (I live at the west coast of Ireland so this comes naturally…) and here is where you see a clear difference between MFT and 35mm full frame which is not at all unexpected: the MFT images show less detail and more grain, especially the GH4 wouldn’t be my first choice when shooting landscapes. The E-M1 files look a bit sharper and show a bit more detail (which is probably down to the lack of a low pass filter).

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E-M1 & 12-40/2.8; ISO3200, f.2.8, handheld

A lot also depends on the lens used: The Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO, for example, is a tack sharper than its Panasonic counterpart. It is also important to turn the image stabilisation off when shooting from a tripod. This is very easy with Panasonic (only a flip of a switch at the lens), it is a bit more work with the E-M1 which has in-body stabilization.

Overall both cameras are not really made for big vistas with lots of detail but can be a decent alternative to heavy full frame and medium format DSLRs if handled carefully.

Portrait, editorial and documentary work however is a totally different story. I can see no real difference in image quality if compared to 35mm full frame and the E-M1 has already replaced my other gear for these kind of photo shoots. Even at higher ISO both cameras perform very well and again especially the E-M1 shows little noise up to ISO 3200.

Which of the two cameras here, the GH4 or E-M1, produces the better still images is hard to say. Personally I prefer the E-M1 but this has also a lot to do with the Olympus lenses, especially the new PRO series are spectacularly good.

There is however the small matter of video. I am not an expert in video shooting so I will only say this: if you are into video the GH4 is without a doubt the best choice. The E-M1 is able to do video but it is by no means a video camera.

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E-M1 & 12-40/2.8; ISO200, f14, tripod

Conclusion

Over the past months I have been using both cameras for various assignments but for stills shooting I have come to very much prefer the E-M1. Especially combined with the 12-40mm f/2.8 lens, this camera is just wonderful to work with in all situations while the GH4 feels a bit awkward at times. I have been shooting landscapes in gale-force winds, indoor events with bad lighting, outdoor events at night with only some street lamps and handheld LEDs as a light source… not to mention the pouring rain (did I mention I live in Ireland…?).

The E-M1 always performed formidably and in a way I would expect from the big Canons or Nikons… only that the E-M1 (and GH4) only costs a fraction of what I would pay for the C’s and N’s and my arms don’t hurt after a few hours of shooting.

Which camera is the better one? It depends on you and your shooting style. If you are only or mainly a stills shooter, I can wholeheartedly recommend the E-M1. In combination with the 12-40mm f/2.8 lens and the upcoming 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO lens, this camera is a workhorse. If video is important for you the GH4 is probably the better way to go. Even better: sell your DSLR and get both!

Carsten Krieger is a freelance photographer based in the west of Ireland and has photographed, written and/or contributed to 10 books on Ireland’s landscape, nature and heritage. More info and images are available on his website www.carstenkrieger.co.uk

Copyright by Carsten Krieger 2014

Gear mentioned in this post (affiliate link to B&H):

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