Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Nikon D7200 vs Panasonic GX8 vs Olympus E-M1 vs GH4

I consider the market for cameras between US$1000.00 and US$1999.99 to be the most active for active photographers.  Sure, there are people who take photos with equipment under US$1000.00 but many of them have one lens--the kit lens.  From my experience, they may take good photos but they don't really work their equipment.  I push my equipment past those limits, such as when I was out photographing in three hurricanes, or when I'm photographing at skate parks.

For many people US$1199.99 is a premium price point.  To me, it's roughly the minimum for a weather-sealed camera body.  True, you can get the Pentax K-50 still, and it is an excellent bargain at around US$400.  Even with the kit lens, it's a capable camera.  For me, the lenses I wanted weren't available for Pentax, and an adapter to use such lenses on micro Four-Thirds bodies wasn't all that capable.  I switched to the Nikon D7200, especially because it has two high ISO (51,200 and 102,400) sensitivities that work in a black & white mode.

Yes, my equipment must work in a variety of ways, especially when I'm photographing sports.

Since I bought my Olympus E-1 in 2004, I've had Four-Thirds equipment and now, those lenses can be used on my micro Four-Thirds bodies, the Olympus E-M1, Panasonic GH4, and now, Panasonic GX8.

That gives me four modern camera bodies:
  • Olympus E-M1
  • Panasonic GH4
  • Nikon D7200
  • Panasonic GX8

For reasons explained in the sections to follow, I rate them in the following order:

  1. Panasonic GH4
  2. Olympus E-M1
  3. Panasonic GX8
  4. Nikon D7200

Sure, you can get any of them to do general photography well, but when pushing the limits, this is how they work out for me:

Stills

For still photography, they're not as different as I had thought or had hoped.

By sheer physics and pixel density, the D7200 should be comfortably better with a larger sensor.  (I've been told for years that I couldn't work without a larger sensor.)  At this point, it isn't working out that way.  I suspect that Nikon needs to fix things with firmware.  e.g., photographing indoors at Woodward West (training camp and skate park), I found that the Panasonic GH4 was setting itself at ISO 200 and 400, while the D7200 was setting itself at ISO 14,400.  Image quality was degraded.  However, this is a very, very new body.  (Strangely, since using the Nikkor 10.5mm fisheye lens on the D7200, it seems to work better with all lenses.  Also, the firmware update didn't change much for me.  ISO 4000 is pretty much my usable limit in contrast to ISO 3200 for micro Four-Thirds with the GH4, E-M1, or GX8.)

In daylight, things are more equal.  The E-M1's face detection is amazing and for portrait work, I'm finding it and the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 amazing, even up against the D7200 and Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 combination.  (Yes, I know that the Sigma and in general, larger lenses have the possibility to be better, but it isn't always so in real life.  I could get better results with the Olympus ZD 14-35mm f/2.0 though.)  In Live View, I believe that the D7200 can use face detection but Live View degrades performance greatly, and since the optical viewfinder is useless in this mode, you sort of have to use the D7200 as a heavy compact camera.  I would suggest a monopod or tripod.  This is the case with almost all dSLRs (the Olympus E-330 is the exception) but never the case with mirror-less bodies since they're always using Live View.

The GH4 could be great but I have trouble with the auto focus and face detection being slow and/or inaccurate.  I occasionally find when photographing people participating in sports that the focus is a bit off.  The GH4, like the GH3, will focus on a wall or fence behind a person, even though only a single focus point is selected, and focus has been locked supposedly with single point focus mode.  With face detection, it tends to work better, if I have time to wait.  The E-M1's face detection is much faster than that of the GH4.  Face detection on the GH4 and GX8 default to splatter mode using all AF points, if it doesn't lock onto a face.

The GX8 has similar auto focus behavior, quite naturally, although it seems somewhat improved and bit quicker.  I haven't noticed any degradation with the increased pixel density, nor is it noticeably better in any way, compared to the GH4 or E-M1.  I'm sure that you can measure the differences in a laboratory, but I don't photograph in a laboratory.

For Auto Focus consistency:
  1. E-M1
  2. D7200
  3. GX8
  4. GH4
However, there is more to photographing sports for me, anyway.  The camera must be responsive, comfortable, and keep up with the action.

The D7200 is a huge improvement over the D7100 in terms of the image buffer depth.  At 6 frames per second, the D7200 does fairly well.  Unfortunately, it's not enough for skate park shooting.  Also, a lot depends on the lenses, more than on micro Four-Thirds bodies, it seems.  I've been reminded that big glass takes time, but I had no problem working with the slower Olympus E-5 and SHG lenses with 77mm filter size.

Keeping up is only slightly easier with the GX8 and its 8 frames per second.  It is more responsive than the GH4 in some ways but overall, it is not quite as able to do the job.

The E-M1 is extremely responsive, and seems to anticipate my needs.  Equally, the GH4 single AF is predictive and looking ahead before I half-press the shutter release.

For overall stills shooting:
  1. E-M1
  2. GH4
  3. GX8
  4. D7200

Street shooting

For casual photographers who want to go out and just photograph street scenes, the E-M1 and GX8 would be great.  The GX8 and Leica/Panasonic 15mm f/1.7 lens are great together.  The in-body image stabilization of the GX8 should make it somewhat more effective than most Panasonic bodies, although I haven't seen much evidence of it yet.  I have also used the 15mm f/1.7 lens on the E-M1 and find it to be very useful.  I'm sure there are people who would prefer the less expensive Olympus 17mm f/1.8 but I believe the 15mm's image quality is excellent and it works well when I'm shooting video.

I've heard a lot of people complain that an articulated rear display, such as what the GX8 and GH4 have, is not very useful, probably because it draws too much attention.  (I question what people are doing that they need to remain hidden.)  The sliding display of the E-M1 is preferred by these people, apparently.  This is where the GX8's tilting EVF shows its advantage.  It's so easy to use and you don't have to have you eye placed so close to actually use it.  I don't use it so much but it can be extremely useful in brightly-lit conditions where the articulated or a sliding display would be engulfed in sunlight.

Obviously, the D7200 is too big to be inconspicuous but also the GH4 even though it isn't terribly big.  People are calling the GX8 huge, so possibly the world is full of small, male hands.

  1. E-M1
  2. GX8
  3. GH4
  4. D7200

Video

When video comes into play, the Panasonic bodies overwhelm the others.

While the D7200 is better than the D7100 is, it's still not as good as the Panasonic GH3 for video, let alone the GH4 or GX8.  The lens mount may count for more than the sensor size here.  There are a lot of lenses for Nikon, even if it you have to choose very carefully.  The lack of an articulated rear display really hampers use of the D7200 but it has more options than the E-M1.  If you're trying to get product shots with the D7200 on a tripod, you're set.  I think you'd do better with the D5500, and save money to use toward a macro lens.  At skate parks on a handle, either Nikon body would do fine but the D5500 has an articulated rear display but is limited to 1/4000th of a second shutter speed.

The E-M1 has been sufficient to record video but is not very good, nor very versatile.  It might as well be a point-and-shoot camera for video, even though the quality is sufficient.  Firmware version 4.0 has added some options making it less unsuitable for video, including image stabilization help.  The sliding rear display is not particularly helpful for video.  It might as well be a fixed display.

Perhaps obviously, with 4K video, the GX8 and the GH4 are good at video.  Panasonic seems to have given the video capabilities more work than those for still photography.   I appreciate that I can use 1080p clips from both and they match very well.  I have yet to make real use of 4K video.  4K TVs have yet to make real use of 4K video--except for the demos they display in stores.  I've had my latest 1080p skate park video displayed on 4K TVs at an electronics store and it looked good.  Sony's upscaling worked the smoothest, over Samsung and LG.  When I've taken 4K video for testing, it tends to overwhelm the TV's processors.

The Panasonic video options are amazing, and cater to the video professional/film maker.  After months with the D7200, I have not even tried Live View mode, so I have not tried video.  It has some updates to help it do video better than the D7100 did.  Since I can't look through the viewfinder to see the video being recorded and I can't tilt the rear display, the D7200 is useless to me for video.  The D5500 would be more useful for video than the D7200, as the display is articulated.  However, these are typical problems with using dSLRs for video, instead of mirrorless models.

  1. GH4
  2. GX8
  3. E-M1
  4. D7200

Battery Life

I would hope that mirror-less models would have more battery capacity than dSLRs but that hasn't been the case for me.  The D7200 has a 1900 mAh battery and the GH4, a 1860 mAh battery.  The GX8 and E-M1 each have batteries around 1200 mAh.  Needless to say, I have 3 batteries each for the GX8 and E-M1, with 2 each for the D7200 and GH4.

For stills, I've shot several hours on the GH4 with one battery, but it doesn't last quite so long with video.  I'm sure that the D7200 should last the longest for stills.  Using the Olympus E-1 during wrestling tournaments, 4 1500 mAh batteries would handle a 14 hour day.  The E-5 uses similar batteries and I've never had a serious problem with battery life.

The E-M1 seems to want to turn on the rear display for almost anything, which is possibly the reason that the battery can be depleted so quickly.  The 5 axis image stabilization probably contributes quite a bit as well, as the loss in converting electrical energy to motion is higher than it should be.  The GX8 hasn't shown me that it is great on battery life, even though the rear display can be hidden.

  1. D7200
  2. GH4
  3. GX8
  4. E-M1

Viewfinder/Rear Display

I love an optical viewfinder.  I never thought I'd be able to use some electronic thingee instead.  When I got the Panasonic GH3, I didn't feel much different about EVFs.  The EVF in the GH3 isn't awful, but the EVF in concert with the eye cup didn't work well for me.  Then, I traded it for the E-M1.

The Olympus E-M1, FujiFilm X-T1, and Panasonic GH4 can all claim the greatest EVF title.  They're big, bright, and useful.  The X-T1's EVF rearranges the information in portrait mode, which could be helpful.  I like the X-T1 a lot, but it isn't right for me, shooting sports and all.  The GX8 has apparently been given the GH4 viewfinder, which is a big step up from the GX7 and the rainbow tearing effect.

For me, the E-M1, GH4, and GX8 have viewfinders that make daytime use great and nighttime use better than an optical viewfinder can provide.  It's also good to have a preview of the photo where you don't have to guess much as to the result.

Even when auto focus doesn't lock to a target, you can see fairly well.  Naturally, refresh time is degraded at night but it works well enough.  Version 4.0 of the E-M1 firmware has a simulated optical viewfinder mode.  I haven't really tested this new mode but I suspect it speeds up processing by not having to represent a realistic preview.

 I suppose being able to get the most out of an optical viewfinder is using your experience to extrapolate from what you see to the final photo.  Using the Olympus E-1 and E-5, I was able to get what I wanted from the photo with only an optical viewfinder.  The D7200's viewfinder is very good and if you really need more, you can switch to Live View using the fixed rear display.  However, you have to be patient with Live View.  Even with the E-5, patience was required and Olympus, along with Panasonic made Live View a big deal.  The E-330 worked better because it had two sensors to keep Live View quick.

As I've mentioned, the GX8 and GH4 have articulated displays, which are very useful in architectural shooting and even when you need to check the image when the camera is on the tripod, as the display can be folded out and completely reversed.  The E-M1's rear display slides down and slides up, making it possible to shoot from low angles or over crowds.

GX8
GH4
E-M1
D7200

Settings

Here is another point where the old ways don't really work.  For a few years, Olympus has been using an interactive settings display called Super Control Panel.  On the E-5 (from 2010), it was an easy way to switch ISO sensitivity, White Balance, Auto Focus, Burst Mode, even the card slot.

The D7200 has an informational display on the rear display.  You can see but you cannot touch--there is no interaction.  For someone unaccustomed to the menu system, forget about making quick adjustments without a well-traveled mentor at your side.

The Super Control Panel on the E-M1 is very useful.  The Quick Menu on the Panasonic bodies is useful but takes some acclimation with the up/down motion to select items to be changed.

I know that people complain about Olympus' (so many little gear selections!) menus, and they have become much more complex since the E-1 but every company seems to have complex and/or confusing menus.  I can say, as a new digital Nikon user, that I have been confused by the menus, even with help from searching the manual.  Had Nikon implemented an interactive settings display, it would have helped greatly to expedite changes.  Looking at the now available D500, things should be sped up by replacing the mode dial with ISO and other buttons, so you don't have to negotiate the multiple, near identical buttons to the left of the rear display.
  1. E-M1
  2. GH4
  3. GX8
  4. D7200

Ease of use

Having used Olympus products since the days of film, it's difficult to believe that I reach for a Panasonic product first.

In my opinion, the GH4 is a better successor to the Olympus E-5 than the E-M1 is.  The controls work the way I expect, for the most part from the start.  Of course, things were set with the GH3.  The GH4 makes a big difference by omitting a top panel display but having a mode dial, a drive dial, and various buttons for settings such as exposure compensation.  This is all rather convenient and works quickly in practice.  Something else that makes the GH4 (and GX8) quick are three physical spots on the command dial for custom settings and the C3 spot includes a total of three settings.  The only problem is that I forget about the drive dial to the left of the EVF.  If they had combined the mode and drive dials in a stack, it would have been useful.

The E-M1 has a mode dial but there are no positions for custom settings.  There are buttons for HDR, drive mode, auto focus, and exposure mode on the top plate.  There is also a button for the exposure curve and another for video recording.  Unfortunately, the E-M1 is never quite that intuitive.  The first time I tried one, I spent a lot of time trying to change exposure compensation back to zero.  The front dial is set to exposure compensation by default, which is totally different than the E-5--not a good thing to do with the replacement.

The GX8 seems sparse on the top panel.  It has a mode dial like that of the GH4 with an extra position for panoramic photos.  There is an extra dial below the command dial for exposure compensation, probably to appeal to FujiFilm users who find the X-T1 so interesting.  The lack of the GH4's rear wheel makes the replacement more point-and-shoot camera like that I would have expected.  The four buttons have separate functions, which is useful.

The D7200 has a mode dial to the left of the viewfinder, along with a drive dial below the command dial.  The command dial has two positions for custom settings.  Strangely, like the other three, there is a full automatic position on the command dial, along with Scene and Effects.  Do the users labeled Enthusiasts use these sorts of modes?  There are also buttons for exposure compensation, exposure mode, and video recording on the top panel, but they are out of the way of the top display.  The auto focus controls are at the bottom of the lens mount collar.

Thankfully, the custom settings positions on the command dial helps switch a lot of settings quickly.  While the E-M1 has no such positions on the command dial, they have a two way switch on the back that allows the buttons to take on different meanings.

While the E-M1 is easiest to make a lot of changes quickly through the Super Control Panel, if I want to change to manual focus with an Olympus lens, I reach for a physical switch that isn't there.  Someone will question this, as many Olympus lenses have the push-pull clutch AF/MF mechanism, but with the 8mm fisheye lens, there is no such physical switch.

The GH4 is the body closest to perfection.  It isn't horribly small and there are plenty of physical buttons and switches.  I get a lot done and it works well with longer lenses, even those not intended for the micro Four-Thirds system.  I've found that I can even work the video recording button while wearing gloves.

The GX8 isn't quite as intuitive, but it shares a lot of great traits with the GH4.  Unfortunately, the video recording button is tiny and difficult, even without gloves.  The most serious problem with using the GX8 is the location of the SD Card slot, next to the battery.  It isn't made for my fingers.  however, the GX8 can take a 128 GB card, rather than the 64 GB card that the GH4 can handle.

I like the D7200 a lot.  It's big enough to balance some very big lenses.  The top panel LCD makes checking settings very easy.  The dual SD Card slots mean that I can keep shooting, rather than scrambling for another card in my bag, although the larger files tend to balance that a bit.  I suspect if I was still photographing high school sports for 14 hours in a day, I would be pleased to use the D7200, especially since the battery has so much capacity.  The D7200 is a wonderful workhorse.  If you have everything set and don't need to make changes often, it is a desirable body.  It is not easy to change settings, but it is made for a lot of work when you're ready

GH4
E-M1
GX8
D7200

Conclusion

If these bodies didn't work for me, I wouldn't have any of them.  Switching between them during a shoot can be interesting.

The D7200 is a great tool for landscape work (compared to micro Four-Thirds) with 14-bit raw files for extra dynamic range and a larger sensor for wider work.  While the body is somewhat big and weather-sealed, the construction does not feel as strong as the others.  I've bought an Easy Cover silicone case to protect the body from bumps, since it doesn't seem as strong as the others.  The body doesn't seem to work as well as the others when there isn't much light.

The GX8 is a great second video body.  It is big enough to be comfortable but could use better battery capacity.  The promise of Dual Image Stabilization will eventually make it formidable.  Having 4K video puts it ahead of other bodies around its price.  Being able to easily mix video with video from the GH4 makes it extremely useful.  The lack of numbers on the function buttons makes setup interesting.

The E-M1 is a very good stills body.  Face detection makes it quick for portraits and sports.  The 5-axis image stabilization makes any lens better at twilight.  If Olympus implements Dual Image Stabilization, it will be even more powerful.  Battery life is a serious problem and the camera's grip isn't comfortable to me.  While it is a stop gap compromise to replace the E-5, to me, it's more compromise than replacement.  If you ignore its ability to work with Four-Thirds lenses, it becomes a much better solution, though I'm still not sure about micro Four-Thirds lenses.

The GH4 is slightly small compared to dSLRs, but still comfortable.  I almost don't have to think to use it.  It's rare that I have to stop to make changes.  I can switch between stills and video quickly, especially with 4K photo mode.  As with the GX8, the video versatility is a lesson to other brands.  Of course, the GH4 exceeds the GX8 by quite a bit in versatility, covering many bit rates.

Alternatives are available, such as the FujiFilm X-T1 and Pentax K-3 Mk II.  For me, the X-T1 is too slow to respond for skate park sports.  I considered the K-3 Mk II but while I had the K-50, I couldn't get the lenses I wanted.  Pentax is working on that.

Update 2016.07.21: I gave away the Nikon D7200 and associated equipment, including four lenses.  It was good equipment but it wasn't for me, even though I used to love using a dSLR.

Right now, if I wanted to replace it with a similar sensor, I'd order the FujiFilm X-T2 and a lens or two.  For the sake of reality, I didn't see enough difference from 24MP and APS-C to make me think that it would be necessary.  Where I limit my micro Four-Thirds photos to ISO 3200, I limited my D7200 photos to ISO 4000.  You might make it to ISO 6400 with the Nikon D500, but I would be skeptical.

The Pentax K-1 might be a useful alternative, but finding lenses that take advantage of the body at this moment is a difficult process.  The K-mount has been around since the late 1970s, when I was selling equipment, but the lenses didn't really distinguish themselves back then.  The standouts were Nikon and Olympus, at least, using 135 Format film.  FujiFilm, as Fujica, had a good showing with screw-mount lenses but switched to the K-mount with the AZ-1.

I'd still like to see a Panasonic body with Olympus' AF, including Face Detection.  I still find the GH4 to be an amazing camera body with so much value in a small package.

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