Date: 25/08/2014 | By: Mathieu
A Game of Mirrorless Thrones, Chapter II – Olympus OM-D E-M1 vs. Panasonic Lumix GH4
A month ago we compared two of the most popular (if not the most popular) high-end mirrorless cameras, the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and the Fujifilm X-T1. But the battle for the mirrorless throne has just began. While it might have been noticed more by the filmmaking community than the photography community, the Panasonic GH4 is every bit as good as the other two contenders and has a secret weapon on its side, being its astonishing video capabilities that make it the perfect professional hybrid photo/video camera to date. A comparison between the two flagships and most advanced Micro four thirds cameras simply couldn’t be put off any longer.
As shown in our recent Panasonic GH4 review, the flagship Lumix camera isn’t just appealing for its video capabilities but also for its still capabilities. It has every feature a professional photographer could ask for such as fast autofocus and burst mode, great image quality and very good ergonomics that remind us of a DSLR minus the weight. On the other hand, the Olympus OM-D E-M1 is almost one year old now and has become popular among not only enthusiasts but also professional photographers. Is the E-M1 still the best MFT camera or is the GH4 ready to take that position? Enjoy the battle… I mean the comparison!
As always, please note that with our comparison articles, our main goal isn’t to state which model is inherently better than the other. In fact, I’ll say it right up front: both are excellent cameras with very few flaws. Rather, we’d like to help you understand which camera is better suited to you and your style of photography. Do also keep in mind that you are more likely to find informal galleries with pictures taken with both cameras rather than direct image comparisons. On that note, let’s start comparing!
The two cameras have very similar 16MP Micro Four Thirds sensors so the main differences are in the features they incorporate.
The OM-D E-M1 features the best in-body stabilisation of all mirrorless cameras (5-axis stabilisation) and one of the best EVFs on the market. Its autofocus system includes phase detection and is designed to work with both MFT and FT lenses. The cameras has some very powerful additional features such as Live Bulb and Live Time mode.
The Panasonic GH4 wins hands down for its video/cinema capabilities (internal 4k recording, professional codecs and bit-rates, slow motion etc.). It features a contrast detection AF system with DfD technology, has a continuous burst mode that goes up to 12fps and has a completely silent mode.
- Sensor: 16 megapixel 4/3 Live MOS Sensor
- Lens system: Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lens system
- ISO Sensitivity: 200 – 25600 ISO (extended to 100)
- Continuous shooting: 10 fps (AF-S), 9 fps (AF-C)
- Autofocus: Contrast / Phase detection AF (81 contrast detection points, 37 phase detection points)
- Internal Stabilisation: Yes (5 axis image stabilisation)
- Viewfinder 2.360k electronic VF-4 with 0.74x magnification and frame rate up to 120fps
- LCD Screen: Tiltable 3″ LCD touch sensitive monitor, approx. 1,037k dots
- Movie recording:: Full HD up to 30p
- Weatherproof: Yes
- Sensor Cleaner: Yes
- Manual focusing: peaking, magnification
- Built-in Flash: No (but an external flash is provided with the camera)
- Extra Features: Built-in WiFi, Art Filters, Live Time
- Dimensions: 130.4 x 93.5 x 63.1mm
- Weight: 497g (including battery and memory card)
- Sensor: 16 megapixel 4/3 Live MOS Sensor
- Lens System: Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lens system
- ISO Sensitivity: 200 – 12800, extendable to 100, 125, 25600
- Continuous shooting: 12 fps (AF-S), 7,5 fps (AF-C), 40 fps with electronic shutter
- Autofocus: Contrast detection AF (49 points) with DfD technology
- Internal Stabilisation: No
- Viewfinder: 2,3359k electronic Oled VF with 0,67x magnification
- LCD Screen: 3″ LCD monitor, approx. 1,036k dots
- Movie recording: Cinema 4k, UHD, Full HD
- Weatherproof: Yes
- Sensor Cleaner: Yes
- Manual focusing: peaking, magnification
- Built-in Flash: Yes
- Extra Features: Built-in WiFi/NFC, Multiple Exposure, Silent Mode
- Dimensions: 132.9 x 93.4 x 83.9mm
- Weight: Approx. 560g (including battery and memory card)
Ergonomics and Design
The design is clearly the first difference you will notice but the construction of both is excellent.
We consider the E-M1 design quite attractive, and even more importantly, extremely functional. It basically resembles the E-M5 (which was based on the old Olympus SLR design) with the external HLD-6 landscape grip attached for a better hold on the camera.
The body is made of magnesium alloy on the inside and metal on the outside with metal dials and plastic buttons. It is relatively lightweight and not as thick-set as the GH4. The camera is splash, dust and freeze proof down to -14°C.
The E-M1 has the usual multiport (USB/AV) and micro HDMI port, as well as a mic input but lacks a headphone socket. It also has a flash sync socket.
The GH4 is very similar to a modern DSLR in shape and this is why it probably has the best grip and feel of all mirrorless cameras. It is also one of the biggest and heaviest, although heavy in this case is relative since it is only 560g.
The body is made of magnesium alloy on the inside and plastic on the outside. All dials and buttons are made of plastic except for the mode and burst dials on top. It is slightly heavier and more bulky than the E-M1. The camera is splash and dust proof.
The GH4 has multiport, micro HDMI, mic input, headphone jack, flash sync socket and a remote port.
Both grips are excellent. While I prefer the E-M1 for its slightly smaller size and more streamlined appearance, I have to say that the GH4’s grip is the best I have used so far.
Functionality & Ease-of-use
The E-M1 and GH4 are to me the most complete and comfortable cameras to use not only in the MFT segment but among all mirrorless cameras. They have both been designed to make user operation as quick and efficient as possible.
The E-M1 has several buttons and dials that let you select the main settings very quickly. Each setting can be accessed from the OK button as well as from the dedicated buttons, the six function buttons, the function lever and the arrow pad. Plus, every function accessed with one of these buttons can be controlled by the two main dials, which are naturally placed where your finger and thumb rest, making all the operations very straightforward and quick. There are also two function buttons at the front next to the grip that can naturally be reached by your middle finger. The mode dial has a lock button in the centre.
The LCD on the back is touch sensitive and will allow you to quickly select your focus point or focus and shoot. In playback mode, you can swipe between the different pictures taken.
I am so used to the Olympus menu system now that I can find any setting I want in a few seconds but I must say that at the beginning it takes a little bit of time to navigate and find every option you want. But it is very complete and quick to navigate thanks to the arrow pad.
The Panasonic GH4 is one of the most straightforward cameras I’ve ever used. There was very little to customise as I was already very happy with the factory presets. It has dedicated buttons for ISO, WB and exposure compensation that can easily be reached with your index finger. There are two dials for aperture and shutter speed and a very convenient burst dial. There are 5 physical function buttons plus two that can be accessed from the touch sensitive LCD screen. The control wheel at the rear is very practical to use and the AF/MF switch is perfect. The mode dial on top has a lock button as well.
The LCD of the GH4 is also touch sensitive but you can perform many more tasks with it. You can move elements on the screen like the histogram. You can adjust shadow and highlight curves with your finger or select a custom AF area by dragging your finger. You can pinch to activate the magnification. Even when the LCD is deactivated, the touch sensitive area remains active and allows you for example to change focus points while looking through the EVF.
The menu is very easy to navigate as with every Lumix camera. Each main section has a different color and the look can even be customised with four background options. It can also be run entirely with the touch screen or the control wheel.
To really find some differences in the functionalities of the two cameras, I have to be pedantic.
- I would say that the AF/MF switch and the burst dial on the GH4 make it very easy and natural to change these settings.
- The E-M1 needs a little more time to be customised to perfection with all the function buttons and dial options but once it’s done it becomes a workhorse.
- While the touch sensitive operations on the GH4 are abundant, I often rely on the physical buttons for most of the settings I want to adjust.
Both cameras feature a very detailed LCD screen. As for the EVF…
I prefer the E-M1’s EVF because it is larger with 0.74x magnification. It also has 100% field of view coverage, 2.36-million dots and a very short time lag. It has lots of detail, brightness, a fast refresh rate, and good colour accuracy. Its Auto Luminance function is also very useful. The frame rate can be set to high mode but it will drain more battery power and also result in the loss of resolution.
The touch LCD of the E-M1 can be tilted 80 degrees upward and 50 degrees downward but it doesn’t flip from side to side.
The EVF on the GH4 is a major improvement over the GH3 but it is slightly smaller (0,67x magnification). Contrast, detail and colour are really good however and it has the same resolution. Time lag and performance in low light conditions are also good.
The LCD screen on the GH4 can flip to the side and tilt 180° and that makes it way more comfortable to use.
From a real world point of view, both cameras produce the same results concerning image quality. They both incorporate the most recent Micro Four Thirds sensors and the most advanced image processing software. Of course if we really start to hair-split, we can find small differences.
Here is a quick example below: three different scenes have been taken with both cameras, using the same lens and same settings. They are OOC JPGs with the vidid profile.
- Move the slider to the right to see the E-M1 version
- Move the slider to the left to see the GH4 version.
As you will notice, the differences are subtle. The E-M1 tends toward a slightly warmer tone than the GH4. Now, without comparing the cameras directly but concentrating on my personal experience with each camera, here is what I found.
Concerning colours, I’ve always loved how Olympus cameras can render vibrant yet realistic results and the E-M1 is certainly one of the best examples of that. I often use the OOC JPGs, as the result is wonderful. My favorite picture profile is vivid but “natural” and “portrait” can work really well too. I rarely touch the contrast, sharpness, saturation and gradient options as I like the default results of each picture profile. The Auto WB can be customised and there is also an option in the menu to keep warm colours on or off. I tend to leave it to on.
I’ve found that the GH4 can sometimes render pictures a little bit too cold (or heading towards cooler tints) for my taste but once I customise the Auto WB to make results warmer, the camera works just fine. The Auto WB can be customised towards all tints and there are also contrast, saturation, sharpness and hue options. I tend to leave those unaltered as well.
Both cameras have a very good JPG engine. When you want to work with the RAW files, both need some adjustment but both RAW files can give you very vibrant and beautiful colours.
Generally with the E-M1 files I use the available Olympus profiles instead of the default Adobe standard so that the colours match the original colours better. Then I fine tune saturation, vibrance and contrast but generally the results already look good as they are.
If you work with Lightroom, there isn’t any colour profile option besides the Adobe Standard, so I use the Huelight Colour Profiles to get rid of the cooler tints, then make the necessary adjustments to match the colours to my taste.
I find skin tones good on both cameras. I usually select the dedicated portrait profile (or the natural profile on the GH4) or work with the RAW files. The Huelight profiles can enhance skin rendering as well.
Colours are always a subjective matter in my opinion but the customisation options of both cameras and the RAW file versatility can satisfy any demand. Both cameras have powerful and vibrant colours that we find in many digital camera today.
Below you can see an informal gallery with pictures taken by both cameras in various conditions.
The OM-D E-M1 has a native ISO sensitivity that goes up to ISO 5000. Its extended ISO can go up to 25600 (both RAW and JPG). Personally I find it usable up to ISO 6400 and or even 12800 ISO if the situation is critical. At 25600 ISO the loss in detail becomes more prominent.
The Panasonic GH4 has a native sensitivity of 200 to 12800, with an extended ISO of 100, 160 and 25600. The highest value of 25600 will give you an extra stop only for the JPG but not the RAW file. As with the E-M1, I found ISO usable up to 6400 ISO. The highest ISO levels have slightly less details than the E-M1.
Below you can find a direct comparison at high ISO between the two cameras. Both cameras were on the same tripod and the same 12-40mm lens was used. The results are very similar with the E-M1 starting to have better result from 12800 ISO.
When it comes to dynamic range, both cameras produce very similar results.
As with any other MFT camera, the sensor is stronger in the shadows than in the highlights so it is better to slightly underexpose the picture.
Below you can see an informal gallery taken with both cameras in different conditions:
There is a little anomaly concerning the OM-D E-M1, which is that the camera produces too much noise for long exposure shots when the NR (or Dark Frame) is disabled.
This isn’t a big issue for me as I don’t take lots of long exposure shots and if I need to, I can activate the NR filter without a second thought. But I can understand that for specific astrophotography shots, it can be a limit.
The GH4 doesn’t have the same problem and can produce long exposures without too much noise even if the NR is turned off.
Autofocus and Performance
The GH4 and E-M1 are certainly, along with the Sony a6000 and Nikon V3, the fastest mirrorless cameras available today on the market for both autofocus and continuous shooting capabilities.
The OM-D E-M1’s autofocus has 81 contrast detection points and 37 phase detection points. The contrast detection points will work in AF-S mode while the phase detection points will work in AF-C and AF-Tracking and in AF-S mode when using Four Third lenses.
After one year of extensive use for my work, I can say that the camera’s autofocus performs really well. It is very fast and reliable in AF-S and AF-C modes. The camera is also faster and more accurate at tracking subjects even in low light conditions. The important thing is to set the smallest focus point for better accuracy and fast lock on the subjects.
The only weak point of the E-M1’s autofocus is in situations with specular highlights (small lighted points in the background). Depending on the distance and the overall light, the camera can tend to focus incorrectly even if you see the AF lock confirmation on the EVF or LCD screen.
The E-M1 can shoot up to 10fps in AF-S mode and up to 9fps in AF-C (firmware 3.0 required). The buffer capabilities are among the best I’ve used on a mirrorless camera.
The Panasonic GH4 has 49 contrast detection areas and a new autofocus technology called DfD (Depht from Defocus). The camera determines the distance from the subject by evaluating two images with different depths of field. It then adds that information to the characteristics of the mounted lens to deliver the best possible results. And of course all this is done very quickly (approx. 0.07s) so as not to slow down operations.
The GH4 autofocus is probably the quickest I have tried and in AF-S and AF-C and I find it slightly faster than the E-M1. The only feature that is not completely reliable is the AF-Tracking mode. The camera can have a hard time locking onto subjects. It is the only feature that performs worse than the E-M1.
While the DfD autofocus works well, it has its limits when using a zoom lens and zooming in or out while shooting, as the image will suddenly become out of focus. This is due to the fact that the camera is constantly comparing data with the specs of the lens being used, including the focal length. As such, if that focal length suddenly changes, the GH4 has to recalculate everything from the start and cannot do it rapidly enough if shooting in burst mode. As such, in order to make it work, when you want to change focal lengths, you have to stop pressing the shutter button for an instant, change your focal length, then resume pressing the shutter button.
The GH4 has faster burst capabilities and can shoot up to 12fps in AF-S and up to 8fps in AF-C. The buffer is also good and just a tiny less effective than the E-M1.
An extra advantage of the OM-D E-M1 is the ability to use Four Thirds lenses via the MMF-3 adaptor. Thanks to the phase detection points, the autofocus maintains good speed and accuracy.
Below is a gallery containing various pictures taken with both cameras in AF-S, AF-C and burst mode.
So the overall performance of the two cameras is very good. But there is a very important difference concerning stabilization.
The E-M1 features the impressive Olympus 5-axis stabilization where the sensors “float” on five axes inside the body. It can take shots at shutter speeds as slow as 1 second or even less if you steady your body against a wall or pole. More than once I decided not to use my tripod for night shots as the 5-axis stabilisation allowed me to keep my ISO low and my aperture fairly closed (check out this article here). Also, by having in-body stabilisation, it works with every lens including adapted lenses since it is dependant on the camera body alone.
The GH4 doesn’t have internal stabilisation but relies instead on the Optical Internal Stabilisation of many Lumix lenses. While the OIS on the lens works relatively well, not all of them have this feature which means that you won’t have a stabilisation option with every MFT or third party lens.
The difference between the internal stabilisation of the E-M1 and the OIS stabilisation on the lenses isn’t huge but it is there. With shorter focal lengths, the E-M1 has a clear advantage. With longer focal lengths such as telephoto, the performance is similar. Below is a quick test between the two cameras made with the Lumix 35-100mm, which is the only OIS lens I own at the moment. Both shots were taken at 35mm with the same shutter speed. The two pictures represent the best results I had with the slowest shutter speed I could shoot with before the pictures started to be too blurry.
The main difference between the two cameras can be found here.
The E-M1 video mode has been slightly improved over the E-M5 (better bit rate now up to 24mbps) and allows you to shoot in Full HD with manual control but only at 30fps (no european 25p mode). There is no way to completely control the audio manually, and there are only three levels available (low, standard and high).
It has a mic input for an external microphone. There is also a time-lapse function that will create a 720p movie. Its 5-axis stabilisation works great for hand-held shots but can give you some sort of “jello” effect for movies. Some movie effects can be applied, including some of the art filters.
The GH4 on the other hand is the most advanced camera for video at the time of writing. It features professional specs and just like the GH3 before it, it is used by professional filmmakers for both commercial and fiction work. Also, it is the only professional camera in this price range capable of recording 4k (3840 x 2160) internally on an SD card. It can also record Cinema 4k (4096 x 2160) at 24fps and slow motion footage up to 96fps in Full HD. It includes two dedicated picture profiles for video (Cine-Like D and V), and has a timecode, color bars, master pedestal and manual audio control. Its HDMI port can output a 10 bit 4:2:2 signal for external recording with better codec options.
The GH4 has a mic input and a headphone mini jack output. You can create time-lapses, stop motion animations and even extract 8mp JPGs from the 4k footage. There is also an external unit available that provides professional connectors such as XLR for audio and SDI for video and synchronisation.
There are many more options to talk about regarding the GH4 but I think you get a pretty good idea of why the Lumix camera is clearly superior not only to the E-M1 but to any other camera in the same segment.
Both cameras offer similar manual focus assist options.
For manual focusing with the E-M1, you can choose between peaking (white or black edges) or 2x magnification. When peaking is selected, the frame rate of the EVF slightly decreases. The peaking is accurate but to be 100% sure especially when using fast aperture lenses, I’ve found the 2x magnification more precise.
The GH4 also offers peaking and magnification. They can work simultaneously and the magnification can go up to 10x. I find the peaking more precise on the GH4 and the frame rate doesn’t decrease. I use it a lot for video shooting.
The two cameras distinguish themselves from each other when you look at their extra features.
Note that neither of them has an in-camera panorama mode.
The E-M1 has a unique feature called Live Bulb (Or Live Time). It allows you to have a preview of a very long exposure on the LCD or EVF. This is a great feature for light painting for example.
The E-M1 also features the Olympus Art Filters (11 in total) and a new colour creator function that allows you to set the saturation and Hue of your pictures using the two main dials. You can also use the two main dials to change highlights and shadow curves.
The camera also has a dedicated HDR bracketing function (up to 7 frames and 2ev) and an HDR mode for in-camera JPG results. It features a multiple exposure option (2 frames) and interval-shooting capabilities.
The GH4 has a completely silent mode when using the electronic shutter option. It is perfect when shooting in quiet places such as dance or theatre performances for example. When activated, ISO is limited to a maximum of 3200. Also, when using the electronic shutter, some banding can appear on the images when shooting in artificial lights with LED or fluorescent sources.
The GH4 has a creative control mode with 24 different effects; some are very good while others are very cheesy for a camera that professional. Different and customisable curves are also available for each picture profile.
It also includes in-camera HDR (JPG only), bracketing options (up to 7 frames and 1ev), multiple exposures and interval shooting capabilities.
Note: In September 2014, Olympus released the firmware update version 2.0 for the OM-D E-M1 that adds 8 new features including Live Composite, Keystone Compensation and Tethering.
Both the E-M1 and GH4 include Wi-Fi capabilities.
You can connect the camera wirelessly to a smartphone or tablet, upload your pictures or control the camera remotely. The relative apps on the smart devices allow for manual control, which is one of the most interesting things. The Panasonic app includes more options and allows you to access the quick menu of the camera.
As for the battery life…
The E-M1 has a reasonable battery life but if you use it extensively, it could run out by the afternoon.
The GH4 battery life is much better. While it might not last as long as the GH3 because of its more advanced features (the battery is the same), it isn’t far behind. Their battery life is the best I have tested yet on a mirrorless camera.
It is hard to understand which camera is better if we skip the obvious, that being the video capabilities. The E-M1 and the GH4 share a very similar sensor and the image quality is nearly the same. The build quality is excellent on both sides and their autofocus and burst performance is also very similar.
I slightly prefer the E-M1 because of its smaller size and build quality (I like the metal feel of the body and some dials). Moreover, the 5-axis stabilisation and the AF-Tracking mode are two features I often use for my work.
The GH4 is certainly my new workhorse for video shooting. But knowing that its image quality is equivalent to the E-M1 allows me to use it as a second camera when I need to. Its autofocus is as fast if not faster in AF-S and the camera is really easy and straightforward to use.
Choose the E-M1 if:
- Its slightly smaller and compact size can make a difference
- You like to work with slow shutter speeds and you want the best stabilisation system on the market
- A good and reliable tracking mode is a must
- You often shoot long exposures and might find the Live mode very useful
Choose the GH4 if:
- You want the best mirrorless camera for video capabilities
- You want a camera that excels for both stills and video
- You want perfect ergonomics and button layout
- You need a very fast burst mode in both AF-S and AF-C
You can also read our reviews and related articles about the two cameras:
Like our blog? Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter! If you’re planning on buying camera gear, you can check out Amazon and Adorama. Prices remain the same for you, but a small percentage of your purchase value is valued back to us. Thank you!