It has been interesting to observe the debate about “DSLR vs mirrorless” unfold over the past while. I would agree with Bob Vishneski’s point in his recent article that if one is comparing full frame cameras, the weight difference alone between traditional DSLRs and mirrorless is negligible. And, that slight difference in weight is really not worth the trouble and cost to change over to mirrorless for the vast majority of photographers who use full frame gear.
I recently sold my full frame Nikon D800 and almost all of my FX glass (I only have two lenses left to sell) and I have transitioned over to a Panasonic GH4 M4/3 camera for all of my client work. I thought some readers may have interest in getting some insights behind this decision as they may be going through the same dilemma that I’ve been having for the past year or so.
First, let me say upfront that the Nikon D800 is a wonderful camera and is capable of some spectacular images! For people who regularly print their images in very large formats the 36MP sensor does provide needed capability, and also cropping potential. For professional landscape work the huge dynamic range and colour depth are superb. Anyone whose work revolves around shallow depth-of-field and smooth bokeh are well served by going the full frame route…whether that is in a DSLR or mirrorless format. I often considered my D800 as my ‘fail safe’ camera…it really didn’t matter what I threw at it from a still photography stand point I could depend on it to deliver the image quality I needed…and then some.
As is often said, there is no such thing as a perfect camera or a perfect lens. Any piece of gear we buy comes with advantages and also trade-offs. For each of us to get the most out of our equipment investments I think we need to pay attention to both sides of the equation. As my client business has grown and evolved I was finding the trade-offs with the D800 more and more apparent. While the D800 and my FX glass did a wonderful job with the stills side of my client business, the video side was lacking. I’m probably not alone in having both still and video considerations when buying equipment. Shooting video with a full frame camera was problematic for me far more than it was an advantage as I seldom need shallow depth of field and bokeh. Getting deeper depth of field while working within video exposure constraints was my biggest issue and it was the primary reason why I first started buying Nikon 1 gear. Moire was also a problem with video with the D800.
The size and weight of my full frame gear was also becoming more of an issue as I’m a ‘one man crew’. I began to find that as I added some Nikon 1 lenses, the more I used those cameras in my client productions. I had fewer issues with moire and I was able to get much deeper depth of field at the same exposure settings when compared to my D800 which was very helpful. Up to ISO-800 there was no discernible difference between the D800 and my V2’s in terms quality or noise in my video footage. My clients were equally happy with video clips from either format. Some Nikon 1 lenses like the 10-100mm PD zoom brought additional production value without the need to rig my D800 with a follow focus unit and a Z-Finder. This saved me a lot of time onsite and simplified my gear requirements. Using the lighter and smaller Nikon 1 V2’s also made using my other video-related gear like my camera slider, jib and skater dolly much easier and faster. Taking all of these factors into consideration really had me wondering whether owning and using full frame gear still made sense for my business.
As I started using my Nikon 1 gear for more still photography I started questioning the need for my D800 even more. Yes, the small size sensor does come with a lot of limitations but I found that I could produce some very good quality images using that format and even went so far as to leave my full frame gear at home when travelling to Greece. I must confess that I did not miss my D800 at all during my trip.
The tipping point finally came when I did my most recent client safety video and ended up using my Nikon 1 gear for about 70% of the clips needed for the production which was a meat saw safety video. This involved a lot of close-up video clips in cramped quarters. By using my Nikon 1 gear and some of my more minuscule tripods I was able to get some really effective video clips that I simply could not have captured with my D800 given its size and weight.
I think the current debate raging about “DSLR versus mirrorless” is completely pointless. We need to purchase gear based on functionality, not technology. This means sitting down and doing a logical examination of what we need our gear to produce and the shooting conditions under which we operate. Whether the best gear is a traditional DSLR or a mirrorless camera is a moot point.
I seldom shoot stills under low light conditions and when I do I rely on the PRIME noise reduction function in DxO OpticsPro 10 to help me deal with high ISO noise. I have no idea what the impact of PRIME would be with the gear with which you shoot, but I found with my Nikon 1 gear it gives me 2 additional stops. That’s enough for me to shoot my Nikon 1 V2’s at ISO-3200 without giving it a second thought. For the work I do whether a camera is a ‘low light monster’ or not has no impact on my buying decision. This brings out another point – I believe we need to look at our camera gear as a system akin to a three-legged stool. It is composed of the camera body, lenses, and post processing software.
We all need to think about sensor size and the number of pixels we actually need. Using a full frame camera does come with some decided advantages, but also limitations in terms of achieving deep depth-of field. And, high pixel density sensors can suffer from diffraction beyond f/8 which can make certain types of imaging more of a challenge. Most of the image enlargements we do are 12” x 18” with the occasional one as large as 16” x 24”. The 36MP sensor of the D800 was overkill for what we needed. Based on what we print a sensor size of 14MP to 20Mp is plenty for our needs and has produced acceptable results.
The performance of smaller sized sensors has improved dramatically in terms of dynamic range and colour depth and while not at the level of those found in Nikon and Sony full frame and cropped sensor cameras, many do rival Canon DSLRs. So, the gap may still be there depending on brand/model match-up but it is much smaller than in the past. Dynamic range and colour depth performance of smaller sized sensors is now at levels that meet the needs of many photographers. This brings us to the issue of whether a difference is both discernible and usable.
If you follow DxOMark testing (I do, many don’t) they assess a score of 12EV or higher in terms of dynamic range as excellent with a difference of 0.5 needed to be discernible for most people. Colour depth is assessed as being excellent with a score of 22-bits or higher, with a difference of 1.0 bits needed to be discernible for most people.
This begs the question, “What do we actually need?” For many of us a minimum of 12EV of dynamic range and 22-bits of colour depth will probably meet most of our needs (pixel peepers excluded). I just posted an article on my photography blog showing some flower images taken with the Nikon 1 J5. This camera has a new BSI CX-size sensor with 12EV of dynamic range and 22.1 bits of colour depth. DxO doesn’t have the J5 profile ready yet for OpticsPro 10, so the images in the article are out-of-camera JPEGs with just a very modest amount of tweaking (and no PRIME noise reduction). I’m sure they will be much better once I can work with the RAW files. Nevertheless, if you pop over onto my photography blog and have a peak, many of you will likely find the image quality quite acceptable.
The Panasonic GH4 we just bought has 12.8 EV of dynamic range and 23.2 bits of colour depth which, for our needs, is certainly sufficient. As a matter of comparison if you look at the DxOMark site you’ll see that the dynamic range score of the GH4 is higher than any Canon camera they have tested, including the Canon EOS 5DS which scores 12.4. In terms of higher colour depth scores, seven Canon DSLRs beat the GH4 (6D, 5D MkII, 5D MkIII, 1DS MkII, 1 DS MkIII, 5DS and 5DS R), and of those only two likely do so at a difference that would be discernible for most people. The point here is not to bash Canon but to simply point out that we need to do our homework on sensor performance and not assume that larger sensor size automatically means better dynamic range and colour depth performance.
I have never thought of my cameras in terms of being DSLRs or mirrorless. That distinction is totally meaningless to me. I have always looked at them as simply a ‘camera’ that delivered certain functionality so I can meet my client needs.
In summary, here’s a list of the primary reasons why we switched from the Nikon D800 to the Panasonic GH4:
- Video capability. With the GH4 I can record video in 4k directly to a memory card and also record full 1080 HD slow motion video at 96fps. We also have a much broader range of codecs available for different types of end-use productions. There is nothing on the market that delivers the same video functionality of the GH4 at anywhere near its price.
- Excellent, fast, lightweight zoom lenses. Panasonic has two excellent f/2.8 constant aperture zooms: a 12-35mm and a 35-100mm. These two lenses cover virtually all of the typical focal lengths we need for our video work and much of our still photography needs. If we need a constant aperture wide angle zoom with which to shoot 4K video, an excellent Panasonic 7-14mm f/4 is available.
- Professional build and configuration. The GH4 has a full magnesium body that is splash and dust proof. External controls are a bit better than on the D800 with separate buttons for WB, ISO and exposure compensation, and 5 other on-body function buttons.
- Size and weight. I can get the performance I need in a much smaller, lighter package. The GH4 with the 35-100mm f/2.8 lens weighs a total of 2 lbs. (920 g) compared to the Nikon D800 with 70-200 f/2.8 at 5.3 lbs. (2.42 Kg). With the 12-35mm lens the GH4 weighs 1.9 lbs. (865g) compared to the Nikon D800 with the 24-70mm f/2.8 at 3.9 lbs. (1.78 Kg).
- Still image performance. The GH4 has a large enough sensor, and broad enough dynamic range and colour depth to meet our needs.
- Nikon 1 gear. I have a wide range of Nikon 1 gear that meets all of my other still photography needs as well as augmenting my video capability. A likely upgrade to a future Nikon 1 V4 will enhance still image performance from the Nikon 1 system considerably giving us broad capability at a minimum of size and weight.
Update on Panasonic GH4 purchase…
After using the GH4 for about 10 days I decided to return it and the two Panasonic lenses for credit. I found that the 12-35mm was very prone to flair and I did not like working with the GH4 RAW files as I found them somewhat unstable.
Article Copyright Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved. No use, adaptation or reproduction is allowed without written consent.
Thank for the article. I’m was about to settle on the GH4, but I’ve been reading a lot about its weakness of RAW files and overall still imagery. I am a freelance videographer and photographer, and will be doing a combination of documentaries and still-life realistic photography (aka no studio light). In addition, I was hoping to use the GH4 for short films. Do you think the GH4 would be appropriate for all 3 of these uses?
I used the GH4 for about 10 days then returned it for credit and paid a small restocking charge. There were a few reasons for this. The first was that I bought it during a bout of gear acquisition syndrome and after a friend tumbled some numbers and brought me back to my senses I realized that the camera and Panasonic f/2.8 lenses I had bought really made no sense financially for my business. The second issue was I was very unhappy with the still image photography I was getting with the GH4. I use DxO OpticsPro 10 Elite and I found that the RAW files were quite erratic and I never knew what to expect from them. It was taking me far, far longer in post and I still was not happy with the results. As a video camera the GH4 is likely one of the better ones on the market. I don’t know what software you use so I can’t comment on how well RAW files would do in other programs. For me the still images from the GH4 were very disappointing. Thirdly, the 12-35mm f/2.8 Panasonic zoom was very prone to lens flare which was also a real problem for me.
That’s disappointing. Do you possibly have any cameras – mirrorless or DSLRs – that you would recommend that would fit what I’m looking for? And also that fits the price range that the GH4 is at…
Thanks for the quick response!
Unfortunately I’m not really a ‘gear hound’ and I don’t follow the latest camera technologies or the performance of specific brands and models of cameras. I have heard anecdotally from folks that the video/still image performance is quite good with Sony cameras. Perhaps some other readers can provide some insights.
Thank’s a lot for these explanations, Tom!
Very interesting to me!
I made the same experience, Thomas!
I came from a heavy Nikon D700-equipment, when I changed to the Lumix GH-System from Panasonic (I am a landscape- and nature-photographer, so weight and volume is an important factor to me). At present it’s also the GH4 which is in my backpack: Maybe the best camera I ever owned! In every respect it is a winner, especially in ergonomics und functionality.
You are so right Thomas to underline these two important questions to ask before buying onself into an expensive camera system:
1. What are my real needs? (circumstances of shooting, range of lenses needed, image quality required in most cases)
2. Which system fits these needs best, consisting NOT ONLY of the body/sensor, BUT ALSO of the lenses AND the post processing software
A careful analysis of these two questions brought me to the GH(4)-system, and I never looked back!
For those who still have doubts concerning the image quality of the mFT-sensor, I recommend to loan a GH4 in combination with the Panleica Nocticron 42,5mm/ f 1.2 – you will be surprised!
Or look at my pictures on: Markus Bolliger, Flickr
Best regards from Switzerland,
Thanks very much for sharing your perspectives and experiences making the change from a full frame camera to micro four/thirds. The Panasonic GH4 is certainly an excellent camera and I’m not surprised at all that you are having a great experience with it! I ended up only keeping the GH4 for less than two weeks and then returned it, paying a small restocking charge. A good friend of mine helped me see things differently from a financial perspective. I wrote a follow up article on Photography Life about these additional considerations. photographylife.com/thoug…-cash-flow
What initially drew me to the GH4 was its awesome video capabilities and there’s no question that is where the camera really excels! Since it has the best-rated M4/3 according to DxOMark I thought I would also enjoy it from a stills perspective. Unfortunately that was not the case. I found that the RAW files were quite erratic when using OpticsPro 10 Elite. Without trying out a camera it is very hard to know how it will meld with preferred software. Folks who use Adobe products exclusively, or the supplied Lumix software, would likely have a much better experience than I did. To be honest, I really disliked working with GH4 RAW files. I also did not like the m4/3 format in terms of image shape for still photography. I know that is a relatively small thing but folks do need to appreciate that there is a difference shooting 4/3 versus 3/2 formats.
Perhaps I got a bad copy, but I found that the Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 was very prone to flare which was a significant issue for my video productions. I typically shoot indoors under industrial lighting which often hits the lens from a range of angles. This caused multiple flare points which were difficult to overcome. On the other hand, the Panasonic 35-100mm f/2.8 was superb.
Anyway, that was just my experience. I know a lot of other folks who use the GH4 and absolutely love the camera just like you do! I ended up deciding that the Nikon 1 system best meets my needs and I plan on adding a Nikon 1 V4 when it comes out, hopefully early in 2016. I recently purchased a Nikon 1 J4 with the 10-30mm PD lens and a Nikon WP-N3 underwater housing to act as my inclement weather/underwater solution…buying both components at crazy good prices.
Oh Tom- what a pity you couldn’t settle with the GH4!
But: Horses for courses!
What would interest me most from your experience, as I also use DxO Optics Pro 10 to convert the RAW- into DNA-files: what were the weaknesses of your files concretely? What did you miss?
Of course there are better cameras/sensors out there for still photography, but in my eyes the GH4 offers a very good compromise between weight, bulk, ergonomics, functionality, quality, lens line-up, and price. And since transportability is a major requirement to me, I have chosen this system.
Concerning the format-question I see things differently. To me the 4/3-format is more suitable to compose an image than the 3/2-format, which in my experience is neither fish nor fowl – not square-like, not panoramic-like. It is a pure hazard that this format became the standard in photography (see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…ar_Barnack. And if you visit the Louvre or the National Gallery, and make statistics about the length-breadth-ratio of the paintings, you will discover that most of them are closer to 4/3 than to 3/2. Furthermore 4/3 fits better into the formats of most magazines.
Anyway, all mirrorless systems progress in an amazing way, and even those equipped with smaller sensors deliver image qualities being unthinkable only some years ago. So I am glad to hear that with the Nikon 1 you also found the tool which fulfills best your requirements.
My experience with 4×3 versus 3×2 is likely atypical. I do a lot of images for our poster business. These include safety, wellness, anti-bullying and respectful workplace. Based on our poster format a 3×2 image works much, much better for my purposes. I also market some prints and photo art. All of these are printed in-house on our HP Z3200. The vast majority of them are trimmed at 17″ x 23″, and allowing for a 2.5″ white border a 3/2 image ratio (i.e. 12″ x 18″) fits absolutely perfectly with what we do. I can just drop an image right into the format and we’re good to go. With our industrial video business I integrate a number of still photos into the safety and training videos we do for clients, and again a 3×2 horizontal format works much better for me with 1080 HD video than does a 4×3 format. With so much of what we do skewed towards a 3×2 format, I found the 4×3 format awkward with which to work.
As far as working with the GH4 RAW files in post with OpticsPro 10 the GH4 files were just erratic. I’d open one up and it would be similar to a Nikon image. The next could over-saturate. Another could go dark. Another could look ‘thin’. They were just all over the map and I never had a clue what to expect when I opened one up. I ended up spending triple the amount of time on the GH4 files in post than I ever did with my Nikon files and I still wasn’t entirely happy with them. I also didn’t like the GH4 AF system compared to my Nikon 1 V2’s. I missed a lot of bird shots with it…some likely due to a lack of experience with the camera on my part, but to some degree I found that it just wasn’t as precise as my Nikon 1 gear. The flare issue with the Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 was the final straw as it was very difficult to use that lens for my video work, or outdoors doing still images. It is quite possible that I got a bad sample of course…I’d say it was the worst lens I’ve ever owned for flare problems.
I still think that the GH4 is a really remarkable camera that no doubt does a superlative job for the vast majority of owners. It ended up not fitting well with me, but that is only one, isolated case. I know a lot of folks who do both video and some stills work with it and absolutely love the camera!
I agree with your comment that mirror-less cameras have come a long way and represent some excellent gear choices for users. It all comes down to each of us finding what works best and something with which we feel comfortable and inspired!
in other news – I went from medium format to iphone 3 (sure someone can find plenty of reasons – legit reasons… but that should not be posted in photography blog)
Nobody is forcing you to read it, the heading is a fairly clear indication of where the article is going so unless you are stupid (unlikely as you can, at least, read) you should just skip it and read the next article. The d800 is not a medium format camera and the GH4 is not an iPhone so your ‘example’ makes no sense whatsoever, but guess what… it’s your opinion and it’s a free medium so you are most welcome to make it, whether or not your comment should be posted in photography blog is up to the individual reader to decide but in my opinion it reeks of troll bullshit. Now bugger off.
I greatly appreciate your honesty and your common sense articles. I have recently reviewed all your articles about the Nikon 1 and am now eagerly waiting to see how you enjoy the Panasonic GH-4 for bird and nature photography. I am at the cusp of making the move from Canon DSLRs and L glass to the Nikon 1 or m4/3 system. I’m in my early 70s and tired of hauling the big stuff around. I’m a hobbyist, I have a web site, and I enjoy making books with my images and making relatively small prints …no need for a massive number of pixels. I’ve been amazed by the feather detail in your Nikon 1 images and the DOF you get with the super zoom lens. I’m sure I would love the portability.
I’ve been waiting for the Oly m4/3 300/4 to see what it weighs and costs ..I have no doubt it will be up to their Pro standard. That would provide me to the equivalent to my 300/2.8 + 2x combo on FF and if I added the 1.4x, to the Canon monster on the 7DII. I have DxO Optics Pro 10 so I think I will have little to worry about in terms IQ and resolution for my purposes. I’m big into feather and structural details. I’m not a landscape shooter. There may be some difficulty with BIF. I’ll probably keep the 7DII, the new 100-400 II, and a 1.4x but sell the 5DIII, 24-70, and 300/2.8 + 2x and replace them with m4/3 or Nikon 1 equivalents. I suspect my photography buddies will think I’m crazy, but I know I will have more fun and less concerns when I travel. Enjoyment is what it is all about!
Your article has made me really assess my needs, wants, and expectations, and if a Nikon 1 or m4/3 satisfy your needs for your business, I’m sure they will work for me and my hobby.
Thanks again for all your great posts. I am also enjoying your website. Glen
Thank you for your positive and supportive comments – they are most appreciated! I’d be happy to chat/discuss things in more detail if that would be helpful. I’m not sure where you are located. If you are in Canada or the continental US I’d be happy to chat over the phone and give you some of my observations first hand if you like. My contact info is on my blog.
Your business webpage still says you use a D800… no sign of GH4!
I have two web sites and my HR-related business site site has not been updated yet. This site will eventually not have any photo/video reference on it at all as it will be dedicated to my HR-related services i.e. executive coaching, normative assessments, employee surveys and customized training. I haven’t bothered updating the gear information on this site as those pages will be deleted in the future.
Why don’t you just switch to lighter FF DSLR (d610 for example) and slower, lighter glass instead? m43 set is NOT any lighter than equivalent FF setup, considering their 2 stop slower optics for the same aperture.
Oh and now FF bodies are really dirt cheap – I found grey imported D750s are now less than $1500.
It sounds like you’ve found the right camera format for your needs at a very attractive price. The D610 is a great camera which I’m sure you’ll enjoy! As noted in the article, the primary reason for my switch was not size and weight. For the type of work I do the depth-of-field characteristics of the full frame format were problematic for me, as was the lack of certain video capabilities. As far as the D610 goes, I did have a D600 and it was very prone to moire when shooting video which was a significant issue. I also could not make aperture changes while in LiveView which made the camera time consuming and inefficient to use for my purposes.
J – If my main prerogative was video I would not think twice about going with GH4 (size and weight IS significantly lower when compared to D750 or so and I would NEVER recommend D750 solely for its video capabilities (which are OK but nothing amazing). I love my FX DSLR’s but I totally understand why Thomas went with GH4)
I’m sorry if I hit a nerve, Thomas.
I thought you wanted to “stirr” up a discussion.
Anyway, thanks for your input even if it’s a bit narrow in my view.
No need at all for any kind of apology! No nerves of any kind were hit or injured in any way. We simply have differences of opinion which we are free to share. I’ve actually quite enjoyed our interchange of opinions and it has sparked an idea for a future article which I am hoping to make time to write sometime this fall.
So you want a small, light weight camera with high IQ for stills and top notch video.
I am glad that you are temporarily happy with your choice, because you probably will not be for long.
You have settled for a compromise when it comes to stills, and most likely even for video looking at it in a longer perspective.
I don’t shoot video. If I did I would buy the best video camera that fits my video budget, and keep using the best available (FF) camera for stills.
I have long been cheering on the mirrorless revolution because I recognize the compromises associated with moving parts, including the mirror, and the inaccuracy of indirect PDAF. There is one area in particular where I have been looking at making a change and that is for bird photography. I would like to reach 600+mm, but my bird photography is mostly for fun so I am not willing to dedicate $12,000 to just that. What comes to mind is a camera with a smaller format, high pixel density image sensor like a Nikon 1, OMD MFT or even a D7200. The unfortunate truth is that while these make it easier to reach out and photograph birds, as shown in your own excellently captured Nikon 1 bird shots, the resolution and the details are not there, compared to a quality FF image. I am still a bit curious about the latest OMD with a soon to be released Zuiko Pro 300mm f/4 lens, but I am not holding my breath.
I am convinced that if you are serious about photography, and possibly video, there will never be the ONE camera that does it all satisfactorily.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. We all make decisions based on the criteria that is important to us at any given point in time. From your comment I understand that you would have made a different decision than me – and that is certainly your prerogative.
As noted in my article I believe that there is no such thing as a perfect camera or lens and everything we buy comes with some sort of trade-off or compromise – regardless of the level of investment we are willing to make. Which trade-offs make sense for us at any given time period will depend on our individual needs, budget, and the nature of the work that each of us does – and quite frankly by which gear we simply enjoy using the most.
We have a significant difference in opinion in terms of judging the seriousness of a photographer. You are certainly welcome to your opinion that seriousness should be judged by the gear that a photographer chooses to own and by their level of investment in their gear.
My viewpoint is that the seriousness of a photographer has got absolutely nothing to do with the gear that they own or by the amount of money they have invested in it. The thickness of someone’s wallet is not a measure of their seriousness to photography, but rather of their financial capacity.
It is my firm belief that the level of individual seriousness that a photographer has is found within them and not in their gear. It is in their dedication to their craft, their willingness to continually learn and experiment, and by the personal standards to which they hold themselves accountable given the inherent limitations of whatever gear in which they have chosen to invest and use.
This article is not about the pro and cons of any camera system but the reason why the switch has to made. I truly believe that there’s no wrong or right in your decision process but more to the work requirements. In fact I believe my I’m making the right decision to keep my Canon XA10 for video. I have a D7000 and D750 that I could use for video but without any focusing aid e.g peaking from those DSLR I feel so difficult to get a sharp focus on my subjects. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Thomas.
You are absolutely right in your assessment of the purpose of the article – it was not to extol the virtues of any particular camera system or format, but rather simply explain the rationale behind why a specific decision was taken. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.