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Going undercover with the Panasonic GH2 – By Sky News shooter Andy Portch

By Andy Portch

No lights, no tripod and no mucking about. That’s how we continued our coverage of the growing Tibetan unrest in Western China.
 
Please be aware that our story ‘Nun self-immolation’ includes footage given to us of a protesting Tibetan nun setting herself on fire. The rest of the story is shot entirely with my Panasonic GH2 camera. In our other latest report from Aba town we shot the Chinese security crackdown using the GH2 with a couple of additional shots from an AVCHD camcorder. My correspondent is Holly Williams.
 
Last year we had been detained and turned back from reaching Aba town by Chinese police. This time to avoid detection we drove a mammoth 1500km through neighbouring provinces and across the massive Sichuan Mountains. We stayed in ‘safe’ guest houses and travelled mostly at night, experiencing heart-stopping near misses with yaks, sheep, prostrating pilgrims and police check points.
 
We are not on a mission against the Chinese regime. The remote Tibetan regions of Western China are not officially off-limits to journalists or foreigners. We applied for permission to visit, but our official requests were unanswered. In reality the region is under a colossal Chinese security clampdown. The Tibetans we did manage to speak to were scared and claimed a lack of religious and cultural freedom. It is dreadful that dozens of Tibetan monks, nuns and lay people are setting themselves on fire. The Chinese Foreign Ministry call our latest reporting ‘unnecessary’.
 
We arrived in Aba town before dawn and immediately experienced a problem I’ve never known before. The inside of the car windows had iced up. As the sun rose the ice turned to condensation and fogged our windows. It was a stomach churning episode as we sat with massed Chinese security outside our car, with the fogged up windows preventing me from shooting anything. Fortunately I found a Zacuto anti-fog wipe in my bag and cleared enough of the window to get some footage before we had to leave.
 
Sky News is an HD station shooting Panasonic P2 HD, but to get these stories they accepted my GH2 recording AVCHD internally in interlaced format at 17mbps. (Currently a lot of broadcasters do not like progressive shooting, even at the higher bit rate.)
 

Aba town was shot almost completely from inside our car.  We had little time on the ground and limited access to our subjects. On both trips I had four lenses with me. It should have been three, but the Lumix 14-140mm came along for the ride.  My main lenses were the Voigtlander Nokton 25mm F0.95,  Leica 14-50mm F2.8-F3.5 4/3rds lens with adapter and SLR magic 12mm F1.6. (Note: The Micro Four thirds GH2 has a crop factor of almost two compared to full frame 35mm cameras).
 

Frame grab from the SLR Magic 12mm lens

I wish all my lenses were made by Voigtlander. The Nokton 25mm gets my stories noticed. The Leica 14-50mm shares an organic quality and I like the medium zoom range, image stabilizing and faster speed.  I don’t like the jumpy manual focusing with Leica’s electronic focus ring. I have retired this Leica lens many times, but keep coming back to it.  The Lumix 14-140mm I find hard to manual focus and the image clinical by comparison. It should have stayed at home, but I wasn’t sure how far away I’d be from my subject. The SLR Magic 12mm F1.6 is a mixed bag. It does flare wide open, but I rarely use it below F2. It has an appealing image softness which works well. It is relatively heavy and annoyingly the mount sticks with my GH2 and AF101. The factory de-clicked aperture ring is a bonus, but aperture and focus ring grease stiffens below freezing. What the 12mm does beautifully for me is near focus work. (If you use Nikon lenses you’ll be happier because it focuses the same way.)
 

Frame grab from the Voigtlander 25mm f0.95

I am eagerly awaiting the new Lumix X series 12-35mm and 35-100mm lenses which Panasonic have shown as prototypes. I wish there was a third mid fast zoom (12-60mm), which is a better workhorse focal length for news. A common problem is being caught with a lens on the camera that is too long or too wide. I know snappers are rolling their eyes saying “use two camera bodies”. Let’s hope the new Lumix X lenses have decent manual focus rings with end stops.
 
I use ND8 filters when I am shooting outdoors. A three stop reduction I find is the minimum in daylight to shoot anything. I do wonder why camera electronics and sensors can’t use tiny ISO to help out here.  I haven’t got Variable ND filters for each lens and anyway find them fiddly. With my old Canon 5D mkII the Variable ND softness was a benefit reducing moiré and aliasing – not an issue with the GH2. Make no mistake; changing lenses and neutral density filters is the biggest challenge of shooting DSLR for news and doco.

I did not take a tripod for either Tibetan story. We had to appear low key. Some shots are fine handheld, but key establishers must be stable. A Gorillapod Focus rolled up in my bag was quickly and discreetly deployed. I found the Gorillapod too lightweight for my 5D, but the perfect GH2 companion.  I’ve also adopted the Gorillapod as my handheld rig. Hand holding the small sized GH2 on its own gave bumpy results, but when I braced the gorillapod legs together in any fashion against my shoulder or chest, smoothness returned. Beware: Gorillapod leg joints become looser in cold weather.
 
Taking no lamps meant the impromptu indoor interview at night for the first story was a challenge. I relied on minimum practical room lighting and a bedside lamp on an extension cable. I used the Nokton 25mm handheld, but with high ISO of 1250.
 
The GH2 does a good job recording atmospheric sound. You need to avoid heavy breathing as you hold the camera close to your face or crouch over it. For interviews I use a simple external recorder and lavaliere microphone.  I have an Olympus LS-11 unit that can record for eleven hours. Audio syncing is no longer a headache with software like Pluraleyes.  If carrying extra gear is not an issue then hooking up my old Audio Ltd radio mic setup gives me headphone monitoring of the signal going into the camera (but not what is actually being recorded).
 
The BCU interview in Aba town looks good with my Leica 14-50mm set at 50mm wide open. When we met our interviewee he sobbed almost immediately. We moved swiftly to a safe location to record the interview. I thought if tears rolled down his cheeks this shot was going to be very moving. In true Tibetan style our interviewee managed to hold his emotions together during our interview and the tear shot didn’t happen.
 

Frame grab from Leica 14-50mm 4/3 lens + adapter

We didn’t hang about in Aba town and began the long journey back through the checkpoints. In daylight we weren’t so lucky with our escape. In three towns we were detained and roughed up by the security forces. I had my camera taken, laptop searched and all files deleted from the audio recorder. The Chinese security was extremely angry at our presence. At one checkpoint I had two paramilitary ‘People’s Armed Police’ officers holding me down as they took away our laptop.
 
At the final checkpoint, police, paramilitary and plain clothes security thugs threatened our driver. He was terrified; we couldn’t leave him so far from his home province. Our only option was a crazy journey in a beaten up VW saloon across a mountain range in gathering darkness. We were pursued by plain clothes security in a four wheel drive with its number plates covered. I confess to being very scared; anything could have happened to us and no-one would have known. The snow was thicker than we could manage, but there was nowhere to turn back to. We crested the mountains and descended a 100km section at walking pace on a single track road. In the gloom the towering gorge around us resembled a Christmas card from hell. We were followed by the plain clothes cops through the night to the provincial border. Next day we drove out to Xi’an and our driver back to his home province.
 
These stories from the Tibetan region of China are disturbing. We included the footage of the burning nun after much thought. I spent a late night grimly blurring every frame to make it more bearable to watch and broadcast. Whilst doing this I glanced up to see a mysterious apparition glide through our office. Taken aback I scuttled home.  (Our news editors later made the decision to cut the self immolation footage from the final broadcast).
 
The edits were straightforward. The AVCHD footage was converted to Apple Prores LT on ingest to Final Cut Pro 7. Grading was done with Magic Bullet Looks and Nattress Film Effects.
 
The DSLR revolution has not opened mainstream programme making to the masses. I’m not sure it ever will. Programme making is a craft and skill like any other.

The DSLR is a camera that gives a lot of bang for your buck and combined with ease of video hosting thanks to sites like Vimeo it gives opportunity for creative filmmakers to promote their work. For cinema work the breakthrough is the low price not the visual difference.

But for me, the DSLR is simply the latest tool; a good one that brings the visual creativity of photography to the video world.  Compared to small sensor video it is a massive shift.

I’ve watched all the newer large sensor cameras coming out lately. I don’t want to pop the C300 bubble; it is the latest hybrid large sensor camera, but plenty of quality options are out there and more coming. The question is, can your project see the difference between C300 and other DSLR video? Is the difference worth the money? If the quality difference matters then maybe a better camera exists. In other words the C300 fits a niche, but it is not the ultimate solution.
 
I admit to a contradiction in my work. I shot the recent Japan earthquake/tsunami anniversary with a regular broadcast P2HD camera. For ’live’ and ‘one off’ events it gives zero chance of missing a shot – aside from operator error! I can confidently, creatively and quickly shoot news sequences impossible with my current DSLR set up.
 
The DSLR video honeymoon is over. The attraction of the ‘medium’ with shallow depth is inevitably becoming a bit samey. Don’t be a slave to shallow depth and don’t be afraid of deep focus just because you’ve got a fast lens. Composition is crucial no matter what camera you use. That said, I missed the GH2 in Japan and the signature compelling images that I can get from taking risks with large sensor video.

Andy Portch is a senior cameraman for Sky News based in Beijing.

Reports shot by Andy for Sky News have won multiple Royal Television Society and Foreign Press Association awards as well as the Monte Carlo Golden Nymph Award.

Posted on April 3rd, 2012 by Andy Portch | Category: Panasonic cameras, Panasonic GH2 |

12 responses to "Going undercover with the Panasonic GH2 – By Sky News shooter Andy Portch"

  1. Mark Dobson Says:
    April 3rd, 2012 at 10:41 pm

    Hi Andy,

    Thank you for that post. I really like your non tricksy style and as you say composition is one of the most important factors.

    Phenomenal quality from the GH2. But really as with a previous post you made here it is the way you and Holly Williams handle these sensitive stories that counts.

    What a cruel, brutish and extremely powerful regime.

    Thanks again

    Mark

  2. David Mercer Says:
    April 5th, 2012 at 10:36 am

    Great work Andy. You got an important story out to the world, and told it in a visually arresting way. That’s dedication!

    I also shoot with a GH2 (freelance VJ for Al Jazeera English from Guatemala) and am hoping I can ask you a couple of technical questions.

    Any reason you haven’t hacked your GH2?

    Which lav do you use (I bought a Marantz recoder with two XLR ports but sometimes find the Marantz is bulky and bea bit of a pain)?

    Does you the Leica/Nokton combo really look that much different/organic from say the 20mm pancake and 14-140mm (the two lenses I use almost exclusively)?

    How strong a grade do you give your news pkgs?

    Any and all tips for a newbie cameraman using a GH2 for broadcast gratefully appreciated.

    Many thanks!
    Dave
    ricochetprods (at) gmail.com

  3. Tim Says:
    April 5th, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    Great stuff. I’m curious as to why the GH2 has not been a more prominent player for DSLR shot stories such as this one. Even without hacking, the camera produces far better resolution than my 5DMK2 and without moire, aliasing and runtime problems. It shoots 25p and 50i for broadcast.
    I agree the MFT system desperately needs a decent, fast, image stabilised midrange zoom lens. Something like Canon’s EF-S 17-55mm f2.8 IS. Shooting two bodies with different lenses would certainly help. One GH2 feature that is an absolute stand out for me as an ENG News feature shooter is the extra tele converter. It’s astonishingly good. Well done and thanks for the write up.

  4. Andy Portch Says:
    April 6th, 2012 at 2:25 am

    Dear Mark, Dave and Tim, thanks for posting your comments. From Beijing to Guatemala I appreciate the feedback.
    I ditched my 5D for the GH2. MFT is a fantastic video format. I guess snappers who own the glass prefer full frame DSLR. Full frame cameras and lenses are significantly heavier and expensive.
    Professional cameramen forums remain sniffy about the GH2 and some DSLR websites steer people a certain direction.
    I don’t need 36MP stills. The GH2 is great value and shoots better video.
    The BCU interview in Aba town was shot at F3.5 with second-hand Leica 14-50mm lens at the 50mm end. Only one eyeball is in focus. How much narrower depth do you need?
    If you are shooting people for news and documentary video it is unrealistic to guarantee focus below this depth. It would be challenging for a cinema pro focus puller with HD monitor. Shallow depth on static objects is of course possible with MFT. Check my example of the ‘Tibetan table painting’ with SLR Magic 12mm at around F2.5
    The best lens is always the one you have on the camera when you need to shoot! I could have used Lumix 20mm and 14-140mm. Outdoors the 14-140 is a ‘get out of jail’ lens. The ‘look’ a lens gives the image is subjective. The Nokton, Leica and SLR Magic to me have sharpness and softness!!! They have soul, whereas the Panny Lumix appear clinical and sharp. (Except the long (soft) end of the 14-140mm!)
    I have a shooting rhythm; compose, expose, focus check, record. With the Lumix lenses I use the function that auto magnifies when I touch the focus ring. Manual focus lenses I push thumbwheel to magnify.
    I used a 12-60mm Olympus, which was a great lens, but focus throw was too tiny. I have a fast Olympus 50-200mm, also a great lens, but it weighs almost a kilo and I can rarely be bothered to carry it around. I buy mainly second hand lenses and have my secret stash of Contax Zeiss Full Frame Fast primes for better days than Sunday.
    I’m interested in using the extra tele function. I did tests and thought the image degraded, but this was with long telephotos. I’ll try again.
    I haven’t hacked my GH2 because I shoot interlace. Is there a higher bitrate interlace hack? I shoot interlace because the station insists I do. Plus we spend a lot of money and effort getting ourselves onto location and I dare not risk a camera failing. If the GH3 lives up to expectations I’ll probably hack the GH2 and carry two bodies! Two cameras do cause editing workflow issues with material on multiple cards from the same sequence.
    Grading is a luxury for news. I shoot with dynamic and nostalgia camera modes depending on the scene. I have Magic Bullet ‘Looks’, Nattress Film and Sapphire effects. I’ve never been taught how to grade, so I just play about until I like what I see.
    Sound has not been an issue since I gave up trying to record primary audio onboard the camera. I use TRAM50 mics, but to be honest any decent tie mic would work. I just happen to have those for my big P2HD camera. My audio recorder has mini jack mic input. I use a ninety degree connector which is secure, but I wrap with a velcro strip to be sure it doesn’t come out!
    I’ve just got back from Burma and shooting Aung San Suu Kyi standing for election. How she remains serene in that heat and humidity I don’t know. It was a tough trip and I took my big broadcast camera. Last time in Burma I used a 5D MKii to cover her release. http://www.newsshooter.com/2010/11/23/the-inconvenient-truth-filming-aung-sang-su-kyis-release-on-the-5dmkii-for-sky-news-hd/ This time on journalist visas the big camera was better suited to getting the shots, but again I missed the character of the dslr images and hated the weight of my broadcast gear!!
    Best, Andy Portch

  5. Tim Says:
    April 6th, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    I have to hand it to you Andy… well done heading out on a broadcast shoot with one GH2.
    I’ve been testing various hacks and haven’t found a stable hack for HBR 25p or 50i – only 24p.
    As you are well aware, the resolution is really very good on the GH2 without the hack so I wouldn’t bother.
    The extra tele function is very usable. I find the quality to be the same or better than normal mode except when using higher ISO.
    Totally agree about DOF with MFT. I find it easier to use than full frame. I can’t chase focus on a moving subject on full frame with an aperture larger than f4. With MFT’s that means I can open up to f2 and manage manual focus. I find I can achieve shallower depth of field with smaller apertures on the GH2 by simply moving closer to the subject. Great tip re. push thumb wheel for focus assist on vintage lenses. Well done all round! Very impressed.

  6. AndersM Says:
    April 6th, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    Andy,

    Very interesting read!
    As a GH2 owner who works with 2/3″ P2 cameras daily this was very inspiring and shows what this little camera is capable of.
    I still haven’t dared to go out with only the GH2 mainly because I still haven’t rigged it for proper audio, and AVCHD and Avid havent been a good match until lately. But the GH2 have given me some cool shots as a b-cam!

    How much time would you say you use from when you sit down to when you’re ready to edit, audio synced and everything? The reporters I work with are used to instant gratification with the P2 cards… ;)

    Regarding hacking the GH2, I have hacked mine with the EOSHD Vanilla Patch( http://www.eoshd.com/gh2-patch-vault) and so far it has been 100% stable in all framerates including 1080 50i.

    AndersM

  7. Joseph489 Says:
    April 6th, 2012 at 10:31 pm

    Hi Andy, I hope you check back and get this message and can respond. In the article you made a comment in passing concerning an apparition:
    “Whilst doing this I glanced up to see a mysterious apparition glide through our office. Taken aback I scuttled home.”
    I find this intriguing. Could you go into more detail about this experience? Also, are you planning on getting the upcoming Voigtlander 17.5mm .95? But yeah, even more than the gear, I want to hear about this apparition! And you’re a fantastic writer. The piece itself was gripping. And I’m not flattering you- I could envision you guys being chased down those treacherous, snowy, mountain roads. You really painted a picture.

  8. Andy Portch Says:
    April 7th, 2012 at 5:59 am

    Dear Joseph,
    HaHa…Thank you, I know plenty of shooters who can write, but not so many hacks that can shoot! I won’t be buying the latest Voightlander. I use a padded bum bag (worn at the front) and have three lenses in that and anther lens on the camera. Before I go on location I decide what set of lenses to juggle with. I don’t have the need for another prime. I bet it’s a lovely lens though!
    About ‘the apparition’… you tell me? It was after midnight and very quiet. I glanced up and watched through my edit suite window as a dark figure glided silently through our bureau office. The figure seemed oblivious of my presence and calmly floated on by my open edit suite door.
    I think news shooters gather ghosts in the course of their career! I’m certainly haunted by some of the things I’ve seen. I was talking to a colleague today with whom I shared the experience of covering the siege of Sarajevo and the wider Balkan conflict. He has returned to Sarajevo this weekend to report the twentieth anniversary, and also to try and lay some ghosts. Talking to him I knew he was wrestling his emotions. I do think of the lost souls of Sarajevo. I can still hear the screams, my blood runs cold and the hairs stand on the back of my neck.
    Anyway that is way OFF TOPIC.
    AndersM, I’m interested. Are you saying you are successfully using the Vanilla patch at 44Mbit shooting 1080 50i INTERLACE? Tim echoes my concerns about hack stability.
    In answer to your workflow question; it takes me the same time to log and capture AVCHD to ProResLT as it does to log and capture P2HD DVCPRO HD. That is because we are using FCP, which as you know is the least P2 friendly software. I do my edit as normal in PRORESLT and only sync the audio to the clips I use in the edit. It is very quick to sync. What takes me longer with the GH2 is the shoot itself. You need your correspondent on side. Hopefully they realize their work is going to be outstanding as a result of your effort. If they don’t then they are not worth your effort! It simply takes me longer to change lenses, fiddle with NDs and to focus than with the big camera. There is an inevitable risk of missing a shot. If it’s a one off shot then shoot with deep depth. Otherwise I find I can gather enough ‘good’ shots to still come out on top even if I miss one or two. As I say it is a challenging and somewhat risky business using a DSLR for news and doco. I get annoyed by claims from dslr shooters giving examples of extreme shallow depth with shots of their cat. Chances are the cat wasn’t moving and if it did they are only highlighting the one shot that luckily came off!
    Best, Andy

  9. Tim Says:
    April 7th, 2012 at 3:22 pm

    Dear Andy,
    I totally agree about having the correspondent on side when deciding to leave a perfectly good ENG camera back at base. You are obviously careful choosing when to shoot with your MFT camera system.
    I’ve only just bought a GH2 (after the 5DMK3 got such bad reviews) and have been testing various patches including the EOSHD Vanilla and Unified patches. These EOSHD patches worked very well in 24p but I found them unreliable in 25p and 50i even with a San Disk 32GB class 10 “Exteme Pro” 95 MB/s card. I must say here that I am completely new to this and have no clue as to why I have had trouble running these patches in HBR 25p or 50i. Maybe the hack is written specifically for 24p? Anyway, the camera froze several times and I had to pop the battery to get it up and running again.
    The other thing I noticed about the EOSHD hacks was that when I did successfully record video in 25p mode, the bit rate was actually lower than the GH2′s regular HBR 25p mode. Go figure. These patches appear to use VBR while the “factory” HBR 25p mode appears to use CBR.
    In other words, I found that I wasn’t gaining anything quality wise by having the camera hacked unless I want to shoot 24p – which I don’t.
    It’s important to say that a hacked GH2 in 24p mode does record at a much higher bit rate and it looks very, very good. Some are saying as good as the C300.
    My conclusion was that I found the resolution difference (using HBR 25p) between a hacked GH2 and a non hacked GH2 to be less than the resolution difference between my 5DMK2 and an un-hacked GH2. If I repeat my tests with more hacks in the future, I’ll pay more attention to the 50i mode as it would be good to know for broadcast use.
    For my purposes, I’ve since removed the hack and run the camera with the latest Panasonic firmware obviously with no risk of instability.

  10. AndersM Says:
    April 7th, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    Andy,

    Sorry, now that I check the Vanilla patch it looks like it is only for 24P. I have to look for a reliable 50i patch(if possible) since that’s our delivery format as well…
    Workflow with avchd and Avid is getting better, but not quite there yet. You can link to the native files, but it is slooow without a conversion.
    I work with a few different reporters and some are more conservative than others, so I would have to choose the story carefully to rely only on the GH2 :)

    I feel the GH2 and m43 format is pretty much the ideal compromise when it comes to dof. You don’t have to stop down too much to be able to nail shots handheld, but you can still get good shallow dof with the primes(and hopefully some 2.8 zooms soon!).
    I have some plans on going on a backpacking journalism- adventure with my gh2, but this would involve quitting my job. Not so sure if thats a good idea, but posts like yours and Dans are great inspirations, so thanks again!

    AndersM

  11. Joseph489 Says:
    April 7th, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    Andy, thanks for sharing your knowledge and a big thanks for opening up and sharing your experience with the apparition. The fear of ridicule causes a lot of people to keep quiet about that sort of thing.

  12. jorvme Says:
    June 21st, 2012 at 3:04 am

    Hi Andy,

    Fatastic job, and very interesting article. I’m just a GH2 owner and amateur shooter, so forgive me if the my question sounds stupid. Aren’t you tempted by the Olympus OM-D in-body 5-axis stabilization? Or is it a problem the lack of video configuration options (e.g. it seemed to offer only, at least at launch, progressive scan wrapped in interlace files)? Otherwise, they say it works great for video, and you can use it with any lens

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