Would you recommend the Panasonic Lumix GH4? – Filmmaker Joe Simon gives us the low down

By site editor Dan Chung:

Budapest Cityscape from Joe Simon Films on Vimeo.

Filmmaker Joe Simon of the Delivery Men was one of the first to receive his Panasonic Lumix GH4 when it shipped just over a week ago. He put the camera straight to work during a visit to Budapest and created the lovely short film above. I got in touch with him to get the low down on the camera after a week of ownership.

What do you like about the camera?
The camera has a really great image in 4K. The 1080 image is like a DSLR, it’s pretty soft. As a prosumer camera it has a lot of cool features like built-in HDR and time-lapse. These are nice if you are out and about shooting just for fun, you don’t have to worry about the post-production side of things.

Would you recommend shooting in 4K if you are delivering in HD?
Yes, definitely. I shot Budapest in 4K but edited in 1080P, because besides Youtube there aren’t many other ways to display it in 4K. A couple of the shots in the video were zoomed in to 100% to fit within the 1080P size, it’s like doubling the focal length. You couldn’t tell the difference. It’s pretty cool.

How was the low light performance?
Any shot I did in low light was so noisy, even at just ISO 1600. Pitch black skies were atrocious, they were noisy and blocky. When you use a Canon C100 you don’t have that, you have very fine grain, you can take it all the way up to ISO 10,000 and still maintain a pretty decent image in those skies. In a low light environment the GH4 is probably good up to around ISO 1600. The camera that I use most of the time will be an all-round one. It will be a camera that I can shoot in decent light and it’s good, and in low light it’s good – I don’t get to control my environment.

So your recommendation is to stay below ISO 1600?
I would say ISO 1600 is the max.

Can you characterise the noise?
It wasn’t color noise, more a macro-blocking kind of noise. Very much like a 5D has except that it is much earlier. Normally I get to ISO 6400 on 5D and don’t have that kind of problem. It shows just being at ISO 1600 on the GH4.

Update: Joe has added some low light GH4 footage on Vimeo after a discussision with blogger Andrew Reid from EOSHD about how downsampling the 4K image to HD improves the appearance of noise. This is what Joe had to say about his latest test: “Testing the different ISO settings at night with the Panasonic GH4. I show both the raw and s-curve graded versions. This is 4k footage dropped into a 1080p timeline. Download the original version to see more detail. When I first looked at this lowlight footage in full size (4K) it looked terrible, lots of macro blocking. But putting it into a 1080 timeline makes it a lot better. Not sure of a direct comparison to 5D3, hope to test that soon.”

GH4 Lowlight Test from Joe Simon Films on Vimeo.

What lenses were you using for the shoot?
I was using f2.8 lenses. Potentially you could get away with shooting f1.2 lenses and ISO 1600 in low light and get some pretty decent stuff.

Shooting the Budapest cityscape on the GH4. (copyright Joe Simon)
Shooting the Budapest cityscape on the GH4. (copyright Joe Simon)

How were the ergonomics of the camera?
The hardest the thing it that it is like a toy. I mean it is so small that you feel inadequate. I was walking around town shooting this stuff and tourists would be hanging around with big zoom lenses and DSLRs. Everyone was looking at me thinking what is this idiot doing with that little tiny camera on a tripod? The GH4 is good in the sense that it is small so you can fly under the radar, but it’s bad in the sense that when clients see you with such a small camera they question what you are doing.

One nice thing is that when you are flying with a Glidecam or a MoVi M5 it is so light. The screen is great because you can flip it and put it in any position you want, but it’s not great outside. It is hard to make out all time because of the reflections on it. It also isn’t the sharpest LCD screen, it is a bit like the one on the C100.

How did you find the electronic viewfinder?
The EVF is pretty good but it’s not sharper than the LCD though. I found the LCD to be sharper and I would use it for critical focus.

How was the autofocus?
The autofocus also works really great. A lot of times I would just touch my finger on the LCD screen on where I wanted to focus, it would focus right away and I would just shoot from there.

Did it track subjects well? was it jumpy?
It wasn’t jumpy but the funny thing with the tracking autofocus is you don’t know what is going to happen. With multiple faces using the face recognition it is unpredictable. I did have some stuff where I was panning around buildings and it would go totally out of focus. It wasn’t as smooth as I would have liked.

I think if you are tracking a single person with face recognition it will work pretty well though. It just wasn’t as smooth as would have liked.

How was the battery life?
Battery life is great. I shot all day with one battery. I had five batteries but I never switched them out. I was using one of the image stabilised lenses too, so you think it would drain quicker.

Were the Cine like profiles flat enough for you?
They were. Actually Cinelike D is the one I used, instead of the Cinelike V which is more vivid. Once you adjust your contrast, your shadows and your highlights you can get it flatter than Canon C-log. You can make it really flat. I found that if I had the shadows set at +5 it was too much, too milky looking. So I ended up at +2 and -5 for the highlights. With this you can get really good dynamic range.

The you think you can pull the image around more than C-log?
This is the weird thing. I’ve never experienced an 8-bit camera that doesn’t have banding in blue skies, but there really wasn’t any banding in blue skies. This was really bizarre to me. I don’t know whether it is just that it is 4K, and the extra resolution is doing that. Maybe when you have 100 Mb/s coming into that 4K codec it is just able to handle the gradient better.

GH4 Test – 1080 vs. 4K from Joe Simon Films on Vimeo.

Do you think you can cut GH4 footage with other cameras like the Canon C300/C100?
I think they will cut together just fine. I don’t think it will be a problem because it has such a flat setting. People think you can’t match stuff in post, but even the 5D with it’s vastly different look can be matched pretty close.

Would you recommend the GH4 as someone’s main camera?
That’s a tough one. The biggest downfall is the low light performance for an all-round camera. Against that the 4K image is definitely better than a 5D, it kills the 5D no questions asked. The profiles on the GH4 are a little kinder to skin tones than Canon – because Canon likes the reds so much. So what do you do? If you shooting in mostly controlled lighting, not just running around out there just run-and-gun, then this could be your camera.

The other problem is that with it being a 4/3 sensor it is harder to get that shot with shallow depth of field. You have to work a lot harder to create that, if that is the style that you want.

Are you going to look at the Sony a7S as well? Does it interest you?
It does. I’ve seen Den Lennie’s stuff and it looks really awesome. He says the camera is just unreal and apparently the low light performance is just ridiculous. I think that it might be the new thing that is just going to take over the DSLR video market. I guess time will tell.

You can read more of Joe’s findings and his detailed report over on his Delivery Men blog.

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