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Sky News cameraman Andy Portch reviews a year shooting news with the Panasonic GH4

Guest post by Sky News cameraman Andy Portch:

Andy Portch Id Kah mosque Kashgar
Andy Portch with the GH4 at Id Kah mosque in Kashgar

Dan Chung’s ongoing a7R II reviews prompted me to review my year with the GH4. After all, Christmas and V log is coming….
 
With the GH4, what’s not to love? Let’s get the obvious out of the way. No sensor stabiliser, no built-in ND, no stepless in-camera electronic aperture, no decent autofocus in video mode. It’s no good in low light and has no compact XLR audio interface like the Sony XLR K2M. Yet after a year of use the GH4, for me, has proved to be a gem. The internal 4K recording has been faultless in all conditions – in my world, that has been from the Taklamakan desert, to Vietnamese rain forests, to freezing temperatures on the North Korean border.

Going live from the GH4 on the MH370 story from Kuala Lumpur
Going live from the GH4 on the MH370 story from Kuala Lumpur

One massive plus for the GH4 has been its extraordinary battery life. I never fear running out of batteries or having insufficient time overnight to recharge them. I want to shoot without a rig; that is the whole point. You cannot ‘run and gun’ if your camera ‘runs’ on a car battery. I use a Miller solo tripod or (less often) a Benro monopod. When going handheld I often use my Gorillapod braced into my shoulder. Gorillapods do go wobbly after a bit of use, so I’m on my second version.  I’m not interested in brushless gimbals setups to stabilise a wafer thin sensor. It’s bonkers – like spinning your kitchen to dry the clothes in your washing machine.

The GH4 ready to shoot
The GH4 ready to shoot

I do love Micro Four Thirds. It gives me options, the best of both worlds. I am not keen on constantly struggling for shallow focus in a news environment. Interviews shot in brilliant sunshine with total background blur feel like they are defying physics and, for me, simply don’t look right. A hint of background blur and the subject pops, but not like a bad green screen. In low light or close focus, shallow depth makes sense. With Micro Four Thirds I can achieve that when I want to, with kit that is compact and with a huge range of lenses.
 

Interviews have enough separation to make them 'pop' but not completely blur the background
Interviews have enough separation to make them ‘pop’ but not completely blur the background

My GH4 kit is so compact I can hand-carry the lot, including the highly effective Linecam slider from Motionnine and Flexlite LED lights from Aladdin. The weather proof BI-FLEX now has a sturdy slim dimmer that clips onto V-Lock or in my case PAGlok batteries. Flexlites are revolutionary and incredibly bright and clean (though they have annoyingly grown from convenient 10x10inch size to standard 12x12inch, which makes them less handy for backpacks). I can mount the Flexlite on the camera, on a stand or, using a coat hanger, hang them anywhere including in the bamboo of a rain forest. I’m hoping Aladdin will recognise the sense and produce a MacBook Pro-size 10x14inch that will fit everyone’s backpack. My BI-FLEX prototype did have three LEDs fail behind the connector, but Aladdin have replaced it with a production model. The previous single colour model has been carried with me everywhere without any problems.
 

The latest version of the Aladdin Bi Flex lite
The latest version of the Aladdin Bi Flex lite

News and doco are not the movies and often the news business is the bad news business. I’m very mindful of being sympathetic to our interviewees, making sense of their stories, being respectful and careful with someone else’s suffering. The disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 remains a story focused on the many missing Chinese passengers and their relatives.

Sky News MH370 Missing Plane relatives: GH4 from Andy Portch on Vimeo.

For the anniversary of the plane’s disappearance we visited Wang Le, a young man whose mother was aboard MH370. Wang Le and his father were emotional and I wanted to express their life in limbo. A couple of subtle slider shots (Motionnine Linecam with Kessler low profile ballhead) and using poignant zooms in post helped, but you can see the tell-tale jittery handheld on non-image-stabilised lens work. 
 

The Malaysian Transport Minister interviewed about MH370 - filmed with a Zeiss 50mm and Metabones
The Malaysian Transport Minister interviewed about MH370 – filmed with a Zeiss 50mm and Metabones

I loved my GH2, hated the GH3 (which I didn’t buy, because the viewfinder was so awful) and am happy again with the GH4. The GH4 EVF is great, but definitely requires a rubber eyecup, as I discovered on my first GH4 bright snow shoot. I cut down something that worked, but have just ordered the G-cup from here.

Custom eyecup and shutter release make the GH4 more usable
Custom eyecup and shutter release make the GH4 more usable

 
Shooting 4K is miraculous and perilous. The images are great, but the extra data slows down news delivery, particularly when you are dropping it onto a 1080 timeline. Premiere CC has been wonderful at handling any format or frame rate on the same timeline and Media Encoder exports seamlessly in the background, even from a 2012 MacBook Pro.
 
For breaking news, 4K isn’t practical. I pick and choose, but generally for breaking news I’ll shoot in 1080 HD. In 4K you can do moves in post, but the trade-off is no ‘ETC’ crop mode, which is an unbelievably handy ‘doubler’ for any lens when shooting HD 1080 with no loss of brightness or quality.  It’s like having two lenses on an assignable button; perfect for pushing in on a prime lens. (It’s a shame you can’t do it whilst recording, which I think you can with Olympus.)
 
QR plate and homemade HDMI cable lock
QR plate and homemade HDMI cable lock

I live with the GH4’s shortcomings. Low light requires fast lenses, but MFT lenses are small and can be carried. I have the 12-35mm and 35-100mm Lumix F2.8’s with IS as workhorses and carry Nokton 17.5mm, 25mm F0.95, SLR Magic 12mm F1.6 and selection of Contax/Zeiss glass as necessary with or without Metabones adapter. I use the Genus Eclipse Fader NDs; 58mm with adapters fit almost everything I have and they have larger 62mm front diameter for wide lenses. Vari NDs are versatile, but a pain when shooting through aeroplane or car windows, producing polarising stripes – not pretty, and a big shock if you are doing a covert drive by. Of course, switching to non-Vari ND fixes the problem.
 
I added a raised rubber shutter release button which really helps. I bought two packs because I thought it would drop off, but it hasn’t yet.  One handheld issue with the GH4 that bugs me is accidentally pressing the rear dial with the fleshy base of my thumb/palm as I grip the camera and use my thumb to press rear buttons. This has the annoying effect of sliding my focus box to the right at just the wrong moment.
 

The CustomSLR raised shutter release
The CustomSLR raised shutter release

On-camera audio is either from a tiny on-camera self-powered Panasonic VW-VMS10 mic, Sony radio mic or JuicedLink riggy-micro 222 preamp XLR adapter to boost audio from lapel mics or Sennheiser 416 shotgun with phantom power. I use a hot shoe extender if I need to mount a top light and radio mic receiver at the same time. Off camera, I still use an elderly Olympus recorder and tie mic that is easy to sync in Premiere CC. All this fits in a ThinkTank Retrospective 10. It’s a great bag, but I wish it had Billingham-style leather releases and not noisy Velcro (I’m always looking for a stealthy bag)

Sky News North Korea Defectors: GH4 and P2 from Andy Portch on Vimeo.

My journey shooting 4K with the GH4 began with a 2700-mile trip from Beijing to Kashgar in China’s troubled North West. The Id Kah Mosque is one of the most sensitive places in a region swamped with state security amid Chinese fears of a separatist uprising.

Filming in sensitive areas like Kashgar is easier with the GH4
Filming in sensitive areas like Kashgar is easier with the GH4

Getting into a Kashgar swarming with military and moving around was incredibly difficult. With the GH4, not only was I able to shoot as if a tourist while using 4K, but also connect a compact cellular device to broadcast live from outside the mosque surrounded by police and state security personnel. We also used a GoPro at times to be totally discreet.

Extract Sky News Xinjiang Crackdown: GH4 and GoPro3+ from Andy Portch on Vimeo.

 
Earlier in the year we produced a documentary on North Korean defectors and the GH4 shots with prime lenses stand out from the rest of the documentary. This was the last time I switched back and forth with a shoulder mounted P2 ENG camera. The Nokton and Zeiss MFT images are outstanding compared with the dull ones from the 2/3 inch P2 sensor.
 

Filming at the North Korean border
Filming at the North Korean border

So where does this leave the GH4 with Sony producing cameras like the a7S and now a7R II? V-log will give the GH4 a boost, but the GH4 lacks the full-frame low light ability of the a7S, image stabilisation of the new aA7R IIand even the all-rounder potential of the RX10 mkII with internal ND filter, fixed fast zoom and some image stabilisation.
 
The compact Micro Four Thirds kit and sensor are exactly what I want – not masses of batteries and massive lenses. Sensor image stabilisation is now a make-or-break feature for news shooters, and whichever manufacturer gets that right for video will undoubtedly benefit. Sony have made advances; can Olympus finally sort their video quality combined with impressive five axis image stabilisation in a future EM1 Micro Four Thirds?

The bottom line for me remains the same, whether shooting on the North Korean border, in the Xinjiang desert, in the Hong Kong red light district or simply filming an interview in a coffee shop without being hassled by the manager. Keeping it simple and compact is good news for all news shooters.
 
Andy Portch shoots for Sky News and is currently relocating from Beijing to London. Stories shot by Andy have won RTS awards, FPA awards, and a Polk award, Wild Screen award, Emmy nomination, Golden Nymph in Monte Carlo, One World and Ennex awards.  Andy is a leading pioneer of camera equipment
 
 

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