Things I learned from shooting video for two long days with the Panasonic GH4.

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My new food lens. The 35-100mm f2.8 
Panasonic X lens.

My friend, Chris, and I shot video at one of our favorite restaurants this past week. The restaurant needed a nice video spot to plug into their website and we needed some fun stuff for our reels so we pitched the project.

Ravioli with Pesto and tomatoes.
Panasonic GH4 with 35-100mm f2.8 lens.
©2014 Kirk Tuck, for Asti.

We wanted to do a quick paced, day-in-the-life of the restaurant, from opening to closing, with a series of shots of food, food preparation, cooking, serving and even a shot of a couple walking out at the end of a nice evening. We scheduled two days to shoot the project with two people operating cameras. We did only one interview so most of the stuff we shot did not require having a sound person on hand.

I used the new GH4 Panasonic camera as my shooting camera and Chris used a GH3. Since our project will end up on the web, required tons of individual shots, and since I'd be editing it on a non-state-of-the-art computer we decided to shoot everything in 1080p at 29.9x frames per second. We used reflectors but did not use lights. We were looking for an available light aesthetic and, since we were shooting while the restaurant was open, and filled with paying customers, we wanted to be discreet and unobtrusive.

The first thing I did, once we decided on this project, was to play with different color menu settings for the new camera. You could default to "standard" and the camera would deliver good files but I was itching to try the CineLookD setting. It's a nice look. A bit less contrasty and a bit less saturated than the standard setting. It would be a good choice for people who are intent on doing post production work to the files. Now that I've tested most of the settings I'll say that my preference right now is the "neutral" setting with a little tweak to the shadow/highlight controls. I think it's wonderful that the camera allows you to create custom tonal curves and save them as presets.

Carpaccio Salad with Potatoes and Capers.
Panasonic GH4 with 35-100mm f2.8 lens.
©2014 Kirk Tuck. For Asti.

Then we shot tests to see what kind of ISO settings we could get away with. I'm happy with ISO 800. Be aware that there's noise if you underexpose but there are also taxes and death....

We brought along a number of tripods and fluid heads. Enough for a small army. And while we love the steady frame that they provide a fast moving kitchen sure renders a tripod somewhat useless. We had better luck getting the shots we wanted with a combination of steady handholds, shoulder mounted rigs and dependence on the image stabilization built into several of the Panasonic lenses we used. Funny how the best plans are rendered useless upon impact with the reality of the venue.

I did use a stout tripod when we used a slider on stationary objects (wine racks, food presentations, architecture and interviews). My most useful combination was the Panasonic 12-35mm X series 2.8 lens with I.S. combined with a cheap, shoulder mount. If I took care to breathe smoothly I had a good chance of getting really stable clips.

Of all the lenses we brought along we eliminated a majority of them for use in this situation because they did not have I.S. I gravitated toward the 35-100mm X 2.8 lens for a lot of the close-in/close-up work while Chris was happy using the 12-35mm. Next time we'll bring along two 12-35mm lenses so we don't have to share one. Of all the lenses we could have used for this project, overall, the 12-35mm was nearly perfect, and very sharp wide open.

I learned that no matter how good your slider is the quality of what you end up doing with it is all down to your hand skills. Seems like everyone has a slider now in the video world but most of the shots done with conventional, hand powered sliders look pretty choppy. I know mine do. On the first day I struggled to get smooth slides and on the second day I felt like I had graduated to "moderately acceptable."

The key to getting good shots that you can also control is to rehearse. If I was doing a pan across the kitchen I would rehearse it three or four times before I started burning memory. The rehearsals are all about your perception of timing which, in a certain sense, we don't worry much about in the still world.

Ravioli with Pesto and tomatoes.
Panasonic GH4 with 35-100mm f2.8 lens.
©2014 Kirk Tuck, for Asti.
Version 2

I learned that no matter how optimistic you are about the quality of sound a noisy, working restaurant environment is just a bad place in which to do an interview. Exhaust fans, sizzling food, clattering plates and a constant, live environment means that I'll probably be reshooting just one part of the project and that part will be the interview with the owner. No amount of post production will get me to the point where I could call the sound we got "good."

We learned that where food is involved the closer the better, meaning put on your close focusing lenses and lean in; and the sharper the better. The food that's in focus wants to be sharp. The contrast between in and out of focus areas is more obvious that way.

We also learned that when picking a restaurant to do a video for it's always best to pick one with really good food that's all made from scratch. You'd be surprised at how many restaurants use frozen and packaged foods. It's an amazingly big business and some restaurants are getting to the point where they are basically just microwaving stuff that comes pre-assembled in a  box.

Not so at our choice of restaurant, Asti. They make pretty much everything but the wine they serve from fresh ingredients, one step at a time. That includes their gelato, their breads, and even their fresh pasta. The advantages of this are many. There's a lot more to film if there's a lot of preparation! And that makes our job easier. Fresh produce and fresh fish and meat are more attractive on camera. And probably the most selfish reason is that we might get invited to sit down and have dinner on the house during the shooting day and it's a treat to know that the food you're being served is the best stuff you can get and that it's prepared with care and skill.

When we came a week before actual production to scout the location the owner, Emmett Fox, seated us at the bar next to the open kitchen after our scouting. Over the course of the next hour and a half he served Chris and me five wonderful dishes, each paired with a really nice wine. Every dish was perfect. Every glass of wine a treat. In the process of "scouting with our stomachs" we had a more visceral understanding of just what Asti's cuisine and culture was all about.

I'm early into the editing process now. This is the part where we look at all the footage and import the sequences we think we'll be using. It's a tedious process. Even more so because we shot hundreds of clips and most of them are quite usable.

I do know how I feel about the new camera now. I really like it. It is set up to be easy to navigate. I like using it with the two X lenses from  Panasonic. The 12-35 and the 35-100 cover the same angle of view as a 24mm to 200mm on 35mm framed cameras. The built in image stabilization of the lenses is very good. And the 7-14mm lens is dramatic.

Even though I am a fan of EVFs I found that keeping my composition and shot control on a slider mounted camera made using the rear screen a better bet for interior shots. When I went hand held or with a shoulder mount the EVF/eyepiece added a third point of contact which helped stabilize the  camera and lens.

My original intention was to do custom white balances as we went through the shot list but we were shooting so quickly and so much on the fly (trying to follow fast moving chefs and fast action with no script or rehearsal) that we defaulted to AWB. The cameras did a great job both nailing good color balance and creating files that are in the same color ballpark across two camera model generations.

When we did "locked down" shots on tripods or on the slider we worked in manual focus but for the faster moving stuff our usual default was to use AF-S. We'd push half way down on the shutter button to lock focus, and then push all the way down on the same button to start recording. From that point on the game is to try and maintain the same camera/object distance for the clip so they focus stays sharp. It worked well. Especially at the wider end of the 12-35mm and with the 7-14mm.

In near darkness, when the lens is already wide open you really only have two options to use if you need more light ( assuming the venue discourages adding lights!!!). One is to run up the ISO and hope that you'll be able to deal with noise once you hit the higher ranges (3200 and 6400) while the other is to slow down your shutter speeds which adds blur to the video. I go to the ISO first and use lower shutter speeds as a last resort.....

I brought along a box full of prime lenses but I found myself using the zooms almost exclusively. The chefs and staff move constantly and I had no control over how the space in front of me would change and how elastic its boundaries would become. Dealing with primes would have required a constant changing of lenses and slowed down the process.

That being said, I did find myself craving a fast, image stabilized, portrait lens. The 85mm to 90mm lenses that I used for most of my career in film. Re-written for the Panasonic I'd be looking for something between 42.5mm and about 48mm. I own some lenses in this region but none of them is stabilized. When I tried the faster lenses the math between faster aperture versus an f2.8 with I.S. fell more often into the f2.8 camp.

I am looking at the frightfully expensive Panasonic/Leica 42.5mm f1.2 lens but with college looming for the boy I'd have to have just the project signed up in order to justify the expenditure...

Here's what the GH4 has going for it: The AF is fast and sure. I like being able to move the AF point with my finger on the rear screen. I like being able to shift between what is in focus in a scene by touching the screen and having the camera shift focus for me from the first value to the new value. I like that the GH4 is big, solid and robust with easy to find controls and buttons. We shot, literally, for hours and never ran into a temperature shut down situation. The camera will go for as long as the memory card you have inserted has space.

Another endearing attribute of the camera is the battery. We both went most of the day, me with a GH4 and Chris with a GH3, running on ONE battery. I packed six. We came home with four, unused.

Is it the "end all/be all" of digital cameras? Well, for now if you want a still camera that does exquisitely good video as well, maybe yes. For all other endeavors like sports, landscape, etc. there's little question that there are better options. The question is "how much better?"

From my point of view, not enough to make me consider other options in the moment. When I do a poster job for one client that does 18 posters in a project I think I'll rent a Nikon D800 or a medium format camera. If I ever get called upon to shoot some more swim meets I might consider renting a Nikon D4s and a 300mm f2.8. For just about anything else I'll keep my mitts on this camera.

If you are looking for a camera and you like the "mirror free"/"hernia free" options I would ask you straight out if you intend to shoot video. If you answer me in the negative I will almost certainly steer you toward an Olympus EM-10 or EM-1 for three reasonable reasons: 1. The in body I.S. is, by consensus, the best image stabilization around and would be damn handy in use with non-stabilized lenses. 2. The Jpeg files have a reputation for being wonderfully done. Better than Sony, better than Canon and, gulp.....better than Panasonic. Finally, if I never intended to shoot video I'd be looking at the "O" system for the incredibly good viewfinder in the EM-1. It's really great. Addictive, almost.

So, this is a long winded summary of two simple days of shooting with an almost new camera. And I didn't say much about the quality of the video. But that is a subject rife with controversy and akin to opening up a can of copperheads. I liked what I saw and I like what I shot but I'll need to put it through the editing process before I can really say how the files handing processing and grading. Till then I'll keep my keyboard silent on that front.

Welcome back to the Visual Science Lab blog. I've got a lot on tap this week as a professional still photographer so stay tuned and I'll write my way through the week. Be sure to send up a comment on the "Novel" blog post if you have any special insight into getting books up on Amazon. I thank you in advance.

Dessert at Asti. 
©2014 Kirk Tuck

(Oh my God. Is that cocoa sorbetto? I think it is... Stop the shoot and give me a spoon. Oh, the hell with the spoon, I'll use my fingers... immmmm.)

Studio Portrait Lighting


Lane Pelissier said...

Good post!! Try doing your slider movements with a long rubber band attached to the slider head. It will dampen most of the jerky jerky out.

almostinfamous said...

i just had lunch and your photos are making me hungry again.

Thanks for putting the work and the process behind it out there, again :)

Mike Rosiak said...

visceral understanding?

Intentional or accidental wording?

Regardless, I really like this post - good story and useful camera review.

David said...

Wow! Great post! Thanks for taking the time to share your real world experience with this camera.

I know this sounds nuts, but have you considered purchasing an e-m1 instead of the stabilized Leica 42.5mm? It would be less expensive and all of your lenses would be stabilized including the exceptional Sigma 60mm.

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi David, while I would love to have the built-in IS of the EM-1 my interest in video precludes me from making that my primary camera. The codecs for video in the Olympus camera are decent but not even in the same ballpark as the GH4 which may be the best hybrid solution for stills and video in one body on the entire market. You really have to see the 4K footage written out into 1080p to believe the sharpness and quality. It's just stunning. I also like the form factor of the GH4 better. Finally, even with decades of experience, and many years of college education I can't unwrap the entire mystery of the Olympus menus. The GH4 menu is so straight forward. Honestly. It's logical to my western, Germanic mind.

In the end though the purchase of the EM-1 would do nothing to quench the fires of gear lust for what might very well be the absolute best m4:3rds lens that money can buy. I'll probably end up with it regardless of which body I finally put it on.

If I only shot stills I might consider the EM-1. along with a tutor to linger at my elbow for constant instruction and reminders about the menu. But even then I might chaff at the much poorer battery life.......I guess I could keep a pocketful handy.....

All kidding aside it really is all about the video quality.

Patrick Green said...

For many years I was an Olympus shooter, owning an E1 and then an E30. Early this year I sold my E30 and Olympus lenses and bought a GX7. Why the GX7? It's small, light and has great EVF (better in my view than the EVF in the Olympus EM5 or EM10) and it was significantly cheaper than the Olympus EM1.

One of the best thing about the GX7 is that it uses both on lens image stabilisation, for lens that have that, and for those that don't it uses in body stabilisation. It's a pity Panasonic doesn't do this with its other camera bodies.

I use the GX7 with the Panasonic 20 mm, the Sigma 30mm, the Olympus 45mm and the Sigma 60 mm and like you I love the Sigmas. I've also got the two Panasonic kit zooms.

I'd recommend the GX7 over the Olympus EM10.