A Total Immersion Week with the Panasonic GH4. Or, Kirk Does the Math.

It would seem that the big news around here is the launch of the novel, The Lisbon Portfolio. But as much as I wanted to sit behind the computer and send e-mails to everyone I knew announcing it, the day after our publication on Amazon's Kindle Store I was on a Southwest Airlines flight heading to Denver Colorado to work as the event photographer for what has become my favorite show. It's the RLM Math Conference at which Inquiry Based Learning is discussed in depth by math teachers and professors from all over the country. I spent Weds. through Saturday soaking in the math gestalt in a wonderful building that was designed by the architect, I.M. Pei, back in the 1960's. And I'm not kidding, I had a blast.

But to stay on photo topic part of my reason for being happy was that this was my first chance to deeply immerse myself in shooting a full on event with my completed Panasonic GH system. I shot well over 4,000 images and the bulk of them were done with the new GH4. The rest were created on two different GH3s. And I will say that spending a cumulative 20 hours with one type of camera in your hands is a wonderful way to find out what you like and what you don't about the system....

But first a photo that the Panasonic marketing people should really enjoy:

Kirk With Cameras.
Image ©2014 Stan Yoshinobu
Used with Stan Yoshinobu's permission.

The image above is a fair representation of how I equipped myself for my time in Denver. Three cameras with three different lenses, extra batteries and a small flash in the pockets of the jacket. Totally equipped without a camera bag in sight....

Let me set the stage: The project was to cover a conference about Inquiry Based Learning in Mathematics. My brief was to document all the "main tent" sessions, the dinners and the social components of the conference. But the most time intensive part of the job was the need to photograph presenters presenting in five different locations, concurrently. An almost continuous cycle of parallel sessions that lasted almost all day long each day. 

The conference took place in the I.M. Pei Building of the Sheraton Hotel complex is downtown Denver, Colorado. That's nice for me since Denver is quickly becoming one of my favorite destinations in the country. It's only two hours from Austin by direct Southwest Airline flights and the idea of embracing 50 degree weather each morning with coffee and a warm croissant in hand is enticing. Especially when the humidity and heat kick in for the Summer here in Austin...

All photo jobs are different and all the parameters are different as well. For about eight hours each day the conference ran the parallel sessions which lasted about 40 minutes each. The classes, filled with academic mathematicians were spread out all across one large area of the conference center. I would start the cycle by photographing the speakers and activities in the main ballroom and then move on to classroom A, the B, then C, and finally classroom D. I shot a lot of frames because I was trying to capture good expressions in which  subjects' eyes were open, hands were gesturing in a natural way and peoples' mouths looked as though they were caught, mid-sentence, saying something really bright and insightful. The important idea here is that I did this circuit, from ballroom to class to class a dozen or more times each day and I packed gear with a conscious thought to keeping my load of equipment as light as possible.

I did the same conference (here in Austin) last year with the Sony a99 and Sony a77 cameras along with some giant lenses (the five pound 70-200mm 2.8 comes to mind as a particularly painful thing to sport around on the front of a camera...) and a large camera bag packed with all kinds of stuff with which to support the "full frame mystique." The gear was heavy and many times the limited depth of field worked against me as I attempted to shoot in a documentary style using available light for small groups of people.

This year (as you can see above) I brought two Panasonic GH3 camera bodies and one GH4. (I wish I could wave a magic wand over them and convert all the cameras to GH4's....). For most sessions I actually carried only two cameras: the GH4 with the Panasonic 35-100mm f2.8 X zoom lens and a GH3 with the 12-35mm f2.8 X wide angle zoom lens. With one camera on each shoulder and a third sometimes draped around my neck (GH3 with 25mm f1.4) I barely noticed the weight or the bulk of the gear. 

Two things to mention here: I was happy to shoot wide open with any of the three lenses as they perform very well at their respective maximum apertures. This is something I was rarely able to do with my previous cameras since the edges and corners of the lenses for the larger formats were never as well corrected when used at their maximums. Lens designers have pointed out for years how much easier it is to design well corrected lenses for smaller formats----at least theoretically. 

The images I'm seeing today in Lightroom are sharp and well constructed and the extra DOF, even with the lenses wide open, is welcome. This selection of lenses really does prove to me that the smaller geometry of the sensors was quite welcome. It meant that, in most cases eyes and ears were both in focus but I could still drop backgrounds out of focus with the longer focal lengths of the 35-100mm lens. 

One of the way I kept the file management manageable was to shoot high quality Jpegs instead of Raw files. My take on the real, current reason to people prefer Raw files is that most people don't take the time to do really good white balances while they are shooting! Seriously, if you shoot without getting the color right--in Jpeg or raw-- correcting in post after the fact makes a huge negative difference in both noise and exposure accuracy. 

While the effects are evident in both kinds of files (in my experience) it's obvious that there is less potential to make large corrections in Jpeg files because each color correction step introduces complimentary color shifts somewhere else in the spectrum (or usually at multiple points along the color distribution) as well as causing non linear shifts in each of the three color channels.  And some of those non-linearities are not correctable. 

Add to that in Jpegs that the sharpening and noise characteristics are "baked in" and therefore, with inaccurate colors, their particular "damages" are already problematic at the moment of "color inaccurate" exposure. Color correction after the fact only exacerbates the issues. So---why the hell would I shoot the whole conference in Jpeg?

Well the obvious reason is to save on card space and computer resources. But secondarily, I find that while cameras generate both raws and Jpegs and then down sample to smaller jpegs to use as displays  on your camera screen (regardless of whether you are shooting raw or Jpegs) the rear screen and the EVF shows, pretty accurately, what you'll end up with in your Jpeg files but the previews don't really seem to match--especially in term of exposure----with the raw files. 

I don't know about your chosen system but my raws, across cameras and brands, always seem darker than the previews and reviews (pre-chimps). So, how do I generate an enormous number of Jpeg files and still get "in file" color very close to optimal? The answer is that I make liberal use of the easy-to-implement custom white balance control of the Panasonic "professional" cameras. Both of the camera models I used have four  custom white balance setting memories. The largest percentage of the work I was doing was in the main ballroom. My method was to grab a small, collapsible, Lastolite gray/white target and go to the stage before the sessions started and make a custom white balance for the stage lighting. That setting goes into CWB#1. I do the same routine in each of the breakout rooms #A and #B. Since I don't have infinite CWB memory "slots" I save #4 for "dynamic white balancing." #4 becomes my variable channel. So, if I go from classroom B out into the hallway/reception area I switch to CWB band #4, pull out the WB target and do a custom WB on the spot and then get back to shooting. It's pretty easy to get straight. 

When I do a custome "white" balance I actually use the gray side of the Lastolite target because if I am in an auto mode the camera will see the white of the white card and stop down, or underexpose by two stops in its robotic attempt to make everything it sees neutral gray, or 18% gray.  But what I learned through painful experience is that the color balance correction changes with exposure. If you make a custom white balance on white with the camera underexposing by two stops then when you shoot at a higher EV level you'll be loading in color discrepancies. Using the gray side of the card allows the camera to set a correct exposure level during the color measurement which leads to fewer non-linearities and thereby lowering overall noise!

All that from ostensibly a little pop-up accessory. 

Back to the actual photography...

So, I'm working with college professors and high level teachers who are used to presenting as students walking in and out of the classrooms. They seem immune to distraction. They don't miss a beat. 

I start in the main ballroom at the beginning of each block of sessions and try to get both wide, medium and tight shots of the speakers, shots of the audiences and their reactions and then a wide room shot. With five to seven minutes spent I move on the to the next discussion room and repeat the process. I tend to go in the same order each time so I can keep the color balance channels sorted out on the cameras. Some of the speakers blink and spend a lot of time reading notes or reading from images projected on a screen and these speakers take more time for me to get good images of. So, five rooms and five teachers in about 35-40 minutes. And then we start all over again. 

I'm custom white balancing each location ---I'm pre-chimpoing using the very good EVF and rear screens. I'm using the wider to widest f-stops for each lens and I'm using a precision, single AF point for careful focus. I chose to sue a minimum shutter speed of 1/100th of a second in conjunction with the very good, lens equipped image stabilization in order to guard against camera and operator induced shake and blur. In order to maintain that minimum shutter speed I changed between ISO 800, 1600 and, in some cases, 3200. (Now that I am looking at the files from the GH4 in Lightroom on a large screen it makes me realize that I could have shot that camera always at 3200 ISO and still had very nice, noise free files in these situations...). 

The images, as I blew them up and reviewed on the rear screen were very sharp and had relatively low noise---I was curious during the shoot and I moved a few of the files from the GH4 to my iPhone and then used e-mail to send them to my iPad. I chose a few of the files shot at ISO3200 and I was very, very satisfied with the low noise and high sharpness. Clearly my method of color balancing (and color balancing at the taking EV level) worked very well.

But the two things that struck me most as I spent a concentrated 20 hours with the particular camera form in my hands and in front of my face, and the same 20 hours using the review functions and the menus. The camera is as perfect in my hands as any previous camera I have had the pleasure to use an that includes my M series Leicas. 

The GH4 has become my "Goldilocks" camera. It has enough physical, external controls to make shooting 95% of the time NOT an exercise in complex menu diving. In comparison with my other cameras it seems much more like an old school, pro film camera than an infinitely programmable computer nerd device. Hooray!

It should be evident that I think the camera is "worthy." I would like to point out some of my favorite (and much used) features of the GH4.

I freakin love the shadow/highlight control in the menu. This is a control that allows the user to set the curve of highlights and shadows that the camera will produce. You can preset several different curves and use them for various practical situations. For example I set the curve to make the shadows a step lighter and the highlights a step darker for use in the interior settings we worked in last week. That had the effect of lifting the shadows and helping to prevent highlight burnout. The effect is good and it's actually a flattering setting to use on people's skin. 

For cloudy, flat lighting I have an opposite curve set up. It pulls down the shadows and pushes the upper half of the tonal scale up a bit. It adds contrast to the files and it makes flat light look crisp. The control also has a number of presets. It's a great way to have tonal control over your files.

Focus Peaking brings new life to my collection of older, manual focus Olympus Pen lenses. I can use the better glass interchangeably with the new glass on actual client jobs without missing a step or slowing down. The camera does a great job nailing stuff even with the narrowest depth of field and the cool thing is that it can work with every lens. 

This camera (the GH4) has the first touch screen that I like and find useful. I can disengage from whatever I am doing, hit the touch screen and put a focusing point wherever I want it on the screen and then go back to shooting without missing a beat. Nice. 

I love having a hard, dedicated dial for the frame rate/self timer settings. It so beats having to jump into a menu for any of that and it's sitting right there on the top left of the camera. 

My experiences with the camera's video capability makes me feel like I got twice the camera for the investment. It's superb. No hyperbole. Just perfect video. 

Ready to hear about one place the GH4 tromps on everyone else in the mirror less space (PAY ATTENTION YOU SAD SACK DESIGNERS OF THE SONY A7 CAMERAS!!!!!!) ?  It uses big, healthy, happy batteries. Wonderful batteries. Cheap batteries (if you buy off brand). How many shots per battery with stills? I hit over 1,300 shots on the GH4 last week before I changed batteries. And the red warning sign had not yet come on... Can't do that with my (otherwise beloved) Sony RX10 and no one can do that with a Sony A7x. I packed five extra batts for the week to use across three cameras. The GH4 is the only one I felt that I needed to change out.

Finally, I love the form factor. I picked up and played with one of the new Olympus EM10's and I was appalled at just how tiny and uncomfortable that camera is. While the imaging may be glorious (and I think it really is) the haptics of the body, from a control point of view and a handhold point of view, are just miserable.  There is a perfect size for the human hand. Little wonder that Olympus increased the size of their flagship camera in the EM-1. The EM-5 was just a bit too snug. For a person, like me, of average height and hand size, the GH4 body is amazingly right. 

So, let's talk lenses. I don't have lens test gear so I end up looking at the images and comparing them to the images I've been making for a long time with a long progression of cameras. Those cameras have included digital and film Leicas, Hasselblads, full frame Canons and Nikons and many different Olympus 4:3 and micro 4:3 cameras. My take? The 7-14mm, the 12-35mm and the 35-100mm are pretty much in league with anything from the competition but at half or less the size. My results from these three and the remarkable results from the 25mm Pan/Leica lens have emboldened me to start actively considering the 42.5mm Nocticron. Why? Because I feel comfortable making the investment. That means the system is a keeper. 


Mark Bridgers said...

Hi. Kirk,

What's your opinion of the still-image quality of the GH3 vs the GH4? Is it significant?

Have you pre-ordered the new Panasonic FZ1000?

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Hey Mark. The 3 and the 4 are within half a stop of each other all the way around when it comes to still image quality. I love the 4 for video, and the convenience items such as the EVF and the speed are improved but as far as image quality if I had not wanted to do better video I might not have upgraded.

Chap@chapachenphotography.com said...

As much as I want to like my GH3, I have struggled with the menu system. I'm 70 now and still prefer my full frame Nikon, but hate the weight, I find the instruction manual for the GH3 and previous GH models poorly written. How did you go about learning all the choices and remembering them? Thanks, Chappy

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Hi Chappy, you have my sympathy. I can't come to terms with the Oly in depth menus and I found the early Sony Nex menus pretty damn impenetrable. But the Panasonics have a logic to them.

All the stuff you need to set only once is in a menu. The touch screen allows you to go through the menu pages pretty quickly.

Once you've set up the camera the way you want it the stuff you really need, minute by minute and day by day is on dedicated, external controls. The three next to the shutter button, for example, are the WB, the ISO and the EV+/-. If you are shooting raw and have the camera all set up for the way you shoot it's possible that these three buttons are 90% of what a photographer needs.

I master one thing at a time. For me the most important is white balance. I work on that until I get it and then move on.

I can't imagine that the Panasonic menu is more difficult than a Nikon menu and I know it is easier than an Olympus menu.

Just master one section at a time...

Unknown said...

Hi Kirk,
I appreciated your info on the custom white balance. Have you done a custom white balance for strobes with the GH3. I had heard that there was an issue with that. Trying to sort out if that is a workable way to go.

Unknown said...

Hi Kirk,
Have you used custom white balance on the GH3 using strobes ?I had heard there was a problem with doing that and I wondered about your experience. I have been using the strobe preset but have needed to adjust the balance slightly in LR.

Unknown said...

After shooting a wedding a couple weeks back on an E-M10 + grip, I'd have to agree with your assessment on it's ergonomics Kirk. I'd argue that the ergonomics of most Olympus cameras (outside the E-M1) are seriously lacking. I pick up my Pana G6 and wonder why Olympus can't include a grip like this. Just build a camera that puts comfort before looks.

Interestingly, most of my best shots were with a borrowed Pana 35-100mm f/2.8. One word for that lens--WOW.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the report.

I rented the GH4 for a week, fretted over the price for another week, sold my Fuji stuff and bought the GH4 and the 42.5 1.2.

One feature that I stumbled across, and that has not recieved much attention in the reviews, is the "monochrome EVF" mode that allows you to compose in monochrome no matter how you have chosen to record RAW and JPEG files. Aside from the fact that I have a preference for monochrome images, it seems to allow for better manual focus even when I recording in color.


Edward Richards said...

Hi Kirk,

I don't think color balance affects the data in raw files, it only adds a data point that the post-processing program can use to set the color if you choose to use it. So changing it in the camera should not affect noise.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kirk: I like to shoot in Manual and Auto ISO, especially in changing light situations. Does the GH4 allow exposure compensation to be dialed in with those settings? Thanks, Richard in Denver

Richard said...

Hi Kirk: sorry for a tech question, but am curious if the GH4 allows for EC to be applied when shooting in Manual and Auto ISO. I shoot a lot in changing light conditions and the above settings are very helpful.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

RIchard, I just double checked. No EC in manual. Sorry!

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Edward, I think it's a popular legend that color balance doesn't effect noise in RAW. My observation is that files that are shot at optimum color settings have better tonality and lower noise.

If we really wanted to get the best performance out of sensors we would actually use color correction filters on the lens as then the camera wouldn't have to ramp up different color channels to compensate for non-linearities...

MelRon said...


I've had my GH3 for about a year ago & very happy with it for form factor although find the wandering focus point on the screen a bit disconcerting, but I also got the battery grip & think it actually improves things further & can only suggest you try it one day too, ymmv . thanks again for all the tips especially on WB !

MelRon said...


I've had my GH3 for about a year ago & very happy with it for form factor although find the wandering focus point on the screen a bit disconcerting, but I also got the battery grip & think it actually improves things further & can only suggest you try it one day too, ymmv . thanks again for all the tips especially on WB !

Unknown said...

Thank you for the advice about WB.
Would using a colour temperature meter for a reading and setting the colour temperature in camera work as effectively?
As a long time GH3 user I agree with you about the camera's ergonomics and would recommend to you that you buy the additional battery grip as an aid to handling, particularly for portrait shots

FrugalFilmmakers said...

Kirk, go ahead and buy the 42.5. It is spectacular on the GH4. It is the sharpest lens I own. I hardly use my GH3 any more.