A long week of photography and some thoughts about the winners and losers in the camera bag.

And the winner of "Kirk's Favorite Corporate Event Shooting Camera Shoot Out is...." No drama or build up here: The GH4. Love EVFs and fast focus and good low light AF and great files? Stop reading, get the credit card out and go to town.

I've been out working since Sunday at a conference about finance, real estate and the process of taking 80,000 single family houses into a corporate portfolio, re-habbing them and then, ultimately securitizing them. The conference is by invitation only and the attendance is limited to the kind of people who wear really nice suits to the office, every day.

The event took place at the W Hotel here in Austin and also at the Moody Theater. The Moody Theater is where the filming is done for Austin City Limits and the "A" list of musicians who have performed there is...amazing. I was there for the registration and social events at the theater on Sunday and then spent 12 hours a day in the Moody and W on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday photographing every speaker, panelist and keynoter to hit the stage. I also worked in very low light to get audience reaction shots and I worked from the balcony to get wide stage shots to show off the amazing (mostly LED and arc) lighting for the wide stage set. I did "classic" social photography of the dinners and cocktail parties.

I wore a suit and tie and shoes that had been polished within the last 30 days. It was the complete package. I can't show the work from the show or discuss exactly what was discussed (NDA) but what I can do is pick apart what worked photographically and what didn't. And since I am crazy enough to try out three different camera models all within the same show I can say what worked for me and what worked less well. I was surprised actually and what I found out made me reconsider almost everything...
So, without any further ado let's jump into the photonics slugfest between the Nikon D7100, the Olympus EMk-5 and the Pansasonic GH4. The show's image requirements fell loosely into three categories. One (the majority of the work) was to document everything that occurred on stage. This would include speakers, panels, individual panelists engaged in debate and discussion, entertainment (bands, singers, etc.) The second component of the show was typical "social photography" wherein I go around the big cocktail parties, gatherings of people during breaks, impromptu discussions, etc. and make unposed lifestyle-type images that show the human connectivity of these kinds of events. The social settings took place in low light ballrooms, hotel hallways and the lobbies and mezzanine levels of the Moody Theater. Finally, there's always the need for the quirky and design-y images that show how the designers and creators of the show have sought to differentiate their offering from all the other seminars, symposia and flat out shows. These images include signage, stage decor, lighting design and an optimistic inventory of individual gestures and expressions.

I decided to bring along the D7100 for all the situations in which I needed to rely on accurate and automatic flash work. I brought the GH4 for the well lit stage shots and I brought the EM-5 cameras for all the "walking around looking for cool stuff" shots that I hoped would pop up with regularity.

God Bless the stage designers for incorporating two, large white couches for the panels instead of the traditional swivel chairs. All three days I had white targets for custom white balancing of all cameras when doing stage shots. CWB was critical in this venue because the entire stage was light with daylight (+/_) lighting mixed with ever changing color washes on the backgrounds. Having a background with a strong, saturated opposite color is a sure-fired way to fool the AWB controls on even the most sophisticated camera. After doing identical white balancing across all three camera models, and then reviewing the results on a 27 inch (calibrated) monitor I can say: The GH4 nailed the exact color balance. The Nikon skewed warmer and more yellow. The Olympus was warmer (redder) overall and the shadows were heavier with the same midrange exposures. Score one major plus for the Panasonic.

I used to think the GH 4 was the least sharp of the three cameras but I don't think that any more. I think the GH4 demands a bit of deep menu diving and experimentation before it gives up its secrets but once I found my way around the iResolution settings and just how far one can go with the sharpening parameters in the neutral camera look, along with the most open shadows of the three (by default) I found the sharpness settings made files that were wonderfully detailed but at the same time natural. At the same basic settings, in the same lighting, the Nikon was less convincingly sharp while the Olympus, even at defaults, seemed a bit artificial. Now, before you go all nuts over what I spent 4,000 frames examining it's important for me to say that any of the files would be/are eminently usably by my clients. Any one of the edited files can be individually fine tuned to get close to one another. I wouldn't have bothered to shoot with any one of the three cameras if they didn't pass muster for reliable usability.

Speaking of usability, shooting individual panelists across a wide stage is the perfect example of where a really good EVF just trumps the hell out of a conventional viewfinder or even a so-so viewfinder. The lighting across the stage at most shows is variable. Let's be frank, it can be up to two stops different from one person to another. While the human eye makes corrections for variations automatically it's a lot harder for cameras, especially when their metering systems are confronted with black velvet drape behind some speakers and a bright magenta or cyan stage wash behind others. Even spot metering isn't always the perfect mechanical lifesaver we wish it was.

I found that with the Nikon D7100 (regardless of lens) I needed to meter, click a frame and evaluated it before committing to a series of exposures which would allow me to capture expressions. Even the act of the speaker leaning forward or backward on the couch could materially alter the overall exposure. Getting it right with eight different panelist, one after the other, with the D7100 made the process a chimp fest.  At the opposite extreme was my working methodology with the GH4. As I was composing the EVF was showing me the exact readout of what the final image would look like. After the first hour or so of shooting I was making small corrections almost unconsciously and the feedback loop of a very tightly tracking EVF gave me constant quality exposures. This was borne out in the subsequent file edit and global correction process. The GH4 was a critical time saver in that the exposure and the color balance, coming into the edit, were nuts on correct. I might delete frames for expression failure or gesture failure but I had to spend little to no extra time using Lightroom controls to bring a file into quality compliance.

The Olympus was somewhere in the middle between the two extremes. Sometimes the EVF seemed to track the exposures well but a lot of frames were darker than they looked during the capture process. And the finders on the EM5s were an obvious step down from the accuracy and clarity of the GH4. One thing I had a hard time getting used to was the fact that an OVF gets darker and darker as the EV of a scene gets lower. On the GH4 the EVF reliably showed light versus dark but in situations such as those in which I was using flash the GH4 finder would remain bright even in low light. Down under a 1/15th second threshold the finder did have some lag but it was preferable to the dimness of the optical finder.

In retrospect I think the Olympus EVF shows exposure shift with color change and this doesn't effect the newer EVF of the GH4 in exactly the same way.

Let's move on to battery life and another nice surprise for GH4 users. On the first two days of shooting I was able to get nearly 2,000 exposures from my first Panasonic branded battery. I used the EVF almost exclusively and there was little reason to post chimp shots but I was still amazed at the endurance of the battery. It's probably been through 25 or 30 charge cycles so there must be some sort of sweet spot that lithiums hit over time. The Olympus batteries (Oly brand or Wasabi) tended to die around the 500 exposure mark while the real surprise was the Nikon. I was using the Nikon branded battery in the D7100 and while it was the least used camera in the toolbox at the show it was also the first to show a low battery warning. I am still at around the first 5,000 exposures with the camera but I expected the useful battery life to be at least as good as the Panasonic, especially given that I was using the OVF and not chimping any more than necessary. Maybe when the batter is well broken in it will perform on the same kind of arc as the Panasonic.

So, I dragged the last century camera along mostly for flash work (although I shot hundreds of images of speakers, panelists and stage) so let's discuss that for a moment. Here's my take on automatic flash (iTTL for Nikon and whatever m4:3 standard a-ttl ): As I expected, the m4:3 flash, using an Olympus FL600r, was a bit of all over the map. Sometimes it would nail exposures but a lot of the time it was up to a half stop over exposed or up to a full stop underexposed. The Nikon, which memory led me to believe was nearly infallible was not. But it was "not" in a way that didn't make you want to pull out your hair and then pound nails with the flash gun. Instead it seemed to look at every scene and then timidly underexpose just enough to never get in trouble for blowing out highlights. I think Nikon depends on the very good low light performance of their newest generation Sony and Toshiba sensors to allow users to pull up exposures in post in a reasonable and functional way. While most images would probably be improved if the camera and flash absolutely nailed the exposure it's reasonable to have a file that can be pulled up (and not with a lot of noise if the ISO is low enough to begin with) rather than trying to rein in the overexposure of a blown out Jpeg file.

So I plodded through the post processing applying a +1/3 to a +1 stop fix to file after file. Unfortunately, the distribution was random so I had to touch every file in post which is just miserable. I'd rather have everything be underexposed by 2/3rds of a stop just so I can batch large numbers of files and gain some efficiencies of scale.

A surprise experiment yielded some fun and unexpected results when using a different flash on the Olympus EM5. I used the itty bitty flash that plugs into the multi-connector on the hotshot area (the same multi connector that allows the plugging in of external EVFs as well as microphones) and I set up the camera for ISO 3200, aperture priority and the 25mm lens set to f2.8. The camera nearly flawlessly metered for the ambient light in dark rooms and then kicked in just enough light to fill but without casting noticeably shadows. It's an interesting look and works pretty well. It will suck down your camera battery like a Hoover but that's why we buy the little Oly batteries by the gross....

I'll admit that I brought along the Olympus cameras partially because I wanted to see how good the vaunted million axis image stabilization would be in so many different situations but what I really found out was just how good the image stabilization is in all three cameras. Almost impossible to tell apart in practice. The two pro lenses for the Panasonic (12-35 and 35-100) have very good IS implementations and like most systems with "in lens" IS they show the effect of the IS in the finder while you are composing. The Olympus does that same trick by taking feed off the sensor. The Nikon zoom also had very proficient IS (or VR).

In the end the things that made the GH4 the best overall shooting camera were mostly the time savings of the accurate viewfinder and the time savings of perfectly exposed and color balanced files right out of the camera that needed almost no intervention. The other thing that made shooting so much fun with the Panasonic was the use of the two X lenses. I knew the 35-100mm was sharp but I didn't know it was Leica/Zeiss quality sharp, even wide open. It made nailing perfect candid exposures of the panelists very easy. I knew, after the first day, that if I had the camera set up correctly I could concentrate on nothing but timing the capture of expressions and gestures and fine tuning composition. It was like being in a groove or being in a flow. The other two cameras each had things that called frequently for my attention and intervention. That kills the flow and makes the process more iterative and mechanical.

But....I'm sure someone (an anonymous commenter) will jump in and mention that the implied overall superiority of the Nikon sensor (larger size by 50%, more pixels, better DXO numbers) most certainly negates any imagined advantages of operation. They likely imagine that the files are so much bigger, absolutely noise free and just bristling with sharpness. But no. They aren't. As in so many other things the real world of interconnected variables intrudes. What does the Nikon D7100 give you for its increased file size? Not much. The sensor might be a stop better as regards noise than either of the smaller sensor cameras but it does so with a cost. Even the premium Nikon lenses seem to need to be stopped down at least one stop to become critically sharp. Not so with the X lenses which perform very well wide open. As does the Leica Panasonic 25mm 1.4.

The extra depth of field inherent in the smaller lenses gives more depth of focus while supplying handhold able shutter speeds, or shutter speeds that freeze subject motion. The differences in quality vanish quickly when you get outside the ideal exposure range. Quality also drops in Jpeg files when you must go back in at post and fine tune color balance.

Essentially, for people who do corporate events the GH4 has a lot going for it. It's the perfect handhold able size. The available lenses are wonderful. (I have two friends who own the Nocticron lenses and each initially said they'd love to loan them to me for a test but love their lenses so much they can't seem to take them off the cameras for any reason). The accuracy and reliability of the EVF are enormous time savers and confidence sustainers. The well constructed Jpeg and raw files (the Olympus Jpegs at default are far too chunky with way too viscous shadows that pull them down and kill shadow detail) from the GH4 are also time savers as they also require little strain in post.

The camera and lenses are smaller and lighter than the APS-C camera and the battery life is pretty darn phenomenal. The 16 megapixel files are a perfect intersection of quality and quick handling. What more could a working pro want in a still camera?

We as bloggers and reviewers have been pretty myopic in our initial handling of the Panasonic GH4. We've been reviewing it as though its only advantage or feature is its wonderful selection of video controls and codecs. We've written glowing things about its 4K capabilities and that's somewhat blinding all of us to the fact that this camera is a state of the art still camera. No, it's beyond the state of current art. It just plain kicks ass with its sedate and reliable still performance.

After using both the GH and the D7100 for a while now I will admit I made a mistake this year in grabbing the D7100 and a little collection of Nikon lenses. Once you've seen the future it's really hard to go back. Once you've had HD you most likely will not want to return to watching VHS movies anymore. If I could turn back the hands of time I would have been much better off just picking up a second GH4 as an identical back up. Having two bodies along with the two X lenses is a perfect way of shooting without having to switch out lenses in the field.

My purchasing decision is hardly fatal. The Nikon does do flash better than the other two cameras. The look, in portraits, is very nice when using the 14 bit raw files (uncompressed) in conjunction with the 85mm 1.8 G lens. But that's about it. A nice portrait system. Great for the studio. An intermediate step between the full frame depth of field aesthetic and the M4:3 look.

It's always interesting to shoot two systems side by side and in a concentrated way for ten or twelve hours a day for four days. You learn stuff. You learn even more stuff when you sit down at a good workstation to edit. The stuff above is what I learned, not stuff I conjectured from reading the websites or reading the specs. I own both. They aren't on loan. They were not gifts.

Anyway, we have a full day show to shoot tomorrow for a financial services company and I'm in the process of packing. It sure looks like a GH4 adventure from here. I wonder if Precision Camera has another one in stock. I think I'll call and find out.

If you want to do corporate events, keep your suits pressed, you shoes shined, you shirts laundered and your batteries charged.

On another note: If you haven't read the novel yet I would appreciate it if you gave it a try. You might like it. Thanks.


Jerry said...

Just what I need to read from you, Kirk. My GH4 in hand, I've transitioned from a Pentax for my guitar photos (probably 10,000 to 20,000 a year). I love the AF and EVF, but still struggling with getting the colors perfect. It's not the camera, it's my ignorance. I'm glad you've found it to be so good for so many things. Guitar video reviews are the next project. I just wanted a camera that would do everything. You helped me find it. I'll keep at it.

Anonymous said...

I am currently shooting with an OMD EM5 and have been thinking about adding the GH4 to my kit since I have mostly Panny lenses. Is there any chance you would post your still photo settings for the GH4? If you wanted put together a short e booklet or PDF-that's something I would pay for.

Michael Matthews said...

So I guess it's goodbye to the EM5. Seems a bit of a redundancy, one with negative points when compared to the Panasonic.

If you ever have a chance to put one together, a Kirk's Guide to Fine Tuning Your EVF would be appreciated.

Maybe I'm just incredibly dense, but getting the Panasonic G5 viewfinder to represent the world as seen by lens and sensor eludes me. The image seen is always kind of see-though thin, usually too bright, and lacking the realistic color and saturation qualities needed for adjusting exposure without reference to the LCD screen. And that's after fiddling with the EVF controls. Any thoughts?

The viewfinder on a borrowed Olympus EM5 showed similar problems. You've written about so much success with EVFs -- adjusting on the fly, etc. -- that you must be doing something right that I'm doing dead wrong.

Mark Gillett said...

Hi Kirk, curious to know whether you are shooting RAW or JPG when you cover this sort of event

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Mark, Because of the sheer quantity of stuff we're shooting and because I'm pretty good about getting custom white balances for the majority of the situations I shoot almost everything as a fine/large Jpeg.

If I am photographing a very important speaker like a former president or industry CEO or a historic handshake, etc. for the company I'll switch to Raw just for safety. But 98% is Jpeg and it's great for the media that most event images will be used in. 16 megabyte images with very little noise and lots of detail are something we could have only dreamed about in the late days of film or the early days of digital.

Raw for life and death. Jpeg for everything else. Rule of thumb.

Ray said...

I think that you'd find the E-M1 to be very close, if not the same as the GH-4, as the E-M1 is quite a different camera to the EM-5.

Kirk Tuck said...

I do understand that the viewing would be improved via the new EVF. The EM5 gets lots of things right. I can only imagine that the new EVF and a bit faster operation would be killer.

But then again I couldn't really use it effectively for video. Oh hell, I probably need one anyway...

ODL Designs said...

Great write up kirk, the stuff I really enjoy reading.

At one point I re-bought a DSLR and found on my first portrait shoot how much I missed the EVF and quick review feature to keep the flow of a shoot going while having a good idea what you are getting.

All the best

Stan Yoshinobu said...

The real question is when are you going to buy the 75/1.8 and 42.5/1.2? Big scrim on the left, background far back, good subject interaction with your model... there is no way you can resist.

When I had a GH3 and some good M43 glass, it was just a pleasure to use. It fits well in the hand, controls are right, the EVF tells you what's going on. Super fun! I only wish it had the livetime feature that Olympus has for long exposure work. GH4 is that much better.

Patrick Stuart said...

I recently took 200+ photos for a family event, and my G6 plus Oly FL-36R was pretty accurate when human error did not happen. It's real easy to accidentally move the flash exposure compensation dial.

I have to admit I was tempted by the recent $300 price drop on the GH3, but I will stick with the G6, with all it's advantages and a few warts.

Ray said...

I think Kirk should read this photographer's review:http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2010/05/olympus-zd-zooms.html; these lenses work even better now on the E-M1 than they ever did on any of the previous cameras.

Patrick Stuart said...

Just to clarify, that dial is on the flash and can be rotated by random contact.

Olaf Hoyer said...

Hi Kirk,

VR lens on Nikons can suck a battery dry quite fast...

Shot the wedding of friends some weeks ago and had with my D7100 around 1000 shots on one battery, 17-55 lens ( so no VR) on it, with moderate amount of chimping.

Cpt Kent said...

I read Rays comment, and now I'm enjoying reading VSL posts from 2009.... Have to get me one of those 4lb 35-100's...

Antonio Ramirez said...

But will the GH-4 be robust enough to stop mafia types in hotel bathrooms?

Seriously now, as I read your post I could not help but think of Henry White and his photo adventures.

Nice review, by the way.

Peter F. said...

Hi Kirk, On the Olympus, the "Live View Boost" will solve the problem of the live view getting dark when using a flash, as when you underexpose for the ambient light. It is found in the gear>D menu on the second page.

Kepano said...

Curious how you use your flash for candids at an event. I'll typically bounce mine up and off to the side for some added lift, even in a large hotel ballroom with high ceilings. (Sometimes, I'll have a PW'd remote strobe somewhere in the room to gang up with my on-camera flash - a tip I believe I got from one of your books).

With my Nikons set to M and the on-camera flash set to TTL, I have had very consistent results, so I've grown confident in that setup.

I added GH4s to my toolkit (replacing GH2s for video), but I haven't worked up the courage to use them for event photography (partly b/c I don't have the 35-100mm). And, your experience with inconsistent flash exposure adds to my hesitation. If you're planning to favor the GH4 for future event jobs, how are you reconciling the flash performance?

Aside #1: I picked up an X100s as a discrete candids camera. AF is still nowhere close to my D3s, but for event jobs (non-wedding) where a big lens immediately gets unwanted attention, it's a pretty special tool if you can use available light.

Aside #2: I've used the GH4 in a recent studio session with hula dancers for an ad campaign. I'm satisfied with the IQ, but I seemed to be half a beat behind on a lot of shots where I had the dancers moving. I have a feeling there's enough delay in the EVF to affect critical shot timing. I may be imagining this, but I feel like I'd have more keepers with my D3s' OVF.

Jeff said...

Olympus could definitely do better with their flash system. My EM5 flash pics at wide angles need little pp, but the normal and telephoto pics need pp almost always. To me it acts like the old sensor in flash than the off the film with distance from lens systems that came afterwards.

Frank Grygier said...

Rumor has it that an EM1 firmware upgrade will make the camera a 4k video powerhouse.

theaterculture said...

So if I'm reading this correctly, might I suggest a change of headline to "Skilled Professional Photographer Would Have Made It Work Either Way."