2.13.2018

A more visceral story about using the Panasonic GH5. Not a technically accurate but barren assessment of an interesting camera.



Bloggers and reviewers of cameras tend to direct their attention to things that are measurable and comparable and, if you are into charts, graphs and measurements, this can certainly be interesting and entertaining but lately, when I'm looking for something fun to read about my hobby of photography I find myself wanting to read more about the personality of a camera or the the way in which the object itself (the camera) changed, amplified or even ruined the creative process of shooting photographs for the writer. I found myself thinking, "Tell me why this camera is your companion. Tell me stories about how you spend your time with your camera. Tell me why, after years of experience, this is the camera for you." 

There was a time when the best image making cameras on the market were also the biggest. Think back to the Nikon D3x or the Canon EOS-1Dmk3. These were the cameras that really pioneered the higher resolution sensors but they did so in frightfully expensive, bulky and ungainly packages. If you wanted the highest performance you just sucked it up, went broke, and carried around a beast.

I think most of us agree these days that the majority of cameras using modern sensors have passed over the bar which stands between sufficiently good for just about everything and "non-starter."

So just what is it that I like about the GH5 (and also the GH4)?  

When I walked into Precision Camera to see the first GH5 I was already shooting a different system; one which checked all the techno-boxes for low noise, high resolution, high bit depth, and superb detail. It was everything a technocrat could love in a camera system and I should have been happy with it but there was always the niggling feeling that the way it felt in my hands was a bit off. A bit sloppy and possessed of too many sharp corners and hard edges. It also felt a bit chintzy. As though a good, bumpy bike ride might put its internal parts out of whack.

That system was a bit schizophrenic. Its mirrorless heritage must have made the original designers feel that it should be smaller than DSLRs, as though the smaller profile would be a selling point. At the same time, in order to go toe-to-toe with the DSLR competitors the lenses (needing to cover full frame) were as ponderous and hefty as those made for all the other full frame systems; and pricier into the bargain. So, if I wanted a good performing long zoom I could by either a f4 or f2.8 version of a 70-200mm zoom, either of which dwarfed the cameras on which I could use them. It was a system of imbalances for me.

The camera system I owned a generation before that was a "professional" DSLR centric system featuring bodies and accessories that were big, obvious, inelegant and ungainly. If you wanted to play at the popular culture's version of a professional photographer you certainly couldn't go wrong strapping a bunch of these heavy bodies and lenses over your shoulders and across your torso. But you could write off any sort of discreet presentation because the sheer bulk of the system denied you any camouflage. It was essentially camera as theater.

So, when I decided that all interchangeable lens camera systems had hit the point where 95% of my jobs could be satisfied with any of them I circled back to the smaller systems. After 30 years of hauling around way too much gear I was interested in acquiring a new generation of equipment that would just get out of the way. And that could be packed in bags I could carry for miles without wanting to change careers.

I looked at the Olympus cameras but, truth be told, without the addition of battery grips those cameras are just too small to be comfortable for me. I've owned many different Olympus bodies over the years and enjoyed the files I got from them but I wanted more space for my hands, more space for hard controls, and bodies that could be paired with heavy duty, professional lenses (some of them from Olympus) and not feel ultimately unbalanced.

When the person on the other side of the counter at the camera store handed me the GH5, fitted with a 12-35mm f2.8 lens, I was immediately struck by how well it fit in my hands, how nicely the controls were laid out and also how solid the camera felt, structurally. But the proof is in the daily using....

I'm a traditionalist so once I unboxed the camera and charged the batteries I was ready to do my first bit of customization to make the camera familiar to me. I took one look at the crappy, promotional neck strap supplied with the camera, logo emblazoned in 72 point, red type, and I threw it into the trash. There must be something in every camera maker's marketing department that requires them to leave good taste at home when considering the look (and feel) of camera straps. The are all uniformly ugly and just scream, "free marketing." 

My preference is for the pedestrian Tamrac strap with integrated leather shoulder pad. Not a big pad and not a pad of contrasting color but just enough black dyed leather to give good purchase on the shoulder of a cotton shirt or wool jacket. Nothing fancy and certainly not the childish, faux military visual aggression of something like the laughable Black Rapid (camera killer) Strap. I have the Tamrac straps on every camera I own and they are like a warm handshake at the beginning of every use.

The first thing the survivor of a lesser camera body notices is that the GH5 is the round peg in the round hole. The size is perfect. Not so small as to cause your pinky fingers to curl up and cramp and not so big as to cause casual bystanders to point and gawk. Not so ubiquitously branded that everyone's uncle wants to come up and talk to you about his camera model from the same company.  No, it's the perfect size for a usable camera that can accompany you with little fanfare (or drama) as you glide through life.

I was unpacking and getting ready to shoot in a medical clinic a week or so ago. My assistant was setting up three mono light flashes on stands while I pulled one of the three Panasonic bodies I brought with me out of the small backpack in which they travel. I twisted off the body cap and put it back into the bag. I selected the Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 Pro lens as my top choice for my first shots of the day and I put it on the camera. The next step was to flick the power switch on and start checking my settings.

I wanted to make sure the image stabilization was turned on, that I was shooting raw and that I had all the parameters for the files set the way I like them so I can make good assessments as I go. Next, two v90 memory cards get loaded into their slots and each is formatted. The touchscreen on the LCD makes whipping through the menus incredibly quick and easy and it doesn't hurt that the menus are easy on the brain. No Roswellian menu icons here....

With the camera and lens configured I put the strap over my left shoulder and start walking around the facility figuring out how I'll shoot. I see something I want to make a visual note of and I reach down for the camera. I leave it on all the time while I'm shooting so there's no wait state when I'm ready to use it. I feel my right hand instinctively wrap around the grip and, cradling the bottom of the camera with my left hand I bring it up to my eye. The finder image is perfect. The best I've used.

The left side of the camera has a big, smooth space that comes in handy if I need to switch to a vertical orientation. It sits in the palm of my left hand while I work the controls with my right. While the 12-100mm is bigger than most of the primes it's not that big when you factor in what it does. And the bigger size of the GH5 makes it more comfy to use than the cameras in the lens's own system.

I'm standing on my tiptoes peering into the EVF of the GH5 and trying to set up a shot and get the composition just right. The camera is locked on a tripod and I've got it set just exactly right. But I realize I need to dial in about -2/3 stop of exposure compensation. Without having to ( or being able to) see the top panel to find the button for exposure compensation I find it immediately by touch.  I know the button is the right one because it's one of three buttons just behind the control wheel at the top of the handgrip. It's not the dedicated White Balance button because that one is on the left of the three and is tactilely identifiable by its taller profile and rounded surface.  I know it's not the dedicated ISO button because that button has two small prongs that gently remind your index finger that this is the button you push to change sensitivity. You know your finger is on the exposure compensation button because it's more flush (almost indented) and smaller than its two mates.

Since I'm attempting to fine tune exposure and there is a human in the shot and I want to see something other than just a histogram or in-camera meter indication while I'm setting exposure comp. I remember that I've set the function button just behind the row of three dedicated buttons(just above) to turn on zebras and toggle them through different strengths. I set zebras to 85, get them to start doing their thing on the talent's flesh tones in the finder and then roll down the exposure comp until the zebras disappear. I want to be 1/3 to 1/2 stop under the point where the zebras stop flashing to make certain that caucasian flesh tones render correctly. Once set I hit the button again so I don't get annoyed at having to look at the zebras in the finder as I shoot.

With two ultra-fast V90, UHS-II SD cards in their slots the camera is amazingly responsive. The buffer seems to clear instantly. I'm never waiting for the camera.

The camera comes off the tripod so we can shoot super close and super wide and see a technician through the parts of a medical scanning device. I use the 8-18mm lens to get as close to the machine as possible. The lighting is low so we can read the function lights on the control panel of the machine. I need to use a slow shutter speed to keep the ISO down but the camera inspires confidence. If everyone stays still we can pull off some pretty amazing slow shutter speed shots. I try a bracket of shots around 1/8th of a second and 1/15th of a second. They are all sharply detailed. The in-body image stabilization works very well.

We're moving quickly now and I've got the camera around my neck and several speed lights set up to provide soft lighting for a series of quick portraits. Sticking the flash trigger in the hot shoe causes the camera to cancel out of "setting effect" and gives me a nice, bright image with which to focus. I pull the trigger out of the hot shoe and set the exposure by eye using setting effect. Once the manual exposure for available light is dialed in I put the trigger back on the camera and go back to the bright viewfinder image. A quick test shot shows me a good balance between natural light and the flash. We're ready to shoot.

I'm shooting handheld and the in-body image stabilization helps to ensure that the ambient light that makes up part of the exposure doesn't show off camera movement.

It's lunch time now and I stop to check a few shots and look at the rear panel of the camera. We've had the camera on non-stop for nearly three hours and we're down to the last few bars of power indication for the battery. I change the battery out, put the camera over my shoulder on its strap and grab a sandwich and some salad from the craft service table.

My client is anxious to take a better look at the material we've been shooting so as we sit and have lunch my assistant plugs a full size HDMI cable into the port on our shooting camera and connects the other end to an Atomos Ninja Flame monitor. We're able to review our work on a big, bright screen and not worry about the smaller, inherently precarious HDMI connections available on all the other more "semi-" professional cameras on the market....

We get to shooting stills for the rest of the afternoon. Near the end of our shooting day we get a visitor to our location and he turns out to be a specialist in medical imaging. The clients asks if we can get a quick interview. She means "video" interview. I set up the camera on the monopod with fluid head which I've just recently added to the car, pin a microphone on the man's jacket and check levels and lighting. We're good to go. The client suggests starting the interview with a close-up on the machine the interviewee will be discussing and the panning and pulling focus to the talent. We set up the automatic follow focus in the camera menu, do a few rehearsals and then shoot footage with a text book perfect focus pull. Five minutes later we're wrapping the interview with some great 200 mb/s All-Intra footage and we're ready to go back to still mode to get a few more shots.

The last shot is a new MRI scanner that's an example of the latest tech in medical scanners. I'm shooting low and from just outside the door (dangerous magnetic field inside).  The composition the shot is good but the lighting is way too contrasty. I switch to the fine Jpeg setting and enable the in-camera HDR, setting it to a three stop composite. The tripod is splayed so our camera is about a foot above the floor so I'm lining everything up on the rear tilting screen and thanking the photo gods for live previews. I'm focusing manually so I can place the depth of field with greater accuracy.

Several quick tests later we've found a setting that preserves highlights, brings up some shadows and works. We bracket a set and then switch back to raw to record a back up set of images to use in case we want to do a different HDR style in PhotoShop.

It's time to wrap up so I put a red rubber band around my shooting camera and toss it back into the backpack. When I get back to the studio I'll know from the rubber band that this was the shooting camera and I'll pull the cards and battery from it. In the meantime I pull a second GH5 body from the backpack, attach my favorite lens of the day (the Contax/Zeiss 50mm f1.7) on the front, set the focal length for the IBIS and hit the menu to make sure my settings are just how I like them. This is now my personal camera and it's ready to shoot anything interesting between the client location and the studio.

This camera also has an inexpensive Tamrac strap on it. The diopter is already set to work with my new glasses. The camera feels so perfect in my hand and, as my assist drives us back to Austin I find myself unconsciously holding the camera and going over each function button, re-memorizing its exact position and loaded feature.

The camera is not so big as to be a burden or an intimidation. It's not so small that it feels squirrel-ly in one's hands. It's not overwhelmed by bigger, professional lenses but not so big that pancake lenses are dwarfed by the body.

Later that evening I went for a walk downtown and brought along the camera and the very tiny 42.5mm f1.7 Panasonic lens. I chose this lens for my walk because it was twilight and soon I'd be shooting with nothing but the illumination from street lights and shop lights. The 42.5 is pretty sharp when used wide open and amazingly sharp when used at f2.5-2.8. The lens has its own optical stabilization and it's one of the lenses whose I.S. can work in conjunction with the camera's own built-in I.S. It's a feature called, dual-axis I.S. It might not be quite as good as an Olympus EM5-II or OMD-EM-1.2 but it's clearly better than anything from the other camera makers, and not far behind Olympus....

When using this combo the EVF image is perfectly stabilized with a half-press on the shutter button. It makes composition easier because it keeps the finder image from jittering or moving around. I'm walking past a coffee shop and I see an interesting customer in the window. He's in his 60's or early 70's, is impeccably dressed and has a small stack of books in front of him on a small wooden table. He's got a book open on top of the stack and he's referencing that book while jotting something down on a yellow legal pad just to the right of the stack. I take a meter reading and it tells me I'll be shooting at f2.2 at 1/8th second at 200 ISO. I line up my shot, exhale slowly and push the shutter button. The shot is crisp and detailed. I drop the camera to my side where it dangles on the strap and I move on. The small size of the camera and its dark exterior finish blend in with the deep gray sport coat I am wearing and becomes almost invisible.

I reach down one more time to wrap my hand around the grip. It is entirely possible I've found my favorite camera body of all time.

It may not have all the bells and whistles and technical superiority (for stills) that some full frame or even APS-C camera might have but many of those attributes are mostly theoretical. Most users lack of discipline and technique water down advertised perfection.  The makers of those cameras have focused solely, it seems, on impressing us with numbers and specifications but usually at the expense of handling and pure design logic.

But let's talk about image quality for a bit. Most experts agree that the color and tonal quality of the video files at 4K run rings around their competition but most people considering this camera are apprehensive about the still image quality. It's not as good as some full frame cameras when you dial up the ISO; I get that. But in my day-to-day use that's not a vital parameter.

I got a panicky e-mail from a client yesterday. There was a photo we took last year of a doctor and his family.  A young doctor, his wife and four small kids. We took the shot in the studio. We lit it with flash. The client needed a copy in a different format. I opened the file in PhotoShop and took a quick look. I blew it up full screen and it looked good. Actually, great. I remembered that we took the image sometime during my switch of systems so I assumed it was made with a 42 megapixel Sony. I blew it up to 100% and sighed, thinking of how rich that file looked and wondering if my system change made any sense at all...

Then I looked at the metadata. Oops. It was a raw file from the GH5 taken with the Olympus 12-100mm Pro lens. It looked pretty incredible. It fooled me.

I took the camera with me to coffee this afternoon. I had the old Contax lens on the front. When I left the coffee shop to head home I saw an interesting image. The camera was at my side. I flicked on the power switched, quick focused with the focus peaking and shot. It's a beautiful twilight shot in a light mix and it's perfect.

This is why I like this camera but hate most reviews. It's clearly more than just the sum of its specifications. And if you shoot video it's like getting two great cameras for the price of one.

But most important to me is that it's a camera I actually enjoy having by my side. Always.

Thinking about the way I light my portraits and how to translate lighting built for large format cameras into lighting for small sensor cameras.


I liked the way I lit portraits in the time when big film allowed us to take maximum advantage of film's gorgeous highlight roll off. We could light right up to the edge of overexposure with black and white emulsion and especially with color negative film emulsions and have an almost certain expectation that we'd be able to manifest endless tones in even the brightest areas of our prints. When I shot 35mm transparency film I was a habitual user of a handheld, incident light meter so I could carefully match the light levels to a color zone system that occupied space in the logical part of my brain. The interim steps of either scanning or printing added a safety margin to our war against burnt highlights as well.

When we jumped across the chasm to digital capture it seems that the biggest casualty has always been the ability to retain great highlight detail without having to underexpose and then raise all the tones in order to compensate for our timidity. Until recently the method of underexposing in order to preserve valid highlight detail and tonality carried with it the curse of noisy and information poor shadow and lower mid-tone areas. There was also the very real disaster of banding in the shadows and mid-tone transitions that were the manifestation of lack of bit depth in the lower registers.

This was somewhat mitigated around 2014 when Sony sensors became more or less immune to the worst ravages of underexposure. Now that the technology of the shadow tolerant sensors have been implemented everywhere but in the Canon camp most of use are breathing a little sigh of relief. I have noticed though that m4:3 users are still closer to the edge in terms of highlight control versus overall dynamic range that we might want. Yes, the modern m4:3 cameras can do the same underexposure+lifted highlights trick as the cameras with bigger sensors but few are capable of shooting 14 bit raw files (perhaps only the GH5S...) and there is still some trade off between the overall information density of a camera like the Nikon D850 and the Panasonic GH5, in the realm of still photography.

Since I've cast my lot with the smaller sensor cameras I'm re-thinking how I light my portraits and I'm experimenting with ways to do so that don't depend on post production heroics or magic.

I'm more interested now in making light that's composed of smaller, closer lighting units. In the past I was a proponent of large light sources. I've often written about using 6x6 foot diffusion screens as main light sources as well as 72 inch diameter umbrellas, complete with diffusions socks over the front. Now I'm interested in using smaller soft boxes or, in the case of LED lighting, smaller diffusion flags, closer in toward my subjects and then using multiple sources to build an overall lighting design rather than just depending on big, soft sources and the necessary post partum enhancement.

Part of my investigation has to do with my increasing use of high quality LED panels in video settings. I'm re-learning how to sculpt faces better without imperiling my highlights or adding to much texture to faces that don't want to show off the daily battle scars of life.

In these undertakings it's good to remember that the inverse square law is your first assistant. Accelerating fall off is delicious, when used correctly.

I'm working on some examples of lighting that yield a tighter delineation of facial form and more interesting tonal transitions that I've used in the past. It's not enough just to get sufficient photons onto a subject; I'd like the photons, collectively, to also describe a more interesting range of information.

Just a few thoughts about lighting today. I've been watching too many Gordon Willis movies (a great DP). The lighting is just so much more interesting that most of mine. Now a conscious work in progress.