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Taking the Panasonic GH4 for a ride – a super-lightweight mobile setup

I was working so much in the last months that I didn’t really have the time to post some amazing things on this blog, but March is a bit low in those regards, so I took the time to check out a new light-weight contender for videography and film work. The Panasonic GH4 has already established itself a while ago and you can find a number of reviews and examples on the web. Nevertheless, I want to share my short experience with it. I bought the camera together with the Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm F2.8 lens last week on Amazon. The intention was to have a small and lightweight camera for B-Roll footage without having to lug my (relatively heavy) Sony FX-55 (that is an F5 with the 4K-upgrade) / Sachtler Video III tripod-combo around. While it is not a big deal to place the GH4 on a larger tripod, my minimal setup includes the following tools for landscape / B-Roll gathering:

  • Panasonic Lumix GH4 /w Arca-Swiss mount
  • Panasonic Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm F2.8 lens
  • Cullmann Nanomax 400T mini-tripod
  • Sirui G-10X ballhead
  • Rode Videomic Go /w Rycote fur

GH4 mini-setup While the image from the GH4 does not look as posh as the image from the FX55, it is rather amazing to see such an image quality from a camera costing less than 1/10th of the other. Comparing the GH4 to my “old” DSLR – the Canon 5D Mark III – is a way more fair approach to rating the true values of the Panasonic camera. In regards to image quality, both the dynamic range and the sharpness beats the standard 5D Mark III in my opinion. But the image is not as “sexy” (I have no other way to describe it). Feature-wise, Peaking, Zebras and live Histogram can’t be found in any of Canon’s video / cinema DSLRs (5D3, 1DC) unless you use Magic Lantern (not available for the 1DC). Full-frame vs. MicroFourThirds, RAW recording etc. are topics that have been discussed extensively on the internet, for my applications, the GH4 is the camera that makes more sense and delivers the better picture quality. Another point that should be mentioned is the fact that the GH4 has built-in dead / stuck pixel detection & remapping, a feature known as “black shading” from the Red. On Canon cameras, this process can only be performed at licensed Canon service facilities with a special Canon software. That being said, the GH4 also has a couple of quirks, especially in combination with the (inevitable) 12-35mm lens: Audio offset in 4K recording: No matter if you record in 4K (UHD) or full 4K resolution, the audio is approximately 2 frames early. Easy to fix in the NLE, still quite uncomfortable if you want to sync cameras by audio, as you have to shift everything manually. No zooming please & servo focus: The G X Vario 12-35mm F2.8 is marketed as a constant aperture zoom lens, but it isn’t. It’s got a strong connection to the GH4 nevertheless, which makes sure that the light loss at the tele end is corrected electronically. In other words, this means that whenever you zoom in or out while recording, the luminance of the image shifts from lighter to darker or vice versa. While this just takes approximately a second or two, it is still visible in the recording. Thus, it’s better to handle this zoom lens as a “variable prime” with no zoom motion recorded. The manual focus control is not direct, the focus ring just sends data to the camera which again commands a servo motor within the lens to do the shifting. The faster you turn, the quicker the focus reacts, so it is pretty much impossible to work with a true follow focus with fixed markers. The main reason why you should own this lens is the magnificent O.I.S. image stabilization that effectively reduces unwanted but inevitable shake when using this lightweight camera in a hand-held setup. The G X Vario 12-35mm is the perfect “variable prime” lens for run & gun shooting. And that’s what it is. No fun in low light: The GH4 is not a low-light camera. The base ISO of the sensor is at 800 and I wouldn’t recommend going any higher than ISO 1600. Looks and features remind me a lot of the Red MX, by the way. Buzz it like it’s hot: On earlier models of the GH4, there was a pretty unpleasant audio buzzing when being used with an external microphone. I never buy early production run units, so it’s no problem on mine. What about the A7s? The Sony A7s is Sonys flagship video recording DSLR. While it only records 1080p internally (4K with external recorder), it features a full-frame sensor with amazing low-light capabilities. Compared to the GH4, it lacks in other aspects that are important for me:

  • Nope for weather sealing and internal 4K: The biggest reason to carry such a small and lightweight camera with me is portability and filming in more extreme (humid / dusty / rainy) environments. Carrying a huge 4K recorder in the bag is not really what I call “lightweight run & gun”, and the fact that the A7s is not weather-sealed makes it a risk to take along. Of course you can buy a rain-cover and a 4K recorder but hey – if that is the case I could also bring my FX55.
  • Hands up for rolling shutter: While the GH4 also “features” rolling shutter, it is in no way as bad as on the A7s.
  • Battery life: With a simple set of two batteries, you’re good to go for a whole day of shooting with the GH4. You probably won’t be able to do the same thing with the A7s.

For me, the GH4 seems to be the best supermobile Video/Photo hybrid camera on the market at the moment, and I really can’t wait to try it out on one of my commercial shoots.

Here’s by the way a 4K footage grab from the recording I did:

4K_03

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Working with 5D3 Magic Lantern raw footage on OSX

Magic Lantern is the one free software add-on for the Canon 5D3 that offers the incredible possibility to record full-frame film in uncompressed 14bit raw. Explained in short this means the information from the 5D3’s bayer sensor is directly recorded, bypassing the shortcomings of the standard h264 recording codec of the camera. We’ll end up with much sharper, detailed material that doesn’t fall apart when being graded. Apart from that there are more features that come with the Magic Lantern add-on, for example Zebra, Peaking or the possibility of “cropping” the sensor readout (3x magnification without any loss in pixel resolution).
In case you’re interested in the details, visit the Magic Lantern homepage and / or check out the DVXUser guide to Magic Lantern raw.

Even though the Magic Lantern software add-on is for free (but you’re invited to tip those extremely talented programmers via Bitcoin), it still comes at a certain price concerning storage and workflow:

As the data rate of raw video is way higher than the usual h264, reliable raw recording of full HD (1920×1080) material at 24 or 25 frames per second will only be possible by using really fast CF cards. After trying out a variety of UDMA7-compatible types of CF cards (Lexar, SanDisk, Komputerbay), I found the (rather expensive) SanDisk Extreme Pro 160MB/s the most reliable option for my camera, at least at the size of 128 GB.
That being said, even those cards delivered some drop frame errors when being formatted as ExFAT, but with the camera-internal FAT formatting, they proved to be a reliable option (don’t worry, the raw video files will be split to overcome the 4GB-per-file limit of FAT).

There are two different file formats that Magic Lantern offers to record raw video, RAW (only video information) and MLV (video & audio information). As I always need sound as sync source on my jobs, I only record in MLV.

Once the recording is finished, the MLV files will be transferred to my Apple workstation. Don’t forget, we are recording raw information directly from the Bayer sensor inside the camera (kinda like REDRaw, but without the 1:2 compression), these visual informations need to debayered before they can be taken to the NLE of your choice. The cool thing is: we’re dealing with raw information, so white balance, tint etc. can all be set after the actual recording has taken place. I would call that “recording without a picture profile”.

There are a couple of tools available on the OSX platform to process MLV files:

The MlRawViewer makes it possible to watch MLV files directly from the Finder without prior debayering. A very nifty solution on set, as it is impossible to play back the recorded files directly on camera in real time (but they can be watched in non-realtime to check the framing etc.). MLRawViewer can also be used to debayer the images properly and export them either as DNGs (single raw image sequences) or Apple PRORES files (set white balance first!), but at the moment, this process is CPU-based and takes quite a while.
The option I am using at the moment to debayer my recorded videos is decoding the MLV files as DNG sequences via MLV Mystic and then importing these into Blackmagicdesign’s DaVinci Resolve Lite 10. This free version of the popular color grading solution is able to perform a GPU-based debayering of the raw image sequences in realtime on my workstation. In conjunction with the awesome Cinelog LUTs for DaVinci Resolve, which will help to interpret the color information from the 5D3 sensor properly, we have the possibility to obtain proper PRORES422 or PRORES4444 video files for hassle-free editing (or further grading) within the NLE of choice.
For quick jobs, we can choose to debayer directly to REC709, while staying on the Cinelog profile or exporting as Arri Alex Log C gives us the freedom to further grade the footage to our likes.
While the method mentioned above is my personal preferred path to deal with DNG sequences out of MLV, there are other options to debayer the recorded 5D3 sensor information. ACR (Adobe Camera Raw that comes with Photoshop or Lightroom) does probably the best job in interpreting this data, but it is not really batch-able and takes a longer time. As a sidenote, the Cinelog profile mentioned before is also available for ACR.
Some NLEs can also interpret CDNG (Cinema DNG) sequences directly, but the lack of possible white balancing within FCPX makes it a lesser option in my case.
Here’s a quick comparison between the different debayering possibilities (no color change applied) while we can also see how much resolution is being “taken away” when using the internal h264 recording:

Everyday ENG with the 5D3

The Canon 5D Mark III is the household name for DSLR video. Some love it, some hate it, some ignore it, but when it comes to full-frame filming, it delivers what I am looking for: impressive low-light performance, quality codec (with the right tools in post), the ability to film in raw and, last but not least, gorgeous pictures.

Without a doubt, I have to admit that it takes some passion (and budget) to transform this camera into a usable ENG camera. Some people would call me crazy to go around and even try to do that kind of jobs with a DSLR. I recently took it to the test and used it to film some reports for local TV.

IMG_4792 IMG_4794

Taking a look at my 5D3, it is easily recognizable that it doesn’t really look like a photo camera anymore. Let me do a quick pull-down of the components you see in this picture:

• SmallHD DP4 EVF viewfinder / monitor
• Zacuto Axis EVF mount, Axis adapter & Z-Rail
• Redrockmicro DSLR ultraCage /w top handle & HDMI wirelock
• Redrockmicro grips, carbon fibre rods & remote holder (for Canon remote)
• Genus Mattebox
• Wooden Camera rod clamps & safety NATO rail
• Ikan dual rod mount for Canon BP batteries
• Power2000 AC-LPE6 DC Coupler Kit (to power the DP4)
• IDX DC-DC Cable (to power the 5D3)
• Canon 5D Mark III /w Walimex 35mm prime (I normally run around with a Canon L 24-105mm)

IMG_4790

Power:
Was the 5D3 ever meant to do motion picture recording? Probably yes, because it does proper binning of the fullres sensor data and no line skipping like most of the other DSLRs. Or maybe that was just another *public* beta for the cinema line… who knows.
In any case, working with the standard LPs will not take us very far. And as I prefer to work with a proper screen / evf like the SmallHD DP4, I would have to carry a ton of LPs with me. My power solution setup is easy and efficient: I bought one of the Ikan dual rod mounts that don’t occupy a lot of space and work with the “standard” Canon BPs that also work with the XF305 or C300. I removed the converter panel inside the battery (that boosts the voltage to 12V for the BMC) and soldered my own Barrel & Powertap connectors that feed both the IDX DC-DC adapter (for the 5D3) and the Power2000-adapter (for the DP4). For a while, I had the Barrel connected directly to the power input of the DP4 but the connection became loose after a while (I like to reposition my EVF far too much), so I thought that it was safer to go with a DC-to-LP adapter.
With this setup, I can run for about 6 hours of shooting with a single Canon BP-975.

IMG_4788

Audio:
Whenever I am without a sound tech, I am relying on a Rode Videomic and a Sennheiser EW112 G3 System with Voice Technology lavaliers. A Sony PCM-M10 external recorder comes in handy in case I need stereo ambience. All of those components are mounted on the top rails with Redrockmicro microMounts. Both of the audio signals that are recorded in-camera (EW112 receiver & Rode shotgun) can be connected to the 5D3 via an analog Y-Adapter, thus recorded on separate tracks.

IMG_4802 IMG_4808

In my opinion, the Videomic has an incredible *price vs. performance* ratio and thus sounds really convincing, especially for voices in front of the camera. As long as we run on manual audio levels inside the camera, the signal-to-noise ratio is  quite acceptable. Problems will definitely pop up once auto-gain is enabled as the auto gain circuitry is pretty aggressive, which means undesirable noises will be amplified very quickly.

How does it look like and how does it sound?

Well, here’s a shorter version of one of my recent works for a local TV station:

Little May-Wind – Mailüfterl from superhypernatural on Vimeo.