The Mirrorless Way With The Panasonic GH5S

For quite a few years now, mirrorless cameras have advanced and set new benchmarks for what’s possible in a reasonably small and light hybrid stills/video camera. I owned a Panasonic GH4, one of the first 4K capable small consumer cameras. The appeal of a small, lightweight camera that could not only shoot UHD video but stills as well made it seem like it would be the perfect travel and low key shooting camera package. I purchased the GH4, about half a dozen Micro Four Thirds lenses, a Metabones Speed Booster so I could also utilize my Nikon manual focus still lenses, some spare batteries, a few memory cards, and I was set. Or so I thought. In going through the GH4, it had also occurred to me that unlike my video cameras at the time, which had XLR microphone inputs and supplied phantom 48V power to those microphones, my shiny new GH4 would have none of those features.

Coming from shooting with pro video cameras, I’d have to revert back to shooting with double system sound, recording the primary audio to an outboard recorder while utilizing the GH4’s internal microphones for scratch track audio I would later use to sync the good audio. The on-board LCD screen of the GH4s wasn’t too bad, but it was way too small for me to accurately judge focus, especially in UHD resolution. So I also mounted an outboard Small HD monitor to the rig. So let’s see, outboard recorder to supply phantom power to the microphones and to record sound, check. Outboard 6” monitor to judge focus and exposure, check.

In the end, I found that shooting with the GH4 was ultimately more inconvenient than shooting with my traditional video cameras. The main appeal of the GH4 for me was low cost and small size while adding the ability to shoot UHD resolution video. My video cameras at the time were 1080 only models, and I had a few projects where shooting in 4K was proving to be handy. Even after considerable testing and adjustment of the camera’s settings, I was never able to obtain what I would call flattering skin tones. For me, the GH4 had a tendency to reproduce color in various pastel shades of orange and teal. Even when I set up the camera on a scope and really tweaked the settings, the skin tones always seemed to end up looking sort of pastel and washed out.

Fast forward a few years to when I recently had a chance to test Panasonic’s new GH5S, a micro four-thirds camera geared more toward shooting video than being divided between stills and video. I was curious if Panasonic had improved some of the limitations I had discovered with the GH4. After shooting with the GH5S on various projects for the past month, I can report from the field as to what Panasonic has fixed, improved and upgraded since the GH4 camera I used to own.

From a usability point of view, not much has changed; the GH5S is about the same size as the GH4 was. I did note that Panasonic finally replaced the horrendously bad mini HDMI output on the GH4 to a slightly less horrendous full-sized HDMI output jack. The full-size connection is more solid feeling but it can still be easily yanked out at the worst possible time. Panasonic and other camera manufacturers, PLEASE give us cameras with a video output BNC connector instead of HDMI. BNC is superior in every way other than it takes a bit more room and has to be one of the latest generation spec (12G) to pass through 4K video. But it locks securely and doesn’t wear out like HDMI connections do. Most GH5 owners would probably be glad to pay an additional $100.00 for a BNC versus HDMI connection.

Basically, all of the physical limitations that I faced with the GH4 are still present with the GH5S, although Panasonic does now offer a much smaller, better quality XLR input adapter, called the DMW-XLR1 for about $370.00. A much better choice than the ungainly old YAGH-1 audio interface that was available for the GH4. The LCD screen, while of nice quality, is realistically still too small to judge focus accurately so you’ll probably still need a larger screen for that. Audio and monitoring needs mean your GH5S will still end up looking like an ungainly Frankenstein-looking rig when used for pro-level work.

But enough nitpicking about form factor. Let’s take a look at how Panasonic has improved and evolved the GH5S. Physically, it’s the same as the GH5. While my GH4 struggled to shoot at any ISO above 400 without imparting serious noise into the image, the GH5S is almost magical in its ability to shoot at ridiculously high ISOs with very little apparent noise and grain. I was comfortable using the GH5S at ISOs up to 6400 without having to add Neat Video to the post-process to reduce unsightly graininess. Past that, to my eye, images began to look a bit processed and skin tones a little unnatural. This is a result of Panasonic’s relatively aggressive noise reduction circuitry. Despite what you might think, since the GH5S will cost you an extra $500.00 over the GH5, you might think naturally think it would be an upgraded model. The GH5S loses the IBIS (In Body Image Stabilization) that the GH5 has. Its still image resolution is half of the GH5, at 10 Megapixels versus 20 on the GH5.

So what gives? How can Panasonic charge $500.00 more for the GH5S if it seems to have fewer features? The answer to that question is simple; the GH5S is geared toward video shooters more than hybrid video/stills shooters. Some of the more video-centric features the GH5S offers are timecode in/out with a supplied cable, dual native ISO, DCI 4K in 59.94, 50, 29.97 and 25 fps (GH5 is 23.98/24.0 only) and 240 FPS slow motion versus 120 FPS on the GH5. The GH5S offers V-Log straight out of the box rather than as an additional fee extra too. Small, nice features and touches abound all over the GH5S chassis such as the relocation of some of the rear deck controls for more video-friendly shooting.

It’s not until you delve into the menus that you begin to realize just how many features the engineers at Panasonic shoehorned into such a small body. The GH5S offers an almost overwhelming amount of choices of compression ratios, bit rates, long GOP versus Intraframe recording as well as a decent amount of color profiles, all of which can be customized. Keep in mind that to use the camera to its full potential (400 Mbps 10-bit), you must use expensive SD cards that meet the V60 or V90 spec. There are only a few brands on the market, including Panasonic’s own, which are rather expensive. The good news is, SD is probably the single most popular card format for recording video so chances are, these V60/90 spec cards will fall in price.

Rather than delve deep into the menu settings and features, I’d like to see if I am able to give you an accurate take on how the GH5S makes you feel as you use it. I shot at a press event, both stills and video and I was happy with how the camera performed. I also used it on a slider with a motion control rig to shoot some tabletop footage and once again, the resulting video looked quite good. I shot outdoor b-roll footage with the GH5S mounted on a gimbal and using it was mostly a positive experience although the caveats about any mirrorless camera apply here. The lack of internal NDs can be frustrating when following subjects from exteriors to interiors and back but this limitation applied to all mirrorless cameras, not just the GH5s. I liked the color science present in the GH5S much more than the colors I used to get with the GH4. Kudos to Panasonic for soliciting feedback and implementing changes that are easily apparent when you compare the images even from the GH5S with the GH5, much less comparing the GH5S footage with GH4 footage. Panasonic does seem to improve things like this with each new iteration, which is encouraging to see.

The GH5S isn’t the ultimate video camera. The DSLR-like form factor has always been geared toward shooting stills more than video. The audio includes improvements like line-in as well as mic in, but it’s still limited to a single 3.5mm stereo input unless you pay an additional $370.00 for the XLR interface. The lack of internal ND filters makes shooting video in bright situations a compromise since you have to use external ND filters. But if you take into account all of these limitations and balance them out with the engineering innovation Panasonic has built into the GH5S, it’s an impressive achievement. The video quality ranges from good to excellent with impressive detail. The once light-starved micro four-thirds imager in the GH4 and even the GH5 to a point, have been replaced with a new backlit imager in the GH5S that massively improves low light performance.

It will be interesting to see how the GH5S sells as many GH5 owners have complained about the lack of IBIS. In my opinion, if I was in the market for a new mirrorless camera, the GH5S would factor heavily into my buying decision. It’s an impressive value for the money.