Those are some big, complicated-sounding words in the title, but don’t worry—they’re nothing to be afraid of. They’re actually quite fun.
Inarguably, one of the coolest aspects of my job is getting to play with new gear. As strongly as I believe that the person behind the camera is far more important than the camera itself, I still can’t help but get excited when I get to try out new tech. So when Panasonic approached us about testing a pre-release firmware update for the GH4, I jumped at the chance.
The GH4 is our main workhorse production camera at Pro Photo Supply; it’s what we shoot the majority of our online videos with. For low-budget, rushed, single-operator productions (as all of ours are), the GH4 simply can’t be beat. However, it seems like being the best little video camera wasn’t enough for the GH4. Panasonic has decided to turn it into a full-fledged cinema camera, adding features that are unheard of at this price, without changing anything other than the software inside.
We got to try out two new features on the GH4, one of which is official today: 4K anamorphic shooting. Now, any ol’ camera can technically shoot with an anamorphic lens, but the GH4 is unique in that you can record full-resolution video in various aspect ratios, thanks to its “4K Photo” mode. Originally intended for capturing 8MP still pictures at 30 frames per second, 4K Photo mode allows you to shoot in any of the GH4’s aspect ratios: 1×1, 4×3, 3×2, and 16×9. As a few curious filmmakers realized, this was perfect for filming with anamorphic lenses. The only thing missing was the cinematic frame rate of 24 frames-per-second. Well, Panasonic listened: 24p will be available with a firmware update later this month.
Anamorphic lenses come in various styles, but for this shoot we were loaned a Cooke 40mm 2x anamorphic lens. Now, I had never shot with an anamorphic lens before this, so it was definitely a learning experience for me. 2x means the lens sees a field of view twice as wide (in the horizontal dimension) as a normal 40mm lens. If you look down the barrel of an anamorphic lens, you will notice the glass is not circular, but oblong. This allows the lens to take in a wide swath of light and “squeeze” it onto the sensor (or film, traditionally). Images straight out of the camera look ridiculous:
After conforming the image in post, however, we get the recognizable cinema-style widescreen frame (of course, in this case, the image is still pretty ridiculous):
In the film days, anamorphic lenses were important because they used the total available area of the film frame, thus maximizing image quality, while still creating a widescreen look. Simply cropping an image to achieve the same aspect ratio would result in lost detail, and you wouldn’t gain the extra width an anamorphic lens affords you. This rule holds true for digital cameras, as well. In the Panasonic GH4’s 4K Photo mode, 8MP are being recorded regardless of aspect ratio. So at 4×3, vertical resolution is actually greater than at 16×9, so even as the anamorphic lens is distorting the light, the sensor can still maximize the resolution. The GH4 is the only camera in its class that can do this.
There is a downside, though, if you’re recording footage off of the HDMI feed (as we did). Thanks to HDMI standards, the camera can’t output more than the normal 2160 vertical lines for 4K, so you give up some resolution compared to recording internally. Still, you do use the full 2160 vertical lines, which is more than if you shot a standard lens at 16×9 and cropped it to get the wider frame.
Speaking of which, what would happen if you shot an anamorphic lens on a camera that can only record in 16×9? Well, once you conformed the footage in post, it would yield a silly-thin aspect ratio. Sure, you could crop the left and right sides to make up for that, but then you’d lose detail (and potentially important parts of your image).
Anamorphic lenses also offer unique distortion, bokeh, and lens flare characteristics, and are still the norm in Hollywood, where large studios aren’t phased by their (rather high) price. But thanks to inexpensive anamorphic lens modifiers, anamorphic shooting is making inroads in the indie filmmaking scene, as well. And this is the perfect market for the GH4.
The other new feature introduced by Panasonic, but not available at this time, is a logarithmic gamma curve. A log profile is an important part of digital cinema camera, as it allows for maximum dynamic range to be captured—beyond the limitations of HDTV standards like Rec.709. Cinema cameras from Canon, Sony, Blackmagic, and others have long been able to shoot in log, but the GH4 joins Sony’s A7s as the only other hybrid still/video camera to offer a log profile.
Straight out of the camera, footage shot in log looks really flat, but it provides significantly more latitude for a colorist to work with, meaning your final output will look much better than if you had shot a punchier color profile in the camera. Combined with a 10-bit 4:2:2 output over HDMI, the GH4 can now produce footage suitable for the highest-level productions. Put simply, log helps the GH4 shoot video that looks more like film. In fact, for most people, the log profile is probably more exciting than the anamorphic lens support. Unfortunately, Panasonic hasn’t announced when this new feature will be available, but they have confirmed it is coming, they’re talking about it on the show floor right now at NAB, and we’ll let you know as soon as you can get it. (UPDATE: the firmware is now available here.)
Now, log has some drawbacks, too. Firstly, while you can shoot log internally to the SD card, you’re limited to 8 bit 4:2:2. That’s not bad, but to truly utilize the benefits of log, you’ll need to be recording externally in order to get a 10 bit output and higher bitrate that will really allow you to push the footage in post. Secondly, shadows are noticeably noisier in log. Luckily, though, it holds the highlights so well that you can let in more light to compensate for noisy shadows without blowing the highlights. You can also get rid of the noise in post fairly easily, although most noise reduction plugins require significant render time, so bring some popcorn. In the preview firmware, log was available in video and 4K Photo modes, but not in stills mode—so if you want to shoot JPEG time-lapse sequences, your stills and video won’t match in camera, and you won’t be able to simply “copy and paste” your color corrections from one to the next in post.
As you probably gathered, a log profile is not for everyone. It takes time to learn the quirks of working with, both in camera and in post production—but for serious videographers, especially those already working with log profiles on other cameras, it makes the GH4 even more attractive. While this is certainly great news for independent filmmakers, it’s equally exciting for higher budget productions. The GH4 can fill in the gaps where a larger, more expensive camera can’t be used or would be too risky: for aerials with a lightweight drone, as a crash cam, or mounted to a bike, dashboard of a car, etc.
While it still lags behind larger, more expensive cameras in some areas (no dual-card recording, no built-in ND filters, small internal battery), it’s nice to see new life being breathed into the year-old GH4. We’re excited to continue to use it in our productions at Pro Photo Supply.