Sometime ago on my old blog I wrote an article called choosing a camera for wildlife filmmaking. I updated the article every few months as new technology advanced. In the end it became a long and rambling collection of thoughts, tests and experiences. It was good as it generated discussion, not everybody shared my views because everyone is different, with different requirements, budgets and visions to what they want to achieve.
Fast forward and I thought I would approach this article again, but in a very different way. I’m going to tell you a story of how a couple of years ago I found my “ultimate” camera. I’m going to tell you what I was looking for, what I found and why it may just be – in my opinion the best camera for my needs. If you are interested in travelling, documenting nature and filming wildlife I’m very sure this unremarkable looking camera is the answer to your many wishes!
My Ultimate Camera Wishlist:
- Small and Lightweight
- Weather sealed
- Long battery Life
- Small, lightweight Batteries
- High Datarate / Broadcast Quality
- Ultra High Definition 4K video
- Films in Slow Motion
- Interchangeable lenses
- Shallow depth of field for film look
- Shoots with LOG for increased dynamic range
- Shoots time lapse without apps / intervalometer
Like many I wanted it all but didn’t want to pay that much for it. I started by testing a number of cameras that initially fit my Wishlist and slowly started to whittle them away. I was looking for the ultimate adventure camera. I tested the following cameras, some of them more recently as they interested me as a replacement, but ultimately the GH4 still reins supreme:
Canon 5D III / 7D II – no 4K, screen doesn’t swivel – useless for low shots.
Canon XC10 – very expensive media, fixed lens, limited dynamic range
Sony FX33, FX53, AX100 – Sony camcorders, fixed lens. FX33 bad chromatic aberration when zoomed in, FX53 very “video” looking, AX100 – bulky and not a huge advantage over AX53.
Sony Z150 – beautiful, amazing camera, sadly a little too large and fixed lens.
Sony A7S II – Rolling shutter, poor battery life
At the same time as testing I was reading as many owner reviews of small cameras as I could find online. I watched videos on YouTube and Vimeo and finally one video really caught my eye.
This video inspired me so I got hold of a GH4 and started with my usual tests. Firstly, I like to films leaves on trees – this is a great indication of video compression. A good camera will playback a video containing leaves, a camera with poor compression plays back a pixelated mush of green. It passed.
So how did it fit in with my Wishlist:
- Small and lightweight – No arguing here the GH4 is one of the smallest DSLR style cameras. Whilst not a true DSLR it is a mirrorless camera and it was designed more for video than it was for photography. It takes decent enough photos but my experience is mainly with the video side of it and I got to say – it doesn’t disappoint.
- Inexpensive – You can now buy a GH4R (latest revision) for under £1000 body only. Lenses are extra of course, I’ll talk about lenses a little later. This was a pass as well.
- Weather Sealed – I’ve used the GH4 in all types of weather including some very rainy days!
- Long Battery Life – around 2-3 hours continuous recording depending on whether you are shooting 1080 or 4K
- Small, lightweight Batteries – gone are the days or carrying large V lock batteries. This is really important as I want to minimise the kit I carry. I want a small light setup and these batteries are just that, small and lightweight. They cost £50 for a genuine Panasonic and a little less for a OEM brand like Hahnel.
- High Datarate / Broadcast Quality – The GH4 shoots 200mbps in 1080 HD mode and 100mbps in 4K UHD mode. Whilst obviously not being used to film the whole program it is used in some very large budget programmes such as Top Gear and the newer Grand Tour.
- Ultra High Definition 4K video – This is important as I want to future proof my equipment as much as possible. I also like the flexibility of being able to shoot in 4K and then crop into the shot later. Below are two videos I shot of the moon. The wider is in 4K. I wanted to get even closer and my project was in HD so I cropped into the 4K video in my 1080 project and didn’t lose resolution!
- Films in Slow Motion – The GH4 will shoot 96fps in HD, it won’t shoot slow motion when you are in the 4K mode sadly. Here is a lovely little video I found on YouTube that shows what the GH4 can do at 96fps.
- Interchangeable lenses – Here is where the GH4 comes into its own and wins hands down over 35mm DSLR cameras. The GH4 is a native micro four thirds camera. It’s depth of field is similar to super 16mm film, the standard for wildlife filmmaking for a long time. You can also use an adapter such as the Metabones Speed Booster to fit 35mm lenses, the metabones speed booster matches the angle of view from the 35mm format to the GH4, in short it will produce the same shot size on either camera. Metabones also produce a purely mechanical mount that lets you use long EF lenses and it doubles their focal lengths – think super telephoto lenses for cheap! In short the GH4 can shoot with shallow or deep depth of field – flexible!
- Shallow depth of field for film look – see above!
- Shoots with LOG for increased dynamic range – As an upgrade to the GH4 for around £70 you can buy a LOG look plugin. The video log creates a flat image that you can grade or use a look up table (LUT) in post production to pull out all the colour.
- Shoots time lapse without apps / intervalometer – The GH4 has an internal time lapse mode that is simple to use. Take a look at this video of a sunrise that I shot in Autumn.
As you can see the GH4 is a super flexible camera that offers so much for so little. I love using my GH4 whether on a tripod, handheld, slider or drone. Below a picture of me with my DJI S1000+ Drone and Panasonic GH4 camera. Below that is a photo I took at the Wildeye Camera operators course I tutor on.
As the GH4 is so lightweight I only need a small camera slider, a short montage of shots I captured with a Rhino slider and the GH4:
The one feature that I really would want from a GH4 is a nightshot mode, sadly this is missing. I sent one of my GH4 bodies to a company who disassembled it and removed the infra red cut filter. The video below has been shot with my infrared GH4 in daylight. I used a filter on the front to block all visible light. The camera is “full spectrum” meaning it can record light that we cannot see. The following video has been filmed entirely in infrared. In the same way I can use this camera to film at night with infrared lights so as not to disturb any wildlife! Once again I used my Rhino slider, but in timelapse mode. This video took a couple of hours to make, the slider would move, take a photo and move again after a set period of time.
Sadly all good things must come to an end and it’s with a heavy heart that my GH4 will soon enter retirement as its big brother the GH5 is launched. I was very lucky to spend a couple of days with a pre-production model of the GH5. I must admit that I am seriously impressed. Panasonic have taken everything good about the GH4 and built on it. The slow motion has improved to 180fps in HD, 60fps in 4K and the data rate will be increased in the summer to 400mbps. The GH5 is a remarkable camera!