Panasonic launches Lumix DMC-GH5 mirrorless camera … or is it a video camera?

Queenstown, New Zealand: Panasonic has launched the Panasonic Lumix DC-GH5 mirrorless camera, the upgrade of its top of the line camera series from the two year old Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4.* It has a host of upgrades, even more on the video front that in the still camera functionality.

But, hey, it’s a camera so let’s start with the still stuff.

There’s a welcome upgrade in sensor resolution, from the long-standing 16-ish megapixels up to 20 megapixels. Accompanying that is an upgraded “Venus” processing engine. Image processors tend to be skimmed over in discussing this kind of thing, but they bear a heavy responsibility in turning the raw output of the sensor into a usable image. Panasonic says the low pass filter has been removed as well. This is the process which reduces resolution slightly to avoid such unsightly effects as moiré, but may result in sharper detail. Both the sensor and the processor are considerably faster than their predecessor, allowing improved burst performance.

Importantly, Panasonic has introduced optical image stabilisation into the camera body. With the GH4 this was built into the lenses. It still is, but in some new Lumix lenses the OIS works in concert with that in the camera to improve stability further, providing up to five stops of stabilisation.

The GH4 had a thing called “4K Photo”. This used the video capabilities of the camera to record a series of frames, amounting to a very fast burst. Frames could be extracted by the camera or external software for saving, or for combining in some cases to ensure sharp focus on several different photo elements. There was also a “pre” setting which had the camera recording continuously to temporary storage so that when you finally pressed the shutter button, it would be able to save a second’s worth of frames from before the press as well as the second after it, making it less likely that you’ve missed the important moment.

This was limited to “4K” resolution, which is eight megapixels. With the GH5 this has been bumped up to “6K”, or eighteen megapixels, so very little resolution is surrendered for this capability. Bursts of up to 30 frames per second are possible in this mode, or up to 60 frames per second in 4K mode.

The camera’s magnesium alloy case is weather sealed and proof against dust and freezing, as well as splashes. It has been designed with heat dispersal in mind. There are now two SD card slots, and these are UHS-II rated for very high performance and allow you to swap over cards for seamless, ongoing shooting, even with video.

So, now, on to video.

The GH4 was one of the first, it not the very first, “still” camera to introduce 4K video recording. It does a fine job, but is limited, if that’s what you’d call it, to 24, 25 or 30 frames per second. That’s first class stuff, but the GH5 pushes that out further to 50 fps or 60 fps for super smooth High Frame Rate video (think The Hobbit). That is the kind of thing that really appeals to the pros. Even if one isn’t planning High Frame Rate final presentation of the video, 50p and 60p allow the easy production of smooth slow motion.

If you want really slow slow motion, then if you shoot in full HD you can record at 180fps, allowing 7.5:1 slowdown. You can also “undercrank”, which means use a slow recording frame rate (down to 2fps) to allow sped-up playback. As with the GH4, you can also do time lapse video.

Furthermore, at the old frame rates the video can record 10 bit colour at 4:2:2 resolution. If you’re a professional you’ll know what that means. If not, briefly, 10 bit colour means that each colour can have 1024 levels instead of 256 levels. R, G and B combined means over a billion colours, up from fewer than seventeen million. Yes, even seventeen million sounds like a lot, but there are many subtle graduations that simply can’t be captured with those ranges, especially if the colour is almost purely R, G or B.

As for 4:2:2, video is normally encoded with the colour at one quarter of the resolution of black and white (the “luminance” signal). 4:2:2 means that the resolution of the colour is bumped up to half that of the luminance. Disappointed it isn’t full resolution? Did you notice just about everything you see is quarter resolution?

Maximum frame rate for this quality is 30fps when using a (very fast) SD in the slot to record, but if a fast external recorder is used, then up to the full 60fps is available.

There are also new higher bitrates available – up to 150Mbps in the camera as it stands. That means that the video is less compressed which means higher quality is retained and there are fewer visible compression distortion artefacts. But that isn’t all, planned for later this year is a free upgrade to increase that to 400Mbs.

Which is why that UHS-II support is so important. A very fast card write speed is required to support such high bitrates. Something, du’h, in excess of 400Mbps of course.

In addition, future firmware upgrades will offer at no additional cost an anamorphic recording mode, USB tethering (I’m not quite sure what that’s for) and a new “Gamma” profile compatible with the HDR mode on modern TVs.

Panasonic says that the battery is high capacity and good for up to three hours of continuous video recording.

The wireless features have been upgraded. The GH4 had 2.4GHz WiFi connectivity, but the GH5 gets 5GHz and 802.11ac compatibility which should make for much faster wireless transfer of photos. But that only kicks in when required to transfer files. Much of the communication between a smart device and the camera uses the new Bluetooth LE (Low Energy) connection, which uses much less power than WiFi. There’s also a remote wakeup available using Bluetooth, plus of course the usual remote triggering of photos and a degree of camera control.

Abandoned in the GH5 is the pop-up flash; a bold move. Panasonic reckons that the people in the higher end market it’s targeting either don’t use a flash, or if they must, use an external flash. The camera has a hot shoe, of course, although as with other brands this is increasingly becoming a kind of expansion dock, with the ability to add accessories, such as Panasonic’s XLR Microphone Adaptor (designed to allow the use of higher quality microphones, including those which require phantom power).

You can use either the 3.6 megapixel OLED viewfinder or the 1.6 megapixel display screen for framing shots. The latter folds out to all manner of angles allowing shooting from unusual angles.

Another thing that has changed is the price: the Panasonic Lumix DC-GH5 will sell from early April for $2999, or with your choice of Leica 12 to 60mm f/2.8 to f/4.0 lens, or Lumix 12 to 35mm f/2.8 lens for $3999.

I spent many hours with this camera in New Zealand these past couple of days, so come back tomorrow to see how it went.

* No, I haven’t left out a letter, Panasonic is also moving from the “DMC” to the “DC” prefix.