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Shooting at Night with the Panasonic GH4

Gear Talk

The Panasonic GH4 is an amazing little camera. I’ve been putting it through its paces from the moment I got my hands on one, and just like any gearhead, have been reading practically every review and comment about it on the internet.

What can I say? It’s an addiction. I confess.

One thing that stood out to me in all the signal and noise out there was that this camera isn’t a great performer at high ISO. My initial quick tests bore that out; at ISO 800, the footage is pretty noisy and by 1600, it’s unusable for a lot of work.

But what I wanted to know was something a bit more subtle. I wanted to know if I could shoot at night, in a place like San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, and still walk away with usable footage?

See, what a lot of people don’t get is that “low light” and “high ISO” aren’t synonymous. Just because you don’t have bright daylight doesn’t mean you have to force your camera into stratospheric ISOs. There’s more than one way to skin this particular cat and so, with my GH4 and some bits and bobs, I set out to find out if I could get the footage I wanted.

Here’s the gear list:

The video is below, but before you watch it, here are a few notes to keep in mind so you know what to expect…

  • The video is shot at 4K, 24p.
  • ISO was kept between 200 and 400 for the cleanest shots.
  • Aperture was at either f/1.8 (effectively f/1.2 thanks to the Speedbooster) for the Sigma or f/0.95 for the Voigtlander.
  • I’ve left the sound from the internal mic in the video so you can judge it for yourselves. We get a lot of folks asking us “Can’t I just use the camera’s on-board sound?” The answer is “Yes, you can – but why would you?” As you can tell, the sound’s not great – and this is after I’ve turned it down -16.6db.
  • White Balance was set to Auto. I think the GH4 did a reasonable job of it.
  • There is no grading, exposure, or color correction applied to the video.
  • This footage was shot with the Cinelike-D color setting in the GH4.

Well, enough disclaimers. Here’s the video. My notes follow.

First, let me say this: I’m impressed. While it’s not going to beat the Sony A7s for low-light performance, the GH4, paired with the right glass, can do a more than adequate job. I feel like I can push it to ISO 800 and run it through a noise filter like Neat Video to get some pretty solid results.

The key here is the right glass, and the Sigma 18-35 f/1.8 zoom on a Metabones Speedbooster (giving you the equivalent of a 25.2-49mm zoom at f/1.2) is one of the best combos I’ve ever used on the GH4. I mean, wow. My 12-35mm f/2.8 lens from Panasonic has been put away in favor of this; that extra 2.3 stops of light (f/2.8 to f/1.2) makes all the difference in the world. I might miss IS, but a decent tripod and head is usually enough compensation for that.

And speaking of the right glass, that Voigtlander is right up there with the Sigma. At f/0.95, it can let in even more light; if I’m shooting anything where I have full control of the environment (either an interview, or fictional narrative), I would have no problems renting the three Voigtlanders and working with just that glass.

Finally, I’ll say this: I’ve seen a few folks shoot footage at night and frown at their camera displays in disappointment. “It’s dark,” they’ll say.

*sigh*

It’s night, folks. It’s supposed to be dark. Video shot at night shouldn’t be shot with the goal of making it look as bright as daytime. It should look like night. Otherwise, you’ll be pushing that ISO setting up through the roof and then frown at your displays and go “It’s really noisy.”

Have you taken the GH4 out for a whirl at night? What glass did you shoot with? How did you like your footage? Leave us a note in the comments and let us know…

 

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Sohail Mamdani is a writer and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. You can find his portfolio on his website at sohail.me as well as on 500px and Flickr.

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Comments

  • Yes I have and I use the Panasonic 25mm 1.4 often for low light and it is amazing the difference 1.4 makes from my 12-35 2.8. You made a great point about what night shots should look like, night! There is also something called lighting the scene. I also shoot with the full frame canons for really shallow looking work and ever since the 5D Mark II came out, so many just want to shoot with natural light and forget the importance of lighting. Great post!
    Shaun

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