Latest GH2 hack unlocks stunning ISO 12,800 with film-like grain

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Vitaliy Kiselev revealed his latest version 3.63 GH2 hack yesterday. In it is a innocuous patch that removes the ISO limit (3200) in video mode allowing us to go all the way to ISO 12,800. Now at first I didn’t think much to this, since the image would be unusable at ISO 12,800 right?

Well it turns out I was wrong.

“Seeing in the dark is an understatement, it is like having Infra Red!” was overheard on Vitaliy’s forum so I went out in a hurry to test it and recorded the footage above at ISO 12,800. What I found amazed me. The amount of detail still present in the image is just astounding. No noise reduction is applied to the footage, and it is turned off in-camera. Not only that but noise has a very fine film-like grain because of the accompanying high bitrate hack. The look of the noise is similar to the Nikon D3S’s video mode at high ISOs but with far more resolution. It doesn’t look like digital noise, it is more like 8mm film at ISO 800.

Hacked or not – to cope at ISO 12,800 and produce a usable image let alone one so attractive I thought was impossible. But if you think about it there are several reasons why it works. Bitrate, film mode, the GH2’s advanced scaling / pixel binning.

1. The high bitrate hack, be it 44Mbit AVCHD or 176Mbit AVCHD All I-frame allows the fine grain of the noise to be maintained and not smudged, furthermore it allows an incredible amount of resolution and detail in the image to be maintained.

2. Switching the camera to Dynamic B/W film mode reduces low contrast areas of the shot and electronically boosted shadows where noise tends to be most intrusive. The results are stunning, it is like having night vision or Infra Red. Blacks are a little crushed but at this level of exposure it doesn’t really matter – just over expose slightly.

3. Lastly the sensor scaling has a lot to do with it. At 1:1 the image would be hideously noisy but since a full 16MP sensor is being scaled to 1080p grains of noise are absolutely tiny making noise look more organic and film like. Also due to the nature of the CMOS sensor, brighter areas of the image are virtually noise-free if you use a fast aperture.

I love the fine 8mm-alike grain, along with black and white. The camera was so sensitive at ISO 12,800 that I had trouble finding areas of Shanghai that were pitch black enough.

The video above was shot entirely at ISO 12,800 with noise reduction turned OFF in-camera. That way so much detail survives that it allows you to carry out very effective professional noise reduction in post using plugins like Neat Video. This makes more sense than in-camera N/R because your editing workstation has far more horse power to throw at the job than the camera does, and it can take its time rather than having to do it slap-dash in realtime.

But here’s the kicker – I liked the look of the noise much I didn’t do any noise reduction in post and the video above is straight out of the camera un-graded!

You can get almost clean ISO 12,800 out of the camera with Neat Video whilst preserving most of the details stored at the hacked 44Mbit bitrate.

All in all this really turns things upside down, instead of seeking out enough light I was seeking out enough darkness. I was using the Voigtlander Nokton 25mm F0.95 and wide open at ISO 12,800 as you can imagine is just mind-blowing-freaking-crazy. In a dark ally I could wave my hand in front of my face and not see it, yet it would be a mid-tone on the camera.

I also used a SLR Magic 12mm F1.6 for the wide angle shots and found myself stopping it down to F4 for many of the shots in the dead of night just to avoid over exposing. The streets were not brightly lit, it wasn’t the centre of town. It is amazing how many subtle flickers of light bouncing off buildings the sensor picks up which your eyes miss or barely register. One street was lit by a single bulb and it felt like day time in-camera. I suppose it was inevitable that human vision would eventually be usurped by digital but I didn’t think we’d see it first on a sub $1000 Micro Four Thirds camera.

Technique wise at ISO 12,800 it is best to overexpose a little and darken in post if necessary because noise is lower over brighter areas of the frame and higher when underexposed due to the nature of the CMOS sensor. By overexposing you are increasing the signal-to-noise ratio. I also find it helps to turn the brightness down on your playback monitor or laptop screen otherwise it emphasises the grain and not the tones and details present in the image – of which there are abundant amounts. The tonality of the image is really excellent in Black & White film mode because the camera doesn’t have to worry about colour, so an 8bit codec isn’t as much of a handicap. It pumps all of those 8bits into black & white and is far happier as a result.

I heavily recommend this film mode if you are using ISO 12,800 since it reduces luma noise and colour doesn’t exactly look great in the middle of the night because objects aren’t getting enough illumination to really give out any hue.

Overall I am shocked astounded and amazed about what Vitaliy has been able to do here. Compared to the low light performance of the EPIC or Scarlet the GH2 absolutely floors them.

Download PTools v3.63 for the GH2 at Vitaliy’s site here

About Author

British filmmaker and editor of EOSHD, Andrew works in Berlin on his own self funded filmmaking and video projects.

60 Comments

  1. Perry Morris Jr. on

    OMG! Wow! Is all I can say, and I must also say Andrew that this B&W video with the Quentin Tarantino theme is really incredible! The GH2 is gonna satisfy many of us for a few years until the new generation HD settles. I would bet to see a cinematic feature on the market shot on the GH2 by next year!

  2. Honestly this camera is hitting its stride so much lately it has all but cured my gear upgrade fetish. GH3, 1D X? Pah. Just let me shoot with the hack. It is incredible.

  3. There will be a British feature shot on two hacked GH2s hitting the festival circuit next year! -I’m currently finishing the edit and it looks great. I’ve also been on set as a camera assistant/ focus puller. Both myself and the dop have a GH2 and used mostly Nikon primes, Sigma Zooms way too big for this camera, the Panny 14mm and the occasional Lensbaby Tilt :D

    btw Andrew, great work on the video! -can the same be done with colours assuming a little cleaning is done in post?

  4. Hey Andrew,
    I couldn’t resist temptation to write down my thoughts about ISO settings. It’s a bit of a responce to your blog post so you might be interested in reading it. You can find it in my blog:
    http://florianhassler.com/26622/blog

    Don’t take the attacking inflection too seriously, I just want to start an argument.

    Keep up the good work!

  5. Hi Flo. You see raising ISO as a problem solver, I see it as an opportunity. Your scientific analysis doesn’t change the fact that these images wouldn’t have been possible at a lower ISO. I think you’re missing the creative aspect, and the fact that ISO 12,800 looks far better than could be reasonably expected for such a high ISO.

    Sandro, I never said that in colour it is unwatchable I just prefer a high contrast B/W image when illumination is very low. You can see it in my previous work as well. I’ll be shooting in colour but I really only shoot in colour when I think it benefits the shoot. At night, it rarely does because of the dominating street light hue, and the fact that the colour saturation of objects doesn’t really come across when you have so little illuminating light.

  6. Great to hear it Lucas, the GH2 deserves more professional feature work. It is a shame the festival circuits don’t allow you to air it on the internet first but I can understand why. Do you have a trailer?

    I haven’t tried shooting in colour and grading in post yet.

  7. Ok it is indeed an opportunity, but I’ve never seen a film so far that really benefitted from ultra-high ISO. Of course you can choose how you want your pictures to look, but I think they would have been far more interesting if there were less greyish mud and more true blacks. The night is dark, you’re pictures are not. Most of the highlights are completely blown out just to raise the dark streets or walls to a higher luminance value, but what for? Excuse me, but: It looks a lot like a “because you can”.I think ISO 3,200 is far bright enough for nocturnal street scenes.

    But of course you are right, it’s always nice to have the option to go further, if you decide to do so for some reason.

  8. GH2 just keeps on giving, Im intrigued how next months firmware effects noise reduction aswell (and hopefully 25p).

  9. JohnnyMossville on

    Wow!!!!! Andrew you are right, being able to shoot like this in these conditions really gets the creative juices going!!

    That footage has character! Love the flickering light from the flames hitting the walls behind them. I love my little GH2. It’s like the little engine that could.

  10. Still looks like video. I’ve only seen one example from the GH2, stock or hacked, that looked like film, and it was shot using an old Vivitar lens! The image separation is just like video, not film, and it all comes down to the final image, which from the GH2, I don’t like. The new C300 on the other hand…..I know, I know, apples to oranges :)

  11. A) Because it looks great. B) Because it was so dark, ISO 3200 would not have cut it. Look at the way even the most subtle light dances around the screen, and then tell me that isn’t art. Seriously dude, open your eyes.

  12. On the 12mm it is easy since the difference between 3m and infinity is TINY, you pretty much leave focus alone for most shots. The Voigtlander Nokton 25mm F0.95 is more critical obviously but far easier to focus than, say, an 85mm F1.4 wide open. I didn’t use a monitor on this occasion, just the GH2’s LCD and occasional focus assist mode.

  13. So let me understand. This hack can be used with any of the bitrate hacks like Driftwood 176? you recommend ever exposing and no in camera NR, and this is Dynamic B&W. I like slo mo, so I’m guessing 720p 60 would work as well.

    If you use ther 1:1 crop mode you can have that night surveillance look I’d guess. thanks.

  14. This is simply stunning! I just put up the new Hack, and used the Driftwood new AQuarius v2 176Mb GOP1 patch, first as Andrew suggested in Dynamic BW, then in Cinema mode -1 -2 -1 0, I at 8000 ISo then at 12800…fantastic really fantastic rendering!!

  15. @ Perry Morris Jr., that theme isn’t a Quentin Tarantino, its Bernard Herrmann for the movie Twisted Nerve. But other than that, I’m with you, I do wish to see a full feature film released in cinema chains that was shot on the GH2.

    @ Lucas, what kind of film is it?

    @ Andrew, do you have any plans to shoot a feature film any time soon?

  16. Andrew I LOVE the look of your film! Can’t believe you can get this look from the GH2!
    It has a very organic look IMO and I want to learn how to get that look myself.

  17. Arc: Do your own custom separation on gop1 footage (it grades beautifully!) if you don’t like the existing one.
    I don’t see anything video about the gh2 as it is now, unless you actually want to shoot video-like images..

  18. I believe the term to use here is “Fanboy” Such people think a Canon DSLR looks more filmic that 16mm film, and espouse the quality of unreleased cameras that they have no experience with, “Just knowing” that they’ll be far superior to any of the unwashed lower class brand devices.

  19. JohnnyMossville on

    disneytoy, you probably found it by now, and I’m not near my PC, but it’s in one of the top two selection boxes in Ptools. Open those up and you’ll see it there. Just check it on.

  20. It is Bernard Herrmann but it is on the Kill Bill sound track and most people know it from that.

    Feature… of course. In Berlin probably next summer.

  21. Brilliant. u guys r right. maybe people will suddenly hav thoughts bout the Canon 1Dx and the GH3 … :P

  22. Hey Andrew nice video – One thing we cannot get away the less light the less color detail.
    After bumming for months on the RED epic. I have been titching to fire up my GH2 again,
    Been searching for driftwood’s recipe. Can someone please point me north to the driftwood pole?

  23. Just a few weeks away from my intended purchase of the FS100 and now all these enhancements for the GH2 come out! High ISO, intra-codec, even official firmware update, not to mention I can now get the GH2 plus 14-140mm for € 900,-… That’s like € 4000,- cheaper than the FS100!!
    Of course that would mean no XLR, less easy controls, 30 min. rec. limit, etc… but MAN, GH2 puts up a serious fight in my mind right now!

  24. Incredible footage. Would love to see some colour trial at lower ISOs that presumably would still be much better than previous low light colour performance.

    Reniout – I’ve got a short film coming out soon that was filmed on the F3 (first week of it’s release back in April, so no S-Log or Nanoflash) and GH2. With all the recent hacks on the GH2 I could have gotten just a good a result if I’d shot the whole thing on that. No doubt. I can’t say the same for the Cannon’s because I would have had aliasing and moire issues due to the interiors I was filming.
    The F3 is really heavy when it’s rigged for hand held so a comparably rigged GH2 would have been easier (ergo, better) to shoot on. I’d have saved lots of time.
    I bought a GH2 the other day after waiting for the 5DMIII announcement and reading Andrew Reids GH2 book. All the answers I needed are in that book.

    For the money I believe it’s the best camera solution south of the F3 or new Red. And I’m talking broadcast here. I can shoot news at high bit rate using the 14-140 kit lens. And with the hack, a Voigtlander 25mm .95 and the SLR Magic 12mm F1.6 Andrew shot with there you really could go out and shoot a movie that could play in cinemas. Gareth Edwards shot ‘Monsters’ with an EX3 and a Letus/lenses straight to memory card and that got a cinema release. In terms of kit the GH2 is more capable.

    After seeing that footage my next narrative project will be entirely shot at night. I mean, just look at that footage above. It really does look different. It looks like night time. But during the day!

  25. Gorgeous footage. Absolutely reminds me of 50s and 60s French nouvelle vague cinema. Godard or Resnais. Would be a useful setting for the look even without the benefit of 12,000 ISO nightvision! Thanks for testing it out and posting.

  26. Thanks for the feedback Andrew!
    Not sure tough, if this makes my choice harder or easier. And I mean that in the sense that I was starting at the point where the FS100 was the logical choice (small, modular, unique ergonomics and great sensitivity, with pro audio & controls) and the GH2 was a shadowy option I didn’t really give serious thought, to the point now that I swing between seriously doubting between the two (harder) and flat-out thinking the GH2 is the way to go (easier)…

    I’m now working with a HMC-151, and recently did a joint project with a GH2. Intercutting the footage was tough because the GH2 (with 14-140mm kit) looked so much cleaner, sharper, with stronger colors and great DOF.

    Reading Andrew Reid’s book is not really doing the FS100′ chances any good either, but it’s tough to make a choice about equipment you survive on professionally. Either way, I’ll definitely improve my equipment, coming from the HMC-151 (which still rocks as an ENG camera BTW)

  27. Hey Andrew,

    As above, is it possible for the sake of experimentation, to see footage in colour? It’s got me rather interested!!!

    Cheers bud!

  28. Possibly a detailed highlight blowout/ low light high ISO noise test for the GH2 with hack, 600D with ML hack and neg Q-scale with high bitrate, and Nex 5n? That would be sickk.

  29. Hey Andrew,
    You mentioned Sensor Scaling as #3 reason and I agree with the assumption but how do you learn about this very important feature as it relates to other cameras on the market, I never see this info mentioned on manufacturer’s website. I’m curious how the NEX 7 and 5N use their sensors in video mode. Having (physically) larger sensors, it would be bonus if they scaled to 1080p also.

  30. Why don’t you post some of the footage in color so you can satisfy our curiosity about color noise, etc? How do you like then Nokton lens? And how about that SLR Magic? What are the prices on that. I’ve heard all sorts of bad things about those Chinese CCTV lenses.

  31. I have to agree…I hav a gh2 and like it…but no way is it up to 16mm B&W film beauty.
    I think this ISO thing is good but probably won’t be used much by me for my up-coming
    feature… I plan to shoot w gh2 + bolex 16mm bw + a days worth in RED scarlet
    I’m looking for high contrast w/o digital artifacts and great color (thats where the scarlet comes in).
    However, good job hackers!!! keep up good work…wd love it if this camera cd do 422 10bit
    Sincerely, MacroTiger

  32. Type SLR Magic 12mm in the search box, I’ve reviewed it. It is a great lens, not based on a CCTV optic like so many claim. They’re just…. wrong! Voigtlander Nokton is superb, I recommend both.

  33. Hi andrew, and other :).

    I want to ask you if when you recommend to put the N/R to OFF, it’s you’re mean -2, or 0 setting?

    i noticed you are victim like me of the horizontal banding issue in some shoot… It’s a general problem on GH2, or a replacement can correct it?

    Thanks by advance!

  34. Is it possible to unlock low iso’s as well
    or is this beyond the ability of the hardware.

    would certainly be usefull to be able to shoot
    with fast lenses wide open in daylight

  35. That would be very very useful, like ISO 50 or something or even ISO 25 ! Don’t know if that would be possible, since the higher ISO’s for the film mode were already available in photo mode , so that probably meant that the hack sort of ‘unlocked’ this feature and not created it. Nevertheless it would be great.

  36. The psycology of aesthetics or through the lens anyone familiar with this? in my world which I’ve worked very hard to build and uphold pigs don’t eat roast meals with silver, pigs still eat pig food. Ask yourself questions. What genre? context? period, time setting? story? your goal? Unless your Michael Bay, In these lay the answers to the cut, grade, pace and ultimately how it is perceived and experienced the parameter or possibilities without derailing are narrow. Maybe this is off track, tired of reading threads about possibilities, it’s great, i have to ask why, none the less a good read as always. and yes i’ll keep reading thank you very much. This was just my general thought not aimed at anyone.

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