Time to step up – Panasonic GH5 must go 6K Super 35mm to compete in 2016

Panasonic GH4 with Cooke

Without doubt my favourite camera series of the last 5 years has been the Panasonic GH range.

But with the Sony A6300 on the horizon sporting a Super 35mm sensor with full 6K readout, is the future looking a bit shaky for Panasonic’s video wunderkind?

Panasonic GH4 (left) vs Samsung NX1 (right)

In the last few years Panasonic have really listened to many people, myself included. Recently however the invites stopped and I haven’t heard a thing about the GH5. Very strange. If previous GH product cycles are to be repeated the GH5 should appear any time from April to Photokina 2016 in September.

When I last met Panasonic before the release of the GH4 I told them – we all told them – that they must step up the specs. The GH3 was a bit of a disappointment, it didn’t put the GH2’s image in the shade. Blackmagic were offering us raw video with 13 stop dynamic range and full frame raw had just happened on the 5D Mark III, so we just echoed what all of the owners were already saying on places like the EOSHD Forum and DVXUser – we wanted the GH4 to be a big step.

And it was!

The problem for Panasonic though is that they keep being first to the market and first to be beaten by the competition – since the release of the 4K centric GH4, Sony have gone all guns blazing into the GH4’s territory with no less than 3 4K full frame cameras (A7S, A7S II, A7R II), a very capable 4K APS-C camera (A6300) and even Samsung upped the ante with their short-lived NX1. All of them offer larger sensors, better high frame rates and better low light performance than the GH4. Blackmagic have increased their slice of the 4K cake too.

Additionally Panasonic were too slow in giving the GH4 a LOG profile, something Sony gave us straight away with the A7S back in 2014. Sony hasn’t been shy in adding this to their other cameras either. Of the recent high end releases only the RX1R II lacks it.

Until now the GH4’s price has protected it from Sony’s offerings but the A6300 changes all that.

They could really find themselves losing market share, especially as Canon and Nikon look to be getting into the 4K market too (if not yet at Panasonic’s prices then maybe soon). So I’d love for Panasonic to start listening again.

Especially to this… because anything less and I am probably not going to buy a GH5…

The grand idea!

The Micro Four Thirds mount physically fits a Super 35mm sensor. This has been proven.

Current sensor technology allows full pixel readouts in the region of 6K, or nearly 7K if you consider the Samsung NX1. This has also been proven.

Image processors in cheap small bodies can take a 6K readout and crunch the numbers, no problem. The NX1 proves this (even with the added complexity of H.265). The A6300 is next. It is $999.

Customers have rather taken to the split “resolution” and “sensitivity” offerings of Sony with the A7R II and A7S II. Now Panasonic can do something similar with the GX series being high resolution and photographer orientated 2x crop sensor cameras, whilst the GH5 would go Super 35mm and keep the megapixel count at a level benefiting video and low light.

Thus this would be a perfect opportunity to make the GH5 smash several limitations of Micro Four Thirds at once –

  • Full frame with Speed Booster? Yes.
  • 6K Super 35mm without Speed Booster? Yes – perfect for PL cine and APS-C lenses
  • Great low light? Yes – thanks to larger sensor
  • Still shoots 15MP / 4K with Micro Four Thirds lenses? Yes – 4K crop mode maintains compatibility and smaller sized optics

All these improvements come from one single change – a larger 1.5x crop sensor.

The way this works is very simple. The 6K comes from the full Super 35mm sensor area (24MP – or 20MP when 16:9 aspect ratio is applied). It could then be scaled to 4K on the processor or better still – why not just store it as 6K on the card? The media is fast enough now and this would really set it apart from the competition. Although I am personally more than satisfied with 4K (even 1080p in many situations) customers are very sensitive to headline numbers.

Ciecio7 PL adapter for Micro Four Thirds on the Panasonic GH4

In terms of sensor size, Super 35mm (1.5x crop) is a real sweet spot as it allows us to go full frame with Speed Booster.

Yet the chip still fits within the small Micro Four Thirds mount. It still allows small optics and small bodies. If the Speed Booster 0.74x E-mount optical part fits the Micro Four Thirds mount then of course the same Super 35mm size sensor would go full frame on the GH5 too. A GH5 with full frame look would be almost as HUGE a selling point as the 6K.

This new sensor I am dreaming up would be 24MP – why?

Any less and 4K with Micro Four Thirds lenses wouldn’t quite be doable and any more would hurt low light performance.

Even with the sensor operating in 2x crop mode it would have a significant low light improvement over the GH4’s 16MP Micro Four Thirds sensor yet maintain pretty much the same resolution for stills.

Now the important bit…

It is really important to bear in mind that a Super 35mm GH5 would still 100% be a Micro Four Thirds camera.

Just like the GH2 with it’s over-sized 1.86x crop sensor was.

Attach a Micro Four Thirds lens and it all still works.

The camera will detect this and use a 4K window of the 6K Super 35mm sensor.

For stills this area would be approximately 15MP 3:2 from the over-sized 24MP sensor. For me that’s just as good as the current situation with the GH4, whilst the GX8 with it’s 20MP 2x crop sensor fits the bill for photographers, the GH5’s 15Mp stills when Micro Four Thirds lenses attached would be a necessary compromise to give the main audience for this camera (video shooters) what they want – Super 35mm and 6K. There’s also another opportunity here for Panasonic if they choose to take it and I’ll get onto that in a moment.

When a full frame or APS-C lens is attached via an adapter the GH5 would shoot video at 6K (or 4K from a full 6K pixel readout like the A6300) and stills at 24MP.

It wouldn’t be the first time Panasonic have used a larger than 2x crop sensor in a Micro Four Thirds camera. The GH1 and GH2 had Panasonic’s own 1.86x crop sensor allowing for multiple aspect ratios without hurting the field of view. With the switch to a Sony sensor in the GH3 this shrank back to 2x and the multi-aspect feature was dropped.

By comparison Canon APS-C is 1.6x crop and Super 35mm is 1.5x crop.

Finally here’s the other opportunity the new sensor size creates – a new “Premium” line of Micro Four Thirds “Plus” lenses to cover the 1.5x crop sensor. These being Super 35mm lenses with hard stops would go down very well with filmmakers!! Why manufacturers continue to put only fly by wire focus rings on high-end mirrorless camera lenses I do not know.

GH4 with LOMO anamorphic lens

Above: my LOMO anamorphic is designed to cover Super 35mm sensor – the anamorphic mode on any GH5 would greatly benefit from a sensor size to match

It MUST move on from 2x crop for video

I believe this 1.5x crop sensor is vital to the future of the GH5 as a video tool.

Unless the smaller format somehow gains 15 stops dynamic range with a RAW codec, the fact is that a smaller 2x crop sensor will find it very hard to compete on the market versus so many full frame and Super 35mm 4K cameras.

Speed Booster can do a lot with a 2x crop sensor but it is only when you get to a Super 35mm 1.5x crop sensor where Speed Booster magically transforms it and gives you the look of full frame. So many of us have full frame lenses and we want to use them.

Remember we are not talking about destabilising the Micro Four Thirds platform with the wrong sensor size that doesn’t match the lenses or killing Panasonic’s lens sales. We’re talking about maintaining 100% compatibility and 4K with these lenses AS WELL AS bolstering the range with premium lenses with a larger image circle.

The 15MP crop for stills when using Micro Four Thirds lenses vs 24MP with the premium lenses would be perfectly acceptable to users of a video optimised hybrid camera, certainly preferable to keeping the sensor pegged at 16MP without increasing the size of it. What’s the point of a little evolution when a change of concept is needed?

It gives Panasonic a great excuse to sell 2 bodies as well. Imagine a GX9 for photographers who want resolution and a GH5 for photographers who prioritise low light and video. This is the exact strategy Sony have done with the A7R and A7S, what’s more it has worked.

If the Panasonic GH5 comes out with another 2x crop sensor, the only things which will stand it apart from other cameras is if it gets the incredibly large, high resolution EVF from the Leica SL and an internal 10bit ProRes codec. I can’t see either being realistic for the GH5’s price.

Let’s remember that the GH line needs to compete under $2000. The Sony A6300 is already a serious threat to it and the mid-range pricing leaves Panasonic little room to bump up the spec in terms of expensive 10bit processing and EVFs.

So for me the most cost effective way for the GH5 to wow us again would be that increase in sensor size.

Would you buy this camera?

  • Panasonic GH5 for $1799, November 2016
  • 6K video and 24MP stills
  • Super 35mm mode for 6K video without pixel binning
  • 2x crop Micro Four Thirds mode for DCI 4K and Ultra HD
  • Compatible with all Micro Four Thirds lenses
  • 200Mbit/s H.264 codec and V-LOG 2.0
  • Forthcoming Micro Four Thirds Premium / Plus lenses for the oversized sensor
  • Full frame look with Metabones Speed Booster
  • 4K RAW to Odyssey 7Q+ (please!!)

What’s not to love about that?

The other very important thing which would put Panasonic into contention again with Sony are ergonomics and usability. This is still a weak area for Sony and something Panasonic can capitalise on. I certainly didn’t move from the GH4 to the A7S for the ergonomics and menu system, let’s just leave it at that 🙂

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