The Mirrorless 4K Miracles: Panasonic GH4, Sony a7S, and Samsung NX1

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The widespread adoption of 4K video isn't a question of if but, rather, a mash-up of when and how. There are a handful of ways that we already consume the format. When you visit a modern movie theater, the odds are high that you’ll be screening a 4K digital video projection. Netflix, YouTube, and Vimeo are all experimenting with 4K streaming options—but most of us don't have the right kind of hardware to appreciate them. Premium 4K or Ultra High Definition Television (UHDTVs and projectors) are rapidly dropping in price, making their home adoption much more affordable… but content delivery is still in its infancy.

Why shoot in 4K? As of this writing, you can’t really show it off many places. Also, regular ol' High Definition still looks pretty sweet. Chances are you have an HDTV set up in the den, your bedroom—even modern phones, tablets, and computer screens can all do at least 720p. HD is ubiquitous. It’s a great format to shoot and share. A 4K camera kit, proper editing, storage, and viewing tech costs money. If no one is going to be able to watch your content in the near term, why invest in a new format now? Why shoot in 4K?


Resolution Chart from SD to Cinema 4K. Wowza! 4K video is 4x the resolution of 1080 HD!

There’s always the future-proofing argument. It’s certainly something to consider. Market forces move quickly, and it’s highly likely that home 4K adoption will move faster than our transition from SD to HD, which took more than ten years.

"Modern mirrorless cameras are an excellent way to explore the benefits of 4K movie making without risky overhead."

Future-proofing your work is important, but here’s the thing: 4K video has some pretty compelling qualities that can enhance the modern HD viewing experience. That’s right—shooting 4K now has a slew of benefits for both you as a video maker and your High-Definition audience. For instance, shooting in 4K and later down-sampling and authoring your content to HD really ups the image quality. Think of this as starting with a larger negative and using it to make smaller prints. The end product is sharper, cleaner, and more robust.

4K video also requires fast media for capture. A memory card isn’t just a memory card anymore. Check out our companion article, Media and Memory Cards for the Mirrorless 4K Workflow. It offers a no-nonsense approach to choosing the right memory cards, readers, external recorders, and SSDs for shooting your projects. 

There’s also a strong post-production flexibility argument. Have you ever shot video and wished that you could zoom in a touch more? Or framed the subject a little more to the left? Making these adjustments in post-production from a 4K source in an HD project is easy. With plenty of resolution to spare, punching in for a tighter shot or recomposing the frame can be done with no degradation to the final product.

Post-production flexibility carries over into camera movement as well. Say, for instance, that you want to add some drama to an exterior establishing shot. By panning or zooming (or doing both) over your footage in post, you can create a variety of slick, high-production-value shots without the need for dollies, track, or jibs. Check out the quick how-to below.

The Mirrorless Miracle

Let’s get this out of the way. Mirrorless cameras are awesome for four reasons: accessible features, size, weight, and price. There are no options in the 4K camera market that offer these types of shooting features in such tiny packages for under $3,000.

The cameras we’re looking at here do not compete with the Cinema 4K options from RED, ARRI, or Canon. They aren’t meant to—but this doesn't mean that they don’t make beautiful images. This doesn’t mean that they can’t be used for professional production. Modern mirrorless cameras are an excellent way to explore the benefits of 4K movie making without risky overhead. Let’s explore some of the latest options in this segment.

The Panasonic GH4

This little tank offers both popular calibers of 4K: Cinema 4K (recorded at 4096 x 2160) and UHD 4K (recorded at 3840 x 2160). These are both captured at 100/mbps in-camera as .mov or .mp4 files. In-camera color sampling is the standard 4:2:0/8-bit space. Higher quality 4:2:2/10-bit is available going out through the camera’s micro HDMI port to an external recorder. Frame rates in 4K are limited—24 fps in Cinema 4K and your choice of 29.97, 25, 24, or 23.98 fps in UHD 4K.

As a video camera, the Panasonic GH4 is about as nimble as they come. There’s a ton of Micro Four Thirds lenses on the market. Lenses like the Panasonic Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm f/2.8 are so well designed and so meticulously coated that they are nearly impervious to flare. Sensor size and flange distance also allow for use of pretty much any popular 35mm lens system with the appropriate adapters. My friend Matt, a Director of Photography and all-around incredible filmmaker, recommends vintage Leica R glass. It’s easy to find on the used market and so over-engineered, you’ll fall equally head over heels for the manual click of the aperture and high resolution image quality. Contact the B&H Used Department to find out what’s currently available.

There are countless pleasantries to describe the GH4—it’s lightweight yet solid, offers useful focus peaking, readable audio monitors—I could go on and on. The killer feature? Seems obvious enough, but recording 4K internally is what does it for me. I don’t think we should accessorize a camera any more than we need to. Sure, external recorders are nice (and often necessary), but there’s something to be said about a product that can do the thing on its own.

The Sony a7S

Sony had many goals for the a7S, but the successes closest to my heart are the full-frame 35mm sensor and incredible high ISO sensitivity. If you’ve been shooting HD on a full-frame DSLR, you’re going to feel right at home with the a7S. There’s nothing quite like a shallow-depth-of-field shot from a large-sensor camera. It’s big. It’s epic. Also, when adapting lenses from other systems, everything lines up nicely. 

Have we talked about how this thing kills it in low light? The high ISO sensitivity (I feel safe pushing it up to 25600) is the killer feature for the available-light filmmaker. Dark interior shot? No problem. Moody exterior lit by a cloud-covered moon? Piece of cake. It’s important to note that this can cut the other way in well-lit situations. Base ISO of the A7s in the flat S-Log2 profile is 3200. That’s pretty high. If you’re shooting at high noon without a cloud in the sky, you’re gonna have to bust out the ND filters.

Here’s something else to consider: to record in 4K, you’ll need an external recording device. The a7S doesn’t offer this option in-camera. The Atomos Shogun is a solid choice. Over the camera’s micro HDMI output, the Shogun pulls in UHD 4K in 4:2:2/8-bit, recording it in 10-bit Apple ProRes or Cinema DNG formats. It’s cool that a recorder saves you the step of transcoding. It’s a bummer in that you’ve got to carry another thing that requires battery power and bag space.   

The Samsung NX1

There’s something to be said about straight shooting and sharing. This is where the Samsung NX1 will really shines in its use of internal H.265 video compression. This allows for recording of both Cinema and UHD 4K in a file that’s smaller and more efficient than the previous-generation H.264. Though not ready for prime time just yet, H.265 is promised to run natively in Windows 10 and is likely to find its way into other high-volume platforms. It’s the kind of file that you’ll be able to upload to the Web straight out of the camera. Think 4K vlogs, single-shot documentary, paparazzi, and uncut performances, anything that you want to get online without the bother of editing or transcoding.

For folks who prefer to edit with the highest-quality footage possible, the NX1 allows 4:2:2/8-bit output through micro HDMI to an external recorder. Cinema 4K is available at 24 frames per second; UHD 4K comes in slightly higher at 30 fps.

Another feature that sets the Samsung NX1 apart in the segment is the 205 phase-detection autofocus points on the camera’s 28.2 megapixel back side illuminated sensor. For the shooter who values autofocus for video, this seems pretty promising. I’m looking forward to putting this one through its paces when it ships later this year.

Other Hardware (not optional)

Before jumping into the 4K water, consider your computer. Are your monitor, processors, RAM, video card, and storage space adequate enough for the editing process? If you’re in the market for a new desktop machine, I’d take a serious look at the Apple 27" iMac with Retina 5K display. Starting under $2,500, the machine is the best dollar-to-value, all-in-one solution for 4K video editing. In fact, this is best screen I’ve ever seen on any computer. Fast Thunderbolt 2 I/O makes attaching and configuring RAIDs simple and easy.

Speaking of RAIDs, you’re going to need them if you want to view and edit your content in native resolution. The two biggest things to consider here are speed and space. LaCie’s 5big Thunderbolt 2 offerings come in 10TB, 20TB, and 30TB capacities and push 660MB/s, 920 MB/s, and 1050MB/s respectfully in RAID 0. Unless you’re content using proxy files, you have to invest in a modern RAID with superfast I/O. Thunderbolt 2 is among the fastest plug-and-play technologies available.

All of the mirrorless cameras that we’ve looked at are battery hogs. You’ll want plenty of extras in your bag. B&H carries both original manufacturer and third-party batteries and chargers, for your convenience. The Panasonic GH4 is powered by the DMW-BLF19; The Sony a7S by the NP-FW50; and the Samsung NX1 draws from the ED-BP1900.

Summing it Up

I hope you’ll enjoy taking on 4K with mirrorless cameras. The results are awesome, whether you’re looking at the finished product on a UHDTV, or an HD monitor. 4K video is the future, but there are so many amazing things we can do with it today. The ability to add panning, zooming, and tilt in post is huge. With the proper planning, you can save yourself the weight of a jib and the dubious slider thingy you built with directions from the Internet.

There are plenty of compelling features from the mirrorless manufacturers. The Panasonic GH4 offers the highest bi-rate of the bunch, and despite having the smallest sensor, it's the most full-featured camera for general production. Sony’s a7S is the master of low-light 4K. Its full-frame sensor provides a look that isn’t like anything else out there. The Samsung NX1 promises to be the next generation of high-quality shoot-and-share with its advanced H.265 compression. Choose the features that sit right with you. If you need any help, B&H is only an email or phone call away.

David Flores is a photographer and filmmaker based in New York City.

Panasonic GH4

Sony A7s

Samsung NX1

Sensor

16.05 megapixels (17.3 x 13mm)

12.2 megapixels (35.8 x 23.9mm)

28.2 megapixels (23.5 x 15.7mm)

Lens Mount

Micro Four Thirds

Sony E-Mount

Samsung NX

Video Focal Multipler (in 4K recording)

2.3x

1.1x

1.5x

Internal 4K Recording

Yes: Cinema and UHD 4K

No: External Recorder required for UHD 4K

Yes: Cinema and UHD 4K

ISO Range

200-25600 (Extended Mode: 100-25600)

100-102400 (Extended Mode: 50-409600)

100-25600 (Extended Mode: 100-51200)

Viewfinder

OLED EVF

2.36 million dots

100% coverage

0.67x

OLED EVF

2.36 million dots

100% coverage

0.71x

OLED EVF

2.36 million dots

100% coverage

1.04x

Touch LCD Screen

3.0" OLED 1,036K-dot (tilt and swivel)

3.0" LCD 921,600-dot (tilt)

3.0" OLED 1,036K-dot (tilt)

Dimensions (WxHxD)

5.2 x 3.7 x 3.3"

5.0 x 3.7 x 1.9"

5.5 x 4.0 x 2.6"

Weight (w battery and SD card)

1.24 lb

1.08 lb

1.22 lb

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Just once, I'd like to see articles like this written unabridged and defined.  I'm moderately tech-savvy but I doubt that more than 10% of readers could adequately explain this article.  What I'd like to see (in order to motivate me to buy) is the article written to define terms like "4:2:2/8-bit", "flat S-Log2 profile", and "Thunderbolt 2 I/O".  Really:  How many readers can adequately define those terms beyone a vague idea of what they mean?  The bottom line is that if you want 90% of us to buy, you should interface those geeky technocrats into shirtsleeve english.

Jim Frees wrote:
Just once, I'd like to see articles like this written unabridged and defined.  I'm moderately tech-savvy but I doubt that more than 10% of readers could adequately explain this article.  What I'd like to see (in order to motivate me to buy) is the article written to define terms like "4:2:2/8-bit", "flat S-Log2 profile", and "Thunderbolt 2 I/O".  Really:  How many readers can adequately define those terms beyone a vague idea of what they mean?  The bottom line is that if you want 90% of us to buy, you should interface those geeky technocrats into shirtsleeve english.

Good points, Jim. It's often too easy to focus on the specifications without explaining the benefits. For those people who don't understand those terms, I'll take a shot at describing the benefits...

  • ​4:2:0 vs. 4:2:2 - 4:2:2 records more color information than 4:2:0 so your video will be more detailed and crisper. It's also better for compositing when you shoot a subject in front of a green screen and replace the green with another background. The edges of the subject will appear sharper and cleaner because of the additional color resolution.
  • 8-bit vs. 10-bit - 10-bit captures 4X more variations in light levels than 8-bit. This benefit could translate to greater dynamic range, i.e. more details preserved in dark shadow and bright highlight areas. 10-bit can also provide smoother variations from light to dark so you don't see the stepping or banding in an image from dark to bright areas. Since you are capturing more information, you'll have more latitude for adjustments in post with color correction without introducing as many artifacts as you would with an 8-bit video.
  • Flat S-Log2 profile - Provides a film-like look with less contrast and typically capturing more dynamic range and detail in shadow and highlight areas. Video is characterized by a look that is higher in contrast than film and may have crushed blacks and blown out highlights with little detail. Imagine shooting a wedding ceremony in a dimly lit church with a bright light on the bride in a white dress. You will see more detail in the dark areas of the church, and the white dress will still retain variations in white shades and patterns in the dress without being overexposed as a solid blob of white.
  • Thunderbolt 2 I/O - Thunderbolt is a fast interface to connect accessories like high-resolution displays, cameras and high-performance external storage to your computer through a compact connection and cable. Thunderbolt 2 is twice as fast as Thunderbolt, 4X faster than USB 3 and 40X faster than USB 2. This means that you'll spend less time transferring your video to external storage and enjoy support for high-resolution 4K displays.