Panasonic Lumix GH5S hands-on review

With a smarter approach to pixels, Panasonic's GH5S is a low-light champ

The GH5S is a fantastic camera for a specific user, but the standard GH5 is still the hybrid photo/video king.
The GH5S is a fantastic camera for a specific user, but the standard GH5 is still the hybrid photo/video king.
The GH5S is a fantastic camera for a specific user, but the standard GH5 is still the hybrid photo/video king.

Highs

  • Video-focused 10.2MP, multi-aspect sensor
  • Waveform, vectorscope displays
  • Dual native ISO
  • DCI 4K at 60 fps
  • Time code in/out

Lows

  • No image stabilization
  • More expensive than GH5

While few camera announcements came out of this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, there was at least one gem: the Panasonic Lumix GH5S. The Micro Four Thirds mirrorless camera is largely identical to the standard GH5, which received a Digital Trends Editor’s Choice award in our review thanks in part to its many innovations in video. Panasonic has now doubled down on that approach with the S model, making key internal changes that give it an even tighter focus on professional video creators.

We don’t use the term “professional” here lightly. The $2,500 GH5S not only costs more than the standard model, but it also simply won’t appeal to as broad a demographic. Still photographers have little (but perhaps not zero) reason to consider it, and many enthusiast and even some professional video shooters may prefer the standard model.

All of this is to say that the GH5S cannot really be compared side-by-side with other mirrorless cameras, but for a certain sect of Panasonic fans, this is the GH camera they’ve always wished Panasonic would build. We have to admit, it is refreshing to see a major corporation produce such a niche product for a small, but dedicated group of users, even if it’s not the all-out better camera.

Design

The GH5S is almost identical to the GH5 on the outside, save for a bright red “REC” button on top (apparently, pro video shooters were demanding this, we suppose because the unlabeled red dot record button on the GH5 was too confusing). The camera, however, feels lighter when you pick it up. As Panasonic explained it, this is due to the removal of the image stabilization system. It’s not a huge difference — maybe the equivalent of removing the battery — but it is noticeable.

More importantly for anyone looking to use the camera on an extended shoot, the GH5S can now be both powered and charged over USB. This means it’s easy to connect an external battery to keep the camera running all day, which might be especially important if it’s installed in a rig where accessing the battery door could be difficult.

Other than that, it’s business as usual. It has the same 3.68-million-dot electronic viewfinder, same 1.62-million-dot articulating LCD monitor, and same ruggedized build. It’s not the prettiest mirrorless camera we’ve seen, but it certainly is functional.

Those weren’t the pixels you were looking for

The first spec that jumps out about the GH5S is its 10.2-megapixel sensor, which is roughly half the number pixels of the standard GH5. This decision may seem a bit odd, as if Panasonic is asking customers to pay more for less, but it’s actually a good thing. While a few full-frame and medium format cameras continue to duke it out in the fabled megapixel war, consumers have finally wised up to the fact that more doesn’t always equal better (and manufacturers, in turn, have wised up to consumers wising up). By putting fewer pixels on the sensor, each pixel can be larger, increasing its sensitivity to light which should boost low light performance. In fact, the GH5S has a new maximum ISO of 51,200, two stops greater than the GH5.

The new maximum ISO of 51,200 is two stops greater than the GH5.

This doesn’t matter quite as much to still photographers, who could downscale their 20MP GH5 photos to 10MP to cut out high ISO noise, but videographers don’t have the same flexibility. This is why starting out with fewer, larger pixels (so long as you still have enough for 4K resolution) is so exciting to video shooters. But low light performance isn’t the only benefit of the GH5’s reduced resolution when it comes to video.

Arguably, 4K video has more than enough resolution all but the most demanding applications (for example, if you need to have the freedom to significantly crop and reframe your footage). Yet, it only measures 3,840 x 2,160 pixels — or about 8.3 megapixels, a number that hasn’t been impressive on a digital still camera since 2006. Shooting video from a higher resolution sensor poses a problem: What do you do with all those extra pixels?

Panasonic Lumix GH5S
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

One method is simply to ignore them, using pixel skipping or binning to cut out the pixels you don’t need. The superior method is to oversample the pixels, pulling higher resolution than you need from the sensor and letting the processor downscale it to 4K. In fact, many mirrorless cameras today, like the GH5, oversample 4K video from roughly a 5K region of the sensor. The GH5S, as we understand it, records exactly the number of pixels it needs: One pixel is recorded for every pixel that is processed and output in the final frame.

While 1:1 sampling is certainly better than pixel skipping or binning, oversampling should technically still produce sharper results (for a headache-inducing explanation of why this is, read up on the sampling theorem). However, due to current limitations of sensor and processor technology (at least anywhere near this price point), a camera like the GH5 has to read out pixels one line at a time. The more pixels it records, the longer this process takes, which makes the dreaded jello cam effect worse. This is particularly troublesome for handheld shots, quick pans, or when shooting fast-moving subjects, which will look like they are “leaning” in one direction.

The GH5S, then, should produce less jello cam, have greater low light performance, and still maintain sharp video with 1:1 sampling all thanks to its lower resolution sensor.

Video image quality

The GH5S uses the same 4:2:2 10-bit, 400 megabit-per-second internal codec as the GH5, which is still some serious power for a small camera. But Panasonic has found ways to improve it.

Borrowing a technology from its professional Varicam line, Panasonic has introduced dual native ISO technology into a Lumix camera for the first time. According to a Panasonic representative, this puts two capacitors behind each pixel, each tuned for a different ISO. This gives the GH5S two ISO different settings (400 and 2,500) that are both “zero gain,” meaning they should have the same performance in terms of dynamic range. (Panasonic states the GH5S can hit 14 stops of dynamic range for RAW still photos, but hasn’t actually listed dynamic range for video, which is likely a tad lower due to the lack of a RAW video format.)

Panasonic Lumix GH5S
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

The practical effect of dual native ISO is that videographers have greater flexibility for working in different lighting conditions, as they won’t have to rely as much on artificial lights or neutral density filters in order to control the light for the best ISO setting. The camera can also smoothly ramp ISO automatically for natural transitions from indoors to out.

The GH5S also receives a nice boost to its high framerate options. While the GH5 offered 4K Ultra HD (3,840 x 2,160) video at 60 frames per second (fps), the GH5S brings that framerate to DCI 4K (4,096 x 2,160) — a world’s first. That means users of the wider aspect ratio can now shoot slow motion footage without dropping resolution and having to scale it up in post. And at 1080p, the GH5S can now shoot as fast as 240 fps, up from 180 in the GH5, albeit with a small crop.

New tools for video pros

Improving video quality is always welcome, but quality alone isn’t the only thing professional videographers need. The GH5S is packed with features that make it more familiar, more useful, and more versatile as a video camera than the GH5 before it (which, admittedly, was already pretty great in this regard).

At 1080p, the GH5S can now shoot as fast as 240 fps.

First up, V-LogL — a $100 add-on for the GH5 — is now included standard, as is Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG). V-LogL is Panasonic’s implementation of a logarithmic tone curve, which preserves more dynamic range, but the picture comes out looking “flat” and must be color graded. Fortunately, the GH5S now has a LUT display function, which lets users preview log footage in a closer to final state right in the camera, something that could only be done on the GH5 with a professional external monitor.

That’s not the only cue the GH5S took from external monitors. The camera now has video scopes built-in, including waveforms for judging exposure and a vectorscope for color. Having these tools right in the camera means users can produce more accurate footage when a monitor can’t be used, such as in run-and-gun situations or when mounting the camera as a crash cam or in another tight spot.

Old school filmmakers will also appreciate the option to display shutter angle in place of shutter speed, while the ENG crowd will like that ISO can be displayed in terms of decibels of gain. If these additional terms don’t mean anything to you, don’t worry — just stick to shutter speed and ISO and everything will function like you expect.

Finally, the GH5S has time code in/out via its flash sync port (a BNC adapter cable is included with the camera) so it can sync to other professional video cameras. This is huge for multi-camera productions where keeping different angles in sync is critical, like event or music videos.

Why some videographers might not want the GH5S

At the high end, the GH5S probably makes sense for most users, but there is one potential area where it is still outclassed by the GH5: Anamorphic 4:3 shooting. The GH5S still has this ability, but due to the lower pixel count, it is limited to 4K resolution. The GH5 can record 6K anamorphic footage, which is really quite impressive, especially for a $2,000 mirrorless camera. Still, when you throw in the better noise performance and lower risk of jello cam, the GH5S may be the better choice.

For average users, the main drawback of the GH5S is the lack of in body image stabilization. The standard GH5 has a fantastic 5-axis sensor-shift stabilizer, which makes it easier to use handheld. This doesn’t matter as much to professionals, who have robust rigs and gimbals for mounting the camera, but it could be more important to the likes of vloggers and YouTubers than all of the video benefits of the GH5S combined.

Time-lapse photography is also better left to higher-resolution sensors. The GH5S has internal intervalometer and time-lapse controls, but it won’t offer the same flexibility for zooming and panning in post as the 20MP GH5.

Is the GH5S any good for still photography?

If you’re a still photographer, Panasonic doesn’t mind if you say no the GH5S — the company will very happily sell you the new Lumix G9. That said, the GH5S does have one potential advantage over the both the GH5 and the G9: 14-bit RAW files. Presumably, this is to hold the extra data from the increased dynamic range of the 10.2MP sensor. How big a difference this makes, and whether or not it makes up for the lack of resolution relative to its peers, is something we’ll try to look at in our full review. (Even on full-frame cameras with oodles of pixels and high dynamic range, the difference between 12 and 14 bits is often hard to spot.)

Panasonic Lumix GH5S

Les Shu/Digital Trends

Other than resolution, the GH5S retains most of the great still camera features of the GH5. Panasonic’s excellent Depth from Defocus autofocus system returns, but is now even more sensitive, down to -5EV, which should make shooting in dark conditions easier. Burst rate remains an impressive 12 fps with AF locked or 8 with continuous AF (11 or 7, respectively, in 14-bit mode). And of course, the body is still ruggedized against dust, moisture, and cold so you can take it almost anywhere.

Our thoughts so far

The Lumix GH5S is a very exciting camera for a small number of people, and we are rather impressed — perhaps even a bit shocked — that Panasonic made it. This may look like a hybrid mirrorless camera, but it is a professional video tool through and through, one we expect to see used in everything from student films to Hollywood blockbusters. It is a (relatively) affordable entry point into the world of cinema cameras, and a capable B camera and crash cam for high-budget productions. Oh yeah, and it’s a decently capable still camera if, you know, you want to take some photos with it.

However, the niche appeal of the GH5S means it comes at a $500 premium over the standard model. We’re not sure how we feel about that. Understandably, this is still a very cheap camera from the perspective of many professional shooters, but it might keep advanced tools like video scopes and time code sync out of the hands of budget-conscious amateurs and students who could benefit from learning and working with those tools.

That said, regardless of price, the standard GH5 remains the better choice for most users. The higher resolution sensor and built-in image stabilization make it more versatile and approachable than the hyper-focused GH5S. But if video is your thing, we expect the GH5S may be the best sub-$3,000 camera out there, and it even gives more expensive cameras a serious run for their money. As positive as our initial impressions are, we’ll need to spend more time with the camera and record more test footage before we can really judge it.