Why do we film weddings with Panasonic GH5?

 
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Let us get one thing straight before we start. There are two kinds of people. People who film in full frame only and people who don't.

Seriously, though. It doesn't really matter what do you use and why, as long as it looks good. That's why what follows if a strictly personal account and not an industry representation of any sorts. Any generalisation I do below it's just that - a simplistic way of assessing reality that's flawed in itself but it's generally true in my own experience.

Backdrop

About a month ago, I was working as a wedding videographer in Central London and got asked by a stills photographer why was I, a wedding videographer, shooting with a format not famous by its low light capabilities. Standard case: he shot stills - as most of us do - with a full frame camera and had a go at video in a couple of jobs. He couldn't imagine going any lower in sensor size or bokeh.

I get this question time and time again from wedding industry peers and video creatives alike. Sonys seem to be all the rage, so it's a bit counterintuitive; weddings are low light events, therefore you'd want a low light camera, generally with a full frame sensor. Well, yes and no.

It's a very (very) common saying in the industry that cameras don't matter; that they are just tools. Except they do matter. If anything, because they are tools, they determine the kind of work we are able to do with them.

Of course, they don't matter the way a lot of people think they do.

Ideally, a cinematographer or videographer chooses the camera according to the needs of a job. While a medium production with a camera crew will require a £50.000 full sized Super 35 cinema camera, plus an audio guy and a gaffer, such camera would be a total overkill and a nuisance to shoot a wedding film on.

We started working with Sony A7s cameras, which is one of the most popular camera systems out there for wedding videography. I started out with these cameras in a bit of a privileged position - I worked for Sony for a while as a brand ambassador, so I ended up knowing how their A7 range worked inside-out. However, due to several quirks and the need to travel abroad and 4K capture, we soon decided to go smaller, with a micro four thirds system, first with Panasonic GH4/GH4R and, currently, GH5.

Camcorders (i.e., video cameras that don't shoot stills) have a lot of merits. They are dedicated for video work. Their batteries last for ages; they have built-in ND filters to keep the correct exposures, etc. However, compact DSLR/mirrorless cameras with small lenses present many advantages for weddings or other event work. They allow for videographers to be discreet and agile and blend with photographers.

Going further, professional cinema cameras (Reds and the like) are great for the robust and flexible footage they produce. but take time to setup and operate in a way not really suitable for most weddings. The kit of the camera alone with lenses and batteries and drives (not cards) takes several hard cases. Also, it costs about 20 times as much as most small camera formats.

Perhaps I'm going a bit further than I wanted to make the point that there's a place for everything. Wedding videography requires convenience for you (and specially for your client) and that convenience generally comes with drawbacks.

Lets start with the stuff that is generally up for discussion when people focus on Micro Four Third cameras in weddings.

Lowlight

This is the point people focus on time and time again. Understandably, the bulk of our business is wedding videography based in and around London, where the weather is often quite dark. England isn't really known for the sunshine and in London there are streets and building that go weeks without seeing a ray of sunshine.

Coming from a stills (wedding) photography background, I got used to be confident enough shoot stills at non-blur shutter speeds (for most short primes, 1/125sec). This means at times shooting well into ISO 10.000 or more. And then obviously, when it gets really dark, you can reach for flash, although many venues and churches have restrictions in that regard.

One thing I also learned as a stills photographer is that low light capability does not equal good - or at least pleasant -  light. Most of the times, available artificial light is bad quality, unpleasantly looking on camera. Because of that, in the film industry DPs and gaffers work very closely to light scenes mimicking everyday lights, replacing normal bulbs with what's called in the industry's jargon practical lights.  These are video lights that are fit into places to mimic lights of normal chandeliers, or a table or wall light. If you want an in depth explanation, look further here.

Now, wedding videographers don't have the budget or the opportunity for those. Nor would the client notice or expect such difference. Actually, most of this stuff we do it for our own creative integrity's sake - more on that later.

No matter how great your camera sensor is in high ISOs (Sony's go currently as high as ISO 409.000), bad light is still bad light - it will just look brighter and cleaner.

Your only option is use available light to your advantage via camera positioning and, if you can, use lights. Trust me. It's worth all the hassle. Pay someone just to go and carry them for you to the venue, if you need to. I say "if you can" because sometimes it's neither convenient nor safe nor possible: the client doesn't want them on; there is no space to put the lights safely; etc.

 
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I use the Came TV Boltzen 55W Fresnel LED lights. They're quite compact and cheap for what they are.

 
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So, if at times I cannot use lights or your own, shouldn't that put me off using a Micro Four Thirds camera for weddings?

No. For two reasons.

For one, film (video) being a moving image, does not need as much brightness as stills photography. Certainly, there are commercial or creative applications and looks to prove me wrong, but the kind of look I want to achieve is mostly dark anyway.

On the other hand, noise isn't as noticeable in film as in photography. It's more forgiving, if you want. When it gets distracting, it definitely becomes a problem.

I'm comparing this or that with stills photography and this is deliberate. These concerns tend, in my experience, to be voiced by people coming from a stills photography background. People coming from the film industry or film school or media studies tend to pay less attention to these more so because affordable cameras with a really good low light performance are fairly recent.

As I said, no camera is perfect and every camera is a work of compromise. Having said that, I'd love extra low light capability, but if it means abdicating of the other advantages of the system, I'll just carry on with the GH5.

Video Camera Features on a compact body under £2000

This is probably the main reason why we left Sony. The quantity of video specific features crammed in this camera under £2.000 is amazing:

  • UNLIMITED RECORDING. This is very important to us, especially filming weddings as solo shooters. The fact a camera doesn't stop after half hour worth of recording is priceless piece of mind. I know this is Europe specific due to an import duty on video cameras, but it's a rather important thing. With Brexit and if Britain leaves the single market, this limitation might (or might not) go away.
  • 4K UHD 50/60P RECORDING. Shooting with a two camera (with prime lenses on) setup lacks a bit of flexibility and the fact we can shoot 4K UHD and deliver FHD, it's quite important to be able to mimic a 3 or 4 camera setup out of two cameras. Of course, we could do that using 24/25p, but we often use slow motion for emotional and cinematic  purposes.
  • DUAL CARD RECORDING. A few years ago, we would have had to pay £5.000 or £6.000 for a professional camcorder to have dual backup recording in an interchangeable lens camera. Shooting once-in-a-lifetime events like weddings gives us further assurance with regards to the integrity and safety on our footage. Before that, we would shoot several small cards which we would change several times during the wedding day. Currently, we keep two cards in camera with continuous recording throughout the say.
  • VIDEO QUALITY. High in camera frame rate/file quality recording. 10bit, 4K recording with file qualities up to 400mbps, as well as the ability to shoot anamorphic. These aren't useful for every application, but makes sense for the odd commercial film jobs.

NATIVE DEPTH OF FIELD OF MICRO FOUR THIRDS SENSORS

This is a big thing for a lot of people. and very often seen as an disadvantage. 

It goes hand in hand with the lowlight treated above. I must say I'm a bit cynical about this because I often hear talk about a cinematic look, which when it comes down to it, it's nothing more than video with a shallow depth of field.

If you spend some time looking at TV, Amazon Video or Netflix series and cinema films, the depth of field is not shallow most of the time. Of course, you have examples proving the contrary, especially in low light or close-ups or if the show requires a specific look, but the overall look is not shot at T1.5 or T2.0.

Indeed, a big sensor is a condition for cinematic imaging.

Sensor size is important for the look you want to have. But like dynamic range or lighting or sound effects. or grading or sugar or salt, it will do more harm than good if it becomes too noticeable - and that will stand in front of the cinematic message you want to convey.

Compact size

This is probably specific (or more important) for wedding videographers and documentary shooters than, say, fiction or commercial filmmakers.

Being mainly a run n' gun kind of filmmaking (although that still depends on your style), it really makes a difference if you can just through all your gear in a backpack or shoulder bag and go with it. Small cameras and lenses also mean small and lightweight tripod or monopods or stabilisers.

Working as a London wedding videographer often means jumping from taxi to taxi working of a single bag. Of course, not all weddings are like that and many weddings are held in countryside venues and those generally have proper parking and don't pose these problems. Still, it very convenient to have both cameras at hand.

Finally, small cameras fit anywhere. Depending on where you are in the world this might or might not make a difference. Of course, a Sony A7S/II would't be much different. But if you want some of the features Panasonic GH5 have, you'd have to go higher for a pro camcorder form.

Less looked at, for people doing handheld camera work in an intensive basis, a lighter camera is nicer to your body and your muscles.

PERSONAL PREFERENCE

All of this comes down to personal preference. A better camera won't make you better films. Only your knowledge and practice of your craft, including editing, aesthetics, camera skills will make you a better videographer and allow you to produce better, richer films.

Pedro Portela2 Comments