While smartphones have obliterated most of the camera market, there's one area where traditional camera companies still reign supreme: pro-quality video. And in this part of the market, Panasonic's GH series—from the GH3 to the GH4 and now the GH5—is the 800lb gorilla in the room.
While it's hard enough for competitors to unseat Panasonic, it's arguably even more difficult for Panasonic itself to one-up its own cameras. But that's the task before the new Panasonic DMC-GH5S (MSRP $2,499), though in this case it's more of a complement to the existing GH5 than any kind of a replacement.
The main innovation? A newly-designed 10.2-megapixel sensor, representing a nearly 50% dip in resolution compared to the GH5's 20.3MP sensor. The goal? To provide significantly better low light video quality.
We've had the chance to spend weeks shooting with the GH5S and if Panasonic's goal was to provide one of the best low-light video cameras around, it's definitely succeeded.
About the Panasonic GH5S
On the outside, there is almost nothing the distinguishes the GH5S from the GH5, other than a few minor flourishes here and there. On the inside, there aren't a ton of changed beyond the image sensor, but here are the specs as provided by Panasonic:
Image Sensor: 10.2-megapixel Micro Four Thirds (multi-aspect ratio)
Video: 4K at 24/25/30/50/60p, 1080p at up to 240fps, max 10-bit 4:2:2
Ports: HDMI (full-size), mic, headphone, USB-C
Memory: dual SDHC/SDXC memory cards (both UHS-II compatible)
Burst Shooting: 12fps max burst speed
ISO: Dual Native ISO (80-204,800 extended)
RAW: 14-bit RAW (12-bit also available)
LCD: 3.2-inch articulating touchscreen
Autofocus: 225 focus areas with DFD using supported lenses
Viewfinder: 1.52x magnification OLED (3680k dot)
Battery Life: 440 shots
Wireless: Wi-fi + Bluetooth 4.2 (Low energy)
Dimensions: 138.5 x 98.1 x 87.4 mm / 5.45 x 3.86 x 3.44 inch (excluding protrusions)
Weight: 660g (body + battery and memory card)
What We Like
A sensor tailor-made for low light video shooting
Much like Sony's Alpha A7S from a few years ago, the GH5S takes an excellent existing camera and makes a few tweaks to the sensor and processing in order to deliver improved low light video shooting. Most of the GH5S's gains in this area are due to its new 10.2-megapixel image sensor, which has a few neat tricks that allow it to offer better low light video quality.
The first is the decreased resolution. By stepping down to 10.2 megapixels from 20.3, the GH5S simply has larger individual pixels. This means more light hits each pixel, naturally increasing the picture quality in low light since the camera doesn't need to amplify the signal as aggressively.
The GH5S doubles down on this by providing two amplifiers in each pixel, one tuned for low ISO settings and one for higher ones. Most CMOS sensors have an amplifier for each pixel, but having two is definitely something we haven't seen on a consumer camera. The GH5S won't perform miracles, but it's notably better at ISO 3200 and above.
And of course, we have to mention the sensor's multi-aspect ratio, letting you shoot in multiple ratios without having to crop the sensor down. It is a tiny touch, but one Panasonic fans have been holding a candle for since the Panasonic GF1.
It maintains the GH5's excellent, pro-quality design
Though the GH5S hasn't changed anything in this regard, we still have to give kudos to Panasonic here. The GH5S has everything you could want. The control scheme takes some getting used to but it's generally excellent, and it has a full array of ports (mic, headphone, full-size HDMI, USB-C, etc.) as well as dual UHS-II compatible memory card slots.
Beyond that, the GH5S is splash-proof, built to withstand the rigors of daily video production, and fully compatible with the same accessories as the GH5.
Timecode In/Out conversion is easy, and perfect for multi-camera shoots
Though this is not something most people will care about, the GH5S adds support for timecode in/out functionality through the camera's flash sync terminal. This is critical for multi-camera shoots, because it lets you easily sync up all your footage after the fact without having to laboriously line up clips—an especially tricky task when capturing people speaking.
It's a small touch, but one that I'm sure some video professionals will be pleased with. Our only gripe here is Panasonic claims that you can't fully power the camera down and maintain the sync, so if you're swapping batteries during a longer shoot you'll need to reset your timecodes.
What We Don't Like
For the money, most people may want to stick with the GH5
With a body-only MSRP of $2,499, the GH5S is quite a bit pricier than the standard GH5. Though the GH5S does include the $100 V-Log L upgrade by default, you're still paying around $400 over the current street price of the GH5.
There are legitimate reasons you may want to do that, and documentary filmmakers who use multi-camera and available light will surely see the value there, but for a lot of photographers/videographers the benefits may not outweigh the costs.
Panasonic could've innovated a bit more
While we frequently criticize manufacturers that make changes just because they can, Panasonic has been playing it safe with the GH series. The GH5S is, quite literally, a carbon copy of the GH5 with a few minor tweaks. Though we love the GH5, things like button placement and the grip could be improved upon—even if only slightly.
Even something as simple as some fresher color choices would've made the GH5S feel a bit more special than it does currently. Something like what the company did with the silver GX7 once upon a time would've at least brought a little more style to the GH lineup.
No in-body image stabilization will be a turn-off to some shooters
The most questionable change with the GH5S is the lack of an in-body image stabilization (IBIS) system. Panasonic's given reason is that it makes the footage more stable when using a gimbal or another system. This is because sensors with built-in stabilization are placed on tracks that allow it to move (since that's the whole point). Even when off, moving the camera can result in some judder that is tricky to fix.
Assuming the GH5S will mostly be used by video productions that are utilizing gimbals (or in a fixed position, like on a tripod), Panasonic elected to just take the GH5S out entirely. While we buy Panasonic's explanation, we haven't heard from many people lamenting the IBIS systems in other cameras, so we're marking this as a negative for now.
Should You Buy It?
Maybe—if your needs are highly specific
The GH5 is a fantastic camera, so we have no doubt that the GH5S is also be a fantastic camera. In fact, we've spent weeks putting it through its paces, and our multimedia team has been using it to shoot stills and video and it fits in beautifully with their current crop of cameras (mostly GH3 and GH4s).
But if we're talking specifically about the GH5S, that's also part of the problem, because the GH5S is $500 more expensive. For your money you definitely get better low light video shooting and better slow-motion video compared to the GH5, but those are the only major changes. You're also giving up some resolution (though not enough you'll notice most of the time) and in-body image stabilization.
For most people, the GH5 is just a better bet. But for the specific niche that the GH5S is targeting, it's sure to be a hit. For people who are all-in on mirrorless cameras for video production but have been eyeing full-frame solutions like Sony's Alpha-series cameras, the GH5S is a credible reason to stick with team Micro Four Thirds.