Why Panasonic’s GH5s is my go-to for 4K review videos

Numerous benefits outweigh the occasionally fiddly autofocus.

Steve Dent/Engadget

When I first reviewed the GH5s about two years ago, I concluded that it "produces the best video of any mirrorless camera on the market." I then doubled down by actually investing in one for my own Engadget videos -- most of which are about other cameras. What I liked about it was the super-sharp 4K video with 10 bits color depth, a flip-around screen, good low-light capability and great handling.

I did this knowing that the relatively low-resolution 10.2-megapixel sensor was not ideal for still photography. It also lacks any in-body stabilization and has a contrast-detect autofocus system that can be unpredictable for both photography and video. You might also wonder why I didn't get Panasonic's GH5 instead, which has very similar features and also delivers sharp 4K video. So, do I regret my decision?

Rather than rattling off specs, let me give you an idea how I use this camera for my job. When reviewing a new camera like Sony's A7R IV (above), I gather different kinds of video in 4K resolution. That includes product beauty shots and closeups, me handling and shooting with the camera, and the standup (hosting). I do most of this shooting by myself, with occasional help from an assistant when I'm shooting outdoors in the city. Since I'm not a full-time videographer, it's key that my camera be relatively easy to use.

With that in mind, here's what I needed: It had to shoot 4K video with 10 bits of color information (billions of colors) in case I screwed up and needed to heavily adjust the footage in post. I also wanted dependable autofocus for filming my standup or other shots by myself, along with predictable handling. And finally, it had to record good-quality sound from an external microphone and let me monitor it via a headphone port.

Did I mention that I'd use it to shoot photos, as well? After all, I need pictures of the devices I'm testing and I'm not about to carry two cameras around.

It does all of those things on paper, but shooting in the real world is another matter. First, let's look at the GH5s's greatest strength, 4K video sharpness and color reproduction.

Panasonic GH5s mirrorless camera for 4K video IRL
Steve Dent/Engadget

Believe it or not, the GH5s's lower-resolution sensor and lack of stabilization give it a leg up over its 21-megapixel GH5 sibling and even larger sensor cameras like the Fujifilm X-T3. For one thing, there's very little downsampling that can produce jagged lines on fine, straight details. And without the stabilization mechanism, you get a wider field of view than the GH5 when shooting standard 16x9 4K video (a 1.8X crop instead of 2.0X). That allows for shallower depth of field at the same f-stop, so my subjects stand out better against their backgrounds.

The sensor also has larger pixels that can gather more light, making it better than some full-frame cameras in dim shooting conditions. That's helped by the "dual native ISO" design, which allows for cleaner video at higher ISO settings. Put simply, I know I can count on the GH5s when shooting in dimly lit rooms and outdoors at night, situations I very often encounter.

What's more, the GH5s sensor delivers better color accuracy, especially in skin tones, than the GH5. Video looks particularly great right out of the camera without the need for a log profile or much fiddling in post-production.

If I do mess up the exposure, the 10-bits of color depth, 4:2:2 video and reasonably high bit rates (up to 400 Mbps) give me a cushion for adjusting shadows or bright areas like skies. I can also crank up the exposure in dark areas and reduce it in light areas at the same time without introducing banding or excessive loss of detail.

Panasonic GH5s mirrorless camera for 4K video

I've tested a lot of mirrorless cameras and I've never found one that handles as well as the GH5s for video. It's loaded with manual controls that make it easy to adjust important settings like ISO, white balance, shutter speed and aperture.

The flip-around screen is indispensable as I need to be able to see myself when doing standup or using the camera. For other types of shots, the 3,680K dot OLED makes it easy to film in bright sunlight. It's relatively lightweight and easy to lug around, battery life is good and it has two dual UHS-II card slots, making it possible to shoot all day without changing memory cards.

Furthermore, you can set the camera to use shutter angle rather than shutter speed, which is important for videography. That's because video looks more pleasing if the shutter speed is a multiple of the frame rate, i.e. 1/50th of a second when shooting at 25 fps. By setting the shutter angle to 180 degrees, that's exactly what I get, regardless of the frame rate selected.

On the audio side, you can adjust the microphone socket to line (high) or mic (low) levels and power smallish lavalier-type mics. Using a relatively cheap wireless Rode lav mic and Rode shotgun mic, I'm able to record good-sounding audio without any assistance.

For standup, I use a smartphone and Panasonic's camera app to remotely adjust settings, check the image and start and stop recording. The camera app takes a long time to connect to the camera, but it works well otherwise.

On a typical shoot, I'll usually set the GH5s up on a fluid-head tripod and film the review camera, with the autofocus set and locked. Then I'll film myself using the camera with the autofocus enabled in single point, continuous mode. For standups, I use the face-detection autofocus.

Panasonic GH5s mirrorless camera for 4K video IRL
Steve Dent/Engadget

There's no doubt that contrast-detect autofocus isn't as good for video as the phase-detect systems in Canon or Sony cameras. There's always a slight wobble as it overshoots focus then comes back, because that's how contrast-detect AF works. When I first started using the camera, I (and our video production team) noticed this problem in a couple of early videos.

However, I've got to hand it to Panasonic for improving the autofocus system on the GH5s, via firmware updates, shortly after I acquired it. For the type of shooting I do, the autofocus now works fine and rarely misses focus. For instance, when I film myself handling a camera up fairly close to the lens, it tracks focus well when I'm moving it toward the camera or flipping it around. (It might not fare as well for less predictable run-and-gun shooting, so I'd recommend doing a thorough test before buying one.)

But what about the lack of stabilization for handheld shooting, you might ask? After all, the GH5 does have excellent in-body stabilization and the GH5s has none.

First of all, this isn't too big an issue for me because I rarely shoot handheld. However, when I do (usually with an assistant operating the camera) I simply use one of Panasonic's many stabilized lenses. My go-to lens is the very versatile 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 lens which has excellent stabilization (plus great optics and very good macro capabilities, by the way). For stationary hand-held shooting, or with very smooth camera moves, that works just fine.

Panasonic GH5s sample image
Steve Dent/Engadget

When it comes to photography, there's little doubt that the GH5 and any other higher-resolution camera, particularly one with in-body stabilization, would be a better choice. Still, the GH5s is actually better for the dimly-lit trade shows or indoor hands-on sessions where I often need to film. I just have to be more careful about framing, knowing that I don't have a lot of extra resolution to crop.

Also, I have to admit that I sometimes cheat on photos by just extracting them from the 4K video. This is only possible because the video is so outstandingly sharp and color-accurate.

Finally, once I'm ready to edit a video, the footage is easy to handle in post. If I'm planning to use Adobe Premiere Pro CC, I do have to convert the 10-bit 4K footage to a more easily editable format like Cineform or ProRes. However, with DaVinci Resolve 16 -- which makes better use of my NVIDIA GTX 1070 GPU -- I can edit the footage directly with no transcoding.

The 10-bit 4:2:2 video is easy to adjust, whether I use a log profile or not. I rarely see banding or other nasty artifacts in case I need to push the footage.

So in conclusion, yes, I'm definitely happy with the GH5s and don't regret my decision to get one. It was a good camera when it entered the market and Panasonic has made it better over time.The only other camera I would think about replacing it with is Panasonic's full-frame S1H, which is in many ways a full-frame version of the GH5s. However, that camera costs over twice as much and the lenses are also very expensive. Until something comparable comes along, the $1,800 GH5s is perfect for my needs, and that's what counts the most.