Knowing I am a devout GH4 user, the good people at CVP gave me the opportunity to dip my toes into the appealing waters of the full frame wonders of the Sony A7s and provide a retrospective on my decision to go down the micro four thirds route with the GH4.
A little disclaimer…
I am well aware of the huge number of detailed and well researched reviews out there on the Sony A7s as well as comparisons on the A7s vs. the GH4. I have watched a vast number of these myself and they were instrumental in me deciding to purchase the GH4. This blog post isn’t going to tread on that well covered ground, this is instead the first thoughts and impressions from a guy who has chosen to shoot with one flavour of camera over another and the implications of that choice; Was it right? What are the limitations vs the benefits? What does it mean for future proofing your investment? Is M43 right for you? What work would each camera suit? Could you use both on a shoot? Should you own both? These are a few of the questions I have asked myself over the last week and this is what I will explore in this post.
Also at time of writing the A7sii had not been released.
Initial Thoughts before powering up
Firstly the camera feels smaller than the GH4 mainly to the fact the hand grip on the GH4 protrudes further than that of the A7s, which I find useful for run and gun when I’m stripped down to nothing more than my Honu V2 cage. That said, the A7s looks extremely sleek for the lower profile and it’s straight lines and firm edges are stylish and clean.
The batteries for the A7s are diddy – literally half the size of the panasonic batteries. I didn’t hold out much for their lifespan, and rightly so – more on that later.
As I unscrew the protective sensor cap, that sweet full frame sensor looks delicious compared to the *ahem* slighter micro four thirds of the GH4. Sigh. Size isn’t everything…
The Movcam cage looks very nice and is extremely sturdy but it’s not great when trying to change settings on the camera. I am blessed / cursed with slender fingers and I even struggled at times to change the modes, a sausage fingered shooter would find this near on impossible. No fault of the camera.
The menu seems very intuitive and easy to get to grips with. It feels light on video options vs. the GH4 but then I always feel the GH4 is a video camera in a stills body. In hindsight I think the lack of 4K shooting options and the varying bitrate options makes the Sony appear lighter when infact there is still the option for high frame rates of 50 or 100 and the option of AVCHD, XAVCS or MP4 with the A7s (vs MOV or MP4 with the GH4).
Wow. Just incredible to be able to shoot in such low light with the A7s, this is something I sorely miss with the GH4. Shooting at a bearable 50,000 ISO in near darkness with a Canon nifty 50 1.8 was great. The ridiculous maxed out 409,000 ISO was obviously unusable when shooting in literally pitch black but then IT’S PITCH BLACK! I was shooting video of my 9 week old baby boy as he looked around his moses basket blissfully unaware he was being watched. As soon as I turned the camera off I had no idea if he was even awake, let alone what he was looking at, BECAUSE IT WAS PITCH BLACK! My point is, when are you ever going to shoot in the pitch black? This camera has the option to crank the ISO up so you can shoot under the light of the moon, it allows you to get creative in ways you never thought possible. I was shooting some clouds at night and could see the lights from a plane overhead behind the clouds that I couldn’t see with my naked eye.
Low light performance is in my opinion the biggest draw back to the GH4. I’ve learned to be very mindful of it, although I have seen people get good results. For me it’s just something I have learned to work around. To have this kind of freedom when shooting with the A7s was a huge breath of fresh air.
I loved having the option to shoot really shallow depth of field video again. Another downfall of the micro four thirds system. However, shallow depth of field is a great option to have available, but it’s like all tools in a videographers arsenal – there’s a time and a place to use it.
Narratively a shallow depth of field can be used to create isolation by blowing out a subject’s surroundings, forcing the viewer into a character’s space. It literally forces your focus and is hailed as being instrumental in creating the ‘filmic look’. when DSLR video first came onto the scene, it’s what set them apart from the fixed lens, small sensor video camera offerings available at the time.
However, having shot 4K video with the GH4 and just savouring the mouth wateringly delicious details it brings to the table, there’s a lot to be said for seeing what you’re shooting and not just blurry backgrounds and crazy bokeh in every shot because you can. Although, I do miss some good bokeh. I digress. Ultimately I am trying to say having the option to ‘go shallow’ is good, and yes, I have missed it, it’s a great tool to have available and something the A7s nails with it’s tasty full frame sensor.
This is where the A7s really takes a hit. The battery life for the A7s is is really bad. I must have shot no more than 20 mins of 1080 video before I needed to swap the battery which was apparently at 100%. The second battery went in and again, it drained so quickly. In total the night shoot lasted no more than two hours and I by the end of it I was at 30% on my second battery. To put that into perspective I came off a corporate shoot yesterday shooting product installs on boats with my GH4 rolling constantly for over four hours and only needed to swap my battery out once right before we wrapped for the day. I can shoot all day on 2 batteries and on the longest shoot I have never needed a third and that was getting on for almost 10 hours. For extended video use I can’t see any way the standard battery option would be feasible meaning an external power option would be absolutely necessary.
The A7s has no touchscreen, although I am not a huge lover of touch screens on video cameras as they often leave marks which is annoying if you’re using it to monitor your shot so no biggy there. However the A7s also opts for a tilt screen rather than a full flip out screen which means you are limited when using the built in screen. Now admittedly in the field most will use an external monitor, but for run and gun shoots or where kit is limited it can be very handy to have full control of the screen angle and this is something I find very useful on the GH4.
Without having an external 4K recorder, I cannot comment on the quality of the A7s here. What I can say is well, just that really, you need an external recorder to shoot 4K so no internal option here, unlike the GH4 which shoots exquisite 4K. Throw in the Atomos Ninja Assassin or Shogun and you’re looking at an additional £1,000 or £1,500 respectively, that’s quite an added cost to take into account in order to unlock the A7s 4K capabilities (the now released A7sii has internal 4K).
Admittedly I had a limited amount of time with the camera and in the time I did have, I shot mainly low light test footage. However, from what I saw I was very impressed. My one main gripe regarding the footage would be rolling shutter, which unfortunately I saw a fair amount of as was shooting handheld for this reason. That said, once you know a cameras limitations you find you work around them so for some this may not be too much of an issue. If you’re planning action packed sequences you might want to opt for a system that offers global shutter, or go for a camera that has less rolling shutter evident, such as the GH4.
Below is a short excerpt from the night shoot test. Thanks to the very talented Mr Gilbert Yates who provided me with late night banter and something to point the camera at. And for the magical sounds of A ninja Slob Drew Me, who kindly allows the use of his music for free to use to sound track non-commercial media projects.
The bulk of the video was shot at ISO 50,000 and above. Don’t expect art.
PROS OVER GH4:
- Low light performance is out of this world.
- Large sensor gives more flexibility over shallow depth of field.
CONS OVER GH4:
- Battery has nothing on the Panasonic
- No internal 4K!
So after a couple of very cool days playing with the competition, I lovingly packed the A7s into it’s box and sent it on it’s way. Was I sad to see it go? Yes. Night or low light shooting just isn’t an option with the GH4, and the A7s really spoiled me with it’s sexy full frame sensor and insane ISO sensitivity. Having only played with it for a matter of hours I’d already penned several ideas for music videos which hinged on night shooting with small light kits. Like I said, this camera just opens the doors to a whole world of creative thinking when darkness is no longer an obstacle.
Would I purchase the A7s?
Absolutely. I would love to have both the GH4 and A7s on hand as both are exceptional tools. That said, if I was looking to get an external recorder to harness the power of the 4K on the A7s, I would likely opt out of the GH4 simply because the A7s would essentially be a full frame, 4K monster at that point. However, it’s worth noting that as the A7s doesn’t shoot 4K (Yes, the now released A7Sii does), if you want this you need to add a minimum of £1,000 to the price tag to get hold of a 4K recorder such as the Atomos Ninja Assassin, that takes the price point of the Sony A7s way past that of the GH4 and in my opinion sets it in another ball park completely at least cost wise. Think Black Magic URSA Mini for example, and you get so much more bang for your buck with that. If I were still going down the A7s + 4K recorder route I would also likely invest in a V Lock battery setup in order to power both the recorder and the camera as the sony battery life is just not good at all. It’s starting to cost a fair chunk of change now, around £3k by my counting vs. A GH4 with kit lens for half that.
Am I going to buy it?
Probably not. I do want a larger sensor than the micro four thirds, but as much as I have loved my experience with the GH4 and Canon DSLRs before that, I am most likely going back to the video camera route opting for the Blackmagic URSA Mini with the slightly smaller Super 35mm sensor, plus a huge amount of awesome specs, but that’s another blog post…