In this three-part series, underwater shooter Alex Lindbloom travels to Mexico’s most photogenic dive spots to put the Panasonic Lumix GH5 to the test. In this final installment, he heads to the Baja Peninsula to photograph speedy sea lions and silky sharks…
The sea lions of La Paz were an ideal subject for testing out the autofocus capabilities of the Panasonic GH5 (f/9, 1/250s, ISO 400, natural light)
After a week of diving the enchanting cenotes of the Yucatán Peninsula and snorkeling alongside 40-foot whale sharks off Isla Mujeres to test the low-light and natural light capabilities of my Panasonic Lumix GH5, I departed the Riviera Maya and headed over to the Baja Peninsula. Extending 760 miles down the west coast of Mexico, the peninsula protects the Sea of Cortez from the tempestuous Pacific Ocean while offering a place of refuge to all sorts of marine life. Depending on the season, you can expect to see everything from gray whales and shoals of mobula rays to playful colonies of sea lions—not to mention a healthy shark population.
There seems to be a season for everything in Baja. I arrived at the beginning of September, which coincides with the season for sea lions, smooth hammerheads, and silky sharks. Not only were these creatures something I’d been hoping to photograph for years, but they also presented the perfect opportunity to test the GH5’s autofocus capabilities, as both the sharks and the sea lions have a reputation for being anything but slow and predictable subjects.
Despite the speed and irregular movements of the sea lions, and the strong sunlight, I was able to consistently get great compositions with pin-sharp focus thanks to the intuitive AF modes (f/6.3, 1/320s, ISO 400, natural light)
DSLRs are well known for their quick and confident autofocusing systems, and for years they have been the go-to choice for shooting fast-moving wildlife for every serious photographer—myself included. Prior to purchasing the GH5, I had always relied on my Canon EOS-7D DSLR for photographing speedy marine animals.
Yet, in the GH5, Panasonic have a camera that—at least on paper—seems to be closing the gap between DSLRs and the Micro Four Thirds mirrorless format. The GH5 boasts 225 autofocus points covering the entire frame and achieves a burst rate of 9fps with continuous autofocus. Compare that with the newly released Canon EOS-5D Mark IV, which has 64 autofocus points organized in the center of the frame, and 7fps continuous shooting—not to mention costing $1,500 more.
The Sea Lions of La Paz
My first real-world test of the GH5’s autofocusing capabilities took place just off the shores of La Paz in one of its famous sea lion colonies. Teaming up with The Cortez Club was an obvious choice as their years of experience have led them to be a leading dive center in La Paz. With the help of their highly knowledgable staff, I was able to safely join these charismatic animals and have those up-close encounters I had been waiting for.
“Shy” is the last adjective I would use to describe the nature of these feisty animals! (f/6.3, 1/640s, ISO 400, natural light)
Several females break away from the male’s overbearing presence and come play with us (f/9, 1/250s, ISO 400, natural light)
Even though mating season was in full swing and the enormous bull would hoard the females away in one corner of the rock island, there were still plenty of free-spirited females who would swoop around us with an agility and speed like I had never encountered underwater before. Their acrobatic displays were absolutely awesome to watch, but their unpredictable movements did make it quite a challenge to get a satisfying composition. One moment they would dive one way, the next they’d quickly change direction, and then they’d swim straight at your face to blow you a bubble kiss! The encounters were both adorable and frustrating at the same time.
Before I became accustomed to the sea lion’s behavior, I opted to use a selected region within the 225-point autofocus area, just as I had done for the whale sharks. For example, if I intended to have a sea lion on the right-hand side of the frame facing left, I would create a six-by-six grid in the lower right of the frame and then try to put the sea lion there. Unfortunately, this is where I ran into some trouble from a compositional perspective. Sea lions don’t seem to travel with any sort of directional plan, and I was constantly left with images of a animal whose nose was an inch from the edge of the frame as a result of it changing direction at the last moment.
It was nearly impossible to figure out which direction the sea lions would go—lucky the GH5’s autofocus is incredibly fast and accurate (f/5.6, 1/400s, ISO 400, natural light)
A lone female stretches her fins and gives us a quick hello before being chased back to the harem (visible in the background) by the aggressive male (f/6.3, 1/400s, ISO 400, natural light)
Thankfully, the GH5 is generous when it comes to autofocus options, and I was able to easily switch up my method for something more suitable for the unpredictability of this subject. Instead of using a smaller selected area and hope the subject continued to face that one direction, I decided to just expand the area to the full 225 autofocus points. That way, if a sea lion made a sudden shift in direction, I wouldn’t need to worry about changing the selected focus area and instead I would just track with it and hope the autofocus would keep up.
In terms of framing, this approach worked infinitely better. Despite the abrupt and wandering nature of the sea lions and the harsh lighting conditions, I was pleased to see that everything coming back on my LCD screen was sharp and in focus.
Now, because the best time to dive with the sea lions was in the morning and the colony faced west, it meant that I would spend a lot of time shooting into the sun—not the most ideal conditions for photography. Whenever you shoot into the sun, you run the risk of the autofocus system misinterpreting a subject’s distance from the camera, resulting in reduced autofocus speed and accuracy. Fortunately, however, the GH5 was still able to adjust its focus in an instant and give me nice sharp images consistently. What’s more, the ultra high-speed continuous shooting allowed me to capture fantastic sequences as the playful sea lion puppies swooped around me—and then later select the perfect shot from a sequence.
The 9fps burst rate of the GH5 came in very handy when photographing the sea lions, as it gave you the assurance you’d miss nothing (f/7.1, 1/250s, ISO 500, natural light)
The Sharks of Cabo
The second stop on my brief tour of Baja was Cabo San Lucas, on the southern tip of the peninsula, where the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez converge. Here, I met up with Jacopo Brunetti, a marine biologist, underwater photographer, and the founder of Cabo Shark Dive. Jacopo’s is the only operator in Cabo that offers these unique shark diving tours. But that’s not for a lack of sharks: Everybody else that comes to Cabo, and the rest of Baja, seems to be too busy chasing tuna and marlin with a fishing rod in one hand and a Corona in the other.
Jacopo spent a year studying the area’s underwater topography charts and throwing fish guts in the water waiting for sharks to show themselves. Persistence paid off and now Cabo Shark Dive has a secret stash of coordinates to the area’s hottest shark spots. Depending on the time of year, you can encounter makos, blues, silkies, and the ever-elusive smooth hammerhead—cage free and in complete safety. As it was September, I was hoping to find some silky and smooth hammerhead sharks, which are in the Baja area for mating at this time of year.
One of the more friendly silky sharks that would regularly come in for a closer look: The bite marks on her tail section show the brutal nature of sharks’ mating behavior (f/7.1, 1/200s, ISO 500, natural light)
Just 30 minutes from the bustling harbor of Cabo San Lucas, bobbing in the blue open ocean with a sealed milk crate stuffed with the fishermen's discarded tuna heads dangling from the back of the boat, we didn’t have to wait long for the first tell-tale dorsal fins to appear. Gently slipping into the water, Jacopo and I were greeted by the owner of the iconic fin—a beautiful seven-foot silky shark. Throughout the two days with Cabo Shark Dive, I would spend hours watching and photographing not just one but multiple silky sharks as they investigated the fragrant box of fish heads.
At times, the silkies would be run off by the larger smooth hammerheads, and at one point we even witnessed a hammer biting the fin of a silky that refused to back down. Jacopo told me later that it’s really unusual to have both species interacting so closely, as they typically avoid each other. However, this also happened to affect the behavior of both sharks: They usually approach photographers very close, but evidently aware of each other’s presence, they kept a bit of distance. While I didn’t get those shark-on-the-dome-port encounters I had hoped for, it still gave me plenty of opportunities to continue my field test of the GH5’s autofocus.
A large silky manages to rip one of the tuna heads from the milk crate (f/8, 1/200s, ISO 500, natural light)
Snorkelers watch several silky sharks as they circle below (f/6.3, 1/200s, ISO 500, natural light)
Well before I arrived in Cabo, I already had an image in my mind that I would be chasing—nothing crazy, just a three-quarter profile of a shark turning towards the center of the frame in blue water with a little surface included. As simple as the photo seems, it was somewhat more challenging to execute than I had anticipated. At times, the sharks would come in close to investigate the camera’s electrical signals, and just like the sea lions, would break left or right at the last moment with no indication as to which way they would go. With this behavior in mind, I continued to utilize a larger autofocus area so I could track with the subject rather than worrying about moving the AF area. I did, however, make some refinements to this method.
The GH5 offers a “Custom Multi” AF mode where you can select a specific pattern and also control the size of this pattern. You can choose from the more-common diamond pattern, vertical bar, and horizontal bar. I chose the latter, as it fitted better with the shark’s profile. Choosing to have a horizontal bar rather than the entire 225-point AF area meant I could isolate the bottom half of the frame as the autofocus area and not worry about the camera accidentally focusing on the surface instead. This ingenious autofocus option allowed me to concentrate my time on matching the abrupt movements of the sharks themselves.
Ultimately, the GH5’s autofocus worked flawlessly, and the number of options available to customize it for specific shots proved incredibly useful. For underwater photographers, it’s vitally important to know that you can rely on your camera’s autofocus to quickly and accurately lock onto the subject—even with fast-moving subjects in non-ideal lighting conditions. My experience with the GH5 in the Gulf of California indicates that the autofocus system in this flagship Micro Four Thirds camera can indeed compete with those of the best DSLRs.
Despite the shark rapidly approaching the camera and an abundance of fish bits in the water, the GH5 was still able to discern which subject it should focus on while shooting in burst mode (f/8, 1/200s, ISO 500, natural light)
But What About the Video?
With much having already been said about the GH5’s video capabilities—including in DPG’s full review of the camera—my goal with this series was to show just how well the GH5 performs as a stills camera. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t switch the camera into video mode from time to time…
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was hugely impressed with the quality of the footage I could obtain, a significant step up from my Canon EOS-7D, which was a front runner in DSLR video five years ago. Still, with so many customizable settings and menu options on the GH5, it can be a bit daunting at first. So, to keep things simple, here’s a quick rundown of my first impressions filming with the GH5:
While there are a huge number of different recording formats and options to choose from, I focused on the one that sets the GH5 apart from almost every other camera, DSLRs included: 4K at 60fps. I was extremely excited by the idea of capturing broadcast quality footage that could be played back at half speed for that super-smooth slow-mo “cinematic” feel. (Note that while I decided to concentrate on 4K, the GH5 can also shoot 1080p at 180fps in Variable Frame Rate mode to get footage slowed to seven-and-a-half times normal speed!)
The one caveat with capturing 4K/60p video is that the file sizes are very large, and editing with them in the conventional way requires significant processing resources—especially something to keep in mind if you have a slower computer. Still, when you see the final result on a 4K monitor, it’s totally worth the extra time spent—not to mentioned the additional hard disks and pricey SD/SDXC cards!
To really see the best of Mexico, you’d need to spend years exploring the country with its massive coastlines and diverse seasons. Still, it’s quite extraordinary what you can see in just three weeks of diving and snorkeling!
One of the most significant things I noticed right off the bat was how steady my footage was, thanks in no small part to the five-axis image stabilizer in the camera body. What's more, because I was using a lens that also features image stabilization, it meant I was rolling with dual IS—all but guaranteeing steady shots even when I was rocking about on the ocean’s surface chasing sharks.
Different situations call for different focus modes. For example, when filming the cenotes, I chose to set the focus manually and lock it: Even though the GH5’s AF is impressive, I didn’t want to run the risk of the autofocus getting lost in a shadow and ruining a shot while it hunted for my subject. Of course, had a sea lion mysteriously materialized in a cenote, I could have easily switched to one of the other AF modes and let the camera track the animal as it swooped around the cavern. It’s wonderful to have these multiple focusing modes at your fingertips on the GH5, despite the camera being locked away in a housing.
The GH5’s big, bright, high-res electronic viewfinder does an admirable job of emulating the optical viewfinder on a DSLR, but working with it does take some getting used to. When you put the GH5—sans housing—to your eye, there is a sensor that detects this, bringing the display up to the viewfinder and disabling the LCD screen. As you remove the camera from your eye, the image then switches from the viewfinder back to the LCD. This works fine on land, but it had me confused for a while when shooting video underwater.
When the camera is inside a housing, the sensor thinks you have the camera up to your eye and only gives you a display through the viewfinder. That’s no problem when taking a photo, but if you want to review an image or film anything, figuring out how to get the display back to the LCD the first time can cost you a lot of time and frustration.
Fortunately, it turns out there’s a simple solution: Pressing the little button just to the left of the viewfinder allows you to manually control where the display goes. Initially, I had to constantly remind myself to push this LVF (Live ViewFinder) button every time I put the camera to my face or took it away, but muscle memory eventually kicked in and my left thumb did the work for me without even thinking about it. It’s a small thing, but it did throw me for a loop the first few days with the camera.
Being able to set the focus area for the bottom half of the frame ensured that the autofocus would select the shark rather than Jacopo above (f/6.3, 1/200s, ISO 400, natural light)
Like the seemingly endless customizable settings and possibilities with the Panasonic GH5, Mexico offers an equally impressive list of things to see underwater, and three weeks is not nearly enough time to experience it all. However, for the purposes of testing the GH5’s low-light and natural light capabilities, autofocus, continuous shooting, and image stabilization, I couldn’t have asked for a more ideal combination of locations and subjects. With the diligent planning and pampering of my three hosts—Pro Dive International, The Cortez Club, and Cabo Shark Dive—all I had to do was explain what I was after and it all seemed to magically come together.
Much of the attention has been on the GH5’s filming abilities, and I was pleased to discover that the camera’s photographic performance comfortably met, and even exceeded, my expectations. Mexico’s cenotes, whale sharks, sea lions, and pelagic sharks represent some challenging subjects, and the GH5 tackled them all without missing a beat. At the same time, the GH5 proved itself to be a formidable tool for capturing video at the highest quality, with a feature set that can only be found on pro-level cinema cameras.
Of course, there are cameras out there that can outperform the GH5 in specific areas—that will always be the case with any camera you buy—but those cameras tend to cost significantly more. You will have a hard time finding any other camera on the market at the GH5’s price point that offers well-controlled noise, excellent dynamic range, a lightning-fast autofocus system, and broadcast quality video at high frame rates. In a nutshell, what the GH5 offers shooters is the best of both worlds: pro-quality video and images from a single camera.
A parting shot before the last silky disappears into the blue (f/6.3, 1/200s, ISO 400, natural light)
Check out part I of this series, where I test the Panasonic GH5’s low-light performance and dynamic range in Mexico’s amazing cenotes. In part II, I see how the camera handles photographing whale sharks in ambient light and custom white-balancing on the fly.