Cropped-sensor DSLRs have, for years, enjoyed a loyal following in underwater photography circles. This is in no small part due to one extremely popular lens, the Tokina 10–17mm, a compact and inexpensive fisheye zoom lens (available with Nikon or Canon mount) with the ability to get up close to the biggest subjects and capture the widest scenes, as well as shoot creative close-focus wide-angle images of smaller marine life. But as mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras and new mounts have become dominant, much of the focus of the Big Three—Nikon, Canon and Sony—has been on full frame, and fisheyes are few and far between.
And so, despite the naysayers and skeptics, the world of Micro Four Thirds (MFT) has continued to flourish and expand, propelled in particular by the success of Panasonic’s GH-series cameras and the Olympus OM-D series—now taken further by OM System. Crucially, MFT has not only become a competitive cropped-sensor format because of these cameras, but the system also boasts an extensive collection of high-quality lenses, including excellent fisheye options. With the attendant benefits of compactness and lighter weight, Micro Four Thirds rightly deserves serious consideration for any traveling underwater shooter.
Arguably, one particular MFT camera has risen above the pack: For many, the Panasonic Lumix GH5 came to define the “hybrid”—a camera equally capable of shooting high-quality still images and professional-level video. Now, after a five-year wait, we finally have its successor, the GH6, plus a range of underwater housings to choose from. Will the GH6 prove to be an even more capable workhorse for the serious videographer while holding its own against the competition for photography?
Lined seahorse: The relatively compact size of the GH6 rig allows for good close-focus wide-angle capabilities, as it allows you to get the camera right up to smaller subjects, which wouldn’t be possible with most full-frame systems (Panasonic Lumix GH6, Olympus 14–42mm f/3.5–5.6 at 14mm, Nauticam housing, Nauticam WWL-1, dual Sea&Sea YS-250 strobes, 1x Kraken Sports NR-1500 dive light, f/11, 1/50s, ISO 100)
My main camera has only recently become a Nikon D4S, and for years before that, I used a Nikon D700, so by today’s standards, both are “ancient” full-frame cameras. While I am a DSLR shooter at heart, I have used mirrorless cameras in the past and found them to be quite capable, but this was the first time I was to shoot extensively with an MFT camera. Testing out the Panasonic Lumix GH6 in the Nauticam NA-GH6 housing meant a dramatic shift in technology and I expected a steep learning curve, yet my experience of transitioning from a traditional DSLR to a modern mirrorless would be instructive for many—and that in itself made this an interesting exercise.
|Panasonic Lumix GH6
Spotted scorpionfish (Panasonic Lumix GH6, Olympus 8mm f/1.8 Pro fisheye, Nauticam housing, Nauticam WWL-1, dual Sea&Sea YS-250, f/10, 1/8s, ISO 100)
1. Practical Size and Pleasing Ergonomics
While the trend in the camera landscape these days seems to be that smaller is better, personally, I find smaller camera bodies (and housings) feel cramped and are less pleasant to use. So I enjoyed the fact that the GH6 is on the larger side, especially for an MFT camera. It has a deep grip, a chunky body, and seems quite well built. The beefier build presumably allows better heat dissipation when shooting video at high frame rates, and indeed, I never experienced any overheating issues whatsoever.
Coming from DSLRs, one of the hardest things to get used to when moving to mirrorless is the electronic viewfinder (EVF). Overall, I do prefer the big, bright image I get with the optical viewfinder of my DSLR. While the GH6’s EVF is good, it feels small by comparison, and I preferred using the LCD when the camera was in the housing, as I didn’t have an external viewfinder to magnify the view from the EVF. The rear monitor is very nice, and unlike many older mirrorless cameras I’ve used, I never really felt I was looking at an electronic representation, as opposed to the actual real life scene. There is a blackout when shooting images, but I didn’t find it distracting. You can, of course, set the EVF or the LCD to show “live settings” so you can see what you get as you change exposure settings. However, I find this is more of a hindrance when shooting underwater—with a few exceptions, like big animals in ambient light—so I immediately turned that setting off.
Silky shark (Panasonic Lumix GH6, Olympus 14–42mm f/3.5–5.6 at 14mm, Nauticam housing, Nauticam WWL-1, dual Sea&Sea YS-250 strobes, f/11, 1/320s, ISO 100)
While there are a few (mostly higher-end) exceptions, one of the common complaints with regards to mirrorless cameras is the slow maximum flash sync speed. Many mirrorless models sync at no more than 1/160s or 1/200s. According to the specifications, the GH6 can sync up to 1/250s, which is already faster than most, but I found it will actually sync reliably up to 1/320s. This can be extremely useful for creating dark backgrounds and making dramatic light images as well as preserving highlights in sunballs, for example. At 1/400s, you begin to see darkness creep into the bottom of the frame, so keep the shutter speed at 1/320s or lower to be safe.
Another common bugbear of mirrorless systems is battery performance, and the GH6 is, regrettably, no exception. Is it phenomenal? No. Is it good enough? Yes. I never found the battery life to be a hindrance, but I’d absolutely recommend bringing multiple batteries if you’ll be diving for an entire day. Changing the battery between dives or after a couple of dives isn’t a huge deal. The GH6 is rated at 350 shots and in my usage, that is a bit conservative. I’m not a spray-and-pray shooter, so even being out all day, it would be a special occasion that I shoot that many images. Out in the water for several hours at a time, I never turned the camera off, and I never had an issue.
The test rig: Panasonic Lumix GH6, Nauticam housing, Nauticam WWL-1 with buoyancy collar, dual Sea&Sea YS-250 strobes, Backscatter Mini Flash MF-1 with Backscatter Optical Snoot OS-1
Much like the GH6, the Nauticam housing isn’t large but it isn’t annoyingly small either, and buttons and dials land where they should. You do lose some of the small size “advantage” with Nauticam’s implementation, but compared to my Subal D4S housing, the GH6 feels miniscule underwater. Frankly, the ergonomics of the camera and housing are fantastic, and all of the important camera functions are easily accessible, the only exception being the joystick for moving AF points around. The modular nature of the housing is great for customization or adding accessories. As well as two M14 ports, there is an M24 mount that can accept an external monitor via HDMI 2.0. The housing also features a spare M10 threaded hole.
One little quirk that took some getting used to was having to raise or lower the shutter dial on the housing to get the camera in or out of the housing. As with all Nauticam housings for interchangeable-lens cameras, the GH6 housing sports the red bayonet port locking mechanism, and there’s a built-in leak alarm as standard.
Plumed scorpionfish (Panasonic Lumix GH6, Olympus 14–42mm f/3.5–5.6 at 42mm, Nauticam housing, Nauticam WWL-1, dual Sea&Sea YS-250 strobes, f/11, 1/320s, ISO 100)
2. Optics to Rival the Best Available
For this review, I was able to shoot the Olympus M.Zuiko 8mm f/1.8 Pro fisheye, the Olympus M.Zuiko 60mm f/2.8 macro, and the Olympus 14–42mm f/3.5–5.6 II. Never having shot any of the primes before, I was impressed, and overall, I was surprised how much I loved the MFT lenses.
The Olympus 8mm Pro fisheye is an incredibly compact fisheye, and is very, very sharp. The small size means you can shoot it behind tiny dome ports, and it allows for fantastic close-focus wide-angle opportunities. I used it with the Nauticam 4.33-inch acrylic dome and was impressed with the image quality. Behind a Zen or Nauticam glass dome, it would no doubt perform exceptionally well.
The Olympus 60mm macro might be the sharpest macro lens I’ve ever shot. It is even sharp wide open—significantly more so than my own two macro lenses, the Nikon 60mm and the Nikon 105mm. Of course, these are older optics and I’d imagine the Nikon Z lenses probably perform similarly to the Olympus 60mm in terms of sharpness.
The Olympus 14–42mm on its own isn’t quite as impressive as the two primes, but when paired with the Nauticam WWL-1, it becomes a versatile, optically fantastic beast. Being able to photograph anything from sharks to small scorpionfish without changing lenses or ports is amazing. In fact, the WWL-1 is so good, it makes me want to invest in a system that is compatible with it just so I can use it. It is ridiculously sharp and has great optical performance across the entire frame.
The small size of the Olympus 8mm fisheye lens and accompanying dome allows for extreme close-focus wide-angle shooting—the port was nearly touching this striated frogfish (Panasonic Lumix GH6, Olympus 8mm f/1.8 Pro fisheye, Nauticam housing, Nauticam WWL-1, Backscatter Mini Flash MF-1 and Sea&Sea YS-250 strobes, f/11, 1/60s, ISO 100)
3. Competent Autofocus Performance
The GH6 uses a phase-detect autofocus platform as opposed to contrast detect or a mash-up of the two. Hybrid systems, which use phase-detect AF to quickly focus the subject and then switch to contrast detection to refine sharpness, tend to work best, so it’s surprising that Panasonic is sticking with phase detection only. Still, I think any limitations of the GH6 autofocus system have been a bit overblown, and I had good success shooting different subjects in a variety of situations.
There are two AF settings that I found worked best for me. For macro, by far my favorite was “Pinpoint AF,” which allows for extremely accurate focusing by using a very small point on the sensor. In this mode, the LCD/EVF can also magnify the point of the image that is being focused on so you can really see if you are nailing it. The other AF setting I found useful was “Zone,” where the camera focuses on whatever is in a centralized box. Zone is available in both AFS (“Auto Focus Single”) and AFC (“Auto Focus Continuous”) modes, but in AFC mode, the subject would constantly go in and out of focus, even when it was in the box. In AFS mode, however, Zone worked quite well and I had no trouble getting images of speedy sharks or moving macro subjects.
I found that the GH6 also focused quite well in low light, especially using Pinpoint AF. There were situations where it locked focus quickly when I expected it to have no chance of finding the subject—much less with any sort of accuracy.
Silky shark shot using Pinpoint AF in AFS mode (Panasonic Lumix GH6, Olympus 14–42mm f/3.5–5.6 at 14mm, Nauticam housing, Nauticam WWL-1, dual Sea&Sea YS-250 strobes, f/13, 1/20s, ISO 100)
While I found the GH6’s autofocus performance was good enough for just about everything, subject tracking was one of the few times I really found myself missing my Nikon D4s. Unfortunately, the GH6’s subject-tracking modes performed very poorly underwater and were essentially useless.
When shooting macro or telephoto, the GH6 would sometimes rack focus through the entire focus range before coming back onto your subject. Macro lenses and telephoto lenses do have focus limiters, so the focus rack could, in theory, be made shorter. However, this can eliminate focusing to infinity, and you may miss images that are just a bit further out than the lens will focus if you limited its range.
Back button focus is one of the first custom settings I do for any camera I shoot, and the GH6 was no exception. I wholeheartedly recommend autofocus being set to the “AF ON” button on the rear of the camera and decoupling autofocus capabilities from the shutter button. Nauticam’s housing gives easy access to back button focusing via a lever that falls directly under the right thumb.
Backlit striated frogfish (Panasonic Lumix GH6, Olympus 14–42mm f/3.5–5.6 at 42mm, Nauticam housing, Nauticam WWL-1, dual Sea&Sea YS-250 strobes, Backscatter MW-4300 video light for backlighting, f/11, 1/40s, ISO 100)
4. Great Image Quality at Lower ISOs
If you strive, as I do, to keep ISO as low as possible to minimize noise, you will be more than satisfied with the GH6’s image quality for the vast majority of situations. At lower ISOs, I’d challenge anyone to look at images from the GH6 compared to another camera and tell which image came from which camera—without some deep dive pixel peeping. Properly exposed photos shot at lower ISOs are razor sharp and full of detail. Pictures look great online and on social media, and I imagine images also hold up to print well.
That being said, the GH6 is, unsurprisingly, no high-ISO beast. MFT sensors are four times smaller than full-frame sensors, so a full-frame sensor will theoretically have two stops better ISO performance than an MFT sensor. While this may be less in a real-world scenario, the limited high-ISO performance of the GH6 bore out this theoretical disadvantage. I didn’t shoot much at high ISO for this reason, but the images I did take at higher ISOs were considerably noisier than I am used to from my full-frame camera.
In addition, compared to files coming from a full-frame sensor, you do not have as much latitude when processing files from the GH6. Making drastic changes caused the files to fall apart faster than similar changes made to full-frame files. The GH6 files handle moderate shadow boosting adequately and highlights are preserved quite well. In general, I’d rather expose for the shadows with this camera than expose for the highlights if forced to choose.
Banded jawfish: Image quality from the GH6 is great, especially at lower ISOs (Panasonic Lumix GH6, Olympus 60mm macro, Nauticam housing, Sea&Sea YS-250, f/11, 1/250s, ISO 100)
Silky shark at ISO 100 (top) vs dusky shark at ISO 800 (bottom): The noise and loss of detail in the lower images are immediately obvious
5. A Video Powerhouse
The GH5 has been an incredibly popular camera for video, and the GH6 had to perform exceptionally well to improve on its predecessor. In the specs department, the GH6 certainly delivers, offering not just UHD/DCI 4K/60p 10-bit 4:2:2 and 4K/120p 10-bit 4:2:0, but also 5.7K/60p 10-bit 4:2:0 using the full sensor width. In addition, for the first time in an MFT camera, full V-Log/V-Gamut has been added for a claimed 13+ stops of dynamic range.
Keep in mind, however, that not all of these formats are available in all modes (manual for example) nor with all batteries. The GH5 battery will work with the GH6 but will not allow 4K/120p or 5.7K recording. For most of my testing, as it could be used in manual mode, I chose to shoot 4K/60p 10-bit 4:2:2, which provided stunning quality and impressive latitude in post-production. The GH6 also features in-body image stabilization, which was phenomenal for video especially when paired with stabilized lenses like the Olympus 60mm macro.
An aspect important for videography, especially underwater, is setting a custom white balance. Because we lose so much light and color going underwater, it’s vital to set white balance each time you make significant depth changes. The GH6 makes it quite easy to do this. It takes three button presses: Hit the dedicated white balance button on the top right of the camera, press the up arrow on the rear wheel, aim the camera at what you want to white balance off of, and then press the shutter.
As with still shooting, I preferred Pinpoint AF or Zone AF settings for video. Again, I wouldn’t recommend the subject tracking or continuous modes. The tracking system had a hard time keeping up, and in the continuous mode, the AF system had a habit of jumping on and off the subject and in and out of focus.
Panasonic Lumix GH6 demo reel shot in 4K at Blue Heron Bridge and Jupiter in Florida (Panasonic Lumix GH6, Olympus 60mm macro, Olympus 14–42mm f/3.5–5.6, Olympus 8mm f/1.8 Pro fisheye, Nauticam housing, dual Backscatter MW-4300 video lights)
6. Final Thoughts
Panasonic’s GH6 is billed as a “hybrid” camera, but take a look at the company’s product page and it’s all about video, including such “pro” specs as internal recording at 4K/60p 10-bit 4:2:2 and 5.7K/30p using the industry standard Apple ProRes 422 codec, as well as 12-bit RAW output over HDMI at 5.7K/60p recorded as Apple ProRes RAW.
In my tests, the Panasonic GH6 did indeed prove itself to be capable of internally recording fanastic video with beautiful detail and accurate colors—even without capturing the very highest quality output using an external recorder. As a camera for filmmakers, the GH6 is incredibly capable, and I would definitely recommend it, especially when used with the superb Olympus 60mm macro and 8mm fisheye lenses, and the Olympus 14–42mm combined with the amazing Nauticam WWL-1 wide-angle conversion optic.
While Panasonic almost seems to have made still capabilities an afterthought on the GH6, I found when shooting at low ISOs, the 25-megapixel images produced by the camera were vibrant and detailed. At moderate (ISO 800) and higher sensitivities, however, noise quickly crept into the images. There are many full-frame, APS-C, and even other Micro Four Thirds cameras with more-impressive still image capabilities for similar or lesser prices, so if photography is your main jam, there are definitely better options.
Lemon shark (Panasonic Lumix GH6, Olympus 14–42mm f/3.5–5.6 at 14mm, Nauticam housing, Nauticam WWL-1, Sea&Sea YS-250 strobe, f/10, 1/160s, ISO 100)
About the Reviewer: Matthew Sullivan is a Florida-based wildlife photographer who has been diving since he was 10 years old. He has traveled extensively, visiting well-known dive destinations such as Guadalupe Island, Indonesia and the Philippines, but he also likes to dive closer to home in the Pacific Northwest. When not taking pictures underwater, he can be found trekking mountains, or exploring national parks and rainforests in search of new adventures and wildlife encounters.
|When purchasing underwater photography equipment like the products mentioned in this article, please support DPG by supporting our retail partner—Backscatter.com|
Plan Your Adventure >