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The New Panasonic GH6 Is a Sampler Platter in Multi-media Innovation

The new Panasonic GH6 aims to not just combine photo and video, but mix a higher resolution sensor with a smidgen of the high ISO performance of the low-resolution GH5s. The GH6 was announced today, Feb. 21st, and it’s the first Micro Four Thirds to breach 25 megapixels. After a small Mark II update for its predecessor, the GH6 sports both a new sensor and processor. The updates touch on nearly every part of the camera, notably excluding the viewfinder. 

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Higher megapixel counts typically come with more noise, particularly on smaller sensors. Yet, Panasonic says the 25.2 megapixel GH6 will have similar performance to the low-resolution GH5s up to about ISO 8,000. How? Panasonic is introducing an in-camera Dynamic Range Boost that uses a single exposure to improve the dynamic range as well as reduce noise in the shadows. There are a few potential pitfalls, but the GH6 could very well pack multi-genre features into a single compact body if the technology works well. 

Micro Four Thirds needs to focus on smart technology to stand among bigger sensor peers and deliver more than smaller bodies and more telephoto reach. Dynamic Range Boost could be one more way to do exactly that, along with features like a 100-megapixel handheld high res mode, a 7.5 stop image stabilization system, and enough video features to give the still camera an identity crisis. But, there are a few features — like only 8 fps burst with continuous autofocus — that are easily outclassed.

Panasonic GH6 Highlights

The Panasonic GH6 includes several key improvements over the GH5 II while maintaining the idea of a photo-video hybrid.

  • The sensor is a new 25.2 megapixel sensor, the first 25+ megapixel Micro Four Thirds sensor. It lacks an optical low pass filter. Panasonic says fine detail processing has improved for better corrections with aliasing.
  • A new feature called Dynamic Range Boost aims to reduce noise despite the smaller pixels.
  • The processor is also a new Venus engine. Panasonic says it has twice the processing speed of any previous Lumix camera, including the S1H.
  • A 100 megapixel handheld high res mode combines eight images without a tripod and can save the image as a RAW and/or JPEG.
  • The processor also creates a 3x increase in processing speed for the autofocus algorithms, boosting a new 315-point Depth from Defocus contrast detection system.
  • The top burst speed is 75 fps with the electronic shutter — but for continuous autofocus, it’s 8 fps with the mechanical shutter.
  • The 5-axis stabilization system is rated to 7.5 stops from 7-60mm. The higher 7.5 stops is still possible with 60-120mm lenses if the lens is also stabilized.
  • It’s dust, splash and freeze resistant, with a magnesium alloy chassis.
  • Much of the biggest features are devoted to video — there’s 4K at 120 fps, 10-bit 5.7K at 60 fps, VLog with 12+ stops of dynamic range or 13+ with Dynamic Range Boost, no time limit to the recording for 4:2:2 4K at 60 fps (except when shooting in extreme temperatures), an anamorphic mode, the option to add your own LUTs, pre-set focus points for smooth transitions, tons of codec including Apple ProRes, and more.
  • The ergonomics see a few changes, including two record buttons: one at the top and one at the front of the camera. The camera has two card slots: one is CfExpress Type B and the other is SD UHS-II. Some features, like Apple ProRes, can only record to the CFExpress slot.
  • The GH6 uses a new battery. Older batteries will fit, but won’t power some features due to heat. A battery grip accessory also isn’t going to be offered for this camera.
  • A firmware update is already in the works, which adds a few more video features including external SSD recording. The remote shooting app will also allow for firmware updates from a smartphone, without a computer.

Dynamic Range Boost

In-Camera High Dynamic Range isn’t a new concept, but Panasonic’s new Dynamic Range Boost is a bit different. It’s a dual gain architecture system with on-chip processing. The camera needs only a single exposure — an important distinction since multiple exposures can introduce ghosting with any sport of movement between frames. Instead of using two (or more) images, the GH6 sensor uses two analog circuits. One circuit processes a low ISO signal with high saturation. The second processes a high ISO signal to gather detail in the shadows. The two signals are then processed and combined into a single image.

Panasonic says this Dynamic Range boost mode creates a greater dynamic range while also reducing noise in the shadows. It’s available for stills above ISO 800 and also an option for video in frame rates of up to 60 fps at settings of ISO 800 and ISO 2000.

Dynamic Range Boost aims to make up for the smaller sensor through computational power. This feels similar to how smartphones are compensating for smaller sensors using computational photography — except Panasonic isn’t trying to fake bokeh with information it doesn’t have. instead, it’s still capturing that data, processing it on two different circuits, and merging it together. That will, ideally, create an image that doesn’t look as fake as, well, fake bokeh. 

The Dynamic Range Boost is mixed with new fine-detail processing and a new 2D noise algorithm that suppresses color noise and gives luminance noise a smoother texture with smaller grain. Panasonic says the goal is to create a more film-like grain.

Micro Four Thirds needs to be twice as innovative to keep up with larger sensor systems. Dynamic Range Boost could be just what the system needs. But, I’m a bit hesitant. Dynamic Range Boost is a menu option for video, but is applied automatically to certain images. Panasonic says this is because there are a complex list of times to use it and times to avoid it. Applying automatically when conditions are met was a simpler way to implement the feature. It’s turned off for lower ISOs and long exposures, for example. Still, there’s no way to manually turn it off. Hopefully, it’s a subtle effect that makes the inability to turn it off a non-issue.

Panasonic GH6: A True Hybrid?

If the Dynamic Range Boost works as promised, then the GH6 could deliver higher resolution images with some (not all) of the low light ability of the GH5s. But, the GH6 is also delivering some of the same photo-video hybrid features of the earlier generation, and then taking that up a level.

Panasonic stressed that the GH6 is a stills-first camera with video capabilities. But, much of the highlights for the new camera are geared towards video. The GH6 is certainly a photo-video hybrid, but, photographers are increasingly working in a hybrid industry. I can’t open Instagram without seeing a behind-the-scenes Reel of a photoshoot. Some of the new video features may come in handy for exactly that. Anamorphic mode, for example, uses the full 4:3 sensor instead of cropping to a video-friendly aspect ratio. This leaves more pixels for cropping to vertical video.

The GH6 also allows users to preset focus points, then assigns them to a physical button. Pressing the button then makes a smooth transition to that focus point without investing in focus pull systems. I can see this being a big help for photo-first users who occasionally use the camera to shoot video for social media.

Other features seem to be a direct snub towards other cameras. The GH6 includes a built-in fan, allowing for no recording time limits due to heat. That, of course, is a dig to the over-heating issues on some Canon and Sony cameras. (Panasonic notes that recording times will be limited outside normal operating range temperatures. These haven’t been established yet but are expected to be in the 90s range or above.) The camera can even be plugged into an outlet so that battery life doesn’t limit the recording time.

But What About Speed?

The Panasonic GH6 is trying to be a lot of things in one small body, which is great. But, one thing it’s not trying to be is a sports camera. Yes, it has a 75 fps burst mode, but that’s with the focus locked on the first frame. For autofocus, the max speed is 8 fps.

It still uses a Depth from Defocus autofocus, which is contrast-based rather than phase detection. It’s upgraded to 315 points, however. The new processor also improves tracking, with 3x more processing speed dedicated to autofocus compared to the SH1. Subject detection includes people (bodies, heads, and eyes) and animals, but doesn’t include vehicle detection.

The Panasonic GH6 isn’t trying to be a sports camera. That’s fine; not every camera needs to be a sports camera. But, it’s priced like a sports camera. The GH6 will retail for $2,199.99, with shipping expected in March. That’s the same list price as the new OM System OM-1, which has 50 fps shooting with a new quad-pixel autofocus system. But, the GH6 has more video features, including longer recording times, slow-motion frame rates in 4K, ApplePro Res, and anamorphic mode. The creatives who would want to invest in the GH6 are likely artists dabbling in multiple genres who can make use of the long list of new video features.

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