August 4, 2014

Low-Light Showdown: Sony a7S vs. Panasonic GH4 vs. RED EPIC MX

We know the Sony a7S has quite a bit of dynamic range and terrific low-light performance, but how does it stack up against the Panasonic GH4, and a much more expensive camera, the RED EPIC? James Drake, with some help from Dave Dugdale, took the camera for a spin along with his personal EPIC and a GH4, to see just how far he could push all of them in a scene with minimal light. Though the MX sensor in the EPIC is around 5 years old, it's interesting seeing how far the newest tech has come.

Here is the video from James Drake's post, with some still images below:

Our setup was using a Tamron 24-70 F2.8 on the Red Epic and A7s (via metabones adapter) and the 12-35 F2.8 on the GH4. All cameras were set to 2800k. We used Dave’s iphone at full brightness to key his face and the rest of the room was dark.

Some ISO 3200 samples (click for larger):

RED EPIC MX using REDgamma3

Sony a7S using the Cine4 Profile

Panasonic GH4 using the Natural Profile, Contrast at -3, Sharpness -3

And just for fun, here is the a7S in Slog2 at 409,600 (all lit just with the iPhone):

Granted, it's important to keep in mind that the RED EPIC is a very different camera -- it shoots RAW images and very high frame rates at 5K, and saves most image adjustments for post, whereas the other two cameras do a tremendous amount to their images in-camera, and are both limited to 8-bit internally (though the GH4 can record to 4K without an external recorder).

Most people will also be using more than just a phone to light their subject, but there are major advantages to having a camera that is this clean in low-light. One of the biggest to me is that you can use slower lenses. For example, you don't need to shoot everything at 1.4 or 1.8, which can make focusing more difficult, especially with a full-frame sensor. You also can use lenses that are even slower than the ones used in this test. For example, Canon's 24-105mm f/4, which covers a huge range on full-frame, is a full 3 stops slower than an f/1.4 lens. That means if your scene requires 1600 ISO at f/1.4, you'd need 12,800 ISO at f/4. That's not going to look great on the EPIC and GH4 even with a bit of noise reduction, but the a7S will be able to deal with it pretty easily.

So while these super low-light cameras open up some interesting options in terms of low-light shooting, one of the huge benefits is being able to shoot in more difficult situations with slower lenses, or being able to stop down so that you can focus easier.

For more on this test, and to see more images from different ISOs, check out this post.

Links:

Your Comment

51 Comments

At the risk of being a pedant, the difference between f1.4 and f4 is 3 stops not 2.

August 4, 2014 at 5:24AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Yep, as I wrote above. Not sure where 2 came from.

August 4, 2014 at 6:15AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Joe Marine
Camera Department

80,000 iso with neat video applied is definitely useable in a documentary setting, this camera is insane.

August 4, 2014 at 6:18AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Terrence

The option of closing down iris in night scenes is very interesting.

Shallow depth of field at night is a big giveaway for low budget. Closing down a bit, allowing the background to be more visible can add a lot of production value.

August 4, 2014 at 6:20AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Plus the ability to hold focus can save production time.

August 4, 2014 at 12:39PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Tzedekh

Shallow dof has nothing to do with it. Plus there's tons of amateurs shooting on small sensor cameras at night... Don't think dof determines production value unless suitable/intentional.

August 9, 2014 at 8:50AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Marko Hila

Compared to the Epic, in my opinion, the Sony is more sensitive (see the stairs) and has less noise. Of course SLog2 is a lot newer than the MX chip. I would personally choose the Sony cameras over an Epic any day. More latitude and sensitivity. I'd be interested to try the new Dragon sensor.

August 4, 2014 at 7:19AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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RobW

These tests are never easy to make, as you probably will accommodate one camera more than another. Anyone who owns a Red knows the noise problems lies in the blue colours. And maybe it's the same problem with the other two camera, I don't know since I don't own any of them. But as a Red owner, I know you can get a better picture with more pleasing noise from those specs.

http://postimg.org/image/v5bmm51jf/full/

This is shot with the same 2800 Kelvin which is often suicide in extreme lowlight situations on Red. I rather crank up the kelvins and adjust the colours afterwards. Only difference is that I've applied a 'mildly' denoise and changed the coloursettings - both within the Red settings. I know maybe that wasn't the challenge, but it's a raw camera and it was designed to do these things. Plus, you can easily see the amount of noisereduction done to the other two images, making them look a little weird.

August 4, 2014 at 9:04AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Jesper

What i find amazing about the A7S is the detail and information coming from an 8bit camera.

Just look at that picture on the steps, The blacks are not really crushed it looks like detail in the shadows, this camera is amazing and at times too powerful because the slightest light pickup from the camera can blow out the highlights.

However i will be getting the A7S, the 8bit had me questioning it but so far looks amazing.

The real test we need from the A7S is a banding test in the sky and wall interiors, so far ive only come across one test with banding and looks promising. This may be the go to camera for lowlight with slog2.

August 4, 2014 at 9:08AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Cjay

Never heard someone pronounce Gamma "Gah Ma"

August 4, 2014 at 9:12AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Aaron

It is a bit strange. You would think someone would have corrected him by now. But I had a teacher who pronounced Pacific as "specific", but no one ever pointed it out since we found it amusing. The again, some people chose to pronounce words in their own way. Thomas Jefferson was famous for his idiosyncratic pronunciation.

August 4, 2014 at 10:43AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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dan

I was having a discussion about this recently. There's a generation of us who have primarily learned online and alone and communicate non-verbally. This leads to a person becoming knowledgeable, but sounding like they don't know what they're talking about when it comes time to speak. I remember taking a lighting class with Mitch Gross and him pronouncing "Chimera" as "Che-mera". The correct way to say it in literature when talking about the mythical creature is "kie-mera". He was of course pronouncing it correctly in the context of lighting (good thing since he was teaching the class!), but that was a real lesson for me. Who would have ever thought to pronounce it that way unless you had someone in film instructing you? It will probably lead to the language changing over the next couple of generations. But yeah it's easy to sound like you don't know what you're talking about.

Like someone learning how to read a language, but not speak it.

August 4, 2014 at 11:49AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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True. Another common one is "bokeh".

August 4, 2014 at 12:54PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Aaron

I had to be corrected on "Cooke" a few times. Ha ha!

August 4, 2014 at 1:17PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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please tell me you called it a 'cookie lens' :D

August 4, 2014 at 3:00PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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(hangs head in shame)

It made for a good laugh.

August 4, 2014 at 9:13PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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My favorite lights are Airee frez-nels.

August 7, 2014 at 3:56PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I've heard people pronounce Log (as in C-Log or S-Log) as Lodge. I myself thought that LUT's were either EL-U-Tees or "loots". In fact, I still like "loot" better. At least, it's a word. But, I am OK if you're bo-kay with it.

August 4, 2014 at 9:40PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

@ 13:24 below his wrist right frame is that a blown pixel?

August 4, 2014 at 9:48AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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bobhadababyitsaboy

The main thing to remember right now, while everyone goes crazy for the A7s, is something Philip Bloom said:

"High sensitivity cameras doesn't mean you don't use lights!"

Seems absurd to have to say that considering filmmaking is literally the capturing of light.

I know, most people say the ISO is there just for when you happen to need that little extra push. But, I feel like many in the amateur community forget that, and end up getting lazy then using the ridiculous ISO as a crutch. Which of course produces terrible images.

Don't get me wrong, the A7s has great low light sensitivity with seemingly little noise. But, please remember that besides the large sensor pixels, there are a lot of noise reducing algorithms Sony put in camera that make it seem low light friendly.

Remember, no matter what:
1. Noise reduction also reduces the overall resolving power and detail.
2. Boosting the signal from the sensor (raising ISO) destroys color information and fidelity.

Now considering you're already working with 4:2:0 and a mere 8bits of color information I would be in no rush to destroy what little color info I had left. Ignore this and come time to grade you will be crying; on your knees, beating the ground, cursing the gods crying. Especially with that weird thing SLog2 does to colors already. And with only 50Mbps as my data rate, I wouldn't be in any hurry to reduce my resolving power either.

So, keep that in mind, have fun with all the new toys, but for the love of God please light the damn thing.

August 4, 2014 at 10:49AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Better results with the A7s would be to use Slog2 and also bump the ISO to 6400 or more, expose it all up and then take it down a stop. This will create the same image but with much less noise and more detail. It's difficult to make side by sides like this, each camera needs separate tweaking. The point about the A7s is that the ISO noise doesn't really increase much until you're over 12800. So there's nothing preventing you using that range at low light levels.

August 4, 2014 at 11:15AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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paul

I would just like to say that the Epic would be cleaner if they shot at the actual ISO instead of adjusting in the R3D! Not that much cleaner, but still cleaner.

August 4, 2014 at 11:20AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Adam E

As someone who suffers from night blindness due to a retinal disease, the Red Epic is pretty close to what I see in low light - which is to say, not much at all.

August 4, 2014 at 12:32PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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You could also include a Canon C100, C300, talking low light sensitivity.

The ISO 20.000 shows very nice with Neat Video correction. Did not try the ISO 80.000 yet, which should be all right when recorded @ 220 Mb/s over Ninja2.

August 4, 2014 at 1:13PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Richard Lizier

Agree. I have used the C100 for 18 months now, it shoots almost noise free up to ISO 6400. Even at 12800 ISO the C100 is not bad at all!

August 4, 2014 at 1:26PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Erwin

Hey NFS, How about an article that would be really useful to people who have already seen just how sensitive this camera is in your previous "the A7S is SUPER SENSITIVE" articles. I'd like to see one on the A7S' ergonomics. How usable is this camera? How well thought it is it's layout and features?

August 4, 2014 at 1:14PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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dj

The A7S low-light features for 1080p are exciting indeed. Too bad the Sony A7S ($2498) does not record 4K video internally though, as the GH4 does. You need to add another $2000 for a 4K recorder. So that makes the A7S almost 3 times the price of a GH4 when you want to do 4K. When you light your scene properly, you don't really need more than 800 or 1600 ISO in most cases. Another very interesting camera form Panasonic that was just launched: the FZ1000. In terms of detail and noise the FZ-1000 shoots crystal clear 4K video at lower levels of 125-400 ISO, comparable to the GH4. See quick test here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ad4fMR7i3p8

The FZ-1000 comes with a nice built-in 25-400 mm Leica lens and costs just $897. (B&H). These are exciting times for getting started with 4K video. Soon 4K video will be the new standard, even if you publish it at 1080p later. If the Sony A7S would have had built-in 4K, I would have chosen it.

Erwin

August 4, 2014 at 1:25PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Erwin

The price of external recorders will drop.... but shadow and highlight detail and roll off in the gh4 will never improve.

August 4, 2014 at 6:04PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Steven b

Neither will the A7s over the top jello and rolling shutter, or the reduced dyn range when's shooting in proper light and not using S-Log2, or the non articulating screen, crazy ergonomics etc..

August 6, 2014 at 5:56PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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HJM

Not everybody needs 4k video because professionals compose and frame images correctly. This is why the Arri Alexa, although it shoots nearly 3k RAW is still being used for 75% of productions in pro res 4444 2k. I'm so sick os hearing about 4k and the resolution when most people can't even handle the workflow and regardless it's an 8-bit internal 4k image that looks horrible when graded. Then you spend arouns $2500 for the add on 10-bit and throw a metabones speed booster and you're spending over $3k. At the end of the day they are all DSLR's and if used properly as the correct tool for the job they CAN work but they still don't compete with high end digital cinema cameras and mainly because of codec, range and bit rate. But that's not a big deal, focus on story and expose your images correctly and you won't need to worry as all these cameras put out detailed images.

August 4, 2014 at 2:22PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Brad Watts

what?

August 4, 2014 at 5:08PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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ryan

???

August 4, 2014 at 6:11PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Steven b

Agreed.

August 5, 2014 at 1:59AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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VinceGortho

Genre is a killer for me (it's not jonra!) and I think we've all, at least once, mispronounced fresnel.

August 4, 2014 at 2:54PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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that was supposed to be a reply to Aaron

August 4, 2014 at 2:55PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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great little camera , but would be f nice if the a7s could shoot raw, dnxhd or prores...

August 4, 2014 at 3:49PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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sebastian roland

On a small set, take a handful of on-camera type LED panels (160's can be had for under $25, 300's for ~ $70-$75) combine them with the practicals and it can be sufficient in terms of quantity and quality.

August 4, 2014 at 4:07PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

Just to be fair to other cameras and their strong hold/features, the next comparison should be;
1: 5K 120fps showdown btwn A7s,Epic & Gh4.
2: Small body 4k internal recording showdown btwn A7s,Epic & Gh4.

Doesn't that sound like a better and fair playground?
we all know nothing beats A7s in lowlight, can we now move on.

August 4, 2014 at 4:48PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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mathenge

Not while people like you continue to not get it!

August 4, 2014 at 6:54PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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William Jones

Just to clarify, people like you who think it's a competition and there are winners and losers, that one camera is better or worse than another. The site is simply helping people to make a choice, just like how you choose to click on the article despite knowing it would bore you.

If you are so bored that you simply had to click and then comment on how little you want to read this article, instead, pick up your camera and go practice. It'll do you better in the long run, leave these articles to people needing to understand what's available and what the tools available are capable of.

August 4, 2014 at 6:57PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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William Jones

" That means if your scene requires 1600 ISO at f/1.4, you’d need 12,800 ISO at f/4. That’s not going to look great on the EPIC and GH4 even with a bit of noise reduction, but the a7S will be able to deal with it pretty easily."
The GH4 has twice the DoF of the A7s so for the same DoF it can use a faster aperture and thus 2 ISO steps lower. In the end the difference is not going to be that great.
Plus you can apply heavier NR at the 4k of the GH4 and then downsample without loosing quality whereas with the a7s is not possible as is.

August 5, 2014 at 12:09AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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kotlos

what?

August 5, 2014 at 1:30AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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ryan

I'm just talking about the basic exposure needed, which doesn't really have anything to do with depth of field.

August 5, 2014 at 1:38AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Joe Marine
Camera Department

"you don’t need to shoot everything at 1.4 or 1.8, which can make focusing more difficult, especially with a full-frame sensor"

"or being able to stop down so that you can focus easier"

August 7, 2014 at 10:37AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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kotlos

One thing I'm more interested to know now is that for A7S, since its rather low resolution, do we still need a sharp lens? Or just a cheap and slow but good range kit lens, the Sony FE 28-70 f3.5-5.6 will be good enough? Please share your comments. Thank you!

August 5, 2014 at 5:00PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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kai

I just purchased three a7s rigs for a mobile fly-pack with the Black Magic ATEM4K and 4K Shuttle recorder. I have also purchased the Zeis 55 and then a couple of cheaper Sony lens along with my full canon lens with the E to EF adapters. We start production next month. I will send links and pics and feedback as well. I plan on using the Samsung U28D590D as the main reference monitor.

August 7, 2014 at 3:34PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Using redgamma 3 on the red epic, I would say you're hardly seeing all the information the camera is picking up.

August 9, 2014 at 8:22AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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P Moss

hi! I just bought sony a7s camera and last night I went to the beach to tested it. When I arrived at home and passed the files to the computer when I saw them I noticed they have much noise...I had put ISO at 3200, using picture profile pp7 (SLog2). I think I haven't got a good profile put into the camera but I don't know. Can someone help me please? Thanks!

August 21, 2014 at 6:26PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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miriam

If you don t denoise it in post, It s really difficult to grade it back. I made a test and here is how the flat file looks straight out of the camera:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=agoAxr6_boQ

September 4, 2014 at 3:39AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Question - How would the A7s 4k output to a recorder (shogun) compare to the RED Scarlet X 4k in terms of picture quality? In other words do you think the A7s can produce the same "look" as a RED setup when shooting external 4k?

October 1, 2014 at 11:36PM, Edited October 1, 11:36PM

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Scott
74

I bought 2 GH4's In May, and boy am I delighted with them. I shoot a lot of fashion events and other events (concerts, corps, weddings, web promos). I hung onto my
2 HVX cameras for more than 6 years and they gave me no trouble whatsoever. Only that after 6 years they were very dated. The reason, Panasonic's promise and no delivery of HVX like form factor 4K Camcorders with a MFT sensor (never happened , never will) I was reluctant to buy GH4's, as I already had Canons and I hate DSLR form factors. In the end I gave in and I have grown to love em. full frame owners will say I can shoot at 4000 iso with a clean picture and have no lights. But I will say well if you never use lights then perhaps you shouldn't be filming. GH4 shoots clean to 1600 iso. with majority of HD camcorders you were lucky to get 500 iso. Even the BMCC 4K only gets 400. When I shoot a wedding on weekends and then go into the studio on monday to dump my footage to the studio who hired me. I while waiting see the other guys filming. The 5D users never use light and everything looks so flat.
I may use a LED bank and a on camera one. But it looks gorgeous.
I seldom need to edit out a missed focus shot (I still bring along my HVX's as wide safety's and as extra angles. But the 5D users stuff has non stop focus pulling and missing.
See where a 5D user maybe on say 3200 iso at f5.6. I can be on 1600 at f 2.8 and have the same D.O.F as he. So my images should be as clean. 2.8 on a full framer in a catch it on the run situation (totally opposite of a scripted, blocked out, acted, controlled situation with a large monitor). Is often a hit or miss. Cannot wait to get the Atomos Shogun to shoot 4K uncompressed.

October 17, 2014 at 5:39AM, Edited October 17, 5:39AM

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Rick Idak
videographer
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