Story & Photos by TIM ROCK
Here’s a somewhat in-depth but not overly technical look at my experience with Aquatica’s AGH4 Housing for the Panasonic Lumic GH4. It was a fun and top quality combination:
This video was shot on Guam with Aquatica’s new AGH4 underwater camera housing and the Panasonic Lumix GH4 camera. This video visits the marine preserves, popular dive sites and WWII shipwrecks found in the waters of Guam in the western Pacific. Lenses used are the Panasonic Lumix 8mm and Olympus M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 ED PRO. Aquatica close-up kit used for super macro.
It was shot in November and December 2014 in the waters of Guam, USA by videographer Tim Rock (me). It was given a quick edit last week (January 2015) using iMovie. Modeling by Elaine Kwok and Dave Hendricks. ©Tim Rock 2014/2015 (all images taken with the GH4 except snorkeling shots – taken with GoPro at 2.7k) Music by Tim Rock’s Fusion.
OK, now the story behind the shoot. Because I live on a tropical island and also travel a lot for publications like EZ Dive, Sport Diver, Lonely Planet and Manta Ray Publishing, Aquatica sometimes offers me a chance to use for a couple weeks or while on assignment a new housing that is coming down the pike and then do a revue. That is what happened here. I was to be at home in Guam for a few weeks and had a bit of extra time, so I jumped at the chance to try this set-up. I am a former TV News guy and cut my teeth on 16mm film and then video. I shoot mostly stills for my livelihood, so getting to try a good video camera is a departure from what I usually do and a treat.
The AGH4 was introduced at DEMA 2014 and shortly after that show, FedEx delivered a package to me that I was very excited to get. You see, I am pretty much the perfect candidate to try this camera and housing combo as I had never used a Micro 4/3 mirrorless camera before. I had seen and held one, read a lot about them but never gotten out in “the field” with one. And I was very curious as I know some of my fellow photographers like Eric Hanauer and Simon Buxton were already experimenting with this camera.
Above is how things seem to be progressing nowadays. These sit in my office and are my various choices for shooting video. Just five – ten years ago a sturdy Gates Housing with superb optics was the choice of serious pros (far left). But then the DSLR revolution was in full swing and the video quality bar was being raised seemingly every three or four months and many people started using DSLRs more (AD7100 Housing next to the Gates).
Then things got tiny (far right). GoPro introduced 2.7k video in the Go Pro Black 3+ (and it even came with a housing for $399) and even the iPhone created some nice video in a $89 housing. Now GoPro users have a 4k option with GP4.
And then along comes the Micro 4/3 mirrorless bunch starting back with Sony. Now many have 4K video (again like Sony and Olympus and Panasonic). The Lumix GH4 accepts some great glass (above, second from right). So in a progression of really a decade or much less, you can now take your pick and kind of choose your poison and chances are your video will look pretty good with whatever, large or small, you go with.
Here’s (above) what Blake, Jean and Norma from Aquatica packed up for me as my tester CARE Package. My first impression was that this stuff was indeed much smaller than my current array of Nikon DSLR lenses, bodies, ports and the housing itself. It could all fit in a medium-sized pack and easily be put in the overhead bin of a plane. I liked that immediately and had indeed seen one of the photo pros from the Kona Aggressor pack his Sony up in a handy backpack (including lights).
The AGH4 was a compact little unit with seemingly all the bells and whistles (read buttons) to access all of the camera functions. The housing has a hinged door with the locking mechanism from Amphibico that I really liked. I’ll give you my impression here but if you want to read up on EVERYTHING this housing offers, CLICK HERE TO READ ALL ABOUT IT.
Sooo, I popped the 8mm lens on the body, installed the housing plate to the Lumix camera body as well, put the 4″ WA port on the housing body, slide the camera in, closed the door and latched it in one smooth motion with the Amphibico lock and it was ready to go. Man, that was fast. And shortly I was all ready to shoot both stills and video. Here’s a JPG of a bunch of chromis playing in the current at Guam’s Tumon Bay Marine Preserve.
The housing I got to test had fiber optic strobe connectors and all of my personal gear is Ikelite strobes with the Nikonos connector. So I was going to have to use natural light for this experiment and white balance when needed. Ikelite does make an adapter for their strobes. One can trigger the Ikelite DS-series strobe off any camera or strobe flash. The Optical Slave Converter simply attaches to the strobe’s electrical bulkhead in place of a sync cord connector. See it here.
Also, an option from Aquatica for this housing to use the Nikonos strobes will be available down the road, it will be out on the front plug on the left hand top side of the AGH4 Housing.
Being a man, I did download the (very large) user manual PDF for the camera. I didn’t read it much, of course, being a man. In the manual, all 420 pages of it, there isn’t a ton of space devoted to the still side and you can pick your poison pretty much like a DSLR. I shot mostly in RAW when I did try the stills. But you can also grab some JPG frames while the video is rolling and basically, I think these are screen shots from the video monitor. The RAW images came out fine and I ran them through Adobe’s DNG Converter and edited in PS6.
I shot some natural light stills underwater and some above water work too.
As you can see, on the whole, the stills when shot in RAW and converted turn out are very nice. The Olympus M. Zuiko 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II R and the Panasonic Lumix G 8mm f/3.5 are both very sharp lenses and the camera made some nice images. Aquatica did not send me any macro lenses to play with, but I was able to improvise using the 14-42 at full zoom and with a close-up kit. More on that in a minute.
The bulk of the Panasonic Lumix GH4 manual is devoted to the video side of this camera, however. After a few days, I quit the “being a man” part and did go back and start reading up more about the video settings. I also had a friend who shoots lots of video, all with his favorite manual settings (he uses an Amphibico Housing for his Sony) , come by and give me a couple of pointers. He also downloaded the manual and brushed through it and we tried a few tricks.
The Panasonic LUMIX DMC GH4 has extraordinary video capability. After quite a bit of studying, I could see that this camera offered the user full control over most any situation. Aquatica kept this in mind. All of the vital controls that require operation or access while shooting have been conveniently located so as not to restrict the creative flow. According to Aquatica, the housing is manufactured and carefully studied to insure that the controls are not only accessible, but also comfortable to use in all kinds of diving conditions. I found this to be true. It was extremely easy to use underwater.
I took it to the inner shallows of Tumon Bay and to the deep Guam dropoffs in to the Marianas Trench. We did a night dive with it and many coral reef dives. Lighting conditions ranged anywhere from sunny and beautiful to a bit wanting at dusk with a strong current thrown in. Depths ranged from about 5 feet to 125 feet. I knew I only had a short time to use this camera/housing combo so I didn’t get too fancy. I just wanted to get enough good footage to create a short video. Since this camera was totally new to me on the video side, I went to the Quick Start Guide in the manual and used mostly Intelligent Auto Mode or Intelligent Auto Plus Mode and Autofocus. This gave me very nice 1920 x 1080 files that I was able to convert and manage color using GoPro’s free program.
With this camera you can shoot up to 4K and I did set up some custom settings that I was able to go through while underwater using the back panel array on the AGH4. I did find the larger files taxed my poor iMac somewhat. If you are serious about hi-end video, you need to not only invest in a nice camera/housing combo like the AGH4 set-up, but you need to get a powerful computer with proper RAM and LOTS of storage. Even though I save rather large still files, the amount of space good video can chew up is considerable. Now I found the 1920 x 1080 files were not so bad as far as size, especially if you are diligent in culling the useless files or trimming to the best of the clip.
We had some rather windy and unseasonable weather in December in Guam and I was relegated to the inner reefs and harbor in Guam at times, which is still quite diverese. The inner reefs of the Tumon and Piti preserves have 200 fish species and lots of corals and inverts. In the shallow waters of the Tumon Bay Marine Preserve, I was able to use the Olympus M. Zuiko 14-42mm with the SW8 Super Wide Dome Port with integrated dome shade (below) at various focal lengths (for the tight shots, mostly full zoom at 42mm) and shoot creatures like tree worms, feather dustsers, gobies and blennies.With the 4mm dome, the housing is not buoyant. With the SW8 Super Wide Dome Port with integrated dome shade, the added air space pushes the port up. But I was bale to use the lip of the shade to tuck under a rock or coral outcrop and thus not add weight. I am sure there is a fancier solution, but Mother Ocean covered me for the most part when I needed to really get a steady, macro style shot.
I used my own short flat port with the port extension and the DSLR port adapater that Aquatica makes for the AGH4 that allows users to use their current Aquatica ports. And I used the Aquatica Close-up Kit to get detail on critters like the feather duster. Shots like the lionfish were taken is a fairly stiff current with the Panasonic 8mm and I had to one hand the housing while holding on to a rock for stability. The fact that I could operate the housing with one hand was impressive. Also, when I follow the lionfish into the shelter of the coral head, the light stays even. The sun was all but down when I shot this and that hole was dark, so the camera handled the light change really well.
The next video (below) is a combination of wide angle with the Panasonic 8mm and the Olympus M. Zuiko 14-42mm. It was shot at the Piti Tepungan Bay Marine Preserve and I used the 8mm a lot esepcially on scenes with the big schools like the snappers and goatfish but the jacks, barracudas and schooling fish were shot with the 12-42. You can pretty much tell here what was shot with the super wide and the zoom. I didn’t use any macro here. The 30205 Dome/extension ring combo was used for the zoom while the 8mm was behind the Aquatica 3020 4″ FISHEYE DOME.
I did like how the focus worked quickly on the jacks and the scrawled filefish, with a minimum of searching. The focus on the Micro 4/3 does tend to search although focus lock is very easy to use on the AGH4. I had some problems actually seeing any focus shift and would recommend some sort of lens hood or external monitor. I am not sure if anyone is making a underwater on-board monitor that displays in 4k yet, but I am sure it will come soon. The focus lock is quite handy and once you think you are locked in, you just push the button to hold focus. The snorkeler was shot with a GoPro Black 3+ at 2.7k and it looks OK. I think the Panasonic footage looks sharper simply because the lens quality is so much better than a GoPro. Again, everything was shot using natural light and just some white balancing.
This segment below shows a lot of the wide angle, actually shot mostly with the 14-42 but with the zoom at wide quite a bit. The Blue Hole is 123 feet down to the window that opens to the sea, so white balance or not, things got kind of blue at depth but were fine 40 feet and above. I changed lenses for the Gab Gab 2 dive site to the 8mm. The reef sits in 50-60 feet of water and the color was still fine with the schools of batfish swimming over the reef and the big, blue elephant ear sponges covering parts of this great little spot. Western Shoals was shot again with the 14-42 at various focal lengths.
And here (below) I tried the built-in time lapse function. Worked quite well. Edited the JPGs in the Go Pro editor and had an instant sunset. I was shooting it from my neighbor’s beach and even got a free beer out of the endeavor. We also did a night dive on the Tokai Maru. All I had was my 600W Sola so it certainly didn’t cover the full angle of the 8mm and when I got too close, hot, hot, hot . But you get the idea. The last shots of the beach and jungle were also taken with the 8mm. You can see the curvature but it is kind of cool. The last couple of shots may seem rather contrasty but that is my fault. The color is rich but I will have to go back and lighten those clips up to reduce the contrast when I get time.
So what is my conclusion? Well, I certainly like the Panasonic Lumix GH4. Being a complete novice to the camera and the housing, I was able to assemble it, run through the quick start guide and take underwater video in a matter of a couple of hours. Combined with the Aquatica AGH4 it is a handy duo that produces great video and stills for a very reasonable price point. The video can certainly work for both amateurs and pros. The camera can do just about anything a DSLR can do and sometimes better. The micro 4/3 system is the most developed of any mirrorless system so DSLR users can make the transition without missing much. For underwater, sharp wide and super wide lenses are available as well as at least two macro choices. There are more high quality micro 4/3 lenses available than for any other mirrorless system. And all of the camera manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon so more great lenses and functions will surely appear. Of course, a lot depends on your use for the system. There are some situations that are better for DSLRs, though not a lot. So, for say 90+% of photographers, mirrorless systems will do everything just as well as a DSLR.
One disadvantage of the Micro 4/3 system in contrast to DSLRs is the continuous AF. While fast for still/static subjects, the AF can struggle with moving subjects. The AGH4 has a focus lock but the viewfinder is small and in bright light it is sometimes hard to see the focus searching taking place. You can focus on a moving subject, but it usually involves pre-focusing and some luck. To be fair, I noticed this happen close to dusk while trying to shoot a flounder swimming over sand, shooting a barracuda in open blue water and at night while trying to catch divers’ lights on a shipwreck. These are hard backgrounds for any camera system so I can live with this. A DSLR does excel in this usually but I did not find it a major reason to not use this system, just something I’d like to see improved.
In all, the Lumix and AGH4 is very close to the perfect blend of size and quality. Travel with this camera/housing system will be so much easier than a larger DSLR unit. The battery lasts a long time so live aboard diving, with the multiple dives, won’t be affected. And your arms probably won’t be so tired using this light system.
Get a set of compact lights and you’re ready to shoot. The AGH4 and Panasonic Lumix GH4 is a winning combo. See the housing from Aquatica HERE.