Nepal has been a place that has long attracted me. The Himalayas, to be sure, offer no end of photographic opportunities with their huge windswept peaks, spectacular views, and perpetual changing landscape. I suspected that I would find more than just that when I finally visited, and have tried to go three times now. My first attempt was in April 2015, and had fully prepared for the trip when the earthquake happened. I had planned on exploring Langtang national park and realized that I was probably going to be a liability if I went, and decided to cancel. I tried again a year later, but life intervened and I had to cancel then as well.
When a group of friends approached me with a plan to explore and climb on and around the Annapurna Himal in April of 2016, I was “game on” and packing my bags before I had written the confirmation email. I was not going to let it slip through my fingers again.
As a photographer, I started to think about gear and what I was going to need. I usually shoot medium format for stills, and occasionally brought a second DSLR for video if I needed it. I had been mulling over the idea of bringing something that would do both, and had seen video footage and still photos taken with the Lumix GH4. I had been very impressed, and reached out to Panasonic Canada and Lumix to see if there was a chance of getting a Lumix GH5 to bring to Nepal with me. They were very gracious and loaned me the GH5, along with Leica 12-60 and Leica 25/1.4 lenses. The 12-60 would provide me with the equivalent of a 24-120 on a 35mm frame and the 25/1.4 would give me a nice fast 50mm to work with in low light situations. I was feeling pretty good about things.
Because I did not have a lot of experience with the micro four thirds format or Panasonic cameras in general, I still carried my Nikon D810 and a full complement of Nikkor lenses with me as well. This would serve both as a backup in case something happened, and would also provide me with the ability to do side by side comparisons. Everything would fit nicely in my F-Stop Gear Tilopa, my “go to” bag for expedition work.
Everyone has seen sample video footage and images from the GH5 already, and so that isn’t so much the point of this article. I wanted to spend a bit of time talking about the tangible and tactile bits of the GH5 that I liked so much. First, it really feels like I am holding my full size DSLR. The grip is large and my large hands find plenty of room to hold it. I also appreciate the ridge on the back of the camera, where my thumb can sit comfortably. This was something that Nikon had removed from the D800 and brought back for the D810 and had been something I sorely missed. I am really happy to see that ergonomics were given so much thought on the GH5.
I really appreciate having proper buttons for important camera functions. I dislike having to dig through menus to find things, and the GH5 does not make me do that. There are proper ISO, white balance, and exposure compensation buttons right on the top of the body, real mode dials, and many programmable function buttons for anyone to customize.
The camera weighs nearly nothing. The mirrorless micro four thirds format, coupled with a magnesium body, makes for a super lightweight package. It is substantially lighter than the D810 body, and compared to the brick that is my Phase One IQ250, well, I think the batteries in the Phase One weigh more.
One important feature I want to be sure to mention was how well the Panasonic Image App worked for me. I did not want to bring a laptop on this trip. I didn’t want to have to carry it at high altitude, or bring a charger or power block for one. The image application for Android let me access images on the camera via bluetooth, transfer to them during the phone, and then import them into the Adobe Lightroom app. At the time, Lightroom didn’t support the RAW file because the camera had not been released officially, so I just worked on the JPEG instead. That’s not an issue now, but it really didn’t bother me anyway – the JPEGs looked really good out of camera and were perfectly suitable for social media purposes. Not having to bring a laptop was a game changer for me.
One final thing on build quality before I jump into some content from the expedition. I was, generally, impressed with how things felt when I initially hefted things. The lens barrels are metal, focus and zoom rings are nice and smooth, and a lot of the lens range is weather sealed. What I didn’t expect was to accidentally drop the 12-60 on a very cold morning during a lens change. After popping out of my numb fingers, it bounced off of the edge of my camera bag, and rolled and bumped its way down a 50 meter cliff, without a rear lens cap. It hit a lot of rocks really hard, lost the front lens cap half way down, flew through the air quite a bit, and came to rest in a boulder field at the bottom.
I won’t lie – I swore a lot. My friend, Vlad, who was shooting Canon on this trip instead of his Hasselblad, looked at me, shook his head and said “Dude, I am so sorry.” I scrambled down the cliff to retrieve the lens and after being guided to its location by Vlad (getting hot, getting cold), I picked it up and examined it. There was cosmetic damage, and the lens hood was slightly bent, but the mechanics were still silky smooth and the glass remained perfect. I took some test shots to confirm and, stunned, packed the camera up and got on with my morning. It continued to work perfectly for the remainder of the trip.
I probably got a bit lucky. I’m sure that if a rock had hit a glass element square on things would have gone differently, but the auto focus worked perfectly, the images were still tack sharp, and the unprotected lens mount was undamaged. I am not sure I have ever seen a greater testament to build quality. No one who witnessed it could believe it either. Vlad spent the rest of the trip making up titles for this article. My favorite in the end was “Canadian Photographer Launches Lens from Mountain Top, Continues to Create Art”. It pretty much sums up my experience with the GH5.
Anything I wish I could change? There is the perpetual problem of changing lenses in high wind and very dusty areas. Mirrorless designs are a bit more susceptible to dust on the sensor in those situations, and Nepal can be very dusty with lots of wind in the afternoon. I mitigated this problem by changing lenses in a large clear plastic bag. I picked up this trick in Morocco about ten years ago and it has served me very well. The only other thing I can think of is the eye piece. It slides on from the top and doesn’t stay in position very well when it’s being put in or taken out of a camera bag.
Such small things, and so many positives for the GH5. I’m still going through photos and the RAW files now that I am back in my studio environment but I wanted to share some of my favorites so far. I’d easily recommend the GH5 to landscape shooters looking for a lightweight system to bring into high alpine environments. The Lumix takes up very little space in the pack, the build quality is outstanding, and the image quality is superb. I am really impressed and am not looking forward to sending it back.