Photokina 2008 Interview: Panasonic

There's no doubt that the star of Photokina 2008 was the Panasonic G1 - it was certainly the most talked about product as we made our way around the show for our usual round of meetings and presentations. We caught up with a large group of Panasonic's Japanese Digital Still Camera planning, engineering and marketing team, including Mr Matsumoto, the Director of the DSC unit, for an in-depth discussion of the Micro Four Thirds system and the future of the digital SLR. They kindly agreed to us publishing some of the conversation (which has been edited for clarity and to remove those discussions currently under NDA).

Right: Tokikazu Matsumoto

Amongst those in attendance at the meeting were:

  • Mr. Tokikazu Matsumoto, Director, DSC Business Unit
  • Mr. Ichiro Kitao, General Manager, Products Planning Group, DSC Business Unit
  • Mr. Michiharu Uematsu, Councilor, Development Planning Team, DSC Business Unit
  • Mr. Yoshiyuki Inoue, Councilor, Development Planning Team, DSC Business Unit
  • Mr. Marc Pistoll, Senior Coordinator, Optical Marketing Team, Overseas Sales & Marketing Group

The G1 has generally had a very positive reception, but one question that comes up time and again is why doesn't it offer movie capture?

"We're aware of the need for video capability on interchangeable lens camera, so we will be introducing it. This is simply a matter of timing, but it is certainly our plan to do so in future models".

So adding video capability would have delayed the entire project. What's actually holding things up?

"The new HD lens has a dedicated system for autofocus in movie video recordings, and the movement of the aperture is totally different for HD lenses; it has to be working continuously. This all takes time to develop. PMA [early March '09] is our target for the HD camera; that's the target anyway...[laughter] We've already displayed a mock up, but we have to exceed the performance and quality of the HD video modes already shown on new DSLR cameras."

We've already seen the G1, the new lenses and the mockup of the HD model, what does the near future hold for the system?

"We'd like to expand the family of G-Micro system cameras, we will study smaller compact type bodies, and we'd like to produce a macro lens next year, if possible."

The sensor has often been seen as the Achilles' Heel of Four Thirds; are you happy with the output you're getting from the G1's new sensor?

"There is always room for improvement but we're very happy with the image quality coming from the combination of the improvements in both the new sensor and the new processor."

Amongst the many unique aspects of the G1 is the fact that it is the first DSLR we know of to be offered in different body colors. How has this been received? Are there likely to be colored lenses too?

"The response has been very positive but it does bring problems with production control; knowing which color will be more popular. The lenses are all black, but we added the gray band to reduce the contrast between the body and lens."

Let's talk a little about the exposed sensor.

"The exposed part is the SSWF (SuperSonic Wave Filter), not the actual sensor. There's no extra protection because if we put another piece of glass in it would make the camera larger and could compromise image quality. Incidentally, the SWF performance has been improved; the frequency has been increased and there are now two different wavelengths."

There have been some concerns about possible damage to the sensor.

"Having the SSWF exposed is safer than having the shutter exposed; touching the shutter is more dangerous; shutters break very easily, whereas the SSWF can simply be cleaned. So after a lot of discussion we finally decided to leave the shutter open and we developed a new 'normally open' focal plane shutter."

So do you use any kind of electronic shuttering such as an electronic 'first curtain'?

"No, at this point in time this isn't possible with this particular sensor. On the G1 the shutter closes when you press the button, then opens and closes again. This is, of course, something we will be investigating in future developments."

It seems that a lot of potential purchasers of Micro-G system cameras are current Olympus or Panasonic 'standard' Four Thirds system owners. There's been a lot of talk about the compatibility (or lack of it) with older Olympus lenses for contrast-detect autofocus.

"Of course Olympus wants to expand the number of lenses that can be adapted to autofocus on the Micro Four Thirds cameras. Olympus lenses (even those that contrast AF on Olympus cameras) currently do not autofocus properly with this camera (the Micro G1), but Olympus is working on Firmware upgrades for these lenses. Also we are now working with Olympus to provide a joint firmware update service to ensure compatibility across the various different bodies and different lenses."

So, to clarify, if a lens currently supports contrast-detect AF on say the L10 or E-420, it will eventually also support AF on a Micro Four thirds camera?

"Yes"

But the previous lenses - those that don't currently support contrast detect AF - will they ever support AF on the G1?

"Not autofocus, no; manual focus only." [note that Olympus later told us they were 'working on' a solution to this but could give no guarantees]

The G1 appears to pose quite a threat to the bridge camera and 'super zoom' market, a market you have a strong presence in. Will you continue to develop 'FZ' series cameras?

"Yes of course we will continue to develop this kind of camera (TZ and FZ), which is highly optimized to the smaller sensor - we're hoping to extend the range of the TZ style cameras".

There are a lot of fans of the FZ50 who are worried that the G1 will see the end of the development of such high end 'super zoom' cameras.

"I think that's a very good question, but I think that that kind of step up model or high end model [such as the FZ50] is also necessary, but we are now deciding how to progress and how it fits with the new system. So there are many possibilities with different sensors and new lenses, and if we can find a viable positioning, we will continue with it. We never say we will give up!"

Interview conducted by Phil Askey and Simon Joinson, report by Simon Joinson