PMA 2009 Interview: Panasonic

We caught up with a team of executives from Panasonic Japan at PMA for a chat about the new GH1 and their plans for the DSC market. As part of our meeting Mr Ichiro Kitao, General Manager of the DSC Product Planning Group agreed to answer some of our questions - and some of those posed by our forum members - in an 'on the record' interview.

Obviously the big story for Panasonic at this year's PMA was the announcement of the GH1, so naturally the conversation started there. Panasonic wouldn't comment on what's next on the Micro G lens roadmap, and could only tell us that the GH1's price should be announced within the next few weeks.

There's been some suggestion that the GH1's sensor will offer slightly better high ISO performance than the G1, can you confirm this?
It's too early to know for sure, but it's a newer sensor, so yes it should be slightly better, but it's difficult to say at this moment.

How does the pixel density of the GH1 sensor compare to the G1?
The size of each pixel is same as G1. The total pixel number is different because the GH1 offers multi aspect.

We spoke at length about the physical size of the GH1's sensor without getting a definitive answer, though Panasonic was later to confirm that the GH1's sensor is indeed larger than the standard Four Thirds sensor. This is in order for it to allow the use of three different aspect ratios yet retain the same diagonal (and therefore the same angle of view).

Of course the GH1 is only half the story with this announcement; the new 14-140mm 'HD' lens being the other half.

From what we understand this lens has taken a lot of work to develop...
We're still working! Yes, it's been a challenge.

When you design a lens this ambitious do you still stick to the same strict optical standards as with your other shorter zoom range lenses?
Of course. We make no compromises.

What's the reception been in the camcorder division been to the GH1?
(laughs) 'Stop now!'. No seriously, that's quite a tough question. We can approach a different world from camcorders; the depth of field, interchangeable lenses, things like that. But for ease of use a camcorder is much simpler. This kind of zooming (manual, mechanical) would be quiet challenging for normal consumers.

So did you ever consider using a powered zoom for this lens?
We have an idea but it's quite difficult to realize because it would result in a lens that was quite big. The optical components of the lens are small, but we'd have to include a big motor, so it would end up much fatter - bigger than the camera.

Presumably you're using different compression, codecs and so on, so is there a difference in the video quality between the GH1 and your best camcorders?
In terms of resolution the camcorder is still better because they offer full 1080P (50i / 60i) codecs, and also the compression is a little bit different; a camcorder can manage compression wisely, with B pictures, which this one doesn't have. Of course in the future it will get better.

So who is the target user for this camera, as distinct from high end camcorders - and also as distinct from the target market for the G1?
High end camcorder users are one of the big targets. Also video journalists and maybe broadcasting companies.

In other words it's very different to the target market for the G1?
Yes. Of course the normal consumer wanting to shoot their children or whatever is one of our target customers, but as I said, operating the GH1 is a little more difficult than a camcorder.

We saw a lot of feedback - before and after our review - about the lack of even a basic video capture mode on the G1. I think most people would have been happy even with a simple VGA movie mode, and don't understand its omission given the 'full time live view' operation. Was that technically impossible or was it a marketing decision?
The output from the sensor is different to the GH1, the GH1 is a new high speed live view sensor. Of course we can realise full time live view on the G1, which means that obviously we can get some video off the sensor. But for the first product with this capability we wanted to target the absolute highest possible quality of video, and that's why we developed the GH1. Maybe next time the G1 type of product will have some kind of, say VGA movie mode; we'll look into this.

Of course even if you only go to VGA, you still have all the advantages of the bigger sensor.
Exactly, and the benefits of being able to change the lens. Wideangle video, for example, is quite interesting.

The new 7-14mm lens isn't an 'HD' lens - how well does it work for movies on the GH1?
It's not as fast as the 14-140mm, but it's certainly usable.

And I guess with a wide lens that's almost always focused on infinity it's not going to be so much of an issue anyway.
No exactly.

We're not big fans of the dedicated movie button. Would it be possible to allow the main shutter release to optionally be used to stop and start movies?
No, but we will consider this option for the future.

What happens if you press the shutter button when recording a movie?
It activates a one shot AF operation.

All of the technology that you developed for stills; CA correction, distortion correction and so on; is that also being applied on the fly when shooting video?
Basically, yes.

There's been some controversy on the whole subject of in-camera lens correction and the fact that Panasonic makes it very difficult to override, even in raw mode, even when using third-party converters such as Adobe Camera Raw. We wanted to know if there had been a fundamental shift in lens design, away from purely optical correction of aberrations.

Your approach to lens design appears to have changed; there's now an element of digital correction built into the design. Do you consider the future of lens design to be partly optical and partly digital (using in-camera corrections)? And are there any compromises involved in digital aberration correction?
Without the technology we've developed to allow digital lens corrections we simply couldn't make such lenses. In order to minimize the size and in order to maximize the performance of the lens we choose to use this technology. It's a digital camera, so it makes sense.

We agree completely, we don't think it's an issue at all how you get the performance you want as long as the results are good, but to many purists this is hard to swallow. So when you're designing a lens now you're designing it partly optically and partly digitally?
Yes. Of course we work closely with the lens engineers. But Leica doesn't allow us to use digital corrections, so that's why there are no Leica lenses for the Micro G system. But of course, we have a plan with Leica as part of the roadmap.

So does the camera need a database of lens corrections? Does it need a firmware update every time a new lens is released?
No, the lens has some information which it sends to the camera.

What about third-party lens manufacturers? Will they be able to use the same mechanism to tell the camera to apply corrections to their lenses?
Yes, members of the Four Thirds consortium can.

So do you know if there will actually be any third-party lenses for Micro Four Thirds system?
I think not in the near future. First will be Olympus and Panasonic.

I guess they're going to wait and see how well the system does; this isn't just a new lens mount for them; they have to design a completely new lens.

Does it offer any benefits for stills? Can the camera change the aperture in smaller steps when, for example, shooting in shutter priority mode?
With the G1 you get exactly the same 1/3 steps. With the GH1 you get almost continuous control from F4.0 to F8.0 - 1/6 step. Over F8 it's 1/3 steps.

One of the most important things about the new 14-140mm lens is the continuously variable aperture. Is this something that we'll see in all future MFT lenses?
No, it's an expensive and difficult to produce component.

Moving on, we've been looking at the feedback since the G1 was announced, and we've got a lot of questions from our community, some of which we'd like to cover here.
First up; there's a lot of demand for a smaller Micro Four Thirds body - more 'rangefinder' style than faux DSLR. It's not really a question, it's more just telling you what they want. But do you have any comment?

(mock surprise) I didn't hear anything about such a request? This is news to me!

OK, we're obviously not going to get anywhere with that line of questioning. Another question which we suspect you're not going to want to answer concerns your plans for your 'non Micro' Four Thirds cameras such as the L10. Are we likely to see a statement about whether there are any plans for further models or lenses?
We've just started with Micro Four Thirds with the G1 and at this PMA have introduced the GH1, and our first priority is to survive these severe market conditions with Micro Four Thirds. So, we'd like to strengthen the Micro Four Thirds lineup first. After that - if the market requires it - our Four Thirds models, such as the successor to the L10, will be considered.

At the moment you're targeting the high end amateur. Is that as far as you'll go or would you ever consider going to the really high end - the professional end - of the market, with Micro Four Thirds?
We don't want to go to the real 'professional' area. We would, however, like to expand our lineup with more consumer-type products, but we've really just started, and are still in the initial phase of introducing Micro Four Thirds. So maybe in the future? I don't know when, but there is certainly potential. Micro Four Thirds has the potential for entry level models and step-up models.

How has the G1 done for you? has it met expectations?
In some countries yes, some countries no. Of course just after the G1 introduction the economy started to fall.

So how does the state of the global economy affect your research and development projects and launch timings?
We carry on. We're still the number five camera brand globally and we're not going to give up anything.

One of the big questions we've had from our community concerns the FZ50 replacement. A lot of people are saying 'if I wanted a G1 I would've bought an SLR'. Is this now a discontinued line?
The problem is price. Now that entry-level digital SLRs are so cheap it's incredibly difficult to sell a bridge type camera at the high end. When we introduced the FZ50 the price was something like $599 but now I don't think we could sell it for that much. Of course we're not going to give up on such kind of products but in the next year or two we currently have no plan introduce another model.

So the FZ50 is now discontinued?
Yes, it will be shortly. But sometime we'd like to come back to this area.

Moving on to the LX3, have you been surprised by how popular that camera has been? We understand that there are availability problems.
(laughs) Yes, on eBay an LX3 is being sold for $799! We will solve the availability problems.

The problem with cameras like the LX3 is that no matter how hard you try the image quality hits a wall due to the limitations of current technology in such small sensors. Are you actively researching next generation sensor technology that will allow you to break through this wall, or is there any chance of larger sensor compacts appearing.?
Yes, we have several ideas, but there's still nothing concrete. We have several choices when it comes to sensors, including CMOS, and we have to study the options carefully, and are going to be proposing some completely new ideas. However this year it's going to be quite tough - especially in the US market - because of the number of megapixels demanded even on entry-level models. We'll maintain our approach of slightly lower pixels counts compared to our competitors, who are pushing 10 and 12 megapixels in their mass market models, where we'll only have 8 megapixels and concentrate on more important things. Unfortunately the consumers' biggest measure of a digital camera's 'image quality' is still megapixels.

We were talking earlier about how to make Panasonic's offerings stand out now that you have a lot of competition in the compact super zoom market, is there any reason why you don't include manual controls - such as aperture priority - on these models?
Actually the new lens on these models (the TZ6 / TZ7) has a 'real' bladed aperture so we could now incorporate manual exposure functions into TZ cameras, but there were some hurdles to including full manual functions, so this time we didn't include them. But in the future - next time - we'll look at it again.

What's the thinking behind using AVCHD on a consumer compact like the TZ7 and not a simpler MPEG file format?
AVCHD is a very convenient format for use with televisions and blu-ray recorders. Our Viera models have the capability to play AVCHD directly, and we will expand those lines. We believe videos should be played back on a TV; it's much nicer than looking at it on a PC screen. With the software we've developed it's easy to share AVCHD videos by burning them to a DVD - and everyone has a DVD player. And of course you can convert to an MPEG file for sharing via PC. The cameras have a Motion JPEG option for customers who only want to use their movies on a PC. Windows 7 will be fully compatible with our AVCHD files, allowing them to be played without converting them first.

At this point we ran out of time. Obviously there was a lot that we discussed that we can't currently talk about, but we'll be meeting with Panasonic's Japanese executives again in the Summer so will continue this interview - and pass on more of the questions raised in the forum - then.

Interview by Simon Joinson and Phil Askey, report written by Simon Joinson.