Sean Robinson is Imaging Product Manager at Panasonic Lumix Professional Services, based in New Jersey, USA.

Panasonic's latest cameras are flagship products aimed at very specific kinds of photographers. The Lumix DC-G9 is Panasonic's first high-performance model intended for sports and wildlife photography, while the GH5S offers a more focused, professional-friendly 4K video feature set than the original GH5.

We sat down with Sean Robinson, Imaging Product Manager at Panasonic Lumix Professional Services recently to learn more about how the G9 and GH5S were developed. The following interview has been edited slightly for clarity and flow.

Sean - can you describe your job at Panasonic?

I’m one of four product managers for Panasonic Lumix imaging products in the United States. My job is to be a touch-point between our merchandising and product management groups, and the photo specialty retailers and media partners like DPReview.

How much contact do you have with Lumix photographers?

I have a direct line to our team of Lumix ambassadors - primarily in the United States, some of our European and Canadian photographers. Depending on where we are in a product cycle, I’d say about 40-60% of my time is taken up with collecting feedback and working with photographers.

We start by asking ‘what can we build for you?'

How does a camera like the G9 get developed?

Like all of our products, we always hold a number of brainstorming sessions with our internal teams and select external photographers and videographers. With the G9 there was a very heavy emphasis on figuring out what are missing in the lineup right now, and what can we do to create something new. Something that doesn’t necessarily have to be bound by the hybrid photography mentality that we’ve been in since the beginning of the GH line.

So we start by asking ‘what can we build for you? What do you want to see from a camera from us?’ And from that initial list of requests our engineers go back and start working on the feasibility of implementing those requests.

There’s a ton of information coming in from various different professionals
The Lumix DC-G9 represents something of a departure for Panasonic, being aimed squarely at sports and wildlife photographers who want ultra-fast frame-rates and tough build quality, without paying too much of a penalty in terms of size and weight.

Who are you asking those questions of?

For the most part we’re speaking to our Lumix ambassadors. And we have ambassadors in pretty much every region where Panasonic has headquarters. Globally that’s between 40-50 photographers and videographers. There are also a number of conversations that happen internally within Panasonic, because a lot of people inside the company have backgrounds in photography. So there’s a ton of information coming in from various different professionals.

Did you reach outside of the pool of existing Lumix ambassadors and speak to photographers that use competitor products?

A lot of feedback was provided from our existing ambassador team, but a number of photographers that we work with are testing the equipment, maybe they're interested in the Lumix brand but they have allegiances to other products that they’ve been using for years. Their feedback was also critical. Someone who’s using full-frame competitor A, for example, they might have a very different set of requirements or opinions compared to someone who’s on our team as an official brand ambassador.

If we see consistent themes coming through feedback, the requests move into development

We definitely don’t ignore any feedback, from anyone. It’s not always like an official interview, where we sit down and talk to someone 1:1, we’re also constantly scouring forums and Facebook groups, and when someone calls into our call center or messages us on Twitter for example, all of that information is captured. It's collated weekly, and reported back to our team in Japan.

The addition of the top-plate LCD to the G9 was as a direct result of feedback from photographers during the product planning process.

And that’s everything from pie-in-the-sky requests for features that have never been seen on any camera ever before, to more simple mundane things like dual memory card slots, or having a status LCD on the top of the camera. Both of those requests came from speaking to photographers. If we see consistent themes coming through all of that feedback, then the requests move into development.

Were there any kinds of photographers that you wanted to get feedback from specifically, when you were planning the G9?

With the G9 we were very interested in speaking to wildlife and sports photographers. The three main people that I know personally who we worked with a lot were Daniel Cox, Bence Máté and Daniel Berehulak. For those three, we already work with them, and NDAs are in place, so a lot of the process is very conversational. We sit, we listen to what they want, and our team will counter with some of the things that we could definitely do, versus some things we’d need to study more, and some things that simply can’t be done at the moment.

There’s always a consistent touch-point, of checking the work as we’ve moving forward so that if something has to change in the middle of development, there’s enough time to do that, and put out a product that’s as finished as possible.

We got a lot of feedback from videographers and production houses around where the GH5 fell short for them

Can you think of a specific example of when a feature was tweaked or changed before announcement, based on feedback from photographers?

The menu system in the GH5, when that whole change was initially conceptualized. We needed to change the menu system to the point where a working videographer or stills photographer could easily move through it. The first version of the menu system made a lot of sense from an engineering standpoint, in terms of where features were grouped, but when we started working with the photographers and videographers, they started giving us a lot of feedback about where they expected to see features, and how things should work.

All of that feedback went back to our software and UI designers and they tweaked it. They met a month or so later with a revised version. That was one a fast-paced process, since it didn’t involve complete retooling of equipment or anything like that.

The GH5S shares the same basic chassis as the GH5 but offers a more focused feature set, intended primarily for enthusiast and professional videographers. Feedback from existing GH5 users was critical to establishing whether there was a market for a more specialized variant.

The GH5S is an interesting product - who did you make it for, and what kind of conversations happened in the planning process?

When the GH5S was being planned, we took a very broad look at what the industry's needs were, as a whole. We got a lot of feedback from videographers and production houses around where the GH5 fell short for them. We have the advantage of a very large broadcast team, obviously and since we have a lot of resources in that world we were able to take a step back and look at the market and ask - ok, if there’s a specific need - in this case a high level cinema camera in a form-factor like the GH bodies -what would the real-world applications be?

So talking with cinematographers, high-level DPs and production houses we worked on finding out the viability of that market. If we figure out that there is a need for a product like that, which nobody else is making, in a lot of cases, that’s enough for us to make the decision and go ahead. In the case of the GH5S, nobody else made a product like it at that price point, and our team had the capabilities to do it, while keeping the same chassis as the GH5.

The entire GH family, from the original GH1 to the GH5 (on the far right). The GH5 and GH5S are larger cameras than their predecessors, but the include features that were hardly even dreamed of when the GH-series was first introduced a decade ago.

The GH5 benefitted from a major mid-life firmware update, based on feedback from users - do you have structured check-in points in your products’ lifespan to generate that feedback?

Yes, absolutely. That process never stops. And just as importantly, we’re always looking at what our competition is doing. What’s coming down the line? What can we do in an existing model to really up the game? We have conversations with our team in Japan almost every day where we ask ‘what is the market saying?’ And our team really places a lot of importance on what our users are getting out of the products, and what they’re creating, and if we can find ways of improving the product or make it more efficient by adding new features we’ll do it.

New hardware is great, but improving an existing product is one of those areas where we can give back to the community

There’s been a major shift internally, in the years that I’ve worked at Panasonic where the concept of breathing new life into any existing product is one of our big pushes. New hardware is great, but improving an existing product is one of those areas where we can give back to the community. They helped us develop those products from day one, and if we’re able to give them more without making them buy a new camera, we’ll do it.

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