Yosuke Yamane, director of Panasonic's Imaging Division.

In the latest in our series of socially distanced interviews with senior executives in the digital photography industry, we sat down (virtually) with Yosuke Yamane, director of Panasonic's Imaging Division. Among the topics discussed were Panasonic's approach to developing cameras for both photographers and videographers, upcoming improvements to autofocus, and the future of Micro Four Thirds.

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Please note that this interview was conducted over email and has been edited for grammar, clarity and flow.

With much of Panasonic's recent efforts focused on full-frame camera systems, what does the future of Micro Four Thirds look like?

We will strengthen our product lineup in both full-frame and Micro Four Thirds in order to support all shooting opportunities for creators. We have full-frame for creators who want more power to capture images and videos with a shallow depth of field, and M43 for creators who want compactness, light weight, mobility, and an adequate depth of field. The product group consists of two systems with different characteristics, which supports various shooting scenes and demonstrates the creator's imagination.

Many creators have high expectations for new M43 products [and] we will continue to strengthen the lineup from this year onwards

Last year, we introduced the Lumix DC-S5, which has a compact and lightweight body and high performance in both still images and videos. On the other hand, in M43, in addition to the GH5, GH5S, and G9 we introduced the Lumix DC-G100, which is highly portable and allows you to enjoy vlogging, and the box-style camera the Lumix DC-BGH1, which increases flexibility in video production and has excellent video performance and customizability. M43 has a wide range of uses, and many creators have high expectations for new M43 products. We will continue to strengthen the lineup from this year onwards.

In terms of lenses, how are Panasonic’s efforts allocated between its full-frame and four thirds systems?

Since the launch of the S series, we have focused on developing full-frame lenses with the highest priority given to the early enhancement of the lineup. First of all, for professionals who are the target of the S series, we will enhance the S Pro lens range to deliver high performance that covers a wide range of focal lengths. And after the release of the S5 last year, we enhanced the range of lenses by achieving both compactness, light weight, high performance and an affordable price with our upcoming series of F1.8 primes as well as the recently introduced 20-60mm.

As for M43 lenses, we now offer 31 lenses, which are useful for various scenes, and in the future, we are planning to develop more lenses that meet the needs of creators regardless of whether they shoot M43 or full-frame.

Are you working on improving DFD to make it more competitive with phase-detection AF from other brands?

Autofocus is a technology that is constantly advancing. With the recently released Lumix DC-S5, we have evolved the DFD algorithm based on the needs and feedback of creators, and we have received a positive response from the market following the release. However, we recognize that there are still issues that need to be improved to reach perfection when it comes to AF. We are currently considering further improvements, such as improving the processing capacity with new hardware and improving the accuracy with new software algorithms. Please look forward to the evolution of our AF in the future.

Faster sensor readout would improve rolling shutter and help you further improve DFD. Will Micro Four Thirds always offer this kind of speed advantage over full-frame?

Compared to full-frame sensors, M43 sensors are easier to read out quickly, and they consume less power. This is one of the reasons why we have been able to keep our video features one step ahead. The higher the speed, the better the high-speed shooting performance, the less rolling shutter distortion, and the more potential for autofocus performance improvements. We would like to take advantage of [the potential for higher-speed sensor readout in M43] and continue to take advantage of the unique features of M43 to create attractive products that will please our end users.

The Panasonic Lumix DC-BGH1 is a Micro four Thirds 'box camera' designed to be used as a module in various types of rig, including potentially mounted to a drone. Compared to full-frame, Four Third sensors have the potential for greater speed and lower power consumption, making them ideal for some kinds of applications, including video.

Panasonic has already shown an interest in computational imaging in its consumer photography products. What has the market response to these features been, and can we expect to see further development and innovation along these lines?

We have announced cameras with Post-Focus, which allows you to select the focus position after shooting, and Focus Stacking, which allows you to adjust the depth by combining photos with different focus positions. And these were appreciated by end-users. In addition, a high-resolution mode enables G9, S1 series, and S5 users to capture high-resolution images (S1/S1H/S5: 96MP, S1R: 180MP) by synthesizing multiple photos. This has been valued by users who capture landscape and architecture.

If we can utilize computational methods while improving the quality of videos, we have the potential to create even more value

Smartphones have been implementing similar functionalities recently. We believe that realizing these consumer trends in cameras will bring even deeper value to customers and we will continue to evolve them.

Can we expect to see computational methods applied to video? (For example, to decouple motion blur from shutter angle, or other clever techniques?)

We do not deny that as a possibility. As an example, our camcorders are already equipped with functions such as generating HDR images based on multiple images with different exposure times. On the other hand, in these days when mirrorless cameras are used for high-end video production, I think the point is whether we can meet the quality required by the market or not, so careful research is required. If we can utilize computational methods while improving the quality of videos, we have the potential to create even more value.

Is it possible that we'll see internal Raw video capture in Panasonic cameras in the near future?

We cannot answer about future products. But of course, we feel that demand for Raw recording is increasing, and we need to develop products with that in consideration.

The Lumix DC-S5 (pictured above) and the S1H both use twin SD card slots, but the S1 and S1R offer dual SD and XQD/CFexpress slots. According to Mr Yamane, it's the heat buildup of current CFe interfaces which makes that media problematic for long-duration video shooting, but efficiencies in future developments of CFe can be expected to mitigate the issue.

We've seen the adoption of CFexpress take off, but other devices are starting to plug directly to SSDs. Which makes most sense for video?

It is interesting question, and both have their strengths. There is no doubt that the mobility of a mirrorless camera is maximized by small, in-camera storage. CFexpress is valuable in that aspect. On the other hand, the current CFexpress consumes a lot of power during high-speed writing. This is no problem with still images, but with videos it can cause the camera to heat up, and there is a concern that it will limit the recording time. As the bit rate gets higher, the risk of that happening will be higher as well.

We believe that the ideal solution is in-camera storage like CFexpress for video recording

Recording to an external SSD is one solution to the heat issue caused by internal recording. Connections with USB cables however would be a problem for those who need mobility. Even if a cartridge type is used, the whole setup will be huge. We therefore believe that the ideal solution is in-camera storage like CFexpress for video recording. It is expected that innovations will happen in future around lower power consumption of CFexpress, especially for long time video shooting.

Who do you see as the main audience for your video products? Consumers learning video, or professionals using them alongside Varicam models?

The main targets of video are both professional videographers and general consumers who personally enjoy capturing video. Our flagship full-frame video camera, the DC-S1H, has been approved by Netflix, and is already utilized on many video production projects including movies, dramas, and commercials. In addition, the GH series - our flagship M43 video cameras - are being used by many YouTubers. Furthermore, the box-type M43 video camera BGH1 has also been approved by Netflix, and we are approaching a wide range of end-users by supporting scenarios such as multi-angle shooting, live streaming, and drone shooting. We will continue to develop new products that can be used for various video shooting needs by a variety of customers.

We are approaching a wide range of end-users by supporting scenarios such as multi-angle shooting, live streaming, and drone shooting

We recently announced several major firmware updates on March 17th. We added enhanced video functions to the Lumix DC-S1 such as 6K/C4K/4K60P, 10-bit/4K anamorphic video recording, and we also added RAW video output functionality via HDMI (with additional functions via the DMW-SFU2 Filmmaker Upgrade Software Key). The S1H supports Raw data output via HDMI to Blackmagic Design recorders, and the BGH1 supports IP streaming output and video Raw data output via HDMI. We are looking forward to seeing the videos shot with these advanced features!

What are the main features and improvements that your customers are asking for from your video products?

We cannot answer in detail, but we believe that our GH series and S1H have been highly rated for their functions / performance, such as unlimited video recording time and various shooting assist functions. We have been able to obtain a lot of feedback from customers who are using Lumix products in various ways. We will continue to listen to the customers who use our products, and solve any problems that they may have. In the future, we will continue to refine our features, lead the industry with technologies that expand video expression such as high bit rate and high frame rate, and continue to create cameras that please our customers.

The Lumix DC-G100 is a compact Micro Four Thirds camera aimed at video and stills creators and vloggers.

What trends do you see in the market, over recent years? Is there still a market for compact cameras, for instance?

The global digital camera market has been damaged by COVID-19, but the current trend is improving. However, the market for compact cameras is shrinking. On the other hand, demand for mirrorless cameras has grown steadily, especially for video production and live streaming, and demands are diversified. Under these circumstances, the role of mirrorless cameras will expand.

To respond to this, we will strengthen both full-frame and M43. In 2020, we responded to growing and diversifying demands with the Lumix DC-S5, which offers functions recognized by professionals in a compact and lightweight full-frame body, the M43 G100 for vloggers, the BGH1 box camera, and firmware updates to speedily respond to the market.

How do you plan to get your cameras into the hands of younger, smartphone-first customers?

We live in an era where people all over the world have smartphones, take photos and videos, and share them. Although the camera performance of smartphones has been improved, there are limits to what smartphones can do. With digital cameras you can take expressive videos and stills that are clearly different from smartphones.

The key to survival for the camera market in the future is responding to diversifying needs quickly

Video production by young people is increasing, and low price and easy-to-use mirrorless cameras are attracting attention. In addition, creators want to shoot images that are more advanced and unique. By catering to this need, and strengthening the affinity between our cameras and smartphones, we hope that young people will also take digital cameras in their hands. The key to survival for the camera market in the future is responding to diversifying needs quickly.

The Panasonic S1 and S1R launched just over two years ago, how have they been received?

The S1R and S1 are products developed for professional photographers and hybrid users without compromise in all aspects. In the market, they have been highly valued for their performance, operability, robustness, and other points required as tools for professional work. In terms of image quality, the color reproduction is particularly appreciated. On the other hand, we received many requests for improvements to AF performance. We have made updates in the S5 with regard to AF tracking, and we expanded these improvements to the S1R and S1 November last year via firmware.

Panasonic makes some of the largest, toughest-built mirrorless full-frame cameras on the market, do you see this as a major differentiator between you and your competition?

We think one of the major differences between the S series, which was developed for professionals, and [options from] other companies is their durability and robustness, exemplified by the continuous shooting time of videos. In addition, we are also focused on the accuracy of image stabilization and shutter accuracy in actual shooting. Furthermore, the UI was created through interviews with many professionals, so it offers excellent usability.

Editor's note: Barnaby Britton

The two main takeaways from this interview with Mr. Yamane are a recognition of where his company needs to improve (specifically around AF performance in mirrorless bodies) and a commitment to do so, coupled with a concurrent commitment to Micro Four Thirds. This should come as good news to virtually all Panasonic shooters, regardless of which system (or which side of the video/stills divide) they're invested in.

Some of the most innovative and pioneering cameras in the early history of consumer digital imaging were launched under Panasonic's Lumix brand. While in recent years more of the most obvious innovations (but by no means all: Panasonic was talking about machine learning before Olympus or Sony) have been in terms of video performance, the company is still releasing excellent enthusiast stills and 'hybrid' cameras. The Lumix DC-S5 is a good example of a camera that takes many of the powerful video features introduced in more expensive models, but packages them in a smaller, more accessible body, aimed more at stills-focused and multimedia shooters.

Micro Four Thirds has a lot of advantages for hybrid stills/video use, and high-end video

Where Panasonic still tends to fall down a little compared to competitors is autofocus performance. Mr. Yamane is refreshingly honest about this, and about the need to improve. He wouldn't be drawn on the long-term future of Panasonic's DFD (depth-from-defocus) technology but his commitment as expressed in this interview to 'improving processing capacity with new hardware and improving the accuracy with new software algorithms' is encouraging.

Also encouraging, in this bad-news-biased echo-chamber where dire rumors are constantly circulating about this or that company, or this and that class of cameras being 'dead' is his commitment to Micro Four Thirds.

While it seems likely that, long-term, Panasonic will focus its stills photography energies more on full-frame, M43 has a lot of advantages for hybrid stills/video use, and high-end video. Chief among these is an ability to keep the physical size of the body and lens combinations small, and the potential for greater sensor readout speed compared to larger full-frame chips. The boxy, tiny and powerful BGH1 is a good example of a camera that could only exist with a sub full-frame sensor inside it, and it's a safe bet that it won't be a one-off. With Olympus / OM Digital Solutions primarily still focused on stills photographers, and Sony pushing full-frame in its enthusiast and professional video cameras, it seems likely that Panasonic will explore the 'small sensor hybrid camera' niche further in future.

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