Caution: Long read ahead
I wrote in my last post (some time ago) about how I wanted to get into photography with a Panasonic GX1. I still want to get into photography (though I’m slightly less motivated now), but I don’t think the GX1 is the camera for me anymore. There’s quite a few reasons for this, but it all boils down to one thing — Panasonic doesn’t understand many of its customers. More specifically, it doesn’t understand me. More vaguely, it doesn’t understand people like me. The more I see the company’s newest products or read interviews with its executives, the more I realize how much of its success has been accidental and that it really has no idea what many of its customers want.
I mentioned in my previous post that Panasonic’s GF1 was very popular with enthusiasts, and how the GF2 was seen as a disappointment. Many wondered why Panasonic would follow such a popular camera with something that seem less feature-packed. But looking back at the launch of the GF1, I saw that most of the advertisements contained words like “lightest” and “smallest”. The target market in Japan was for young women. Although the GF1 built up a huge following among enthusiast photographers, it was really always aimed at the point-and-shoot crowd who wanted something a little more powerful. That’s why the company would follow it up with the GF2 — a better realization of that advanced point-and-shoot vision it had. The GF3 would go on to further realize that vision. The GF1’s success with enthusiasts was a complete accident.
With that in mind, you would expect that Panasonic would start targeting the enthusiast market. And that’s exactly what it tried to do with the GX1. However, the company seemed to be completely unaware of the competitive environment when it launched the camera in early November. The starting price of $699 for body only is the same price as the Sony NEX-5N with kit lens. For those who don’t know, the NEX-5N is a critically-acclaimed camera from Sony which seems to hold the crown for best image quality in a mirrorless (or compact system) camera. That camera is the reason why some people doubt the future of Micro Four Thirds, and Panasonic decided to price its newest Micro Four Thirds camera (by all rights, a NEX-5N competitor) higher than Sony’s moneymaker. That wouldn’t be so bad if the GX1 had features to justify the price, but it simply doesn’t. Right now it seems hard to even justify an upgrade from the GF1. The only significant of the GX1 over the GF1 seems to be the newer sensor — the GX1’s LCD is even the same resolution as the two-year-old GF1.
Again, Panasonic seems to think that it’s providing the customers with what they want, but customer expectations change in the two years since the GF1’s launch. The GX1 really is what the GF2 should have been, and by now Panasonic should have a better camera to offer, especially at that price. The company’s efforts seem either half-hearted or misguided now, especially if you compare the GX1 to the company’s last Micro Four Thirds camera, the G3. Many have said that the GX1 is like a G3 with its electronic viewfinder chopped off and its swiveling LCD stuck in place. The sensors seem to be the same between the two, leading to a probably accurate assumption that they have similar image quality. That’s nothing to complain about, as many reviewers claim that the G3 produces great images. But the G3 can now be had for less than $600 with kit lens. Even at launch, it went for $699 with kit lens — the same price that the GX1 goes for with body only. While I would never say that the specs are the only things that matter, it really seems like you’re paying more for less with the GX1 — again you’re losing a swiveling LCD and an electronic viewfinder and paying $100 more for it. I mean, what does the GX1 offer over the G3, besides its form factor? For many, that alone will be enough — and it’s perfectly fair for them to think so. But I want more of a value from my cameras, and I suspect that many others feel the same way.
Another place where I can spot misguided efforts is in the design of the GX1. Micro Four Thirds cameras seem to fit into two categories regarding form factor: the DSLR shape (G3, GH2) and the rangefinder shape (GF1, GX1). To give you an idea of how beautiful a rangefinder camera can be, here’s the $7000 Leica M9.
Of course, I wouldn’t expect Panasonic to match the looks of a $7000 camera, but the company is capable of providing a very nice looking rangefinder itself, as evidenced by its earlier camera, the L1 (making use of a Leica lens):
Of course, when Panasonic got into Micro Four Thirds, it got away from previous rangefinder designs and still ended up with a handsome product in the GF1:
And then, there’s the GX1:
To me, it looks like Panasonic couldn’t quite decide whether to stay with its GF1 design or go back to its L1 design, so it ended up incorporating both. Opinions will vary on this, of course, but to me it seems kind of tacky as a result (I thought it looked good at first, but the more I see it the worse it looks to me).
Olympus, the other manufacturer of Micro Four Thirds cameras, seems to have a much bigger grasp on how rangefinders should look, based on its flagship E-P3:
My last complaint about Panasonic has nothing to do with the GX1. Rather, it’s about what’s currently my favorite camera: the Panasonic GH2. I read an interview with Panasonic executives at around the time of the GH2’s launch, where they described the camera as addressing a “niche market.” The GH2 is praised as having the best video capabilities of its price range, beating out DSLRs like the Canon 7D and 5D MkII (depending on how much one values sensor size). It’s like the executives are completely unaware of what was referred to as the “HDSLR Revolution” in the US. Consumers were finally capable of getting professional video quality in DSLR form factors for DSLR prices, but this market seemed to be ignored by Panasonic. The GH2 was met with supply shortages for the first few months of its release. There can be numerous explanations for why there were shortages (many of them very legitimate) but I still see it as partly because Panasonic underestimated consumer demand for this product, because it didn’t understand its consumers. The executives went on to talk about how they expect the GH2 to take up 10-15% of their business, while rangefinder-styled cameras were expected to take 75% over time — during the time of that interview, the only rangefinder-style camera they had was the disappointing GF2.
Going back to the GX1 for a bit (sorry about the back-and-forth), during a more recent interview with a Panasonic executive, the question of why there was no microphone input on the GX1 was brought up. The executive went on to say that it was because that was a differentiation between the GX1 and the GH2. What this means is that the GX1 can’t be used for any serious video (if the lack of 1080p didn’t already take care of that). Now, I understand product cannibalism from a business perspective, but I have a hard time supporting any company that refuses to make the best product it can make simply because it might cut into sales of its other product.
I want to end this by saying I don’t hate Panasonic. Far from it. Like I said, the GH2 is currently my favorite camera. It’s because I’m such a fan of its products that I have such high standards for them. I think the executives at the company understand business — by targeting point-and-shoot upgraders, they probably stand to make more money than targeting enthusiasts (both photographers and filmmakers). However, with the way things are going, it seems that they won’t have me as a customer, which would be fine for them, so maybe this post is just me ranting. I still want to get into Micro Four Thirds (I happen to think that Sony’s NEX cameras are ugly, and I have no interest in getting into DSLRs like the ones from Canon and Nikon), but I’ll be paying more attention to Olympus from now on - not so much out of a newfound love of Olympus as having an alternative to Panasonic. If the E-P3 would just get cheaper…