If you’ve been following the recent news about Panasonic, it’s possible to believe that the sky is falling over at the camera division, only to find out directly from the company it’s not, but then – reading between the lines – realizing it probably is a bad situation either way. A large, 4/3-sized chunk of the photo community is probably asking how it got so bad – didn’t the company just come out with the killer Lumix GH5?
From someone who’s worked for one of the big two in the camera industry (Canon), it’s safe to say that Panasonic’s sales numbers never worried anybody there. Every chart I ever saw had Panasonic near the bottom. While the GH series always got a significant chunk of the press, it’s what’s considered a “Halo Product” – meaning it’s the top model that people aspire to but don’t actually buy in volume. Think Chevy Corvette or Dodge Viper. Great cars, but the companies are probably selling more Cruzes and Darts to shore up the bottom line. The same could be said of Canon – the 1DX Mark II is the top dog, but they can sell more Rebels at Costco in any given month.
That’s where Panasonic went wrong – their marketing message never pulled in the entry level user to carry them up through the range, and so now, whatever the message coming out of their corporate office, they’re in trouble. Panasonic never had their Rebel and now those chickens are coming home to roost.
Wait! I'm One of You!
Before you pull out the pitchforks, I’ll put it out there now – I’ve been a Panasonic mirrorless user since 2010, moving through the Lumix GF1 (which took the featured image in this post), GF2, GF3, GM1 and GH2 and GH3. I’m not a DSLR fanboy throwing shade at Panasonic. I’ve used the cameras for everything from family photos to hardcore journalism, just about everything except sports. Video quality out of most of these Panasonic bodies looks beautiful, and photos, while not amazing, are pretty good for a smaller sensor.
But the word I used earlier was system. Panasonic put out some great camera bodies, and some decent lenses, but there was never much coherence in their system.
Looking at their model lineup is like an alphabet soup of letters – GM, G, GX, GH GF, all followed by seemingly random numbers. How, for instance, did we get from the GX1 to the GX7? What about the GX2, 3, 4, 5, and 6? If the GF series was originally marketed as the most svelte of the G series cameras, then where did it fit in when the GM came along? Where did the GM series go anyway?
This led to some confusion in the upper ranks of their cameras as well. Switching from a GH2 to a GH3 wasn’t easy - the ergonomics completely changed as did the connections to hook up simple things like a microphone. All of these changes were for the better, of course, but pros don’t like change in their flagship bodies - witness a Nikon D5 operating mostly like a D2H, only with much better autofocus and capabilities. A pro-level camera shouldn’t force you to relearn with each generation, which arguably Panasonic figured out after the GH3, at least for that line.
There are many times I wanted to make the full switch over to a mirrorless system from my big, bulky DSLRs, but Panasonic never fully got me there. They made a few missteps along the way.
One early error was how Panasonic implemented image stabilization differently from Olympus. Though both Olympus and Panasonic partnered for the Micro Four Thirds mount and created lenses compatible with both brands, each company integrated image stabilization in different ways. Olympus went in-body, and Panasonic put it in the lenses. This meant that to use Olympus glass on a Panasonic, you’d be making compromise. The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 75mm f/1.8 lens is great, for instance, but at a 150mm equivalent, it’s hard to hand-hold. Panasonic seems to have reversed this in later generations of cameras, but that adds to the feeling of alienation for those who avoided otherwise excellent glass because of Panasonic’s early decision.
Beyond basic infra-red, direct line of support in some of their flashes, Panasonic (and Olympus) have nothing advanced to offer Micro Four Thirds users. I walked the trade show floors last year asking this very question of radio flash support to Olympus and Panasonic reps only to be met with shoulder shrugs and silence.
Some third party companies - the aforementioned Cactus and PocketWizard, amongst others, have stepped up Flash support, but Panasonic seems to show no interest in expanding the system’s native flash capabilities, and after you’ve gone native with radio-enabled flash systems, it’s hard to go back.
Finally, there’s one other, major thing that Panasonic shows no interest in - service and support.
I’ve had plenty of out-of-warranty things happen with cameras. Things break, but I know that if I bring them to Canon or Nikon, they’ll take a look and usually have me up and running in about a week - even less when I was a Canon Professional Services member. They didn’t charge to simply look at an item and always kept me apprised. This goes for both companies. I haven’t experienced an issue with my Fuji yet, but I haven’t heard the same Panasonic horror story I’m about to share.
When I had a dial stop working on my GH3 and sent it to Panasonic for repairs, they didn’t even acknowledge receiving the camera until I called days later (which the woman who answered most days at the Mcallen, Texas service center said was standard procedure). Then, they wouldn’t look at it until I authorized a $75 diagnostic fee (also standard procedure).
They then couldn’t figure out if I even approved the repair or not, as they emailed me even after I approved by phone to ask for approval. And finally, after the part took a week to arrive, and then the repair took a week after that, they could not tell me where or if they shipped my camera back to me after having it for more than a month. I had to take to Twitter and got a better response from their social media team than the service center.
I’m lucky I didn’t use this thing for professional work - this one experience is enough to cause me to never trust Panasonic again - and indeed I have spoken with my wallet on this one. It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I’ve loved my seven-year run with Panasonic, but that they’re in a bit of a tight spot is not at all surprising for someone who has suffered through their growing pains.