The Sky is Falling at Panasonic's Camera Division - or Not?

The Sky is Falling at Panasonic's Camera Division - or Not?

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.

My Micro Four Thirds cameras have covered Hurricane Sandy, to Occupy Wall Street to the Black Lives Matters movement - Some of the system's weaknesses, such as lack of flash options, aren't as important when it comes to journalism.

My Micro Four Thirds cameras have covered Hurricane Sandy, to Occupy Wall Street to the Black Lives Matters movement - Some of the system's weaknesses, such as lack of flash options, aren't as important when it comes to journalism.

This isn’t a post complaining about the system’s sensor size. Anybody who bought one of these cameras knew the limitations that come with it i.e. depth of field and noise levels.

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.

Growing Pains

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.

They Might Be Giants play Terminal 5 in New York City. While Panasonic cameras had their faults, the GF/GM line looked like point-and-shoot cameras, which meant they could often go where DSLRs could not.

They Might Be Giants play Terminal 5 in New York City. While Panasonic cameras had their faults, the GF/GM line looked like point-and-shoot cameras, which meant they could often go where DSLRs could not.

Then there is the strobist problem. While I’ve gotten Canon flashes to work with my Panasonic using Cactus triggers, there’s still an overall lack of native radio support for flashes the way Canon and Nikon have baked into their speedlights. It’s wonderful to have high speed sync, TTL, and the ability to control multiple flashes right from my camera. It’s key to my wedding and portraiture work.

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.

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30 Comments

I own two of Panasonic's Blu-Ray players that occasionally lock up, causing me to unplug them for 30 seconds. Inexpensive but much better build quality than the Sony I returned. My first CD player, in 1984, was one of their Technics. I think I may have also owned one of their clock radios in the 80s. That's the sum of my experience with Panasonic. Their cameras, and the sensor used, have never appealed to me. I'm still waiting for Fujifilm to ditch those X-Trans sensors so I can get one of their cameras. Maybe Panasonic should stick to video cameras. They used to make great TVs too. Sad.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Curious Peter, what's the issue with X-Trans? I ask because the Fuji X-T1 has been slowly replacing my Panasonics as my mirrorless workhorse system. I needed something while the camera was away, after all.

Soft images and sometimes odd artifacts are seen depending on the scene. It also doesn't matter what RAW app you use. The former is my biggest gripe. The X-Trans sensor simply delivers soft images. The sensor is fine for reducing color moire but it is not worth the loss in resolution.

I like their camera designs and their kit zooms are excellent. I just wish they would ditch the X-Trans sensor.

>>> Soft images and sometimes odd artifacts are seen depending on the scene. It also doesn't matter what RAW app you use.<<

Oddly, 99.9999% of people who use dcraw, rawtherapee, capture, photoninja, etc, say otherwise. Have you considered the possibility that you just never learned how to use these tools properly? Although how you managed to get said "odd artifacts" enough of the time that it matters is beyond me. I've never had this problem with an xtrans sensor.

Also, you must, if you've made any attempt to discuss this problem and get help, be aware that most Fuji users don't have this problem. So why do you present the problem as if it's universal rather than likely to be something you're doing wrong?

...And I say this as someone who finds the Fuji "I'm pretending to be a film camera!" interface irritating. I think I'd be a Samsung customer, if only they'd stayed the game.

Using different software can not overcome the inherent problems with the X-Trans sensor. On the matter of resolution, it is obvious with every RAW developer I have tried, unsurprisingly.

I'm not sure how these posted samples will look but one is from the Sony a6500 and the other one is from one of the latest Fujifilm X cameras. These are both from files made available on another photo site. You can probably figure out what site that is. I used one of the RAW developers you mentioned, Raw Therapee.

The more detailed one is from the Sony a6500. Results are similar with other 24 MP APSC sensors.

One thing I tell people who do not understand is to look at grass and distant detail like branches. You'll more easily see the effect of the softness of the X-Trans sensor.

One final note. Artifacts not noticed "enough of the time" is too much for me. One image ruined by such a thing is too much for me.

>>>Using different software can not overcome the inherent problems with the X-Trans sensor.<<<

This is argument by assertion. I.e. the only thing it shows is that you don't know how to make a competent argument.

>>>One thing I tell people who do not understand is to look at grass and distant detail like branches. You'll more easily see the effect of the softness of the X-Trans sensor. <<<

Despite your superstitiona, resolution is resolution and if the xtrans had a problem, then it would show in Imatest results. This isn't the case; ***objectively*** you are talking nonsense.

>>>One final note. Artifacts not noticed "enough of the time" is too much for me. One image ruined by such a thing is too much for me.<<<

All sensors will artefact some of the time. You've just committed yourself to never taking a photograph again...

>> I used one of the RAW developers you mentioned, Raw Therapee. <<<

And now you are contradicting yourself. Because your original post literally claimed to have used EVERY raw developer with the xtrans - when you said the problem shows "no matter what" software you use.

I think what happened here is that you tried to use rawtherapee, which is an unusually complex raw developer, got bad results, and looked for a way to save face.

This is rather more plausible than your noticing a resolutio problem that doesn't show on Imatest isn't it? Not to mention one that a host of more competent photographers fail to see...

I could have explained in detail why the problem is inherent to the sensor design but seeing as it gets complicated, it makes more sense to leave it up to someone truly interested and objective to look into the matter.

Objectively, I provided RAW samples clearly showing the softness of the X-Trans sensor. You get the same results with every other X-Trans camera model. The proof is the eyes.

Sure all cameras will show some kinds of artifacts; I simply can not tolerate the unique artifacts that the X-Trans sensor produces.

How have I contradicted myself?? I have tried every RAW developer that supports X-Trans. I uses Raw Therapee to show you the soft results because it was one of the ones you mentioned. What was wrong with that's??

Also, there are no special adjustments that can be made for the X-Trans in Raw Therapee. I simply chose the highest quality setting.

I provided some sample photos clearly showing what I claimed. You haven't shown or said anything to disprove what is being seen in those image samples.

You're happy with the X-Trans sensor, great. I'm not.

>>I could have explained in detail why the problem is inherent to the sensor design<<

No, you couldn't. You think that you could, but that's not the same thing.
People who can't appreciate this difference have a problem...

I have provided you sample images showing how soft the X-Trans sensor records detail. How about you post some images proving otherwise?

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Peter - I find this to be somewhat true with JPG out of the camera, but it's not too bad. However, in shooting raw and using the output sharpener that comes with Google's Nik Software package, I can get very good results. Worth a try if you are having issues! The Nik package is free now.

That's cool if you are satisfied with your results after doing some sharpening. Unfortunately that's just window dressing. I'm not satisfied with that. You can't add resolution that was never there in the first place. X-Trans RAW files are simply noticeably softer than cameras with standard Bayer sensors. That's inherent to the X-Trans sensor design. It can not be overcome by using different RAW developers or demosaicing algorithms, or by adding sharpening.

>> That's cool if you are satisfied with your results after doing some sharpening.<<

This shows profound ignorance of basic post processing. EVERY sensor needs sharpening of the final image from the raw (unless you want an unsharpened look.)

>>X-Trans RAW files are simply noticeably softer than cameras with standard Bayer sensors. That's inherent to the X-Trans sensor design. It can not be overcome by using different RAW developers or demosaicing algorithms, or by adding sharpening.<<

This is objectively wrong in a way that has no excuse. Because:

1. You've given no reason for saying this

2. No competent person would use the word "sharp" as you are doing to talk about *resolution*. (Sharpness in the sense of sharpening has a different meaning.)

3. Imatest results say otherwise

...Asserting and re-asserting your opinion against objective evidence, without any attempt at reasoned argument, is a definition of failure. You're simply providing a textbook example of how chronic Dunning-Kruger sufferers behave.

Every sensor does not need sharpening. That is simply something that has become the tradition. Besides, software sharpening is not the same as having a sensor that delivers sharp results. You can't add detail that never existed in the first place.

That's right I haven't given the technical reasons for why the X-Trans sensors deliver inherently soft images. As I said,the subject is too complicated for me to want to engage in another long winded discussion about it.I've done it too often elsewhere. For those truly interested why, they can easily seek that information out for themselves. That I have not provided it for you doesn't equal that information not existing and not being correct.

Look at it this way, a less than sharp lens will not be able to record as much detail as a sharper lens. The resolution I speak of has to do with being able to record detail, not megapixel count. The X-Trans sensor simply doesn't record as much detail.

You keep throwing around Imatest. Well, feel free to provide something from them to disprove what I am saying. At least I provided you sample images that show exactly what I am talking about without having to go into a long winded technical discussion about why. Why do you keep ignoring the samples I provided?

I've provided objective evidence. You have not. I can also get the same results with other cameras against the Fujifilm X cameras.

>>Every sensor does not need sharpening. That is simply something that has become the tradition.<<

You think that, but then you don't the difference between sharpness and resolution....

Honestly, it's clear that you don't know what you're talking about

For example, one of the things any technically competent digital photographer knows is that final sharpening is dependent on the size of the final image - you resize, then sharpen. To talk of a sensor that doesn't need sharpening shows profound ignorance. It's unlikely that the sensor in the camera you are using is going to give you the exact size image you want, hmm?

I've provided objective evidence. You have not. I can also get the same results with other cameras against the Fujifilm X cameras. Feel free to post some images proving otherwise.

Duplicate post deleted.

>>I've provided objective evidence<<

No, you haven't. Imatest results are objective evidence. What you've provided are images that are either evidence of a problem with the sensor, or with the raw developer, or of your incompetence. And this is the point you seem unable to understand. If 99.99% of people can get decent resolution images, and Imatest says there is no problem, then the chances are millions to one that the explanation for your problems is that you are incompetent.

As for asking for sharp Fuji images that are better than yours, flickr is full of them.

Not a sensor problem since the results are the same with all Fujifilm X cameras reviewed on that site.

Not a raw developer app problem since that softness exists with all the raw developer apps I have tried, including the ones you mentioned.

I'm not interested in getting "decent resolution." I am interested in getting *the best resolution* (detail) for that size sensor.

You have no idea what "99.999%" of Fujifilm X cameras owners think. Discussions in forums on the problems with the X-Trans sensors are common.

I don't need to go look at Fujifilm X camera images in Flickr. I have tested publicly available RAW files from multiple Fujifilm X cameras and the soft results are the same.

If you are happy with your Fujifilm X camera, great. The image quality is simply not good enough for me. How I feel about that sensor isn't preventing you from enjoying your camera.

It's obvious that I have provided objective evidence, where as you have not provided anything at all. Imatest results? Where?? I could post more samples of that same file produced with other raw developers but I'm not going to waste my time as you are simply not being objective on the matter. Remember, these are just tools. Don't get too attached to them.

Josh Leavitt's picture

Thanks for sharing Wasim. I'm hopeful Panasonic can do a 180 with its camera division. I've always been an Olympus guy myself, but more competition in the micro four thirds market space only makes things better for us consumers. But overhauling customer service procedures and practices, and strengthening product line cohesion are significant endeavors - hopefully Panny will have time to enact these changes.

I'd really like to see Panny hold on long enough to make a debut of their global e-shutter CMOS technology that they're working on with Fuji. That could be a game changer for the company.

People get excited about global e-shutter designs, but there is a significant chance the ones under development won't make it into what we think of as cameras. They're likely to get fast read-out at the cost of other desirable features - eg pixel density, maximum wafer size, low noise. Most of the potential future market for sensors is automotive and industrial applications, so the big money in sensor R&D is going on these.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I LOVED. Loved my GH3 for video. I could live with some of the problems of the system but for me, the biggest deal-breaker is the service. I'm sure in time the flash stuff would have come around (and maybe it still will, from Olympus?) but Panasonic service was truly the worst camera customer service experience I've had in 10 years of shooting. I used to own a Nikon D600, so I think this really says something. I haven't sold my gear off yet - I'm waiting for a Fuji service experience to happen before making a final decision on which way to go with this. It looks like with the X-T2 that Fuji is getting more serious about video.

Re. the article: that's an excellent diagnosis of Panasonic's problems. I'd only add that they haven't learned to market their strengths. They've specialized in hybrid cameras.... but a lot of people don't realize there are such things. In their shoes I'd combine the LX100 with their new sensor stabilization tech and try something radical, like letting the Walmart crowd know it actually exists.

Unfortunately very little to no marketing is directed at the general market. The general market thinks you can get similar photos from a phone. Camera manufacturers have done little to nothing to convince them otherwise.

>>The general market thinks you can get similar photos from a phone.<<

I doubt it. More realistically, they think they can get good enough pictures from phones or have better things to spend their money on, or want a "camera" they can carry all the time without extra bulk.

Which is why I didn't say "the general market" but "the Walmart crowd" - ie the people already buying bottom of the market DSLRs there, as already referred to in the article. (Except the author said Costco instead of Walmart..)

People buying cameras at Walmart are certainly a part of that general market. The general market is ignorant about cameras, even those that buy bargain slrs. Not surprising since the camera manufacturers do little to no advertising to the general public, which is a shame.

>>People buying cameras at Walmart are certainly a part of that general market.<<

Yes. Everyone is. By definition. However they obviously are NOT people included in your statement that

>>The general market thinks you can get similar photos from a phone<<<

..Or they wouldn't be in Walmart buying cameras, would they? Really - is this terribly hard to understand? People who buy cameras are the people who see a need to have a camera. Rather than people who don't see a need to have a camera. No actually wakes up in the morning and says "Gee, honey - I sure don't see the point in buying no expensive camera. So let's go to Walmart today and buy one!!!"

I have no idea what the point of your post is but I'll respond as best as I can.

When someone says "in general" it doesn't mean everyone. Just like a generalization doesn't include everyone.

The Walmart market is the general market.

People that buy anything typically do so because they "see a need."

>> People buying cameras at Walmart are certainly a part of that general market. <<

Everyone is part of the general market in it's widest definition. That's why sensible people don't use the term. It's meaningless.

But as you defined it - ie the people who don't see a point in buying a camera other than a phone - no, people buying a DSLR at Walmart are not. Otherwise they wouldn't be buying a camera...

Peter Brody >>Not a raw developer app problem since that softness exists with all the raw developer apps<<

To be brutally frank, I think you are lying. You started by claiming you had tried all raw developer apps and then gave away that you've only tried rawtherapee. Trying all the raw developers possible would require using three different OSes and a lot of effort. It's something a painstaking and competent person might do - but such a person wouldn't make posts like yours:

You've got no images on your profile, you don't understand the basics of post processing - eg that sharpening is image size specific, so there can't be such a thing as an sensor that doesn't need sharpening, you don't see to know what an Imatest result is and you can confuse sharpness and resolution. In short, you have shown yourself repeatedly to be utterly incompetent.

The only reason for answering you in this thread is so that anyone intelligent thinking of buying a Fuji would see that your opinions are worthless - that you're just one of those strange people who can make using the Internet a chore. (Not that I especially think people should buy a Fuji - they just shouldn't be FUDed by the likes of you.) I think at this stage that's more than done.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I just realized that we spent most of this thread talking about FujiFilm.