Why Panasonic, Sony’s mirrorless strategy is completely wrong

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GF3 with kit lens

Image from DPReview’s GF3 hands-on – check it out here

Panasonic have just announced the GF3 and EOSHD believes it marks the point where customers see through the compact ‘step-up’ Kool-Aid they’ve been sold. Just as in Hollywood after a series of bad 3D movies, customers have had enough.

The GF3, like the Sony NEX C3 is a further simplification of a line that is designed to tempt compact users into spending money on lenses.

Both Sony and Panasonic have taken mirrorless down the same dead-end. The NEX C3, despite being a camera that requires interchanagble lenses, has a feature called Background Defocus for customers who don’t know what the aperture does. This is the audience Sony expects to sell lenses to.

I’ll tell you what happens when a satisfied compact camera user steps up to a compact system camera…

Take my girlfriend. Last year she upgraded to a Girl Friend 1 from Panasonic. We went sight-seeing with friends, most of whom had a compact with a long zoom – great for travelling. Immediately what dissapointed my girlfriend was the short reach of the 14-45mm kit lens and she asked to borrow my 14-140mm.

The second problem was the bulk of the camera relative to a compact with it’s retractable lens. She complained it took up room in her handbag reserved for makeup! She didn’t care for having to fuss with a lens cap either.

I told her about shallow DOF and the fast aperture pancake, but she didn’t want the hassle of having to stop and swap primes just to zoom. And by the time she did so the decisive moment had usually vanished.

She sold it and bought a Sony HX5 and I didn’t really blame her. I did at least manage to get a 20mm pancake at a bargain price as a result!

Later we went on a night out and met a friend who wanted to bring his camera but didn’t, because his EP1 with lens wasn’t pocketable. So he used his iPhone.

I believe the customers Panasonic and Sony are targeting don’t want what they’re being sold.

  • They doesn’t care for the merits of a large sensor and fast lens. They’re normal. They’re not photography nerds.
  • They don’t pixel peep at image quality
  • They just want to take snaps with a small camera on auto.
  • They haven’t used a single advanced feature of the Girl Friend 3 yet.
  • They begin to wonder pretty quickly why they spent all that extra money, even before they buy a second lens.
  • They sell it and get an IXUS.

The people I know who DO like the GF1, liked it because they’re photography enthusiasts and understand the concept. EOSHD has been a big proponent of the mirrorless system thoughout its history and has called on Canon several times to build a mirrorless system. But my reasoning for mirrorless being the future is nothing to do with targeting mass market compact users.

The REAL market for compact system cameras is a person Panasonic and Sony have done their best to completely ignore – the enthusiast and photography hobbiest, or someone who realises they have a talent with a compact and want to take it further with advanced features. The true compact step-up customer has been grossly underestimated.

Panasonic and in particular Sony forgot that the main reason compact users upgrade is they want a MORE advanced camera.

Instead they dumbed down the advanced features, took the physical buttons away, and put resistive touch screens in their place which take 3x more presses to operate – mainly because they don’t respond when touched.

The iPhone has a more responsive capacitive touch screen and a graphical interface with icons which look like they belong in 2011. iOS has inertia, smooth scrolling, responsive flick switches. The GF3’s user interface has hardly any of these features and what it does have in common it does worse without exception, despite being aimed at a target audience well used to the standard of the iPhone.

So after such a promising start with the GF1 how have Panasonic got it so wrong?

I believe the genesis of this massive folly came about when Panasonic saw the much stronger sales of the GF1 relative to the G1 and GH1 and put this down to the appeal of a smaller and simpler camera. Then somehow they reached the conclusion that buyers were dumping their compacts for one.

Back then they were probably right!

Panasonic’s own enthusiast high end / travel compact series the TZ saw a massive collapse in sales. Well done!

It used to be THE market leading compact, one in every other tourist’s hand. Yet the mirrorless GF series actually cannibalised Panasonic’s own strong sales of successful high margin compacts. The LX line also suffered, and the bridge camera super-zooms virtually became a nonentity.

This is the number one reason Canon have not yet entered the mirrorless market.

Sales of their G12 and S95 lines are extremely important to the company, these products have much higher margins than would a brand spanking new mirrorless – the product of years of expensive R&D.

Panasonic and Sony hope to make the big profits on lenses, but they are just not seeing it. Both have tried to appeal to the mass market and ended up appealing to nobody. It’s that classic mistake.

Your mum or girlfriend do not want to be swapping out primes and placing them carefully lens-capped into their handbags when they could be snapping away with a pocket compact. Those wanting more image quality than a compact won’t be satisfied with the performance of the 3 year old sensor in the GF3 relative to a Canon or Nikon. Meanwhile even at other end of the broad spectrum enthusiasts will bemoan the touchscreen and simplified usability. Instead of a narrowly focussed appeal the GF3 goes for a broad one and is broadly useless.

Some compact step-up users and a great number of enthusiasts have indeed dumped their TZs and their LXs for mirrorless EPs, GFs and NEXs… before quickly realising the kool-aid was bunk.

For them an EOS, GH2 or X100 has massive appeal. Why buy a GF3?

The sooner Panasonic, Sony (and Olympus) realise this and start targeting the enthusiasts and photographers with their photography tools again, the better for all concerned.

About Author

British filmmaker and editor of EOSHD, Andrew works in Berlin on his own self funded filmmaking and video projects.

21 Comments

  1. Perry Morris Jr. on

    Well said. Its really funny because I can remember my wife saying, “I just wanna snap a good picture and be done with it.” I decided to get her a HX9v, so I can play with it also, without dragging along my (Hacked) GH1.

  2. The GF3 is a bit of a ‘spork’. It tries to be all things to all men and fails. Say for example, I want a fork. I don’t want a spoon. I buy a fork. I want a spoon. I buy a spoon not a fork. But Panaspoonic says ‘oh look at all these people buying forks and spoons, let’s combine them and make a spork!’

    But the spork is too unsophisticated for the dinner party and too extravagant for eating a McDonalds with, so nobody buys it.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spork

  3. I myself am pleased the GF3 release, but only b/c I’m hoping the price of the GF2 goes down as a result. I need to snag a deal on ebay.

  4. I don’t understand what the GF2 provides you with that a GF1 or compact doesn’t already give you. Sorry!

    I had one and sold it immediately. It was a spork and got no use.

  5. Well people who buy a Sony or Panasonic mirrorless camera for its compact size are dummies. I “doesn’t” care what anyone says. I love my GH2.

  6. Indeed, they are dummies. The 14-42mm isn’t getting any more pocketable is it? And the GH2 kicks the ass of the GF line image quality wise.

    Meanwhile the HX9 goes in my pocket, has 1080p, 60p, 24-385mm retractable lens, full manual control for stills, handheld twilight, 43MP panoramic images and panoramic vertical sweep fisheye. But they key thing is – it’s pocketable!!

    A camera is either compact or not. You can’t be half pregnant.

  7. It’s the clashing philosophies of the product that really kill it for me.

    On one hand Panasonic promise ‘small and light’. Yet with anything other than a pancake lens it is unpocketable. See the conflict?

    On one hand Panasonic promise ‘image quality’. Yet it still has the old G1 / GF1 sensor, which is way behind the GH2 and critically the chief rival of this camera, the NEX C3.

    One one hand Panasonic promise ‘simplicity’. Yet they expect customers to be swapping out primes and understanding which lens(es) to buy based on specifications like aperture, when all they are used to is a zoom rocker on a compact!

    It’s a joke. No wonder customers are confused.

  8. I was out shooting pictures with my daughter at a local botanical gardens last weekend. She was shooting with a Panasonic Lumix FP2 and I had my GH2. For the kinds of pics she was taking (mostly flowers) and the lenses I currently have for my GH2, the FP2 was far better equipped for the conditions.

    After her batteries died and I gave her my camera to shoot with she became very frustrated because the beautiful shots she had been taking with the FP2 were now blurry. I can imagine some GF3 owners becoming quite frustrated if all they have is that 14-42 or other similar kit lens available.

  9. The GFs provide manual controls & interchangeable lens system, something compacts don’t.

  10. Joe M. Amadas on

    Agree 100%
    Try to shoot a macro, where is the macro lens?

    a 10x should be standard today if you want versatility but then it is much more money they ask from you

    some new lenses with the tiny visible glass part look like toy cameras and Sony included that mode now as an improvement in the NEX C3

    I never understood why make the camera so tiny but the lenses are still near beer can size.

    Looking at the nice metal NEX lenses and extending the lens it looked like a cardboard tube with 3 pieces of silver foil glued on.

    Sure the Good Hank 2 (see King of the Hill) is a swell camera but still $1500 and no one thought of a motor driven rocker operated zoom for video? call me again when you make a hybrid what makes sense.

    Life comes at you fast and a P&S what can do almost everything (HX9V) in a couple seconds gets that shot. Not very pretty but good enough for most home uses.- Now imagine that camera with a 4Mp sensor

  11. Agree 100% Andrew (although my wife uses my GF1 and has no problem changing lenses and using aperture,shutter etc)
    My missus actually finds the new range of GFs insulting because of its targeting at women/dumbing down combo.
    Also panny announce the expensive Leica lens to go along with a tiny non pro gf3…when I saw this yesterday I thought they fucked up their marketing strategy.
    People who they supposed to be targeting the Gf3 at aint going to spend ££££ on lenses.
    Enthusiasts/pro’s do….make the damn camera for them! Its the folk who will buy the lenses!
    For now I stick with my GH & gf1….panasonic havent upgraded GF1 in any way..and I get plenty of manual controls (thanks to the hack) and the batteries last longer!
    Panasonic/sony run the risk of killing off their format (panny more so) some marketing gurus needs firing in panasonic/sony
    There has been a LOT of backlash on camera forums all over…either these companies listen or they dont.

  12. I agree with you Andrew. However there’s another way to look at it: the GF cams are ‘transitional’ cameras, a way to get your feet wet with a better quality level – if it doesn’t work out, you go back to compacts – but if it does and you quickly realise the limitations, you upgrade to a GH and get to keep all your lenses.

    So don’t think of them as ‘keepers’, but as a friendly experiment. Is it effective? I don’t know. If you already know that quality / low-light is important, you probably also know that the GH is better for you. So the GF’s cannot be for those guys & gals.

    I’m also somewhat baffled by the GF3, for the same reasons you gave – what’s the point of an ultra-compact body, if you have to stick a huge lens on it? You can make the case for a pancake-only scenario, but even those look a little over the top on it. And what’s the point of a future GF-‘Pro’ when there’s already the GH? Well, _unless_ they GH3 will be a marked step up from the GH2, so the GF-pro fills the void. That would kinda make sense, and give the GF buyers ready to step up an option in the same line. But then the GF3 should never have been called ‘GF’ at all.

  13. Oh my god, so true. Hit the nail on the head there buddy.
    Who else thinks the rounded hump on the GF3 is also darn ugly?

    G3 looks promising though.

  14. Andrew, you are usually easy to agree with, but I have some problems with this analysis.
    Both Panasonic and Sony need to build brand recognition over those names the consumer generally first associates with better Japanese cameras – Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Olympus (and forgetting those that are now history). While they have substantial presence in the compact point-and-shoot market, even the least discerning consumer understands that the IQ is generally lacking in this genre. Saturating the market with very affordable mirrorless interchangeable lens system cameras (MILCs) will build brand presence in the consumer market for better cameras, and provide the solid revenue stream to fund R&D, and bring a deeper product mix to market. Frustrating for the enthusiast who has seen a dummying down of the lower-priced MILC bodies, but we will see a greater range of upper end bodies appear – these lend credence to the notion that the electronics giants can match or best the traditional enthusiast and professional manufacturers (Canon and Nikon, in particular). I thought the G1 was a wonderful way to start the process of introducing Panasonic’s MILC technologies, and I see the strategic thinking behind the G3 and now GF3, while continuing to expand the lens line-up that will appeal across the broad spectrum of user interests. I am more than pleased with the performance of the GH2, and while the build is not at the professional level, I can live with it until the next release, which will probably come next spring. In the meantime, we need to continue to advocate for higher end bodies from these manufacturers. We will also likely be pleasantly surprised by the announcement of higher function rangefinder style bodies sooner rather than later (GR?). For most enthusiasts, I think that EVF is mandatory and the message has been getting across, but we have to accept that while enthusiast features help sell the brand, they don’t directly translate into the volume of sales needed to keep the brand competitive – the entry level models do that.

  15. Yeah, but Andrew’s point was that interchangeable lenses _are_ only of interest to enthusiasts. It makes no sense to make a hand-bag dumbed down body, and expect the users that those would appeal to to care about messing with lenses – especially considering how expensive they are, compared to fixed buitl-ins.

    I came to the GH2 from my first DSLR (Nikon D40x, only ever used the kit zoom lens) and the Canon HV20 camcorder with built-in lens. So suddenly I was expected to pay £200+ ($300+) just for a prime lens? OK, I have, because i realise the potential and appreciate the ultra-tiny pancakes – but that’s because I’m an enthusiast, I care about IQ, full manual control, low-light etc (but still resent the costs : ). But do you really think a GF3 buyer wants that added expense when they’re opting for an ultra-limited body?

  16. I am pleased with the GH2’s performance and it is far more innovative and forward looking than a Canon DSLR, the GF3 on the other-hand just furthers the general perception that Panasonic is not yet at Canon’s level, because in 3 models the sensor has remained the same, and is now old. That means the GF3 compares badly to an entry level Rebel or EOS, badly to the Sony NEX (arguably the main product it will vie for buyers affection with!), and badly to an entry level Nikon. Is that the marketing perception Panasonic hoped to create? If so I fear they may have succeeded, and because the GF3 will ship in such great numbers to such a broad new audience, that will deflect a lot of what’s cutting edge about the GH2 away from peoples attention onto a 3 year old sensor and sub-par image quality.

    Also, although the GF3 is competitively priced and is an entry-level model, the lenses are incredibly costly relative to other entry level optics. They are good, but too expensive. I cannot see a GF3 user going beyond the kit zoom, and I doubt they’ll be satisfied if they get the 14mm pancake kit – faced with the choice of returning the camera within 30 days or going without a zoom, I expect a lot of returns for the 14mm kit.

    The GF3 should have had the G3’s sensor and let the form factor be the main differentiator. There should also have been a new entry level range of lenses released.

  17. Exactly, in a nutshell this is Panasonic’s attempt to make mainstream what is really a concept only of interest to enthusiasts. Whatever the touchscreen, the small size, the simplicity of the controls – it is still an interchangeable lens camera, and it is still much bigger than a compact with a zoom lens attached.

    The temptation to make something like this more mass market is understandable, but what it does is:

    – Hurt Panasonic’s own compact sales
    – Lose the interest of enthusiasts
    – Foster a low-end perception of mirrorless technology

    Instead of wasting time and money on this deeply flawed idea why isn’t Panasonic pushing the GH2 more as an alternative to a Canon 600D? They cost the same, they have similar functionality and yet one is a huge seller available in massive numbers in almost every store in the world, whilst the GH2 is a tiny niche product that’s hardly marketed.

    Look I know Panasonic and Sony want to flog lenses to compact users – that is lucrative. But it is like Dell trying to sell a server rack to a female netbook user by sticking a fancy touch screen on it and painting it pink.

  18. Time will tell, but I think the strategy will work. In the same way that all the “soccer moms” were buying Rebels, because they did take better pictures of the kids than the 110 the husband gave them, and they could get more lenses (but never did), they will buy the G3, GF3, E-PL3, NEX-C3 and NX-20 for exactly the same reasons. This will give Panasonic, Olympus, Sony and Samsung the revenue streams that the imaging divisions need to continue to get budget support in the boardrooms. I agree on the GH2 observation – but think it was simply a case of Panasonic completely underestimating demand, perhaps from caution resulting from lower G2/G10 sales than forecast. The frontplate G on the G3, may allow a higher end model to soon follow with a different monikor on the top, and more enthusiast features and controls built into the body (like external mike jack, focus control switch, EVF sensor etc). In order to really distance MILC from DSLR they are going to keep the body small, so I don’t think we will see the larger GH body perpetuated.

  19. You’re right, who needs a DC with big lens? But a lot of people like a small size light weight professional camera.

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