Why Panasonic, Sony’s mirrorless strategy is completely wrong

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.