Friday, February 7, 2014

The GH4 Saves Panasonic From Itself

It's no secret that neither Olympus nor Panasonic, the two progenitors of Micro 4/3, are doing well. Damn poorly is probably a better way of describing it. Obviously, neither company sells only cameras, and as such success or failure in the camera market can only go so far in changing the fortunes of the broader companies. That doesn't mean, though, that their cameras aren't a very interesting window into the companies and their problems.

Both Olympus and Panasonic are "old world" Japanese companies. Their executive structure is very Japanese, their culture is very Japanese, and their product philosophy is very Japanese. Sony was like that, too, which is why they brought in Howard Stringer, a Brit, in 2009 in an attempt to de-Japanify the company to encourage a turnaround. Obviously, that hasn't happened.

Olympus actually tried the same thing when they hired another Brit, Michael Woodford, to run the company. Not only did he, by his own description, clash with Olympus's corporate culture, he uncovered a movie-worthy, multi-billion-dollar corruption cover-up!

Amazingly, Olympus has been doing the best of the two. Panasonic recently saw its stock price go up after their cost-cutting efforts saw some rather impressive success, but aside from that, the company has been a shit-show.

Long story short, Panasonic and Olympus haven't been terribly competitive. And as can be seen in Panasonic's intransigence in its other markets and Olympus's twenty-year accounting scandal, the cause of this poor performance is arrogance. Pure, unadulterated arrogance.

I think that the arrogance was fueled by the fact that the companies were, in many ways, making good products. No one was buying Panasonic's televisions, but they were good televisions. No one was buying the Olympus PEN series, but they were pretty good little cameras. Simply making a good product isn't the same as being competitive, though, and that is something that these blasted companies cannot get through their heads.

They need to create interesting products. Exciting products. Inventive products. Products that are different from every other company and are cheaper than every other company. Instead, both Panasonic and Olympus try to be Canon, just as every cell phone company tries to be Apple.

It's hard to decide which company has been the biggest disappointment. Olympus has refused to redesign their 4/3 lenses and bring them to the Micro 4/3 market while Panasonic has produced an entire slew of overpriced and under-specced lenses and cameras. And both companies release lenses that feature zero optical correction and as such have distortion that could almost be classifiable as dubstep.

In the end, it's an academic question. Micro 4/3 is exciting because of other companies. Blackmagic and SLR Magic are producing exciting products. Metabones Speedbooster will put a nearly limitless selection of glass at our disposal. The stuff coming out of the two original companies has been constantly disappointing.

The GH4 does not appear to be a disappointment. It is a groundbreaking camera. It puts true 4K recording ability into the sub-$2,000 market and features pro-level features that could put GH4s on movie sets. It's that good. If the photographic abilities are good, this becomes the 4/3 camera that the GH3 should have been.

It will also stand as an example of what other companies should be doing. I'm looking squarely at Nikon and Canon. With the processing power in their cameras, their video quality should be far higher than it is now. The only Nikon camera with decent video quality for the price is the 1-Series, which is awful in most other ways.

Importantly, the GH4 is a unique product! For that reason, it is impossible to say that it is overpriced. Is Panasonic seeing ridiculous profits from the camera? How should I know! There are no other products on the market that do what the Panasonic does for its price. The next cheapest 4K camera, the Blackmagic 4K, costs over twice the price and is a pure video camera. The GH4 is unique, and at $1,999, it is impressive.

I speculated about whether it was going to be a global shutter or not, and we now have our answer: no. While that's mildly disappointing, it's not surprising. Global shutters are very difficult to design and implement.

Panasonic has managed to increase sensor read-out by 50%, and the video will use a 4K crop of the sensor, which makes the video area very similar to the Blackmagic Cinema camera, which is the GH4's primary competition. That center crop means that actual readout is going to be very quick since, I'm assuming, they don't need to dump the unused pixels. They can simply dump the pixels being used and reset the sensor more quickly. Rolling shutter won't be non-existent, but I would imagine that it won't be bad.

The GH4 is an important product because it finally brings some competition to Blackmagic. I'm not saying the BM needed competition. Lord knows, they've been competing like crazy without anyone else. Still, having two companies mix it up is better than one.

If you are an average user, it's important to understand what the GH4 is not. It is not the Micro 4/3 camera to own. This is not the one camera to rule them all. This is the camera to own if video and video quality is of significant importance to you. If you will use it primarily for photographic applications, it is much too expensive. A 4/3 sensor will never provide $2,000 worth of technology for photography alone. The E-M1 costs $1,500 and is already overpriced, which is likely why no one is selling it for sticker.

Video is another banana completely. For video, sensor size is of much lower importance. Very rarely is the shallow depth of field allowable from full-format cameras ever used in video. It's fun to have, but it is very much a niche tool. Indeed, the smaller sensor provides a large number of distinct advantages. $2,000 for that sensor in an otherwise robust package is a reasonable price to say the least.

I cannot wait to get my hands on a GH4. $2,000 is too much for my pockets right now (my GH2 will have to serve its master for a bit longer) but used cameras will hit the market eventually. And when they do, I'm going to make a 4K film, simply because I can.


On a side not, EOSHD recently complained about how companies like Olympus seem almost psychotically averse to including video in their products. 

Last year Olympus gave what I thought to be a very strange reason for their video modes being a pale imitation of Panasonic’s.

Olympus don’t want to be too good at video, in-case their cameras become known for it. They want to be associated with photography professionals and not cat-video YouTube uploaders, just in case they might get popular with filmmakers and sell us lots of cameras.

I can really sympathise with Olympus, it must be a terrible prospect to have better image quality on your cameras and higher sales. Canon also recently became extremely worried that video might improve on their DSLRs (thanks to Magic Lantern) with terrible consequences. The nightmare scenario of offering their customers better video absolutely scared the life out of one rep who said the threat of better video would be dealt with by their lawyers!

Joking aside (or I am?!) why doesn’t Olympus want to be known for video? From the perspective of Olympus looking at the video features and their users, it might look like video users just sit around uploading clips of kittens to YouTube and editing in iMovie. (Maybe that’s true!?) But if we’re pointing the finger here, I’d say leave off the pop-art filter and HDR images, you photographers! There are as many casual stills shooters as there are video shooters and the 1500 euro E-M1 should not compromise one bit for any of them. Put the gimmicks in the lower end stuff instead.

Indeed on the E-M1 photographers get a raft of serious features and improvements like a 1/8000 shutter and weather sealing and video users get some new funky special effects for their 1500 euros. If you press the left button whilst recording video the image echoes and then returns to normal. If you press the down button the image ghosts and leaves a trail. Case closed.

This is an example of that arrogance that I mentioned earlier. It's not that Olympus doesn't want to be good at video. It's that they want to be known for video when they choose to be known for video. Then, they can try to squeeze money from it. He mentions Canon without making the connection.

Canon released the 5D Mark II which blew the world away with decent video. The Mark III comes out with identical video, and Canon was furious when Magic Lantern came out, going so far as to threaten the group with a lawsuit. Panasonic did the same thing with the GH3. They locked out hackers, crippled aspects of its design, and tried to sell the AF100 for $4,500.

If these companies can't squeeze money from you, they don't want you having it, logic, reason, and value be damned!

Canon can afford to be that arrogant, at least for now, because of their size and reach. Olympus and Panasonic cannot, cannot, afford to be that arrogant, and the fact that they are trying that reveals a corporate obliviousness that enters the realm of pathological.

If nothing else, the GH4 signals a crack in that pathology. That is a good thing. Of course, it could also just be a fluke. Because lord knows, neither the GH1 nor GH2 became legends because of Panasonic's doing.

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