Posted by: Kenji Hall on September 12, 2008
Panasonic could have spruced up its digital camera lineup with another feature-packed product. But instead it chose to survey women and elderly consumers and to design a camera with them in mind
Panasonic’s new Lumix DMC-G1, unveiled today in Tokyo, is a digital single-reflex-lens camera that’s lighter, more compact and has simpler controls than others in this sector of the market. The company sought to offer a camera with interchangeable lenses and high-end specs that wouldn’t scare off anyone who isn’t a camera buff. (They came up with brighter colors and, in Japan, chose 50-year-old actress Kanako Higuchi, in full kimono, as the poster girl.)
The Lumix G1 won’t please the purists. And it’s not cheap, at upwards of $1,000. But Panasonic risked trying something different to reach beyond the men who typically buy SLRs. It’s reminiscent of Nintendo’s decision to make an unconventional video game console that appeals to both kids and elderly adults, not just diehard gamers. (And we all know what that’s done for Nintendo.) Critics of Panasonic’s move into the SLR business in 2006 who wondered what a tech conglomerate could offer may be regretting their skepticism.
The company’s execs looked at their market stats and saw three trends. Competition had made compact point-and-shoot cameras a low profit-margin business. The opportunity for growth was in SLRs, which are outsold by point-and-shoot types 10 to 1. And though women and elderly consumers wanted better cameras they didn’t want to mess with all the menus and buttons of today’s high-end SLRs.
To develop a camera body that weighed just 385 grams and is smaller than other SLR models took a feat of engineering. Panasonic’s engineers didn’t just make tiny cosmetic modifications; they bucked the conventional thinking. The most obvious change: They tossed out the so-called “mirror box”. The mirror box actually consists of a mirror and a pentaprism, which bounce the image from the lens to the viewfinder that the photographer looks through. It’s been a standard feature of SLR cameras for decades and Panasonic dared to replace it with a digital viewfinder.
Removing the mirror box let Panasonic do two things: It eliminated the need for space needed to house the mirrors. And with Olympus’s help, it reduced the distance between the lens and the sensor, which captures the image. (An adapter makes the camera compatible with lenses for other Panasonic SLRs.)
Most of the G1’s controls are located on a dial next to the shutter release. The camera has both manual controls as well as an iA, or intelligent auto, function that lets the camera make all the decisions about shutter speed, aperture, white balance and focus. The difference from other SLRs comes when looking through the viewfinder. Instead of seeing the actual thing through the glass lens, the photographer sees a digitally reproduced image on a tiny flat screen inside--the same as what’s projected onto a 3-inch LCD screen on the back. The disadvantage is that there’s a perceptible lag between what’s happening in the real world and on the screen. And between shots, the screen goes black for about 4 seconds as the camera processes the image. It’s a trade-off. This camera won't be ideal for shooting athletes in action, for instance. But ultimately that could be a small price for Panasonic’s (and Olympus’s) innovative and elegant use of technology and design to solve a thorny marketing problem.