Mark Baber is the Product & Marketing Specialist at Panasonic UK. We sat down with him to discuss the latest Panasonic products as well as popular topics such as 4K, smartphones, and professional support.
- The 4K video format is clearly one of the main features that Panasonic is pushing. How has the reaction of users been so far to this format?
Mark Baber: The reaction has been incredible. Some people have a 4K device but they don’t know what it does or they have a 4K television but they can’t watch any content, so we’re explaining what it means from a visual perspective. The same technical explanation of why 4K televisions are better than 2K televisions is the same in cameras. We’re educating customers and explaining that you can use video in a way that you’ve never used it before to take stills. We’re not going through 4K editing, video or PCs unless people ask but we’re showing that by shooting four times greater data – colour, gradation, resolution – over our existing full HD cameras, you can take 8.3 million pixel stills at 30 fps from individual frames in the camera. And the great thing about shooting video is that you can change the settings such as ISO, white balance and so on in the camera through live view. This means you can set the camera up and capture what you’re looking for. And what’s more, unless you’re using the right lens or the right SD card, the buffer time over, say, 12 fps on a GH4 will slow down, and then you’ve lost the moment. On our stand, what we’re trying to do at the Photography Show is get customers to try it, engage in education and then print, whether it be directly from the camera or putting it through something like Lightroom. The results have been incredible. Many object by saying they’ve been shooting video for years but they’ve never had this quality. Also, if you’ve got a 4K television and if you’re thinking about buying a new camera, you can play that back through the TV and it will look incredibly impressive. So, a platform like this has been encouraging to get the message across.
- How long do you think it will take for 4K to become the main format for video?
Well, I can’t speak on the behalf of other manufacturers but if you look at what Sony are doing, it wouldn’t surprise me if their roadmap includes 4K in entry to mid-range cameras. Samsung are also releasing 4K cameras at an affordable price. As for Panasonic, you now have the CM1, X1000, LX100, FZ1000, GH4, WX970, VX870, A500. So we have roughly eight products in the range. I think it’s quite a strong message that we’ve developed technology now that going forward will become the standard for all our cameras. However the TZ70 compact camera came out this year and there’s no 4K element with it and that’s because we don’t want to confuse the customer by including a feature they’re not sure about. That said, I think 4K is the future. It’s brilliant because you get better quality for the money but then you also have to educate people in how you play it back, which hardware to use and so on. We actually announced 8K at Photokina so that’s our aim but next year we’ll focus on our 4K message.
- Do you think it’s going to evolve rapidly from 4K to 8K?
Currently on the market there’s the A7s, GH4 and NX1 from a consumer point of view, and all are way beyond broadcast quality. I think the price point on all the models is affordable if you consider you’re able to shoot that kind of high quality. We have to be very careful as a manufacturer that we don’t confuse the customer by bringing in 8K in tomorrow. I think 8K will be the future a good few years from now but it will target a higher broadcast level. If you look at the X1000, we do 4K at 60 fps. It’s incredible for a prosumer camcorder. The GH4 does 4K at 30 fps. So, it’s all about how far we can push the sensor technology with processing. I don’t honestly know where it’s going to go but certainly for 2015, we’re pushing the 4K message for video and stills, as well as still photography. We have to find the right balance between the three.
- The Lumix range has always been popular for its video capabilities thanks to the GH series but cameras like the GX7 and the LX100 have proved that Panasonic is also capable of designing cameras that place photographers first. Are Lumix products still perceived more for video use or equally for video and stills?
That’s a good question. I think it’s really evident at a show like this that people are taking us more seriously as an imaging brand. I’m very proud to work for Panasonic and we’re trying to tell the public that there’s something else out there because we believe in our products. You’ve only got to go back 2 or 3 years ago when the maximum acceptable ISO performance on a G3 or G5 was 1600 and for serious photographers, that’s not good enough. For everyday photography, that’s fine. The culture of consumers is changing and we’re in the marketplace to help them understand that we have a system made up of high-performing stills camera. But because of our heritage and legacy of being predominantly focussed on video, we’re never going to get away from that. I actually think that gives us a platform to shout even more about and Sony have got the same kind of opportunity.
At this show, we’ve seen all walks of photography life who want to find out more about our products. There isn’t any snobbery when it comes to buying a mirrorless system anymore. We’ve seen mobile phone users, families, grandparents, enthusiasts, street photographers, professionals, sports photographers, videographers, the list goes on. We want everyone to look at what we’re doing and shout about it. We want to enhance people’s lives. That means ticking the boxes of what they’re looking for in photography – picture quality, WiFi, touch screen, touch shutter, a range of lenses, 4K video and 4K photo. We’re not going to have everything ticked but we want to show people we have something different.
The design is appealing as well because if you look at the G6, it has the traditional appearance of a DSLR. Someone buying a Canon 100D can relate to that because it’s similar in shape. And then you have the GM1 and GM5 that have the same sensor and engine as the GX7, which is a camera that takes great pictures. They’re so much smaller in size but you can put a 100-300mm lens on it. It’s crazy. Again, I picked up an a6000 the other day and it just feels good in the hand. I know I’ve got to hunt for what I’ve got to get out of it but I think it’s quite exciting. That applies to all mirrorless brands.
- Also, even though the GH4 seems to have a DSLR-like body, the lens system is actually very compact.
Yes, that’s why I always ask our guys to take the lens off and put it in the hands of the people. You give them a 20mm pancake lens or even a kit lens and the customer just seems to get it, not just because of the build quality but also because of the size.
- The CM1 smartphone has recently been launched in the UK. How has the reception been here so far and in the other countries where it was initially sold? Are there any plans to launch it worldwide later on?
The CM1 was released in France and Germany because the way the consumer purchases is completely different to the UK when it comes to a phone. We’re marketing the CM1 as a camera and it will be sold in camera shops. That may change to phone distribution but I can’t comment on that because it’s being dealt with as we speak. But when we do fully launch it in the UK, it will go into camera shops. We did an under-the-radar marketing campaign last year where we sold a number of units to selected retailers and it was very successful. We sold out as we had hoped. At the show, where we’ve launched it with two retailers, there’s been a lot of interest as you would expect because it’s new technology. Some people are calling it a phone with a bigger sensor whereas others are calling it a camera with a communications device. It’s very clear to us that it’s a camera – the same engine and same sensor as the FZ1000, a Leica lens, manual control, focus peaking and 4K. And it’s got fantastic picture quality. We’ve got A3 prints on the stand. We’re not aiming at anyone specific with the CM1. If we do that, we might miss potential camera users who want to buy the product. It’s very early days to see how it’s going to sell but we’ve had a great response from retailers. I think they believe in the concept and there’s nothing out there at the moment quite like it. Here at the show, we’ve given out CM1 chocolate bars for four days and if you had a golden ticket, you’d win one. We had our fourth winner today, which is great. We’re very pleased so far.
- The CM1 and GF7 are two very different products but they do have something in common – they seem to be a response to the increase in popularity of smartphone photography. Could the industry be heading towards more hybrid phone/photography products?
I can’t disclose any roadmap activity that hasn’t been announced but we will continue to produce cameras, interchangeable lenses and compact camcorders. The technology that we’ve brought into the CM1 is quite unique. Is the CM1 going to replace mirrorless systems or DSLRs? My opinion is that this won’t be the case. But to be able to take the insides of a GX7 to the GF7 and then add things like the selfie mode, and the mode that detects you’re jumping when you’re connected to your phone, little things like that are quite fun. It’s a fun camera, it looks cool, and I think there will be a specific market that will follow that. Again, we come back to the uniqueness of each camera. We’re not going to replace our imaging range with camera phones but it’s good to have something that will add to the range, especially with a 4K message.
- With the increase in popularity of mirrorless cameras amongst professional photographers, there is also the need for dedicated professional support. Sony is already launching its Pro Support service in a number of countries and Olympus has Service Plus for Europe. Does Panasonic plan to develop something similar in the future?
In the UK, we have a great service supplier for all our products and a very quick return time on repairs and that’s something we’ve been using for a number of years. I think a lot of consumers tend to associate reliability and quality with brands like Panasonic so that’s really important. I think that with the changes in our technology and game-changing products like the GH4, there’s a huge overlap between consumer and broadcast. I can’t tell you unfortunately if professional support is happening or not but if we continue to produce these kinds of products, it makes sense that we would do something like that. You look at Canon’s service and it’s incredible, and that’s been achieved through decades of experience. We at Panasonic have to work really hard to do what we do, a lot harder than many manufacturers because predominantly we are audiovisual. But since 2008 when we introduced the MFT system, we’ve made a huge movement forward. We are now taken a lot more seriously and I think doing a pro service for our customers will enhance the message. I think we have to wait and see what happens and if we do decide to do it, it may be one country and the rest will follow suit. Actually we just introduced a five-year warranty for a limited time. Up until March for the last year we’ve offered a two-year warranty as a standard for all our products so that really makes a huge difference. And when we’ve done some cash-back offers in the last few months, we’ve done the five-year warranty as well.
- More and more camera brands are leaning towards providing firmware updates for their cameras. Does Panasonic plan to implement more firmware updates in the future?
If you look at what Fujifilm and Samsung do with their firmware updates, it’s almost like you’ve got a brand new camera. I think that’s a reward for the purchaser as it’s going to enhance the operation of the camera. When you have a camera that’s really taken the market by storm like the GH4, and is now in its second year with no GH5 or 10 coming, we can’t just sit back and expect the customers to come and buy. We still have to do our grassroots activity and put the camera in their hands. So, my opinion is that if we were to produce something like Fuji, and as regularly, that could potentially bring more GH4 users into our system based on new additions. Now, I know you get a lot of rumours, and quite frankly, if these rumours do happen, then that really sends out a strong message. I don’t know what the limits are of the GH4 but I suspect our engineers are currently working on something that will enhance our cameras for existing users and new users. But at the same time, we don’t want to release firmware updates just for the sake of it. It may be that the GH4 is at its limit. I don’t think it is, but again that’s my own personal opinion. And it’s like focus peaking on the GH3. It never happened. And people think it’s as easy as doing a firmware update but I don’t think it is. We have to trust our Japanese engineers when they say that is the case. I know it upsets a lot of customers but we made the decision and that’s what happened. I really hope that we have a number of firmware updates that add features to the camera that other manufacturers don’t have and enhance what the camera’s already doing.
- Thank you for your time, Mark!