Panasonic and Leica

Panasonic GH1 LEICA D VARIO-ELMAR 14-50mm F3.8-5.6

If somebody had said to me a few years ago that in late 2010 I would be using Panasonic cameras and lenses and eagerly awaiting their latest release I would not have believed them. A microwave or TV perhaps, but a Camera?!!

So why am I now looking to a Japanese electronics giant for innovation, quality and usability in my equipment needs, rather than to the places I looked before, Nikon, Pentax & Canon?

In the article by Michael Reichmann on the Panasonic GH2 there are some interesting quotes.

"At Photokina in 2006 I had dinner with a senior executive in the photographic industry. We were talking about the historical market battle between Nikon and Canon. At one point he paused and said, "You know – the future doesn't belong to either of those two. The future of the photographic industry belongs to Sony and Panasonic. They get it. As far as I can tell, neither Canon nor Nikon do. They're simply putting higher resolution and cleaner sensors in the same old boring cameras. That's not just what the future of this industry is about. Wait – you'll see". 

"But, for anyone that's been seriously involved with photography for more than a couple of years, it finally dawns that now, more than a decade into the digital revolution, the differences that we saw – first between film and digital – and now between similarly specs brands, is often de minimus. This means that to make sense of our buying decisions we need to also include haptics and ergonomics. A camera that produces great image quality is desirable, but one that fights you every step of the way with poorly conceived controls and awkward user interface eventually just becomes a pain in the ass. If one is a Sunday photographer, then a lot of design faults can either be overlooked or can be lived with. But for the more serious photographer, and especially working pros and others who use their cameras daily to earn some or all of their living, bad designs simply can't be tolerated.

Which brings us to the Panasonic GH2 specifically, and the G series in particular. Unlike some of its competitors, Panasonic "gets" user interface from a photographer's perspective."

"At the risk of repeating myself, this is a photographer's camera. By this I mean that it was clearly designed by people who use cameras and understand their role as tools, not just by marketing and engineering types looking to win the spec and shelf appeal wars, even if it means that the camera's design is a dog's breakfast of poorly designed menus and awkwardly place controls."

There's nothing I would disagree with in any of that. 

On the 24th July 2001 there was an interesting announcement. Panasonic and Leica had joined forces to produce digital cameras. There was a phrase in the press announcement that said "Panasonic, is a minor player in the digital camera market" 
As we know this relationship went on to produce compact small sensor cameras, until Panasonic dipped their toes into the DSLR world with two "odd" cameras. First came the L1, and its Leica counterpart, the Digilux3. This was a retro styled brick of a camera that bore little similarity to the rest of the market. It had its charms but was not a big seller. Panasonic had chosen the 4/3 standard for its sensor, allowing the use of Olympus and other lenses on its product. The next camera was the L10, much more a conventional looking DSLR, but with little innovations such as an articulated screen. Again it wasn't a huge seller.

In addition to the cameras, Panasonic, in conjunction with Leica, produced a small (4) lens range. Two kit lenses for the L series cameras, a superzoom and a fast "standard" lens. Those who read here will know my enthusiasm for these lenses. I really don't know who made the decision to make these lenses to such a high standard, but the result was four of the best digital camera lenses ever made. No compromise in terms of quality, or size, weight and price either!! This decision made the camera / lens combinations very expensive, but also established Panasonic as a photographic company to be taken seriously.

It wouldn't have taken a overpaid business guru to come up with the realisation that their 4/3 excursions with Leica weren't going to make Panasonic a fortune, so a rethink was obviously necessary. From this we got m4/3.

Are the quotes from Michael Reichmann's article and the above connected? Not being a member of Panasonics inner sanctum, I can of course only speculate. But if as a "minor player in the digital market" you choose to enter into a partnership with probably the most respected camera company in the world, then this either shows serious intent or divine providence. 

The Panasonic relationship with Leica is still going, but only on the compact camera front, and now Leica with the X1 are moving into that area themselves. 

To me it looks like Panasonic have benefited from their association with Leica. I agree with Michael Reichmann that the Panasonic G series are cameras for photographers. Much as I love my E-P2 as an aesthetic object, my GH1 is a much easier camera to use, well thought-out and designed to take pictures, rather than look good. Whether I'm overstating the Leica influence, who knows, but I've never believed in co-incidence much.

Panasonic GH1 LEICA D VARIO-ELMAR 14-50mm F3.8-5.6

Yesterday I went out with my GH1 fitted with the Leica D 14-50mm Vario-Elmar f3.8-5.6. This is the kit lens for the Panasonic L10. You'll be familiar by now with my rave reviews of these lenses and this is no exception. This is the slower, lighter and smaller (though marginally) 4/3 zoom of the three that Panasonic and Leica produced. However it may well be the best. In combination with the GH1 sensor the results were simply breathtaking. I've gone on (and on and on!) about the 14-150mm but I think the 14-50mm may be better. The results at 50mm are a whisker away from what I'm getting with the Olympus 50mm f/2 macro. I can still see a slight difference, but its very close. 

Panasonic GH1 LEICA D VARIO-ELMAR 14-50mm F3.8-5.6

Panasonic used a scaled down L10 body design for m4/3 but came up with a different kit zoom, the 14-45mm. They would have done this for reasons of economy, size, weight and price. So there are now 2 orphaned cameras and 4 orphaned lenses languishing in the somewhat shrinking world of 4/3. Before they disappear from sight I'm planning to do a bit of small-scale collecting and have both cameras and all four lenses. The lenses will of course get used with my m4/3 cameras. They are chunky, bulky, unremarkable looking pieces of plastic and glass but they produce the some of the sharpest images I've ever seen, and to own all four may not be what I need but thats never stopped me before!