Magazine Article


Panasonic’s Bentley

Special setting of live-view montor helps somewhat in framing low- and other odd-angle shots.
Don Sutherland

The test of a digicam is its highlight-to-shadow range. Lady is strongly backlighted, yet shaded face is easy to see.
Don Sutherland

A dark-skinned man against a bright window challenges dynamic range, which the L1 rose to handsomely.
Don Sutherland

“Digital brain, analog soul”—so states Panasonic’s ad in description of the Lumix L1, their first DSLR, and you know what? For once, the agency folks have it just about right.

The L1 is indeed a digital camera, and a leading-edge one at that. Yet, as uncharacteristic as it may seem from one of the chief proponents of “the digital lifestyle,” Panasonic has endowed it with a lot of the trappings of the 35mm cameras of yore. We might expect such combinations from camera manufacturers who actually lived through yore—Canon would be a candidate, or Olympus—but the champion of the home theater and the high-def screen was not in this line of work at the time.

Yet this pairing of themes, one intellectual and one metaphysical, in this particular camera does constitute the L1’s customer benefit. Like a good advertisement should (and too few do), this ad gets the customer benefit straight into the headline.

But since it’s an odd coupling, the classic camera of yore and the tomorrow-oriented Panasonic, it begs for explanation. If Panasonic is so much the whizbang advocate of the wired way of life (or, pardon us, wireless), why aren’t they celebrating that in their cameras and their ads? Shouldn’t the user be able to set shutter speed by just looking at the dial? Shouldn’t the camera itself rearrange objects in the scene, to make each photograph perfectly composed? Shouldn’t its metaphysics be, “Your wish is my command” by electro-telekinesis? How long before we have remote-control implants, by which our every appliance knows our wishes by where we glance, how we breathe, and the endorphins we secrete?

Why is Panasonic, of all people, pushing shutter dials with click-stop detents? And camera lenses that have aperture rings?

If you give it some thought, and a touch of imagination, there could be a couple of reasons things worked out like this.

Can You Find the New Kid?

Let’s start with Panasonic’s now-famous prediction from last year, that before long they’d hold a 10% market share in the digicam game. It was a bold prediction, but one might ask in that regard, what took them so long? It’s not like they’re newbies in the business. There have been Panasonic digital still cameras since at least 1997. Yet for a contender as massive as a Matsushita could be, their digicam marketing seemed a bit haphazard.

One of their first cameras, for example, was practically a clone of the Nikon Coolpix 300, leaving some uncertainty as to its actual paternity. But don’t fret about it, the next Panasonic model was completely different and rendered the question moot. This one was run-of-the-mill, trying to conceal its ordinariness by sloping one edge of its body—maybe it looked racy, maybe it looked bent.

Their later PalmCam series covered an assortment of products with no particular relationship, some models writing to CompactFlash, others to 1.4MB floppy disks and 120MB SuperDisks. We’re sure everyone is well-stocked in SuperDisks. In its day, some commentators described that 1.3-megapixel PalmCam PV-SD4090 as “a disk drive with a lens,” amid speculation that the memory-media divisions at Matsushita were as curious as anyone about their place in the new photo market.

But did the brand name inspire? PalmCam? Some thought it a kneejerk reaction to competitive brandnames like “Handycam.” Others conjugated the verb “to palm,” as in, “How do we palm this off on the public?” None of these were bad cameras, just not very glamorous.

So now, after what looked like a rudderless history in the digicam market, Panasonic is laying claim to 10%. With a straight face?

Well, sometime around the turn of the century, Panasonic and Leica put their heads together. They started off with lenses, but clearly had bigger plans. And if Panasonic wanted to have an analog soul, there’s nothing more soulful in all of cameradom than Leica. Panasonic isn’t exactly a new kid on the block, but then there is Leica. They invented the block.

Tail and Dog?

Leica entered the digicam game around 1998, with a rebranded and refinished Fujifilm MX-700. Under the Fuji brand, this had been one of the most agreeable cameras of the season—compact yet full-featured, convenient to use, producing good results in the context of its times. As the first Leica Digilux, it was all that plus the satin-and-leatherlike livery that had typified Leicas for 60 or 70 years. The importance of that to some camera buyers turns out, as we’ll very soon see, to be quite remarkable.

Before very long, though, Leica was appropriating Panasonic cameras as its own. Both brands proudly bore Leica labels on their lenses, but in design and execution both decidedly had Panasonic souls.

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