Panasonic announces prices for the GH-1

dpreview today links to Panasonic’s press release announcing pricing for the new GH-1. My reader will recall that I suggested this camera might give Nikon and Canon pause for thought — even if that thought is merely “hey, we need to start stealing ideas from Panasonic as well as Olympus”. Unfortunately, the announced price is $1499, bundled with a 14-140mm (effectively 28-280mm in 35mm terms) lens. This isn’t a terrible deal, but unless the street price is a lot lower, it’s not going to deter most punters from the “safe bet” of a Nikon D5000 or Canon T1i for ~$800, which will still be safely under $1499 with a Nikon or Canon 18-200mm lens (yes, Canon has one now in case you didn’t know).

It’s a safe bet that Panasonic has a lot of room to reduce the street price of the GH-1. Their excellent Lumix TZ cameras (of which I own two) tend to come in at the $350-450 mark and drop to the $200-250 range within a year. So, the $1499 may just be Panasonic’s plan for burning rewarding their early adopters.

D90x Approacheth?

With Canon’s new consumer DSLR offering 1080p video (albeit at 20fps), 15MP, and 14-bit RAW, the obvious shortcomings of the D90 are more obvious than ever. I also note that my favorite discount camera store is out of stock on the D80, while Amazon is selling D80s for the same price as D90s. Obvious conclusion — the D90 is replacing the D80 at the ~$700 price point and a successor to the D90 with the obvious deficiencies addressed is on its way.

Look on my works, ye mighty, and weep…

And I’m referring to you Canon and Nikon (and Sony and Olympus).

(Can you tell I’m looking forward to WATCHMEN?)

Panasonic has released the GH-1, the “real” version of its G-1, aka the first truly modern interchangeable lens digital camera. In doing so, it marks the emergence of Panasonic as perhaps the leading manufacturer of consumer cameras today. Time will tell whether Canon and Nikon (and Sony) are able to preserve their dominance of the still and video digital camera markets by reacting.

What’s so special about the GH-1?

Well, it’s smaller, lighter, and cheaper than a DSLR by virtue of not having a mirror/pentaprism viewfinder assembly, or a large heavy shutter. It’s a “fly-by-wire” camera with an electronic viewfinder, but the electronic viewfinder is as big as a good DSLR viewfinder while accurately previewing the effects of shutter speed and aperture (because it’s live view). It focuses the way a point-and-shoot camera does, but it focuses as fast as a DSLR. Oh, and it shoots 1080p at 24dps and 720p as 60fps.

Image quality is not quite up there with the D90 or 5D MkII, but then you’re paying two thirds the price of the first and a fraction of the price of the second. It’s probably going to be cheaper than most halfway decent HD camcorders. And unlike the D90 it has proper stereo microphone hookups.

All this, and the option of Leica and Zuiko lenses.

Flipping over the Flip

The Flip Mino HD is the latest tiny video camera from Flip.

What the heck is it with Mac-oriented folks and the Flip video camera? OK, it’s simple. I grant you that. But, guess what, it’s Yet Another Freaking Thing to carry around and it’s not very good at what it does. While having just one button is pretty nice, there’s the whole 4s power on. Here’s a very simple alternative — the Panasonic Lumix TZ-5. You’ll need to learn to change its shooting mode to video (complicated I know) but its rather slow (by cameras-that-don’t-suck standards) 2.5s power-to-record time gives you 1.5s to find it before a Flip will be good to go.

The Lumix TZ5 is Panasonic's latest "Travel Zoom". It is the latest in a series of what have consistently been the highest rated "point-and-shoot" cameras on respected review sites.
  • Price: you can get a TZ5 for $220; the Flip Mini HD is $229. You’ll need to pay a few extra bucks for SD cards for your TZ5; the Flip has 4GB of internal memory and an internal LIon battery.
  • HD Video: both shoot 1280×720; the TZ5 shoots motion JPEG, so you can import straight into iMovie while you need to convert Flip’s “PureVideo”. On the other hand, MJPEG files are bigger and there’s a limit to the length of videos, but unless you’re trying to reshoot “Rope” you should be OK.
  • Quality: the TZ5 has a tiny 1/2.33″ CCD; the Flip Mino HD has a tinier 1/4.5″ CCD. To my eye the TZ5 video I’ve seen looks significantly better than the Flip Mino HD video I’ve seen even though the Flip Mino HD video is being shown at 50% scale.
  • Audio Quality: neither is brilliant, but the Flip’s microphone at least points forward.
  • Lens: the TZ5 has an f3.3-3.5 28-200mm (35mm equivalent) Leica-branded zoom lens. The Flip has a fixed focus F2.4 lens with 2x optical zoom.
  • Dimensions: the TZ5 isĀ 103.3 x 59.3 x 36.5 mm and weighs 214g. (It’s made of metal.) The Flip is 100 x 50 x 16 mm and weighs 93g. (It’s made of plastic.)
  • Other notes: oh, the TZ5 can take very good still pictures, has a built-in Flash,

Summary: the Panasonic wins in every category except (arguably) price, audio quality (maybe), and (unarguably) size and weight (it’s twice as thick and weighs twice as much). Notably, it’s actually Mac compatible, it’s a very good still camera (basically the highest-rated “point and shoot” around) and, as a bonus, a more useful video camera than the Flip (which is useless for anything requiring a telephoto lens, such as a sporting match or a recital).

So, enough about the Flip already. If I’m going to carry Yet Another Freaking Thing (aside from my iPhone) it will be a TZ5 (actually, I have a TZ3, but the TZ5 is the current version).

Digital Photography in Flux

It seems to me that this is a terrible time to buy a new digital camera, certainly a terrible time to buy anything other than a sub-$200 point-and-shoot.

Mid-range compacts ($200-300) are going to be made obsolete pretty soon as the high-end compacts ($300-500) are heavily discounted and then their features are moved into the more inexpensive models. Why? Because DSLRs are starting to sell for under $500 and the Micro Four-Thirds system is going to make small sensor compacts look like the garbage they are.

High-end compacts, such as the Canon G10, are expensive but fundamentally inferior to low-end DSLRs in image quality. The only reason you would buy one of these cameras is because it’s smaller than a DSLR, but they’re still not exactly compact and their image quality is only a small notch above cheaper cameras. New Micro Four-Thirds cameras will be as small or smaller, offer interchangeable lenses, and (very near) DSLR-level image quality.

Meanwhile low-end DSLRs are getting cheaper as they face competition from Micro Four-Thirds compacts, each other, and heavily discounted mid-range DSLRs (e.g. the street price of the Nikon D80 body is around $600 now — that makes a Nikon D60 or Canon XSi at a similar price just look silly).

As we get to the mid-range and high-end DSLRs we have a bunch of cameras that are already obsolete, except (arguably) for the Sony A900 (with its new 25MP full frame sensor, but it’s a Sony…) and the much hyped Canon 5D mkII (with its outmoded AF). Nikon’s D300, D700, and D3 all are beginning to look a little behind the times (they were introduced with fairly low pixel counts, and the market has just accelerated away from them). Canon’s new low-end range has the main virtue of being (relatively) cheap. The D90’s innovative video mode is already looking like a beta-quality product (Costco is taking pre-orders for D90 kits and the D90 isn’t even out yet). I love Nikon, but the D90 is looking like a loser. It has a video mode that doesn’t quite work, 12-bit image processing, and a price point sandwiched between the Canon 40D and 50D, both of which beat it on build quality, responsiveness, and still image quality. The sad thing is that while the 40D and 50D make the D90 look silly, they’re also both obsolete. Canon has already announced that the 50D’s successor will probably feature video capture.

Some time in the next year we’re going to see:

  • Micro Four-Thirds system cameras with in-body vibration reduction, HD-video capture, and a selection of superb lenses that don’t lock you to a single high-quality vendor (i.e. you’ll probably be able to buy Leica and Zuiko lenses for them at a minimum). At last we’ll be able to buy a pocketable camera that takes photos that are nearly as good as anything we could take with a “full-sized” camera.
  • Reasonably-priced Canon or Nikon bodies with HD-video capture that doesn’t suck, 15+ MPs (with no appreciable image quality reduction), usable ISO 6400 (the D90 is damn close), 14-bit image processing, and — just possibly — in body vibration reduction. I wouldn’t be surprised if full frame sensor cameras appear in the $1500-2000 price range (heck, Sony will probably be there with the A900).

Obviously, if you’re a pro, your camera pays for itself, and next year’s camera doesn’t matter. But for most of us, we don’t get to drop $1000 on a camera every year, and this seems like a truly awful year to buy a camera.

On top of all this, the economic downturn is going to force camera companies to cut into their hefty margins on higher end gear to keep volumes up. Once consumers become used to $300 entry-level DSLRs, they’ll never be able to bring the price back up (nor should they).