Panasonic’s director of imaging talks S5 II, Micro Four Thirds and the need for small cameras: Digital Photography Review

Yosuke Yamane, Vice President of Panasonic’s Entertainment and Communication business and director of its imaging business unit.

Photo: Shaminder Dulai

Micro Four Thirds has ‘size benefits, and a shooting experience that can’t be matched by a smartphone,’ said the director of Panasonic’s camera business. We recently sat down with Yosuke Yamane, Vice President of Panasonic’s Entertainment and Communication business and director of its Imaging business unit, to talk about the system’s future, the role of video, the company’s adoption phase detection and the small role his new dog played in the development of the S5 II.

The future of Micro Four Thirds

He emphasized that the size and portability of Micro Four Thirds lets it deliver things that full-frame systems can’t. ‘Micro Four Thirds is a compact and lightweight system that enables hand-held photography in combination with a telephoto lens, which is not possible with full-frame,’ he said. ‘And we believe it is an indispensable system for achieving a compact body that can be easily carried.’

‘I think the need for small, lightweight cameras that can be carried around all the time like smartphones will increase, especially among the younger generation.’

That combination not only underpins its appeal to groups such as wildlife photographers, but could also give it a role as a gateway for younger users more used to smartphones, he suggested. ‘One of our goals is to tell the story of the benefits of a dedicated camera to teens and people in their 20s. We need to tell them that there is a world that can’t be achieved with a smartphone.’ But to achieve this, ‘you need the portability the smartphone has,’ he said. ‘I think the need for small, lightweight cameras that can be carried around all the time like smartphones will increase, especially among the younger generation.’

He wouldn’t be drawn on whether this might result in a return of the GM series, but said we weren’t the only people expressing an interest in a small, capable camera. ‘The press in Japan ask the same thing,’ he said, ‘but for full-frame.’

Full-frame future for independent production

Speaking around the same time as the launch of the S5 II, Yamane said that full-frame represents a significant opportunity for Panasonic: ‘We expect mirrorless cameras to account for more than 75% of the market by value in 2022, and in particular, more than 50% of the market as a whole will be full-frame mirrorless cameras.’

And, as you might expect from a company that’s regularly expanded the expectation of what hybrid cameras are capable of, he sees video playing a major role in this. Yamane said they’re seeing an increase in the types of users needing video features.

‘We believe that the need for individual video production will increase in the future.’

‘Mirrorless, which has a strong affinity with video, is used in a wide range of applications, from professional video production, such as cinema production, to individual video production, such as YouTube. We believe that the need for individual video production will increase in the future.’

While he agreed that ‘there are many customers who only take still images, and a camera that meets those needs is necessary to a certain extent,’ he didn’t make it sound like Panasonic would be the company to address that need. ‘The number of users who want to shoot not only still images but also videos has increased, and it has become the [driving force] of camera users. Lumix intends to provide value to as many people as possible, focusing on cameras that combine still images and video.’

He stopped short of saying stills would take a backseat to video, though: ‘I think it is important to balance still images with video.’

Beyond vlogging

We’ve become used to camera makers talking about ‘creators’ and ‘vloggers’ as the audience they’re trying to target with cameras. We asked for more detail about the users Panasonic is targeting, given that the S5 II is a long way from the ‘vlogging’ cameras we’ve seen so far.

‘We’re targeting the social media creator,’ Yamane affirmed. ‘With the expansion of things like YouTube there are plenty of platforms for independent producers to expose their productions. There’s an expansion of the video production industry. Things that used to be done as teams are now being done by individuals.’

‘Things that used to be done as teams are now being done by individuals.’

He also suggested that single-person operators could use new workflows to engage with colleagues who aren’t on-site, saying, ‘We hope to enhance cloud network technology and other technologies that will enable editing while shooting by linking with the cloud,’ for example with footage or proxies being uploaded as they’re shot so that the editing process can begin immediately.

‘It depends on each creator. Some people want to do the whole process, first to last; some people just want to do the shooting – post production can be outsourced.

‘Post production is done offline, but should shift to an online basis. It’s important [for us] to start to be involved in these workflows,’ Yamane said.

AI’s role in workflow

Artificial Intelligence (AI) could also play an increasing role in workflows, he suggested. ‘If cameras automatically reflect the intentions of creators through AI – such as AF, which is already being used with AI – as well as color, exposure, and framing, we believe that shooting mistakes will be greatly reduced in the future, and this will contribute to reducing shooting time.

‘Furthermore, we believe that using AI in editing will make workflows more efficient. In terms of the overall workflow, one-man-operation creators spend a great deal of time editing, and if they can automatically edit as the creators intend with one push, I think they will be able to produce more and more attractive content, which will broaden the field for creators.’

The idea of the camera being able to anticipate what you’re trying to achieve could have benefits for people less familiar with dedicated cameras, he suggested. ‘By combining Micro Four Thirds with AI and other technologies, we hope to convey the advantages of cameras to casual users.’

Clarity on L² collaboration

We also asked Mr Yamane about the L² collaboration with Leica. The initial announcement was met with some confusion since it appeared to overlap with the existing, and similarly named, L-mount Alliance, which also includes Sigma.

Yamane said the L-mount Alliance involves the three companies sharing information to ‘provide stable product compatibility among Alliance partners,’ primarily in order to build lenses that meet the specification, standard and compatibility targets of the alliance.

He went on to clarify that the L² Technology is a closer partnership, covering a wider range of topics, that will see the Lumix and Leica brands share resources and technology throughout the development process. ‘These two [projects] are completely different and we are promoting them on different axes,’ he said.

Yamane said improvements in sensor and processing performance allowed the S5 II to include on-sensor phase detection while achieving the company’s internal image quality standards.

Photo: Shaminder Dulai

Yamane points to the new image processor in the S5 II as one of the first examples of this partnership, saying, ‘The combined expertise of the two companies in image processing enables this technology to achieve high image quality performance and high-speed arithmetic processing.’

As Yamane explained it, Panasonic and Leica have different expertise. ‘By bringing them together, pulling [them] into one box and mixing them up, we hope to see the benefits. For example, Leica has strengths in the expressive part [colour, image processing], where Panasonic has strengths in developing devices and in manufacturing.’

One of the things that may have made the initial announcements seem a little vague and potentially confusing is that the scope and extent of the collaboration is still evolving. ‘It’s not fixed,’ said Yamane, ‘We’ll continue to update the areas where we’re going to work together.’

Why PDAF now?

As we discussed technology, we couldn’t resist asking why the company has changed its tune about phase detection AF, given that the company had previously expressed concerns about PDAF negatively affecting image quality.

‘Internally there’s a particular image quality standard we have to achieve. We develop TVs, camcorders, these are core areas for us. In the past the adoption of phase detection didn’t reach that standard,’ he said. ‘Because of the upgraded image processing, we could be confident that the S5 II now reaches that level.’

We asked for more detail, but found the intricacies of phase detection a little more than the language barrier would allow. Our discussion did suggest that the S5 II isn’t using a sensor with multiple photodiodes at each ‘pixel’ position (i.e., quad-pixel AF), though. ‘There are missing pixels that you have to make up for,’ he told us, suggesting the sensor is using the more traditional, partially masked phase detect pixels.

Distinction between S5 II and S5 IIX

While on the topic of the S5 II, we asked whether there was any hardware difference between the S5 II and the forthcoming S5 IIX, and received a somewhat mixed answer. At first Yamane suggested there is a distinction.

‘There are some hardware differences, including the exterior,’ he said, but as we tried to pin down any specifics, he suggested that the important distinction has to do with audience needs and expectations.

‘We think about what type of value we can offer to [different] customers,’ he said, suggesting that different customers pay for the features they need.

A canine’s contribution to the S5 II

Yosuke Yamane’s cheerful dog, ‘Kinako’

Photo: Yosuke Yamane

As we reached the end of the interview, we asked Yamane about a his own photography and whether his own experiences were ever fed into Panasonic’s camera development.

‘I got a dog along with the start of the development of S5 II,’ he told us: ‘Since I wanted to improve the performance of AF and image stabilization to the ultimate level, I chose a cheerful Shiba-Inu who would challenge me to trace him as he moves around.’

Yamane found the challenge of photographing him gave him some useful insights about the camera and its interface. ‘I found some small details and gave some quite last-minute feedback,’ he said. ‘The engineers responded very quickly.’

Our curiosity piqued, we pressed him for what these small details may have been, but he only responded with a grin saying it’s a company secret.

So, if you find yourself using an S5 II, give some thought to the work of Mr Yamane’s Shiba-Ine, Kinako. And the engineering team, of course.

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