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PLEASENOTE: This is a “first look” at the Panasonic Lumix LX3. It is based on just a few days with the camera. Longtime Photo.net programmer, writer, and photographer Patrick Hudepohl and I will be finishing a full review in a few weeks.
I had been working on getting a review unit of this camera since almost the day it was announced as it had a number of features that caught my eye and made me think it might be a strong candidate for a serious photographer’s compact camera. A huge percentage of my photography happens in low light. Brewpubs, streets, concert halls, etc. So the relatively slow lenses of most compact cameras are of little use to me aside from “grip and grin” flash photos. But the Panasonic LX3 changes all of that with it’s f/2-2.8 lens and ISO 6400 option. But those were far from the only specs that put the LX3 on my “gotta review” cameras list:
24-60/2-2.8 equivalent lens
p. The 24-70mm range, while not as “extreme” as many other popular lenses these days, is a workhorse for me. I have said multiple times that if forced, I could do 90% of my photography work with just my Canon 24-70/2.8 L. Beyond that, the 24-70mm range encompasses much of my favorite photography of all time. A lot of that work was shot at f/2-2.8 (or even faster). Okay, so the LX3’s lens is a little short on the long end to meet my “ideal”, but a 24-60/2-2.8 lens is still pretty flipping cool. Especially given that there are very few compact cameras with a 24mm lens of any sort, much less one that is f/2.
p. Okay, to be honest, it’s not the TTL that interests me, since the TTL flash that Panasonic is currently offering is pretty big. The ability to have a little auto-flash that I could stuff in my coat pocket or even in my wife’s purse would open up worlds of photography for a camera like this.
Selectable Aspect Ratio
p. I found this to be a very interesting feature. Not only does it let you switch from 4:3 (standard point and shoot), to 3:2 (35mm film), and to 16:9 (hi def TV), the LX3 even has a dedicated physical switch that let’s you do it on the fly without digging through menus.
Nicely sized 1/1.63-inch CCD sensor, but with a reasonable 10.1MP output
p. The megapixel race is not something that is always good for image quality, particularly in small sensor cameras, crapping more pixels onto the sensor results in increased image noise and reduced image quality. However, the camera companies have got themselves stuck in the “more is better” loop for MP’s. They keep following each other and limiting image quality so they can say “we’ve got the most pixels!”. Surprisingly, Panasonic decided against that. While 10.1 is far from the smallest MP choice they could have made, it’s also quite reasonable today.
Optical Image Stabilization
p. This is always a nice feature to have in a camera. Unlike the electronic image stabilization that is offered in many smaller cameras, optical stabilization doesn’t degrade the image in any way.
p. For a camera of its size, the LX3 has a well thought out group of dedicated accessories, the most interesting being the 18mm (in 35mm equiv) wide angle lens, TTL flash unit, ND and polarizing filters, and a rangefinder-style metal optical shoe-mount viewfinder.
Based on a few days of shooting with the LX3, here’s what I think so far. Please keep in mind that this is just a “first look” and my opinions may change as I spend more time using the camera.
Things I Like
First off, the f/2-2.8 lens speed is really great to have. It allows you to use faster shutter speeds in low light situations than the average small camera (and even many larger cameras). Perhaps more importantly, it allows you to use a lower ISO rating for a given situation if you wish. Lower is always better for digital camera ISO (with very few exceptions). The 24-60 zoom range is as wonderful as it ever is for me. However, I can’t say enough about the fact that I can use the 24mm wide end when shooting in a tight location. It is a “breath of fresh air” (to use a stupid old-school ‘review’ phrase) in a camera of this size. When I think about the size and weight of my Canon DSLR’s with a 24-70 attached, it is astounding that I can have the same thing in a camera the size of a pack of cigarettes. Okay, so it’s not really a fair comparison in terms of image quality, any DSLR will wipe the floor with any small-sensor camera. In terms of shutter speed and field of view, the LX3 has a lot to offer in a much smaller package than many other cameras multiple times it’s size.
ISO noise is really quite good for a small-sensor camera. Comparing it to other 10MP point and shoot cameras is a joke for the most part. Yes, there is noise in the higher ISO settings, but there is also detail. ISO 6400 is typically a joke on most compact cameras, but while not “clean and smooth” on the LX3, it is very usable. This is a big win for Panasonic. It’s one of the reasons that other camera companies should consider limiting the megapixels on a few of their “high level photographer” cameras.
The LX3’s handling is surprisingly good for a small camera. It feels like Panasonic had actual photographers involved with the design process, and not just a committee of engineers. The mode selection dial on the top of the camera is a nice touch and makes for quick changes. The “multi function joystick” is well designed and allows for easy navigation. A dedicated AE/AF lock button is a nice touch. And finally, the physical switched for aspect ratio and AF mode harkens back to the days when we didn’t have to mash buttons and scroll through menus to change a camera setting.
Speaking of the aspect ratio choice, I find it to be a pretty neat feature. Most compact cameras lock users into the 4:3 format, and for those of us who learned photography in the 35mm world, 4:3 can be annoying. Then again, there are times when that squat rectangle can be very useful. The 16:9 format, while in theory is based around HD video and associated TV’s, can operate like a decent panoramic format. The fact that none of these choices are simply crops of the 4:3 format (causing image quality loss) is a big bonus.
AF is decent in its standard mode—not blazingly fast, but not slow at all. However, another feature of the LX3 is the options that it gives for AF settings. The standard Face Detection and Multi-Area AF options are there. Single Area “high-speed” speeds up AF significantly by giving up use of a wider AF sensor pattern. Also, AF tracking is a neat option that allows you to set focus lock on an subject and the camera will track that subject and keep it in focus. I have only used it a little bit so far, but it appears to be accurate and useful, though one has to remember that there are limits to any small camera’s tracking ability. This isn’t a Canon EOS 1D MKIII.
Pressing and holding the “Multi Function joystick” for about a second and a half brings up the “Q-Menu”, which I assume is short for “quick menu”. It is just that—a quick way to access options like ISO, resolution, AF mode, white balance, and more. This works really well and the “joystick” aspect it is well designed and easy to control. I virtually never have to dig through any menus to access my most used settings.
Things I don’t Like
While I stand by my praise of the mode selection dial, the fact is that it is far too easy to spin. I frequently find it rolled to another mode setting when pulling it out of a pocket or case. This could cause someone to miss a great shot by being stuck in “manual” when you really needed to be in “program”. It’s an easy enough issue to fix, just make sure you check the mode dial every time when you pull the camera out. It’s also something that should have been designed better. The same can be said for the aspect ratio and AF switches. I have to keep track of them every so often to make sure they aren’t on a setting that will cause me trouble at an inopportune time.
The LX3’s physical “play/record” switch means that you can’t be reviewing images, see something happening in front of you, tap the shutter button so the camera jumps back into “record”, and then take the photo. You have to remember to move the switch from “play” back to "record. This is not a big deal, but it’s a bad move on Panasonic’s part. A vast majority of photographers have gotten used to being able to jump from “play” to “record” at the drop of a hat. I applaud Panasonic’s drive to create a more physical camera. In this instance, however, I think there could have been a better design.
The sensor is still a small sensor and on some level, the images look like small sensor P&S images. Yes, I said that the ISO noise and detail quality was very good, and it is. “Very good” for a small sensor camera is crap when compared to even just “mediocre” on a APS-C or full frame sensor. Thus far, the Sigma DP1 is the only compact camera that has a larger sensor in it. I realize that some of the very things I love about the LX3 (the side and fast lens) make it much more difficult to replicate the camera but with a large sensor in it. That doesn’t stop me from dreaming about it.
Dovetailing with the “it just isn’t a larger sensor camera” complaint, the LX3 is physically too big. Or is it too small? The LX3 is the kind of camera that a serious photographer wants to take everywhere. The fact is that with its protruding “lens barrel” it really isn’t a pocket-sized camera. I wear loose-fit jeans with decent sized pockets and it was still pretty bulky even in there. It’s also not big enough to be the kind of camera that needs its own bag. This is the size of camera that you would carry in your purse or fannypack (if you are the kind of person who carries either). I have been using a little Crumpler “Thirsty Al” gadget bag to strap the LX3 onto the outside of whatever bag or backpack I’m carrying that day. Or, I just stuff it in the diaper bag—that’s what manly photographers do.
So far, I really enjoy using the Panasonic LX3 and am excited about its low noise and impressive image quality. The wide and fast lens is a joy to use. The controls are well designed and quick to operate. Heck, I haven’t even mentioned the HD video the LX3 is able to record. Overall, I find myself reaching for this camera whenever I get a chance. A few more weeks may uncover a few more flaws. Just based on what I have seen in my few days of use, I would have no trouble recommending this camera to any friend who was looking for something a little different than the rest of the compact cameras out there.
Finally, as I said before, keep an eye out for our full interview in a few weeks time.