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Panasonic Lumix LX-3

Very Wide – Very Fast – Very Nice

There aren't many truly pocket-sized digicams that offer raw mode. There aren't very many that currently offer decent HD video capability as well. There are even less that feature a truly wide angle lens (24mm), and pocket-sized camera's with fast f/2 optics are even fewer and farther between. Add up these desirable characteristics and you end up with a single unique offering, the new Panasonic Lumix DCS LX-3, which just started to ship in Q4, 2008.

This isn't a matter of preference through specmanship. A wide and fast fast lens is something highly desirable in a "street camera", which is what I look for in a digicam, and raw mode is a must for the image quality that I need when shooting in difficult conditions. I also feel that the ability to shoot decent HD video has now become a highly desirable feature in any new camera that I use.

The Panasonic LX-3 bundles all of these capabilities into a pocketable camera that really delivers the goods. Here's why.


River Bank. Caledon Hills, Ontario. October, 2008
Panasonic LX-3 at ISO 80
(Partially Desturated in Lightroom 2.1)

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Background

In 2005 I took an LX-1 with me on a shoot in China and I was pleased with the results. I skipped the LX-2 model, and recently decided to acquaint myself with the Panasonic's latest version, the LX-3. From time to time I look at the latest digicams, and this year have had reviews and field reports on the Ricoh GX100, Canon G9, Sigma DP-1, Samsung NV24-HD, and Sony W300 (though neither of these later two have raw mode).

I am currently working on a hands-on comparative review of the new Canon G10 and Nikon P6000, and this will appear here before the end of October. (Anyone reading this after October, '08 should check the site's table of contents for these reviews).

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The Basics

The Panasonic LX3 uniquely offers three shooting formats 16:9, 3:2, and 4:3. These are quickly and easily set via a switch on the lens barrel. This alone sets the LX3 apart from its competitors, and may be considered a real plus by many photographers. And, unlike its predecessor the LX1, the change in aspect ratios is not achieved by simply masking the sensor, but indeed focal length coverage is maintained. This differentiates the LX3 from other cameras which simply do format masking, something that one can always emulate when cropping during post processing.

The advantage of this approach is shown in the image resolution resulting from each format's selection – 3968X2232 pixels with 16:9, 3648X2736 with 4:3, and 3776X2520 with 3:2. Choice of format therefore becomes an esthetic decision, with 16:9 being suitable for landscape work, 3:2 for those that are comfortable with 35mm aspect ratio. and 4:3 for folks who like something a bit less extreme, such as the popular 645 medium format format.

The LX3 uses a new 10 megapixel, 1/1.63-inch CCD. The onboard processor is also new, the Venus Engine IV. The LCD screen is a now requisite 3.0-inch with 460K dot resolution.

One of the camera's key features is its lens, a 5.1 – 12.8mm, f/2 – f/2.8 DC Vario-Summicron . This is the equivalent to 24-60mm in 35mm full-frame terms There is also optical image stabilization and an available ISO range of 80-3200, though as we'll see you likely won't want to use anything beyond ISO 400 for serious shooting.

Oh yes, and the LX3 shoots video in 720P HD format at a data rate of 25 mbp/s.

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Features – Pro and Con

Build quality on the LX3 is exemplary, with the body made from a metal casting rather than plastic shell, and it consequent feels solid and rugged. The only part that seems to be lighter duty than the rest is the obviously thin plastic hinged door on the battery and SD compartment.

Given the diminutive size of the LX3, controls are of a decent size and are well placed and accessible. The only exception to this is the nubby joystick control, which is used for quite a few menu settings and which sometimes seems a bit recalcitrant in its movement.

I also found that the top-mounted mode dial was far too easy to accidentally move to an unwanted setting. Given that the camera will usually be coming in and out of a pocket, and handled at that point without one seeing its controls, its all too easy to find oneself shooting in the wrong mode. It happens to me almost all the time. Most frustrating.

Focusing

Panasonic has paid good attention to the focusing needs of users. Like all other non-SLR digicams the LX3 uses contrast detection autofocus, which is far slower than the virtually instantaneous autofocus one gets from an SLR type camera. Nevertheless, I found the LX3 to have among the fastest AF of any camera of its type.

There are three AF modes, selectable with a control ring located on the left side of the lens: AF, Macro AF and Manual Focus. The only difference in the Macro mode is that the camera can focus down to 1cm, and therefore AF is faster when set to regular AF mode since the system has to travel through a shorter range when seeking the proper point of focus.


Macro Focusing

In manual focus mode the joystick becomes a focusing control – Up for closer and Down for further away. Optionally, the LCD can be set to show a magnified center point for more accurate focus determination, or the whole screen can be magnified. Nice!

There is a focus scale indication on the right side of the screen, and it shows available depth of field via a moving yellow bar that changes in size as the aperture is changed. Nice, Nice.

Finally, on the top right of the body, next to the shutter release, is a FOCUS button. When in manual focus mode this allows the camera to autofocus. This is the mode that I use almost all of the time because this is the way that I shoot with a DSLR, only focusing when and where "I" want it to. NIce, Nice, Nice.

There is a built in manual pop-up flash with all of the requisite modes, and also a hot shoe so that accessory Panasonic flash units can also be attached.

The camera can record 5 seconds of audio in association with each JPEG, but alas, not when shooting in raw mode.

Unfortunately, and unlike some larger competitors like the Nikon P6000 and Canon G10 there is no optical viewfinder. This means that the rear LCD is used for composition. Fortunately the quality of the screen is very high, and is bright enough in all except the brightest direct sunlight.

Panasonic makes an accessory optical viewfinder that slips onto the accessory shoe, (or one can use one of the fine and moderately priced ones made by Voigtlander). But since the lens is a 24–60mm equivalent zoom, one will have to select one focus length from this range.

I have a 28mm Voigtlander viewfinder and I found it to be just the ticket for when one wants or needs to shoot with the camera to ones eye. Panasonic even thoughtfully provides a manual viewfinder mode so that the rear LCD is turned off except for image review. Thoughtfully done.

Manual Controls

Frankly, I use a camera like this in aperture priority mode almost all of the time, simply because that's the way that I also usually work with my DSLRs. But full manual control of exposure as well as focusing is available, and like just about everything else on this Panasonic it's well conceived and presented. Unlike with some cameras, one gets the sense that real photographers had input into the camera's design, rather than a committee of engineers and marketing people.

Optical Performance

I'm not terribly interested in garage door / test chart lens evaluations. A day shooting with a given lens under varying conditions tells me all I need to know.

In the case of the LX3's Vario-Summicron the results are to my eye all positive. The 24mm equivalent wide end is very welcome, and when combined with the 16:9 aspect ratio makes for some really interesting wide angle capabilities. I saw only a bit of vignetting wide open at 24mm, and what was there mostly disappears when the lens is stopped down to f/2.8. By f/4 the lens is at its "sweet spot" and leaves little to be desired in terms of overall image quality. I felt that it softened up a bit at 60mm equivalent, but then only a bit.

While performance wide open is quite good, stopping down one or two stops really increases apparent resolution. Be careful though, because at f/5.6 and smaller diffraction rears its ugly head, and even Panasonic recognizes this by making f/8 the camera's minimum aperture.


Stubble and Clouds. Ontario. October, 2008
Panasonic LX-3 at ISO 80

The Lens Cap

One doesn't have to read too many web reviews and comments on the LX3 to learn that few people seem happy with the fact that instead of being self-capping the camera's lens uses a good old fashioned lens cap.

Those coming from the world of DSLRs will wonder what the fuss is about. Hell – Panasonic even gives you a cute little cord so that the lens cap doesn't get lost when removed. On the other hand, those coming from using other pocket cameras will wonder what the silly piece of plastic is for, and why its necessary.

I agree with the criticism though. Having to have a lens cap dangling at the end of a tether from such a small camera is annoying, and it not tethered it's bound to get lost. A nuisance.

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Raw Vs JPEG

Of course one of the most attractive features of the LX3 is the fact that it shoots raw. Other than for throw-away snapshots I always shoot raw, simply because a JPEG, though more convenient, removes ones ability to process the image effectively after the fact.

This camera, like most, has the ability for one to customize just about every parameter of its internal raw processing, so that in-camera JPGs produced can (and I repeat can, not do) produce the type of output that one wants. But that type of output, or look, can change depending on the location, the light, and the subject, and once the JPEG has been baked there's little-to-no going back. So for this reason I won't even consider a camera that can't shoot raw.

Fortunately the LX3 does so very efficiently. It can shoot three raws in a row quickly, and then as soon as the first has been written to the SD card, is ready to shoot another. Also, all controls are available to you while the camera is processing, buffering, and writing, so the camera doesn't freeze up the way so many small cameras that shot raw have in the past.

Which brings us to Silkypix, the raw processing software that Panasonic provides. While it does a fine job technically of processing files, compared to contemporary raw processing software like Lightroom, Camera Raw or Aperture, its user interface is awkward and unintuative.

Until the next versions of these more mature raw processing programs become available (likely before year's end) we're stuck with Panasonic's choice of Silkypix, but you shouldn't let this deter you from shooting raw.

Note to Panasonic: Why hobble a fine camera with such underperforming raw software? Here's my suggestion. Stop spending money on trying to provide a proprietary solution. Instead, have your cameras produce universal DNG format files and let the user choose whichever raw processing program they prefer.


Yellow Leaves. Toronto, Ontario. October, 2008
Panasonic LX-3 at ISO 80

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Image Quality

I did not shoot many JPG images during my initial use and testing of the LX3, so I can only say that what I saw were images that superficially looked fine, which which typically appeared overprocessed. I experimented with the broad range of parameters that are available to alter contrast, sharpening, colour and so forth, but in the end felt that I was wasting my time and simply set the camera to raw mode.

So, sorry, I can't be of much help on this topic. If you're someone that shoots JPGs then all I can suggest is that you take the time to try the various combinations of settings that are available to achieve a look that you are comfortable with. It's likely possible to achieve the image quality that's possible from a good raw processing program, but its a much more cumbersome process than doing so after the fact on ones computer.

Once in a good and efficient raw processing program the LX3's files lend themselves to producing quality images. At ISO under 400 I found the dynamic range available to be as good as from any similarly speced and priced camera available so far, and better than most. Very good colour rendition is possible, though with some anomalies, which are no doubt caused by the camera profiling choice that is applied by Silkypix. Once the ability to convert files to DNG is available we'll be able to produce our own profiles using the Adobe DNG Profile Editor.

ISO Performance

The samples below tell the tale. ISO 80 is very slightly better than 100, but only slightly. 200 starts to show a bit of luminance noise, but its well controlled. At ISO 400 its visible, but not objectionably so, except if one is making very large prints.

At ISO 800 chroma noise becomes objectionable, and ISO 1600 and 3200 are not for anything except emergency use and small prints.

Overall I judge this to be the best Panasonic digicam to date in terms of image quality. That company has not had a very good reputation for low noise files at anything except the lowest ISO settings, but with the LX3 they join their competitors with decent performance in moderately low light.

One can quibble over which camera is better at the higher ISOs, and when I test the G10 and P6000 I'll be sure to do a comparison in this area. But at this stage of the game one no longer needs to regard Panasonic as an also-ran in the noise department.

Below – 100% Crops

ISO 80
ISO 100
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
NA
ISO 3200

Panasonic LX-3

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The Bottom Line

Overall I was impressed with the Panasonic LX3. It's small enough to be a constant companion, and that's half the battle in this market segment – isn't it? Size matters, and if a camera, no matter how desirable it might otherwise be, is too big and too heavy to always be along when one needs or wants it to be, then its actual capabilities and image quality are moot.

Panasonic is also to be applauded for bucking the industry's relentless trend toward higher pixel densities. 10MP is enough for very nice 11X17" prints, unless one is doing heavy cropping, and if going to 13MP or 15MP would have meant decreased image quality then I for one regard the trade-off as worthwhile.

This camera's combination of high build quality, a terrific lens, wide angle coverage, a wide aperture second to none, and extensive and easy to use manual controls, makes it quite appealing to the serious photographer looking for a pocket camera. We should be under no illusion that a camera like this is a replacement for even the lowliest DSLR when it comes to image quality though. At 2 micron pixel size there's only so much that one can squeeze out of a small high density sensor, but nevertheless, if one wants a constant companion that can produce decent stills and some occasional HD video suitable for home use as well, it's hard to go wrong with the Panasonic LX3.

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What About The Leica D-Lux 4?

What is essentially the same camera as the Panasonic LX-3 is also available as the Leica D-Lux 4. The differences between them appear to be the Leica red button badge rather than the Lumix name on the top right hand corner of the body. And....

And, oh yes, almost $400 difference in price. At the time of this writing B&H, for example, is selling the LX-3 for $463 and the D-Lux 4 for $849. How is the remarkable price differential justified? I'm not sure.

UPDATE:

According to a source within Leica here are some salient advantages to the D-Lux 4...

– a provided wrist strap rather than a neck strap (wow - a saving of about $7)
– Phase One Capture One 4 raw software instead of Silkypix (a smart move, but not worth that much once other third party appears)
– A two year warranty, vs Panasonic's 1 Year with 90 days labour (Humm. How about I just buy a second camera for the extra $400 if the first one fails? Seems like expensive insurance to me).

The bottom line on this is that while the Leica version might be worth an extra $100, to my mind it simply isn't worth an almost $400 premium.

October, 2008


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Concepts: Film speed, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Digital camera, Photographic lens, Camera, Raw image format, Aperture, Wide-angle lens

Entities: Toronto, Panasonic, Panasonic, Canon, Nikon, the Leica, River Bank, Adobe, Sony, Samsung, China, ISO, JPEG, LCD screen, SLR, optical viewfinder, SD card, user interface, JPG, ISOs, AF, Michael Reichmann, Caledon Hills, D-Lux 4, P6000, Ontario, DCS LX-3

Tags: camera, image, mode, image quality, raw processing, raw mode, raw processing program, Panasonic LX-3, Panasonic LX3, aspect ratio, wide angle, lens cap, HD video, decent hd video, manual focus mode, raw processing software, small cameras, aperture, Panasonic Lumix DCS, raw software, accessory panasonic flash, best panasonic digicam, SLR type camera, pocketable camera, Camera Raw, Canon G10, Leica D-Lux, pocket-sized camera, Nikon P6000, street camera, af mode, new camera, wide angle lens, reviews, constant companion, manual controls, rear lcd, optical viewfinder, pocket camera, build quality