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Panasonic Lumix DMC L1

A First Field Report

Predisposition

I should start this review by saying that I was predisposed to liking the L1. Notwithstanding their flaws, I was partial to both the earlier Panasonic LC1 and LX-1 models. Each had character, and a sense that they had to some extent been designed by and for photographers, unlike so many cameras these days, which appear to be more akin to IPods with lenses attached rather than photographic instruments.

There also is the fact that I was once a sales and marketing executive for Panasonic (decades ago), and have a certain affinity for the company and its products, if not an altogether warm and fuzzy feeling for what is one of the world's largest electronics corporations.

But that aside (and stated here for the sake of full disclosure more than anything else), what initially enamored me of the L1 was the fact that I began a career in and passion for photography before 1999. What I mean by that is that my sense of the form and functional disposition of a camera was learned prior to the invention of the DSLR. Therefore cameras with manual aperture rings and top-mounted shutter speed dials are like mother's milk to me. They're the way a camera should be – at least through the filter of my own personal biases.

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Window Flowers. Iceland. August, 2006
Panasonic Lumix L1 with Leica D Vario-Elmarit 14-50mm f/2.8-3.5 @ ISO 400.

In the Flesh

Picking up any new camera for the first time is a bit like being introduced to a new girl. There is a flush of excitement that colours any initially obvious flaws. And if the new girl happens to resemble Mom, or maybe on a bit less Freudian level, a previous amour, then so much the better.

The Panasonic L1 appealed to me initially in just that way, and clearly that's Panasonic's intention. With its traditional (some would call them retro) exposure controls and manual focus capability, this is clearly a camera designed to appeal to the traditionalist. Add to this the very obvious homage paid to the style of the M series Leica (right down to an autofocus assist window designed to look like an RF window) and you have a camera that any long-time photographer over the age of 30 will drool over.

Of course the piece de resistance is the L1's provided lens, a Leica D Vario-Elmarit 14-50mm f/2.8-3.5.

The other side of the ledger contains the L1's 21st century attributes – a 7.4 Megapixel Live-MOS sensor, MEGO O.I.S. (Panasonic's term for its optical image stabilization), and an ultrasonic vibration mode that keeps the sensor free of dust.

Indecently, the L1 and Leica zoom lens are sold as a kit, with a US list price of $1,995. The lens is currently not available separately, though I would hope that this changes down the road so that Olympus DSLR owners can also enjoy it.

The camera and lens come together and combine into a none-to-small total package, which is the subject of the next consideration.

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The 4/3 Size Myth

Since its introduction some three years ago with the Olympus E1, the 4/3 format has been touted by its supporters as providing a number of advantages, among them that the smaller sensor (smaller at least than 1.5X or 1.6X factor 35mm) allows for the manufacture of smaller and lighter weight cameras and lenses.

Well, that was then and this is now. The L1 body comes in at 606 grams without lens. The Canon Rebel XT at 540 grams, and the Pentax K110D at 585 grams. As for physical dimension, the L1 is 146 X 87 X 77mm. The Rebel XT is 127 X 94 X 64 and the Pentax tapes in at 129 x 93 x 70.

It's only when it comes to lenses that the 4/3 format offers a size advantage. The Leica D Vario-Elmarit 14-50mm f/2.8-3.5 comes in as slightly shorter and a fair bit lighter than the roughly comparable Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM. (4/3 format lens focal lengths need to be multiplied by 2X to be equivalent to those of 35mm lenses. Thus the Leica zoom is equivalent to a 28-100mm in 35mm terms.

The net of all of this is that one needs to question the advantages of a 4/3 camera with its smaller sensor, over the mainstream of 1.5X and 1.6X so-called APS-C sized sensor cameras. We know that other things being equal, for the same resolution bigger sensors mean larger pixels, and therefore less noise. If the 4/3 format doesn't offer compelling advantages of size and weight, what does it offer?

I asked this question rhetorically several years ago, and came up with the thought that 4/3 might well prove to be en evolutionary dead-end. It certainly has looked that way for the past few years, with Olympus being the only company till now to make cameras in this "open" format. But now with Panasonic entering the fray this may be changing.

Also, my perception has changed along with the evolving digital camera marketplace. In the early 2000's, when the 4/3 format was being conceptualized and designed, sensors were expensive to make, because the larger the physical size the lower the yield. Constantly evolving fabrication technology has addressed this and we have recently seen the price of 8MP cameras with reduced-frame 35mm sensors drop to below $500, and full-frame 35mm sensors in camera that retail for under $3,000. Clearly sensor build cost is no longer as compelling a factor as it was in the early years of DSLR development.

One could therefore use this as fuel for an argument which stated that having little size advantage and little to no cost advantage any longer, 4/3 has indeed outlived its premise. As I said, one could argue that, but I won't. The reason is that I see chip size by itself as having become largely irrelevant in the consumer / prosumer marketplace. Most serious amateur photographers are happy with maximum sized prints in the 11X17" to 16X20" range, and the current 8 – 16 MP cameras handle this well. For those looking for even bigger prints, there's always medium format, just as in the past. So, it seems that for the most part, while the real-world advantages of the smaller 4/3 format seem a bit thin, it's disadvantages have largely been overcome by improved sensor technology.

Green Spiral. Iceland. August, 2006
Panasonic Lumix L1 with Leica D Vario-Elmarit 14-50mm f/2.8-3.5 @ ISO 100.

 

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An Abbreviated Test

The L1 came into my hands, as seems so often to be the case with equipment that I receive for testing, just a day before I left for a week-long landscape shoot in Iceland. Since I was shooting primarily with medium format (a Hasselblad H2 and Phase One P45 back), the Panasonic became my choice for more casual shooting, always off the tripod. I spent the flight over to London and then Reykjavik reading the manual and taking photographs out of the airplane window, so by the time we began our shoot in Iceland I was feeling up to speed with the L1. I used it for the rest of the week doing casual shooting and when the always-tripod-mounted Hasselblad wasn't appropriate.

Because I was laid low with a viral ear infection at the end of the trip, which cause me to take to bed for the last two days, I never got the opportunity to do the more formal testing that I had hoped to accomplish. The camera also needed to be returned to Panasonic as soon as I returned to Canada. My comments therefore will be mostly concerned with the camera's features, functionality and ergonomics, rather than the nitty gritty of image quality. I'll leave that to the other web sites and magazines that do that type of testing so well. But, as the photographs used as illustrations in the article show, the L1 acquits itself very well indeed in any comparison with other 6 – 8 megapixel DSLRs currently available, with which I have experience.

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The Lens and MEGA O.I.S.

Let's be frank. The real appeal of this camera for many will be the Leica D Vario-Elmarit 14-50mm f/2.8-3.5 lens that comes with it. Or is it the camera that comes with the lens? In any event, this is the real deal. It's labeled as a Leica optic, though it's manufacturer by Panasonic in Japan. Since major German lens makers have been buying optical subassemblies, aspheric elements and even entire lens assemblies from the major Japanese houses for many years (yes, including Panasonic), the fact that the lens doesn't have Made in Germany engraved on it is of little actual import. (Leica engineers are apparently resident in the Panasonic factory, monitoring manufacturing).

Having taken many hundreds of frames with this lens during my week in Iceland I can tell you that this is one first-rate optic. No formal tests are needed to let me know that this lens is sharp, contrasty, and quite free of any serious aberrations – at least those visible without conducting a formal test suite.

It is also the first interchangeable Leica lens to feature Image Stabilization, Panasonic's MEGA OIS. This works extremely well, and in practical tests allowed for 2-3 stops lower shutter speed than would be possible without it. It is activated via a sliding switch on the lens barrel. Olympus owners should note that this lens will work just fine on their 4/3 format cameras, offering image stabilization for the first time to that brand. Do note though that you have to buy the lens with its accessory Panasonic camera if you're an Olympus owner and you'd like to give this a try.

This is an autofocus lens which can be manual focused when desired. The manual focus ring operates smoothly, though not quite with an M Leica lenses' tactile buttery smoothness.

One afternoon as I was shooting in Iceland I pick the camera up off the car seat to frame a shot, manually focusing, since I didn't want to bother yet turning the camera on. No manual focus. Yes, that's right, The L1 will not manual focus when the power is off. This is an SLR, for #&^%$ sake, not a digicam! Why does there need to be power to manually focus the lens. Life sometimes really is a mystery.

Notwithstanding, this is a first rate optic; one that most photographers will find offers a focal length range, maximum aperture, and image quality that meets their needs and expectations.

Mechanically this lens harks back to days of yore (I've always wanted to write that). Zooming is fully manual and focus can be manual if desired. There is a real honest-to-goodness aperture ring, and the lens is put into fully auto exposure mode when this ring is placed on its A position while this is done similarly with the shutter speed dial. Take one or the other off auto and you have either Aperture priority and Shutter priority operation. With both on manual settings fully manual exposure is achieved in match needle mode. Very traditional and nicely executed.

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Live View

The Panasonic L1 shares honours for the time being with the Olympus 330 in offering a live view capability. This means that even though it is an SLR, the camera can also be set to show a live view of what the sensor is seeing on the rear LCD screen. The way that this is accomplished is by swinging aside the reflex mirror and passing the light directly to the sensor.

This is accomplished with quite a bit of slapping and clacking of the mirror and shutter mechanism, making this a capability that one would not likely use when doing discrete shooting. Also, it takes a moment or two to execute, so it is also not appropriate for shooting when critical timing is required. It will be found to be useful though for some types of photography, by some photographers.

Curiously, the rear LCD on the L1 is not articulated. This does reduce the usefulness of a live LCD, since low angle and high angle viewing are one of its benefits. Panasonic addresses this concern by allowing the LCD to change its viewing angle when placed into extreme viewing positions. It works, but frankly an articulated screen would have been more to my liking, and is found on the Olympus 330.

I noticed that during Live View, when in Manual Exposure mode, changing exposure has no visible effect in-screen. But, curiously, when in Auto Exposure mode, dialed in exposure compensation settings are shown visually. Why one, and not the other?

Just Another Waterfall. Iceland. August, 2006
Panasonic Lumix L1 with Leica D Vario-Elmarit 14-50mm f/2.8-3.5 @ ISO 100.

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ISO Performance

The Achilles Heel of Panasonic sensors till now has been their noise. Even the company now admits that this was an area which needed work. And work they have. With the L1, and other Panasonic cameras introduced this third quarter of 2006, Panasonic has introduced its Venus III engine. This finally does the trick.

My subjective evaluation is that at ISO 100-200 the files are as clean as I've seen from any other camera. At ISO 400 a small amount of luminance noise starts to become visible. At ISO 800 there starts to be some chroma noise, but nothing that will be a problem in small prints. ISO 1600 chroma noise becomes quite noticeable and would require a third party noise reduction program for most uses.

Because of my limited time with the camera, travels and illness toward the end, I don't have any definite test examples to share with you. I'm sure that in the days ahead definitive review sites such as DPReview will have their usual sample files on display and for download. The bottom line is that Panasonic has now moved its on-chip / in-camera noise reduction to be the equal of that from most other manufacturers. Canon though still wears the crown in this regard.

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Flash

The L1 has a very competent small pop-up flash built in. This design was first seen on last year's LC1. When activated the flash opens to a first position where it is pointing upward at about a 45 degree angle, perfect for bounce flash. Another press opens it into a face-on traditional position.

I took many happy-snaps of the Lightroom Adventure group while we were working in our hotels in the evenings, and found that through the use of the bounce they came out very natural looking.

Photographs taken with built-in bounce fill-flash @ ISO 400

The L1 also has a top mounted hot shoe that is compatible with all Olympus flash units.

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Anti Dust

Taking a page from Olympus' play-book, Panasonic has built in an ultrasonic vibration capability that shakes dust off the sensor every time the camera is started up. This is actually the same Supersonic Wave Filter designed by Olympus.

This works extremely well. I changed lenses quite a few times on one day (John Issacs loaned me a variety of Olympus lenses to try out, from fish eye to super zoom). I never saw a single dust spot. My only complaint is that this slows down boot up time and I'd therefore suggest that its use be made optional via a custom function.

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Areas of Concern

There are five areas in which I find the Panasonic L1 to fall short. The first of these is ergonomics. As mentioned, and to be seen in the product shots, the L1 aspires to an M series Leica look. This is no bad thing for anyone with an appreciation for those legendary cameras. But it does impact on the camera's handling, and as will be seen, some aspects of performance.

The Eyelets

The first thing that I noticed on shooting with the L1 is that the neck strap eyelet digs into the palm of ones hand when the camera is being held in the right hand for any length of time. The strap itself cushions the metal, but it is uncomfortable for no good reason, since by positioning it slightly to the front of the body instead of right in the middle, as so many cameras do, it would be out of the way. The body is also fairly short, and so even though I have small hands I find that my last two fingers have nowhere to rest. This problem isn't unique to the L1, but is common to cameras where the manufacturer is striving for small size rather than optimum ergonomics.

The Shutter Release

Probably the most egregious design issue is that the shutter release is located in the middle of the shutter speed dial – top right on the body. This makes it an awkward reach for the index finger, which must be higher than it should be for comfort. Because the L1 makes no concessions to modern ergonomic design, such as an angled finger rest and contoured button, it doesn't present itself well when one is doing extensive shooting. It simply is uncomfortable, though someone with larger hands and longer fingers may not be as concerned about this as I was.

I'll digress here for a moment with a comment addressed to those who don't "get" the criticisms that I sometimes make of camera's handing. If one is simply using a camera to take occasional snapshots, then such seemingly small design glitches may seem to get too much attention in my reviews. I make them though because for me a camera is a tool, not a fetish object or occasional toy. When I'm doing photography I do it for hours and days at a time, in every sort of weather. How well, or how poorly controls fall to hand is a critical aspect of how I end up feeling about a camera's suitability as a working companion. This is why I sometimes end up criticizing aspects of some cameras that other reviewers don't. It's because I choose to focus on traits that may not be noticed or even of interest to someone who is evaluating a camera from a different perspective.

Back to the L1.

 

\The Viewfinder

My second area of concern is the viewfinder. This is an SLR, which means that one is viewing, framing and focusing through the taking lens. Regrettably the viewfinder on the L1 is one of the smallest and dimmest that I have ever seen. The reason for this is that the camera uses a series of mirrors (called a porro prism) to transmit the light to the viewfinder, rather than a pentaprism. Mirrors inherently are subject to light losses in transmission to a much greater extent than are prisms. This behaviour was previously seen in the Olympus Pen F series of cameras, from the 1970's, which used a similar design. (Only the Live-MOS sensor, Supersonic Wave Filter, and Mirror box are shared with the current Olympus 330).

This design approach accomplishes two things. It lowers the camera's profile over those which use prisms, and lends it an M Leica look. Frankly, I don't find either of these compelling enough reason to produce a viewfinder that verges on the unusable. In bright daylight I found it tolerable, but when doing some available light shooting indoors I would actually have preferred an electronic viewfinder, something I never thought I'd say. (Actually, what I'd prefer would have simply been a brighter SLR viewfinder).

Added to my viewfinder concern is that even though the groundglass image appears distant, the LED data panel is not clearly visible when one is wearing glasses. It appears off to the right of the viewing area, and requires a shift in ones eye position to be visible. All in all I was not happy with the L1's viewfinder.

If I may be allowed another digressions, I would suggest that Panasonic (and Olympus) are not alone in offering dim and distant SLR viewfinders. I was singularly unimpressed with the one in the Canon Digital Rebel XT350 when I reviewed it last year. As mentioned at that time, while there are cost, weight and size savings to this design approach, photographers end up getting the short end of the stick. If inexpensive is the driving factor, then fine, I guess one can live with such limitations. But otherwise I regard them as a regrettable retrograde step.

To see what I mean, hunt around in your back closet for a 35mm film SLR and look through the viewfinder. Then compare it to a camera like the Panasonic L1 or Canon Rebel. You'll be shocked at how much has been lost. To see this by way of a contemporary counterpoint look through the viewfinder of a Canon 5D. No inappropriate comparison intended. These are very different animals aimed at very different markets and price points. But what one sees is very telling about industry trends. Do we really have to go to the higher end of the marketplace to be able to get decent viewfinders? Likely, yes.

The Missing LCD

The third problem area is that like so many current DSLRs that strive for small physical size, the L1 does not have an LCD information screen, either on the top or rear panel. This means that all shooting information, such as current ISO, metering, focus and drive settings, and battery condition among others, are only visible on the outside of the camera via the rear colour LCD.

A camera needs to communicate clearly and unambiguously to the photographer as to how each of its modes are set. What is the current aperture, shutter speed, ISO, battery condition, number of frames left – and so on? A shot may start to present itself and these vital pieces of information must be assessed in a moment so that appropriate corrections can be made before the shot is taken. That's the value of a top panel always-on LCD. By removing this panel, and relegating its information to the rear colour LCD the camera maker is causing two problems. Firstly, they are loading a second purpose onto an already overcrowded bit of real estate. Secondly, because the rear LCD is illuminated, it is always annoyingly visible just below eye level when shooting. This is simply a bad solution in my book.

With the L1 the screen can be turned off if it is found to be annoying, but then the information that it contains is no longer available at a glance, as it needs to be. The casual user may not find this to be problematic, but I assure you that the photographer who uses an L1 for hours and days at a time will likely find this to be a point of serious annoyance. And Panasonic is not alone in the regard. More and more cameras are taking this approach as they strive to reduce camera size. A bad idea, I say.

No Dynamic Buffering

Any photographer shooting reportage, news, fashion, sports, or any activity where rapid shooting is required will find themselves frustrated with the L1. The reason is this. There is a large enough shooting buffer, and the camera shoots moderately quickly. But, once you remove your finger from the shutter release, the memory buffer starts to write to the SD card and no further pictures can be taken until the buffer is completely empty.

If you have taken one shot (RAW+JPG) and then try to take another one right away you are delayed by a second or so. If you have shot a burst of 4-6 frames, and then a few seconds later want to take just one more frame, you can't – not until the buffer is empty. I don't have experience with every camera on the market, but frankly, I have never used a DSLR with this limitation. Digicams, yes, but not DSLR.

Regardless of whether the Panasonic L1 is unique in this regard or not, the point is that I find this behaviour unacceptable. The other annoyances discussed early in this section are just that – annoyances. If I was in the market for what the L1 has to offer none would deter me from making the purchase. But I wouldn't consider buying this camera with its current buffer design. On my week shooting with it in Iceland, simply as a snapshot camera, I found that I lost a great many visual moments because the shutter wouldn't release.

The photograph below titled Bill's Epiphany is but one example. Bill Atkinson had found a shot that he liked and set up for it. (Not something that happens often). As the self timer was running prior to shutter release Bill raised his arms to avoid touching the camera. I took the shot. A split second later his arms became fully extended because (who knows) maybe he realized that this was going to be a really good one. In any event, I pressed the shutter release to capture it, and nothing. The buffer was writing. Moment lost. Totally unacceptable.

Bill's Epiphany. Iceland. August, 2006
Panasonic Lumix L1 with Leica D Vario-Elmarit 14-50mm f/2.8-3.5 @ ISO 100.

Update: Oct 12, 2006.

Panasonic has just announced a firmware update that addresses the problem of not being able to continue shooting in raw mode while the camera is writing to the card. They are to be commended for responding so quickly to the problem.

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The Price is Right

As mentioned earlier the Panasonic L1 sells for $1,995. Seemingly pricey for a 7.4MP camera. But, this price includes the Leica D Vario-Elmarit 14-50mm f/2.8-3.5 lens, and that explains the price. Here's one point of reference. A Canon Rebel XT (350) currently retails though a major on-line retailer for $680. The Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM sells for $1,250 from that same store, for a total price of $1,930. Pretty close, and not an inappropriate point of comparison with regard to both pixel count, high quality stabilized lens and other features.

Frankly, the L1 isn't likely going to sell to the broad consumer market. It's price point and traditional handling will likely appeal to an more elderly and more affluent segment of the marketplace.

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Silkypix

Panasonic has (wisely) abandoned their own previously offered raw software. Instead they offer a Japanese designed program called Silkypix Developer Studio 2.0 SE. I spent a bit of time with it, and while I found it to be fairly competent technically, it's user interface is crude and clunky. Something out of the early days. There are also anomalies, such as not being able to display the image's ISO in the EXIF data.

A much better choice would be to simply use Abobe Camera Raw or Adobe Lightroom, both of which will support the L1 in their next release.

Here's one for the suggestion box, to Panasonic as well as all other manufactures. Adopt DNG as your raw format. That way any raw processing program will be able to support your camera's raw files right from the get-go, and forever. Think about it!

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Strange Behaviour

One strange anomaly is that in match-needle manual metering mode, after 8 seconds the display turns off. If you then turn the aperture ring the display comes back but with no visible metering indicators. The camera only starts to display metering again when autofocus is reengaged. Huh?

My final peeve is that there is no ISO setting visible in the viewfinder. The display area of the viewfinder is actually quite large, even though it is pushed far off to the right hand side. I see no reason why an ISO setting indication would not have been provided. It would have gone a long way toward ameliorating the lack of a top panel LCD.

Well, not quite my final peeve. The shutter speed dial only goes to its Auto position from one direction. This means that if a high manual shutter speed is selected the dial must then be rotated a full 360 degrees till A can be found. Why?

On the subject of settings, I found that the metering and shooting mode levers on the top panel were frequently off their desired positions when the camera was removed from a satchel type camera bag. This says to me that they either need interlocks or stiffer detents. A camera shouldn't surprise one with settings other than those set the last time.

Finally (really this time), the L1 provides flashing highlights on instant review, but not during Live View or subsequent playback. Why?

These are the kinds of things that make me wonder if there are technical reasons behind them, or if this is simply a first generation product that hasn't had enough field testing.

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Summary and Conclusion

I'm of two minds about the Panasonic L1. Part of me really would like to like it. I'm pleased to see Panasonic entering the DSLR marketplace at around the same time as Sony with its A100. Since the camera business has very much become driven by the electronic giants, especially those that OEM sensors the way the both Sony and Panasonic do, having them each marketing a full featured DSLR is no bad thing.

In the case of Panasonic what I find very attractive is the partnering with Leica. The Leica D Vario-Elmarit 14-50mm f/2.8-3.5 that comes bundled with the L1 is almost worth the price of admission by itself, and I wouldn't doubt that there will be Olympus owners who see it that way as well, since there's no telling when or if Panasonic will sell this lens by itself.

The L1 camera body though is a mixed offering. There's a lot to like, but also a lot that simply says "first generation". This is surprising, because last year's LC1 should have provided the necessary experience and feedback so that the L1 didn't seem so much like a first attempt.

As a platform for 4/3 series lenses, whether from Panasonic (lots more coming besides the zoom), Olympus, or Sigma, the L1 provides 4/3 camera buyers an interesting alternative to its cousins from Olympus. I feel though that when compared to similarly priced and featured offerings from Canon and Nikon (the zoom lens excluded for the moment), the camera comes up lacking. And that's as of this month (August 2006) when we have just seen Nikon's impressive new D80, but not yet Canon's Rebel replacement.

The Leica lens that comes with the L1 body is a jewel. But, is it enough? The marketplace will decide.

August, 2006

 


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Concepts: Single-lens reflex camera, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Camera, Leica Camera, Exposure, Photographic lens, Aperture, Shutter speed

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Tags: camera, Panasonic L1, Leica, sensors, shutter speed, shutter speed dial, viewfinder, panasonic cameras, shutter release, live view, Panasonic L1 shares, DSLR, accessory panasonic camera, aperture ring, olympus owners, Rebel XT, mode, Canon Rebel, Leica lens, manual focus, Canon Rebel XT, rear lcd, image stabilization, Supersonic Wave Filter, zoom lens, Leica zoom lens, exposure mode, rear colour lcd, earlier panasonic lc1, auto exposure mode, design, digital camera marketplace, 35mm, series leica, interchangeable leica lens, Panasonic Lumix, Leica look, new camera, slr viewfinders, small