Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3

There is a lot of chatter about Panasonic's new top end point and shoot, the Panasonic DMC-LX3Panasonic DMC-LX3, and it all seems pretty good. And with good reason, this camera looks to be the first time a big manufacturer has put image quality ahead of marketing tricks. Instead of increasing megapixles well beyond reason, Panasonic has capped it at 10MP. Granted, that's still more then is needed, but at least it is a start. For reference, 6MP is a great spot for most people. I have many prints from my 6MP D70 printed at 20x30". That is pretty big.

The constrained megapixels keep the images from being overrun with undesirable color noise that has a big negative impact on images. Because there are fewer megapixels, you can get more images on the memory card. And those smaller images take up less space on your computer. The smaller images are easier and faster to both view and edit on the computer.

But the constrained megapixel count really is only one reason for all the interest. This little camera has a very wide angle lens for a point and shoot. Its wide end is equivalent to 24mm (on a 35mm camera). Most point and shoots are 35mm at best at the wide end. There are a few that go to 28mm, but not many. Most all DSLRs from Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and Sony ship with zoom lenses with an 18mm (28mm equivalent) on the wide end of the kit lens.

But, wait, that's not all! In addition Panasonic LX3has a super 'fast lens'. It's aperture is f2 to f2.8! That is just crazy for a point and shoot. The LX3's aperture (a variable iris between the lens and the sensor) opens wider then most lenses to let more light in. That means that it can shoot in low light, but maintain a faster shutter speed. This camera can take better, less blurry and less noisy images in low light. For comparison, the kit lenses for most DSLRs are f3.5 to f5.6, that lets much less light in so it is not as good in low light. This is not to say the LX3 can really compete with a Nikon D40or Canon XSi, but it is starting to encroach in their territory. It is the most serious competition DSLRs have yet seen from the world of point and shoot cameras.

It is important to remember the that 'low light' to a camera is not the same thing as 'low light' to humans. We see in low light much better them cameras. In a typical indoor scene, we humans can see very well, there is plenty of light. But for cameras, this is considered low light. The only time a camera is really happy is outside on a bright day or when it can create its own light by using a flash.

Using a flash is convenient, but not very pleasing. First, with a compact camera, you usually wind up with 'red eye'. But more important, flashes make people look bad, they highlight blemishes and create shadows that exaggerate wrinkles and can often over expose faces and make your subject look like the undead.

So, flash = bad.

Panasonic has three techniques to let you shoot without flash:

  1. Wide f2 aperture
  2. Restrained 10MP sensor
  3. Effective high ISO performance
And for shooters who know there way around photography software, the LX3 has one more trick to eek out the most from low light shooting, it can shoot in RAW. The RAW format is the 'raw' image data that the sensor captures. Then, the camera converts that data into a JPG image file. This is a handy step because it takes that raw data and refines it so the final image not only looks great, but also is easy to print and share.

But, this ease comes at a cost. When the camera converts to JPG it applies a lot of 'enhancements' that it thinks you want and discards a bunch of other image data that you might want. During the conversion, the camera will try and correct the color, adjust the contrast, sharpen the image, and even correct for barrel distortion. Most of the time, for most shooters, this really is a good thing. But, for photography pros, this is not usually desirable.

If you are a pro shooter, you have spent years learning photography and developing a process to capture the image you want the way you want. You, the pro shooter, do not need to leave the 'developing' up to some dumb camera. You can do it better, and with the RAW data, you have more latitude to make the adjustments you want to make.

With the RAW file, the pro shooter has more latitude to push the exposure, color balance, noise, and sharpening one way of the other to really get what she is after.

Now if the last few paragraphs about RAW bores you to tears, no worries, the LX3 takes great shots in JPG. Done.

The natural competitor to the Panasonic LX3is the Canon G10. Some people who have used both, like the image (and movie) quality of the LX3. They generally do bemoan the fact that the LX does not have the nice solid feeling body of the G10, or the G10's dials and buttons that allow direct control of advances features.

The G10 is definitely a beauty, but for me, the smaller size of the LX3 and, more importantly, the better image quality trump the G10.

But then, I've not shot with either of these cameras so don't take my word for it, see what the pros say:

Panasonic Lumix DMC LX3 Unboxing from Scott Bourne on Vimeo.

Scott Bourne's mini review

DPReview's complete review

1 comment:

Hugh Fryer said...

Good article.