Over New Year’s Eve I had the opportunity to take a Panasonic Lumix LX-3 out and about with us for a night on the town. The particular details of the evening would be a bit verbose for our purposes here, so we’ll just cut to the chase and start talking about my experience with this camera. There were a couple of features that attracted me to the Panasonic LX-3. First, it has a an extrermely wide angle lens for a camera of its class. Most point and shoot digitals have a 38mm wide lens, some have a 28mm, but very, very few have anything wider than that. The LX-3 has a 24mm wide angle lens, with a 2.5x zoom which brings it focal length out to roughly 60mm. Second, the f/stop on the lens is quite remarkable for a camera of its type, opening up to a maximum of f/2.0 when at its widest angle. Third, the LX-3 offers a pop-up flash which is far more effective for red-eye reduction than any flash built directly into the body. I also fashioned a custom diffusion dome for this flash which can be seen further below in this review. Last, and certainly not least, the LX-3 offers the RAW file format as one of the options for image recording format. This provides distinct advantages to point & shoots that do not offer this, as white balancing, noise reduction, and sharpening can become very problematic if left to the automated image processing systems within the cameras. Read the full story below.
Panasonic LX-3 @ 32mm ISO 80 8 sec.
The LX-3 is not quite what one would consider a pocket-sized camera – and I appreciate this. The C-LUX series from Leica and the FX series from Panasonic are pocket-sized and I feel it detracts from the user to be able to make good photographs. There is no comfortable way to handhold these cameras and keep them steady during the picture-taking process resulting in less-than optimal image quality. The LX-3 features a slight hand grip on the front of the unit for grabbing onto the camera and the lens protrudes just enough to allow a support hand underneath – similar to how one would hold a single lens reflex camera. This hand configuration allows the shooter to rest their elbows and their sides and create a tripod with their body. Yes, the camera has image stabilization, but no amount of stabilization will prevent the type of movement the body makes when attempting to hold one of the pocket-sized units.
In addition to the convenient hand grips on the front of the camera, on the back side there is a thumb pad which allows for added comfort. The button layout is quite nice. The zoom switch encircles the shutter release on the top of the camera and is a natural feeling as opposed to cameras which have a thumb switch on the back panel.
Image quality is very good. In comparison to Leica’s version (D-Lux 4), the LX-3 files straight out of camera appear to be a touch softer. This has nothing to do with the lens or sensor (as these components are identical between the two units). The difference lies in firmware, or rather how the camera processes the image file once it is collected by the capture device. I do not have a Leica D-Lux 4 for evaluation and my comments here are part observation of images I have seen from the Leica D-Lux 4, part eyewitness of previously identical Leica & Panasonic models, and part industry inside knowledge of how Panasonic and Leica are marketing the respective cameras. However, bypassing the processing engine inside the Panasonic, it is possible to achieve your own fine tuned results via shooting a RAW file. (See ‘RAW Advantages’ below).
With respect to pure resolution, the 10MP files from the LX-3 are quite capable of producing very nice looking 11 x 14 inch prints when viewed at proper viewing distance. A proper viewing distance is typically the diagonal measurement of the print. At proper viewing distances, noise & sharpening concerns disappear and the eye is able to resolve the detail as a whole image. ANY of the compact digital cameras (yes, including the Canon G10) produce images that look awful when enlarged if one is what we call ‘pixel-peeping’, i.e., putting their nose up to the print.
Lens @ 32mm ISO 80 2 sec
The lens quality is fairly good. As with all compact cameras, there is a smearing of the detail in corner regions. No compact camera lens can really escape this problem. In terms of distortion, the lens has very aggressive barrel distortion between the focal lengths of 24mm & 40mm. Once you zoom into the normal range (45-60mm) the edge curvature disappears. As always, to minimize the amount of distortion and curvature in your image, you should attempt to level the camera with your subject and refrain from shooting up or down onto your subject.
The advantages of shooting a RAW file in a compact camera is quite amazing. The smaller compact cameras do not have anywhere near the amount of processing power as a DSLR, so letting the camera render a JPG may be quite disappointing. The biggest areas where I see advantage are in white balancing, noise reduction and sharpening. Even using the custom white balance option accessed in the menu system, I found that it always needed at least a little bit of tweaking in processing. Second, the ability to turn Noise Reduction OFF in camera and bypass the JPG noise reduction algorithm proved to be quite useful. By JPG default standards, the Panasonic LX-3 has a tendency to soften the image more through noise reduction tactics as opposed to the Leica D-Lux 4 which is more conservative and favors a sharper image versus a smoothed over one. Through shooting a RAW file in the LX-3, you can check the smoothed-over effect at the door and apply only as much noise reduction as you’d like. The third factor is closely related to the noise reduction – sharpening. Sharpening and noise reduction work together to preserve the overall crispness of an image. Too much of either (or both applied) can ruin an image. One needs to find the balance between them. Some cameras over-sharpen their JPG files, some don’t apply enough sharpening. Sometimes extra sharpening can improve an image that needed an extra couple touches of noise reduction. A camera’s processing unit will not always be able to make these subjective, essentially human evaluations. These choices must be left up to the critically artistic eye. Yet again more reasons why it is advantageous to shoot in the RAW file format as you have so often heard me stress.
This camera model has no automatic flash mode. The camera will never pop-up the flash and fired it by itself. The user must manually press the flash button and activate the usage of the flash. Once the flash is popped up, you can engage an auto-flash mode where it will only fire is the camera’s exposure meter feels it is necessary, or you may leave it in ‘forced flash’ mode or choose a slow-sync or red-eye option. In the back menu, the user has access to first or second curtain flash, which is an advanced flash technique and should not be accessible on the quick menu flash button on the exterior of the camera.
The nice thing about this camera’s flash is that it pops up. The bad thing about this camera’s flash (or any compact for that matter) is that it is built right into the front of the camera. Direct flash hitting your subject is just about the worse thing ever! Completely unflattering. With a flash built into the camera, it becomes difficult for the user to control direction & quality of light. With an SLR camera, you can employ the use of a larger dedicated flash which sits on a hot-shoe, or you can use wireless slave triggers to change the direction of your light source. Granted the LX-3 has provision for an external flash, but why would you want to increase the size of camera now when you wanted to purchase something compact? If you are going to attach a flash, at this point, just go out and buy an SLR. During my evaluation period with the LX-3, I designed a neat little diffusion dome which at least allowed me to cut down on the harshness of the flash and provide a softer, more natural looking lighting effect. You can see images with and without below. You can use a white sheet of paper, a translucent piece of plastic, or anything along those lines that light is able to pass through. I created my device however so that it remained attached to the camera at all times and fitted itself on top of the pop-up flash. I was really impressed with the quality of flash exposure I was getting.
Lens @ 25mm ISO 800 f/2.5 1/15 sec WITH flash diffuser
Manual White Balance
All images in this article are © Kaz Arts Photography 2009 and may not be reproduced without consent.