Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1 DSLR camera

The L1 may look a little on the blocky side and weigh in at over a kilo with the large (but excellent) Leica lens sat in place on the FourThirds lens mount it uses. In fact the lens mount, mirror box AF and auto exposure sensors are all borrowed from the Olympus E330.

The L1 also becomes the first non-Olympus DSLR using the FourThirds system, which can only be good for the system’s health, as the user base can grow further. But what of the camera?

With its (Panasonic-made) 7.5-megapixel sensor and magnesium alloy bodywork, the camera offers a high-resolution package aimed at the more serious snapper. The Leica D Vario-Elmarit lens is testament to that providing a 14-50mm (28-100mm in 35mm terms) focal range and an F2.8 to F3.5 maximum aperture range.

The large lens shouts quality and while this and the body combine to create a heavyweight camera to use, the rubberised panels and grips on the body make it surefooted to use. The use of a porro-mirror viewfinder system means there’s no pentaprism bulge on the top plate, leaving room for a natty, two stage pop-up flash. In position one, it pops into a 45-degree position to be used as a bounce flash; in position two (another press of the flash button) and the flash zips up and forward to provide direct lighting.

The porro finder also means the viewfinder aperture is offset to the left on the body (the light path through the camera is sideways rather than up and over as with a pentaprism finder) and while this is set proud of the camera back and is easy to use, the view appears small and just a little gloomy.

However on the up side the camera boasts Live View, the LCD can be used to directly view the scene you’ll be shooting; the mirror is shifted out of the way for this, which slows things down a tad. Another advantage of Live View is you get a 100% field of view, the optical viewfinder provides 95%. Shooting in Live View also provides an auto zoom to check focus of the last shot image, but does have the drawback of being slow as the mirror must get out of the way for focusing and when the shot is taken, so the camera seems to make an inordinate amount of clunking noises and the actual shutter firing is delayed by around a second as a result.

The LCD is clear and protected under an antireflective coating but unlike Olympus’ E330, which has a screen that can flip out, here it does not, so you loose the advantage of having Live View for those shots taken from awkward angles, above the head or very low to the ground.

Controls include a large shutter speed dial on the top plate that houses the shutter release, the drive mode switch, and the metering mode selector. Alongside you get two function (FUNC. 1 and FUNC.2) buttons to allow fast access to pre-assigned functions such as the resolution/image quality and the exposure compensation control.

On the back plate, a rather cluttered (but big) set of real estate provides the screen, buttons for ISO, white balance and flash compensation along with playback, depth of field preview (in Live View only), delete and a set of controls for the flash, Live View and focus control. The latter also houses the AF/AE lock button.

White balance (WB) provides the usual selection of presets and (with firmware version 2.0, which I used here) two custom presets set using the camera pointed at a “white” subject to which you want the camera to key. A further two custom modes allow you to infinitely control the WB within a neat graphical interface using the four-way jog buttons.

You move a small cursor around a representation of the WB scale presented on screen and in this way you can finely control (and see on the screen) the affect your adjustments have. You also get a Kelvin control setting too; this uses a neat “thermometer” graphic to represent the colour temperature of the setting you’re using with its Kelvin scale as well.

Although the camera is chunky and quite heavy, the handling owes a lot to the rubberised surfaces and the large lens employed to make the whole more tactile in use. The camera is easy to control once you’re used to it and I love the aperture ring and shutter speed dial too. The lens’ wide zoom ring is good to use and the lens also houses the Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) switch, the OIS method in use (continuous, only as the shutter fires or continuous with panning) is selected via the menus on the camera. More on these in moment.

The shutter release is large and the large shutter speed dial it is surrounded by is a retro feature that is very nice to use indeed. Other controls and switches are well positioned and the clear indication on the body makes getting used to them and what they’re for very fast.

As for menus, you get a set of pages à la a folder of files when the menu button is pressed. Settings for shooting, playback, set up and the like are clear and simple to follow. Sc rolling is accomplished with a scroll wheel (also used to zoom in to images in playback mode) or the four-way jog buttons.

Once you’re up and running the camera is nice to use, quite satisfying in fact as it seems to bridge the modern digital era with a few nice retro control touches that make it more of a pleasure to use. In terms of image quality, those 7.5-million pixels are put to good use by the Leica lens even if they are quite tightly packed on the small 17.3 x 13mm, FourThirds sensor.

Colour and white balance are good, auto white balance is great and the camera’s Supersonic Wave filter shakes off any dust from the sensor each time the camera is switched on: images are blemish free. The three-zone AF set-up works reliably and quickly and metering is excellent. There are many user tweaks that can be applied to the images, from saturation and sharpness to noise reduction (amount) and so on. But Panasonic’s default settings give a good overall performance without over-saturating things.

Image sharpness seems a tad soft “out of the box” and shooting RAW and processing afterwards regards you with bags more detail. Noise only really becomes an issue over ISO 800; you get a range between 100 and 1600 with Auto in there too. In other words, you can get the most from every pixel thanks to both the excellent lens and the good noise performance coupled with the OIS, which means you can shoot at lower ISOs than might otherwise be an option.

Verdict

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1 is an attractive package but that Leica kit lens makes it an expensive looking one, so the value for money becomes a bit of an issue when you look at competing D-SLRs in that price bracket. The slightly retro handling and the image performance are great bonuses in my book even if the gloomy porro finder is not such a breeze, making focus confirmation quite difficult at times.

However, good build and some unique features with cracking image quality combine here to make a great first DSLR from Panasonic, one well worth closer inspection.