Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 digital camera review

Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-LX3 is a modern-looking retro-styled digital compact designed to offer the enthusiast snapper a compact high-quality shooting environment, and to do it, Panasonic has pulled off a few neat tricks.

The LX3 offers a neat set of advanced features including optical image stabilisation and a superb new Leica lens and, at last, a manufacturer has created a high-resolution sensor specifically designed to provide high image quality.

Panasonic has taken a brave stand with the LX3, deciding not to increase the new camera’s resolution above 10-megapixels, snubbing the race for ever-higher pixel counts, arguably at the expense of image quality. Panasonic has actually created a new, large, 1/1.63-inch, 10.1-megapixel sensor "super high sensitivity multi-aspect CCD" for this camera.

Typically, digital camera sensors have over half of each photosite given over to the wiring used to carry the signal from the captured light on the sensor’s electron wells to the camera’s on-board processor. Panasonic’s new sensor provides a better dynamic range and boosted sensitivity – by around 40% – and boosted saturation – by around 35% – when compared with Panasonic’s DMC-FX35 digital camera.

The LX3 has a tough all metal construction and an attractive, enthusiast friendly retro design available in two liveries: black and silver and alongside the new sensor, comes the new Leica DC-Vario-Summicron, ultra wide-angle 24-60mm (35mm film equivalent) lens. It offers almost double the light gathering power of the predecessor LX2’s F/2.8 lens, with an F/2 maximum aperture.

Coupled with a the 2.5x optical zoom range and optical image stabilisation, the camera is ideal for landscapes or images with a broader scope; captured detail is stunning and it certainly lives up to the task as far as my tests shots show.

Slight image softness from the preproduction model has gone, the in-camera default sharpening has, I believe, been tweaked when I compared to shots with the preproduction camera I used, though the sharpening levels are adjustable.

Shadow and highlight detail are very good thanks to the better dynamic range, as is colour saturation, and because you can shoot RAW – key for the enthusiast market – it competes well against competitors such as Sigma’s DP1, Canon’s G9 or Ricoh’s GX200, the latter perhaps the LX3’s more natural competitor. Either way, the LX3 is assured to be a real contender for prospective purchasers of any of those models.

The excellent sensor with its larger photosites, coupled with that fast Leica F/2 lens, mean noise is kept admirably low at all sensitivities up to ISO 800; the full range runs from Auto, through ISO 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600 and 3200. The fast lens allows you to shoot hand held in lower light levels without flash or upping the ISO, particularly when compared with other, less bright lenses on competing cameras, helping you to control noise.

In terms of handling and controls, a neat manual switch on the lens throat allows you to quickly change between 4:3, 3:2 (akin to 35mm film aspect ratio and the most natural outlet for the new camera’s images, though resolution drops slightly to 9.5-megapixels) and 16:9 widescreen ratios.

The LX3’s enthusiast snapper ethos stretches across to full manual controls and a nice mode dial on the top plate that houses two custom modes as well as a great, 24fps 1280 x 720p HD movie setting, with audio.

It also houses another innovation, the Intelligent Auto mode or "iA", which is unerringly accurate at selecting the correct shooting mode for the scene presented to the lens. This offers a complete point and shoot package for those that want it, great for snapping, it may be, but not key for enthusiasts tempted to buy the LX3. This should help broaden the appeal of the camera though, something Panasonic will be pleased about I’m sure.

Another plus is the excellent, wide-view, 460,000-dot colour screen that helps reviewing images, particularly for close inspection of detail if checking focus for example. It’s actually very good to use in all but the brightest of lighting conditions; a small optical viewfinder, the VF1 can be bought as an accessory and slots into the hot shoe on the top plate.

A small pop-up flash sits buried within the top plate too, and provides an ample fill-in unit, nothing more, so sacrificing the hot shoe may not be key on enthusiast photographers’ lists.

The back plate plays host to a tiny, rather fiddly joystick control that can be used to scroll and adjust settings such as apertures, for example. There’s a ubiquitous four-way jog control with a central menu/set button, the four-way jog buttons access flash, drive, exposure compensation modes and the "Fn", or function, button can be customised for fast control of oft used features: I used it with sensitivity settings, for example.

You also have an AF/AE lock button so that hard to meter subjects can be quickly tamed. Focusing and metering are actually very good while problems with shutter lag are almost non-existent, making the camera reasonably responsive.

24-scene modes (they’re held within a menu once the "SCN" mode has been selected via the mode dial) provides further back-up for the less hands-on user while two custom modes (C1 allows you to set up the machine however you like while C2 provides a further three custom set up options within menus) provide yet more in terms of customisation.

The LX3 is equipped with the Venus Engine IV image processor, this coupled to the new sensor helps provide a lot of the finessing for the shot images. Other kit includes a 2.5fps frame rate, film simulation modes to enhance image "looks", a multi-exposure mode; manual, multi AF, face and tracking AF (the latter works really well, particularly in the iA shooting mode) and a range of "system" accessories that include everything from ND filters to a retro leather case.

Verdict

The camera is great to use and handle, it looks nice and it seems to do exactly what it says on the tin: produce superb images with great detail, fine colour and white balance control, rich detail in shadows and with around a stop and half of headroom in the RAW files, even more detail that can be brought out using image editing software.

The LX3 has just about all that’s required by an enthusiast photographer and automation for those that are not, the all-metal build quality is excellent and the handling’s rather good, though the small joystick is worrisome and the sacrifice of the hot shoe for the accessory VF1 finder might not be to everyone’s liking.

Image quality is, in a word, stunning. Metering and focusing are great, detail and white balance are superb too and while the £399 price tag looks expensive for a 10-megapixel digital compact, compared to the competition at this level, it’s still great value. On balance, the Lumix LX3 may just be the most complete digital compact for enthusiasts yet, and I want one.