Panasonic Lumix DMC-3D1 review

Two lenses and two sensors, haven’t we seen this somewhere before? Panasonic’s first stereoscopic pocket camera in the Lumix DMC-3D1 is taking on the Fujifilm Finepix W3 (and W1) before it.

Capable of not only 3D stills like its rival, but also 3D video, the cunningly named 3D1 is currently the world’s most compact camera to offer such tri-dimensional dynamism. Official proportions are 108x58.5x24.1mm, so not much bigger than a single-lens, single-sensor combo. The Panasonic weighs 193g with card and 200-shot battery inserted, ensuring it will slip into a trouser pocket or purse.

Two lenses give double the options

There’s also plain old 2D stills and video accessible here too. Plus, since there are two lenses and two sensors – providing the 3D effect when otherwise in 3D mode – in 2D mode we’ve the option to shoot wide with one lens, and zoom in close with the other. Views via both lenses are presented side by side on the elongated 3.5-inch backplate LCD. By tapping between one image and the other, the user can determine whether to zoom with only left lens or only the right. It’s enough to make your brain ache.

Not doing anything to soothe the grey matter either is the Panasonic’s suggested price tag for the Lumix DMC-3D1: a wallet-battering £450. This would otherwise buy an entry-level DSLR or a mid-range compact system camera. So the 3D facility does command a premium – at least £200 by our reckoning – as in other respects, the camera is a regular Lumix point and shoot.

That in itself is a marvel of engineering of course, and the flat-fronted, outwardly minimalist metal build 3D1 is not without style, even if the slide-open-and-shoot faceplate owes inspiration to Sony Cyber-shots. Sony also offers 3D capture in the shape of its Sweep Panorama modes of course, but this is a software enhancement rather than the "true" stereoscopic capture offered by the Panasonic - not that Sony’s own realisation isn’t striking.

Photos and video in 2D and 3D

Though there is a dedicated power button on top of the 3D1, sliding down the lens barrier automatically wakes the camera from its slumbers and activates the back plate LCD. In the process you’re met by the twin lenses, here resembling the robot-like "eyes" of your very own Wall-E. Folded optics mean that at no time do the lenses actually protrude from the camera.

For 2D shots in standard 4:3 aspect ratio, a maximum resolution 12.1 effective megapixels are offered, while if opting for 3D instead – in widescreen format – resolution drops to 8 megapixels. Not that you’re going to notice any issue on a flatscreen telly, when Full HD clips themselves equate to only two million pixels. Speaking of video, here we’re indeed offered the Full HD 1920x1080 clips, outputting at 25fps, with the option of AVCHD or MPEG4 format video compression.

Photos and video are composed via the Panasonic’s bright and clear 3.5-inch, 460k-dot resolution LCD, the larger screen dimension coming in handy, because it also offers touch panel control, with touch shutter, touch focus and AF tracking into the bargain. With all this functionality controlled via the LCD it’s perhaps no surprise the only physical control at the rear of the 3D1 is a simple switch for flicking between 3D and 2D capture.

However, should you take a 3D photo, you can’t actually view it in stereoscopic fashion on the camera back, so in that respect Fuji’s lenticular-like display is still streets ahead. Instead, on the Panasonic, a 2D image is presented – you’ll just have to hook the camera up to a 3D TV with an optional HDMI lead to get the proper effect, 3D images saved as MPO files rather than JPEGs. It’s worth noting too that 3D images work best when the photographer composes a shot with something of interest in the foreground, middle and background of shot, thus providing depth. That's a little different to how you might compose a normal photo.

The majority of physical controls adorn the camera’s top plate. Though there are virtual versions offered via the screen as noted, we are still blessed with a conventional raised shutter release button ergonomically encircled by a lever for controlling the 4x optical zoom/s – which happily can be utilised for altering framing during video clips, though it’s slower to navigate any adjustments, as well as when composing stills.

Quality and performance 

The zoom range starts out wider than most too, with the complete focal range equivalent to 25-100mm on a 35mm film camera. However we did notice some loss of definition towards the edges of frame when shooting at maximum wideangle plus some slight barrel distortion, if we’re being picky.

In both 2D and 3D modes, the focus area is from 50cm to infinity at extreme wide angle and from 100cm to infinity at maximum telephoto. Additionally, when 2D shooting mode is selected, there’s the ability to focus as close as 5cm from your subject – but not in 3D mode. Likewise scene modes can only be accessed when shooting in 2D, as can video resolution and frame rates.

For 3D shooting, the maximum 1920x1080 pixels is the default and there’s no ability to adjust ISO manually – here running from ISO100 to ISO3200 in 2D mode, with a fully auto High Sensitivity mode stretching this to a maximum ISO6400 if the camera itself deems it necessary. For 3D, it really is pretty much just a case of point and shoot, which in truth is probably what you want. For low light shots, the camera performs best up to ISO800, whereupon noise starts to intrude in shadow areas of the image. At ISO1600 we’re starting to get a gritty appearance and this has extended across the image by ISO3200.

The High Sensitivity mode is only really worth bothering with at a push as processing softens the image generally and it starts to resemble a photograph less. In general terms, and under ideal daylight, colours are rich and vivid straight out of the camera, as they are with any £200 Panasonic Lumix snapshot camera. So if you’re only going to occasionally shoot 3D snaps, you’re better off saving a couple of hundred quid on a non-3D model.

However it has to be said, if you’ve a young family there’s an emotional draw to be had from taking a 3D photograph of a child who is changing rapidly and preserving them in that moment. You then have a 3D image of them "frozen" as a cute toddler to sentimentally revisit when they’re a bolshy teenager. For some that will be worth the not inconsiderable price of the 3D1’s admission alone.

Verdict

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-3D1 is not cheap, but it is clever. But strip away the fancy 3D gubbins, and image quality - while up there with Panasonic’s best 2D snapshots - is not match for what you might achieve spending between £400 and £450 elsewhere on another camera.

Battery life is also pretty poor. While the blurb states that up to 200 shots can be taken, we struggled to get up to 100 before it was begging for a recharge.

Still, perhaps the 3D1 should be viewed first and foremost as a marvel of engineering; it’s far less bulky than its Fuji rival, but still manages to cram two lenses and two sensors into a chassis not a great deal wider than a single lens and sensor point and shoot. And if you can justify the extra expense of a 3D TV over a regular 2D one, and a 3D Blu-ray player to boot, perhaps your finances can also stretch to the 3D1. Panasonic will be hoping so, anyway.