Digital camera development continues apace, shabby economy or no. Hundreds of compact models tempt backpacking photographers (or photo-taking backpackers) from store shelves and internet ads. Folks who want a compact that's a legitimate substitute for a dslr quickly narrow down this supposed field of riches to a relative handful of ambitious compacts. Introduced mid-2008, the Panasonic Lumix LX3 (and its Leica D-LUX-4 twin) deserves serious consideration for membership in this tiny group.
The LX3 is a high-end compact digicam, part of a small but hopefully growing market segment of lightweight cameras that deliver very high quality point-and-shoot results and still give the shooter significant control over most camera settings. The metal-skinned LX3 has an especially fast f:2.0 wide-angle Leica DC Vario-Summicron lens of modest 2.5x zoom range - a range that must seem particularly loony to anyone impressed with the new twenty-something-times zooms recently dropped on the market. In another notable countercurrent to pretty much every other camera maker, Panasonic retained the approximate pixel count from the previous LX2. Rather than raising the count they chose to enlarge both the chip itself and the size of its photosites. These moves decreased image noise and kept image file sizes small.
Spanning four decades, one classic compact backpacking camera, the Rollei 35, meets a potential classic, the LX3.
The LX3 doesn't share the Sigma DP1's big-chip ambitions, despite being effectively the same size (if half the price). Its closest true competition is the Ricoh GX200. The Canon G10 is another obvious and popular competitor, but is much larger (half again as heavy and more than twice the bulk) and lacks the LX3's lens speed and wide angle of view, though it reaches much further at the telephoto end. The G10 also has an optical viewfinder. The two are very different creatures, each offering some distinct advantages over the other.
|F2.0-2.8, 5.1-12.8 mm, 2.5x zoom (35 mm equivalent 24-60 mm)|
|10.1 effective (maximum available is 10.0 at 4:3 aspect ratio)|
|1/1.63-inch (approx. 6x8 mm) CCD|
|460k dots, 3.0 inches diagonal, 3:2 aspect ratio|
|60 seconds to 1/2000 second|
|f:2.0-2.8 to f:8|
|80 to 3,200|
|Program AE, Auto, Aperture Priority AE, Shutter AE, Manual, Custom (2), Video, Scene|
|multiple zone, spot, center-weighted|
|Normal, macro, quick, continuous, manual, one shot AF, AF area select, AF tracking, face detection|
Image File Formats:
|RAW, JPEG, RAW+JPEG|
Still Image Aspect Ratios:
|4:3, 3:2, 16:9|
|Standard 4:3-640 x 480 pixels 30 fps, 320 x 240 pixels 30 fps, 10 fps; 16:9-848 x 480 pixels 30 fps|
HD (16:9 Aspect Ratio):
|1,280 x 720 pixels 24 fps 16:9 Aspect Ratio: 848 x 480 pixels 30 fps|
|single, continuous, self-timer, multiple exposure|
|popup plus hotshoe|
Low-light Focusing Illumination:
|SD/SDHC card, maximum capacity 4 GB/32 GB, respectively|
|5-sec audio clips with still images|
|Li-ion, Panasonic CGA-S005 (no AAA option)|
Battery Life (CIPA standard):
|380 frames/190 minutes video|
|108.7 x 59.5 x 27.1 mm (4.28 x 2.34 x 1.07 in.)|
|265 g/0.58 lb with battery and memory card|
|255 g/9.0 oz with battery, wrist strap and storage card|
|black or silver|
Notable Optional Accessories:
|DMW VF1 24mm optical viewfinder: $230
DMW-LA4 Accessory adapter/lens hood
DMW-LW46 0.75x wide angle adapter lens
The LX3 body is roughly a pack o' cards in size, but the parked and capped lens extends nearly an inch from the body. The lens keeps the LX3 from stowing into a standard pant or shirt pocket, but jacket and cargo-type pant pockets are fine. The zoom control is a tabbed ring around the shutter button, operated from the front. Also on the top deck are a focus lock, the power switch (a slider, not a push button), the flash release switch and the mode dial.
LX3 viewed from the top, showing lens at maximum wide angle setting, several controls and the hotshoe and popup flash.
While the big three-inch LCD display dominates the back, it thankfully hasn't driven off all the controls, leaving space enough for several buttons, a slider switch, and a clever and tiny joystick. These are arrayed on the right-hand side.
LX3 viewed from the back, showing the large LCD display, the joystick, and several control buttons. The extended flash just clears the third-party optical viewfinder.
The front is blank, save for the lens, the self-timer/autofocus LED, and a small grip. The lens barrel hosts a pair of three-position slider switches for focus mode and aspect ratio. The combo battery and SD card hatch is on the bottom, and the covered I/O ports are on the right side. In sum, the LX3's layout and appearance is quite clean compared to most contemporaries.
The buttons are small and many require thumbnail operation - no surprise on a camera this wee. While miniscule, the joystick is still a boon for several quick access menu functions. It also operates manual focus.
The 5.1-12.8 mm/f:2.0-2.8 lens is a small wonder. For many years, my favorite backpacking lens was a 25/2.8, so this is like a visit back in time. The 24-millimeter (equivalent) wide angle, especially paired with the 16:9 aspect ratio, renders wonderful panoramic scenery. At the other 60 millimeter end, it's not much longer than a "normal" lens - good for portraiture, but not foreshortening distant peaks or snagging wildlife.
Very wide angle lenses this fast are almost unheard of, and they even allow handholding in very low light. Coupled with the LX3's effective optical image stabilization ("Mega O.I.S.") the ISO can be kept relatively low in poor light, which reduces image noise while minimizing or eliminating camera motion. Note: subject motion can only be managed by high shutter speed or flash.
On startup, the lens opens to its widest setting, which, ironically, is the longest extension. This explains the camera's relatively poky start-to-first-shot time. Zooming long brings the lens inward. (If the camera were to leave the lens at the long zoom setting on startup, the first shot could be taken more quickly.) Zoom adjustment is slower than I prefer and while it's not truly continuous, it has enough individual zoom steps to not be a limitation. Note: zoom does not function while shooting video. You have to stop recording to change the zoom setting.
The closest macro focus is achieved at full wide (24 millimeter), and puts the lens a scant one centimeter away from the subject. It's challenging to do without creating a shadow, but using the onboard flash that close is out of the question. Nearest focus of the tele end is thirty centimeters, which isn't macro at all.
Moderate macro shot at 5.1 millimeter captures fine detail and still renders background out of focus.
Maximum macro - handheld in natural light. Subject mushroom is about a centimeter in diameter. Side lighting keeps camera's shadow out of the frame.
(Note: unlike proper cameras, compact digicams measure their subject-to-camera distances from the front lens element, rather than the chip/film-plane-to-subject distance that God and Ernst Leitz intended. A one-centimeter subject-to-chip distance would place the subject well inside the LX3 itself.) I find macro focusing faster with auto focus than manual focus, but you can set it on manual and move the camera to get sharp focus. A small magnified image appears mid-screen as a focus assist; this can also be changed to full-screen magnification.
Of Caps and Straps
The LX3's uncommon (for a compact) tethered lens cap garners interesting responses on photo forums, causing some to thunder that the humble plastic-and-metal disc immediately disqualifies the camera from purchase consideration. I'll confess it's not the handiest system and once removed, it dangles a bit annoyingly alongside the camera, but since nearly every camera I've owned has a lens cap and because they're still the most robust way to, you know, protect the lens, I've learned to deal with this little issue. To see the LX3's unprotected front lens element is to appreciate the need for the stout cap. It's very close to the lens surround and the typical digicam shutter-style cover wouldn't fend off a direct blow. Video buffs may want to de-tether and pocket the cap so it doesn't bang on the camera while filming and show up on the soundtrack. (Clever customizing can adapt an accessory automatic cap from the Ricoh GX series to the LX3, eliminating the stock cap entirely.)
The LX3 ships with a neck strap, which seems silly on a camera this small. Instead, I cobbled a wrist strap from a neck lanyard and attached it to the right-hand strap lug. This setup gives me confidence that the little camera should be safe if it squirts from my grip. The vertical grip on the front is helpful for, well, gripping (and, oddly missing from the Leica D-LUX-4) but the camera's otherwise smooth metal skin can be a challenge to hold with cold or wet hands. With a long enough wrist strap, the camera can also hang from my neck, where it's light enough to be barely noticeable.
'Til now, I've avoided cameras lacking some sort of view finder - optical or electronic - and I'm still adjusting to its absence on the LX3, especially in the sunlight. This LCD is gratifying sharp and bright (dramatically more so than my other digicams) with a resolution of nearly half a million dots. It's visible well off axis - also a help. But, its high-gloss surface causes some problems (see below). The clever display can automatically ramp up illumination in seven steps in response to ambient light, and also has full brightness and power-saving settings.
Among the many display information options is a histogram (metering display). There's also a playback mode that flags blown highlights (overexposure). Optional display gridlines help keep level horizons when shooting wide angle, especially held overhead. The LCD is a 3:2 rectangle, meaning that aspect ratio setting fills the screen completely while 4:3 masks out the left and right outer edges and 16:9 masks the top and bottom edges.
Occasionally the mountains are a riot of color, and good color response is key to capturing these amazing moments. Small highlight details "blown out" on a few (scarlet gilia?) petals here.
An ironic struggle I've had with the LX3's display is evaluating my shots during review to see whether I need to adjust exposure and reshoot. The screen compensates so well for underexposure errors, I often don't know there are errors until reviewing them on a computer display (the histogram helps here). I have to evaluate shots differently on the LX3 than I do on my other cameras, with their dimmer, lower-resolution screens.
To assist composing, especially outdoors, I sometimes use an optical 21-millimeter hotshoe viewfinder from another camera, pressing it into service as a crude but helpful framing aid. I keep the viewfinder in a small padded bag, clipped to the rest of the kit, when not on the camera. Panasonic offers a 24-millimeter optical hotshoe finder as an expensive accessory, but it only has a single set of framelines, limiting its usefulness with the zoom. A power-saving optical viewfinder setting shuts off the display except for focus and flash indicators and shot review. Focus confirmation beeps tell me the camera has focused on something, but without a look at the display, there's no telling what.
Commonly used controls are fairly easy to identify and operate by touch alone, but it's not always easy on a camera this small. Some competing cameras have dedicated dials for functions like manual focus, aperture/shutter speed or ISO, and I could argue for one or more being an improvement here (focus and exposure compensation would be my top choices).
Luckily, many key functions are accessed by a single press, then either pressing a button or operating the joystick to make the adjustment. But, other features are well buried in the menu system and aren't easy to find, or even remember they exist. After half a year, I'm still discovering "new" features.
I didn't think I'd use the variable aspect ratio at all, but from day one I've been hooked. Kudos to Panasonic for placing the switch atop the lens where it's easy to use and to quickly see the of effect varied framing on a scene. Had they buried this control deep in the menu, I might not use it at all, but as designed, it's quite handy. The LX3 doesn't use a simple masking scheme that just cuts out part of the image to simulate a wide (or narrow) view, as with the old LX2. The three settings - 4:3, 3:2, and 16:9 - all access a unique portion of the imager while cropping out other parts. (The CCD totals 11.3 million pixels while the maximum image size is 10.1 million.) The way Panasonic executed the cropping scheme maintains the angle of view when switching among them. Complicated to describe, easy to use.
Image sizes at maximum quality are as follows:
|4:3 Aspect ratio||3648 x 2736, 10.1 MP|
|3:2 Aspect ratio||3776 x 2520, 9.5 MP|
|16:9 Aspect ratio||3968 x 2232, 8.9 MP|
Can't decide which aspect to use? An aspect burst mode records all three with a single shutter press.
Sequential shots using the three LX3 aspect ratios, merged in post processing to show their coverages.
Full frame view shows impressive detail and color saturation in late afternoon winter light, demonstrates that wide angle and 16:9 aspect ratio aren't only for distant landscapes. 5.1 mm at f:4.0, 1/640, ISO 80.
100% crop of upper left corner demonstrates lack of chromatic aberrations and light falloff. f:4.0, 1/640, ISO 80, 16:9 sample.
Modest telephoto pulls distant storm clouds closer. 16:9 ratio enhances horizons.
Also on the lens barrel is a fast and helpful focus switch with manual, macro, and AF modes. This control is easily dislodged into an accidental setting - usually macro. I've learned that if autofocus is really hunting, I need to check and make sure I've not knocked it to macro. When manual is selected, it's operated via the back panel joystick, and the display even presents depth-of-field calculations. Brilliant.
This review could easily become a massive recapitulation of the owner's manual. Luckily for the curious, the manual can be downloaded. Between it and the myriad on-line reviews, anybody should be able to get a very detailed rundown of each and every bell and whistle (I found the pdf on the Panasonic Australia Web site). Still, a few more features warrant note.
The sturdy metal tripod mount is placed far off-center to allow battery and storage card access without first removing camera from tripod. This thoughtfulness unfortunately renders the LX3 quite off-balance on a tripod, and it shouldn't be used with very small models such as the Ultrapod 1. It just tips over.
Off-center tripod mount means lightweight mini-pods are out. Tiny ballhead easily supports the 9-ounce LX3.
The popup flash is adequate, nothing more. It covers the widest lens setting reasonably, but with some dropoff towards the edges. I use it mostly for daytime fill, and there are settings to force the flash to fire in bright ambient light and for variable output. The open flash doesn't collide with my optical finder, which is handy. The hotshoe provides fully automatic through-the-lens flash metering via several Panasonic and Olympus-brand flashes. My Olympus FL36R works quite well on the LX3, even controlling the zooming flash head, but it's as big as the camera itself and needs to be handled with care.
Storage and Mobility
I keep the LX3 in a Lowepro Ridge 30 case, which has spaces for an extra card and battery. The case attaches to a belt or pack strap; I usually slide it onto the right-hand shoulder strap to keep the camera close at hand.
Modes & Such
There are far too many LX3 modes, menus and options to describe and explain comprehensively. My hunch is most camera owners use a small fraction of the tools and options available and, living up to my own theory, I've skipped a host of the LX3's. Let me acknowledge Panasonic for providing a usable make-all-my-decisions-for-me mode called "intelligent auto mode" to set it apart from those uneducated auto modes - clever enough to have not just face detection but SCENE detection.
Anybody who just wants the LX3 for the unique lens can leave it on this "iA" mode and the camera will consistently deliver very good results in a vast array of settings. It's uncanny. Point and shoot... and it delivers. Some LX3 fans bristle at its being called a point-and-shoot, but that's exactly what it is. It's just one of the best ever made, and one that also offers manual overrides of nearly every decision that all the clever programming will otherwise faithfully do for us. To wrap up the point, any backpacking photographer can appreciate a camera that can reliably do our thinking for us when we're too exhausted (cold, wet, verklempt) to do it ourselves. Nothing wrong with that!
Afternoon light enhances detail and challenges both lens and imager.
But pointing and pressing the button doesn't describe everything camera enthusiasts want from their camera. We like to adapt to our setting and situation, and the LX3 provides adaptability aplenty. Most of my shooting is in P, A and S modes, with the occasional foray into M. Settings are "sticky" in P, and there are two custom modes for special setting combinations worth committing to memory.
Ninety percent of my interventions are to exposure value, and there are two ways to access it quickly: the +/- button and the joystick. EV adjustments are as much as two stops in third-stop increments, and the histogram helps verify the screen image. I often shoot, review the highlights, adjust and reshoot. Auto-exposure bracketing greatly speeds up this process and also fills the storage card faster.
"How'sl she do?" is the obvious question about any camera and I have to say, "She does purty good."
The lens is sharp shooting wide or tele, wide open or stopped down. From what I've read, Panasonic manages wide angle barrel distortion electronically in the camera, and since I don't notice barrel distortion shooting architecture I certainly don't see evidence shooting scenery. Chromatic aberration is likewise well controlled (another challenge with very wide angle lenses) and I don't notice vignetting (light falloff) in the corners.
Like any digicam I've used (and like slide film), it's best to expose the LX3 for the highlights and work with underexposed areas in post-processing. Shadow noise is well controlled. Flare can intrude shooting towards the sun, especially just off frame. Its presence is another vote for the optional hood. Bright lights and reflections don't often create flare, implying effective control.
Widest zoom shooting towards the sun, just off-frame. Limited flare appears mid-frame. Snow surface and shaded tree detail render with some post processing.
Camera output demonstrates further good design. Through ISO 400, noise is very well controlled indeed and even at 800, the results are quite workable. I don't typically shoot above that rating and the auto-ISO controls let me set 800 as my upper limit.
Dynamic range - perhaps the biggest headache presented by scenic photography - is surprisingly good. Few scenes are more challenging than sunlit snowy woods, and the LX3 manages to deliver usable detail in these conditions. It's demonstrably better in this regard than my circa 2007 dslr, while giving up some range to my more clever circa 2009 dslr. Again, great performance from a small-chip camera.
The lens is sharp out to the edges, with minor softening at maximum aperture when shooting wide. The best lenses are sharp wide open and the Summicron seems to at least approach this ideal. Put another way, finding evidence of LX3 sharpness problems requires "pixel-peeping" that most would never bother to pursue. Let it also be said that one advantage of a fast lens is the ability to shoot it at "sweet spot" apertures much of the time. One to two stops from wide open seems to yield best results.
Color and Contrast
Each camera maker emphasizes different parameters dialing in their "look," and Panasonic seems to have parked in the "neutral color" camp compared to, say, Kodak and Olympus - two makers I have the most experience with. I always adjust levels when post-processing JPGs and don't often find much to working with LX3 images. Natural light JPG white balance has always been good but artificial white balance performance was initially spotty - weak with pure tungsten or fluorescent, better with mixed sources. However, with firmware update 1.3 (June 2009), white balance performance is much better across the spectrum (literally). White balance can also be set and adjusted manually.
Color rendition and saturation on overcast days are quite good.
"Mega O.I.S." Steady as She Goes
Related to the ISO and noise discussion is controlling camera motion blur via the two-fisted approach of fast lens plus optical image stabilization. The LX3 f:2.0 lens and O.I.S. keep the ISO setting as low as possible and enable hand-holding at low shutter speeds. When pixel-peeping against the competition, keep in mind that the LX3 is at a minimum one stop faster than the others (two stops faster than the DP1). Of course, the 24-millimeter equivalent wide angle inherently means you can handhold at lower shutter speeds. Bottom line: I can get the shot handholding the LX3 in a wide variety of circumstances without extra camera support. A further incentive to use an optical finder is it allows the camera to be held close, which is more stable than holding it at arm's length.
A 1/5 second handheld exposure taken in candle and headlamp light. 5.1 mm at f:2.0.
Note: small, light cameras are considered more affected by unsteady hands, and even our pulse, than larger ones. You might not normally consider this an issue but the day will come when you top a brutal mountain pass to unparalled views, and you'll be quivering like an aspen leaf, holding your digicam at arm's length in the wind. All this technology will work like mad to keep your pictures as sharp as possible.
LX3 in the Field
Carry and access: It's nice to get back to stowing my camera in a handy pouch and not slinging it across my shoulder or worse - stuffing it into a backpack. This encourages shooting on the go, and also means I won't be leaving the camera at home due to packweight slashing. The LX3 is a bit slow on power-up because the lens always extends fully, to the widest setting. The power switch is easy to use, even with gloves, and the zoom control is likewise easy to use.
The display is visible off-axis and allows composition when held overhead or at ground level. It's not as good as a flippy screen, but that may not be possible on a camera this thin with a screen this large. The optional gridlines are great for leveling the horizon when holding the camera at arm's length, or keeping the shot level when shooting video.
High-contrast morning light.
Composing on the big, sharp, and bright LX3 screen is easier than with other digital cameras I've used, but even so, has the inherent problems of a viewfinderless design. Even on the brightest screen setting, the sun effectively washes out the image and, because of its glossy surface, it acts as a terrific mirror when I'm composing facing the sun. I know what I look like or what my shirt looks like; I'm trying to see the scene. Here, an optical finder proves better than nothing, which is exactly what I can get from the LCD at times.
Focus response is fairly fast, partly depending on the focus mode and partly on how contrasty or complex the scene is. Either a shutter button half-press or the focus lock button allows the scene to be recomposed after focus lock. Manual focus mode turns the little joystick into a focus control and the display showing focus distance. I've found manual focus useful for setting to infinity, as autofocus systems often conspire against finding focus when shooting objects in the sky or very flat scenes (e.g., a foggy, snowy slope). Manual focus assist has two magnified viewing modes to help precise focus. They're especially nice for macro work, when depth of field is scant millimeters. There's also a dedicated low-light focus assist red LED.
I was dubious of the LX3's macro potential, but have had decent success. In addition to watching for my shadow, I sometimes accidentally touch my subject with the lens. An unexpected benefit: the wide angle macro and very small camera also allow me to shoot upwards from ground level at certain small subjects in a way that no dslr can.
Good exposure of a difficult scene; lots of fine detail in the crimson columbine.
Are there times I'd prefer a longer zoom range? Certainly. Would I surrender the 24-millimeter wide end to get it? No.
Video mode is not something I'm drawn to, but in the interest of educating myself, I've tried it out. Video works in 4:3 and 16:9 modes only, and at only one focal length per shot. It's simple to use: turn the mode dial to video and press the shutter button to record, pressing it again to stop. The display shows elapsed and remaining time. When panning, it acts as though it has automatic gain, which is a plus. You can also extract video frames as still images, in-camera. Sound is recorded in mono and to my knowledge there's no provision for an auxiliary mike.
I don't like using the LX3 in the rain, and I won't if it's more than a drizzle. The good news is, a long-brimmed cap can shield it (provided your eyes can focus that close). The bad news, beyond the lack of waterproofing, is that the exposed front element collects drops easily and must be wiped off frequently. The adapter/hood will help here.
Battery and card replacement is quick and easy, taking all of ten seconds. The official Lumix battery is a fairly expensive accessory, but aftermarket equivalents are available for a little more than ten bucks, which makes carrying a spare or three a painless proposition. That the battery is tiny and light will surely warm the lightweight backpacker's heart, and because it's Li-ion, it holds a charge. The spec shows 380 frames or 190 minutes of video from a charge. I can verify the 380 shot spec and have no reason to doubt the video figure.
If you're trekking, the charger is very small and light. In the States, the supplied charger is of the plug-directly-into-the-wall variety; overseas, LX3s likely ship with an IEC cable charger (both are pictured in the manual). The camera will not charge via USB connection.
Trekkers might likewise be interested in the extensive in-camera editing features, should they want to print or send photos directly from the camera.