It always comes as a surprise to my current colleagues at Microsoft to find out that I used to be a pro photog. Sometimes, I forget that too.
That’s because I don’t shoot as often I used to, even though working at The New Paper imparted to me an incredible wealth of skill and experience. Perhaps one reason is that as I grow older (and flabbier), I have less tolerance for carrying a heavy dSLR around – yep, even if it’s my lovely EOS 5D with its own zero tolerance for lousy lenses or lousy skills.
Anyway, we’re preparing for the first family trip overseas to Taiwan next week, and I swore I wasn’t going to let the dSLR weigh me down when the two brats will be giving us all sorts of issues. At the same time, I’ve been seeing all these rave reviews about the Panasonic LX-3. In the past, as a tech reviewer, I had access to nearly anything on the market, but today, I have to read reviews and try to read between the lines.
To cut the long story short, the reviews often fall short because the reviewers usually lack the maddening standards that pros set for themselves and their gear. I keep seeing apples vs oranges comparisons between the LX-3 and the current Canon G10 prosumer camera, and I just don’t have the energy to go point out that Canon lost the story on prosumer digicams quite a while ago. (Well, I just did, so there.)
Back in 2003, I bought a Canon G3 because it had a fantastic lens… it opened as wide as f2.0 to f3.0 through its zoom range! In plain English, that meant the camera could take sharp photos even under low light. Even back then, I knew the image sensor wasn’t fantastic (colors were a bit off) and the AF terribly slow, but the lens was worth the $1200+ I spent. I took thousands of photos of Isaac as a baby in the dimly-lit Clementi flat we stayed in then.
Recent iterations of the Canon G-series are looking really pretty, but they use a disappointing lens – f2.8 to f4.5. Canon’s focus on pure image quality and shooting flexibility resides mostly in its dSLR department these days. It simply refuses to put a larger sensor or faster (aperture-wise) lens into its prosumer models lest it eats into the entry-level EOSes.
And the 2003 Powershot Pro1 was to me a disaster as it had an L-lens but it was not as “fast” (f/2.4-3.5) as the original Gs, and mediocre image quality.
Hence, we photogs have been left without a good compact digicam backup like the trusty Olympus mjus of days gone by.
Until the LX-3 I guess.
Don’t ask me how they did it, but it sports a very wide 24mm-60mm Leica-branded lens with f2.0-2.8 capability. In short, the near-perfect travel camera for people who don’t use tele focus too much. Throw in a bit of retro-styling, extensive manual controls and you’ve got us photogs excited. Heck, it got the tech reviewers all excited.
So to cut my story again, here’s what I like and what I don’t.
- Fast lens = sharp pictures (no, I don’t rely on the image stabilizer) under nearly all conditions, and that’s not possible with probably every other compact digicam today.
- Impressive metering of complex scenes (see landscape shot of Bishan below) and good dynamic range to retain details in dark areas.
- Funky film modes – three modes for BnW and one really saturated color mode are my faves.
- Auto-exposure lock button for tough scenes.
- Relatively short shutter lag. Can take some action pix pretty well if you figure out the timing lag.
- Excellent price – $695 with 4GB card and retro casing from MS Color.
- 24mm at F2!!! Imagine using this for night market shots in Taipei!
- Honestly, there’s only so much a small digicam sensor can do. Panasonics are usually known for high image noise, and the good news is that the LX-3 has less noise than the usual Lumix. Still, at 100% magnification, I’m not entirely impressed with the picture quality. It’s good but it’s not going to blow me away anytime as it’s a little soft and details aren’t as crisp as I’d like.
- Why hide the ISO and white balance functions inside a menu? There should be dials or physical buttons for these two critical functions. Yes, you can customise one button for those functions, but we’re still missing one more.
- Mode dials ought to be stiffer, they often shift between modes when you remove the case cover.
- Existence of a physical lens cap. C’mon, that’s a bit dated and very cumbersome.
- Overall color rendition is good, but not as naturally warm as Canon’s. This is pretty subjective though.
Overall rating – 7.5/10. Good, just short of great.
I’m very grateful for Panasonic in creating a camera that I have confidence to use for travel without missing my EOS 5D too much. It’s a wake-up call for the entire camera industry to stop pushing meaningless megapixels in digicams (for goodness sake, 6MP is enough for consumers), and go back to proper photography basics. If a lens cannot collect enough light, you can’t shoot a lot of things without bright lighting. As I learnt in my rookie days – no sharp photo, no publish. Stop letting the marketing people tell you how to sell prosumer cameras, ask the pros lah.
What could be improved are things like having a dedicated ISO dial (like the G10), a bigger sensor to capture more details and reduce noise levels further (I can accept a slightly bigger camera), and tighter color rendition.
The downsides are not deal-breakers for most people though, and this is one camera that really grows on you. And it’s my first non-Canon camera in over 10 years, so that speaks volumes I guess. I still love my Canon EOS gear to death, but something’s gotta give when you’ve got two kids to drag around town.
Anyway, some shots I took over the past week to run the LX-3 through its paces:
Daybreak in Bishan. f3.5, 1/50 sec, ISO 200.
Isabel in action as usual.
Isabel plucking flowers after church. f5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO 400.
Dinner before Quantum of Solace. f2, 1/30 sec, ISO 125
Update 26 Nov 2008: Dpreview confirmed my worst fears about the Canon G10 in its latest review. Actually, you don’t have to read reviews to know that the camera would be disappointing – the specs alone are a big warning sign. Of course, these are the same specs that drive many consumers wild with glee – those poor chaps.