Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1 Overview
Review Date: 5/19/07
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1 brings to fruition the company's pledge in April 2005 that it would create a digital SLR under its own branding, compatible with Olympus' Four Thirds lens mount standard. The L1 looks to be quite an interesting SLR at that, with a traditional - perhaps retro - styling aesthetic. It is based around the same 7.5 effective megapixel Live MOS image sensor that debuted in Olympus' EVOLT E-330 digital SLR, along with the mirror box unit from that camera (which combines a quick-return mirror, viewfinder, and AE sensor). Panasonic's proprietary Venus Engine III LSI handles the image processing, and Olympus' Supersonic Wave Filter makes its first debut in a non-Olympus branded camera.
The Lumix L1 has a shutter speed dial on the top of the body, while a simultaneously announced Leica 14-50mm lens offers rings to control aperture, focus and lens zoom. As with the EVOLT E-330, the L1 offers a Live View function that allows images to be framed using the LCD display, regardless of whether you're focusing automatically or manually. In addition, you can use the LCD display as a handy confirmation of focus via an enlarged view when focusing manually. The L1 offers a 2.5" LCD display with 207,000 pixels, at the high end of what's available on digital SLRs at the current time. One other feature worthy of note is that the Panasonic DMC-L1 offers a Secure Digital card slot, and is compatible with the FAT32 file system - meaning that Secure Digital cards larger than 2GB are supported.
The Panasonic L1 ships September 2006, at a suggested list price of US$1999.
Panasonic DMC-L1 User Report
by Shawn Barnett
To call the Panasonic Lumix L1 unconventional in design would be an understatement. Where other cameras try to trim away unnecessary elements, the Lumix L1 tries to be even more block-shaped than the Olympus EVOLT body it's based on. Panasonic is either trying to convey a rangefinder aesthetic on this Four-Thirds system SLR, or simply bowing to Leica's taste in camera body design, as the Leica Digilux 3 shares the same skin.
Dichotomy. The Panasonic DMC-L1 offers a lot I'm quite fond of, and a lot that makes me weary. I love its analog approach to manual, with actual shutter speed and aperture dials in their traditional locations. But I can't ignore that the unnecessary porromirror design makes the camera heavier and wider than it needs to be; a serious fault in a camera whose excellent bundled lens is already quite heavy.
So before I start into the functional descriptions, know that I'm pausing frequently to fold my hands, look at the Lumix L1, and sigh.
Military grade. Though I can't say for sure that its magnesium alloy body would stop a bullet, the L1's design certainly looks like it could. From the front the Panasonic L1 looks classic: a simple grip, a single button, and two opaque windows make a nice backdrop for the massive f/2.8 Leica lens barrel. From the back, the L1 looks over-engineered. A panoply of buttons surround the LCD screen, and the optical viewfinder juts out from the back like the eyepiece of a missile targeting system. It's as if it were designed for the military with big, durable parts, with little thought for aesthetic appeal. With no disrespect intended, it's very much a Leica sensibility.
I'm sure there are plenty of Leica aficionados who would take issue with that statement, as most would think the L1 is too thick and bulky to be compared to the relatively slim elegance of an M-series rangefinder. I agree. Hence, I sigh.
That unique feel of a traditional Leica comes from a sense of precision. Not only is the machine precise, Leica was careful to leave out what didn't help make great pictures. No nonsense. Untrue to that heritage, the back of the L1 feels quite cluttered.
Grip. Unlike the Leica M-series, the L1 has a grip. Well, almost. There's a grip for your bottom three fingers, but your index finger has to reach all the way up over the fat top deck to perch upon center of the shutter speed dial to find the shutter button, whereas the E-330 had the shutter out on the much taller grip. As a result, I have to bring my middle finger up off the grip, where it covers the Lumix logo and sometimes the IR sensor. Since the IR sensor is an aid to the Auto White Balance system on the Lumix L1, it's not something I want to cover. Now I have only two fingers on the grip, one over the IR sensor, and one on the shutter button.
I'm not a fan of camera straps, but attach one to the Panasonic L1, and you have to constantly swipe it out of the way to get to the shutter button. It's so very Ergonomics 101 that I really don't think anyone was thinking more than, "The L1 must look cool and retro." Without the strap it's not as bad. Though it juts out into your hand, the strap lug is at least polished smooth and round. So off with the strap. Those who like straps, beware.
As for the thumb side of the grip, the unique position of the power switch would seem to be a boon, but I fear that I will accidentally switch the camera off when twisting from vertical to horizontal shooting. It hasn't happened yet because the switch is fairly stiff, but it would. The Command dial, also right next to the thumb, is in good position to be easily activated when making adjustments, but it can also be accidentally activated too often.
Dials. It's great to see dials with shutter speed and aperture actually marked with real numbers on a camera again. The shutter speed dial on the top deck allows analog adjustment until you get to 1/1,000 second; from there, you have to roll the Command dial downward to select 1/1,300, 1/1,600, 1/2,000, 1/2,600, 1/3,200 and 1/4,000 second speeds.
The Aperture dial is released with a rounded button on the left of the lens barrel, as it is on most other lenses with an Automatic setting. You have to press this button to enter or exit Automatic mode. Set both dials to A, and the camera is in Program mode. Move the Shutter speed dial off of A to any setting, and you're in Shutter Priority mode; and an S appears on the LCD's status display.
Likewise, if you set the Shutter speed dial to A and move the Aperture dial, you're in Aperture Priority mode. Pretty straightforward. Take both of them out of Auto, and you're in Manual mode, also reflected on the Status display. The Status display will also confirm what you've set with these dials, so you don't have to constantly check your analog settings, nor look over the camera to verify what you've set on the lens.
It's a welcome return to real camera controls, and could attract a lot of photographers used to making physical settings rather than digital ones. Rings and dials are far more tactile. Their use can be learned. Then it's more muscle memory that makes your settings than your eyes. Remembering back to my days shooting with an Olympus OM-1 and a Mamiya NC1000, I knew from touch just how close I was to my 1/30 second handhold limit when turning the Shutter speed ring. Aperture was easy to figure with a quick turn left or right to get my bearings. I do miss those days.
The dials on the Panasonic L1 very often moved when I didn't want them to, however. Occasionally the Shutter speed dial would move from Auto, or whatever manual setting I'd made, and even the Aperture ring, despite its big locking button, would move from Auto without my permission. It might have been the camera bag that released the lock on the Aperture ring; but the Shutter speed dial is not lockable at all. So don't be surprised if you're suddenly shooting two second exposures with the L1 when you thought you had it in Auto mode (two to eight seconds is the first setting when you leave Auto).
I also like the Metering and Drive mode levers that appear from underneath the Shutter speed dial. Though here again, I find that these magically change on their own. The Metering mode lever especially doesn't want to stay in Matrix mode, instead preferring center-weighted. Maybe it's trying to tell me something.
Flash. The Panasonic L1's flash is both innovative and frustrating. It's the first on-camera flash to have two modes. Press the flash release button on the back lightly, and the little rectangle pops up to face the ceiling. When we first saw this camera when it was announced at PMA 2006, we thought it was just sticking. But a few more tries made it clear: this little pop up was designed as a bounce flash. If you press the button again, a little harder, the flash is released to its second stage to face forward. You can go directly to this mode with a single hard press on the release button. It's quite clever, and it even works pretty well as a bounce flash.
For multiple reasons, however, it's too often more frustrating than helpful. First, when I'm in a hurry to add a little fill flash when outdoors, I don't notice that the clever little device has only flipped into bounce mode. That gives me no fill flash at all, because bounce mode is a very steep angle.
Second, this small on-camera flash takes forever to recharge when it's been fully depleted, as it usually is in fill-flash situations. Indoors, it's not bad at all (unless you use it in bounce mode, where it also often uses full power), but outdoors, when I find I need it more, it's terrible. It refuses to take the shot until the flash is ready, which means I miss a lot of pictures, and leave a lot of my little subjects quite frustrated in their frozen pose waiting while I repeatedly press the shutter button. Not good for good family fun shots. The flash does recharge whether you press the shutter button or not, but follow-up shots require you to wait for recharge, even if you want to shoot one without the flash (you can close the flash and shoot if you don't want to wait).
Third, the camera's preflash is amazingly slow, especially compared to another Four-Thirds camera I'm using at the moment, the Olympus E-410. It seems to me like a half second before the camera decides to fire after the preflash, whereas most cameras do this metering test flash so quickly it's hard to discern from the real flash unless you're in front of the camera. A preflash that slow isn't only annoying for its increased shutter lag, it will trick your subjects into thinking you've already captured the shot, a half second before you actually do. That's going to produce more bad shots than good.
Fourth, the flash does not perform one of the cool tricks that the Olympus E-300 and E-330 did, and that is simultaneously serve as a fill flash while an external flash performs the bounce function. I'm not 100% sure it won't work with the Lumix FL-500 external flash, but I know for certain it won't work with the FL-360. Incidentally, these two flashes look identical to Olympus's FL-50 and FL-36 flashes. (It's dangerous to attach the FL-36 to the L1. When I attached the one we have here, I wasn't able to get it off. Either the contact pins or the locking pin got stuck in the shoe and refused to come out. Only by rocking and applying more force than I wanted to did I break them free, and then the rubber viewfinder eyepiece got yanked out of its frame.)
So while the Panasonic L1's built-in bounce/pop-up flash is innovative, its preflash is too slow, and its recharge time is inadequate in bounce or fill-flash situations where speed or quick follow-up shots are important. For me, follow-up shot are always important, as I like to take several shots to guard against focus problems, blinks, odd expressions, background problems, reflections, and exposure errors. The L1 drives me crazy when I use the flash. I would have to make this heavy camera even heavier with an accessory flash for almost all of my casual shooting. And if you like to use the lens hood, you'll find the pop-up flash won't reach over the top of the hood at wide angle settings; it won't even reach around the lens when it's out at the 50mm setting.
Viewfinders. When I reviewed the E-330, I said that the viewfinder was dim, probably because of all the partially silvered mirrors in the mix to enable its three viewfinder types. The Panasonic L1, however, doesn't have that third viewfinder method, so there's less excuse for its dim optical viewfinder. It must be due to its use of a porromirror instead of a porroprism. Most of the less-expensive digital SLRs on the market use mirrors instead of an optical prism to achieve lighter weight and lower cost. Olympus long told me that the E-300 and E-330 both had porroprisms, so I just took their word for it. If you look closely, you can also see a partially-silvered section in the main mirror, presumably to help with AF or exposure, as there's a little protrusion that comes out in front of the sensor when the mirror is down; but most digital SLRs focus through a pellicle mirror like this.
If you don't like the dim viewfinder, you can switch to the Live View mode. But I don't recommend it. I suppose if you're taking landscape shots, or macro images, it might help to have that large LCD to use as a viewfinder. But if you're taking pictures of humans, dogs, monkeys, or anything that can respond to the sound of the shutter going off, you're going to be very upset.
I will briefly go into an explanation as to why this mode is so odd and difficult to use, but you won't fully appreciate it until you see the video I've shot of the phenomenon.
Olympus, Panasonic, and Leica, all Four-Thirds system camera makers, are touting Live View mode in their cameras partially to differentiate themselves from the market of digital SLRs. Currently, only one camera from non-Four-Thirds vendors has Live View, and that's the $4,500 Canon EOS 1D Mark III. Though I don't know of any company saying so outright, the implication is that you can have Live View like you're used to seeing in a traditional digital camera. But there's an unspoken problem. To get this live view, you have to put up with a shutter lag that's many times greater than you're used to seeing on any digicam.
Here's what happens when you switch into Live View mode on the Lumix L1. First, you hear half a shutter sound as the mirror flips open. An image appears on your LCD. Terrific! This is exactly the image your sensor is seeing, with only a few milliseconds of delay.
Okay, so usually it's a little out of focus at this point, sometimes a lot. So you do what you always to do focus: press the shutter button halfway. The mirror flips closed, the shutter closes, and the onscreen image freezes. If you point the camera at something good and contrasty, the mirror and shutter close quickly, and your Live View resumes with a partial status display that also shows one of the three AF points illuminated in red. If you point it at a non-contrasty subject, the mirror stays down quite a bit longer, many seconds longer, as the camera searches for something to focus on. You can look through the viewfinder at this point if you want, to point the camera at something contrasty if it's taking too long. Or you can try again by releasing the shutter button and pressing it again (shutter open, shutter closed, and hopefully shutter back open).
Finally, to take a picture, you press the shutter button all the way. The mirror and shutter flip close to verify exposure and maybe focus, then back open, to make the shot, then back closed, then back open to resume Live View. To the casual onlooker, it will sound like you just took three or four pictures. You might even think that yourself. But there are times when you can make all that noise and not take any pictures at all. If you have the flash deployed in Live View mode, for example, you might think you took a shot, but instead you just focused twice while waiting for the flash to recycle. It's pretty frustrating, and very confusing for your subjects who are already ready to get on to the next activity.
Portrait photographers beware: You'll have a lot of explaining to do. Everybody else: You're going to miss a lot of shots you thought you had when you first pressed the button to set focus. The bottom line is that while Live View is useful for very rough framing overhead (provided you can see the non-tilting screen), it's way too slow for actual use shooting humans or anything else that moves. Add the onboard flash, and you'll find yourself looking for a cup of coffee while you wait for the actual exposure to be made. You'll do much better leaving it out of Live View mode and using the viewfinder.
Other controls. The Panasonic L1 has a nice menu system similar to ones you'll find on other Lumix cameras. When shooting the L1 side-by-side with the Olympus E-410, I noticed that the L1's screen was a shade or two more vibrant in the sun. So that's actually a major plus for the L1: greater readability in direct sunlight, and a decent representation of what the nice lens is capturing.
Though I've griped a bit about the panoply of buttons, they're often better than having to delve into a menu system for common functions. White balance, ISO, Flash, and Flash Exposure compensation all have their own buttons, which is a good idea. Where the E-330 used the navigation buttons for these functions, Panasonic or Leica decided they should have their own to avoid confusion.
On the top deck are two helpful, programmable Function buttons. By default, Function 1 allows you to quickly select among "Film types," which means special color presets, like Standard, Dynamic (vivid), and Natural. Function 2 allows you to adjust Exposure Compensation with the Command dial. Pretty easy. It probably should be labeled as the EV button, because photographers use it enough that it deserves a permanent placement that's easily identified.
My favorite button on the right of the LCD is the "Aperture stopping down button." Sounds funny, but you can't really say it better. "Depth-of-field preview" is the more traditional name, but either is about as obscure if you're new to the art. In most SLRs this button is needed to show what a particular aperture setting will produce when the shutter fires. To enable better focusing, most modern SLR lenses are kept at their widest aperture until the moment of exposure, so you don't see what the depth of field (the area in general focus) will be until after capture. So this little button stops down the lens for you. The Panasonic L1 will automatically gain up the image displayed onscreen in Live View mode, so that you don't have to try to judge depth of field from a dim image, as you usually must when looking through the optical viewfinder of an SLR.
Might we have found a good use for Live View mode after all? Yes, here is where cameras like the L1 and E-330 do well: Macro mode. You can fine tune focus and check depth of field right on the LCD. Combine that with the really very nice Leica 14-50mm lens with Optical Image Stabilization, and the L1 kit could make a very nice field botanist tool. You'd need an external flash, though, as even without the lens hood, the on-camera flash is blocked by the very large lens, which extends to reach the 50mm focal length (100mm equivalent). Given the necessarily narrow depth of field in Macro mode, however, don't think of shooting anything but caterpillars in the insect world. The shutter lag is just too great, especially with the flash on.
Lens. This brings us to what is actually the other half of the Panasonic Lumix L1: the beautiful Leica D Vario-Elmarit 14-50mm f/2.8-3.5 optic with Panasonic's Mega O.I.S. (Optical Image Stabilization). Its size is about equivalent to the camera body. Given that the body is so large, it's actually a nice fit, making for a nice, easy-to-hold L-shape, provided you use two hands.
Though the meager handgrip leaves the camera imbalanced when held with one hand, if you hold it with two hands, as you should, it's actually quite well balanced. The body weighs 1.29 pounds (586.2 grams) with a battery and SDHC card in place, and the lens with hood weighs 1.12 pounds (511.2 grams). It's a lot of camera at 2.4 pounds, but I didn't find it too much of a burden to carry. Fitting it into a camera bag is a little bit awkward, and here's where I think a lot of my dials were getting adjusted: while trying to fit a stout, L-shaped SLR into a bag designed for a roughly T-shaped SLR. Sony F717 and F828 owners will feel more at home with the Panasonic L1's shape, if they can get used to the lack of a swiveling lens.
As kit lenses go, this is one of the finest you'll find (I hesitate to say the finest until we can test it in the SLRgear.com lens lab). It's a tad soft at wide angle, and also at telephoto (though a little sharper at telephoto when the subject is distant), but better overall at about 32mm (64mm equivalent). There's understandably a lot of chromatic aberration at wide angle, too, but it's not terrible. It's the heaviest kit lens I think we've seen, but among the higher quality ones, and only the third kit lens we know of with optical image stabilization. At this date, given the $985 price tag of the lens alone, you almost get the L1 for free, with online prices between $1,300 and $1,500.
I took the opportunity to snick the Leica 14-50mm onto the very small Olympus E-410 while I had both of them, and while large, it was a nice fit and worked just fine. Quite well, actually. See the Gallery for both cameras to see how they did after the switcheroo. The Olympus E-410, body only, for the record, weighs less than the Panasonic/Leica lens itself, at 0.95 pounds (434.6 grams), but the combo is still comfortable.
Switching a lens between brands: There's the true benefit of the Four-Thirds system realized, now that there is another brand.
The Panasonic L1 looks more Leica-like with the new Olympus 14-42mm kit lens attached as well. A big, mostly slab-front body with a small lens. If the body weren't so thick, it could almost be appealing with this new, smaller lens.
See the Optics tab for more on how the lens performed. In use it was quite good in the lab, its wide angle setting good for indoor shots, and the telephoto end was sufficient for portraits. As with all Four-Thirds lenses, manual focus is "by wire," meaning the camera must be on for the focus ring to turn. It turns a little out of sync with your actual motion on the focus ring, so it's not really ideal for fine work. Not terrible, but true manual would be better.
The Optical Image Stabilization worked very well, presenting a nice floating image when enabled. Though it's not as important at these focal lengths, it's still good to have in low light situations. When used in combination with Live View and the flash, however, it can chew up battery life.
Image quality. Here, like the Olympus E-330, the Panasonic's 7.5 megapixel sensor turns out good images. Our lab tests show good resolution and good color. Auto white balance had trouble with our indoor incandescent target, but it seems that few digital SLRs get that setting right.
I have to say I was quite disappointed with my personal shots of the kids in bright daylight. Though I struggled and worked with the long shutter lag, with and without flash, plus the flash recycle burden, I still didn't get sharp shots even at ISO 100. The flash probably forced a slower shutter speed, resulting in images that were soft across the board. Shooting in full auto, depth-of-field was out of control, yet there's not a single object in sharp focus.
White balance was good, and printed results are quite good from our lab photos, with excellent print quality even at high ISOs, and good color retention regardless of ISO. Shadow detail got a little darker and noisier as ISO numbers increased as well. I liked our lab shots a good deal more than my personal shots with the Panasonic L1, so I won't be taking the L1 on any more family outings.
Overall. Perhaps it goes without saying if you've read the rest, but I'm just not as impressed with the Lumix L1 as I wanted to be. I already knew it would have much of the guts of the Olympus E-330, which also left me disappointed. Though the L1 lacked the Live View A mode that caused so many problems with that camera, it's not significantly better without it. The optical viewfinder is still dim, and what was once the Live View B mode on the E-330, despite its enhancements, is slower than ever. This just isn't a camera for most types of photographers.
Panasonic came out clear that they intended the L1 for the high-end market, where more wealthy folks would be laying down the cash for the fine Leica optics. That may be. But I can't think of anyone else I'd strongly recommend the L1 to. Maybe those with a large investment in Olympus E-series glass, those who just have to have a live view mode on their cameras, and those who won't switch to digital without analog dials on their camera.
It does offer a lot more in some aspects, with an image stabilized mid-zoom lens of very good quality, but it falls down in another common consumer metric: megapixels. I'll be the first to tell you that it's not a big deal, but with so many 10 megapixel SLRs on the market at prices lower than this, it's a tough sell.
The Panasonic L1 is built well, to be sure, and both handsome and unique looking, but it's thick and heavy, and doesn't pack well. It's just tough to see why one would want it over any of the other hot cameras on the market. They gave it a good try, retooling the E-330 with some more practical features, and the images are good enough, so it's not a mistake to buy a Panasonic L1 (unless you're specifically shooting action or children and pets, then it's a big mistake). I just can't give it the ringing endorsement I'd like to. If you aim to capture photos of the kids, absolutely look elsewhere. If you're looking to do landscape photography and a few vacation shots, and specifically want a heavier camera, for stability, say, then the Panasonic L1 might also be good. But don't look to the L1 to meet the lion's share of your photographic needs.
- 7.5-megapixel solid state image sensor
- Interchangeable lens mount accommodates Four Thirds mount Digital lenses
- Kit includes Leica D Vario-Elmarit Digital 14-50mm f/2.8-3.5 lens
- Digital SLR design and true optical viewfinder
- 2.5-inch color LCD monitor with Live View capability
- Manual and automatic focus modes, with adjustable AF area and Single-Shot and Continuous settings
- Shutter speeds from 1/4,000 to 60 seconds, with a Bulb setting.
- Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual exposure modes
- Spot, Center-Weighted, and Multi-pattern metering systems
- Auto Bracketing and Sequential Shooting capture modes
- Variable ISO setting, with ISO equivalents from 100 to 1,600
- Contrast, Saturation, Sharpness, Monochrome, and Gradation image adjustments
- Adobe RGB and sRGB color space options
- Built-in pop-up flash with bounce mode, six operating modes and intensity adjustment
- Hot Shoe for attaching external flash units, compatible with Panasonic's own line of dedicated flash units for better-integrated exposure control
- JPEG and RAW file formats
- Images saved on SD and SDHC cards
- USB cable for fast connection to a computer (USB auto-connect for driverless connection to Windows 98se, Me, 2000, XP, and Mac OS 9.0 or OS X)
- Video cable for connection to a television set
- Optional wired remote control
- Power from rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack (battery and charger included)
- Software CD with Panasonic Lumix Simple Viewer, PHOTOfunSTUDIO Viewer, SILKYPIX developer Studio, Adobe Reader, USB Drivers
- DPOF (Digital Print Order Format)/PictBridge compatibility and print settings
In the Box
The Panasonic Lumix L1 kit package contains the following items:
- Panasonic Lumix L1 digital SLR body
- Leica D Vario-Elmarit Digital 14-50mm f/2.8-3.5 lens (kit only)
- Lens hood (kit only)
- Lens storage bag
- Body cap
- Lens cap
- Lens rear cap
- Eyepiece cap
- Battery pack
- Battery charger
- AC adapter
- AC cable
- DC cable
- Video Cable
- USB cable
- CD-ROM with software
- Manuals and registration information
- Additional battery pack
- Large capacity SD or SDHC card (These days, 1GB and 2GB cards are inexpensive, so get two or three.)
Panasonic's first digital SLR is a 7.5 megapixel camera came into a market primed for 10 megapixel cameras, yet it has a relatively high price. Its higher quality lens with optical image stabilization and wide aperture are largely responsible for that higher price. Though image quality is actually pretty good, in many cases comparable to a 10 megapixel camera, its high shutter lag in Live View mode is a major strike against the $1,500 camera. Shutter lag more than doubles in this mode, and adding flash extends shutter lag out to more than 3/4 second. There's no question that the lens is good, and its image stabilization is nice for low light shots. The Panasonic L1's reasonable high ISO performance means that you can also hand-hold indoor shots without flash. But the lens and camera combination is quite heavy, making it a bad choice for most consumer photographic applications.
Many will look to the L1's Live View mode as its greatest benefit, but unfortunately, it's slow and confusing to use. The significant shutter noise of the Panasonic L1 will confuse not only the photographer's subjects, but also the photographer, as the shutter must close, then re-open to autofocus. Very often I thought I'd captured a shot, when in reality I'd only focused twice. The Panasonic L1 performs better when you ignore Live View mode and shoot with the optical viewfinder. This is unfortunately fairly dim, but not terrible. The viewfinder eyepiece sticks out from the body quite a bit, which is more comfortable for your nose, but not so great for your stomach when you hang the camera around your neck. Overall, though the Panasonic L1 takes good pictures of objects at rest, the shutter lag, weight, size, and price make it less of a bargain. I can recommend it to photographers who shoot on a tripod frequently, and don't take many shots of people, but those who do photograph people will find its Live View mode disappointing. The Panasonic L1 is beautiful, but not the best choice for most.