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Panasonic Lumix LX3 Overview

by Mike Pasini
and Stephanie Boozer
Review Posted: 10/20/08
Updated User Report
& Optics: 10/23/08

The Panasonic Lumix LX3 has a sensor resolution of 10.1 effective megapixels from a newly developed 1/1.63 inches RGB CCD image sensor, which is said to offer 40 percent higher sensitivity compared to the company's other ten megapixel digital cameras. Panasonic has coupled this to an image-stabilized, Leica DC Vario-Summicron branded 2.5x optical zoom lens with an impressive 24mm wide-angle setting. There's no built-in viewfinder, but an optional external DMW-VF1 optical viewfinder, crafted out of aluminum, can be attached to the LX3's flash hot shoe. Of course, there's also an LCD display -- a large 3-inch type with a generous 460,000 dot resolution. The Panasonic LX3's lens has a maximum aperture that varies from a bright f/2.0 to f/2.8 across the zoom range.

The Panasonic LX3's multi-area autofocus system also includes a single-point high speed focusing mode. As with many digital cameras these days, there's also a face detection function, with Panasonic's implementation capable of detecting up to 15 faces in a scene. Once detected, the camera can then use the information to adjust both focus and exposure to properly capture your subjects' faces. The Panasonic Lumix LX3 also has an implementation of autofocus tracking, which can monitor a subject as it moves around the frame, continuing to update autofocus as required. Panasonic's AF tracking is linked to the face detection system, allowing the camera to continue tracking a face even if it briefly turns to a side profile -- although it should be noted that the face detection system does require the subject be looking toward the camera to achieve its initial detection.

ISO sensitivity ordinarily ranges from 80 to 3,200, with the ability to extend this as far as ISO 6,400 equivalent in High Sensitivity Auto mode. The Panasonic LX3 uses Intelligent Multiple metering, with Center-Weighted and Spot metering modes also on offer. A whopping selection of twenty four scene modes let users tailor the look of their images without needing to understand the subtleties of shutter speeds and apertures. For creative photographers the Pansonic LX3 includes manual, aperture, and shutter-priority modes.

The Panasonic LX3 can capture movies with sound at up to high definition 1,280 x 720 pixel resolution. At the full high-def resolution, movies are captured at 24 frames per second; below this the speed increases to 30fps max. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 stores its images on Secure Digital or MultiMediaCards, including the newer SDHC types (MultiMediaCards not recommended for movies). Connectivity options include USB 2.0 Hi-Speed, standard definition NTSC video output, and high-def component video output (although the cable for this is an optional extra). Power comes from a 3.7V, 1150mAh proprietary lithium-ion battery, rated as good for 380 shots on a charge to CIPA testing standards.

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 will ship this August, with a list price of US$499.95.

 

Panasonic LX3
User Report

by Mike Pasini

Intro. The Panasonic Lumix LX3 is in a class with just two other cameras at the top of the digicam heap, the Nikon P6000 and the Canon G10. These flagship digicams admit no compromise yet remain surprisingly affordable.

Closed. Missing the lens cap, however.

Open. Lens extended and ready for action.

I very much like this category. You get the compact size of a digicam with image quality approaching a digital SLR. Perfect for vacations, parties, even afternoon walks where a dSLR (or even a micro 4/3 camera) might be intrusive or draw attention where it isn't wanted.

In previous reviews, I complained that the G9 was a bit too bulky and the P5000 series a bit too slow to focus, minor complaints about two very capable and enjoyable cameras. But enough of a quibble that I decided to wait for the next version before parting with any pesos.

So my quest for the ideal, pocketable digicam continues with the Panasonic LX3. How did it fare?

It didn't take long for the LX3 to put a smile on my face. Panasonic has its share of design quirks, but as soon as I got used to them again, I started taking some great shots.

All three of these cameras bring back fond memories of precision rangefinders. Despite our quibbles, we'd be happy on a deserted island with any of them. But if we had to choose? Well, read on.

Design. While I enjoyed using the Canon G9's analog controls, the Nikon P5100 won the design contest. It was the most attractive body, control layout, and menu system of the three cameras.

Back. A familiar landscape.

But the Panasonic LX3 has its own charm, if a bit more retro than either of its competitors. The design goes back to the LX1, in fact, which I reviewed in March 2006. That qualifies the design as a classic in my book.

The sleek black box design of the Panasonic LX3 (also available in silver) is only modified by a new, slightly protruding grip for the right hand that, oddly enough, has a nickel-plated accent that completely outlines it.

And talk about build quality. Top-end. A metal body with plenty of screws to hold it together. A metal tripod socket. A spring-loaded port door, firm buttons and switches. Not a cheap thing about it. Put it in your will, because it might still be working when you're gone.

Controls. New Record/Playback mode switch.

Controls. The controls, too, reflect the LX1 and LX2 classic design. The Power button, for example, is the classic Panasonic switch. It's easy to find and to use, unlike so many tiny Power buttons. From the pictures it doesn't look like much, but don't underestimate it. Turning the camera on is something you do the minute you know you want to take a shot and if you have to look for the Power button, you won't like it. With the Panasonic LX3, it's no problem. It's ready when you are.

There's also a general preference for buttons over menu items on the Panasonic LX3. And those buttons are where you'd expect to find them. Focus options are on the lens along with aspect ratio options, not in a menu and not on the back of the camera.

On the other hand, this approach can obscure things, too. I looked in vain for a menu item or button to cut down the flash output, whose default power setting I felt was far too strong. The manual reveals it's tucked away in the EV button's options. Just keep pressing EV (when the flash is popped up) until you see the Flash icon and you can change the flash output.

You switch between Record and Playback modes with a simple switch on the back of the camera. The Zoom ring surrounds the large Shutter button, just like it should.

Menu System. A little last century.

There's an AE/AF Lock button which you can set to lock either exposure, focus, or both, something you rarely see on a digicam. And there's also a Focus button that, with the joystick, lets you quickly and smoothly move the camera's focus point to any part of the scene. The Focus button replaces the IS button on the LX2, which makes sense because you toggle IS less frequently than you need to change focus.

And the Panasonic LX3's small built-in flash pops up 1/2 inch from the body instead of being embedded into the body next to the lens, minimizing red-eye. But even better, the intelligent hot shoe with several contacts lets you use an external flash.

The menu system is a bit too colorful for my taste, much less sophisticated than Nikon's gray/yellow or Canon's gray/red schemes. But the LCD is a generous 3.0 inches with an unusually high resolution of 460,000 dots. It can also be outfitted with an optional optical viewfinder that attaches to the hot shoe.

Lens. All three of these flagship cameras accept converter lenses which attach to a lens adapter screwed onto the camera body. But the LX3 adds only a wider wide-angle (which is a real pity because it stops zooming in at only 60mm). It starts, however, at a pretty wide 24mm and it's a very fast one at f/2.0, too. Its 2.5x optical range takes it out to a modest 60mm equivalent, which distinguishes it again from its competition with more conventional, conservative focal length ranges.

Lens. Leica-designed 24-60mm equivalent.

And yet this modest zoom enjoys Panasonic's optical image stabilization, a real plus for natural light shooting.

Barrel distortion on the Leica lens is very high at 2.9 percent but in-camera JPEG processing knocks that down to 0.6 percent, lower than average. At telephoto (which is really closer to normal), the same phenomenon occurs knocking down the very high 0.6 percent barrel distortion to just 0.1 percent, which is almost imperceptible. Silkypix, the included Raw processing software, also masks this distortion when opening a Raw file so any accompanying JPEG matches what Silkypix displays.

Chromatic aberration is moderate at wide angle with only slight blurring in the corners at wide angle. At telephoto there is only minimal blurring in the corners. We counted about 1,600 lines of strong detail, very high resolution.

Panasonic didn't supply a snap-on lens cover with the review unit and, believe me, you need one. You just can't take the camera anywhere without lens protection. I resorted to a gray film canister top which I secured to the body with a fashionably red rubber band. But I missed the lens cover.

Polls. When I took the LX3 to a party, several of the attendees expressed an interest in it. All of them have been shooting digital for years with a series of cameras.

Grip. Just right.

One Nikon D50 owner really liked the little grip, especially compared to the bumps and ridges that pass for a fingerhold on so many little digicams. In fact, the new grip is a valuable upgrade from the LX1 and LX2's finger pad.

A Rebel owner was impressed with the resolution of the LCD and that just by flipping a little switch on top of the lens you can switch between three aspect ratios, a basic Panasonic feature.

The Coolpix S50 owner appreciated the heft of the little camera, which is weightless when strapped around your shoulder, but substantial enough to dampen any small camera shake when you press the shutter (unlike those Wave Coolpixes).

Their enthusiasm was unanimous. And not one of them had any quibbles, oddly enough. The only question they asked was how much it costs. It makes that good an initial impression -- and after a few shots with the wide angle lens, you realize it isn't a passing fancy.

Interface. We're seeing something of a parting of the waters in camera interface design. Some digicams have done away with buttons entirely, relying on a touch screen to set up the camera. But even ordinary digicams have minimized buttons. And dSLRs are famous for providing a button interface to the camera's capabilities on the theory that you should be able to feel around the camera to make an adjustment.

Top Controls. Large Shutter button with Zoom ring, easy-to-find Power Switch, handy Focus button, large Mode dial.

The LX3 gives you buttons, including one you can redefine. They are not flimsy, cheap little things, either, but solid and firm, cleverly laid out (meaning not quite as random as they first appear). They are surprisingly varied, too, matching form with function.

The Power button is a switch, but so is the flash pop-up button, which snaps back into position after you push the flash back down. The Mode button is also a switch, making it very straightforward to switch between Record and Playback.

The Shutter button is large and right where your finger thinks it should be, surrounded by a Zoom ring that has just the right travel (although the lens itself can be a little too quick for precise framing with the Zoom lever).

The Mode dial is very clear, packed with Programmed Auto, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual modes with Scene and intelligent Auto modes on one side and two custom settings and Movie mode on the other.

Below those is the four-way navigator (four separate buttons, alas) with a Menu/Set button in the middle. The four arrows are a bit unconventional in offering EV on the Up button, Flash on the Right button, a programmable Function button on the Down button, and the Self-Timer on the Left button.

Below that is the Display button and the Release modes button, which are both options you might change frequently.

Calendar View. Playback mode can display your images in a calendar.

The Focus mode switch is actually on the left side of the lens, offering Auto, Macro, and Manual modes. Manual works very nicely with an optionally enlarged center crop and the joystick. And on top of the lens barrel is the Aspect Ratio switch, offering 4:3, 3:2, and 16:9 modes.

That really gives you a lot of control without dipping into the menu system. In practice, once I set the camera's options for image size and quality, I really didn't have to bother with the menu system.

Which is a good thing because it's not a very good one. Count it as my chief complaint with this camera (and Panasonic cameras in general). I can't tell you how many times I hit the Set button to select an option only to be thrown out of the menu system because I should have hit the Right button. There's no reason the Set button couldn't function just like the Right button (there's no need to be exclusive), but it doesn't. And when you have to drill down to an option (as Formatting the card requires), you won't be happy to have to do it again.

For such a high resolution LCD (and it's unusually high for a digicam), it's a pity the menu system doesn't show some sophistication in its graphic design. The tabs are crudely drawn and the text, while refreshingly large, looks like it was printed with a dot matrix printer. Ugly.

One last point on the interface in general is that enabling some features will disable others -- in real time. That can be a blessing, as when you switch aspect ratios with the switch on the lens and the image size options suddenly are updated on the LCD. But it can be confusing, as when you enable Raw shooting and things like digital zoom are suddenly disabled. You'll get used to these trade-offs (many of which make sense when you think about them), but you may be surprised by them at first.

Modes. The shooting modes are refreshingly simple yet comprehensive on the LX3. PASM, intelligent Auto, Scene, two Custom modes, and Movie mode.

PASM is where the fun really is. Programmed Auto really does a nice job and is what we used for most of our party shots. Aperture Priority let us use the joystick to force that lens to f/2.0 and get some great shallow depth-of-field shots. Shutter Priority lets you set the shutter speed to freeze or blur a moving subject. And Manual mode gives you complete control of the camera, very handy with an external flash that is not dedicated.

Intelligent Auto. Here it has detected it should be in Macro mode (note the red icon in the upper left).

On many small cameras, PASM modes can be difficult to use because the controls simply aren't designed to conveniently change the aperture or shutter speed. Canon handled that nicely on the G9 and Nikon on the P5100 with command dials borrowed from dSLRs. Panasonic does it just as well with a joystick, though. Moving the joystick left or right in Manual changes from f-stop to aperture, while moving up or down alters the value. There's no confusion and no button shifting (like holding down EV and pressing an arrow key, as some digital cameras do).

Intelligent Auto can recognize five scenes automatically: Portrait, Scenery, Macro, Night Portrait, and Night Scenery. It's a little slower than using the other modes because it has to figure out what the camera is looking at. It will indicate what it has discovered with an icon in the top left of the screen and it may even give you a little advice (like pop up the flash ), so it's handy for beginners who need a little guidance.

It did detect a Portrait and asked for the flash, but though it found focus, it didn't report a Macro shot. And a general indoor scene didn't fall into any of its recognized categories.

The camera will set the stabilizer, Intelligent ISO, Face Detection, Quick Autofocus, intelligent exposure, and digital red-eye correction in Intelligent Auto. It will automatically handle backlight compensation, too. Intelligent ISO sets ISO and shutter speed to freeze subject movement and minimize camera shake.

This mode is compute-intensive and while offered by more and more cameras, is still problematic. I think it should be standard but it's so hard to handle the detection well and quickly that you really have to wonder if it's ready for prime time. It seems more likely to slow down your picture taking than enhance it. And frankly, Programmed Auto does very nicely all by itself.

Scene Modes. Three rows of icons on two pages with a text explanation below.

Scene mode includes a healthy selection of presets: Portrait, Soft Skin, Self-Portrait, Scenery, Sports, Night Portrait, Night Scenery, Food, Party, Candle Light, Baby1, Baby2, Pet, Sunset, High Sensitivity, Hi-Speed Burst (7 fps), Flash Burst (2 fps up to 5 shots), Starry Sky, Fireworks, Beach, Snow, Aerial Photo, PinHole, and Sand Blast. Pressing the Menu button brings up a screen with three rows of icons. The selected icon has a text description below the three rows so you know what it does.

Baby1 and Baby2 could use a little explanation. They are two of the same thing (for two different babies), which sets the flash weaker than normal, and uses Macro mode and Intelligent ISO. But you can set different birthdays and names for each setting and these can be displayed during Playback or stamped on the recorded image using the Text Stamp feature.

Aerial Photo is near to my heart, particularly if you're shooting into the sun. The manual actually gives some good advice. Like turn the camera off during take off and landing. I'm still not over the obsessed gamer playing Donkey Kong or something on his cell phone as we were taking off from Las Vegas after CES. He just didn't hear the captain's call to turn off all electronic devices, apparently. But after reading Julianne Kost's Window Seat (http://www.imaging-resource.com/ARTS/KOST/KOST.HTM), I've been taking pictures every time I fly. I have also always seemed to score a window seat, which helps. As the manual warns, watch out for reflections and focus on some point of contrast.

Sand Blast. Grainy in a nice way.

Pinhole is an odd one, but fun. It just vignettes the subject, darkening the corners subtly. This is handier than you might think, particularly appropriate for highlighting a subject against a confusing background.

Sand Blast takes a black and white image that looks like Tri-X pushed a couple of stops. Very grainy but a nice effect.

Movie mode deserves some polite applause. In an age where some "HD" cameras still shoot just 640 x 480 video, the LX3 can do 1,280 x 720 in 16:9 mode and 848 x 480 as well. Unfortunately, you can't zoom while recording. And focus is fixed. If you're capturing to the built-in memory, you can only use the 4:3 aspect ratio, and when capturing to a card, you can't use the 3:2 aspect ratio.

In Playback, the Slide Show option was a disappointment. On the one hand, it does pan across your pictures and add music but it doesn't seem to know what to do with the various aspect ratios. Some 16:9 shots we took with two faces at either end showed up in the slide show as a blank wall. Using some of that facial recognition smarts in Playback would have helped here.

HD Movie. A three second movie in 7.5MB. But no zoom. (Click to view/download MOV file.)

Storage and Battery. The approximately 50MB of built-in memory is enough to hold nine 10-megapixel 4:3 images with the least amount of compression, or one minute 43 seconds of QVGA video at 30 fps. The LX3 supports SD/SDHC memory cards up to 32GB.

The 3.7, 1150 mAh volt lithium-ion battery is rated for 380 pictures according to the CIPA standard. It's a bit bulkier than many recent lithium-ions yet still small. And it comes with a charger that has folding prongs so there's no cable to pack.

Performance. In some respects, performance rankings for the Panasonic LX3 were surprising. On a chart, it wouldn't stand out. And that contradicted not only my own experience with it, but the immediate reaction of several other people who got to play with it.

Focus Mode. Autofocus was not as fast as the competition but still responsive.

The Panasonic LX3 scored only average, for example, with a 2.3-second startup and shutdown time, a bit more than the 1.7 second of the LX2. In its defense, I never really felt I was waiting for the camera as the lens extended. It isn't, in short, slow.

And its combined autofocus lag was a surprisingly average 0.769 second. That's surprising because the wide angle lens that never really gets much beyond normal should focus quicker than lenses that get well into the telephoto range where focus has to be more precise. But the Panasonic LX3's wide angle-normal range didn't beat the competition.

Its prefocus lag was a quick 0.012s, ranking above average even though we're seeing 0.008s as more the norm these days, even on entry-level digicams. But again, nobody felt the shutter was slow. And there is a prefocus option to speed things up, although I don't believe the lab used that mode in testing.

Hot Shoe, Aspect Ratios. Ready for a dedicated external flash. Note aspect ratio settings on lens barrel.

Continuous mode cycle time was better than average at 0.53 second. And Flash cycle time was also better than average at 4.8 seconds, which tends to indicate a weak flash -- but not in this case.

Download speed was 4,650 KB/s, well above average even for a prosumer digicam. And so was LCD size at 3.0 inches. But it isn't just size that makes the Panasonic LX3's LCD special. With 460,800 pixels it exceeds the otherwise high-end 270,000 pixels we usually applaud.

As you might guess, the Panasonic LX3's optical zoom ranked below average at just 2.5 times, but the important thing to consider about it is how wide it starts. That 24mm stretch is very easy to get used to, coming in handy in 16:9 shots as well as cramped rooms where holding the camera overhead can get the whole table in the shot.

Weight scored average, too, but the Panasonic LX3 is deceptively light. You won't know you've got it hanging from your shoulder but it has just enough heft to resist moving when you press the Shutter button. Its weight is really ideal.

Ah, numbers. They can be so deceptive.

While I really felt the Nikon P5100 was sluggish (if improved over the P5000), I never had that sensation with the LX3. It seemed nimble, quick, and responsive. And nobody who tried it had anything negative to say about it. Which is pretty rare. Or should I say above average?

ISO 80, 400, 1,600: Image quality is quite high from the 10-megapixel Panasonic LX3, and though it does get pretty grainy at ISO 1,600 when viewed 100 percent onscreen as you see here, printed results are excellent. ISO 80 shots looked great printed at 13x19 inches, and ISO 400 shots looked great at 11x14. ISO 1,600 shots produced a usable 8x10, and ISO 3,200 shots a soft but usable 5x7-inch print. The LX3 is Panasonic's best performing small digital camera, and it does indeed rival 10-megapixel cameras from ISO 100 to 400. Shooting RAW with the LX3 can get you even more quality.

Image Quality. Well, good news here, so let's not beat around the bush. The Panasonic LX3's noise handling is significantly improved over the LX2. Noise performance was the single biggest issue with the LX2, its Achilles heel. On the Panasonic LX3, we've had a change of image processors but the detail and color the LX2 captured at ISO 200 is roughly equivalent to ISO 800 on the LX3. In both cases, that's about where the detail starts to fall apart, although it's still quite acceptable. If ISO 400 was the LX2's limit, ISO 800 is the LX3's, with ISO 1,600 and 3,200 showing a pronounced increase in noise that breaks up detail and loses color both.

Zoom Range. 24mm to 60mm to 4x digital zoom.

The ISO 100 Still Life test shot shows excellent detail in both shadows like the Hellas mosaic and highlights like the white yarn. There is no blooming on the Samuel Smith label and he Crayolas look good enough to eat.

The only area in the image that might suggest we aren't looking at an image shot with a dSLR is the "Pure Brewed" type on the Samuel Smith label. You can barely make out that there are lines graying the type. Not all dSLRs can hold these either, though.

A look at the Mulit-Target shot shows better results than our test shots for chromatic aberration and corner softness. And resolution (when viewing the full resolution image rather than our test page crops) shows the camera easily surpasses 1,600 lines of detail.

So how does this translate to the real world?

I shot a lot with the Panasonic LX3 and took a lot longer with this review than I expected for one reason: this camera can do a lot of things very well.

The one thing it can not do well is shoot a distant subject. If you want great shots of birds, tightly cropped images from some vista point or intimate sports shots, this is not the right gear.

The other side of that coin is that its wide angle gives it a unique perspective, particularly in macro mode.

The gallery shots are pretty extensive, some 50 shots plus Raw versions of six of them. They also cover a few special effects, revealed in the Exif pages under Film Mode in the MakerNotes section. And they were taken under a variety of conditions from night shots to natural light indoors to bright sun. And even one flash shot.

Obviously I was pleased by the images the Panasonic LX3 captured. Quite pleased. In fact, the images were more similar to dSLR images than digicam images. My recent reviews of 10+ megapixel cameras have rarely been raves. I'm usually surprised by the lack of detail captured. Not with these, though.

Shallow Depth of Field. There's also a Raw capture of this image in the gallery.

The f/2.0 aperture added to the fun, producing some very shallow depth of field on some shots like the rosemary. That's something you aren't supposed to be able to do with a digicam.

And the 24mm equivalent focal length was a refreshing change, too, particularly when coupled with 16:9 aspect ratio shooting as on the Lincoln bust. I can't say I didn't miss a longer zoom, but I did enjoy the wider wide angle quite a bit. It isn't a limitation so much as a different personality.

Low light performance was rewarding, too. The candles on a birthday cake being blown out at 1/15 second and ISO 800 shows some noise, sure, but captures the scene accurately, down to the flames being blown back and the smoke as they are extinguished.

Same thing with the night scenes. I rarely include night scenes in the gallery shots because they rarely resemble the scene, but these were on the money. I was particularly surprised to see how well neon signs were captured.

Protecting the Camera. The Wein Safe-Sync protects the camera from the Vivitar's high trigger voltage.

Flash. A hot shoe is required equipment for top end digicams and the LX3 doesn't disappoint in that department. With its intelligent shoe sporting several electrical contacts, a dedicated flash like the Panasonic DMW-FL360 will provide more power than the built-in pop-up while still maintaining the automation of the built-in system.

That includes things like letting the camera control the flash output using Through The Lens metering and adjusting for focal length.

I didn't have a Panasonic flash but I did have my old Vivitar 283. Panasonic rightly warns against using gear not mated to the LX3, but we were smart enough to slip a Wein Safe-Sync in between the 300-volt 283 and the LX3. When we set the ISO, f-stop and shutter speed to match the flash's output, we were able to get predictable results, easily covering our two-car garage. We used a shutter speed of 1/125 second, actually.

Top Heavy. With an external flash, the camera is the lighter component.

Panasonic also rightly warns that attaching a flash to the LX3 will make the camera "unstable." The flash will weigh more than the camera. And the temptation is to hold the flash, not the camera. So it can be an awkward combination.

With the Vivitar, however, we could attach a remote sensor to the hot shoe and hold the flash in our free hand, the two connected by cable. That is a lot more feasible. And it produces better images.

You can't use the built-in flash when the hot shoe has a flash attached. And you can't use a Nikon SB-800 either (the Nikon shoe is too thick).

Raw Format. The Raw file format the Panasonic LX3 writes is not, as I write this early in October 2008, supported by any application other than Silkypix, which is included with the LX3. The disc version is a bit behind the current version on the Web site, so you'll want to upgrade when you first launch the program and register on the Slikypix Web site.

This is the way proprietary Raw formats work. It takes the major Raw converters a while to catch up with new cameras. Adobe is quick to supply support, Apple unusually slow. Watch for an LX3 Raw support update if shooting Raw is important to you.

On most digicams, there is no Raw support, although you can enable it on many Canon models using CHDK, an open-source software project. But on those that do, writing the large Raw files can be so taxing that the camera is disabled until the data makes it to the card.

I'm happy to say that isn't true of the Panasonic LX3. While it does take a while to write the Raw data (indicated by a flashing red icon on the LCD), the camera isn't disabled and you can shoot normally. That's an achievement considering the large 4:3 aspect-ratio JPEG varies from 3.5MB to 4.2MB with the corresponding Raw file fixed at 11.7MB.

In addition, the LX3 offers a few SLR-like options for your Raw shooting. You can capture just a Raw file, a Raw file plus a high-quality JPEG or a Raw file plug a low-quality JPEG.

Neon. Effortless.

So, in short, Raw capture is a usable option on the Panasonic LX3. And to use it, at the moment, you'll need Silkypix.

But there's one more thing you should know about working with LX3 Raw files.

The JPEG optionally captured with the Raw file is, as noted above, corrected for the very high barrel distortion of the LX3's Leica lens at both wide angle and telephoto. When you open an LX3 Raw file in Silkypix, it applies that same correction so the images match. Open the Raw file in any other Raw converter (like dcraw, for example), though, and you'll see the actual distortion captured by the lens.

Silkypix. Silkypix has been around a long time and has a devoted following. It's also cross-platform, running on both Windows and Macintosh systems. I've been hoping to get it into the review cycle, in fact, and welcomed this opportunity to give it a try.

Despite its cross-platform capabilities, it's a Windows-oriented design. Packed with non-standard widgets and tiny icons on the toolbar, the interface has to be learned. I found this particularly odd because I'm no stranger to Raw conversion utilities.

But it isn't me. It's Silkypix. For example, there's no Save As command under the File menu, even though that's pretty standard human interface stuff. Instead (I discovered after a trip to the manual), you have to click on the Development icon (or select the Development command on the menu bar) to get the Save dialog box, which itself is not the standard one, but a custom dialog with many options.

I've got nothing against options, but the Save As dialog is the last place I want to see them. There is a dialog box to set some parameters for development (or output) but not all. And even more disturbing is the inclusion of unlabeled unsharp masking on output. Sure, I get the point that USM is the last thing you want to do, but the Save As dialog box is not where I want to do it -- even if it does include a Preview button.

The quirky interface design extends to the display of various options in the left-hand panel. Click the Exif tool and the Exif data is overlaid on the panel. Click the Histogram tool and it, too, is overlaid. Rather than configure the panel, in other words, you just kind of get a small window tossed on the screen to move about as you like.

Macro. Hand held in low light.

A good interface is a pleasure I don't deny myself and a poor one is a nuisance I avoid, so I didn't spend a lot of time with Silkypix. It did let me adjust my images as I wanted and I have no complaint with the final JPEG, but I've had a lot more fun with images in Bibble, Aperture, Lightroom, and Adobe Camera Raw where the interface gets out of the way.

Not only do those interfaces stay out of the way, but the applications don't indulge in any shenanigans with the actual optical distortion of the Raw capture. Silkpix silently applies a generous amount of barrel distortion correction to the Raw image when you open it. That lets the Raw image match any accompanying JPEG image you took at the same time, but it's also not the actual Raw image either. And you can't disable that. The Silkypix Distortion control is set to zero by default.

No correction should be silently applied to a Raw file. The whole point of shooting Raw is having complete control over the image. You'll have to look beyond Silkypix to have that with the LX3's Raw files.

Appraisal. Let's put it this way. Apart from the clunky menu system, the Panasonic LX3 almost seemed to be in a category by itself. It behaved in my hands the way I expected it to behave. So much so, in fact, that I don't think I even looked at it as I used the controls to set up the shot.

And when I looked at what the Panasonic LX3 had captured, I was even more impressed. I'm used to expecting compromises in quality from the smaller sensors on digicams. They're always good enough for small enlargements. But they fall apart if you zoom in too closely. At a 25 percent screen view, I thought I was seeing everything the camera had captured. Nope. The image held up very nicely as I zoomed in to 100 percent. The rule of thumb may be to back up twice as far as normal to evaluate an image of 10 megapixels or more, but with the Panasonic LX3 I didn't have to. These looked sharp with my nose rubbing up against the screen.

And the price is very reasonable. Not cheap enough to compete with the $200 digicams that are almost disposable cameras, and not so expensive as to make you wonder why you don't just take the dSLR plunge (the lenses, that's why). It's hard to imagine anyone paying street price for the Panasonic LX3 and not feeling like they've gotten quite a deal.

 

Panasonic LX3 Basic Features

 

Panasonic LX3 Special Features

 

In the Box

The Panasonic LX3 ships with the following items in the box:

 

Recommended Accessories

 

Panasonic LX3 Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Classic, attractive design is also very functional
  • f/2.0 lens with optical image stabilization is great for available light
  • 24mm wide angle equivalent captures the whole room
  • Hotshoe lets you use an external flash (off camera, too)
  • Multiple aspect ratios for still and video capture include wide screen
  • New Venus IV image processor with Raw support
  • Joystick is nearly as useful as a command dial
  • Extremely low distortion at wide angle and telephoto is achieved with in-camera JPEG correction
  • Well controlled chromatic aberration at wide angle, and essentially none at telephoto
  • Very good corner sharpness
  • Good viewfinder accuracy
  • Better saturation control than LX2
  • Quite good detail up to ISO 400
  • Excellent low light performance
  • Autofocuses well in low light
  • Very good prefocus shutter lag
  • Good download speed
  • Good battery life
  • Impressive printed results, outputting good quality 13x19-inch prints, and decent 11x14-inch prints at ISO 400
  • 60mm telephoto is well short of the more common 105mm equivalent
  • Menu system is low res and quirky
  • No zoom in Movie mode
  • Slide show mode crops images
  • Closest macro image is only sharp at the very center
  • ISO 800, 1,600, and 3,200 have yellow and purple color blotches in incandescent light
  • Slow startup time
  • Slow buffer clearing
  • Mediocre autofocus times
  • Very high barrel distortion at both wide angle and telephoto, although it's masked by in-camera JPEG correction you can't disable
  • Silkypix Raw converter silently applies barrel distortion correction to the Raw images

 

Panasonic got the dimensions right from the start with the LX1 and they've had the sense not to mess with a classic. The Panasonic LX3 enhances the basic design with a very nicely integrated grip, a new record/playback mode switch (no need to reselect the exposure mode), while swapping out the IS button on the LX2 for a Focus button that is much more useful (who turns IS off?).

Performance is enhanced with a new image processor that greatly improves the noise problems suffered by the Panasonic LX3 while letting you shoot Raw+JPEG without penalty.

The big caveat with the Panasonic LX3, though, is the move to a wider angle lens with a shorter telephoto reach. It's great for shooting rooms, landscapes, and portraits, but it falls short in the telephoto department, making the Panasonic LX3 a difficult choice for an all-around camera, unless you're used to short to medium focal lengths. But the LX3 might make a great second camera alongside an SLR with a telephoto lens, and would certainly serve the Leica aficionado or street photographer looking for a quality lens in a small package.

I found the 24mm wide lens a lot of fun, giving the Panasonic LX3 a slightly different personality from its closest competitors. And the quality of the images was an unqualified joy to behold. Which, in the end, is what really matters.

Yes, the Panasonic LX3 is a five-star Dave's Pick and puts Mike's piggy bank on the endangered species list, too.