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You are hereHome > Best Digital Cameras > Panasonic L1 digital SLR

Panasonic Digital Cameras

   

Panasonic L1 digital SLR Review

Review Date: Aug 7, 2006

Category: Advanced Amateur - Prosumer

Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1

Photoxels Editor's Choice 2006

HANDLING & FEEL

As Panasonic's first ever digital SLR, the much-anticipated Lumix DMC-L1 both looks and feels like a well-designed and professional camera. The construction is first-class and the large f2.8 Leica lens staring right at you is a pleasure to use with its three rings. Both camera and lens have been designed and built from the ground up specifically for digital, and Olympus / Panasonic / Leica engineers could pick and choose and innovate where they saw fit. The result is a digital SLR with a distinct 35mm rangefinder look and feel.

There are a couple of features that are unique to the Panasonic L1: the traditional pentaprism replaced by a series of mirrors (porro finder first used in the Olympus E-300) and Live View LCD (also in the Olympus E-330). A first for Leica is the addition of optical image stabilization to their first lens made specifically for digital.

Magnesium-alloy frame

The Panasonic L1 is clad in a magnesium-alloy frame (top and back) for strength and durability. The body is finished in a beautiful all-black coating and the only two markings clearly visible from the front is the "Lumix" brand on the body itself and the "Leica" brand on the lens.

LEICA D VARIO-ELMARIT 14-50mm/F2.8-3.5 ASPH

The lens is a LEICA D VARIO-ELMARIT 14-50mm/F2.8-3.5 ASPH with a 35mm equivalent focal length of 28-100mm. The minimum focusing distance is just 29 cm over the entire zoom range. The focusing system is entirely internal, so the external length of the lens doesn't change during focusing. It incorporates Panasonic's advanced MEGA O.I.S. (Optical Image Stabilizer) that reduces or eliminates camera shake and thus helps prevent blurry photos.

Though on the outside the body resembles the previous Panasonic DMC-LC1 / Leica Digilux 2 body design, the internal optical subsystem is shared with the Olympus EVOLT-E330 -- the two cameras having being jointly designed by Olympus and Panasonic, and both using the Four Thirds Systems mount.

The Panasonic L1 uses the Secure Digital (SD) Memory Card, and can take the SDHC (SD High Capacity) memory cards with capacity greater than 2GB.

Here's how the top DSLRs measure up against one another, without lens attached and without battery and card:

Camera W
(cm)
H
(cm)
D
(cm)
Weight
(g)
Nikon D200 147 113 74 830
Panasonic L1 145.8 86.9 80 530
Canon 30D 144 105.5 73.5 700
Olympus E-330 140 87 72 550
Nikon D50 133 102 76 540
Sony A-100 133 95 71 545
Pentax K100D 129.5 92.5 70 560
Olympus E-500 129.5 94.5 66 435
Canon 350D 126.5 94.2 64 485

At 145.8W x 86.9H x 80D mm (5.74W x 3.42H x 3.15D in.), the Panasonic L1 is wider and deeper than most of the other dSLRs.

The large Leica lens (with a wonderfully fast F2.8 max. aperture) adds in a further 490g.

The Panasonic L1 handles very well. Its handgrip is not as deep as it appears but since the body itself is quite deep, the grip is solid and coated with tactile rubber to provide a secure hold. Panasonic has opted to put the Shutter Release Button smack in the middle of the Shutter Speed Dial instead of the more comfortable angled position on the top of the handgrip, but your finger finds it easily.

STYLE
- Colours: black body with white letterings
- Looks: attractive and professional "35mm rangefinder look"
   
FEEL
- Comfortable to hold and operate
- Controls & menu are intuitive to use
- Requires two hands (thumbs) to select settings
   
DIMENSIONS & WEIGHT
- About the same dimensions [minus the height of the pentaprism] as other digital SLR
- Dimensions: 145.8W x 86.9H x 80D mm /
5.74W x 3.42H x 3.15D in.
- Weight: 530 g / 1.17 lbs (add 490g for lens)
- Takes 1 rechargeable Li-ion battery DMW-BL14 7.2V 1400mAh
   
SPEED OF OPERATION
- Startup and LCD turning on in about 1 sec.
- Shot to shot time about 1 sec.
- No practical shutter lag when using viewfinder; 1-2 sec. with Live View LCD
   

Included in the box is a rechargeable Li-ion battery that can take a remarkable 450 shots using the viewfinder and 300 shots with LCD on (CIPA standard) on a fresh charge and a Battery Charger / AC Adaptor DE-972 (with power cord) that will recharge a new battery in-camera in approx. 130 min.

The Terminal compartment is conveniently on the left side of the camera (viewed from the back), and the rubber flap extends to provide unimpeded access to the V OUT / REMOTE and USB sockets.

Built-in Bounce Flash

The built-in flash needs to be manually raised to work [the way we prefer it] and there's a button at the back above the LCD to do that. Panasonic calls it a "pantograph-type" flash that allows bounce lighting.

The way this is accomplished is pretty neat. Press the flash button once and the flash pops up and points at an angle upward toward the ceiling -- and is therefore at the perfect bounce flash position.

A second press will raise the flash out completely to point directly at your subject.

You can set the flash to Auto, Auto/Red-Eye Reduction, Forced On, Forced On/Red-Eye Reduction, Slow Sync., Slow Sync./Red-Eye Reduction. The Flash is Forced Off when it is closed.

The flash intensity can be fine adjusted by pressing the Flash Adjustment Button on the back of the camera and rotating the Command Dial to dial in a compensation in the range of +/- 2EV, in 1/3-EV steps.

Panasonic DMW-FL500 external flash

A hot shoe allows the use of external flash systems. Panasonic provides optional DMW-FL500 / FL360 TTL external flash units.

Analog-like Controls

Panasonic L1 Top View

The Panasonic L1 features analog-like controls that are easily accessible and intuitive in operation. The controls click in place with the right tactile feedback and are the right size to push and rotate.

The top of the camera has [from left to right] the Hot Shoe that will accept an external flash, the on-board flash (seen closed), the Shutter Speed Dial to select a Shutter Speed (or move to 'A' for automatic shutter speed selection, as in Program AE or Aperture-Priority modes), the Metering Mode Lever around the front of the Shutter Speed Dial, the Drive Mode Lever around the back of the Shutter Speed Dial, the FUNC. 1 and FUNC. 2 buttons.

Note that though the MEGA O.I.S. switch to turn Optical Image Stabilizer ON and OFF is found on the lens barrel, the mode (1 or 2) itself is first set in MENU.

Intuitive Exposure Control

The two main controls are the Shutter Speed Dial that you operate with your right hand and the Aperture Ring around the lens barrel that you turn with your left. These two controls allow you to adjust the exposure, and also work together to set a Shooting Mode.


Shutter Speed Dial

The shutter speed markings increase [i.e. faster shutter speed] clockwise. The shutter speeds from 1/1000 sec. to 1/4000 sec. have been grouped together under one marking, and shutter speeds B, 2 to 60 sec. have been grouped together under another marking.

The Shutter Speed Dial does not rotate continuously, i.e. when you reach 'A', it stops and you have to backtrack to get to 1000-4000.

To set a shutter speed from 1/1000 sec. to 1/4000 sec. you need to rotate the Shutter Speed Dial anti-clockwise from 'A' to that mark, then use the Command Dial (on the back of the camera) to select the one you want. Similarly, for selecting a shutter speed from 2 sec. to 60 sec. Once set, the "preferred" selection stays even on power down. B (Bulb) is available only in Manual Mode.

Note that the Panasonic L1 does not have a traditional Mode Dial to select a Shooting Mode, such as P (Programmed AE), A (Aperture-Priority), S (Shutter-Priority), and M (Manual).

Instead, there is an 'A' setting on the Shutter Speed Dial on the camera and Aperture Ring on the lens, and you set these in combination to select the shooting mode you want.

It's pretty intuitive, and here's how it works:

Shooting Mode Shutter-Speed Dial Aperture Ring
P = Program AE A A
A = Aperture-Priority A Select an aperture
S = Shutter-Priority Select a shutter speed A
M = Manual Select a shutter speed Select an aperture

In other words, if you leave both the Shutter Speed and Aperture to 'A', you have in effect Programmed AE mode.

Rotate the Aperture Ring to select an aperture and, if you leave the Shutter Speed on 'A', you are automatically in Aperture-Priority mode.

Rotate the Shutter Speed Dial to select a shutter speed and, if you leave the Aperture Ring on 'A', you are automatically in Shutter-Priority mode.

When you select an aperture and shutter speed, you are into Manual mode.

There is a small button to depress on the Aperture Ring when you set the aperture to, or away from, 'A'.

Around the Shutter Speed Dial is the Light Metering Lever and Drive Mode Lever, both fingertip-operated. It's convenient and fast to change these settings with the touch of a fingertip. However, I find that you can inadvertently bump either the Light Metering Lever or the Drive Mode Lever, either in handling the camera or when rotating the Shutter Speed Dial.

Light Metering options are Spot, Multiple and Center-Weighted.

Drive modes are Single, Burst, Auto Bracket and Self-timer. You can access only one setting for each mode. The Burst (High or Low), Auto Bracket range, and Self-timer (2 sec. or 10 sec.) settings are set in the MENU.

When using the self-timer, after the countdown is finished, the mirror goes up at the same time the picture is taken. This kind of defeats the purpose of using the self-timer to minimize camera shake, if that's what you're after. The Panasonic L1 therefore has a 'Mirror Up' option in MENU - Custom that will lift up the mirror before countdown starts, thus eliminating camera shake.

The FUNC.1 and FUNC.2 buttons are customizable so you can quickly recall your favourite function settings. The camera ships with FUNC.1 and FUNC.2 defaulted to Image Quality and Exposure Compensation, respectively.

So, to dial in an exposure compensation, you press FUNC.2 and rotate the Command Dial. If you want to default the Command Dial to Exposure Compensation (it defaults to Program Shift), then you can set DIREC.EX.COMP to ON in Custom Menu. Once this is set, you won't need to press FUNC.2 anymore: just rotate the Command Dial to set exposure compensation.

The strap eyelet and neck strap on the right side [viewed from the back] are fine but, because of where the Shutter Release Button is positioned, they tend to get in the way. You could remove the neck strap but the camera is hefty enough that you do need to carry it around your neck when you are not using it. Somehow, though, as I bring the camera up to my eye, my fingers naturally [and unconsciously on my part] find their way to the right controls around the neck strap: the index finger rests on the Shutter Button and the thumb is positioned on the Command Dial.

No movies recording on a dSLR, you knew that already, right?

SD Memory Card Storage Capacity (approx. # images, JPEG)
Quality Pixels 16MB 512MB 1GB 2GB 4GB
L 3 3136x2352 0 65 130 260 530
L 2 3136x2352 2 130 260 530 1040
L 1 3136x2352 6 250 510 1040 2040
M 3 2560x1920 1 98 195 400 790
M 2 2560x1920 4 195 390 790 1560
M 1 2560x1920 10 380 770 1530 3010
S 3 2048x1536 3 150 300 620 1230
S 2 2048x1536 7 300 600 1220 2410
S 1 2048x1536 16 590 1180 2360 4640

As the above chart shows, at L 3 image quality (Large, Least Compression), only 65 images can be saved in a 512MB SD Memory Card. We recomend that you purchase either a 2GB or 4GB SD Memory Card, depending on the number of images you normally shoot in one session.

Panasonic L1 Back View

If the front and top of the camera seem like a serene Zen Garden, then first impressions of the back of the Panasonic L1 is that it is positively bristling with controls. They are fortunately all logically laid out and you will find using them straightforward.

Live View LCD

The Live View LCD is a great feature on a digital SLR and is exclusive to Olympus E-330/Panasonic L1. If you are moving up from a non-dSLR digital camera, you will feel right at home. The LCD provides 100% frame coverage and can display a live histogram or framing guide lines, will even magnify the view for MF-assisted focusing, and provides depth of field preview.

With Live View enabled, the mirror is up and the viewfinder is blackened. This means that the light meter, which is up there in the viewfinder housing, cannot meter the scene. A half-press of the shutter button will meter the scene but it does so in an arkward manner: the mirror flips down to allow metering to take place, then flips back up again to restore Live View.

Then when you fully press the shutter, you hear not one, but two, shutter sounds! We explain the intricacies of how all this works in our User's Experience section.

Unfortunately, all this mirror down and up movements introduce approx. 1 sec. shutter lag to take a picture with Live View. [No practical shutter lag when using the viewfinder.] So, using the Live View LCD, candids are out, landscape is in.

Viewfinder

The viewfinder is very good with a good rubber eyepiece. I can see the whole frame with glasses on. Though the viewfinder is darker and the view is smaller than on other digital SLRs, coming from using the tiny tunnel-like viewfinders on non-dSLR cameras, I did not find this to be a problem at all.

Blocking Unwanted Stray Light

Eyecap in place Eyecap removed
(Note Eyepiece cap attached to neck strap)
Eyepiece cap in place

There is a nice Eyecap around the viewfinder. It is removable and an Eyepiece cap (already in place on the Neck Strap) can be snapped in instead to block off all unwanted stray light that might seep through the viewfinder. To be able to use the Eyepiece cap, you need to make sure that when you attach the Neck Strap, the Eyepiece cap is near the viewfinder (i.e. on the left, viewed from the back).

When do you need to use the Eyepiece cap? According to the Panasonic manual, anytime you remove your eye from the viewfinder, such as when using Live View and the self-timer. Since Live View is one important reason why consumers are buying this camera, that's going to be very frequent. Unfortunately when you remove the Eyecap, there is a good chance you'll lose it, so here is the model #: VGQ8865. I wish Panasonic had come up with a better implementation of this, such as an internal baffle that seals off the viewfinder automatically when the Live View button is pressed to turn on Live View.

There is an easy-to-rotate diopter control knob on the left side of the eyepiece.

Four control buttons are found on the left of the LCD monitor: White Balance, ISO, Flash and Flash Compensation.

Push one in with your left thumb and rotate the Command Dial with your right thumb to make a selection.

WB=AUTO, Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Halogen, Flash, White Set 1, White Set 2, K Color Temperature Setting.

When you select AUTO, there is an IR Sensor on the front of the camera which will decide on the best WB setting.

ISO=AUTO, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600

Flash=AUTO, Auto/Red-Eye Reduction, Forced On, Forced On/Red-Eye Reduction, Slow Sync., Slow Sync./Red-Eye Reduction

Flash Compensation=+/-2 EV, in 1/3EV increments

 

 

 

The controls button above the LCD monitor are [from right to left]: Power Switch, AFL/AEL button, Focus Mode Lever, Flash Open, Live View.

Where is the Power ON/OFF Switch? Camera designers seem to have an itch to continually redesign and reposition the Power Switch. On the Panasonic L1, it is a knob with a lever that you flick on and off using your thumb. It works very well and is in a convenient position though I doubt most photographers need the Power Switch continually under their thumb.

The AFL/AEL button will lock the focus, exposure or both, depending on what you set in the MENU.

Focus Mode can be Single, Continuous or Manual. Set to Manual, you then use the wonderful Manual Focus Ring to focus quickly. If you use the LCD to do manual focus, you can also set and use MF Assist at 4x or 10x magnification. Just focus, press the LEFT ARROW or RIGHT ARROW to select the area you want to magnify, press MENU/SET to magnify the screen, then rotate the focus ring to set the focus precisely. It works very well.

Flash Button opens the flash, as described above, in 2 steps.

Live View turns the LCD on for live viewing.

On the right side of the LCD are the Playback, Display, Depth of Field Preview and Delete buttons.

Display options (when Live View LCD is used) are No display, Framing Grid 3x3, Framing Grid 5x5, No info, Info Display, Info Display + Histogram.

Depth of Field Preview will stop down to selected aperture when Live View LCD is used.

Press Delete to delete picture displayed; press again to perform Multi Delete or All Delete.

The Command Dial is just to the right of and above the Playback button, and is rotated using the right thumb.

At the bottom of the camera, the tripod mount thread is metal and perfectly aligned with center of lens. There is a very nice Battery Compartment with a lever to secure it from accidentally opening. The battery also has a latch to keep it from accidentally falling. You should be able to change battery or card when the camera is on a tripod.

One neat feature I found very useful in situations where the camera may have difficulty achieving focus quickly is turning AF+MF on. What this allows you to do is use the AutoFocus as usual by a half-press of the Shutter Button then, while still holding the Shutter Button half-pressed, switch seamlessly to Manual Focus by simply turning the Manual Focus Ring to fine tune the focus. This allows for fast operation in difficult lighting situations where the camera may have some difficulty in achieving focus.

Added August 17, 2006:

One "gotcha" feature on the Panasonic L1 [it may be set ON by default -- or the previous reviewer may have set it ON] is to specify that the camera take a picture only when it deems that focus has successfully locked. In other words, if the AF does not lock, when you press the shutter button, the camera will not take the picture. It's very rare that the AF does not lock but still I believe advanced photographers may prefer to set this feature to OFF.

Dust Reduction System

One major problem with using interchangeable lenses is that taking them on and off allows dust to enter the camera body and deposit on the image sensor. Cleaning the image sensor periodically of this dust is a chore most photographers would rather not do -- IF he or she knows how to do it properly without damaging the image sensor in the first place. Well, not to worry, the Panasonic L1 has the Dust Reduction System that we first encountered in the Olympus E-300 (and E-330) that uses ultrasonic vibrations to shake the image sensor free of dust everytime you power on the camera. The dust specks accumulate on a sticky film at the bottom.

The camera powers up in about 1 sec., which is fast considering that this time includes the Dust Reduction System doing its work of cleaning the image sensor.

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1 handles superbly with intuitive controls and interface. Build quality is excellent and has a distinct feel of professionalism. It is obvious that a lot of thought and attentive care went into designing this camera. The three rings on the Leica lens (Zoom, Focus and Aperture) also contribute to the pleasure of using this camera. Analogue-like controls are very well implemented.

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