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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


Friday, July 28, 2006 - Here's what I receive in the box:

  • Lumix DMC-L1 dSLR (black body)
  • 14-50mm F2.8-3.5 Leica Lens
  • Lens Shade
  • Leather Lens Pouch
  • Shoulder Strap
  • Li-Ion Battery DMW-BL14 7.2V 1400mAh
  • Battery Charger DE-972 & Power Cord
  • AC Adapter
  • Interface Cables: A/V; USB
  • Instruction Manuals: Operating Instructions
  • Software CD: Lumix CD

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1 has an elegant body design distinctly reminiscent of the classic 35mm Leica rangefinder cameras. It achieves this look by its clean straight lines, lack of a pentaprism, and an AF-assist lamp window that seems to be just a bit bigger than is really necessary and surprisingly positioned where an optical viewfinder would be if this were a 35mm rangefinder camera. The small slant at the top right [viewed from the front] also reminds one of where a slanted rewind knob used to be on the 35mm Leica M6. All of this outward features make for a design that is refreshingly different from the traditional dSLR.

Looks aside, the Panasonic L1 also handles like a traditional analogue 35mm camera. The use of a Shutter Speed Dial on top of the camera and an Aperture Ring around the lens barrel contribute to that feeling. A survey of existing digital SLRs quickly show that none sports either.

So, is the Panasonic going backward in design when all other dSLRs has "progressed" to a combination of buttons to set shutter speed and aperture? Is this all nostalgia, and is it warranted?

As soon as I pick up the Panasonic L1, and start rotating the Shutter Speed Dial and Aperture Ring, a smile slowly forms on my face. It's sooo good to have these two important controls back the way they are intuitively supposed to be. Later, I handed the camera to a friend and, after he pressed the shutter release button, his thumb automatically went to "advance the film manually." We had a good laugh. This is just to tell you how successfully the Panasonic L1 has implemented these two controls as well as the whole overall analogue handling and feel.

The Shutter Speed Dial and the 3 rings on the Leica lens (Aperture Ring, Manual Focus Ring and Zoom Ring) all click in place precisely and give a comforting sense of control.

I thought it would be interesting to just take a slight detour and see how the close the Panasonic L1 design is to the "rangefinder" look.

Side-By-Side: Leica M6 and Panasonic L1
Leica M6 Panasonic DMC-L1
Notice the shutter speed dial, the top indentation and the angled corner

Side-By-Side: Leica Digilux 2 and Panasonic L1
Leica Digilux 2 Panasonic DMC-L1
Imagine how the L1 would look with a silver top plate, no grip, a real optical viewfinder and the red logo ;o)

Side-By-Side: Panasonic LC1 and Panasonic L1
Panasonic LC1 Panasonic DMC-L1
The LC1 body was the starting outward design point only...

Side-By-Side: Olympus E-330 and Panasonic L1
Olympus EVOLT E-330 Panasonic DMC-L1
...but the optical subsystem is shared with the Olympus E-330

Overlay: Olympus E-330 and Panasonic L1
Mouseover image to see the Olympus E-330
The Panasonic L1 has an attractive "rangefinder" look

By getting rid of the telltale traditional SLR pentaprism and replacing it with a series of mirrors (including a sideways swinging main mirror) to reflect the light coming thru the lens to the side, then up and finally back thru the eyepiece, the result is a flat top unlike any dSLR out there. In fact, the Panasonic L1 does not look like a dSLR at all. Only its size, professional look and large lens indicates it is perhaps a dSLR. One tourist at the Royal Ontario Museum where I went to take some low-light indoors pictures stopped in his track when he saw me taking pictures and chatted to inquire what kind of camera it was and whether it was a dSLR.

Though the Panasonic L1 and the Olympus E-330 share many similar features, there are some interesting differences between the two that are worth noting:

  • Panasonic has opted to use the Secure Digital memory card (as it does on its other digital cameras) while the Olympus E-330 accepts the xD-Picture Card and Compact Flash (CF) Type II cards; both can accept SDHC 2GB+ memory cards.
  • The Panasonic L1 supports USB 2.0 High Speed whereas the Olympus E-330 supports the much slower USB 1.1 (also known in Marketing parlance as USB 2.0 Full Speed);
  • The Olympus E-330's LCD (215,250 pixels) can tilt whereas Panasonic has opted for a fixed LCD (207.000 pixels);
  • the Olympus E-330 Live View has 2 modes: 'A' mode uses a smaller secondary image sensor in the viewfinder housing to provide Live View (viewfinder still available but recommended to be closed), and 'B' mode which relies on the main sensor for Live View (mirror up and so viewfinder blanked out). Panasonic has only a single Live View which is similar to the E-330 'B' mode, except that the effect of WB and Exposure Compensation is visible on the Panasonic L1 Live View LCD monitor.

How Live View Works

There is quite a bit of mirror flipping down and up when Live View is enabled and this can be outright confusing at first. So, perhaps an understanding of how Live View works on the Panasonic L1 is appropriate.

When you are using the viewfinder, the mirror is in the "down" position and reflects the light coming through the lens "up" to the viewfinder housing and out the eyepiece to your eyes. [Note: the mirror really swings sideways instead of up and down, but you know what I mean.]

The Light Meter sensor is up there in the viewfinder housing, so you have live metering of the scene.

The AF sensor is also part of the viewfinder housing so you can pre-focus.

When you enable Live View, the Panasonic L1 needs to use the Live MOS Sensor found behind the mirror to capture the scene and display it on the LCD monitor. To do so, it raises the mirror in the "up" position [and opens the shutter] to enable the light coming from the lens to reach the image sensor.

With the mirror up, a couple of things stop working:

  • light does not go through the viewfinder housing anymore and so the viewfinder is blacked out...
  • ...which also means that light cannot now reach the Light Meter sensor [remember the Light Meter sensor is up there in the viewfinder housing] -- and so, live metering of the scene is not possible;
  • and, you cannot autofocus because the AF sensor is also in the viewfinder housing.

Unless, that is, the mirror is flipped down temporarily to permit all the above and up again! Which is what actually happens.

When you half-press the Shutter Button to autofocus and meter the scene, the mirror [which is in the up position to permit Live View] flips down to permit focusing and scene metering [since the AF sensor and Light Meter are up there in the viewfinder assembly]; it stays down as long as focus has not been achieved [metering is much faster]; and, once focus has been achieved, it goes up again to permit Live View. This is why Continuous Focusing is not possible with Live View.

Note that when the mirror flips down to permit focusing, the display on the LCD freezes momentarily for as long as the mirror is down [fraction of a second to a couple of seconds, depending on subject matter]. This is in contrast to when a picture is actually taken when the LCD view is temporarily blackened.

If you now fully press the Shutter Button and then release it, you hear the shutter sound that seems to indicate a picture has been taken. But it isn't, not yet. It's just the mirror doing its down-up dance to permit metering and autofocusing. I was caught a number of times this way at first with no pictures to show.

And here is the confusing part: while there is only one shutter sound when you use the viewfinder [mirror goes up, shutter opens and closes to take the picture, mirror falls down again to permit viewing through the viewfinder], you hear the shutter sound twice when you use the Live View LCD.

Panasonic's explanation is that "the first shutter sound is heard when the shutter returns to the position before a picture is taken and the second shutter is heard when the picture is actually taken."

Since the "shutter sound" is really a combination of the mirror going up and down and shutter opening and closing [with the mirror sound much louder than the shutter's and so the mirror going up and down is what we actually hear], here is what I believe happens (shutter is already half-pressed):

Viewfinder Mode:

  • Mirror is in down position, shutter is closed
  • When you fully press the shutter button to take the picture, mirror flips up, shutter opens and closes, mirror flips down. This flapping of the mirror going up and down is the one "shutter sound" that you hear.

Live View Mode:

  • With Live View enabled, the mirror is in the up position and the shutter is opened.
  • When you fully press the shutter button to take the picture, the shutter closes, the mirror flips down (to permit metering and autofocusing). [That's half of the first shutter sound and camera is now in the regular or Viewfinder Mode.]
  • The mirror flips up [other half of the first shutter sound], shutter opens and closes, mirror flips down [half of the second shutter sound].
  • To restore Live View, the shutter opens up again and the mirror flips back into the up position [other half of the second shutter sound].

For me, the sure way to know a picture has been recorded is when the view (either in the viewfinder or on the Live View LCD monitor) is temporarily darkened [c.f. when focusing and metering in Live View, the LCD view is temporarily frozen]. It's a good idea to use Playback or Auto Review to ensure your picture is recorded.

All this mirror flipping introduces a nasty approx. 1 sec. delay when taking pictures in Live View Mode. This delay is longer dependng on how fast [or slow] focus is achieved. This is OK when taking pictures of subjects and scenes that do not move, such as landscapes, but candids are out.

[Just thinking that one solution to avoiding all that mirror flapping is perhaps to introduce a second light meter behind the main mirror (with a second partially silvered mirror to reflect part of the light to the second light meter). With the main mirror up, you'd still be able to meter the scene without bringing the main mirror down to do that. What about AF? Forget AF and use the excellent manual focus!]

The Panasonic L1 has superb handling
The Panasonic L1 has superb handling

Image quality is excellent with good detail and very low noise from ISO 100 to ISO 400, and even ISO 800 is not much of a problem. Noise is visible at ISO 1600 and seems to be more acceptable on some subject matter than others. Certainly, one of the major reason for moving from a prosumer model to a dSLR is to take advantage of the low noise characteristics of the large image sensors in the dSLRs, and in that the new Panasonic Live MOS image sensor succeeds very well.

One of the weak point in the whole package has to be the bundled software: the LUMIX Simple Viewer is just good enough for image transfer and PHOTOfunSTUDIO -viewer- is also quite basic. None displays the full EXIF info for an image. SILKYPIX® Developer Studio 2.0 lets you develop RAW data files but I will leave the review of this software to those who use RAW a lot.

The IR Sensor (for WB determination) and AF-assist lamp can be easily blocked by your fingers if you are not careful.

The Lumix DMC-L1 is only the first digital SLR built by Panasonic and, for a company that has never built a SLR before, the L1 is a notable achievement. With this introduction, Panasonic is putting other digital SLR camera manufacturers on notice that it does not intend to just play catch-up. It seems to have a strategy, the technical know-how and expertise, and, perhaps more importantly, the enthusiasm to redefine this digital market segment, and it has an excellent product to show for it.

Improvement suggestions:

  • This improvement suggestion is not so much levelled at the Panasonic L1 as it is towards the Four Thirds System in general. The Four Thirds System promised smaller and lighter camera bodies and lenses, and so far has not delivered on that promise. I don't know whether the specifications as currently specified is the problem because I'm sure that the Panasonic engineers can build a smaller digital SLR. The "rangefinder" design simply begs for a more compact form.
  • At 490g, the LEICA D VARIO-ELMARIT 14-50mm/F2.8-3.5 ASPH is heavy. Granted, it is wide-angle, has a fast F2.8 max. aperture, and includes an optical image stabilizer, but it is heavy. Panasonic may have to think about whether it wants to provide O.I.S. in every lens built for this dSLR. Perhaps O.I.S. should be reserved for long telephotos and zoom lenses.
  • Live View is a great feature on a dSLR but the shutter lag means that it can only be used for pretty much static subjects and scenes. Panasonic should incorporate non-dSLR design so that when Live View is enabled, the Panasonic L1 works more or less as a non-dSLR camera, i.e. bypass the mirror mechanism [which implies keeping that mirror locked in the "up" position, introducing a second light meter sensor, etc.].

If you are thinking of moving up to a digital SLR, or are keen to return to enjoying a dSLR with excellent analogue handling and feel, then be sure to try out the Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1. With Live View LCD, optical image stabilization in the lens, built-in bounce flash, built-in dust reduction system, and excellent image quality, you may find that photography is intuitive and fun again.

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