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Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1 Digital Camera Review
by Ben Stafford -  11/27/2006

The 7.5 megapixel Lumix DMC-L1 is Panasonic’s first digital SLR  The camera uses a Four Thirds lens mount, as seen on Olympus’ digital SLRs.  The 7.5 megapixel Live MOS sensor that is used in the L1 has also been seen on the Olympus E-330.  Like the Olympus, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1 has a “Live View” mode that allows image preview on the LCD and the Supersonic Wave Filter dust-reduction system.  The L1 also ships with a very nice Leica lens (Leica D Vario Elmarit 14-50mm/f2.8-3.5).

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In the Box 

In the box from Panasonic, you’ll find the camera body and Leica lens.  Also, you’ll find the rechargeable lithium-ion battery, battery charger with cord, DC cable, AV cable, USB cable, neck strap, eyepiece cap, body cap, lens hood, lens cap, lens rear cap, lens storage bag, and a CD-ROM of software.  Also included is a set of printed operating instructions.

Camera Design 

Part of the buzz surrounding the L1 is its “retro” styling.  The camera is very blocky, heavy, and sturdy.  The shutter speed dial on the top of the camera and the manual aperture ring, zoom ring, and focus ring really give a nice “mechanical” feel to this digital camera.  The camera body is pretty thick from front to back and it’s mostly covered with a texturized rubber coating that provides a good grip.

On the front of the camera, you can see the focus assist lamp (on the top right).  On the top left, in front of the shutter speed dial, is the IR sensor.  The lens release button is on the bottom right.

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The back of the camera, since it’s a digital SLR, has a whole slew of “dedicated” buttons to access the various shooting settings.  Starting at the top left, you’ll see the viewfinder, with diopter adjustment.  Moving down the left side of the LCD, you’ll see the white balance button, ISO button, flash mode button, and flash exposure compensation button.  Moving right from the viewfinder, you’ll see the Live View button, a button to open the built-in flash and dial to select the focus type with a button to lock exposure or focus.  Heading down the right side of the LCD, you’ll see the playback button, display button, depth of field preview button and delete button.  The power switch is at the top right of the back of the camera, and you’ll see a command dial and 5-way control pad for menu navigation.

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The top of the camera has a hot shoe for an external flash, the built-in flash, and shutter speed dial with shutter release button.  Around the bottom of the shutter speed dial, there are two levers, one that adjusts the metering mode and one that adjusts the “drive” mode.  Two “function” buttons can be customized to access other settings, like exposure compensation, film mode, burst rate, capture resolution, etc.

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The bottom of the camera has a tripod mount and battery compartment.

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The SD card slot is accessible on the right side of the camera.

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The left side of the camera has a door that covers the AV out jack and USB jack.

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Camera Features

When shooting with this camera, there are several resolutions, aspect ratios, and compression settings that you can use.  With a 4:3 aspect ratio, there are three resolutions: 3136x2352 (L), 2560x1920 (M), and 2048x1536 (S).  At 3:2 aspect ratio, you can shoot at: 3136x2080 (L), 2560x1712 (M), and 2048x1360 (S).  Finally, with a 16:9 aspect ratio, there are two settings: 3136x1760 (L) and 1920x1080 (S).  At each resolution/aspect ratio combination, there are three levels of compression.  If you shoot with the highest resolution, a 4:3 aspect ratio, and the lowest compression level, you can fit approximately 65 images on a 512MB memory card.  If you turn on the RAW mode, a RAW file is captured along with a JPEG.  If you do this, that same 512MB memory card will only handle 21 shots.

The included lens – the Leica D Vario Elmarit 14-50mm/f2.8-3.5 is very impressive.  The maximum aperture of f/2.8 is very fast for a “kit” lens.  The lens also features Pansonic’s MEGA OIS (optical image stabilization) system.

The 2.5 inch LCD has 207K pixels of resolution.  If you switch on the Live View mode, you can use the LCD to frame your pictures, just like a point & shoot.  If you’d rather use the optical viewfinder, it offers a 95% field of view and has a diopter adjustment.  When in Live View mode, the mirror that provides the view to the optical viewfinder is locked up, so you can’t use Live View simultaneously with the optical viewfinder.

The L1 accepts SD, SDHC, and MultiMediaCard (MMC) media.

The camera is powered by a 7.2v 1500 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery.  If you want, you can also use the included DC power supply that has an adapter that plugs into the battery compartment.  According to Panasonic, battery life is approximately 450 pictures (according to CIPA standard).  Charging time for the battery is about 130 minutes.

The included Leica lens can focus as close as 0.95 feet.  The focus assist lamp helps out a bit in low light conditions.  The focus mode can get set to single AF (focuses at the time of the shot or at a partial press of the shutter), continuous AF (the camera attempts to focus constantly) and manual focus (use the manual focus ring on the lens to achieve focus).  The camera has 3-point AF system.  You can let the camera choose which one of the three points to use (auto) or you can choose which one of the 3 points to use.

There is a self-timer mode, that can be set to either 10 seconds or 2 seconds.  There are two “burst” modes – a high speed one that does 3 frames per second or a low speed one that does 2 frames per second.  These “drive” modes are set using one of the levers at the base of the shutter speed dial.  The other option on this lever is to access the bracketing mode that takes either 3 or 5 shots with different exposures.

The built-in pop-up flash is pretty cool since it provides a “bounce” mode of operation.  A button on the back of the camera deploys the flash.  If you press the button lightly, the flash pops up at an angle so that when it fires, it will bounce off a ceiling.  Press the flash button further and it deploys fully, pointing straight forward.

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Bounce flash mode (view large image)
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Flash fully deployed (view large image)

Camera Performance and Image Quality 

Camera performance, as expected was very good, with quick start up times, minimal shutter lag, and great shot to shot times.  The one area in which shutter lag is much higher is when you’re using the Live View mode.  The mirror starts locked up (so the image can be seen on the LCD) and when you take the shot, the mirror has to cycle twice – once to get exposure information and once to capture the image.

Camera comfort with the L1 is going to be one of those “polarizing issues”.  You’ll probably either like it, or not like it at all.  The camera is heavy and blocky, but if you use two hands, you should be ok.  The controls were laid out well, in my opinion.  My finger fell easily to the shutter release button and my thumb had easy access to the command dial.  The levers for metering mode and drive mode, and the Func 1 and Func 2 buttons, were easily accessible with my shutter finger.

Flash performance was good.  According to Panasonic, the flash range goes out to 19.7 feet when ISO is set to Auto.  Having the bounce flash feature is a very nice feature.

Auto focus performance was good, but I experienced some fairly long focus times in certain conditions.

As expected with such a nice lens, image quality was excellent.  The camera handled exposure well (just make sure you use the right metering mode: spot, center-weighted or multiple area).  In certain lighting (some indoor lighting and setting sun), I found images to be just a bit too warm, with reds and oranges over-saturated, but with just a bit of adjustment, things would be fine.

The L1 can shoot at ISO values of 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600.  At ISO 100 and 200, noise is not visible.  You can start seeing some at ISO 400 and it’s pretty noticeable at ISO 800.  ISO 1600 is very noisy and if you can avoid it, then do so.

Sample Images

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panasonic lumix dmc-l1 sample image
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panasonic lumix dmc-l1 sample image
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panasonic lumix dmc-l1 sample image
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panasonic lumix dmc-l1 sample image
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Specifications 

Conclusion

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1 is an impressive camera that, frankly, is going to have a hard time contending with the competition.  Image quality is excellent and the camera operates well.  The included “kit” lens is far and away the best kit lens that you can get, with a fast maximum aperture of f/2.8.  As far as ergonomics and styling, my opinion is that people are going to be split over whether they’re good or bad.  Personally, I enjoyed the styling since it gave a more “mechanical” feel to operating the camera.  Pushing levers and turning rings was more fun than just pressing buttons to make a menu choice.  Overall, I liked the camera, but the only purchase option is a relatively expensive kit.  I’m also not sure that the camera has enough added value to compare against similarly (and cheaper) priced kits, like the Nikon D80 and Canon EOS 30D.

Pros

Cons