After attending a press briefing in New York last week on Panasonic's fall releases, I had the opportunity to take the new Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 out for a few hours of shooting from the deck of a boat cruising the East River.
Physically, the LX3 strays little from the formula set forth in the LX2, though the changes it does make, while subtle, are significant just the same. Most notably, the camera adds a hot shoe – a boon for serious shooters with accessory illumination aspirations. Likewise, a slightly redesigned body takes the LX3 more in the stylistic direction of cameras from Panasonic's optical partner, Leica. The all-black version with its all-metal case looks and feels fantastic: there's no mistaking this for anything but a serious camera.
Ergonomics are excellent, balance is great, and the menu is familiar. The LX2's physical switches for focus mode and aspect ratio also return – a nice touch for making quick adjustments on the fly.
Out back, I was a bit surprised to note that the layout is essentially identical to the LX2, joystick and all. While the joystick arrangement – used to make adjustments to shutter speed and aperture in manual modes as well as to navigate the menus – works vastly better than the manual control arrangements on most non-DSLRs, with the LX3 generally moving in a more performance-focused direction where its physical layout is concerned, I halfway expected to find a dial for making exposure adjustments instead. In fact, the lack of a control wheel may be all that separates the LX3 from interface perfection.
I rarely use in-camera processing options generally, and especially black and white options, preferring instead to shoot a neutral color image and handle processing later. But the LX3's film modes may make me a believer yet. The color modes are nice enough, but I was even more impressed by the camera's multiple monochrome options: if default black and white was a little watery for my taste, the higher contrast setting produced a look that I like a lot.
The LX3's shots in this mode are contrasty with deep black, like a good print from a roll of Tri-X.
Likewise, an interesting "Nostalgia" color mode duplicates the muted look of some vintage and instant-print films.
Obviously, Panasonic's decision to roll out a high-end Leica f/2.0 lens for this application should sit well with serious shooters. Limited telephoto range makes shooting with the LX3 a different experience from what most higher-end compacts offer: trading reach for image quality, the Summicron-badged glass proves to be impressively sharp, especially when stopped down.
Likewise, the camera's wide-angle coverage is nothing short of fantastic (and can be made even better with an accessory lens). There's some fairly obvious barrel distortion at 24mm, but otherwise initial impressions suggest there's little to complain about – sharpness is up to expectations, vignetting doesn't appear to be a problem, and flare is tightly controlled enough to allow for the kinds of intentionally flared-out captures usually best reserved for higher-end SLR optics.
With impressive city views and bridge architecture, our East River shooting tour didn't lend itself particularly well to testing the Leica lens's most impressive feature – its f/2.0 aperture at wide-angle. Likewise, I opted to stay away from the higher sensitivity settings for the time being: we'll make a thorough analysis of both noise and optical performance when we get our review unit in house and can put it through its paces in the studio. We have to have a few cliff-hangers for the full review, after all!
Panasonic spent a lot of time at the LX3 press briefing hyping the new camera's dynamic range. While I'll need more time with the camera to make any final pronouncements, after reviewing my shots from the day with the latest Lumix, I'm impressed by how well the camera controls highlight clipping, especially: working with standard highlight control underexposure of 1/3 to 1 EV, most of my shots came out clearly underexposed, even on the highlight end of the spectrum.
Typical compensation for highlight control in this high-contrast situation resulted in a shot that's clearly underexposed. As it turns out, there was plenty of room left to work with on the highlight side of the spectrum had I simply trusted the camera's multi-area metering to do its thing.
From all indications, then, the LX3 meters the sensor quite well, preserving highlights without the need for much if any negative exposure compensation – even in high-contrast situations.
The above shot shows off the LX3 at work with a tough subject. Although a touch of information is lost in the extreme left-hand corner of the sky, the overall range of the capture is impressive, even DSLR-like. Overall, those who've worked with small-sensor compacts will understand what a big deal this kind of range and metering accuracy is.
In summing up the LX3, Panasonic also talked a lot about pride during the briefing – about building a camera that serious users will be proud to carry. With refinements to the LX2 formula, an exciting new sensor, and a simply phenomenal lens, it seems they've done that already, regardless of how the LX3's overall performance pans out.
In the same vein, there was a lot of talk about focusing on basic photographic competencies in this latest release, rather than the latest gadgetry. Pretty heady stuff from an electronics giant with a bit of a bad reputation for putting technological "whiz-bang" above fundamental performance at times. I'm cautiously optimistic about how the LX3 will stack up in a final analysis; certainly initial impressions are overwhelmingly positive. Beyond this, though, if the LX3 represents a change in design ethos for the manufacturer, even more exciting things could be coming down the road from Panasonic.
Look for a full review of the Lumix LX3 on this site next month.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Please be aware that the shots from our LX3 First Thoughts piece are from a pre-production unit and do not necessarily represent production-version image quality.