We’ve seen something of a renaissance in advanced compact digital cameras over the last year. These cameras are reasonably compact and are much easier to carry than a DSLR with interchangeable lenses. However, as the prices for DSLRs continued to drop, the "prosumer" compact category started to vanish. Thankfully, serious photographers who demand a full-featured compact have more options today. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 is Panasonic’s latest entry in the advanced compact category, and it packs some impressive features that grabbed our attention.
The LX3 features retro styling that reminds me of my old Olympus C-5050 or my even older Canon G-III QL17 film rangefinder. Unlike old "prosumer" cameras like the C-5050, the LX3 remains impressively compact while still maintaining a solid set of automatic and manual controls and a hot shoe flash packed inside a metal alloy body.
As a major update to the Panasonic DMC-LX2, the DMC-LX3 adds a modified body, new lens, comparable resolution and a convenient hot shoe flash for additional creative control. Panasonic clearly took note that LX2 owners criticized that camera’s lack of a hot shoe and often mentioned the desire for a faster lens that offers brighter apertures. In fact, on paper it’s easy to think the LX3 is the perfect compact camera for advanced amateur photographers.
One of the principal changes in the LX3 is the move to a 10.1 megapixel, 1/1.63-inch CCD image sensor. Sitting in front of this is the all-new wide-angle 2.5x optically stabilized zoom lens that offers a 24-60mm (35mm equivalent) zoom range. A true advanced point-and-shoot, the LX3 is armed with a full range of manual exposure modes in addition to numerous auto shooting features.
The Lumix LX3's basic shooting modes are as follows:
Video options with the LX3 are both plentiful and impressive. Users can record video clips (with audio) in 16:9 aspect ratio at 1280x720 at 24fps, 848x480 at 30 fps, and in 4:3 aspect ratio at 640x480 or 320 x 240 at 30 fps with duration limited only by the capacity of the installed SD/MMC card. The LX3 also provides a voice notation mode that allows users to add audio notes (5 seconds) to their still image files.
For a detailed listing of specifications and features, please refer to the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.
FORM, FIT, AND FEEL
Styling and Build Quality
The LX3 is a compact and elegantly understated point-and-shoot digicam with a retro-looking metal alloy body that’s available in either silver or black.
The metal case is well made, and overall the newest Lumix models have exceptional build quality in the upper tier of current camera makers.
The plastic battery door and port cover feel a little less rugged, but not too bad. The mode dial has nice, satisfying clicks at each mode setting and the shutter button has excellent feedback with a distinct half-press and full press. The zoom controller located around the shutter button allows for rapid zooming from wide angle to telephoto and back.
Ergonomics and Interface
All controls are logically placed and all camera functions are easily accessed and operation quickly becomes intuitive. The LX3 is a great choice for anyone who wants a camera that can be taken along everywhere and used in just about any environment (except underwater). In hand, the LX3 is light-weight and well balanced, making it a joy to use.
The control layout is well thought out and extremely capable. Experienced photographers will have no problem using the LX3 right out of the box and beginners should be able to shoot consistently decent images after a quick scan through the user’s manual.
My only minor complaint regarding ergonomics is the use of a hard plastic insert on the camera’s grip. The LX3 would be much more comfortable to hold over a long period of time if Panasonic used a piece of soft rubber on the grip rather than hard plastic.
The LX3 doesn’t provide a built-in optical viewfinder, although Panasonic does sell an optional accessory viewfinder that fits on the camera’s hot shoe. Most LX3 users will be happy to rely on the 3.0 inch polycrystalline TFT LCD screen for all framing and composition chores. The hi-res (460,000 dots) LCD screen is bright, sharp, hue accurate, fluid (fast refresh rate), and the display gains up (automatically brightens) in dim lighting – users can also manually boost LCD screen brightness. The LCD screen shows almost 100 percent of the image frame and is usable in bright outdoor lighting. The LX3 also provides a live histogram display in shooting mode and a static histogram display in playback mode.
One odd quirk we experienced with the screen on the LX3 was a phenomenon we first discovered during our review of the TZ5. As we noticed with that camera, we repeatedly experienced an issue when using high ISO wherein the LCD screen on the LX3 either completely whites out when attempting to compose extremely bright (i.e. toward the sun) scenes, or the screen displays strange lines when composing scenes with strong hotspots.
It's difficult to tell whether the issue in this case is related display overload or sensor overload. In either case, it’s a problem we’ve seen on and off with Panasonic cameras. While this isn’t a serious problem, it did make composing some night scenes difficult because if you take an image of a building at night using high ISO any bright light creates a bright line on the screen making it hard to see what you’re shooting.
Timings and Shutter Lag
Although compact digital cameras are much easier to carry than a DSLR, every compact camera we have reviewed suffers from longer shutter and AF lag compared to DSLRs. While the LX3 certainly makes an attempt to rival the speeds of a high-performance DSLR, lag times were rather low in almost all categories.
When pre-focused, shutter lag (the time it takes for an image to be captured after you press the shutter button) is a rather average 0.08 seconds. Autofocus lag was a little less than impressive, as the LX3 takes 0.7 seconds to acquire autofocus in the multi-area autofocus mode. A much better 0.46 seconds for focus lock and capture can be realized in the high-speed center focus mode, however.
Continuous shooting performance again proved to be extremely impressive. The LX3 is capable of capturing four full-resolution JPEG images at 3.1 frames per second in "high speed" continuous mode. In "unlimited" continuous mode you can capture images at 2.1 fps until the memory card if full. The LX3 slows down if you switch the camera over to raw mode, as the LX3 captures three raw images at 2.3 fps in "high speed" mode. Interestingly, you can set the LX3 to capture raw images in the "unlimited" burst mode, but the camera still captures only three frames at a slower 1.7 fps.
If the LX3 has a speed weakness, it’s the rather disappointing lag between the initial power-on to the first shot being taken. Power-on to first shot was an average of 2.8 seconds: not horrible for compact camera, but slower than average for advanced point-and-shoots.
Lens and Zoom
Unlike its predecessor, the LX3 features an all new 24-60mm f/2.0-2.8 all-glass Leica DC Vario-Elmarit (CORRECTION: the lens is badged as a Vario-Summicron; thanks, Bryan) zoom lens. Unlike the vast majority of compact/ultra-compact digicams, the lens doesn’t retract fully when not in use – which makes the camera a bit thicker (and slightly less pocketable) than most of its competition. The LX3’s 24mm starting point provides users with a little extra width for those impressive landscapes and for shooting tight interiors.
The 2.5x zoom lens only offers a 24-60mm zoom range, so shutterbugs have to "zoom with their feet" if they want to get close to the subject.
The LX3 utilizes a 9 point contrast detection AF system. The camera’s CPU analyzes what’s in front of the camera and decides which of the 9 AF points is closest to the primary subject (closest subject priority) and then locks focus on that AF point. Users can also opt for 1 AF point, 1 AF point (high speed), 3 AF point (high speed), and Spot (center) AF.
In multi-area mode, users can select a specific AF point with the joystick. There’s also an AF assist beam for quicker and more accurate focusing in dim/low light. The Continuous AF mode, which constantly searches for correct focus, can sometimes deliver quicker performance, but it uses more battery power.
A slider switch on the side of the lens barrel allows the photographer to shift between auto focus, manual focus, and macro mode. Closest focusing distance (in macro mode) is about 1 centimeter at the wide-angle end of the zoom.
Move the slider switch on the lens to the Manual Focus position and the center of the LCD is magnified and a distance scale appears on the right side of the screen so focus can be adjusted precisely (using the joystick).
The LX3’s built-in multi mode pop-up flash is activated by a slider switch on the top of the camera which instantly deploys the flash with a satisfying click.
The flash features several modes: Auto (fires when needed), On (fill flash), Red-Eye Reduction, Slow Synchro, and Off. Panasonic claims the maximum range is about 13.5 feet (4.1 meters), but realistically anything beyond 10 feet is going to be fairly dark unless you’re simply using the flash for fill flash in a bright outdoor situation. Flash coverage is good at normal distances but is slightly uneven for tight macro/close-up shooting.
Panasonic’s Mega O.I.S. (optical image stabilization) system works by shifting internal lens elements to compensate for camera shake/movement during exposure. Image stabilization allows you to shoot at shutter speeds up to three f-stops slower than would be possible without image stabilization. For example, if a shutter speed of 1/240th of a second is required to avoid the effects of camera shake (without image stabilization) the LX3 can capture a sharp image of the same subject (everything else being equal) at 1/30th of a second—that’s a great feature for photographers who like to shoot images using available light rather than flash.
The LX3’s Image Stabilization has two modes: in Mode 1 (continuous IS) the LCD screen can be used for stabilization confirmation. In Mode 2, image stabilization engages only prior to exposure, which is more effective and uses much less battery power. Does the LX3’s IS system work? Yes, but image stabilization only compensates for camera movement and not subject movement. In other words, if you’re taking a photograph of a moving subject (such as a child running) the image will still be blurry if your shutter speed isn’t fast enough.
LX3 users also have the option to turn IS off. Although you should keep in mind that using IS (especially in the continuous IS mode) will shorten battery life, the LX3 manages to last for several hundred exposures with IS turned on.
The LX3 is powered by a Panasonic CGA-S005A (3.7 V 1150 mAh) lithium-ion rechargeable battery. Panasonic claims the LX3 manages power better than its predecessor, and the LX3 with a fully charged battery managed to capture more than 250 images before the three-bar battery indicator dropped to two bars.
I didn’t have any problems with running out of power in the middle of a shoot – however average battery life is actually dependent on shooting style (light or heavy flash use, frequent or rare review of images on the LCD, continuous IS or shutter IS, etc.). The included charger needs about 120 minutes to fully charge the battery.
Like all point-and-shoot digicams, the LX3 has difficulty exploiting the complete range of tones (from pure black to pure white), especially in brightly lit high-contrast scenes. This dynamic range problem causes some minor but noticeable loss of shadow and highlight detail. The LX3’s very high default contrast (and aggressive default sharpening) makes the dynamic range shortcomings a little more obvious in high-contrast situations. Most enthusiast photographers will set the contrast to a lower level and adjust sharpening, or simply shoot in raw mode to fine tune images in post processing.
Exposure, Processing, and Color
Default exposure was extremely accurate both indoors and out. In terms of exposure, images tend to be printable straight out of the camera. In all scene modes, the camera's Venus Engine IV processor automatically optimizes all exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed, white balance, sensitivity, etc.) for the specific image type selected. The Auto (Auto, Program, and Scene) modes deliver dependably accurate exposures in virtually all outdoor lighting. Exposure accuracy in the camera’s Manual Exposure (Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual) modes is primarily dependent on the skill of the photographer.
The LX3 packs a "Film Simulation" system that provides, in effective, the typical range of color processing options found in most digital cameras. Colors in the Nostalgic mode are bright, hue accurate, and near neutral (as opposed to the often garish over-saturation displayed by many point-and-shoot digicams), but native contrast is slightly hard. Unfortunately, the Standard color mode and Vivid color modes consistently produced heavily oversaturated and unnatural colors. In the sample images below you can see a test shot of my hand using Nostalgic and Standard color modes. Although there is a very slight warm color cast from the incandescent light in the room in both shots, the Nostalgic mode comes closest to reproducing accurate color in the scene. In contrast, the image taken in Standard color mode produced unnaturally strong reds making my skin look more pink than normal. I didn’t include a sample image taken in Vivid mode because my skin looks so red you might think I have a rash.
Standard color mode
Nostalgic film mode
Bottom line, the only time we produced consistently accurate colors with the LX3 was with the camera was set to Nostalgic mode.
In addition to Standard, Vivid, and Nostalgic film modes, the LX3 provides Smooth, Nature, and Dynamic color shooting settings, as well as three very different black and white rendering options.
Standard Black and White
Dynamic Black and White
Smooth Black and White
Overall, there are almost too many processing options here, and given the difficulties experienced in getting accurate colors with any of them, it's almost simpler to just shoot raw instead.
The LX3 has rather average auto white balance performance compared to most compact cameras. In other words, white balance performs quite poorly under incandescent light but it isn’t unusable or completely unsalvageable with post-processing.
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light
As you can see in the image above, the camera has trouble neutralizing the warming effects of incandescent light. Of course, the standard range of presets, including two custom set modes, is available as needed.
The LX3’s Leica zoom exhibits slight barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range, some very minor softness in the corners, and no visible pincushioning (straight lines bow in toward the center) at full telephoto. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is well below average.
Sensitivity and Noise
The LX3 provides a broad range of sensitivity settings, including auto, and user selectable settings for ISO 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, and 3200, plus the High Sensitivity Scene Mode (ISO 6400). The LX3’s Intelligent ISO Control option detects subject movement and automatically shifts sensitivity and shutter speed upward to freeze action.
Noise is present, but well controlled at the lowest sensitivity settings. An 8x10 print of an image shot at ISO 100 or 200 shouldn’t be a problem in terms of noise. At higher sensitivity settings (ISO 400 and up) noise is noticeably above average and the in-camera image processing uses noise reduction methods that smear fine details in order to eliminate the worst noise.
ISO 80, 100% crop
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO 3200, 100% crop
The fact that the LX3 starts to show some obvious detail loss at ISO 800 and above is perfectly understandable for such a small image sensor. The 1/1.63-inch image sensor inside the LX3 packs 10 million pixels worth of resolution into a very small space. In fact, I’ve seen many online discussion forums where people claim that older digital cameras with larger image sensors and less resolution are capable of producing some very competitive images. To test that theory I took a quick side-by side image with my old Olympus C-5050 and the Panasonic LX3. Although the LX3 produced a larger image, the C-5050 captured about as much detail.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3
Overall, it’s hard to complain too much about the ISO performance of the LX3 for such a compact camera. Also, if you’re resizing your images for web viewing it’s hard to tell the difference between lower and higher sensitivities.
It takes view sizes approaching 100 percent in this case to really begin to pick out the differences.
Additional Sample Images
As we've seen across the entire range of Panasonic cameras, each generation of cameras in the Lumix lineup seems to provide clear improvements in resolution, screen quality, lens performance, and image processing, all while keeping these upgrades within the same MSRP as the previous generation. At a street price of $500 or less, the LX3 provides solid performance and capability, but comes dangerously close to the price of entry level DSLRs. With its nice 24mm wide angle lens, 10 megapixel resolution and range of controls, the LX3 really does come close to being a budget digital rangefinder (anyone looking for a low-priced Leica M8?). However, slower-than-expected auto focus in certain modes, high-ISO noise, oversaturated default colors, and an LCD that suffers from odd issues with bright lights made this camera fall short of my expectations.
The final word in my mind is that while the LX3 outperforms many other compact cameras, it isn't perfect. Most consumers are likely to find the cheaper point-and-shoot cameras, or even low-priced used DSLRs more appealing choices. Still, the LX3 is a solid little camera with a great deal of photographic potential.
|Sensor||10.1 megapixels, 1/1.63" CCD|
|Lens/Zoom||2.5x (24-60mm) Leica DC Vario-Summicron, f/2.0-2.8|
|LCD/Viewfinder||3.0", 460K dot 3:2 Polycrystalline TFT LCD Display
|Shutter Speed||60-1/2000 seconds|
|Shooting Modes||Intelligent AUTO, Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority,
Manual, Motion Picture, 2 Custom Modes, Scene
|Scene Presets||Portrait, Soft Skin, Self-Portrait, Scenery, Sports, Night Portrait, Night Scenery, Food, Party, Candle Light, Baby1, Baby2, Pet, Sunset, High sensitivity, Starry Sky, Fireworks, Beach, Snow, Aerial photo, Hi-Speed Burst, Flash-Burst, Film Grain, Pin Hole
|White Balance Settings||Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Flash, Halogen, Color Temperature, White Set 1, White Set 2|
|Metering Modes||Intelligent Multiple, Center-Weighted, Spot
|Focus Modes||Face, AF tracking, multi-area, 1-area high speed, 1-area, spot
|Drive Modes||Single, Burst, High-speed Burst|
|Flash Modes||Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Forced On, Slow Sync/Red-Eye Reduction, Forced Off
|Self Timer Settings
||10 seconds, 2 seconds, Off
|Memory Formats||SD, SDHC, MultiMediaCard
|File Formats||JPEG, RAW, Motion JPEG|
|Max. Image Size||3648x2736|
|Max. Video Size
||1280x720, 24 fps
|Zoom During Video||Yes
|Battery||Rechargeable 1150 mAh lithium-ion, 380 shots|
|Connections||USB 2.0, AV output, HD AV output, DC input|
|Additional Features||Mega OIS Image Stabilization, Venus Engine IV processor, Intelligent ISO, Intelligent Scene Selector, film modes, AF Tracking, Multi Aspect mode|