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Head to Head: Nikon Coolpix P6000 vs. Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3
by David Rasnake -  10/16/2008

If you've been in the market for a compact camera at the upper end of the price and performance spectrum, you're probably up to speed on both the Nikon Coolpix P6000 and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3. These two offerings, along with Canon's recently launched G10, represent the latest offensives in a battle for consumer dollars at the heavy end of the point-and-shoot scale.

Both the Leica-inspired LX3 and Nikon's classic and rugged P6000 have generated a buzz with their striking good looks and advanced features – though neither wowed us enough on every count to make one the obvious choice. With that in mind, how to decide between these two similarly priced compacts for serious shutterbugs? That's where this month's Head to Head comparison comes in.


Sophistication and Style

Stylistically, the P6000 and the LX3 represent two different "flavors" of advanced compact camera. With the Lumix, small and light (relatively speaking, at least) are the name of the game. The camera's flatter profile makes it easy to pocket, and the squared off look invokes a rangefinder with its aesthetic cues.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3

A traditional mode dial, a hot shoe, and a fair amount of physical switchgear all further the metal-clad LX3's retro vibe. Control layout is intuitive, and balance in hand is surprisingly comfortable. There's no built-in optical viewfinder, but Panasonic sells a hot shoe mounted accessory finder that should appeal to the hipster crowd seeking a pseudo-Leica. (For that matter, for less than $50 more than the cost of an LX3, you can buy the Leica D-Lux 4 – a functional clone of the Lumix version, but with all of the branding regalia of the famed German optics maker.)

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3

The Panasonic's 3.0 inch, 460,000 dot LCD is one of those screens that makes other camera displays pale in comparison, with simply phenomenal contrast that, if anything, runs the risk of making your pictures look crisper than they actually are. This screen alone is another big (and wide) check mark in the LX3's box: even considering some slight performance weirdness in which the screen wanted to white out in bright light, the screen's sharpness and fluidity are simply superb, ranking this among the bestLCDs currently available on a compact (and better than what you'll get on many entry-level DSLRs). Considering most shooters use the LCD exclusively for shot composition on compact cameras – even when a built-in viewfinder is provided – there's no reason not to make it a good one.

The P6000 has its own brand of self-consciously retro styling, but what impresses more about this chunky pocket camera is its rugged construction. Extremely well built doesn't begin to describe theCoolpix's tightly seamed magnesium shell. Fit and finish are better here than on some DSLRs costing twice as much.

Nikon Coolpix P6000

Of course, the trade-off comes in the fact that the P6000 is both less pocketable and noticeably bulkier feeling than its Panasonic counterpart.

Nikon Coolpix P6000

On the sophistication side of the equation, flexibility is one of the P6000's selling points. I'm still smitten with the Coolpix's My Menu system, which lets you build a custom six-slot function menu for quickly accessing common adjustments like white balance and AF mode.

The P6000's built like a tank. It's hard to argue that this isn't quite possibly the most solidly constructed small camera on the market. But the LX3's no slouch in the build quality department, either, and at the end of the day, the evolution of Panasonic's LX series's rangefinder styling makes it the more attractive total package when compared to the P6000's utilitarian lines.

Advantage: Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3


Features and Specs

In designing the P6000, it seems that Nikon set out to give DSLR-savvy photographers all of the conveniences of an interchangeable lens camera in a smaller, fixed-lens body. And from a features standpoint, the Coolpix P6000 is one of the more well-equipped small cameras I've ever used. There are manual exposure modes of course: that sort of thing is old news in this class. Where the P6000 really shines is in just how well it integrates with Nikon's more advanced models in terms of usability.

The inclusion of a hot shoe and relatively unfettered Creative Lighting System flash compatibility is one of the P6000's greatest assets. If you already have current Nikon strobes, chances are they'll work seamlessly on the P6000. For a camera that's more appropriately sized for casual shooting than most DSLRs , having a hot shoe is a crucial spec on both contenders – using advanced flash techniques like bounce to make your snaps look less like mug shots will make you the king of party snapshots with either camera. But the Nikon's system integration (the ability to control multiple flashes, for instance) is cleaner, and the advantages of CLS generally – arguably the most flexible flash system currently out there – will be a big draw for some.

Advanced processing controls abound on the P6000 as well, with the camera lifting its Picture Control System technology from Nikon's DSLRs. And while we weren't entirely sold on the final-form functionality of either addition, the Coolpix does provide both a built-in GPS unit for seamless, automatic geotagging and an ethernet connection for sending your files directly to the web.

Resolution is another strong point for the P6000, with excellent optics and a raw shooting option that help to take full advantage of this camera's nearly obscene 13.5 megapixels. While neither camera may be a serious photographer's first choice for taking shots that need to take full advantage of 10-plus million pixels, the P6000 does offer appreciably more headroom than its 10.1 megapixel Panasonic rival.

The Lumix's one hope of standing up against the P6000's onslaught of features is its lens: while the Coolpix's Nikkor glass can hardly be faulted for its quality, it simply doesn't get much better than the LX3's short, wide-angle Leica lens for walk-around shooting. An f/2.0 maximum aperture – a species thought to be extinct on the compact camera planet – is a secondary point of distinction, offsetting some of what the camera gives up in terms of clean high-ISO performance with a full extra stop of speed when compared to the P6000's f/2.8 wide-angle spec.

The LX3's lens is exceptional, and this plus the addition of more film simulation modes than you can count (black and white shooters will be especially pleased with the range of options in this area) and easy multiple aspect ratio shooting may make the decision for some buyers without the need to read further. But a point by point comparison of the spec sheet reveals the P6000 – with its flash system integration, network capabilities, and built-in GPS – to the stronger contender in the features department, on paper at least.

Advantage: Nikon Coolpix P6000


Ease of Use

With the score tied one to one, we cross into the portion of our evaluation that considers the actual use experience. And at this crucial turn, things start to look a little less even. I don't want to make to much of the P6000's irritations: they're mostly just that – irritations – and not major issues. But for all that it does well from a features and performance standpoint, a lot of little quirks make the camera less appealing in the field than it looks on the shelf.

As we noted throughout in the review, Nikon has rectified the single overarching complaint against its Coolpix cameras in getting the AF system sorted, and while the P6000 wasn't a run-away winner in our speed testing, it actually bests the dragging LX3 when considering shutter lag, and stays in the hunt at least in the AF acquisition speed department. No more multiple-second times from press-to-capture with this camera.

Super-slow flash recycle times (and an annoying initial flash charge issue) hurt the P6000 here as well. On the one hand, its menus are all well sorted and easy to navigate, but issues like this make actually getting off the shot you're seeking with the Coolpix in the field a bit more challenging than first appearances might lead you to believe.

Compare this to the LX3's overall transparency, driven primarily through its easy-to-use Quick Menu, and it's easy to see why the intuitive, responsive LX3 pulls ahead in this category in our opinion. The Lumix doesn't offer Nikon's staggering range of options, but as a total package, it also comes off as a little more polished. Admittedly, some of it comes down to pure and simple personal preference, and some of it lies in a hard-to-define "x factor," but if I had both cameras to choose from and were deciding based on usability alone, you'd find the LX3 hanging around my neck more often.

Advantage: Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3


Image Quality

The P6000 offers the kind of resolution that would have been astounding in a compact even 18 months ago: 13.5 megapixels. I was concerned where this would the latest P camera's dynamic range – an issue for the last model in this series. As it turns out, the P6000 is actually generally the more responsive of these two; in spite of resolution to spare and even with post-shot dynamic range processing disabled, I had few problems controlling clipping and getting a richly textured, accurately metered scene.

Nikon Coolpix P6000
Nikon Coolpix P6000

The P6000's fantastic Nikkor glass also helps to take full advantage of this capture capability, picking up great detail that looks especially crisp after the camera's generous but not generally overbearing default sharpening is applied.

With the LX3, Panasonic chose not to imbibe in the "more megapixels" punch that has seemingly everyone else in the digital camera market – including Nikon – adding resolution in a drunken stuppor. I liked the rhetoric that I was hearing from Panasonic at the LX3 launch: rather than focus on making bigger pictures, the company promised that the replacement to the LX2 would focus on making better ones.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3

Better processing and an improved sensor design deserve some credit for expanding the LX3's dynamic range compared to its predecessor and keeping the former model's usability threatening noise at bay. That said, the images still show a fair bit more noise than even those from their high-res Nikon competitor from the sensitivity floor all the way on up. While the noise may be masked better in small prints than the Nikon's speckled luminance issues, the LX3's captures certainly aren't any cleaner than what you're getting from the P6000 – and with a considerable resolution gap that allows for fudging when downsampling, that's saying something.

Nikon Coolpix P6000
Nikon Coolpix P6000, ISO 1600, 100% crop

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, ISO 1600, 100% crop

Also, while the P6000 isn't the paragon of neutrality in terms of color reproduction, we really struggled to find appropriate settings to accurately convey colors with this camera. A red skew in several of the simulation modes leaves lighter-skinned subjects looking sunburned in portraits, and threatens channel clipping in vibrant scenes. In terms of color fidelity, we found it much easier to tune the P6000 to comport with what we were seeing.

But don't take my word for it: have a look at our full reviews for both cameras (complete with lots of sample images) and make your own call.

It's rare that I come down on the side of the camera with more resolution: as a rule, I'm a proponent of the idea that we've move far into diminishing returns territory when it comes to adding pixels to the sensors of small cameras. But even beginning from this bias, the P6000 simply takes more vibrant, hue accurate, and finely textured pictures, providing an image output that may still not rival a DSLR, but comes closer than what we saw from the Panasonic in most every respect.

Advantage: Nikon Coolpix P6000


Price and Value

If you're in the market for an advanced compact these days, you're probably already aware that you're not going to get off the hook cheap. In both cases under consideration here, expect to spend well over $400 for the foreseeable future.

In checking current prices, the slightly newer-to-market P6000 is holding out right around its $499 suggested retail price. We found a few better deals through reputable sellers with the LX3, digging up a "sure bet" low price in the $460 range and some even cheaper if you're willing to gamble on a potentially questionable internet transaction. Suffice it to say that the LX3 is pretty squarely winning the price war at the moment, but that with a little more time on the market the P6000 may well be right back in the hunt.

Advantage: Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3


Conclusions

I always like a good close fight for a Head to Head comparison, and these two definitely provide just that. While neither camera is class-dominating, both offer a lot that will make them appealing to photographers with specific needs and interests. Without buying a DSLR it doesn't get much more feature-rich than the P6000, and as a styling exercise, the LX3 is convincing as an "M8 Junior." Both cameras impressed us with their stellar optical performance, and while neither offers exceptional zoom range, the limitations imposed by short zooms lead to a composition approach that fits these cameras well: shooting in the normal perspective range with both cameras yielded some excellent results with a "prime-like" composition experience that works for an advanced camera.

At the end of the day, the differences between the P6000 and the LX3 are probably marked enough that you know which one you prefer. Styling and handling diverge fairly sharply, with the LX3 being the more portable of the two by a slight margin. The P6000 has features by the truckload, but doesn't always implement them as smoothly as we'd like. Both cameras can make exceptional images if you're careful, but noise puts a damper on the fun in both cases. With both models making a strong push into DSLR territory in terms of price, I'd be inclined to save a few pennies and stick with the LX3, but at these prices, if the P6000 appeals to you, what's $50 more? Neither camera is perfect, but few cameras are, and after spending some serious time with both models, it seems like either one could keep a shooter aware of and well suited to its proclivities and quirks happy for a long time.

 


Head to Head is a monthly camera overview and comparison column showcasing competitive cameras and discussing their relative strengths and weaknesses. If there are two or more cameras that you'd like to see compared in a future story, send us an email at headtohead@digitalcamerareview.com.