Once in a blue moon comes a camera that sets our hearts on fire. The Lumix DMC-LX3 is such a shooter. Beneath the compact physique are an array of features that professionals will feel comfortable using, and the high-res widescreen format capture is something noteworthy. The full-range of exposure controls are complemented by intelligent features such as face detection for better photography experience. Looks-wise, the LX3 reminds us of rangefinder cameras that were very popular in the 1970s for their portability and ease of use. The large sensor produced image quality which surpassed what other shooters in its class could deliver. In all, the LX3 is a highly desirable camera which performed as well as it should.
Editors' note: Subsequent to a second review unit being extensively tested, we have verified that the image quality issue mentioned in our review previously was found to be isolated to the earlier evaluation unit. We have since updated our review with new comments in the Image Quality section and awarded an Editors' Choice to the LX3.
The LX3's design is nothing to shout about. Its chassis is relatively plain with the extreme right end raised slightly to provide a better grip — a practical design consideration further complemented by a textured rubber surface. The lens protrudes from the body, and if you are wondering why it has to be engineered this way, it's probably because the sensor in the shooter is larger than your typical point-and-shoot, resulting in an adjustment of the lens-to-sensor distance (known as flange focal distance). On the lens barrel are two switches for toggling between picture aspect ratio as well as focusing mode.
The LX3 is a handsome shooter with an aura of class around it.
Keeping true to retro camera style, the LX3's optics is protected by a removable lens cap. While it does add a sense of originality to the snapper, we feel that this can be quite a hassle sometimes as we had to remove the cover before taking a shot, as opposed to just pressing the power button and snapping away. The supplied camera strap further accentuates the retro theme and we found it quite classy.
Panasonic usually keeps the mode dial nestled under the top right corner, but for the LX3, it is right on top. The tactile feedback was great when we turned it, and users who are used to operating a dSLR will find the labels familiar.
This digicam has a hotshoe onto which you can attach an external flashlight or an optional viewfinder. A small switch beside the hotshoe pops up the built-in flash.
The rear of the LX3 houses a lush 3-inch widescreen LCD. The Q.Menu button on the side also acts as a four-way joystick, which can be used in place of the navigation pad situated below it.
Although it may not look especially outstanding, the LX3 somehow exudes a professional aura that we could feel when taking pictures. This may sound pompous, but for a moment we felt like Henri Cartier-Bresson (the man who used and made Leica famous).
Depending on your preference, you can choose one of the three aspect ratios: Widescreen 16:9, or the more conventional 3:2 or 4:3. Although this is actually quite a common feature for high-end compacts, the resolution usually gets downsized when set to different aspect ratios, especially 16:9. But the LX3 is optimised to capture images in this format. The sensor is capable of rendering 10-megapixel images in 4:3 and 9-megapixel pictures in widescreen format.
Photo credit: John Chan
The Leica optics is widest at 24mm, which makes the viewing angle on the LX3 one of the widest available on the market besides Samsung's NV24HD. But it has the upper hand, considering that the len's aperture is biggest at F2.0, which is not a common sight for compact snappers. The chances of getting blurry shots in low-light conditions are lower because the corresponding shutter speed can be faster. However, it has only a 2.5x optical zoom which by today's standard is pretty limiting for a point-and-shoot. Most photographers we spoke to were not concerned about the limited zoom range as they are willing to make a compromise in exchange for the other features like the F2.0 lens and high-resolution panorama mode.
We were spoilt for choice when it came to choosing the exposure option. It has the company's proprietary intelligent Auto (iA) mode designed for simple point-and-shoot purposes, though we preferred using the manual, aperture priority or shutter priority modes. Tweaking the settings can be done using the joystick and the on-screen instructions were easy to follow. Within minutes, we were shooting like pros, changing the aperture and shutter speed to suit different situations.
There is a simulated film mode which allows you to adjust the sharpness, saturation, contrast and noise reduction in up to +2/-2 levels. This is used in conjunction with the different options such as Standard, Vibrant, Nostalgic, etc. There are also two custom film modes (one in colour and the other in black and white) which let you save your preferences and leave the others at default.
For custom settings, there are also two modes, C1 and C2, found on the mode dial. If you have customised settings that you want to access easily, save them under either one of these modes and with a turn of the dial, all the settings will revert to your preset options. This high level of customisation is usually reserved for dSLRs, and we were pleased to see them on the LX3.
For the really picky users, there is a RAW format capture option, which allows you to take RW2 files that has to be processed on the computer with the packaged SilkyPix image-processing software or a third-party application. We will discuss more about the RAW files later.
For those into video, this shooter is capable of capturing HD-quality (1,280x720 pixels) clips at 24 frames per second. Do keep in mind that such recordings can produce really large files so it's always advisable to keep a few SD/SDHC cards handy if you intend to utilise this feature.
The LX3 has the usual face detection function and 24 scene modes if you are lazy or just want to snap a picture quickly. It is powered by a Lithium-ion battery and has approximately 50MB of internal memory.
The LX3 took about 2.2 seconds to start up, and the shutter lag measured a hair less than 0.1 second. However, this snappy performance did not reflect in our time-to-first-shot test, which the shooter clocked in at three seconds. We believe the figures will vary for different users as cameras do take time to focus first before capturing the picture, especially for high-contrast scenes.
The meter did the job well for this picture, retaining most of the shadow and highlight details.
Focusing was zippy and spot-on most of the time. If your subject of interest is off-centre, you can shift the focus frame by pressing the Focus button and then adjusting it with the navigation pad.
The exposure meter was accurate most of the time and handled high-contrast scenes well. The algorithm was sophisticated enough to adjust the exposure to achieve optimum highlight and shadow details. In tricky lighting situations, the spot-metering mode can be activated.
Panasonic claims that the Lithium-ion battery can last for 380 shots, and it certainly lived up to expectations. We took five HD-quality videos, each lasting three minutes as well as about 200 still images, and there was still juice in the battery.
Over the past few years, Panasonic made a lot of improvements to the image quality for its cameras. The company told us part of the magic lies in the Venus image-processing engine, which is now in its fourth iteration.
An ISO comparison table of the different sensitivities on the LX3.
At the lowest ISO sensitivity of 80, the image is clean of noise. Viewing it at 100 percent didn't reveal any digital artifacts in the shadow regions and we really like the detailed rendition, even for small objects. From ISO 100 to 400, noise gradually increased but was within a very acceptable level. At ISO 800 and 1,600, smearing of details was apparent but we could still make out fine lines. While purists may dispute that images shot at these ISO settings are not usable for prints, we beg to differ -- the larger sensor size still managed to render a good amount of mild details. However, it will be up to individual preferences whether or not can they accept the smeariness caused by the noise-suppression algorithm.
At ISO 3,200, the image had loss of details which probably will not deliver a good output. But we reckoned this is not a problem as most people don't shoot at this sensitivity setting.
The onboard flash unit was one of the most powerful we've seen in a point-and-shoot. The output was well-balanced as it did not bleach skin tones or underexpose the background.
One small gripe we had was with the lens distortion which we noticed on the sides of the image, especially objects placed along that axis. The defects were kept to a minimum and we could easily correct them in Adobe Photoshop. But do note that distortion is a common issue for ultra-wide-angle optics.
Now onto the RAW image. The .RW2 files can be converted to more common formats like TIFF or JPEG with the supplied SilkyPix RAW image-processing software, but the result wasn't as good as expected. This can probably be attributed to the software, and not the lens. We experimented several ways to get around this problem and found a better method of capturing superior-quality pictures. In the Film Mode settings, we reduced the noise reduction and sharpness level to -2, and then processed the RAW image in SilkyPix to TIFF format. After which, we opened the processed file in another image-editing software and tweaked the image from there. The result was significantly better than what we would have achieved if we had relied solely on SilkyPix.
The LX3 has won our hearts with its good range of features and impressive image quality. This is why we are awarding it the much-coveted Editors' Choice. There is a certain air around this shooter that made us very comfortable when using it. If you know your aperture and shutter speed well, using this snapper won't be a problem. But if you don't, follow the instructions on the LCD and you should do just fine.