Hot on the heels of the Sony Alpha, Panasonic introduces its first DSLR.............
The Live MOS sensor, as previously seen in the Olympus E-330 has the 4/3 sensor, populated by 7.5 effective million pixels out of a total 7.9million. Like the Olympus, the sensor offers live view – real-time viewing of the subject on the back LCD. Unlike the Olympus, there is just one easy-to-use mode: press the live view button, the mirror and shutter open and the image is fed from the sensor to the monitor. Once the shutter release button is pressed, the shutter drops, then opens for the exposure and the pixels become ‘live’ (ie, they capture the image), and the shutter closes, the recording pixels switch back to video feed mode, and the shutter and mirror open once again so you can view the monitor stream again. This all happens within a second or two, and the monitor blacks out while the exposure is made, much the same way as an optical prism viewfinder blacks out when the mirror is lifted.
Also unlike the Olympus E-330 mode B the live view mode allows autofocus operation. Finally the system allows a manual focus assist function to enlarge the image by up to 10x, theoretically to check focus details, something usually only available in preview mode.
The sensor itself is like a cross between CMOS and CCD, offering the image quality of CCD with the low power consumption of CMOS, according to Panasonic. This is achieved by allowing the large pixel receptor ratio of 50% typical of CCD, with the single pixel signal reading as used by CMOS to lower power consumption. Panasonic has managed this by reducing the number of control wires to each pixel from three to two, allowing the larger light-receiving area. Panasonic also claims that this system results in lower noise, further enhanced by making use of embedded photodiode technology and lower voltage technology to reduce dark noise.
Another of Olympus’s technologies within the camera is the Supersonic Wave Filter dust reduction system. When the camera is switched on, the filter generates 30,000 supersonic vibrations to shake dust from the sensor to keep it clean.
Processing in the camera is performed by Panasonic Venus Engine, now at version III, which the company claims produces better colour reproduction, higher resolution and high-speed processing. Furthermore, the new processor has 80% of the power consumption of version II. The company claims that the processor reduces luminance noise in shadow areas, to enhance the effect already achieved by the sensor. It also isolates and processes chromatic noise found in high ISO images and reduces colour bleeding.
Panasonic has also migrated other features from the LC-1, its digital rangefinder-alike camera. Like that, the L1 has a traditional shutter dial on the body and an aperture ring on the lens. Both have an auto setting, allowing aperture priority or shutter priority AE modes, or ignoring the A settings allows manual. Setting both to A gives full auto mode.
Metering options include the obligatory centre- weighted and spot modes, as well as multi-pattern metering. As it happens, this is 49 zone if you use the viewfinder or a 256-block pattern in live view mode. The focus options meanwhile include a wide three-area AF with dynamic manual focus – that is, you can switch directly to manual focus just by turning the manual focus ring on the lens for fine-tuning.
There’s a number of colour options, including Standard and Dynamic which increases saturation similar to transparency film. There’s also a nature setting for enhanced greens, reds and blues designed for landscape photography, and a Smooth colour mode for more lifelike and natural images. There’s also three black and white modes covering Standard, Dynamic (with increased contrast) and Smooth for soft skin tones.
Colour is also affected by colour temperature, so the Lumix L1 has a range of White Balance options, including the usual set of presets for common lighting, as well as a manual mode and the option to dial in numerical values in the Kelvin scale. Finally there’s a fine-tuning adjustment should you need it.
A couple of firsts on the camera also appear, buried in the menu. First you have the option to switch the aspect ratio, from 4:3 to 3:2 or 16:9. Both these formats use less of the sensor area though, so essentially are a crop of the imaging area. Second, the camera is billed as the first to have Extra Optical Zoom, with a 1.5x extension to the focal length of the lens attached. This is a little bit of marketing speak though – actually in this mode, just a section of the sensor is used, to produce a 3MP image, so again, the camera is cropping. Panasonic doesn’t try to hide the method, so can’t really be accused of dishonesty, but other than time or memory space savings, I would recommend cropping full-resolution images later for more accuracy, or to make different choices of the crop. I dare say this would be useful to some people, though. Incidentally both these options are only available when the camera is in live view mode.
Like the LC-1 before, the L1 has the ingenious ‘Z’ built-in flash. Folded flat into the top-plate the flash offers two positions, straight on and 45° for bounce flash either from the ceiling or from a wall if the camera is held in portrait position. There’s also a hotshoe to accept Panasonic’s FL500 and FL360 flash units. I haven’t had one of these for review, but they do look suspiciously like Olympus FL50 and FL36 flashguns to me!
The Panasonic L1 has a couple of interesting playback options such as the ability to crop in-camera (other than Extra Optical Zoom!) and a resize function for preparing images for email. You can also view images as a slideshow or via a calendar view which lets you browse images by date. And of course the camera offers direct printing via PictBridge.
A final word on the SilkyPix Raw converting software. Apart from a great name, the software is a fully featured RAW converter allowing colour changes curves and so on, which is nice to see included in the box and the price.
Some cameras are sure to split opinion, and I’m sure the L1 will offer an affront to some photographers’ views of what an SLR should look like. It’s boxy square and looks like a oversized rangefinder. This isn’t surprising, given Panasonic’s ties with Leica, not only in thinly disguising and rebadging Panasonic cameras for Leica, but also in trying to appeal to rangefinder users via the LC1. The L1 follows that camera’s aesthetic, and I like it. It takes some getting used to, I’ll admit, but who’s to say boxy isn’t good?
It worked for years for Ikea, Hasselblad and Volvo (so the L1 will do well in Sweden!). If nothing else it’s distinctive and I certainly received a few glances while using it in London. The camera is well made and feels solid. The main controls are secure, and reasonably well spaced, but the 2.5inch screen takes up a lot of real estate so some people may feel that the back of the camera is cramped.
Since the 1980s camera manufacturers have been keen to make things ergonomic. By adapting a traditional look for the L1, Panasonic has reduced the ergonomics, especially when it comes to the shutter release button.
With modern SLR cameras, the shutter release button is usually placed forward on the hand grip, perfect for the forefinger. The L1’s is back on the shutter dial on the top plate, like in days of yore. At first, this is uncomfortable; your hand has to reach further back, and if you have a camera strap, you also have to negotiate with that. In all it’s a little uncomfortable, and at times I found myself searching for the shutter release button. Repeated handling cured it, but I still find it less comfortable than other cameras.
In other ways, though, the camera is nice. It has a rugged feel, helped by the rubberised coating on the body which is nicely non-slip.
Space on the back is slightly cramped thanks to the large screen, but there’s just enough room for the thumb to rest on the back command dial without knocking it.
The biggest handing issues concern the aperture ring and shutter, which is just like going back in time and simply fun! It didn’t take long at all to adapt my thoughts back ten years to using a camera like this one; it’s a system that worked for years so why did we change it?
The viewfinder is slightly small, but has a high profile, so is clear. Still, switching to Live View offers some advantages, mainly if the camera is on a tripod – we wouldn’t recommend using the L1 as you would a compact camera. I also found that the flip-out screen of the Olympus E-330 is much more useful because it gives you the option for waist-level shooting.
Panasonic cameras raised the bar when the company launched the FZ1, and the Venus Engine showed how high image resolution could be achieved with a small pixel resolution chip. Since then the company has continued to produce the goods, though image noise has sometimes been a problem.
The L1, with the combination of 4/3 sensor and Venus Engine III can produce some fine images, and there is a lovely tonality to the images. However, this tonal smoothness comes at a cost, as images usually need just a little sharpening to give them a lift, particularly when viewed close-up on screen, or if printed to a decent size.
For the most part the L1 produces images with good colour saturation, excellent tonality and, at ISO 100 and 200, reasonable, visually excellent noise control.
Measured noise is a tad higher than the Canon EOS 350D, but not visibly apparent. From ISO 400 upwards we see more noise in the images, which is borne out by our lab tests. Obviously noise is raised as the gain is raised, but maintains reasonable result. Our lab results at ISO 1600 shows all the RGB and luminance noise levels staying closely plotted throughout the grey tones; it is more usual for the blue channel to show a greater incidence of noise, especially in the darker tones. So while the camera produces more measured noise in our tests, the way it’s well controlled keeps it hidden, especially in the mid range of the ISO.
Value For Money
At a penny shy of £1500, including the lens, the L1 is somewhat more expensive than its competitors. It reminds me of the Fujifilm S3 Pro, in that it offers something different for a high price. The S3 Pro is now half the price it was, if you can find one. With the similar Olympus E-330 at half the price of the L1, and 10 MP models now even lower, I worry that the Panasonic brand name alone justifies the price.
As it offers a significantly different feature set from most other DSLRs, the L1 is worth considering particularly if you are new to automated cameras, maybe coming from older analogue models, or if you’re enough of a traditionalist to miss the operation of those cameras.
Certainly I enjoyed going back to the days of shutter dials and aperture rings, and I think as a I result I took more care in my photography, which isn’t a bad thing. I also had fun with it, and if photography is your hobby, then fun should play a big part. The camera isn’t going to suit all subjects, but for most enthusiast purposes, it will.
Of course, image quality is the most important consideration and the results from the L1 are very pleasant with a great tonality. Shame about the price, though.