Panasonic's second DSLR has some fierce competition, so how well does it put up a fight?....
What do we mean by that? The original L1 offered traditional styling, with an aperture ring on the Leica lens and a shutter dial on the top-plate – contributing to a unique handling experience in the digital world. The L10 still offers lens-based aperture control as an option, but even a cursory glance over the camera indicates that this is aimed at a very different kind of user.
It also features a set of world-firsts on a DSLR, including Face Detection and a vari-angle live view mode, courtesy of its 10MP LiveMOS sensor. Furthermore it features Intelligent ISO control and compatibility with HD televisions. So let’s take a deeper look into the heart of the Panasonic Lumix L10.
In co-operation with Olympus and the open Four Thirds standard, Panasonic has developed a LiveMOS sensor, first seen on the L1 and Olympus E-330. This breakthrough technology allowed both companies to provide the first true live view through the camera’s LCD – something taken for granted on compact cameras, but difficult to achieve on DSLRs due to the mirror and mechanical shutter in front of the sensor. A year later, and live view has become the latest must-have technology, with both Nikon and Canon incorporating it into their latest models.
Panasonic, though, has taken this a step further, by placing the LCD screen on a vari-angle mount, allowing a 270o angle of rotation, so the user can see the screen wherever the camera is placed.
The sensor itself has also been revamped with a total of 11.8 million pixels of which 10.1 million are effective. The Four Thirds sensor is notably smaller than an APS-C type, so the photodiodes must necessarily be smaller to achieve the pixel population in that smaller surface area. Panasonic quotes them as being 2.2μm in size, yet claims the efficiency of light reception is raised to match that of larger photosites to achieve comparable sensitivity, in this case a maximum ISO 1600.
Image noise is controlled in a number of ways. Firstly, by embedding the photosites in the silicon layer, Panasonic claims that noise on the substrate surface is suppressed, while a new noise-reduction circuit on the sensor reduces white-spot pixel defects and textual roughness that often accompanies high-sensitivity shooting.
The inclusion of the latest Venus Engine processor, now in its third incarnation, also reduces noise by distinguishing chromatic noise from luminance noise, and then reducing the chromatic noise, theoretically minimising the coloured artefacts that appear in shadow areas. Panasonic also claims that the Venus Engine is designed to maximise the performance of Leica D lenses and provide superior colour and image gradation. But, then, they would say that, wouldn’t they?
Like other Four-Thirds models, the L10 also features the dust-busting SuperSonic Wave Filter, which uses supersonic vibration to shake dust from the sensor at start-up and power-down of the camera. This happens quickly, with the L10 starting up much quicker than previous cameras with this feature at around a second, which is as fast as most people would need.
One of the earliest technologies developed by Panasonic – and now practically a requirement of all new digital cameras – is Image Stabilisation. Developed from its video cameras, Mega OIS (Optical Image Stabilisation) uses lens-based technology to counteract camera shake when using slow shutter speeds. In the case of the L10 three modes are included, all accessed via the camera menu. Mode 1 has IS operating the entire time the camera is in use, mode 2 activates the IS when the shutter release button is pressed, and mode 3 only corrects for movements on the vertical axis, so is ideal for panning during sports photography.
Features and Handling
Panasonic has revisited the AF system for the L10, with a combination of phase detection and contrast detection, though still within the visible three-point Wide Area AF of the L1 (and OIympus cameras, come to that). The company claims that the phase-detection system is best for TTL autofocusing when using the viewfinder, while contrast detection is more suited for live view use, also claiming that this new system is the most advanced hybrid AF in the world.
This combination of technologies is also at work within the metering system, with 49-zone evaluative metering available when using the viewfinder, while a full 256-zone system is available when using the LiveView. Panasonic hasn’t explained why this is, but my guess is that the metering in live view takes advantage of the sensor’s own system, rather than a smaller, secondary sensor placed in the pentaprism for standard metering.
The format of the image may be changed from 4:3 to 16:9 for widescreen viewing. Traditionalists may prefer the 3:2 format of 35mm film, which is also an option. Be warned, though, that these images are cropped, and so don’t offer the full 10MP resolution, and the format change isn’t viewable in the viewfinder before you shoot either, just in the live view mode.
The L10 is an attractive camera, with a deep, secure rubberised grip that provides a safe hold. The styling is much more DSLR-like than its precursor, with a raised pentaprism, a mode dial where the shutter dial used to be and the shutter release button placed further forward over the grip (the L1’s was centrally placed on the shutter dial).
The most striking thing about the camera, though, is the flip-out, vari-angle LCD screen. This is nothing new on compacts – Canon had them for years on PowerShot models, for example – but it’s a radical departure for DSLRs. The multi-position LCD screen allows the user to see the menu, and the live view of the scene in a variety of positions, making ‘shooting from the hip’ a much more literal reality.
While the aperture ring on Leica lenses can still be used, the L10 also has a front command dial, so if the lens is set to ‘A’, or Olympus lenses are attached, you can control the aperture or shutter (depending on the mode) with your forefinger, while a back command dial offers exposure compensation when used in A, S and P modes. In manual mode, the front wheel controls aperture, with the back controlling shutter speed. While this system is less fun in use than the L1, it’s more convenient, quicker to operate and much more in line with the majority of other DSLRs.
These command dials offer a slight variation in function when using the scene modes, which actually offer some radical changes over other cameras and require closer examination.
The main scene modes are present, including Landscape, Portrait etc, and allow a simple but effective amount of control. When you first enter a scene mode, you are presented with four options – icons offer a basic mode and two refinements. Portraits, for example, have an indoor or outdoor setting, while for Landscapes it’s nature or architecture. A fourth icon presents a creative option. In this mode, you can adjust the aperture or shutter, depending on which scene mode you are in. A simple slider and diagram, operated by the front command dial, shows the effect of changing the setting – so in Portrait mode, for example, the diagram illustrates a head with a fuzzy background at one end of the slider, while at the other end it shows a head with a sharp background, indicating the changes to depth of field. As a learning tool, this is very useful and we applaud Panasonic for illustrating sometimes complex techniques in a simple way.
One disappointment on a camera at this price is the slow burst rate. At just 3fps, it fails to compete with the similarly priced Sony Alpha 700, which offers 5fps, or Canon EOS 40D (6.5fps). Similarly the AF system has only three selectable points which, while effective, doesn’t compete with its peers.
At ISO 100, the L10 is capable of some lovely smooth tones, with little or no noise visible. Up the gain a little to ISO 200 and things deteriorate slightly, but things start to really worsen from ISO 400. The noise has a hard speckly look, and is visible in all colour channels, which is typical of Panasonic’s noise patterns. On a positive note the differences between ISO 400 and 1600 are slight.
Tone And Contrast
Generally the camera handled most scenes well, with even the most tricky subjects maintaining a full range of tones. I was especially impressed with the camera’s ability to handle bright whites in very contrasty winter sun, with rarely recourse to use exposure compensation. The contrast is slightly lower than I would like, but this has the benefit of maintaining the highlight and shadow detail, and a few tweaks in Photoshop soon bring the pictures up to par.
Colour And White Balance
In all the shots I took, the camera impressed me with its white balance control, and, on the whole, Raw files required very little adjustment to balance properly. To push the limits, I shot a still-life with fruit and few grey and white areas for the WB to pick up on, and the camera struggled with this slightly, but manual WB helped to smooth out any problems.
Default colour is pretty impressive too, if a little flat, though there are stacks of colour options within the camera to adjust this to your own taste. The Film Modes are one such way and I particularly like the Vivid and Smooth modes, while the B/W Smooth mode also produces pleasing tones, especially when shooting portraits.
Sharpness And Detail
In combination with the Leica optics, the 10MP sensor can produce crisp and impressive resolution, with good detail and sharp edges. The Mega OIS helps to keep camera shake at bay, though care still needs to be taken to maintain pin-sharp results. As an aside, the Leica 14-50mm f/2.8-3.5 lens produces some lovely defocused backgrounds.
Value For Money
Value For Money
The Lumix L10 is a bit of a mixed bag, with some good features such as the live view, which some may consider worth the price, but spec such as the 3fps burst rate and limited autofocusing capabilities do the camera no favours. It seems to be a camera aimed primarily at beginners, with a lot of simple features and learning tools, yet its RRP is more in the enthusiast bracket
While the Panasonic Lumix L10 is a capable, attractive and often innovative model, it also seems to me to be a somewhat schizophrenic entity. It’s packed with entry-level features, such as the low burst rate, 1/4000sec top shutter speed, the scene modes and PC-free operation, yet also has that impressive LCD screen that enthusiasts will love. On top of all that it’s in a price bracket that suggests it wants to compete with the Canon EOS 40D or Sony Alpha 700, which, to be frank, it doesn’t. If the price comes down, then the L10 will be a much more attractive option, but as it stands at the moment, I wouldn’t pay the extra price for the flip-out LCD screen on its own.