Plenty of this year's cameras let you shoot 'proper' 3D photos that retain the original colours and let you watch them on your 3D TV -- the Olympus SZ-14, Panasonic SZ7 and Sony TX55 all come to mind. The problem with all of these cameras is that they rely on you taking two slightly misaligned shots that they stitch together to create the 3D result.
With the £430 Lumix DMC-3D1, Panasonic has taken an entirely different approach -- it has two completely separate lenses, and not only does it give you ace 3D pics, it lends a whole new flexibility to shooting that make it one of the most innovative cameras we've seen in ages.
While each of those cameras has only one lens, the 3D1 has two, which means it can shoot 3D stills without you changing the angle of view. Unique among its peers, it can even shoot 3D video by filming through both lenses at once.
But what if you don't have a 3D TV? Clearly you won't be able to enjoy the 3D results. But if you flip the selector to 2D mode and leave it there, you can use each lens as though it were an entirely different camera, effectively giving you two sharp shooters in one.
Switch from Intelligent Auto mode to dual-shooting and the display shows a preview from each lens. Tapping the touchscreen to select one or the other lets you set their zooms independently, so you can have a wide-angle view of a family group and a close-up on one face, or a pitch view and player view at a football match, for example. Switching between the two is a simple matter of tapping to select the one you want and firing the shutter. It's much faster than manually zooming in and out each time.
Shooting video in 2D only uses one lens but leaves the other free for stills, allowing you to shoot both at once. So you could capture a match-winning moment in printable form, as well as in movie format. You can shoot up to six pictures during a recording, which will be saved as 9-megapixel, 16:9 aspect images.
This versatility makes the 3D1 a very tempting purchase, even if you don't have a 3D TV.
When shooting 2D images, the 3D1 uses just one lens -- the left. Going by my tests, it's certainly up to the job of producing impressive results in demanding conditions. Colours are vivid and detail is sharp.
The daffodil below is a case in point, with bright colours on the yellow petals, which have not burned out in the bright, direct sunlight -- there's a sharp contrast between those and the orange centre. The detail on the stamen is very impressive, with individual flakes of pollen clearly visible.
This image was taken using the Intelligent Auto mode, which self-selected the 3D1's macro settings. It focuses at a minimum distance of 5cm. Although there is a very slight green fringe around the edge of the yellow petals, the fall-off in the level of focus is attractive, producing an appealing bokeh effect in the surrounding foliage.
Even in tricky scenes characterised by a stark division of illumination, the 3D1 does a good job of balancing the result. This shot of a patio is split more or less 50:50 between light and shadow, yet the 3D1 has accurately exposed the darker side of the image. It did not allow the cream wall to the right to entirely overpower the fine detail of the raspberry cane that's growing in front of it.
Furthermore, detail at the back of the shot -- the chicken coop and bushes -- is retained. Despite the fairly wide aperture of f/3.9, it remains in focus.
The 3D1's widest aperture with the captive lenses is f/3.9 fully retracted -- they never protrude from the camera's slim body. It shrinks to f/5.7 at maximum telephoto. When shot at the highest resolution, the camera produces 12-megapixel images (4,000x3,000 pixels), with exposures of between 8 and 1/1,300 seconds in automatic mode. Neither of these is particularly ambitious, but switch to Starry Sky Mode and you can push the longest exposure up to 30 seconds.
The 3D1 performs well in low light too, with sensitivity running from ISO 100 to ISO 3,200 (and ISO 6,400 in high-sensitivity mode). Moving indoors, it hiked the setting to ISO 800 to capture this image of knitted cushions, yet there's still an impressively high level of fine detail in the shot below, with individual fibres visible in the weave of the closest one. The only place where noise is visible is in the background, which falls out of the focused area.
Taking a wider shot of the same scene presented it with a complex mix of highlights and shadows. Although some detail has been lost in the windows below, where the direct incoming light had burned out the leading, there's plenty of retained detail in the rafters, despite stepping back down to ISO 200. Furthermore, the shadow in the upper-left corner is smooth and controlled, accurately reflecting the original conditions for a very pleasing result overall.
With neither lens protruding beyond the front of the camera chassis, Panasonic has only been able to accommodate a 4x zoom in the 3D1. In this case it would be equivalent to 25-100mm when shooting in 16:9 aspect ratio and 30-120mm at 4:3. Although fairly inexpensive point-and-shoots regularly exceed this, touching 5x and beyond, a 100mm equivalent is not to be sniffed at, as demonstrated below. It makes a big difference to the framed region and achieves an evenly-illuminated result without any evidence of vignetting -- or darkening -- in the corners or edges.
My final test was the still-life set-up, where I shot a collection of everyday objects with differing textures, colours and finishes.
Here, the 3D1 did very well under ambient light, delivering a sharp result at ISO 100 with only slight grain in the pages of my book. Under these conditions though, I did notice a fall-off in focus in the lower corners of the image, which were less sharp than the rest of the frame.
Using the onboard flash shortened the exposure time from 1/15 to 1/60 of a second and boosted the contrast at the centre of the image. At the same time, it darkened the background, where the wooden elephant in the image below becomes less distinct against the wood of the table. Nonetheless, it did a good job of retaining detail in general. The weave of the runner beneath the objects, which is sometimes lost by other cameras when firing the flash, remains clear and detailed.
Like photos, videos can be shot in either 2D or 3D. Movies filmed in 3D that are played back on a 2D screen are rendered as the view from each sensor laid side by side. Top movie resolution is 1,920x1,080 pixels, 50 frames per second interlaced, although you can opt for 25fps progressive or reduce the resolution to 640x480 pixels for web use.
On the whole, results were good in my tests, with accurate colours and sharp detail. However, when the 3D1 encountered a sudden change in the composition of the frame, such as when a train passed through, as can be seen in the footage below, it had some trouble finding the correct position on which to focus. This occurred because a closer object had passed in front of its original focal position. Although it corrected itself quickly once the train had disappeared, it was unable to do so while it was still in view.
The recorded soundtrack was accurate and picked up faint, distant sounds, helped in large part by the fact that the zoom is silent in use.
The 3D1 is a true innovation and a real stand-out product that offers something you won't find elsewhere. Such technological advances don't come cheap. There's no denying that an asking price above £400 for a non-bridge, non-dSLR, non-interchangeable lens camera may be too rich for some pockets.
If you can afford it, you'd be buying yourself a great piece of kit. Even if you don't have a 3D TV, the clever supplementary uses Panasonic has found for that second lens may still be enough to have you reaching for the credit card.