Things are about to become very interesting in the world of digital SLRs. Now that Panasonic has its Lumix DMC-L1 in the shops, three of the world's largest consumer electronics companies have joined the top division of digital imaging. How the L1 fares against the offerings from Sony and Samsung, as well as from the more established players in this market, should tell us a lot about what the future will hold for the digital camera world.
Each of these newcomers owes its SLR technology to other camera makers: Sony to Konica Minolta, Samsung to Pentax, and Panasonic to Olympus. But while Samsung's dSLRs have so far been rebranded clones of Pentax models, both Sony and Panasonic have managed to distinguish their products from their partners' cameras. In addition, since Sony actually bought Konica Minolta's technology, it is likely to have a larger role in future camera development than either Samsung or Panasonic -- if they don't end up purchasing their partners as well.
While Panasonic has been making digital cameras for a while now, the L1 seems to indicate they still have a lot to learn. Its design doesn't have the comfort of the advanced ergonomic bodies offered by more established camera makers. While the kit lens is better than many out there, the cost puts Panasonic at a major disadvantage -- competitors offer more comfortable body designs, with decent kit lenses for less than half the price. You won't get optical image stabilisation, but by forcing the issue, Panasonic is likely to lose sales. The L1 does have decent performance and image quality to its credit, so it shouldn't be dismissed outright, but it'll probably still have a tough time on the shop shelves.
Physical design is probably the L1's worst attribute. As the company admitted at the Photo Marketing Association trade show last February, the body shares much of the internal design with the Olympus Evolt E-330 -- including its side-swinging Porro Mirror viewfinder, which provides a through-the-lens view without the prism that causes most SLRs to have a hump in the middle of the top of the body. The cameras also share the same 7.5-megapixel Live MOS sensor, which enables a live view from the sensor on the camera's LCD screen, so you can frame your shots as you would on a compact camera. Unlike the Evolt, which has a second CCD sensor for a second live view mode, the Panasonic has only one sensor and one live view mode.
The two companies part ways when it comes to the ergonomics of the body designs. Olympus's design feels comfortable and natural in your hand, but Panasonic's is unbalanced and leans to the left. The body is also rather boxy, and some controls are poorly placed. For example, the power switch faces inwards next to the spot where your thumb should rest. Since the spot for your thumb is so small, we accidentally switched the camera off a few times during field testing. Also, Panasonic embeds the shutter release in the middle of the shutter-speed dial, making it awkward to reach with your index finger. The vast majority of SLRs angle the shutter release forward and place it where your index finger naturally rests.
While it's nice to see a shutter-speed dial on a dSLR, it's not as convenient or as quick to use as the thumb and/or finger dials that most cameras now employ and it's further hindered as you can't fully rotate it. It stops at the auto setting and makes you rotate back around, so switching from very slow to very fast shutter speeds or from auto to a fast shutter speed takes longer than it should. Since the kit lens includes an aperture ring, Panasonic also seems to assume that everyone will want to control aperture from the ring. But since the camera has a Four-Thirds lens mount, it's highly likely that some will want to use another manufacturer's lens at some point.
When we put an Olympus lens on the L1, we didn't know where to look to change the aperture and had to consult the manual to find out that the Function 1 button next to the shutter-speed dial automatically converts from controlling exposure compensation to controlling aperture when a lens without an aperture ring is mounted on the camera. When we noticed that you have to set either the shutter or aperture to auto to activate shutter- or aperture-priority modes, we realised why such retro controls went by the wayside.
Panasonic does deserve some design credit though. For instance, the switches for metering, drive and focus modes are very convenient and well-placed. And the fact that the built-in flash can angle upward for bounce flash almost makes up for some of the other awkwardly placed controls.
Panasonic goes to great lengths to tout the Leica branded kit lens, and though it is impressively fast with its maximum aperture range of f/2.8 to f/3.5 and its optical image stabilisation, we were less impressed by its build quality. The zoom ring isn't as smooth or as well damped as we'd like, and the plastic lens barrel doesn't feel as tough as you'd find on some other manufacturers' lenses. At least the front element doesn't rotate, so you can use graduated neutral density filters without any hassle.
At a time when manufacturers are building more and more scene modes into dSLRs, Panasonic eschews them with the L1 -- if you're stepping up from a compact and love your scene modes, this may not be the dSLR for you. Having said this, if you love framing photos on an LCD, this dSLR could be right up your street.
In Live View mode, you can frame and focus using the L1's 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD screen. Since focusing can be difficult to judge on a screen like this, Panasonic includes a convenient magnification feature. When in Live View mode and manual focus, just press the left or right menu navigation buttons and a small yellow box appears. You can enlarge it with the command dial and position it anywhere in the frame with the menu navigation buttons. Once you have it in place, just press the menu set button and the image magnifies, making focusing a breeze. Just beware, the Live View mode takes a hefty bite out of the camera's battery life and doesn't provide an accurate preview of the shot's exposure.
Tweakers will appreciate the DMC-L1's custom functions. For example, in addition to the four colour and three black-and-white film mode presets, you can set two custom film modes, where you can choose the levels of contrast, sharpness, saturation and noise reduction applied to JPEG images. As alluded to earlier, there are two custom function buttons located next to the shutter-speed dial. Each can be set to control things such as film mode, picture size and raw on/off. In addition, a subsection of the menu system, called the custom menu, lets you set a number of shooting options, such as colour space and AF zone, and you can save your selections as one of three custom sets. This is especially useful if several people want to use the same camera or if you want to set certain functions for specific shooting conditions.