UPDATE: This article refers to an older model.
Learn more about the new Panasonic Lumix LX-5 here.
In my search for the best compact digital camera for travel photography, the Panasonic Lumix DMC LX3 is up next. Can it hold its own against the Canon Powershot G11 which I’ve already reviewed here? And how does it compare to it’s older brother, the Panasonic Lumix LX2?
This is the third article in a continuing series about traveling light with a camera. Read the first articles in the series here:
- The Lightweight Photographer: Four Compact Cameras for the Pro or Serious Amateur
- The Lightweight Photographer: Canon Powershot G11 Real World Review
Two Versions of the Panasonic Lumix DMC LX3
The Panasonic Lumix LX3 is available in black or silver. I prefer black, but the silver version is about $30 cheaper. Click these links for user reviews and prices:
I buy my camera gear from Adorama. They have the best prices and customer service. Help support PhotoCitizen by buying your gear through one of the links on this page. The Panasonic LX3 is also available from Amazon.com.
I’m hunting for a good small camera to use as a substitute for my big and relatively heavy Nikon D300. The compact camera is not meant to replace my SLR. I’ll use it on occasions where I would otherwise not even bring a camera: family events, a night out, or even an occasional traveling day when I need a break from my 20-pounds-plus camera bag. You never know when you may be presented with a good photo op.
I shoot raw. Of the thousands of compact cameras on the market, only a handful can capture an image as a raw file. I’ve already reviewed one that does, the Canon Powershot G11. You can read my G11 review here. I’ll be reviewing another raw-capable camera, the Canon Powershot S90, soon. You can find all of the reviews in this series here: The Lightweight Photographer.
Whichever compact camera I buy must be capable of capturing publication-quality images. There’s not much sense in creating a killer photo and then not being able to use it because of noise, lack of sharpness, or some other image-quality issue.
You can read more about my requirements in my article, The Lightweight Photographer: Four Compact Cameras for the Pro or Serious Amateur. Besides raw capture and good image quality, here’s a recap of the other important criteria:
- Good low-light performance with minimal noise
- Exposure controls that include aperture-priority mode (my favorite), manual, and easy-to-set exposure compensation
- Relatively fast auto-focus as well as manual focus
- A wide-angle lens (28mm or wider)
- Zoom lens
- Pocket-sized or nearly so
- Price under $500
In order to travel light, I’m willing to put up with some minor annoyances inherent in all compact camera. These include shutter lag, relatively slow focusing, continuous shooting speeds of only a frame or two per second, more noise than an SLR at any given ISO setting, small control buttons, and odd little scene modes or creative features that I’ll never use.
Panasonic Lumix LX3 – Real World Review
This “real world” review is based on how I would use the Panasonic Lumix LX3 on a real travel project. In the week I was able to spend with this camera, I photographed around San Diego as I would when traveling.
You won’t find a lot of specifications or optical-lab-quality photo comparisons here. That’s not my style. For that kind of scientific analysis, see the RESOURCES section below. Now, lets see how the LX3 does in the hands of a photographer.
Image Quality and Low Light Performance
As mentioned above, my main concern is the quality of the image. The camera must be able to capture sharp, noiseless images as required by my stock photography agency, Alamy. In the short time I had to test the LX3, I was able to submit five images to Alamy from this camera. Four that were created at ISO 100 were accepted. One, at ISO 800, was not.
The problem with the ISO 800 image was a huge amount of noise: much more than an ISO 800 image from the Canon G11. Adobe Lightroom’s noise reduction had almost no effect on this image, so I used another favorite piece of software, DxO Optics Pro. Along with its signature distortion correction features, Optics Pro includes powerful automatic noise reduction. Unfortunately, this image couldn’t be saved: it was just too noisy. The noise was removed, but what was left was too soft and lacking in detail.
Another problem I noticed was purple-fringing. A photo of a relatively dark subject lit from behind by a bright sky shows a very definite purple fringe around the edge. So, when using the LX3, you’ll need to keep your ISO as low as possible and be careful with high-contrast lighting.
The Leica Lens
With the name Leica on the lens, you’d expect quality. I have no way of testing a lens scientifically, but with the possible exception of the purple-fringing which may be due to the lens design, I’d say this lens lives up to the Leica name.
The lens specs certainly are impressive with a fast minimum aperture of f/2 at its widest angle and f/2.8 at the tele end. I like wide-angle photography, so the 24mm focal length (in 35mm film equivalent terms) is welcome. The 60mm maximum focal length at the long end will probably leave some people wanting more. Personally, I am glad to give up some telephoto reach for a fast lens with a bit more at the wide end.
One curious thing about the lens design is that the lens actually gets shorter as you zoom out. It’s about 1-1/2 inches long in wide-angle and about an inch long when zoomed all the way out. That’s in addition to the 3/4-inch protrusion when the camera is off.
While we’re on the subject of Leica: Panasonic builds Leica’s compact digital cameras. The Leica D-Lux 4 is the same camera as the Panasonic Lumix LX3 but with a Leica badge – and a price tag $400 higher.
Raw vs. JPEG
For me, any camera that can’t capture a raw image is not worth considering. That narrows the field of compacts down from thousands to just a handful.
The LX3 captures images in Panasonic’s raw format with the file extension “RW2“. These RW2 files are recognized by the latest Adobe Raw Converter which is part of Adobe Photoshop CS4 and Lightroom 2. If you don’t have the latest versions of this software, you’ll either have to upgrade or convert the RW2 files to digital negative (DNG) raw files using Adobe’s free DNG converter software.
Other raw-processing sofware that recognizes the Panasonic RW2 includes ACDSee Pro 3, and DxO Optics Pro 6 which offers a camera module specifically for the LX3. I recommend avoiding the software packaged with the Panasonic Lumix LX3, called Silkypix, at all costs. It’s one of the clunkiest and least intuitive programs I’ve ever tried to use.
The camera writes raw files to the SD card pretty quickly and it doesn’t freeze up in the process. While it is writing, you can still be making adjustments to the settings or composing your next photo.
The LX3 gives you five options for picture quality: two jpeg modes (fine and standard), raw, and raw plus either of the jpeg modes. Since the standard-sized jpegs are lacking in quality, I’d suggest sticking with raw or raw plus fine jpeg unless you’re shooting strictly for online use.
Handling and Size
The included strap is another matter. The strap barely fits in a small carrying pouch let alone a pocket. Unless you plan to carry the camera on your shoulder a lot, I’d suggest replacing the strap with a wrist leash such as this small and inexpensive one from Nikon. You don’t really need a full-sized strap for a little camera like this.
The metal body of the LX3 gives it a very solid feel. With its full-height finger grip on the front of the camera, it’s easy to hold. It’s just slightly larger than the Lumix LX2 which it replaces but nearly 2 ounces heavier.
It might take some time to get used to the lens cap. Some people prefer a real lens cap like that found on the LX3. They say the self-capping lenses on some other cameras eventually stop closing all the way leaving the lens unprotected. The lens cap on the LX3 is designed to be tethered to the camera and it dangles in the way sometimes. You could remove the tether and keep the cap in your pocket.
Unlike the Canon Powershot G11 reviewed earlier, the tripod mounting hole is located away from the battery and media card door. This means that you can leave a small quick-release plate mounted on the camera at all times and still be able to change the battery or SD card. For most types of quick-release plates, this is not possible with the G11. I use plates by Really Right Stuff who make a bracket specifically for “slim” cameras with the model number BPnS-S.
Buttons, Controls and Menus
As is common on a camera this size, the buttons are small, but I found them easy to operate. My favorite control is the small joystick. It can be used to move through various menu items, but it has two primary functions: adjusting exposure and accessing the Quick Menu.
The expoure adjustment is as quick and simple as you can get. In aperture-priority mode, pushing up or down on the joystick increases or decreases the aperture. Push the joystick to the left and then up or down to adjust exposure compensation. In shutter-priority mode, it works the same way except it adjusts shutter speed instead of aperture. In manual exposure mode, you can adjust both aperture and shutter speed – toggling between them with a push of the joystick to the left or right.
To access the Quick Menu, push the joystick button in and hold it for a second. Now, you have instant access to all sorts of often-needed settings. From the Quick Menu, you can set:
- Film – standard color, black-and-white or several others that are only useful if you’re shooting jpegs
- Auto-focusing – single point, multi-area, AF tracking or face detection
- Exposure metering – spot, center-weighted or multiple (meters based on the entire screen similar to Nikon’s matrix metering)
- White balance
- ISO Sensitivity
- Intelligent exposure settings – three levels of automatic contrast correction for high contrast scenes
- Picture Size – for jpegs only
- Power LCD – increase LCD brightness
The settings I found myself accessing most were white balance and ISO. It’s nice to be able to get to these quickly. Unlike on the Lumix LX2, the quick menu does not include the Image Quality setting. So, to change from raw to jpeg mode, you’ll have to access the main menu.
I’ve read that some Lumix LX3 users found the joystick too small and delicate. They had trouble moving the joystick where they wanted it. Perhaps they have bigger fingers than mine or hadn’t had enough time with the camera to get used to the joystick, but I found it a very intuitive way to change settings.
One of the biggest advantages of digital photography is the ability to instantly review your photos. The Panasonic LX3 offers three ways to do this:
- There is an Auto-Review mode which can be set in the menu to automatically show the previously recorded photo immediately after it is created. It can be set to 1 or 2 seconds or to hold indefinitely until you push another button.
- You can push the Fn (function) button which, by default, is set to Review. Not so handy, if you’ve customized this button to do something other than Review. More about customization below.
- You can switch to playback mode. To do this, you push the slider switch on the back to the playback position and then wait a second for the image to appear on the LCD. This is a fine way to review a series of images, but not very efficient for a quick review.
The LX3 offers an Auto-ISO mode with an ISO limiting function so that you can set a maximum value. This could be a handy feature as long as you set the limit to 200 or 400. Anything higher is too noisy for most uses.
A few LX3 eccentricities that I didn’t like include the control dial on top – where you set the recording mode to aperture-priority, manual, or your favorite capture mode. It moves by itself whenever it brushes up against your clothing or as you remove it from a case, so you’ll need to check it before you begin photographing.
There’s no place to to plug in a remote shutter release. To minimize camera shake when you’re using a tripod, you’ll have to use the self-timer. The self-timer is convenient to use – there’s a dedicated button for it – but it turns itself off after every photo. So, you’ll need to remember to activate it before each exposure. It can be set for a delay of 2 seconds or 10 seconds.
In playback mode, very little information is available on the camera’s LCD. You can view the f-stop, shutter speed and ISO of a recorded image, but to check any other EXIF data, such as focal length, you’ll have to load the photos onto your computer first.
Focusing is fairly fast by compact camera standards although, as usual for this type of camera, shutter lag is noticeable. It’s possible to capture action photos with this camera if you are able to prefocus – holding focus on a point near the action by pressing half-way on the shutter release button.
Manual focus also reduces shutter lag and it’s pretty easy to use: the focus point can be enlarged to cover part or all of the LCD screen to make it easier to see if you’re in focus.
Battery life seems good although I did not specifically measure it. I did notice that a nearly fully drained battery took a little less than 1-1/2 hours to recharge.
The built-in flash is handy for fill flash at close distances. I like the pop-up design because I can leave the menu set to always fire the flash (“forced flash on”) and then turn the flash on or off by popping up the flash or closing it: no menu to mess with.
I tried my Nikon SB-800 flash in the hot-shoe and it works. But, since the camera doesn’t communicate any of the setting information to the SB-800, you can’t use TTL metering with this flash unit. Even with the SB-800 set to auto, I still got a lot of overexposed flash pictures. The SB-800 can also be used in manual mode as a remote if you set it to SU-4 mode where it fires when the LX3’s flash fires.
You may be better off with Panasonic’s dedicated external flash unit, the DMW-FL220. I didn’t have access to one and the little I read about it makes it sound as if it’s not the best solution: it doesn’t swivel, so you can’t bounce it; and Panasonic doesn’t offer any way of firing it remotely off-camera.
The LX3 has a big 3-inch display, the same size as my Nikon D300. Like most cameras, the LCD does not swivel.
Using the dedicated Display button, you can cycle through several different displays of shooting data or view the image with no information overlays.
Two types of guide line overlays are available on the LCD: the usual “rule-or-thirds” grid or a vanishing-point type grid designed to make it easy to exactly center your subject in the frame.
A live histogram can optionally be displayed while capturing images, but it’s so small – about a half-inch square – that it’s difficult to interpret. It would be nice to have the option to show it full-screen. The histogram is also available in playback mode.
An optional brightness-boosting mode called Power LCD makes it easier to see the display in bright sunlight. There is even an auto mode so that the LCD brightness changes depending on the ambient lighting.
The Panasonic LX3 offers a couple of ways to save your own custom settings. There is a customizable Function (Fn) button on the rear that can be set to perform one of several available tasks:
- Film Mode
- ISO Sensitivity
- White Balance
- Metering Mode
- AF Mode
- Intelligent Exposure
Except for the Review mode, which allows you to instantly review previously captured images, all of these settings are already available at the push of a joystick via the Quick Menu. With its customization limited to this small subset of the LX3’s menu items, the Fn button is redundant. Leave it set to it’s default: Review. Most of us will use that often.
Fortunately, the LX3 does have another customization mode that is useful: the Custom Settings. You can save up to four camera setups and quickly recall them via the top dial’s C1 or C2 positions.
The beauty of the custom settings is that every important menu setting is saved. So, you can easily have one custom setting – I’d recommend C1 – for your everyday photography needs and set the other three for less common photographic situations.
For example, you might set C2 for fast action with shutter-speed priority, a higher ISO, focus tracking and the like. Now, when you’re out photographing architecture and an interesting bicyclist zips by, you can switch to C2 to capture the image, then back to C1 when you’re done without having to fiddle with a bunch of settings.
I can think of a few other useful custom settings presets: how about a custom preset to instantly choose your favorite black-and-white photography settings? Or one for family gatherings that creates small jpegs to easily send by email? Maybe one could be set for movies. There are plenty of possibilities.
Once you’ve chosen a preset, you can further modify the settings. These changes will not alter the saved settings unless you specifically save them. So, you can fine-tune the custom settings for your immediate needs without accidentally overwriting your carefully stored presets.
How does Panasonic stuff four custom settings presets into two dial positions (C1 and C2)? While switching to C1 instantly recalls all of its saved settings, C2 involves one additional step.
The C2 position actually includes three settings presets called C2-1, C2-2 and C2-3. Switching the camera’s mode dial to C2 opens a menu where you can choose between the three. So, selecting a C2 custom setting is not as quick as simply moving the mode dial, but it still involves no more than three joystick moves.
Unfortunately, you’re not able to customize the names of any of these presets, so you’ll have to remember which setting does what. As a reminder, pressing the Display button brings up a screen of icons indicating the stored settings.
At 1280 by 720 resolution, 24 frames-per-second and 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio, the LX3’s HD movies – or “motion pictures” as Panasonic calls them – are pretty good quality. I wouldn’t try to film an episode of Nature for PBS with this camera, but they’re good enough for a standard-definition DVD or web show. You also have the option of recording with a 4:3 aspect ratio with a maximum quality of 640×480 at 30 fps.
Movies are recorded as Quicktime .mov files. At the highest HD quality, 1GB of card storage space gives you five minutes of recording time. The LX3 limits each recording to no more than 15 minutes or 2GB of file size. Practically speaking, then, any single scene recorded in HD can be no longer than ten minutes.
For quality sound, you’ll need to record the audio on a separate device. The built-in microphone is poor and there is no way to plug in an external mic.
Also, there is no way to turn off the audio recording: movies automatically record sound via the camera’s microphone. And, as with most compact cameras, you cannot zoom or re-focus while recording.
The LX3 offers three different aspect ratios including 16:9, 4:3 and 3:2. Changing the aspect ratio does not simply chop off part of the picture as on most cameras that have panoramic or other modes. Instead, the LX3 uses different parts of the sensor.
This means that no matter which aspect ratio you choose, you’ll never get the full 10.1 effective megapixels mention in the camera’s specifications, but you will get consistently high resolution.
The highest resolution is 9.98 megapixels in the 4:3 mode where the image size is 3648 pixels by 2736 pixels. In 16:9 mode, you’ll get 8.9MP (3968 by 2232) and in 3:2 you’ll get 9.5MP (3776 by 2520).
A couple of the scene modes are fun if you don’t mind capturing low-quality jpegs.There’s a pinhole mode that blurs the image and adds a vignette. Film grain mode captures grainy black-and-whites.
Using the LX3’s built-in mic, you can record brief audio memos of up to five seconds each along with your still photo. I can see using this to record notes about my location or camera settings.
Lumix vs. Lumix
If you’re a Panasonic Lumix LX2 owner, you’ll feel very comfortable with the LX3. All of the major controls are similar with one big exception: to change from recording mode to playback, there is now a sliding switch on the back of the camera. On the LX2, this change was made by rotating the camera’s top dial.
LX3 vs. LX2
|Panasonic Lumix LX3||Panasonic Lumix LX2|
|Raw modes||raw / raw + fine jpeg / raw + standard jpeg||raw + standard jpeg|
|Leica lens||f/2 @ 24mm,
f/2.8 @ 60mm
|f/2.8 @ 28mm ,
F/4.9 @ 112mm
|Raw Burst||2.5fps/3 images max||none (jpeg burst only)|
|Optical viewfinder||optional – fits in hotshoe||no way|
|LCD Display||3 inches, 3:2 ratio||2.8 inches, 16:9 ratio|
|Filter Threads||46mm with optional adapter||none|
|Size||slightly larger||slightly smaller|
(9.4 oz with battery)
(7.7 oz with battery)
|Battery||same as LX2||same as LX3|
Panasonic Lumix LX3 vs Canon Powershot G11
The Canon Powershot G11 beats the Panasonic Lumix LX3 hands-down in just about every category except physical size. If the G11 could fit in my pocket, I wouldn’t still be searching for a compact camera: I’d have a G11.
The G11 is far superior in low light. Images up to ISO 800 are useable. The LX3 is good only up to ISO 200 or 400.
Because of it’s popularity, the G11 will always have an advantage when it comes to third-party accessories and books. There are no books available about the Lumix. However, the book that comes with the LX3, the user guide, is far superior to the G11’s. I can actually find things in the LX3’s user guide index.
The LX3’s tripod mount is located so that even with a quick-release plate attached, you can change the battery and card. On the G11, you would have to remove the QR plate to open the door unless you buy the Really Right Stuff L-Bracket for the G11 that does allow access to the G11’s battery compartment.
Black-and-white mode works on the LX3 even when capturing raw images. The raw file is recorded in color, but the LCD acts as a black-and-white viewfinder during the capture. That makes it easy to visualize your scene in black-and-white. On the G11, black-and-white mode only works when capturing jpeg images.
The LX3 has a pop-up flash while the G11’s is built into the front of the camera. The pop-up is better for a couple of reasons. For one thing, you don’t need to access the menu to turn it on or off, just pop up the flash. Secondly, because of its added height, you’re less likely to accidentally block the flash with your finger on the LX3.
Pros and Cons
There’s a lot to like about the Panasonic Lumix LX3 and a few things I didn’t like. Here’s a recap of the good and bad:
What I Liked
Since this lens adapter sticks out quite a ways, the camera is no longer pocket-sized when it’s attached. I applaud Panasonic for giving me the ability to use a screw-on polarizer, but it would be nice if it could attach directly to the lens.
Click on any link below to read more about these accessories and check prices:
|Lens Adapter DMW-LA4|
|DMW-LW46 46mm 0.75x
Wide Angle Conversion Lens
External Optical View Finder
|DMW-FL220 External Flash|
Circular Polarizing Glass Filter
|Panasonic Battery CGA-S005A|
Resources – More About the Panasonic Lumix LX3
For more information about the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, visit the Panasonic website. You can download the LX3 user manual from Panasonic’s U.K. site. For some reason, it’s not available on the U.S. site.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 is a sharp-looking camera that captures sharp images as long as you keep the ISO at 200 or below. ISO 400 is usually acceptable, but 800 and above is unusable due to noise.
I only captured raw images with this camera. If you prefer JPEG, you’ll want to watch out for the built-in noise reduction that I’ve heard is quite aggressive: it not only removes noise, but most of the fine detail too.
The LX3 is easy to use and very small – a true shirt-pocket camera. Its lens is as bright (f/2) as any you’ll find on a compact camera. With a tele range up to 60mm and no available telephoto accessory lens, some photographers will be disappointed. But for wide-angle shooters, the 24mm wide-angle lens is a boon.
The camera I reviewed had firmware version 1.3. Panasonic recently made an upgrade available – which you can install yourself – to version 2.1. They say it offers several improvements:
- better auto white balance,
- faster auto-focus (that would be welcomed),
- compensation settings that now go to plus or minus 3 instead of 2,
- and several other new or modified features.
It’s nice to know that Panasonic is taking care of its customers even after they’ve purchased a camera.
A big thank you to Ernesto Corte for lending me his camera for this review.