Things are about to become very interesting in the world of digital SLRs. Now that Panasonic has its Lumix DMC-L1 in stores, three of the world's largest consumer electronics companies have joined the big leagues 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. Plus, since Sony actually bought Konica Minolta's technology, it will likely 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 nicer than many kit lenses out there, the extra cost associated with it puts Panasonic at a major disadvantage, since competitors offer more comfortable body designs, with decent kit lenses for less than half the price of this one. You won't get optical image stabilization, but by forcing the issue, Panasonic will likely lose lots of sales. To its credit, the L1 does have decent performance and nice image quality, so it shouldn't be dismissed outright, but it'll probably still have a tough time on the store shelves. Physical design is probably the Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1's worst attribute. As they admitted at the Photo Marketing Association trade show last February, the body shares much of the internal design with Olympus's Evolt E-330, including its side-swinging Porro Mirror view finder, 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 lets them offer 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. Also, the body is rather boxy, and some controls poorly placed. For example, the power switch faces inward 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 cute 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 by the fact that you can't rotate it a fully around. 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. Plus, since the kit lens includes an aperture ring, Panasonic 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 users 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 Func. 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. Also, when we noticed that you have to set either the shutter or aperture to auto to activate shutter- or aperture-priority modes, we realized 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. Plus, 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 stabilization we were less impressed with 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 digital SLRs, Panasonic eschews them with the Lumix DMC-L1, so if you're stepping up from a compact camera and love your scene modes, this may not be the dSLR for you. However, if you love framing photos on an LCD, this dSLR is right up your alley. In Live View mode, you can frame and focus using the L1's 2.5-inch LCD screen. Since focusing can be tough to judge on a screen like that, 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 snap. Just beware, the Live View mode takes a hefty bite out of the camera's battery life, and it 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 color and three black-and-white film mode presets, you can set two custom film modes, wherein 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, raw on/off, and more. Also, a subsection of the menu system, called the custom menu, lets you set a number of shooting options, such as color space and AF zone, and save your selections as one of three custom sets. This is especially useful if multiple shooters will use the same camera, or if you want to set certain functions for specific shooting conditions.