When Panasonic introduced its first digital SLR, the Lumix DMC-L1, a lot of people had high hopes, which were subsequently dashed. Now, Panasonic has put out the 10-megapixel Lumix DMC-L10. If the L1 was Panasonic dipping its toes in the SLR pool, then the L10 is Panasonic diving into the deep end. Will the DMC-L10 sink or swim? Let's find out.
Panasonic is marketing the L10 as an entry-level SLR, and its design works well for that market. It's on the small side, has an articulated LCD that can flip out to the left of the camera and swivel 270 degrees, live-view shooting, and its control buttons are laid out a lot like a superzoom or compact camera. The vast majority of buttons are on the right-hand side of the camera and reachable quickly and easily by thumb or forefinger. Like more and more SLRs lately, the grip is short, so your pinky dangles while shooting. However, it does have a nice shape, with a cutaway for your middle finger and a contoured area on the top of the camera back for your thumb that combine to provide a solid feel in your hand.
In addition to buttons and switches that provide access to most of the important shooting settings, the L10 has two control wheels, making full manual shooting extra comfortable since you can use the front wheel to set aperture and the back wheel to set the shutter speed. Cameras with one wheel typically force you to press and hold a button to set the aperture or shutter speed in full manual mode. Olympus' Evolt E-510, another 10-megapixel SLR aimed at first timers, has only one wheel, as do most entry-level SLRs. Strangely, the L10 has no marked exposure compensation control, but in shooting modes other than full manual, the rear wheel adjusts exposure compensation.
For the uninitiated, live-view shooting means that the image you're about to capture can be framed on the camera's LCD screen, as you do with compact cameras. Since SLRs use a mirror to let you see through the lens, that means that the mirror has to be able to flip up and out of the way and the camera's sensor has to be able to continuously send an image to the LCD while you're framing. That's why the L10 uses a variation on a CMOS sensor called a LiveMOS sensor, such as the one found in the E-510, which also has a live-view shooting mode.
In live-view mode, the L10 has two kinds of autofocus: contrast and phase difference. When you use the 14mm-50mm f/3.8-f/5.6 D Vario-Elmar Leica-branded kit lens, or the similar (but fancier) kit lens from the L1, the L10 will employ contrast-based AF. However, if you use a different lens, then the camera switches automatically to phase difference AF, which is what the camera uses when out of live-view mode. The same goes for face detection, which is only available in live-view mode, but tied to the contrast AF system, so it can only be used with one of those two lenses. Presumably, there will be more lenses that are fully compatible with the L10's live-view mode in the future, but for now it seems that live-view shooting comes with some restrictions on this Panasonic. Despite those restrictions, live-view mode works just as well as it does in the E-510, though as in that camera this mode is a bit noisy since the mirror has to move around so much.
Following another trend in entry-level SLRs, the L10 doesn't include a status LCD. Instead you can see the status of current camera settings on the LCD screen. However, unlike Olympus' interactive status display, which lets you change camera settings very quickly on the camera's main LCD screen, this Panasonic just shows you the current settings and leaves the tweaking to the buttons and menus.
One out of the ordinary and quite nice feature of the DMC-L10 is its automatic zoom in review mode. When the camera shows you the image you just shot, the L10 can be set to automatically zoom in 4x so you can better check for focus. The bad part about the auto-zoom-review is that it zooms in on the center of the image, which often might not be the best part of the image to use to confirm focus. The zoom feature in the normal playback mode lets you zoom up to 16x and move around the image to zoom in on whatever section of the image you want, so you can always check later instead as you would with any other SLR.
Though the L10 is a Four Thirds format camera, which makes it compatible with all of Olympus' Four Thirds lenses, as well as those of third-party lensmakers such as Sigma and Tamron, Panasonic decided to sell it only as a kit. The included lens has better build quality than a lot of kit lenses, but I would've liked the choice of buying body only. Also, since the lens is expected to cost about $700 on its own, then the body-only version would conceivably be a lot less expensive, making the camera more competitive with other entry-level SLRs.
As you might expect given its target audience, the L10 includes a number of scene modes. Six spots on the mode dial are dedicated to them, and each of those spots offers more than one scene mode; they're basically grouped by the type of mode with various night modes together under one spot on the dial and various portrait modes under another spot, for example. You can also access descriptions of each mode so you can learn what the camera is doing to deal with the given situation. The descriptions also give suggestions for what you can do to best use the modes. For example, the Night Portrait mode suggests you "hold the camera firmly and the subject should keep still for at least 1 second."