Sunday, 28 September 2008

Panasonic Lumix LX3: further observations

Test shot, September 2008
Taken at ISO1600 with the LX3. Minimum processing of RAW in SilkyPix to 16-bit TIFF, NR with Neat Image, slight USM for output.

This is a follow-on from my first impressions post. I've now had the Lumix LX3 about a week and taken several hundred shots with it. There are a number of things I've found in using it that are worth mentioning. I was intending posting earlier but found some strange things in the RAW images which delayed me (I'll keep you in suspense as to what I found until later).

Firstly, however, is a clarification from the earlier post. Juha (who commented on my previous post) has been blogging on his experiences with the LX3. He found the interface to be quite complicated, whereas I found it simple and intuitive. This comes from our different ways of using the camera. I look at the interface from a setting-up the camera perspective. I don't use auto shooting modes and don't care about them (so no views on those here). Virtually all my shooting has been in aperture priority - I'm using this camera like I do my others - and so I'm interested in the LX3 as a serious tool rather than an auto P&S. Bear that in mind when reading my comments.

Most of this post will be in the realm of "things I wish it would do, but doesn't" - quite negative overall but bear with me. Not reams of test shots, as I don't feel I could really convey what I'm writing with web-sized pics. You'll just have to trust what I write (or go some place else).

The camera

Auto focus - there is a big problem with AF, speed 9or lack thereof). Not good for the decisive moment. Plenty accurate for static shots, however. There is also no way to do snap focus (e.g. a hyperfocal or infinity setting). Even the fast mode is too slow.
It does have a handy continuous mode, whereby the camera focuses as you move between subjects. trouble is it is ruined by the fact that the camera insists on re-focusing when the shutter release is pressed. Why have a camera focus all the time if it is going to focus again on taking the shot?

Manual focus - is my preferred method. I use the focus button when I want AF. Works well and is far more ergonomic that using AF and the AF-lock button. Also mean I can pre-focus or focus and re-compose with ease.
Actual manual focus is quite easy. I think the DoF scale is a bit conservative (I think there's more DoF than indicated) but haven't rigorously tested it yet. Great for hyperfocal or zone focus. I've got into the mode of f/4 and be there (approx equivalent DoF to f/8 on 35mm).

Zoom settings - this is a huge annoyance. There is no way to precisely set zoom point. No scale on the barrel (I can see the marker pen coming out), no step-zoom function and the zoom indicator bar is worse than useless (it shows 3 values - 1x for 24mm-e to about 35mm-e, 2x up to about 55mm-e and 2.5x at full zoom). Why can't I have either an electronic scale showing actual zoom position (in 35mm equivalent), or a scale on the barrel, or a step zoom function or better yet, all three? I reckon the 2 electronic options could be done in firmware, if they (Panasonic) set their minds to it.
The other rubbish thing is it doesn't remember zoom settings. It's not part of the remembered items in Custom mode and when the camera shuts down it always wakes up to fully wide. Madness! The sleep mode is quite good, and wake up is quite fast but not remembering the zoom setting is very annoying.

ISO versus shutter speed can be a bit variable. Sometimes it does a nice job of dropping the shutter speed right down, and sometimes it jumps to a ridiculous ISO. There is no way to set the minimum shutter speed in aperture priority, which is stupid: with the Mega-OIS, I'd be happy down to about 1/10 but it tends not to go further than 1/30 unless the ISO tops out. Of course you can always limit the ISO to lower values.

One big bonus is the camera is very quiet. Taking pics of people in museums, even the noise from a rangefinder was noticeable, no one noticed the LX3 (I've turned off all the beeps bleeps). Even the zoom is remarkably quiet.

Image processing & quality

Of course, this is where the crunch is. There will be a few LX3 images from me in the near future - some of the next PotDs from London will be LX3 shots. I'm liking the output.

The thing that delayed this post was something I was seeing in RAW images at high ISO. I took a load of mixed light, low illumination shots (my hotel room in KL). The JPEGs were nice, decent detail and good noise reduction even at ISO1600. The RAW seemed another matter - hot pixels, impossible to clean-up noise and SilkyPix (the Panasonic RAW software) couldn't touch it. Turns out to be user error (i.e. all my fault).

Once I found the NR settings and got working the software, and looking at the images properly, I have been very pleased.

I'm not going to claim overall image quality is up to DSLR standards, even with many pixels. But results are good. Sometimes WB gets confused, but that's a good reason to use RAW. Out of camera JPEGs are nice, but not a patch on what can be produced from the RAW. I've been using SilkyPix with basic settings to produce a 16-bit TIFF and then touching up in Photoshop. NR isn't bad with SilkyPix but doesn't come close to Neat Image.

And here's the upside - to my eyes noise is as good (maybe better) at high ISO than with my EOS 20D. Yes, you heard that right. I'm getting usable colour results right up to ISO1600 with a little effort. With the 20D, I'm in B&W only at that level. Who'd have thought that small sensors would catch up that well?
One big caveat - expose properly. Under exposing at high ISO and you've got nothing to play with. Those pixels are still coming from small buckets, so underlying noise is going to be high. But a decently exposed high ISO shot is perfectly good. Haven't printed any yet but I reckon 6x8" no problem, maybe even 8x10" from ISO1600. That is far beyond my expectation.
However, I'm normally limiting to ISO400 or 800, especially if there is good light. I think I'll set up the camera Custom modes with high ISOs for low light shooting.

The verdict

I'm just getting on and taking pictures. I like this camera very much. Use it in aperture priority and handle like any other decent camera and the results are very good. It handles naturally and produces good images even in low light. It is not, however, a dummy's P&S - a little care and craft are needed, I feel, to get the most out of its imaging capability but I'm fine with that. If you're a regular RF user, you might well get on with this camera. I can see this camera replacing my DSLRs in a whole host of situations, and might even become my preferred indoor camera.


  1. You are right in your comment about our different experiences in using the LX3 - I was stupid enough to try out the iA mode first. Now that I have been mostly using the P, A and S modes (and even M), the camera feels much better.

    This was a good observation: "It does have a handy continuous mode [...] it is ruined by the fact that the camera insists on re-focusing when the shutter release is pressed." This has been driving me crazy also.

    I very much liked your tips about using manual focusing and f/4 to get good reliable results. I'll try out that as well.

  2. I was always coming at this from the rangefinder direction, and have based my use around the way I use an RF. Therefore, my needs in terms of modes of operation are simple. Of course, I've not shot anything like the number of frames you have to test every capability.

  3. I've been watching the user comments on the LX3 attentively, as I'm attracted to this camera. Also being a RF user myself, I find your angle very interesting.

    Some of your comments (about step zoom, snap and infinity focus, always opening at 24mm...) make me all the more happy with my Ricoh GX100, which does all these things. But still I think the LX3 has some other strengths that the Ricoh is missing, notably in the high ISO image quality department...

    Well should I indulge and get a LX3, or should I save the money and buy another prime lens for my Pentax K10D or my Bessas... The jury's still out ;)

  4. Hi Doonster - I recently purchased the LX3 as a "camera for when I can't bring my real cameras" (NIkon D300 and D2X, etc... I would be curious to get your thoughts on the SilkyPix software - I cannot seem to get the hang of using it - I find it very non-intuitive. My previous camera for this same purpose (that I am now going to sell on eBay) was an Olympus SP-350 - pretty good images but really SLLOOWWW...
    Bob M.

  5. I've been thinking about posting on the SilkyPix software, so expect something soon(ish).

    Right now I'm doing the minimum in S-P, pretty much default options to a 16-bit, uncompressed TIFF, which I further work up in Photoshop.

    I'll post a couple of examples and explain some of the things I found.

  6. hey, i just bought myself an lx3 yesterday and so far it's doing great, but i'm just a little bothered by one thing:

    it seems that the image that i see on the LCD isn´t that sharp, but when i take the photo, the result looks fine. is it really like that or do i have to adjust some settings? it´s not blurry or anything, but i just feel kind of bothered cos the screen image is not that good.

    thanks a lot! hope you could help :-)

  7. It's hard to answer the question about the LCD quantitatively as it depends on what you're expecting. I only really use the LCD screen for a basic check of composition, either when taking or reviewing pictures. It's fine for that. I don't really expect much from camera LCDs in general.
    I haven't changed any settings on mine, except to run it at the lowest brightness I can get away with.
    As camera LCDs go, the LX3 has one as good as any other I've used, in light of the purpose to which i put it.

  8. I am a proud owner of my new LX3. I have read a lot of good things about this camara. Last weekend I took it with me on a vacation trip. It did very well for well-lighted landscapes, but not so fine when it comes to over-lighted sea-scenarios.
    I would be very glad, if you could tell me how I can fix this problem.
    Anyway, bunch of thanks for your great tips. Please, keep sharing your experiences on the LX3 and helping us making great photos, too!

  9. HanhQuyen - depends on 2 things: whether you're shooting RAw or JPEG and whether you're using the histogram to evaluate exposure.
    JPEG in these circumstances is tricky due to the limited headroom for highlights in mixed lighting. You'll need to adjust the exposure down quite a lot. RAW gives a lot more room so you can be a little more loose with exposure. I always expose using the live histogram, then can check if highlights are blown.
    If you check my recent posts with sea scapes, I'm also happy to have parrts of the scene over-expose to get the shot I want.

  10. Ditto about the lame Zoom Factor indicator.

    I've found by experimentation that the Zoom Factor equals about 1.25 when the minimum F Number increases from 2.0 to 2.2.

    That's about 30 mm (35mm equivalent) wide-angle perspective, and likely a fair bit less barrel distortion from the lens system to have to be corrected in (either) in-camera or pot-camera processing ...


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