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DCRP Review: Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1  
   

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: January 18, 2007
Last Updated: February 5, 2008

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The Lumix DMC-L1 marks Panasonic's entry into the crowded midrange digital SLR market. Co-developed with Olympus (whose E-330 is quite similar), the DMC-L1 packs a 7.5 Megapixel LiveMOS sensor, a FourThirds lens mount, a 2.5" LCD display with live view, full manual controls, dust reduction system, and a Leica-style body that's literally built like a brick. Unlike the E-330, there's only one live view mode on the DMC-L1, since there's no secondary CCD near the viewfinder. You can use live view in both manual and autofocus mode on the L1, though it's not terribly responsive, as there's a lot of "mirror flipping" that needs to occur before a photo is actually taken.

Another important part of the DMC-L1 package is its kit lens. This F2.8-3.5 Leica lens has a focal range of 14 - 50 mm (equivalent to 28 - 100 mm on the DMC-L1) with the added bonus of optical image stabilization. While it's still made in Japan, this lens definitely impresses.

The DMC-L1 was originally priced at just under $2000, but has since settled down at around the $1700 mark. One large discount warehouse chain (hint: starts with a C, ends with an O) recently had it for $1299, but that offer has since ended.

Is the L1 worth its rather hefty price? Find out now in our review!

What's in the Box?

The DMC-L1 is currently sold only with a lens (no body-only kit). The bundle is quite good for a D-SLR, and it includes:

  • The 7.5 effective Megapixel Lumix DMC-L1 camera body
  • Leica D Vario-Elmarit 14 - 50 mm lens
  • CGR-S603A lithium-ion battery
  • Battery charger / AC adapter
  • DC coupler
  • Lens caps (front and rear)
  • Lens hood
  • Body cap
  • Shoulder strap
  • Lens storage bag
  • USB cable
  • Video cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Lumix Simple Viewer, PhotoFunStudio, SilkyPix Developer Studio, and drivers
  • 134 page camera manual (printed)

As is the case with all digital SLRs, there's no memory card included in the box with the camera. Needless to say, you'll need to buy yourself one, unless you already have a stash of Secure Digital cards laying around. The camera supports both SD/MMC cards plus the new, high capacity SDHC format. Buying a high speed card (60X or above) is always a smart idea when you're using a digital SLR.

You won't need to buy a lens, though, as that nice Leica 14-50 that I described earlier is included. I was most impressed with its performance during my time with the L1. If you want to buy a different lens, then you can choose from the numerous FourThirds lenses out there made by Olympus and Sigma.

The L1's lithium-ion battery is known as the CGR-S603A, and it packs a powerful 10.8 Wh of energy. As far as I can tell, this battery is not interchangeable with the BLM-1 battery used by the E-330 and other Olympus SLRs, despite their similar appearance. What kind of battery life can you get out of the L1? Have a look:

Camera Battery life, 50% flash use
(CIPA standard)
Canon Digital Rebel XTi 360 shots
Canon EOS-30D 750 shots
Nikon D80 600 shots *
Nikon D200 340 shots **
Olympus EVOLT E-330 200 / 400 shots **
Olympus EVOLT E-500 400 shots
Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1 300 / 450 shots **
Pentax K10D 730 shots
Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 750 shots

* Not officially calculated using the CIPA standard, but same methodology used
** Live view (Mode B on the E-330) / viewfinder only

Battery life numbers are provided by the manufacturer

Despite having the same "guts" and battery power as the similar Olympus E-330, Panasonic's engineers have still managed to squeeze 50% more battery life out of the camera. Despite that, the L1's battery life is worse than average, especially if you use live view.

The usual warnings about proprietary batteries like the one used by the L1 apply here. First off, they're expensive -- a whopping $70 a pop (though third party batteries are available for about half that). Second, you can't use off-the-shelf batteries when your rechargeables dies, as you could with an AA-based camera. While there aren't any cameras in this class that let you use AA batteries right out of the box, several support them via an optional battery grip.

Speaking of battery grips, there isn't one available for the DMC-L1.

When it's time to charge the battery, just snap it into the included charger. The charger doesn't plug right into the wall -- you must use a power cable. It takes a little over two hours to fully charge the battery.

The battery charger also doubles as an AC adapter, which lets you power the camera without draining the battery. You plug one end into the charger and then put the DC coupler (basically a dummy battery) into the L1's battery compartment, threading the cable through a special hole.

Naturally, Panasonic includes a lens cap with the camera (not shown here). You'll also get a lens hood for shooting outdoors. If that's still not enough, Panasonic even threw in a soft carrying bag for the lens. Hey, gotta justify the high price somehow!

Since it's a digital SLR, you shouldn't be surprised to hear that the DMC-L1 has a ton of accessories available. They include:

Accessory Model # Price Why you want it
Lenses Varies Varies You can use any FourThirds mount lens. The vast majority of them are made by Olympus.
Circular polarizing filter DMW-LPL72 From $120 Reduces reflections, darkens the sky, removes haze.
MC protector DMW-LMCH72 From $50 Protect your lens from scratches or worse
External flash DMW-FL360
DMW-FL500
From $270
From $520
Get better flash photos with less redeye
Remote shutter release cable DMW-RSL1 From $70 Take a photo without laying a hand on the camera
Leather camera strap PS-HFZ30 $60 Impress your friends with this expensive shoulder strap
Leather camera bag DMW-BAL1 From $170 Holds the L1 and a lens

One things for sure: Panasonic accessories are ridiculously expensive!


Lumix Simple Viewer for Windows

Panasonic includes several software products with the camera, though only one of them is Mac compatible. The first one is Lumix Simple Viewer (Windows only), which does just what it sounds like: it imports and views photos. You can't do any editing -- just rotation, printing, and e-mailing. The version of Simple Viewer that came with my L1 could not even display RAW images. The user interface also leaves much to be desired.


PhotoFunStudio for Windows

For slightly more complex tasks there's PhotoFunStudio, again for Windows only. This can do all the things Simple Viewer can do, plus it can also resize and rename images. It cannot view RAW images either.


SilkyPix Developer Studio for Mac OS X

If you want to manipulate the RAW images produced by the L1 then you'll need to use the included SilkyPix Developer Studio software, which is the only Mac compatible software included with the camera. While it certainly won't win any awards for its user interface, SilkyPix does let you edit plenty of RAW properties, including exposure, white balance, sharpness, tone and color, and noise reduction. I found its processing speeds to be quite sluggish on my dual processor Mac Pro, though.

If you have Adobe Photoshop CS2, you can also use the latest version of the Camera Raw plug-in to open and edit the L1's RAW images.

The RAW format, by the way, is a lossless image format consisting of raw image data from the CCD. Because of this, you can change things like white balance, sharpness, and saturation without lowering the quality of the original image. So if you screwed up the white balance you can fix it -- it's like taking the shot all over again. The catch is that RAW files must be first processed on your computer before you can export them into more common formats such as JPEG. In addition, RAW files are considerably larger than JPEGs -- around 15MB each.

I'm not a huge fan of Panasonic's camera manuals, whether it's for cameras or DVD players. They're not terribly easy to read, with lots of "notes" on every page. You will get your question answered -- you'll just have to work a bit to find what you're looking for.

Look and Feel

The DMC-L1 bears little resemblance to its sister camera, the Olympus E-330. Rather, it has more in common with Leica rangefinder cameras of days past. I liken it to a brick: rectangular, sturdy, heavy, and not terribly easy to hold. The camera has a magnesium alloy frame, with a metal of metal and rubberized plastics on the surface. It's built like a tank.

Ergonomics aren't the L1's strong suit, in my opinion. The camera is big and bulky, and not terribly comfortable in your hand. It's covered with buttons and dials, which is good for the retro look, but not so good for usability: the L1 is harder to operate than most D-SLRs, and it's quite easy to accidentally change a setting, especially metering. This is definitely a camera that you want to try out before you buy it.

Now here's a look at how the DMC-L1 compares to other D-SLRs in terms of size and weight (for the body only, of course):

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon Digital Rebel XTi 5.0 x 3.7 x 2.6 in. 48.1 cu in. 510 g
Canon EOS-30D 5.7 x 4.2 x 2.9 in. 69.4 cu in. 700 g
Nikon D200 5.8 x 4.4 x 2.9 in. 74 cu in. 830 g
Nikon D80 5.2 x 4.1 x 3.0 in. 64 cu in. 585 g
Olympus EVOLT E-330 5.5 x 3.4 x 2.8 in. 52.4 cu in. 550 g
Olympus EVOLT E-500 5.0 x 3.7 x 2.6 in. 48.1 cu in. 435 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1 5.7 x 3.4 x 3.1 in. 60.1 cu in. 530 g
Pentax K10D 5.6 x 4.0 x 2.8 in. 62.7 cu in. 710 g
Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 5.3 x 3.8 x 2.9 in. 58.4 cu in. 545 g

Despite my assertion that its big and bulky, the DMC-L1 is actually smaller and lighter than the Canon EOS-30D and Nikon D200. It just doesn't feel like it when you pick it up, especially with that kit lens attached.

Okay, let's begin our tour of the L1 now!

Here's the front of the DMC-L1 with the lens off. You can see the lens mount, which supports all FourThirds lenses. Like all cameras that use FourThirds lenses, there is a 2X crop factor, so that 14 - 50 mm lens has the field-of-view of 28 - 100 mm. In the middle of the lens mount is the side-swinging mirror, which isn't something you see on most D-SLRs. Further back (and not visible here) is the camera's 7.5 Megapixel LiveMOS sensor.

This sensor is unique in that it can supports continuous live view on the LCD (as it did on the E-330), so you can use that in addition to the optical viewfinder. You can use the live view in both auto and manual focus mode, though shooting is pretty sluggish when you're using the former.

There's something else important going on around the sensor, and that's dust reduction. In front of the sensor is the same Supersonic Wave Filter that has been found on Olympus D-SLRs for some time. When you turn on the camera this filter literally "shakes" the dust away. If you currently own a D-SLR then you know why this is a nice feature.

The lower-right of the lens mount is the lens release button. Moving straight up from there we find AF-assist lamp, which is also used as the visual countdown for the self-timer. The AF-assist lamp is used by the camera when it needs a little extra help focusing in low light situations.

Jumping across the camera body you can see the IR sensor, which helps the automatic white balance system figure out what kind of lighting you're under.

The DMC-L1's flash is very special. At first glance it may look like a regular pop-up flash, but it has a trick up its sleeve:


Normal flash position


Tilt the flash back and you can bounce!

Yes, the L1's flash can be used to bounce the light off the ceiling, which reduces redeye and makes your flash photos a lot less washed out. The flash isn't terribly powerful for a D-SLR, with a guide number of 10 meters at ISO 100. With the kit lens the working range is 2.5 - 7 m at wide-angle and 1 - 5.6 m at telephoto (at Auto ISO).

Some comparison numbers for you now: the EOS-30D has a guide number of 13, as do the Nikon D80 and Olympus E-330. The Nikon D200 has a GN of 12, while the Pentax K10D's guide number is 11. These are all at ISO 100, by the way.

It's an understatement to say that there are a lot of things to see on the back of the DMC-L1. Button clutter, anyone?

Let's start with the LCD first. This 2.5" screen has 207,000 pixels, so everything nice and sharp. The screen is fixed on the DMC-L1, unlike the E-330's which can tilt up and down. When the LCD is doing its live view thing, you'll see 100% of the frame -- something that you just can't get with the optical viewfinder.

So how does the live view actually look? Not bad, actually. Images are sharp and everything's easy to see in good lighting. In low light, however, images were quite difficult to see. The camera doesn't have the same "LCD boost" feature that the Olympus E-330 had, but that was only for Mode A live view anyway. The live view will reflect the white balance option you're using, but the effects of adjusting the shutter speed and/or aperture is not shown.

Like on the E-330, the L1's LCD is used for displaying shooting information when you're using the viewfinder. Unlike that camera, you can't quickly adjust the settings displayed on the screen, but it's not a big deal, since the buttons cover those options fairly well.

To the upper-left of the LCD is the optical viewfinder (which protrudes quite a bit from the camera body) that displays 95% of the frame. On the similar Olympus E-330 there's actually a CCD in the viewfinder chamber to provide the "Live View Mode A" feature, which requires splitting the light into two paths. The DMC-L1 only uses the LiveMOS sensor for live view, so it lacks the viewfinder CCD. However, the light is still split into two paths, which makes the viewfinder noticeably darker than those found on other digital SLRs. The viewfinder is also on the small side. To the right of the field-of-view are two columns of shooting data, such as shutter speed, shots remaining, focus lock, and more. A diopter correction knob will focus what you're looking at.

[Paragraph updated 1/19/07]


MF Assist lets you zoom in one a selected area in the frame to get a closer look

Okay let's talk about buttons now, starting with the ones to the right of the viewfinder. The live view button toggles that feature on and off. Do note that you must use the AF-S or MF focus mode in order to use live view. You'll get to those with the switch on the other side of the flash pop-up button. The choices are AF-S (single autofocus), AF-C (continuous autofocus, handy for moving subjects), and manual focus. In manual focus mode you'll turn the focus ring around the lens to set the focus distance. In live view mode you have the option of enlarging a part of the frame (this feature is called MF Assist) by either 4 or 10 times, which is good for confirming that your subject is properly focused. At the center of the focus mode switch is the AE/AF lock button.

Jumping now to the left side of the LCD, we find the following buttons:

  • White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, shade, halogen, flash, white set 1/2, color temperature) - see below
  • ISO (Auto, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600)
  • Flash setting (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, flash on, flash on w/redeye reduction, slow sync, slow sync w/redeye reduction)
  • Flash exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments)

To change any of those settings you just press the button and use the command dial (just to the right of the focus mode switch) to select an option.


White balance fine-tuning

The DMC-L1 has a full suite of white balance controls. There are the usual presets, two custom spots, and you can even set the color temperature (2500K - 10000K) if you so desire. There's also a fine tuning tool which lets you tint the color in the orange/blue or green/red directions. One thing not here: white balance bracketing.

Jumping across the LCD we find these buttons:

  • Playback mode - enters it
  • Display - toggles what is shown on the LCD
  • Depth-of-field preview - see below
  • Delete photo

The depth-of-field preview shows you, well, the depth-of-field -- the effective focus range. It's only available in live view mode, and only when you have set the aperture manually, which is unusual.

To the right of those buttons is the four-way controller, used mainly for menu navigation. Above that is the command dial, which you'll use to adjust the various options that I just described, plus it operates the Program Shift feature, which lets you select from various aperture/shutter speed combinations. Just northeast of that is the power switch.

There's plenty more to talk about on the top of the DMC-L1. I'll start with the lens, since it has the rather unusual trait of having an aperture ring. When it's set to "A", the aperture is adjusted automatically. To adjust the aperture on the L1 (with the kit lens) you'll unlock that dial and rotate it to the desired position. The camera is then in aperture priority mode, unless you also adjust the shutter speed, in which case you'll be in full manual mode.

Adjusting the aperture is different if you're not using the kit lens. In those cases you'll hold down the Func. 1 button (far right of the photo) while turning the command dial.

Down on the camera body we find the L1's hot shoe on the far left. The camera works best with Panasonic or Olympus external flashes (they're the same thing), as they are able to communicate with the camera for TTL flash metering. You can use third party flashes as well, but be prepared to put both the camera and flash in their respective manual mode. The DMC-L1 can sync as fast as 1/160 sec with an external flash.

Moving to the right half of the camera body we find the L1's unique shutter speed dial, which has the shutter release button inside it (which really isn't such a great spot). The shutter speed range is 60 - 1/4000 sec, with some speeds available on the dial, and others accessible via the command dial (like when you're at the 1000 - 4000 spot). A bulb mode is also available, allowing for exposures as long as 8 minutes long.

Below the shutter speed dial is the drive mode switch, which lets you choose from single-shot, continuous, AE bracketing, and self-timer modes. There are actually two continuous modes to choose from: low speed and high speed. In either mode the camera can shoot up to six RAW+JPEG images in a row, or a virtually unlimited number of JPEGs. In low speed mode the frame rate is 1.9 frames/second, while in high speed mode that number jumps to 2.8 frames/second. While the JPEG shooting never slowed down at the low speed setting, the frame rate did start to drop after about twenty shots in high speed mode. I suppose I should also remind you that a high speed memory card is required for best continuous shooting performance.

The auto exposure bracketing feature will take three or five photos in a row, each having a different exposure value. You can select an exposure interval of ±1/3EV, ±2/3EV, or ±1EV. If you have a lot of space on your memory card, this is one way to get proper exposure every time.

To the right of the shutter speed dial you'll find the two custom buttons on the L1, known as Func 1 and Func 2. By default they control image size and exposure compensation, but they can do just about anything you want.

The last item of note on the top of the camera is the terribly placed metering mode switch. Not only is it very easy to bump, but my brain kept insisting that it was the power switch, since that's where they are often located. Here you can chose between multi-segment, center-weighted, and spot metering.

There thankfully isn't too much to see on this side of the DMC-L1. If you've got the kit lens attached, here's where you'll turn the optical image stabilizer on and off. In fooling around with the lens, I found the OIS system to be quite effective. I'll try to toss in an example soon.

At the lower right corner of the photo -- under a rubber cover -- are the camera's I/O ports. Let's take a closer look:

The ports here include one for video out and the optional remote control and another for USB. As you'd expect from a camera in this price range (and unlike the E-330), the L1 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard.

On the other side of the camera is the memory card slot, which is protected by a plastic door of average quality. As I mentioned earlier, the L1 supports SD, SDHC, and MMC memory cards.

Below that slot is where you'll feed the cable for the included AC adapter.

On the bottom of the L1 you'll find a metal tripod mount, which is (of course) lined up with the lens. To the right of that is the battery compartment, which has a sturdy door with a locking mechanism.

You can see the CGR-S603A battery at the lower right of the photo.

Using the Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1

Record Mode

Despite taking a moment to shake off dust when its turned on, the DMC-L1 still starts up fairly quickly, taking a little over a second before you can fire off a shot.


A live histogram on a D-SLR? Who would've thought!

Autofocus speeds are going to depend not only on what lens you're using, but also if you're using live view or not. With live view off, focusing times with the kit lens ranged from 0.1 to 0.3 seconds at wide-angle and up to twice as long at the telephoto end. Low light focusing was accurate, but on the slow side (make sure your hand is out of the way of the AF-assist lamp!). I found it very hard to compose shots in those situations, as the viewfinder and live view were both too dark to see anything.

Focus times go up considerably if you're using live view because the camera has to flip the mirror into position, focus, and then get the mirror out of the way for the live view to continue. Expect to wait an additional second for focus lock if you're using that feature.

I wouldn't expect any shutter lag on a digital SLR and guess what -- there wasn't any.

Shot-to-shot delays are minimal. You can pretty much shoot as fast as you want, at least until the buffer fills up. Even in RAW mode the camera was ready to take another shot in a second or so.

There's no way to delete a photo after it is taken -- you must enter playback mode.

Now, here's a look at the various resolution and quality options available on the L1:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 1GB SD card (optional)
Large
3136 x 2352
RAW

23.3 MB *

43 *
Super Fine 7.7 MB 130
Fine 3.8 MB 260
Standard 2.0 MB 510
Medium
2560 x 1920
Super Fine 5.1 MB 195
Fine 2.6 MB 390
Standard 1.3 MB 770
Small
2048 x 1536
Super Fine 3.3 MB 300
Fine 1.7 MB 600
Standard 850 KB 1180
* For a RAW + Large / Super Fine JPEG

The first thing I should point out is that a JPEG is always saved along with a RAW image (and I told you why those are cool earlier in the review). Whatever image size/quality setting you have is what the JPEG will end up as. In the chart above, the value shown is for a Large / Super Fine JPEG, hence the large file size. The RAW file itself is about 15 MB, which is considerably larger than RAW file sizes on D-SLRs with similar resolutions.

The L1 also lets you shoot at the 16:9 or 3:2 aspect ratios, if you desire.

The camera saves images with a name of P100####.JPG, where # = 0001 = 9999. If a photo is taken in AdobeRGB mode, the file name will start with an underscore instead. The camera maintains the file numbering, even as you erase and switch memory cards.

The DMC-L1 has a pretty standard menu system for a digital SLR. It's divided into four tabs, covering recording, setup, custom, and playback options. Here's what you'll find in the menus:

  • Recording options
    • Film mode (Standard, dynamic, nature, smooth, standard B&W, dynamic B&W, smooth B&W, My Film 1/2) - see below
    • Picture size (see above chart)
    • Quality (see above chart)
    • Raw recording (on/off) - turns on RAW+JPEG mode
    • Aspect ratio (4:3, 3:2, 16:9)
    • Extended optical zoom (on/off) - see below
    • Digital zoom (Off, 2X, 4X) - only available when using live view
    • Self-timer (2 or 10 sec)
    • AF-assist lamp (on/off)
    • OIS mode (Mode 1, Mode 2) - only for the kit lens; see below for more
    • Auto bracketing - I discussed this feature earlier
      • Number of shots / steps (3/0.3EV, 3/0.7EV, 3/1EV, 5/0.3EV, 5/0.7EV, 5/1EV)
      • Sequence (0/-/+, -/0/+, 0/-/+/--/++, --/-/0/+/++)
    • AF/AE lock (AF, AE, AF/AE) - define what this button does
    • Burst rate (Low speed, high speed) - I described the continuous shooting feature earlier
    • Flash sync (1st curtain, 2nd curtain)

  • Setup options
    • Clock set
    • World time (Home, travel) - for when you're on the road
    • Monitor brightness (1-7)
    • Auto review
      • Review time (Off, 1-3 secs) - normal post-shot review
      • Zoom (Off, 1-3 sec) - in this mode the camera will enlarge the photo by a factor of four
    • Power save (Off, 1, 2, 5, 10 mins)
    • MF assist (Off, 4X, 10X) - how much the image is enlarged when using the live view manual focus assist feature
    • Beep (Off, soft, loud)
    • File no. reset
    • Reset - back to default settings
    • USB mode (Select on connection, PC, PictBridge/PTP)
    • Highlight (on/off) - shows blown highlights in post-shot review
    • Video out (NTSC, PAL)
    • TV aspect (16:9, 4:3)
    • Language (English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese)

  • Custom settings
    • Custom set (Normal, factory, set 1/2/3) - you can have up to three sets of custom settings
    • Custom setting memory (Set 1, 2, 3) - save current settings
    • Function 1 button setting - this one and the next one let you assign almost any menu option to the two custom buttons
    • Function 2 button setting
    • Direct exposure compensation (on/off) - lets you adjust the exposure compensation by using the command dial only
    • LCD auto (on/off) - turns the LCD off when you halfway press the shutter release when shooting with the viewfinder
    • AF frame (Auto, center, select) - the last item lets you choose one of the three available focus points yourself; yes, just three points on this pricey camera
    • AF+MF (on/off) - lets you focus manually after the autofocus has done its thing
    • AF/AE lock hold (on/off) - whether the AF/AE lock stays on indefinitely or only while the button is being held down
    • AF-LED (on/off) - the selected focus point is illuminated in the viewfinder
    • Focus priority (on/off) - whether focus lock is required for a photo to be taken
    • Color space (sRGB, AdobeRGB)
    • Long shutter noise reduction (on/off) - reduces noise in long exposures
    • Mirror lock-up (on/off) - flips the mirror out of the way to reduce the risk of a blurry photo (only needed in rare circumstances)
    • Display set (Rec info, histogram, guide 1/2) - what info can be shown on the LCD
    • Pixel refresh (on/off) - known as pixel mapping on Olympus cameras, this gets rid of dead pixels
    • No release without lens (on/off)

  • Playback settings
    • Slideshow
    • Favorite (On, off, cancel) - tag photos as favorites
    • Rotate display (on/off) - Automatically rotates photos taken vertically
    • Rotate image - you can also manually rotate images
    • DPOF print
    • Protect
    • Resize - reduce large or medium size images
    • Trimming - crop a photo
    • Aspect convert (3:2, 4:3) - change the aspect ratio
    • Format

The film mode options in the record menu are a lot like the Picture Styles on Canon's D-SLRs. There are presets for both color and black and white photography, plus two spots for custom settings. If you choose My Film 1 or 2 you can adjust the contrast, sharpness, saturation, and noise reduction levels from -2 to +2 in 1-step increments.

Like on Panasonic's consumer cameras, the DMC-L1 has an extended optical zoom feature, which is basically a lossless digital zoom. The catch is that you must lower the resolution in order to use it. Going down to 5MP gives you a 1.2X zoom boost, and that number jumps to 1.5X at the 3MP setting. For example, at the 3MP setting the focus range of the kit lens goes from 28 - 100 mm to 42 - 150 mm. You can, of course, do the same thing by shooting at full resolution and cropping the image in your favorite photo editor.

The two OIS modes should be familiar to those of you who have used a Panasonic digital camera. Mode 1 activates the image stabilizer as soon as you halfway press the shutter release, which helps you compose the photo. Mode 2 only turns OIS on when the photo is actually taken, which does a better job of actually stabilizing the photo than Mode 1. And remember, this feature (currently) only applies to the kit lens.

That's enough for menus, let's move on to our test photos now!

The L1 did a fine job with our standard macro test subject. Colors look good, and the subject has the smooth (some may say soft) look that is a trademark of most digital SLRs.

The minimum distance to your subject will depend on what lens is attached to the camera. In the case of the kit lens, the minimum distance is 29 cm. Olympus (who makes 95% of the FourThirds lenses) has several dedicated macro lenses available.

The night shot turned out very well, save for one problem. The good news is that the L1 took in plenty of light, which isn't surprising considering its manual exposure controls. The buildings are fairly sharp, and noise and purple fringing are minimal. The one "gotcha" here is some moiré on the building to the right of the US Bank tower -- I haven't seen this before. I took the same shot in RAW mode and the moiré magically disappeared (and the photo was a heck of a lot sharper, too).

Now let's use that same night scene to show how the camera performed at its various ISO settings:


ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400


ISO 800


ISO 1600

There's not a huge difference between the ISO 100 and 200 shots, though some noise reduction artifacts start to pop up at the latter. At ISO 400 we start to see a lot of smudged details, giving the photo a watercolor look. At ISO 800 and 1600 noise really starts to take over, so I'd avoid these settings in low light if possible. The L1 is considerably noisier than the competition at both of those ISO sensitivities.

I'll have another ISO test (in more normal lighting) in a bit.

I wasn't surprised at all with the results of the redeye test. With a pop-up flash that stays well away from the lens, there's no red to be found.

The distortion test illustrates just how nice the DMC-L1's Leica kit lens is. There's not a lot of barrel distortion, and vignetting (dark corners) and blurry corners were not a problem.

And now it's time for ISO test number two, which is shot in my "studio". You can compare this test with those in other reviews on this site. While the crops below give you a quick view of the differences at the various ISO sensitivities, it's a good idea to view the full-size images as well.


ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400


ISO 800


ISO 1600

ISO 1600 (converted from RAW)

Everything looks pretty clean through ISO 400. Noise picks up at ISO 800, and there's a slight color cast as well, but you should get a decent midsize print at that setting. At ISO 1600 the color cast (green) gets worse, making the overall photo really drab.. The image has its share of noise and noise reduction artifacts as well. I threw that last image in there (converted using Photoshop) so you can see how you get a sharper image with more detail (and noise) and no color cast by shooting in RAW mode. The competition (from Canon and Nikon at least) do a whole lot better than the DMC-L1 at the two highest ISO settings.

Overall, the DMC-L1's image quality was excellent, and comparable to other D-SLRs -- at least until you get to higher ISOs. Photos were well-exposed, with pleasing colors, and minimal purple fringing. As I showed above, noise levels are low through ISO 400, but above average once you get above that. Like most D-SLRs, photos are on the soft side, and if you agree there are two workarounds. You can turn up the in-camera sharpening a notch or two (I recommend the latter), or you can shoot in RAW mode. The crops below compare a straight-out-of-the-camera JPEG with two RAW conversions:


JPEG straight out of the camera

Converted from RAW using SilkyPix

Converted from RAW using Adobe Photoshop CS3 Beta

Now I don't know about you, but I find the RAW conversions a lot more appealing than the original JPEG. They're sharper and have much more pleasing color. And I didn't edit them at all -- just converted them. This shows what the L1 is capable of that, sadly, its image processor doesn't deliver when shooting JPEGs.

I can blab about image quality all day (okay, not really), but ultimately you need to look at the photos and judge their quality for yourself. Have a look at our gallery, printing a few photos if you can, and then (I hope) you'll be able to decide if the L1's photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

Digital SLRs do not have movie modes.

Playback Mode

The L1 has a pretty standard playback mode for a D-SLR. Basic playback options include slideshows, DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail mode (choose from 9 or 25 photos per page), and zoom and scroll. This last feature lets you enlarge a photo by as much as 16X, and then move around in the zoomed-in area. It's useful for checking focus, or whether your subject had their eyes open.

You can also rotate, resize, and crop your photos in playback mode. An aspect ratio conversion feature lets you quickly put images into the 3:2 ratio (handy for 4 x 6 inch prints).

The L1 also can also show a calendar view of when you took photos, so you can easily jump to the photos you took on a specific date.

The camera allows you to select a group of photos to delete, instead of just one or all of them -- a feature I always appreciate.

By default, the camera doesn't give you a lot of information about your photos. But press the display button and you'll get more information, including a histogram. Other D-SLRs show you a lot more, though.

Moving between photos is a bit slower than on most D-SLRs. You'll wait about a second between each one.

How Does it Compare?

The Lumix DMC-L1 -- Panasonic's first digital SLR -- combines modern technology and classic rangefinder styling into an impressive (but not class leading) package. It has very good photo quality (especially if you shoot in RAW mode), live viewing on its LCD display, generally snappy performance, plenty of manual controls, and the best kit lens on the market. The L1 isn't without its flaws, though. Its bulky body is an ergonomic nightmare (in my opinion), the viewfinder is small and dark, noise levels at high ISOs are above average, and its vastly overpriced. A good camera, yes. A good value, no.

While Panasonic is going for the classic rangefinder look and feel with the L1, it felt more like a brick in my hands. Its heavy, difficult to hold, and absolutely covered in buttons, switches, and dials. Some of these are poorly placed, liked the drive and metering switches and the shutter release button. The shutter speed dial is clever, but you still end up using the four-way controller to adjust the shutter speed sometimes, since the whole range cannot fit on the dial. The Leica kit lens is a work of art, with good sharpness across the frame, and built-in optical image stabilization. It is -- by far -- the best kit lens out there, and I'm sure it's mostly why the camera costs so much. I liked the L1's unique pop-up flash, which can point upward for a "bounce" effect. The camera has a large 2.5" LCD that is typical of digital SLRs these days, though it doesn't tilt like on its sister camera, the E-330.

The camera inherited 50% of the live view features from the E-330, and it works pretty well for the most part. It's good for previewing shots in good lighting, and the MF assist feature is handy. While the 2.5" LCD display can't tilt like on the E-330, it's still sharp and bright. There are downsides though, namely a slowdown in focus times, terrible low light visibility, and an extra strain on the battery. There's another effect as well, and one that you wouldn't think of unless you were familiar with the E-330. Due to reasons which I described in the review, not much light makes it to the L1's small optical viewfinder, and as a result its much darker than other D-SLRs. As a result, I found framing shots in low light to be quite difficult, regardless of whether I was using the live view or the viewfinder.

As you'd expect from a D-SLR, the DMC-L1 has a full suite of manual controls. You've got shutter speed and aperture of course (both of which use dials on the body/lens), white balance (including fine-tuning), and things like sharpness, saturation, and noise reduction. There isn't really an "auto" mode on the camera, and there are exactly zero scene modes (though who would pay two grand for the L1 and then use scenes?). The ISO can be cranked to 1600 but only in full-stop increments, which was a bit disappointing. There were only three focus points as well, which lags well behind other cameras in this price range. On a more positive note, the camera has two custom buttons and can hold three sets of custom settings. The L1 supports the RAW image format, and a JPEG is saved along with the RAW file. Panasonic includes clunky, but functional software for processing RAW image data. The camera's uncompressed RAW files are twice as large as other cameras with this resolution, so they take up quite a bit of space on your memory card.

Camera performance is good in most respects. Since the DMC-L1 has a dust reduction system that runs when you turn on the camera, its 1 second startup time is a bit slower than the competition. Focusing times were snappy in good lighting, but slow in low light, even with the AF-assist lamp. If you're using live view then you can expect to wait an additional second for focus lock, since the mirror has to flip into position and then back out of the way. I did not find shutter lag to be a problem, and shot-to-shot delays were minimal, even in RAW mode. The L1's continuous shooting mode was nice, taking 6 RAW and virtually an infinite number of JPEGs at 1.9 or 2.8 frames/second, depending on which "speed" you chose. The L1 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, and it better, given its price.

Photo quality is very good in JPEG mode, and excellent if you're shooting RAW. In either case, photos were generally well-exposed, with pleasing colors and minimal purple fringing. JPEGs straight out of the camera are on the soft side, so you may want to turn up the in-camera sharpening a notch or two. Photos I took in RAW mode were much sharper and had more saturated colors to boot. Noise levels are low through ISO 400, but at ISO 800 you start to see noise reduction artifacting (in JPEG mode), and it gets even worse at ISO 1600, where I also noticed some color shifting. Results at both of these sensitivities were noticeably better in RAW mode. Even so, other D-SLRs in the L1's class do better at high ISOs.

I have two last things I wanted to mention before I wrap things up. The L1's flash is pretty weak compared to other D-SLRs, but at least there's a hot shoe to get around that (if it's a problem for you). Finally, I found accessory prices for the camera to be through the roof. $70 for a battery or remote shutter release cable? Ouch.

The Lumix DMC-L1 is an intriguing product, and a good first digital SLR for Panasonic. It offers a lot of features, some of which are quite unique, though some of its frustrations (namely noise at high ISOs, so-so image processing, and poor ergonomics) really stick with you. The biggest problem I have with the L1 is its price: no matter how nice the lens is (and it IS nice), $1700 is a steep price to pay for a 7.5 Megapixel camera that's far from perfect.

If you're set on live view, you can save yourself a lot of money by getting the Olympus E-330 instead (around $800 body only) and then adding in an F2.8-3.5, 14 - 54 mm lens for $430 more. For those who didn't do well in math, that's $1230, or about $400 less than the L1 kit. If you don't care about live view, then there are numerous other options available, from Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and Sony, for hundreds of dollars less.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality, especially if you shoot RAW
  • Excellent Leica kit lens with optical image stabilization
  • Built like a tank
  • Robust performance in most areas
  • Live view on sharp 2.5" LCD (but see issues below)
  • Handy MF assist feature when using live view
  • Full manual controls
  • Cool pop-up flash can be angled upwards for "bouncing"
  • Dust reduction system
  • Two custom buttons on top of camera
  • Decent software included to work with RAW images
  • USB 2.0 High Speed support
  • All the add-ons that you'd expect from a D-SLR

What I didn't care for:

  • Very expensive for what you get
  • Bulky, clumsy body has too many buttons and dials; some switches very poorly placed
  • Noisier than other D-SLRs at high ISOs
  • JPEG image processing isn't the best; you'll get much better results shooting RAW
  • Live view slows focusing times, drains battery; nearly impossible to see anything in low light
  • Dark, narrow optical viewfinder
  • Slow low light focusing; only three focus points
  • RAW files are twice as large as cameras with similar resolution
  • Weak flash compared to competition
  • Pricey accessories

Some other digital SLRs worth considering include the Canon Digital Rebel XTi and EOS-30D, Nikon D80 and D200, Olympus E-330 and E-500, Pentax K10D/Samsung GX-10, and the Sony Alpha DSLR-A100.

As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera store to try out the DMC-L1 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Want to see how the photo quality turned on? Check out our huge photo gallery!

Want a second opinion?

You can read more reviews of the L1 at CNET, Trusted Reviews, and Luminous Landscape. Digital Photography Review still has a detailed preview available, as well.

Feedback & Discussion

If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation or technical support.

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