The romantic might believe that there’s someone out there absolutely perfect for them. All you have to do is find them, then live happily ever after.
However the pragmatist might suggest that instead, if we can find someone 90% compatible, that we have a strong connection with – and crucially who doesn’t annoy us too much – then with commitment we can enjoy a long and fruitful partnership.
On the camera front, I’ve become far more of a pragmatist these days.
The cameras I’ve loved most are those that seem to have the most aspects right, and have few enough irritating traits that I can overlook them and work around them.
Which brings us to the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, a camera I’ve had on my wishlist for some years.
After finding one in the right condition at the right price, I took the plunge.
It’s a splendid, classy camera, solidly made, pleasingly compact, packed with features, and with a stunning f/2 Leica lens that focuses plenty close.
On paper it’s an absolute dream date of a camera for me, and surely a rival for my current three favourite compacts, the Ricoh GX100, GRD III and Pentax Q.
So why don’t I love it?
I really want to stress that there’s so much that impresses about the LX3.
If I’d never picked up any of my aforementioned “holy trinity”, the Lumix would probably be my single favourite digital compact I’ve ever used.
Because so much is right, it’s easier to talk about the points that stop it being the greatest digital compact I’ve yet tried, or – on my impressions from shooting a few hundred photos so far – even breaking into those top three.
And after all, who ever remembers who finishes fourth in an Olympic final?
First, the biggest single issue I have is the handling.
Overall the size is excellent, compact enough to slip in a pocket or conceal in your hand with a wrist strap. The build is very good and it feels solid without being overly heavy. But, it’s just not comfortable to hold.
On the front, there’s a bulge to wrap your fingers around, with a (faux?) leather strip for extra grip. But the bulge doesn’t bulge enough for your fingers to naturally close around, and the leather strip is smooth and offers zero additional grip.
All three of my holy trinity (HT) cameras have a larger enough grip to get your fingers around, and are satisfyingly grippy rubber.
Just take a look below at the grip of the Ricoh GX100, the best handling compact I’ve ever used, compared with the LX3. The difference in ergonomics is obvious.
With the GX100, my fingers wrap naturally around the rubber grip. They could not fit in a more glove like manner.
With the LX3’s skinny grip I’m half clawing, half gripping, my fingers in a very unnatural position. There’s less space for my fingers horizontally – the lens on the Ricohs is shifted to the left more, giving even more room for your right hand, whilst retaining a compact build overall. The Ricoh’s grip is a masterpiece. The Lumix’s feels like an afterthought, a feeble alternative to a completely flat front face of the camera.
On the rear, things aren’t helped by having a space perhaps 5mm x 5mm to rest your thumb. And again, no grippy rubber, just a few half hearted and next to useless raised dots.
Now I don’t have big hands, but I can’t seem to hold it without my thumb covering this area plus the switch next to it that selects shoot or playback modes, as well as sometimes inadvertently pushing down on the AE lock button just below.
For a camera that’s otherwise so promising this seems like such a fundamental flaw to me.
Whatever else it does, makes it just a little frustrating to hold and use, because you’re never properly gripping it, just kind of half cradling it precariously like one of those motorised claw arcade machines that, to young children’s delight, grabs a fluffy bunny and lifts it enticingly into the air before letting it slip down again right at the point it’s almost the child’s to win and take home.
The major reason for this at the rear, is the screen.
Yes it’s big (3″), bright and lovely, but so are the 3″ screens on the GRD III and Q and they don’t encroach unnecessarily on the rear grip.
Even better is my GX100 which has a slightly smaller screen, but in compensation gives your thumb positively acres of space in comparison to the LX3, and with a luxurious soft rubber grip.
To me have a slightly larger screen is no trade off for the fundamental handling of a camera.
Even more annoyingly, I have a circa 2005 Lumix LZ1 which has a much curvier and more substantial front grip, and due mostly to the perfectly adequately sized 2″ screen, gives your thumb more than enough real estate on the rear.
Why did Panasonic get the handling so right on a fairly low end 2005 5MP plastic consumer camera, but failed with the much higher spec LX3 three years later?
You might think I’m making too much fuss about just a single point. But it’s utterly fundamental for me.
You can have the most gorgeous and technically superb sports car in the world, but put some cheap narrow tyres on it and it’s never going to handle anything like it should.
I am considering some options, perhaps modifying the front of the LX3 at least with a grip from another camera, or just layering up some grippy tape.
Anyway, moving on…
My next complaint is the zoom lens.
Yes it’s capable of quite superb pictures – in fact after experimenting with different ISO settings I now leave my Lumix on ISO400 as for me, anything lower gives images that are in fact too smooth, too clean for my tastes.
Black and white ISO400 gives beautiful results with just enough grain/noise. It comfortably punches in the same ring as the GRD III and Pentax Q (with 47/1.9 01 Prime) and in all honesty is probably slightly better than the GX100’s lens. I could happily live with the ISO400 Dynamic b/w photos the LX3 generates and never feel an urge to try anything else.
The lens runs from 24 to 60mm, which gives it a similar range to the GX100’s 24-72mm.
And it doesn’t have a silly long end tele reach like some compacts that I for one never use (I rarely go past 50mm with a compact, usually 28 or 35mm).
So far, so great.
But with the GX100 you can set up the zoom to step to set focal lengths. Each time you press the zoom in or out it goes to the next one – 24, 28, 35, 50 and 72mm. This is so well thought out, and typical of the superbly intelligent design of the Ricohs generally.
There’s no such feature on the Lumix, and with apparently 13 steps (24, 26, 28, 30, 32, 35, 37, 41, 44, 48, 52, 57, 60mm) it makes it very tricky to know what focal length you’re at.
I mean who really needs to have a focal length of 32mm if you have 28, 30 and 35, or 44mm when you have 41 and 48?
And why not start planning your camera’s zoom range with the focal lengths most people are familiar with and probably want to shoot at – 24, 28, 35 and 50? Er, exactly like the Ricoh GX100 has.
Even 24, 28, 35, 40, 50 and 60 would seems more logical and useful instead of these strange in between stops like 37, 41 and 52.
I view 24mm as very useful to have and wider than most compacts. I’d rather have more scope at the wide end of a zoom lens than the tele end any day.
But in practice I use my GX100 at 35mm 90% of the time or more now, and you can not only set the zoom to step through those focal lengths as outlined above, but you can set one of the “MY” memory settings on the main dial to remember that focal length. I have MY1 set to 24mm and MY2 at 35mm.
MY2 is used virtually all of the time, and when I do need a wider view, I just notch the dial round to MY1 for 24mm. All other settings on these two custom memories is identical – it’s simply a switch that makes it like having a DSLR with a 24mm lens and a 35mm lens. But far more convenient and compact.
Even if I didn’t have it set up like this, because the GX100 tells you what focal length you’re at on screen, you always know anyway. If you’re at 24mm it’s very little effort to press the zoom in switch twice to go to 28, then 35mm. Or the reverse direction.
With the LX3 I’ve found no indication of focal length in the display – unless I’ve not delved enough yet?
With the LX3, the camera defaults to 24mm every time you switch it on. Which I rarely want. Er, how do I get to 28mm or 35mm? Where’s the thinking here, the user (photographer!) friendly design?
After some research I found a couple of partial, if not entirely perfect workarounds.
Updating the firmware added a feature called Lens Resume, where you can tell the camera to always start up at the same focal length as you last used before switching off. If I can find 35mm once, I can then just not touch the zoom and rely on the Lens Resume memory to always default to 35mm.
But how do I know when I’m at 35mm?
Finding those 13 zoom steps and their corresponding maximum apertures online gave me an idea, especially as f/2.3 is unique to 35mm as the maximum aperture.
I set the camera to Aperture Priority and the aperture to the maximum (f/2 at 24mm), then very carefully nudged the zoom ever outwards until the max aperture showed f/2.3. Hence I knew this must be 35mm. Then I switched the camera off, after enabling the Lens Resume. I examined the EXIF data of a couple of test shots and it indeed showed I was at 7.4mm, and this was the 35mm equivalent of 35mm.
If it’s in the EXIF and the camera knows it, why not display it on screen?
So now at least I know whenever I switch the camera back on, it reverts to 35mm.
If I want 24mm, I can zoom wide open. Then try to remember that f/2.3 is the max aperture for 35mm to set it back again. I doubt I’ll bother trying to write and/or memorise any of the other settings – and many cover more than one focal length anyway.
Again, for me there’s a lack of thought and intelligent design here.
How hard it is to design a camera with logical steps in the zoom, display them on screen (the camera knows them, it’s saved in the EXIF), and let you save different focal lengths in different memory settings?
Why put in a larger screen at the expense of handling?
These kinds of decisions seem even more confusing when I read about how Panasonic actually refrained from getting caught up in the MegaPixel race with the LX3, as one reviewer put it, sticking with 10MP gave the LX3 “the benefits of newer sensor and processing technology without those advances being strangled by the downsides of smaller pixels”.
Plus all the other very good aspects about the camera that do suggest it was very intelligent designed in most areas, and a genuine contender for being, albeit flawed, a digital classic.
The last factor that annoys about the Lumix is its AutoFocus (AF) sound.
This again might seem like a strange complaint coming from such a GX100 fan, a camera which rather slowly grinds and graunches its little lens into position when focusing. It’s neither fast, nor quiet, but when virtually everything else about it is so excellent, I don’t care.
With the LX3, just with the camera on, it emits a very high frequency sound. You know when you walk into a room and even if the sound of a TV is muted, you can still “sense” that a TV is on from a high pitched sound? It’s like that. But more piercing and annoying.
When you squeeze the shutter button to focus, the tone of this high frequency sound shifts even higher, then when it’s locked focus, drops again to its previous level.
This sounds very minor, I confess. But when I mostly photograph in quiet places like woods and churches, and often up close, this becomes very audible, and rather irritating.
I’ve checked all the sounds are muted and the master volume is set to zero. But I’m not sure it’s a sound that originated from the speaker, but from the screen somehow. And I don’t know how to stop it.
We don’t have a dog, but if we did I would expect it to be freaking out if it got anywhere near the LX3.
These three shortcomings don’t seem like major issues to an outsider I’m sure, and I must sound super picky.
But when I’m used to my beloved HT of the two Ricohs and Pentax, the yardstick is already way high. For any other camera to penetrate this photographic triumvirate, it has to have all they have, and then some.
It’s so frustrating to me that Panasonic have done so much right with the LX3.
Stunning lens, great size, fabulous build, good memory functions, and logical and friendly menus.
Plus I’ve almost forgotten to mention it has a set of “film modes” that give you a kind of film simulation as a starting point (eg Nature, Vibrant, Nostalgic (all colour) and best of all, Dynamic B/W) then give you further parameters to tweak within these (Contrast, Sharpness, Saturation, Noise Reduction).
Which means I can set up a (Dynamic) b/w setting that produces very satisfying JPEGs straight out of camera.
Yep, zero processing!
Neither of my Ricohs can do this, the Pentax Q can, so major brownie points for the LX3 there. It really does produce fantastic b/w images that render my DLSRs redundant (I haven’t ventured into colour yet).
I have no intention of selling the Lumix anytime, and in some ways I’m really excited about seeing what I can do with it in the coming weeks.
I really want to try to fall in love with it, rather than just admire parts of it.
But a part me just wishes Panasonic had gone the extra mile, thought about the handling more, given fewer, more common zoom steps, which are logical focal lengths (and display on screen so you don’t have to reverse engineer it from the max aperture!) and sorted those weird high frequency dog frightening operating sounds (maybe mine has a fault?)
All of these point to the same thing really, a camera that’s very well built, designed to be super efficient and high performance, but without much charm, personality or attention to some of the very basics.
Despite being a Japanese camera, it very much reminds me of an highly (over?) engineered German car, like a modern Audi. And not a curvy sexy TT or R8, but some rather more functional like an A8 saloon.
With rubbish tyres so it doesn’t handle very well, no speedo or rev counter so you don’t know how fast you’re going/revving, and a very annoying engine sound.
Maybe they got it (more) right with a later model like the LX5 or LX7? If anyone has one of these and can let me know if they overcome the issues I’ve outlined above, please let say below and I’ll start saving my pennies!
But for now, the holy trinity of the GX100, GRD III and Q remain untouched.
So where do I go next?
Any suggestions welcome, especially alternative Lumix cameras you’ve experienced that meet some of the shortfalls (in my opinion) of the LX3.
Thanks for looking. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too. If you’re interested, this is what my photography life looks like right now.