This new 7.5MP digital SLR has some big photographic names -- Leica and
Olympus -- in its corner. But can it perform?
It's not easy being the new kid on the block, but it helps to have friends who are well known in the neighborhood. Take Panasonic, new to digital SLRs, and veterans Olympus and Leica. With their help, Panasonic hopes its new 7.5MP Lumix DMC-L1 DSLR ($1,900, street, with lens) will stand tall against the big guys.
But does this new camera have what it takes? Now that we've given a production version a complete check-up in the Pop Photo Lab and taken the L1 for a spin in the field, we think it does.
For starters, we were extremely impressed by the stellar performance of the Leica D Vario-Elmarit 14-50mm f/2.8-3.5 lens that ships with the L1 (see the test at the end of this story). Leica film camera owners would kill for this lens, not just for its zoom range, but because it's the only interchangeable Leica lens that features Panasonic's built-in MEGA OIS (Optical Image Stabilization). Unfortunately for them, it's available only in a Four Thirds mount, and it won't be available separately for Four Thirds system DSLRs from Olympus until sometime in 2007 (at an estimated street price of $1,300).
Who's This For?
We wish the L1 were available for purchase without the Leica lens, since there are many lower-cost lens alternatives available from both Olympus and Sigma that would bring this camera's initial price down considerably. Indeed, sticker shock may be the L1's biggest drawback and will have many budget-minded DSLR shoppers wondering why they should pay almost two grand for a 7.5MP camera when the Olympus Evolt E-330 costs under $1,000 with the Zuiko 14-45mm f/3.5-4.5 lens (albeit without built-in image stabilization).
However, a sharp lens is only one of the ingredients needed to get a detailed, high-quality image from a digital camera. Let's take a closer look at the others.
The L1 has the same 7.5MP Live MOS sensor as the Evolt E-330 and captures an image with a 4:3 aspect ratio similar to all Olympus DSLR models and most compact digital cameras. The size of that sensor gives the camera a 2X 35mm lens factor, doubling the equivalent focal length to 28-100mm. But since the sensor produces an image that isn't as wide as those from a 3:2 aspect-ratio DSLR or 35mm camera, the potential resolution is comparable to what you might find on an 8.5MP DSLR with a 3:2 format.
The super-sharp Leica lens helps explain why the Lumix's resolution test scores in our lab place it slightly ahead of the 8.2MP Canon EOS 30D in sharpness and help it achieve an Excellent resolution rating. The low power consumption of the sensor also helps the L1 achieve a CIPA battery life rating of more than 400 shots with its rechargeable Li-ion battery.
However, the L1 scores slightly lower in color accuracy than the Evolt E-330, with an average Delta E of 9.49 (Extremely High). And while it holds down noise rather well at ISO 100 and 200 (Very Low and Low, respectively), the levels creep up to Moderately Low by ISO 400. After that, noise reduction kicks in at ISO 800 with a slight reduction in resolution to about 1,650 lines and a return to a Low noise rating.
Keep in mind, though, that as we found in our test of the Lumix DMC-LX2 (November 2006), the DMC-L1 gives you control over the noise reduction, so you can lean towards increased detail or towards lower amounts of noise, based on your preferences or scene content.
At ISO 1600, even with noise reduction provided by Panasonic's Venus III image-processing engine, images are fairly noisy, with a Moderate rating. As a result, the L1 earns an Extremely High image quality rating from ISO 100 to 800, but High at ISO 1600. This means that you could make impressive enlargements up to 12x16 inches on most photo-quality printers from shots made at ISO 100 to 800.
The Venus engine also gives the L1 a burst capacity of up to 3 frames per second for JPEG or RAW images. However, with the highest-quality JPEGs, you can maintain that burst speed (or it may slow to 2 fps depending on the write speed of the SD card) until the card fills up. In RAW mode, up to six images can be captured in a burst of 3 fps.