A Leica kit lens, flip-out LCD and Live View mode make for one L of a camera.
As more and more consumers graduate to digital SLR cameras, it's not surprising that some manufacturers are looking to ease the transition for the first-timers. Features normally found on compact cameras -- scene modes, face detection autofocus, and live LCD preview - are now commonly found on DSLRs.
Such is the case with Panasonic's newest DSLR, the 10.1-megapixel Lumix DMC-L10, which brings with it several features and functions normally found on EVF-style cameras.
The L10 is a good-looking, solidly built camera featuring a Live MOS sensor and a Leica D Vario-Elmarit 14-50mm f/3.8-5.6 Mega Optical Image Stabilized kit lens. The complete kit will cost you $1,300, estimated street, a price that may frighten off some consumers, particularly existing Four Thirds System photographers who may already have a similar lens in their arsenal, whether it's an older Four Thirds Leica or an Olympus Zuiko lens in the Four Thirds mount.
But for the first-time DSLR buyer, or for the photographer who has decided to switch to the Four Thirds system, the L10's combination of features and functions, particularly EVF-style Live View mode, may be a real selling point of this package.
We've spent the past couple of weeks with the Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10, traveling from New York City to Vermont and back, taking photos all along the way, and there's a whole heck of a lot to like about this camera.
USING THE OPTICAL AND LCD VIEWFINDERS
We're SLR junkies! Give us an EVF camera and it's usually up at our eyes, SLR-style. And when we've got a full-on SLR, even one with Live View, old habits die hard. A big camera with an optical viewfinder looking through a chunky lens feels like it's meant to be held up to the eye, and most of our test shots were captured in the traditional eye-to-the-rubber fashion. It's not that Live View doesn't have its merits, but the traditional strength of an SLR is the through-the-lens experience.
The Panasonic L10 feels well balanced when mated with the kit Leica glass (3.6x normal zoom at 28-100mm 35mm equivalent). It's got a satisfying SLR heft to it that even the biggest EVF lacks, but for those with very big hands, it may feel a bit on the smaller side. The build quality feels on par with the Canon EOS Rebel XTi and Olympus E-410, but not the much more rugged Pentax K10D or Canon EOS 40D -- 10 megapixel class competitors, all. The fit and finish feels solid all around. All the buttons and dials feel well-damped, without being overly resistant to the touch. The metal lensmount (on both the body and the included lens) and tripod socket add to the feeling of a quality build.
When the camera is up to the eye, it's quick and easy to switch ISO, Metering mode, and the four Optical Autofocus settings (left, right, center, or all) by tapping the relevant back button in the four-way array. It's a nice touch that both the front and rear dials can also be used to dial between these exposure adjustments after tapping the dedicated button, too. White Balance, however, cannot be switched without employing the LCD screen. And, of course, ISO, Metering, and AF can all also be selected by using the LCD screen.
BUTTONS, MODES, AND DIALS
There's one function that appears missing, either via a dedicated button or menu item. Search as you may, there's no obviously apparent Exposure Compensation setting. But don't despair -- it's a simple matter of spinning the rear/thumb dial to push or pull the exposure. (In most modes, that is. In full Automatic mode, both the front and rear dial control exposure compensation.) And in Full Program (P), Aperture-priority (A), and Shutter-priority (S), the front dial will activate program-shift.
In the Advanced Scene Modes that have their own dial settings (Portrait, Sports, Macro, Landscape, and Night shooting), the rear dial almost always controls exposure compensation, while the front button usually controls a program-shift function that allows for increased or decreased shutter speed or aperture, depending on the mode, and the intended feel of the final image, be it panned blur, water freeze or water blur, increased depth of field on a macro, shallow focus on a landscape, and other creative tweaks.
On the handful of SCN-based shooting presets, the rear dial again controls EV compensation, and the front button simply toggles between the five SCN modes. It's a weird mix of SCN modes: Sunset, Food, Baby 1, Baby 2, and Pet. Baby 1, Baby 2, and Pet are pretty much the exact same thing.
It's standard on modern digital compacts to offer the photographer a selection of contrast and saturation tweaks that may work better for a particular style of photography. The optimum palette for portraiture and the optimum palette for dramatic landscapes at golden hour aren't necessarily the same, so why should the photographer be limited to one set of JPEG-processing presets? Different camera companies call these presets different things, and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10 calls them "film modes."
Now, you won't find FujiFilm Velvia, Agfa Scala or Kodak Portra NC, or any other brand-name emulsions you may remember from your film-based days; however, you will find nine (plus two user-selectable "My Films") image quality adjustments when shooting in Program, Aperture-Priority, Shutter-Priority, and Manual exposure modes.
"Standard (Color)" is the base settings for the L10. "Dynamic (Color)" boosts contrast and saturation. "Nature" claims brighter red, greens, and blues (perhaps in the style of a classic landscape slide film?), "Smooth (Color)" lowers contrast (recalling, perhaps a popular portrait film?), "Nostalgic (Color)" lowers both saturation and contrast for an old-time feel. "Vibrant (Color)" has even more saturation and contrast than "Dynamic (Color)," "Standard (B&W)" is the basic grayscale setting, "Dynamic (B&W)" boosts contrast (perhaps in the style of a classic black and white slide film?), and "Smooth (B&W)" smoothes the picture without losing the skin texture, according to the manual. "My film 1 & 2" can be tweaked by the user. All in all, these are pretty apt descriptions for the in-camera processing in the film modes, as we illustrate in our slideshow.
It is nice to see so many quick and easy switches -- from high saturation and contrast to soft, creamy transitions -- quickly and without a lot of post-processing. This can only help photographers realize their personal vision. It seems Panasonic would rather the photographer make pictures that are good to go straight from the camera, rather than spending heaps of time in post-processing. As a quick and easy way to replicate the look of film, the L10's "Film Modes" work pretty well; however, the control freak photographers will probably want to stick with "Standard," which offers great starting data for boosting or reducing contrast or saturation in the digital darkroom, right from the JPEG. And for even more control, shoot RAW plus a film mode for even more control, but keep in mind you're limited to a three-shot burst with RAW.
A $600+ KIT LENS?
The Leica 14-50mm f/3.8-5.6 kit glass is slower than the f/2.8-3.5 kit lens that shipped with the L10's predecessor, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1. This was a conscious decision most likely done to cut weight and to keep the price from skyrocketing past $1,500 for the kit, which is the only way the DMC-L10 ships. (The Leica 14-50mm is also one of only two current lenses that allow for the full Live View contrast detection autofocusing. More on that later.) Fortunately, the L10 does include Panasonic's Mega Optical Image Stabilization technology, which should help gain back a couple of stops in shutter speed to overcome the shakes, especially when the L10 is held at arm's length utilizing the Live View LCD. We'll let you know how many stops you can expect to gain in our full lab test.
Due to the L10's size and heft, it's tough to compose sharp shots through the LCD viewfinder at arm's length, even with the relatively lightweight kit lens. You'll definitely want to cradle the camera with your left hand under the lens barrel. When you switch out the Leica kit glass for a longer, heavier, faster, non-stabilized Four Thirds lens, such as the Olympus Zuiko 35-100mm f/2, hand-holding at arm's length becomes near impossible, even at fast shutter speeds.
So, for the most part, when it comes to long glass on the L10 without a tripod, we recommend avoiding the Live View mode. Go with the traditional optical viewfinder experience. Of course, if you've got a tripod, feel free to fire away composing through the LCD Live View.
In dimmer, indoor shooting conditions with the Optical Viewfinder, you'll want to turn the LCD off, flip it around or at least turn the brightness way down. The brightness bleeds into your line of sight, and can be seriously distracting.