Panasonic Lumix DMC-LC1 Review
Do you enjoy digital photography but find consumer cameras toy-like compared to high quality film cameras? Do you miss the aperture ring on the lens? Mechanical zoom and manual focus rings that move the lens directly and precisely to the setttings you want? How about a shutter speed dial on the top of the camera where it belongs? If you're a hobbyist waiting to take the plunge into digicams because it seems that every setting requires you to wade through a menu system on an LCD monitor, Panasonic, with the help of their partner Leica, may have given a reason to dip more than your toe in the digicam waters with their Lumix DMC-LC1. This is no consumer-grade point-n-shoot, but a digital camera that looks, feels, and carries a price like a high-quality 35mm film camera.
The ergonomics of the DMC-LC1 is excellent. It's no lightweight camera, weighing in at 1.5 pounds, the durable, all-black metal body fits comfortably in your hands. The camera controls are well-placed, with the shutter release and metering switch at your forefinger, and the shutter speed dial and shooting mode switch at your thumb. Zoom, focus and aperture controls are on the lens barrel, easily operated by your left hand. These rings are no fly-by-wire controls, they are mechanical and move the lens quickly and precisely as you turn them. Detents are provided on the focus and aperture rings to prevent accidental movement off their automatic settings.
While its shutter and lens controls are distinctly traditional, the DMC-LC1 marries them with digital features that are clearly modern. The large 2.5" LCD display is used to access the menu system, as a live image viewfinder, and to review captured images. It is bright, resolute, and a pleasure to use. Its large size presents the menu options very legibly; you won't be squinting at the screen as you adjust camera settings. The LCD was brilliant outdoors, with its image intensified by ambient light; the anti-reflective coating was very effective, and added to the LCD's usability in bright sunlight. The LCD excelled for image review, offering 16x magnification for critical evaluation and thumbnails large enough to be seen when viewing a 9-image index. The eye-level Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) is equal in function to the LCD, and the distance from the exit pupil to the eyepiece allows its use with eyeglasses. While both viewfinders worked well in moderate to bright lighting, they fail to "gain-up" in conditions of low ambient light; you'll find it difficult to compose shots in dimly lit interiors.
The Leica DC Vario Summicron lens is an impressive piece of glass. The lens is fast, with a wide-open aperture of f/2 at the 28mm wide angle end of its zoom range, and f/2.4 at the 90mm telephoto setting. It is also very high quality, with edge-to-edge sharpness even wide open, and only slight barrel distortion at wide angle and barely perceptible chromatic aberration (purple fringing). While the lens is large considering its limited zoom range, it focuses and zooms internally. The lens is threaded for 69mm accessories, and Panasonic includes a protective filter as well as a lens hood.
Image quality is excellent. The AF system and lens combine to produce images that are sharp from edge to edge. Exposure metering is accurate and consistent, producing well-exposed, well-balanced images. There is a bit of noise present at ISO 100, and it's quite noticeable at ISO 400. I was happy with finished JPG's using the standard settings for sharpness, contrast and saturation; settings of Low and High are available to suit your taste for those in-camera processing parameters.
The LC1's RAW mode is supported by the Photoshop CS Camera Raw plugin. Settings including white balance, color temperature, brightness, contrast, saturation, sharpness and correction of chromatic aberration can be adjusted and saved as processing parameters without making a permanent change to the raw image. I found it difficult to correct the LC1's RAW images to equal the quality of the in-camera JPG's using the RAW plugin alone; all RAW images required a lot of tweaking in Photoshop. I think that most users will be quite satisfied with the LC1's standard JPG processing and forgo using RAW.
The LC1 excelled at indoor shooting because of its very good low-light autofocus performance, its 28mm wide angle focal length, and its powerful and flexible flash. A unique feature in the digicam market is the LC1's articulating built-in flash; it can be fully deployed as a direct flash, or popped-up at a 60° angle for use as a bounce flash when you don't want the harshness of direct lighting. The bounce flash effectively eliminated red eye from our portrait test shots. My only disappointment with the LC1's indoor performance is its failure to intensify or "gain-up" the live viewfinder image of the LCD or EVF on conditions of low ambient light.
The DMC-LC1's shooting performance is good. From power-on until the first shot is captured took 3.7 seconds, as did its wake-up from power-saving sleep mode. Shutter lag, the elapsed time between releasing the shutter and capturing an image, measured 2/10 second when pre-focused, and 8/10 second including autofocus. During autofocus, the viewfinder image freezes only briefly - more like a stutter than a freeze actually, allowing you to follow a moving subject. Both of those measurements include an approximate 1/10 second delay in the camera's presentation of the live image on either of its viewfinders.
Rapid shooting in single shot mode captured images at intervals of just under 2 seconds without flash, and between 2.1 and 5 seconds with flash, depending on the subject distance. The LC1 offers both High and Low speed burst shooting modes. Low speed captured 3 images at 1 second intervals, imposing a 3 second wait while processing the buffer before the next burst could be taken. In High speed mode, 3 shots were taken in under 1 second, with a 5 second wait before the next burst. During recording in either Burst mode, the viewfinders briefly displayed the last image captured, not the live image, limiting your ability to follow a moving subject. You won't be doing any rapid shooting in RAW mode; burst mode is disabled, and shot to shot time measured a leisurely 7 seconds as the LC1 emptied its buffer of the 9.672-megabyte RAW image. All performance measurements were made using a 5-megapixel image size and Super Fine quality, with a Transcend 45x 512MB SD memory card installed.
Battery life was excellent. The CGR-S602A Lithium-Ion Battery (7.2v 1400mAh) powered the LC1 through more than 300 shots before it needed recharging. It's a proprietary form factor with no off the shelf replacement, so I suggest that you obtain a second and keep it fully charged to avoid that disappointment that a dead battery can cause.
I found a lot to like about the LUMIX LC1. I enjoyed using its traditional camera controls, and appreciated its high-quality construction. I especially liked the flexibility of its internal flash, producing soft lighting for portraits in its bounce position. But there's also a question of value, and at a MSRP of $1,599 for a 5-megapixel, fixed-lens camera, I doubt that many hobbyists will be able to justify its purchase. The LC1 will appeal most to the traditional film photographer who is as concerned with the build quality of his instrument as he is with the image quality it's able to produce.
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