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"Look Ma... Live Video in a Very Cool DSLR!"
Panasonic's Lumix DMC-L1

Text & Photos by Allan Weitz

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If you find Panasonic's first DSLR, the Lumix DMC-L1, to be somewhat familiar looking, think back to about two years ago to Leica's Digilux 2. The Digilux 2 was a very cool camera that made many people think twice about what a "point-and-shoot" could be if allowed to grow-up and mature. By the by, Leica's Digilux 2 was made by Panasonic.

The new Lumix DMC-L1 takes a somewhat radical approach to DSLR design. Gone is the signature prism housing. The top deck is as flat as a Leica rangefinder camera, and the camera has a boxy shape as compared to the rounded edges of most current DSLRs. The new camera shares a few components with another 4/3-format camera - the Olympus E-330 - specifically the mirror-box, viewfinder, lens mount, and the dust-removal mechanism. From here the Lumix goes off on its own.

Boxy shape aside, the camera fits securely in the hand and thanks in part to a magnesium-alloy chassis and a tough, enamel-finished exterior, has a solid feel about it. If this is your first foray in digital imaging, you'll be pleased to know the folks at Panasonic took an analog approach to the camera's design. There's a shutter-speed dial on the top-deck of the camera, and the lens has an honest-to-gosh aperture ring as well as separate rings for zoom and focus.

The camera's menus are equally clear and easy to navigate, which was a good thing considering the manual that came with my test camera was in Japanese. Still and all, I had no problems setting up the camera to shoot as per my needs.

Being a reflex camera, you have two options for composing photographs. The optical finder, though somewhat claustrophobic due to the physical size of the camera's 4/3 image sensor, works fine under all but the dimmest of viewing conditions. As an option, you can press the Live Video button and compose your images using the camera's bright, 2.5" color LCD screen. When using the Live Video feature you can also bring up a histogram, a choice of two grid patterns, as well as flash warning of over or under exposure.

Another nice touch when using the LCD for picture-taking purposes is the ability to program the camera to offer up a 4x or 10x magnification of the image a second or two after the full image appears on the screen. This gives you a chance to quickly check fine focus before moving on to your next photo. If you are in a situation where you have to shoot from a high viewing angle, you can electronically re-direct the image on the LCD for optimized viewing from below screen level with a simple press of the Display button.

The camera has a dual-position, built-in TTL flash. Push the ‘Flash' button once and the strobe head snaps open from the top-deck to a 45-degree angle for bounce flash. Push the button again and it pops forward for straight-on flash photography.

The camera I tested came equipped with the new 14-50/2.8~3.5 Leica-D Vario-Elmar ASPH zoom lens (28-100mm equivalent). Designed by Leica specifically for 4/3-format digital imaging, this lens is the real-deal. Solidly built, this impressive zoom lens contains 16 elements (2 with aspheric surfaces) in 12 groups, with internal focusing down to 1/3 life-size throughout the zoom range. The images it produces are sharp and crisp. To insure sharp images at lower light levels the lens is equipped with an optical image stabilizer (Advanced MEGA O.I.S.), which enables you to shoot at 2 to 3 shutter-speeds slower than normal. This particular IS system can be set to run full-time or at the moment of exposure (the best method). The lens is supplied with a shade, which should be removed when using the camera's built-in flash at the wide-angle side of the zoom range to prevent "shade shadow" on the bottom portion of close-up photos.

The heart of the Lumix DMC-L1 is a 7.5 megapixel 4/3-format Live-MOS sensor, which is powered by Panasonic's latest Venus Engine III image processor. The new processor consumes about 80% less power than its predecessor, while delivering greater volumes of tone and noise suppression. The camera can be programmed to record in sRGB or Adobe RGB, as well as 4 "film styles" - Standard, Nature (pumped up RGB), Dynamic (increased contrast), and Smooth (lower contrast, muted color). Other features of the new Lumix DMC-L1 include Supersonic Wave Filter for eliminating dust from the sensor, a depth-of-field preview button, and compatibility with the latest generation of high-capacity SDHC memory cards.

A Sunday jaunt along the back roads of the New Jersey Alps gave me an opportunity to put the Lumix through its paces. I'm pleased to report the new Lumix delivers the goods as promised. Though I sometimes wished the lens reached out a bit further than 100mm, the images it produced were sharp and rich in tone. The lens focused quickly and the shutter release consistently responded without hesitation.

If you are currently fishing around for an innovative DSLR capable of capturing sharp, snappy images while breaking a few rules of convention along the way, Panasonic's new Lumix DMC-L1 should be on your short list.

Panasonic's Lumix DMC-L1 is expected to ship in September, 2006 (click on the link to the camera to set-up email notification for when it arrives).
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