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Monday, June 22, 2009

••◊ A little review of the Panasonic LX3

We recently bought a Panasonic Lumix LX3 camera at work and of course I couldn't resist that new lens smell. At $500 the LX3 is definitely placed at the top end of the point and shoot market. The reason I recommended the purchase of this camera over the arch rival Canon G10 is because Canon has just gone too far with the whole mega-pixels thing. The purpose for this camera is for passport photos, manufacturing demonstration videos, and R&D development. What we really need is small size and good low light performance, both of which the LX3 seemed to adequately deliver and the G10 is less apt.

The first thing I noticed about the LX3 is the severe lack of zoom capability (5.1-12.8mm, ~2.5x). This camera is good for wide and wider shots, but includes macro lens capability using a manual switch on the right side of the lens. I personally found the optical image stabilization to be quite usable and non-jerky unlike a few consumer video cameras I've played with. Of course at such wide angles the need for image stabilization should be fairly minimal.

The camera's auto focus is generally good enough for still objects. You press the shutter button down half way with the object you want in focus at the center of the LCD screen, wait for the green focus rectangle (~1sec), then re-frame and continue pressing the shutter button down fully to take the shot. Easy to use, but also easy to miss a shot while focusing. The lens allows for manual focus, albeit through a convoluted set of button presses on the rear controls that takes much longer to setup (useless).

The LX3 manual was a breeze to read. I made it through in about 10 minutes since I was only looking for non-obvious information (hey, it's a consumer product).

With all the new cameras coming out with video capability I wanted to try HD video recording with this little wonder of technology. This camera records 720p video at 24 frames/sec with 16-bit 16kHz audio. The LX3 recording format burns through about a gigabyte of flash card space in ten minutes while in HD mode. It also records in standard definition, which as it turns out may be better. You choose the video format with a toggle switch on the top side of the lens that selects the aspect ratio: 4:3, 3:2, 16:9. The first selection is SD, the last selection is HD. Frankly they should have saved this selection for a menu item and provided a manual focus ring instead. When recording 720p HD video at any light level the first thing you notice is that the recording has a considerable amount of pixel level noise. Downsizing by half from 1280x720 to to 640x360 in a video editor makes the noise quality at least reasonable, but defeats the reason for having HD recording.

The audio also is severely lacking. They put a pinhole in the top of the camera for a microphone port. When I saw the audio sample rate specification in manual (16kHz) I thought, "OK, voice quality...no big deal." How it really turned out is that my male voice sound like a member of the Vienna boys choir with a cold. There is no low or high frequency response to be had. The microphone also easily picks up wind noise. I took the camera outdoors and found that wind noise dominated the ambient sound. The example video shows what I'm talking about. I know audio professionals that fight this problem with a giant fuzzy wind sock (zeppelin) over their microphone so it's not an easy issue to solve.

My largest gripe is that the auto-exposure lock doesn't work in video model (firmware rev 1.3). On page 87 of the manual it says that video mode supports auto-exposure lock, but it doesn't and I'm waiting to hear back from Panasonic on this issue. In picture mode AE-lock does work. The reason I mention this is because the first recording I did outdoors with grass blowing in the wind caused wide fluctuations in exposure. Someone walking through the camera scene with a black or white shirt can easily mess up your exposure. I also found that the camera tends to want to overexpose by 2/3-1 stop in mixed bright/dim light situations. This is easily fixed by enabling histogram view (!!!!-excellent) and using exposure compensation. The video below shows the exposure variation because of the auto exposure.

With a f/2 lens and claimed low light capability I put the LX3 to a torture test. The video below is from a freeway overpass at night. Lots of bright spots and dark background. Except for the white balance performance (without too much tweaking) the LX3 did a very respectable job. Most consumer point and shoots *vastly* under perform in these situations but the LX3 looks fairly good when the video is downsized by half. I was definitely using the camera at it's limit since I couldn't turn the exposure compensation up and get brighter video.

Another complaint is that the camera doesn't let you zoom while recording video. Yes, you have to compose in advance and accept what comes. This seems like a strange characteristic given that $150 point and shoots have this capability.

All in all the LX3 is a decent point and shoot camera, just not as good as it could be with a few firmware upgrades, a couple minor hardware tweaks for audio, and real manual lens focus. If you don't need telephoto capability I think the LX3 is good overall, for a consumer product.

Oh, yeah...and it takes still photos too.

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