September 29, 2008 by Allen George
Three from Photokina
Over the past few months I’ve realized that DSLRs, with their large size and large lenses, simply don’t work for me. This has increased my interest in “serious compacts”, namely, cameras in the mold of Michael Johnston’s Decisive Moment Digital (DMD). Ideally, these compacts would have strongly photographer-focused controls, high operation speed and responsiveness, and superb image quality. Unfortunately no such beast exists.
I had hoped that this year’s Photokina would rectify that; with the compact market stalling and DSLR sales leveling off, camera companies would have to target niches to maintain growth. While there are some positive steps in the DMD space, nothing I’ve seen ticks all the boxes just yet. But, manufacturers are trying, and my picks of the show are three cameras that attack the DMD concept from different fronts: the Sigma DP2, the Panasonic G1, and the Panasonic LX3.
This is Sigma’s second compact, built in the same vein as the world’s first large-sensor compact: the Sigma DP1. Many of us eagerly anticipated the Sigma DP1; here, at last, was a camera that had the potential for substantially better image quality than other compacts, but in a small package. Unfortunately our hopes were dashed. First, the DP1 had a wide, but slow, and unstabilized lens. Its performance was extremely poor: long file write times, high shutter lag and poor autofocus in low light were commonly-cited problems. Ease of operation was also poor: menus were long and convoluted, and changing aperture and shutter speed in manual mode was slow. And finally, to add insult to injury, high-ISO images suffered from blotchiness and high chroma noise.
The DP2 remedies some of these issues. It has a much more useful (in my opinion) 41mm lens. This lens is a full stop faster than the DP1’s – f/2.8 instead of f/4 – though still unstabilized. Sigma also claims to have improved responsiveness and noise with a second-generation image-processing DSP, though that remains to be seen. Unfortunately, camera controls haven’t changed at all, so it looks like changing aperture and shutter speed in manual mode will remain as tedious as ever.
In the final reckoning, the DP2 still isn’t a street-shooter’s camera. While it comes at the DMD concept from the image-quality direction, it still fails in one key aspect: photographer-focused controls. And while this iteration of the internals may rectify the operation speed and responsiveness concerns, I think it’ll take another product generation or two for Sigma to put out a DP compact that ticks off all the DMD boxes.
Panasonic and Olympus have consistently developed some of the most innovative, yet photographer-focused products and features in a marketplace dominated by oldthink. Their latest effort – the Micro Four Thirds (mFT) concept – is the most significant yet: it drops the mirror-box entirely, reduces the flange-back distance, replaces the optical viewfinder (OVF) with an electronic unit (EVF), and uses contrast-detection autofocus instead of the conventional phase-detection method. There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. Dropping the mirror box allows for a smaller, thinner, and lighter camera. It also removes mirror slap as a source of camera shake. An EVF allows for a much larger, brighter, 100% field of view, along with a more feature-filled display. But, contrast-detect autofocus is still slower than the phase-detection alternative, and even the best EVF models can’t match a high-quality glass-prism viewfinder, especially in low light. That said, on paper at least, mFT is the closest I’ve seen to a digital reimagining of the rangefinder. It plays to the rangefinder’s strengths: small body size, potential for smaller lenses, low camera shake, reasonable image quality . . .
The Panasonic G1 is the first product based on the mFT concept. Unfortunately, it retains the classic SLR styling with a prominent handgrip and flash/prism hump. I would have strongly preferred a smaller, lower-profile OM-1 or CL design, but interviews with Panasonic executives indicate that I shouldn’t hold my breath; at least for MY2009 Panasonic will continue with the SLR-esque styling. Panasonic has thrown us rangefinder aficionados a bone, however: a 20mm f/1.7 pancake. Yes, you read that right – a fast, slim lens, with a 40mm (35mm equivalent) field of view. Miracles do happen.
Image quality will, like all Four Thirds cameras, be substantially better than any compact, but less than the APS-C-equipped competition. This leaves the big unknowns: controls and handling, and responsiveness. I’d like to try it out before passing judgment, but from previews, it seems like Panasonic has made a solid effort. Initial reports claim that shutter lag is extremely low, with high card-write speeds, and surprisingly fast autofocus in normal light. In “M” mode, the front dial alone can control both shutter speed and aperture. The rear LCD can be set to status-panel mode, requiring only a quick glance to discern the important shooting parameters. The biggest problem will be manual focusing and depth of field. I’d love to be able to zone focus with a G1/40mm combo: set the focus distance to maximize DOF for a given aperture, and then fire away without autofocus kicking in. Unfortunately, the 40mm pancake doesn’t have a DOF scale and the G1 itself doesn’t have a scale display. You could combine manual focus and DOF preview as an alternative, but this is going to be unwieldy. It would have been really nice if a lens (at least with primes) had a built-in DOF table that it reported to the camera, but this isn’t the case.
I’ll reserve further comments until I try it out, but the G1 does get very, very close to the DMD ideal.
Earlier this year Panasonic released yet another photographer-focused compact: the diminutive LX3. Its credentials are impressive. First, an optically-stabilized 24mm to 60mm (35mm equivalent field of view) zoom that incorporates all the classic street photography focal lengths (28mm, 35mm, 50mm). Not only is the lens stabilized, it’s fast as well: f/2.0 to f/2.8! The LX3 has a number of other advantages: small size, classic styling, RAW, flash hot shoe, manual focus, fast shooting speed – this list goes on. But there’s no free lunch. To start, it’s a small-sensored compact, with all the tradeoffs that entails. Although one gets substantial DOF, image quality suffers at anything above base ISOs, with ISO 400 being the limit of what I’d consider “usable” for color. Second, unlike the Ricoh GX and GR series’ exceptional dual-dial design, Panasonic has opted for a single joystick to control aperture, shutter speed and manual focus. Not good when you’re trying to make changes quickly. Moreover, the small joystick and button size does not bode well for gloved use. The LX3 also does not offer a stepped zoom. This extremely useful feature, where one can preset the camera to a specific, common focal length (28mm, 35mm, 50mm, etc.), is something both the Ricoh GX-100 and GX-200 offer. It also lacks a snap-focus mode, where the lens is automatically set to its hyperfocal distance to maximize depth of field – great for street photography.
I really wanted to like the LX3, and still (sort of) do, but I think this camera will really disappoint if you intend to use it as a mini rangefinder. You can’t turn the rear LCD off (so much for discreet composition), can’t set the camera to default to a preferred focal length and can’t save your focal length choice to the custom settings on the mode dial. The joystick design isn’t well-suited for quick photographic-parameter changes, especially in the combined “M” and manual focus configuration. And color image quality above ISO 400 will be questionable. With a few changes – some possible in firmware I think – the LX3 could become much more than the premium compact that it currently is, and come much closer to the DMD ideal. But I don’t think that is going to happen. At any rate, I think a control revamp is required before the LX3 and its Leica-branded stablemate, the D-Lux4, become credible DMD alternatives.