Magazine Article


Panasonic’s Bentley

Special setting of live-view montor helps somewhat in framing low- and other odd-angle shots.
Don Sutherland

The test of a digicam is its highlight-to-shadow range. Lady is strongly backlighted, yet shaded face is easy to see.
Don Sutherland

A dark-skinned man against a bright window challenges dynamic range, which the L1 rose to handsomely.
Don Sutherland

The power of branding from there rears its head. The Digilux 4 and Digilux 5 may have the look and feel of Panasonic products, but they have the Leica finish and insignia. And for some reason they bring, secondhand, twelve hundred bucks and more on eBay. Regularly. They may be great cameras, but we doubt in the 10MP age that many folks are spending twelve hundred on a 4MP camera just to take pictures.

Those later Digilux models also paid homage to tradition, with aperture rings and the like among headlined features. Did they add something functional that was otherwise missing from conventional digicams? Absolutely not, as far as raw results are concerned. All high-end digital cameras, and most low-end ones as well, have a means for manual aperture control. It may be a thumbwheel on the body instead of a ring on the lens, but either way you get full manual or aperture-priority exposure.

But the rings and dials of 35mm cameras dictated a way of proceeding, which differs somewhat from the way we take pictures today. Today cameras are machinelike, quick on the trigger and light on their feet, for picture-taking rat-a-tat style. Does everybody like it that way? Maybe.

But rings and dials are what photographers used in the days of yore. Some of them took a lot of great pictures, some of them using Leicas. Whatever typifies latterday cameras, there’s no denying that the greatest cameras of classicdom had large click-stopped shutter-speed dials and aperture rings on their lenses. From all appearances, Leica, the 35mm camera company, is exerting influences on Panasonic, the digital-lifestyle company. While these were moderately apparent on the fixed-lens models, they’re abundantly so in this first interchangeable-lens model.

Anyone targeting 10% market share needs to keep a straight face. They need a certain authority. Does Panasonic really know cameras? We mean really, really? Well, take a look at their L1. Whoever could manufacture this camera should gain 10% of the market without even breathing hard,

Roses by Names

Only Panasonic and Leica can say what their cross-pollination accomplished, who influenced whom, and why. Maybe the L1’s “analog” features are a by-product of a product conceived for Leica branding in the first place. Maybe Panasonic’s distribution of the same machine in a different finish is an afterthought. We don’t think so, but maybe.

But the fact is that in its own right, the Panasonic L1 is every bit as svelte, as classy and deluxe, as the Leica Digilux 3. If the L1 were a car, you could call it a Bentley.

And that of itself is a revelation. Previous Panasonic digicams were effective cameras, but they were no fashion hogs. The L1 is different. It feels solidly metallic, sturdy, refined. It really is a pleasure to handle.

This came as a surprise not just because of the less-than-sexy demeanor of 1990s Panasonics, but because of the L1’s kinship with the Olympus E-330 as well. The Olympus version may not share the analog soul, but it does have the same digital brain—and the same heart. Both cameras include the dust-reduction system that has been typical of Olympus DSLRs, and the live-view LCD that brought us such rapture when the E-330 first came out. Indeed, Panasonic has claimed authorship of the “shutter box,” and when the L1 was first presented at the 2006 PMA show, we mistakenly reported it as identical to the Olympus counterpart. Beneath the skin, their assemblies may be the same. There are differences in their menu structures, and undoubtedly in firmware—Panasonic boasts of its Venus engine for in-camera processing, Olympus cites TruePic TURBO—but the real differences are in the housings. The Olympus is more like plastic, where the Panasonic presents sleek and cool metallics. The Olympus is made in China, the Panasonic in Japan. One is utilitarian, the other aristocratic.

And, as a working photojournalistic resource, a rat-a-tat tool, the Olympus is a tiny bit more optimized. The thumbwheel does permit switching the aperture or shutter speed more swiftly. And the Panasonic shutter button, placed in the center of the shutter-speed dial on the top of the camera, like Leica would have done, is on the front of the Olympus body, at the top of the handgrip. It’s not a big point, but where Olympus puts it, the shutter button is just slightly easier to use.

The Olympus LCD screen also is hinged; the Panasonic’s is not. This makes the Olympus version considerably more versatile, permitting the camera to be held or placed at odd angles relative to the photographer—a tremendous asset. The L1’s screen has a special setting that lowers image contrast, somewhat improving its viewability with the camera held overhead. Still, a fully hinged screen would work a lot better, and would greatly extend the operational versatility of the camera. Does Panasonic have an L2 in their future?

But then, with its analog soul, the L1 aspires to a different operational model.

Do You Like a Stick Shift?

In the days of yore, cameras were mechanical. Between the shutter button and the shutter itself, there was a direct link. Call it a rod. It was a solid physical piece. It had to be. Your finger pushed the button, the button pushed the rod, the rod tripped the shutter.

The design of the shutter-speed dial was similar. When springs controlled shutters, the shutter-speed dial was what wound the spring. The two had to be in close proximity.

In the digital age, of course, rods are passe. Today it’s all circuits, and switches for on/off. There no longer needs to be a straight path between them. If the shutter is here and its controls are there, that’s fine.