Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1- Still a Real Gem!
January 2012, Carl Garrard
|Panasonic DMC-L1 w/Minolta MD Rokkor 45mm f/2|
As a tool for near IR photography it contains all of the essentials plus a few hidden surprises that make it a dream to work with. And the image quality it produces still impresses even though it is some six years old.
Panasonic DMC-L1 w/Leica Kit Lens Price Check New
The Panasonic DMC-L1 DSLR Review
Why am I writing about a six year old DSLR? Simply because it is a unique and capable camera, fun to use, and has a set of features that can stomp some modern DSLRS even today. And yeah, it looks really cool as a rangefinder styled camera as well. Really cool. It's looks aren't the half of it though. This is a serious photographic tool with an excellent set of controls and features to match.
The DMC-L1 has no less than 20 buttons and switches on the backside alone, and all fall nicely to the hand. The L1 comes from a family of "L" cameras starting back in 2001 with the LC5. Since then, a progressive development of the rangefinder styled camera has ensued giving the L1 the advantage of years of feedback to improve the body layout and controls all the while keeping a very similar look to previous cameras in the lineup, such as the DMC-LC1 (just add a C). The main difference of course is that this is a DSLR and the other two were digicams with fixed lenses.
On top we have more controls, again falling nicely to the hand and there to make fast adjustments keeping the photographer out of the menu system. The placement of the controls is not the only important aspect, of the L1, it's the type of controls they chose to put around the camera.
Why I Like the L1
First and foremost let me introduce you to my feature list of the DMC-L1. Some of these features aren't shown as highlights on the press announcement or reviews on the net but are absolutely vital as a photographic tool (and are noted with an * below) and make the L1 a real bonafide enthusiasts tool. This list also serves as my personal favorite stand out features.
- 7.5mp Live MOS Image Sensor (blend of CCD and CMOS development)
- Dedicated AF assist lamp*
- Unique Dual position on board flash w/bounce feature*
- Multi-Exposure mode that records even to Raw files*
- Live view mode with digital telephoto and manual focus magnification features*
- Ability to confirm focus with manual focus lenses of all brands and types*
- DNG Format Raw Files*
- Manually selectable dedicated Shutter Speed dial*
- External controls for AF type, Drive mode, Metering, White Balance, ISO, Flash EV compensation, DOF preview, Flash settings, AEL/AFL, Shutter speed, and two custom Function Buttons you assign*
- Unique Film mode settings and two customizable memory stored user film settings*
- Automatic metering up to a full 60 seconds (most DSLRS are only 30 seconds)
- 2 second Mirror Lock Up*
- Release without lens setting (allows usage of any MF lens on the market w/adapter)*
- In camera resizing and trimming*
- Thumb operated control wheel set for fast EV compensation adjustments*
- Durable Die Cast Magnesium body
- Ultra Sonic Sensor Vibration for Dust Removal (the most effective kind)*
- Three frames per second shooting
- SD Card
- ISO 100-1600 range
- Great candidate for infrared conversion because of the live view tools and white balance range*
- And many, many more features
|Check out all those dedicate controls again! Bliss I say, pure bliss!|
Panasonic DMC-L1 w/Leica Kit Lens Price Check New
Sound like an enthusiast photographic tool to you? Exactly! It is of my opinion that the L1's capabilities somehow got lost/overshadowed by the heated DSLR race in which it entered. The L1 may be a victim of timing to the market more than anything- sporting wildly popular rangefinder styling, looks, and external controls/handling way before they became popular in the mainstream as they are now.
|External Controls like this. Take that you run of the mill DSLR you!|
The L1 might have also fallen prey to a specification contest to other makes. It could have been that its set of features were simply overlooked because it lacked certain specifications that the press love to rave about. You know, features such as megapixels or high speed frame rates. Nevermind that most people never take advantage of either of those features to their fullest extent, and, add on that this camera's feature set was probably more useful as a real tool than many other popular cameras at the time.
To be fair, it's price in 2006 was rather steep if all you were looking at were megapixels and frame rates. To me however, there are far more valuable features to a budding or active photographer than just megapixels or high frame rates. In fact, those really don't appeal to me much at all. I find that six megapixels is far more resolution than most people ever use even today, and most people don't need frame rates higher than three frames per second either. If either of those are your priority when using a camera, go ahead and stop reading this article now and save yourself the angst and time spent.
And on top of all that I feel the L1 was way over criticized and misunderstood by a majority of the press. The L1 was never designed to compete with the likes of the standard DSLR (if there ever was such a thing), rather this camera was something entirely new and different in many respects and that fact alone was grossly missed. What a pity, a real pity.
Well, no use crying over spilled milk. What is done is done.
And today the L1 is still a very capable photographic tool, just as it always was. The difference now is that you can buy a body only for about 1/4th the original retail price if you look around for a bit. My advice to bargain shoppers is this- If you like rangefinder styling and handling, need a camera that can use many brands of manual focus lenses effectively, you like unique quirky cameras, and the feature list I mentioned previously appeals to you at all- then I suggest you grab one now. You're likely to fall in love with it and the expense you shell out will be wholly worthwhile.
If you don't trust the AF confirmation in the optical viewfinder, you can can always magnify the image in live view up to 10x the normal size for ultra fine focusing when manually focusing. The screen is large and detailed enough to ensure a tack sharp image when using this method. You can also auto-focus in live view but there's no contrast detection style AF system here, the mirror will flip flop when you focus using phase detect type focusing. I say just take your time and manual focus, enjoy the features the L1 has that help you with that.
|Live View Mode (Image courtesy of Panasonic)|
Besides focusing aids, the L1 is equipped with a live histogram and a couple different types of composition grids including the traditional rule of thirds grid. Pushing the display button cycles through the different information and a lot of it is tailored to your liking in the menu system. Don't want some of the information, chose to leave it out. Want more, include more- it's up to you.
One of the more notable traits of the L1 is how well it lays in the hand and how well the form of the body functions- it's not just good looks. This is of course assuming you know how to properly hold the L1, i.e. hold it how it was designed to be held. Do this, and the camera suddenly becomes very comfortable to hold and operate as well the shutter release and all other controls become easily mapped and second nature to use.
|This is how you hold the L1. Right side in the palm, thumb flat on the backside rested, forefinger on the shutter release. Hold it this way, and I assure you this is one comfortable camera to hold all day long!|
I don't know how many times the flat sides of the L1 have helped me hold it much more steadily than a typical every day DSLR, I've actually lost count. That's good too since the L1 doesn't have in body stabilization like most of the DSLR's I use- you'll need to find a lens that has that feature optically if you really need it.
|Easy to hold with the left hand and make a self portrait.|
Even making self portraits is a breeze with the L1, namely because of the position of the shutter release and the shape of the grip. Using my left hand on this camera to take a shot is almost as natural as using my right hand, can't do this nearly as easily with the other DSLRS I have. This is very typical of rangefinder designed cameras like this, but the size of the L1 helps matters even more.
Handling is mostly subjective, but overall the L1 remains a well laid out comfortable design to use because of its inherent design platform. Form follows function, bottom line. Just so happens that the form factor is quite pleasant to look at!
A metal chassis says a lot to me about what kind of consumer a camera is designed to court. The L1's die cast magnesium chassis is stiff, light, and high quality. The rest of the camera surrounding its magnesium frame is also above average in quality giving the L1 the object permanence an enthusiast desires. Plain speak, I just hate creaky plasticy cameras.
I say unique but that isn't entirely telling the truth. Panasonic has this type of on board flash on the L1's predecessor- the LC1, and Leica share's the same type as well on the Digilux 2 and 3 models. However, that is where the lack of unique ownership ends. No other designer has built a two position on board flash in the same manner as Panasonic.
|Flash position 1, Bounce Flash mode. Effective indoors with low ceilings, what a bonus!|
|Flash position 2, Normal. High enough to eliminate red eye, genius!|
For indoor shooting or product shooting, that bounce flash does a great job as long as you realize it has power limitations and work within its means. Bounce flash is very nice to use because it doesn't blast your subjects with frontal lighting, instead it bathes them and the lighting appears much more.. um, natural than direct flash.
I have used the L1 for weddings and other events without bringing an accessory flash. Granted I had to choose my spots a bit better than had I brought a big heavy flash, but nevertheless I've made due with it just fine and it always brings a smile knowing I got away with very minimalist standard equipment so well.
Adapted Lenses- The New Trend
In my opinion the "new" trend of using older film lenses on DSLR's with adapters should have breathed new life into interest for the L1, it's a perfect camera to use for such lenses- especially because it includes an optical finder with auto focus points that will confirm focus with ANY manual focus lens you attach. Thats right, any manual focus lens.
|Fotodiox MD-4/3 adapter and Minolta MD 45mm f/2 Lens|
Because of the inherent advantages the 4/3 mount has, a vast array of lenses are available for use with adapters- more than most types of cameras. Two lenses that I like to use quite a bit are the Minolta MD 45mm f/2 and Vivitar SCS 28mm Close Focus f/2.8. Both were purchased in near new condition for under $40.00 apiece, and both are capable of lovely images with smooth out of focus areas. Not to mention they are tack sharp.
For my near infrared camera, not all lenses are usable because of the dreaded hot spot that occurs on the images due to some lens designs. It took a bit of trial and error to see which lenses I could use that didn't exhibit this issue. I found the Zuiko 14-42mm Olympus lens to be quite good, as well as the 25mm pancake too if you like AF lenses. My two pancake prime budget lenses I mentioned above are free from this issue as well.
Panasonic DMC-L1 w/Leica Kit Lens Price Check New
Something about the L1's image quality is almost sort of magical. Test charts and DXO measurements won't tell you the whole story, so don't go looking there. I'll do my best to explain, and what better way to do that than with a few sample images? Maybe I'm seeing something that isn't there maybe I am. But I will say this, the L1 has surprised me on more occasions I can count when reviewing the images on screen or print.
|Lake Fulmor, Idyllwild California DMC-L1|
|Cleveland National Forest, Near Rancho Santa Margarita, California DMC-L1|
|Snowy Santiago Peak, Winter, California DMC-L1|
There is a tonality to the images that is both calming and soothing. No, it's not just the subject matter of the images above, there is something else to them. Example, I have a folder of web images I keep that has images from every make and model of camera I've ever used in it, and the ones from the L1 always seem to stand out in their own unique way. The image(s) above for example, I completely forgot I shot them with the L1, but after I reviewed the exif data the odd attraction I have to this images suddenly made sense. Surprised me pleasantly to find out that I used the L1 here, and it justified that mystical look the L1 has.
With my IR converted L1, this holds true more than ever. Even the out of camera Jpegs seem to have some sort of glow or iridescence to them that I can't quite grasp technically- perhaps the answer is that it's not a technical trait at all. It might just be artistic, and, that also might have been the intention of the designers at the Lumix facility.
|Near IR Daytime Moon Image, ISO 100, Pentax A 50mm f/1.4 lens|
|The Pilgrim, Dana Point Harbor, California- IR Converted DMC-L1|
I've owned two or three L1's, but currently I just have the one IR converted L1 in my collection of cameras. I may some day add another used L1, but for now the IR model suits me just fine. The L1 makes a fine specimen for a dedicated IR camera, ticking off nearly every serious feature I prefer for IR shooting.
Technically speaking it might have a lot to do with the "Live-MOS" sensor that Panasonic designed for the L1. It really is a combination of what a CMOS and CCD sensor bring to the table. CCD sensors in my opinion are superior in image quality to CMOS sensors at low sensitivities, while CMOS reign supreme at higher sensitivities and video applications.
The Live Mos sensor of the L1 retains the look of CCD at low ISO's and the live view capabilities of CMOS. I can't help but wonder how good a 7.5mp Live Mos sensor would perform nowadays for higher ISO work considering the new 16mp Live Mos sensor from Panasonic performs better than the L1's sensor with it's pixels being about 1/2 the size.
Regarding the banding I mentioned earlier in the article, note that it doesn't have to plague your images. After figuring out how to properly combat it, I happily use my L1 all the way up to ISO 1600 where I find the camera makes great looking images with a fine, uniform grain pattern. Quite lovely from my IR camera as you can see below.
|ISO 1,600 ACR converted Raw|
Yet I'll only use the higher sensitivities when I convert from raw. As nice as the Jpegs are I find I'd much rather control the amount of chroma/luminescence noise in my files.
Panasonic DMC-L1 w/Leica Kit Lens Price Check New
I've seen L1's go as low as $150.00, and I've seen them sell as high as $1,000.00. The price fluctuation with supply and demand used to be that great, but since then the DSLR market has continued to move forward with great speed. L1's now settle in near new condition for about $300.00 body only. You'll pay more than that for the matching Panasonic/Leica 14-50mm f/2.8-3.5 kit lens, at least double if you are lucky. While its true bodies come and go for the most part, some come and are never replaced with a real successor. That is the case here for the L1, so don't be expecting a replacement L2 to come around anytime soon.
While Olympus and Panasonic never officially gave a public statement they were no longer making products for the 4/3 mount (don't confuse that with the m4/3 mount), its pretty obvious that Panasonic is done making DSLRS for the immediate future. I don't consider the new GX1 or previous GF1 to be successors to the L1 or L10 because neither have a built in viewfinder of any kind. I don't like accessory viewfinders generally speaking.
It's Not all Roses
As much as I like the L1, there are a few weaknesses I should mention to the reader or potential buyer. Keep in mind these are weaknesses that I've completely learned to ignore or simply work around.
Viewfinder- First and foremost its optical viewfinder won't dazzle even the sharpest eyed photographer. The viewing size/magnification is pretty small in comparison to other DSLR's I use and is probably the L1's biggest weakness. That said, the viewfinder still manages to report a good amount of information to the eye, but lacks some settings such as ISO and file type. (see * in Roses section). A magnifying eyepiece is available to increase the viewing size if that is something you need, and it works quite well. Olympus and Panasonic both make one to fit this although the Panasonic one is harder to find. I have both.
Flash- For flash geeks, there is no dedicated flash sync port on the L1, yet keeping on the bright side of things it still manages to include the more common style hot shoe vs. a proprietary mount at least.
Weather Sealing- For all weather types, the L1 isn't sealed for dust or moisture protection, you'll need to keep an umbrella or camera sock handy if you like to shoot in the elements much.
Image Banding- In some samples (not all ironically) image banding has been reported. This is the phenomena wherein a camera's image files show horizontal, diagonal, or vertical dark noise bands in the final image. Many cameras have this issue and it's not entirely uncommon although it quite well should be I say. I've owned two L1's, one showed banding in the shadow regions at higher ISO's and the other does not. On the unit that showed banding I found the blue channel to be the culprit of the banding.
How to fix the handing- Adjusting the blue channel saturation slider in ACR in the "calibrate" field will really help matters if you happen upon an L1 that exhibits banding. It can all but be eliminated with careful adjustments of this setting using Adobe Camera Raw. There are rare circumstances and under exposed images at higher ISO's that no matter what I do you can still see some, but again, those images are rare and I don't think the ones I'm mentioning were ever really good enough to want to keep around long term anyways.
What I really like about the L1 is its versatile and complete feature set, and all of the external controls. The angel is in the details of the L1, it's a thoroughly thought out camera with an excellent menu system and set of features. It's pretty obvious to me that the L1 was designed by active photographers that placed an emphasis on including features that photographers really need when they are shooting. Grand idea hah?
As obvious as that sounds you'd be surprised at just how many cameras I've used where a manufacturer has left out some very important and obvious bits in a camera. With the L1, I don't recall I've ever had a day of shooting with it wherein I sat wishing it would have been better thought out or had included features I really need. That is one reason why the ol' L1 continues to be a camera that appeals to me as a tool and why it has never "got old".
Specifically I appreciate the way the L1 was designed to aid in manual focusing. First and foremost it's ability to confirm focus on the auto focus points even with obscure lenses using an adapter, is extremely valuable. Although there are only three auto focus points, they are the ones I use most. *With such a small viewfinder the fact the L1 gives you a confirmation "green dot" when you have achieved focus nearly eliminates the need for a large and bright finder for the benefit of manual focusing. You can add a magnifying eyepiece that will enlarge the view at the expense of eye relief.
In a rapidly changing and unsure digital camera market I find certain cameras have been overlooked or forgotten that shouldn't be. Of course I'm not saying the L1 is the bees knees for every application, or even the best choice in a DSLR with a manufacturer that may not even make new products for its mount in the future ever again. What I am saying is that this camera is an excellent deal and that currently you can still find plenty of them around and plenty of excellent glass to use, whether you prefer autofocus or especially manual focus lenses.
The image quality is excellent from ISO 100-800, and perfectly usable (see my section on banding) at 1,600- in fact quite lovely if you like a bit of tight grain like I do in certain images. At lower ISO's the L1's performance is just as good as any other DSLR I've used, and often they have much larger sensors than the L1. I've never been disappointed in the image quality from the L1 here at all.
Handling is superb, and one of my favorite aspects of this camera. Controls are bountiful and well placed. If you like a camera that bristles with them, I find it hard to believe you won't like the L1. It's comfortable, not too heavy, not to big or small, and is adorned with grip all over the camera for a secure hand hold in any position.
To my eyes the DMC-L1 is a Panasonic classic that might just be a victim of being born in the wrong era- it was never as popular as I think it should have been. To me, the L1 was, and still is a gem.
As always, be safe and happy shooting.
Panasonic DMC-L1 w/Leica Kit Lens Price Check New