Sunday, April 15, 2018

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LC1 - Fifteen Glorious Years Later

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LC1 - Fifteen Glorious Years Later
April 2018, Carl Garrard
Although the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LC1 wasn't officially announced till PMA in 2004, its near twin, the Leica Digilux 2 was announced in late December 2013, and both were developed in that year. Only aesthetics on the exterior separate the two from being identical (black paint vs silver, grip added vs flat, minor different looking on/off switch). It's amazing to think that fifteen years has passed since this camera was announced. And it's also unthinkable (more on that later) that Panasonic and Leica haven't collaborated to make a true successor to these cameras considering how wildly popular they are with the subculture who rave about them. These two cameras have become cult status icons, because they are two of the most beautifully designed digital cameras of all time. Most owners covet them, some have bought and sold them several times, but ultimately you cannot escape the draw of the beautifully designed LC1 (and Digilux 2). And that's one reason why I took so much time to write this article.


I'd like to first preface this article by politely pleading with both Panasonic and Leica. Please collaborate and make a true successor to the DMC-LC1 (or Digilux 2). Kick start it, whatever you have to do, but please, make a modern version of the LC2 without compromise to its original design!

The LC1 is a real fun guy... to photograph with.


Panasonic Lumix DMC-LC1: Introducing the LC1

This is not my first article on this particular camera of which I will refer too as just the LC1 going forward in this write up. I've written a few separate reviews and articles on the LC1 and the Digilux 2 alike. My first review on the LC1 was back in 2010, but is no longer on the net because my that website closed its doors. I did write a short article here on the LC1 and a full review on the Digilux 2 for other reference if you are interested. Yet, I'm far from done writing about the LC1 because it's still such a great camera to shoot with. I think the camera market is still severely lacking in choices of more simple and pleasurable to use analog designed digital cameras.

Thus, I believe camera manufacturers need to be a heck of a lot more daring in design these days. They need to cater to the more specific buyers. Perhaps they should stop trying to please everyone in one single design and instead make more specialized cameras that adhere to a design philosophy, a sort of design dream; a more specific tool to fulfill a particular niche. There are a couple manufacturers that are attempting to do this at least- Leica and Fujifilm. Yet, even these companies seem to succumb to various pressures by trying to make designs appeal to too many different types of photographers. When you do that, you lose the magic of an original design. The LC1 adhered to a very simple design philosophy, and wasn't a sell out. It shouldn't be an anomaly as it stands, rather it should be the norm for camera manufacturers. And I think they better learn quick, because there are a lot of photographers out there craving a simple no b.s. tool.

How can you not make a successor to this gorgeous camera..... unthinkable?

And primarily, that is exactly why the LC1 (and Digilux 2) have continued to hold value and warm photographers hearts some 15 years after they were announced. The LC1 really, is a simple analog camera with digital parts inside. Thank you! We definitely need more cameras like this don't we? And of course yes, along side high tech cameras too. But what we don't need, are more digital cameras that try to be both things at once. We already have enough of those. There are different tools in a tool box for a reason, cameras are no different. I say  make them the best at what they are designed for, no more or less than that. Thus, we desire more dedicated digital stills cameras. No video is even needed really. Yes that is a risk, but not nearly as much as manufacturers think. Just look at the reaction to some of the more throw back designs these days (X100/Instax/Leica Monchrom etc.). You certainly wouldn't want a hammer to also be a t.v remote too, now would you? Stay with me here.

This is another reason why the LC1 is so loved. It doesn't pretend to be anything different than what it is- first and foremost it's a stills image device. It's nearly an unrivaled tactile-first analog design, offering a pleasurable hands on experience that even my beloved X20 or Leica M cameras can't match (and I like those cameras a whole heck of a lot). This is why I can never stop using it. It's draw is pure,simple, honest to almost being perfect. It's the kind of camera that can make me forget all about the hardships of my past and quiet all the noise in my head while I set out to make photographs in the world. There are so few cameras that can do this, and none better for me than the LC1. But it is also a challenging camera to use, and that sorta adds to its charm unless you like everything handed to you on a silver platter.

My goal here, is to attempt to explain in better words just why this camera is so special in its design. I'll break down in sections why each part of the camera is so well designed, and talk about it in a bit more detail.


Panasonic Lumix DMC-LC1: Design and Characteristics

Starting with the size and weight of the LC1, it's nearly perfect for a stills only oriented camera. Its width, thickness, and height, seem to be custom tailored to a wide variety of hand sizes. It's not too big to be clumsy, and not too small to be fiddly. It's weight is also perfect, not too heavy, not too light. You can make a very stable blur free shot with it, because of its weight, but you can also carry it around all day long with a small strap and never be tired of carrying it. The size of the body, is the grip. The LC1 doesn't need the added grip on front, the Digilux 2 without one is extremely comfortable in the hand and doesn't have one. But the LC1's grip isn't an obscene deviation from the design genius, its a slightly enhanced ergonomic addition. I like both cameras, grip or not, its the width and height and weight of the camera that feel perfect in my shooting hand.


I'ts pretty for a reason. 24-90mm f/2-2.4 Vario-Summicron lens being the star of the show. Yet, the body is just as nicely designed too, not too much, not too little. The gold L badge doesn't stand for Leica, it stands for Lumix. The upper right shows its AF focusing module. The upper left has a self timer lamp and white balance sensor.


Build and finish are also top rate. Built for a lifetime. An all magnesium metal body sets the tone of quality, and you feel it in your hand. The solidity, is a huge part of its charm, words here won't describe it. When you hold it, you fall in love with it. And its finish, a slightly semi flat black finish, seems to resist scratches pretty well, and feels silky smooth to the touch. There is a short list of cameras that feel this good in hand, and the LC1 may surpass them all. Even my Leica M's don't have this much magic, but they are close.

Clean and simple design, with all the necessary functions for still photography in the proper location for the hands.
Perfect.


External appointments and controls are top rate. The metering switch is right around the shutter release. The mode dial is also a manual shutter speed dial. The flash is actually kind of awesome. It's a real usable flash in that it has a two position lock. The first position is powerful enough for an indoor bounce flash and the second for standard fill flash. The back side of the camera is laid out with a simplistic design precept, and most of the buttons are well placed and the right size. I wish it had few items assigned in lieu of the display, EV button, and the function button. In their place (in the same order), I'd prefer an ISO, AEL Lock, and playback button. An auto switching sensor for the EVF would have also been an awesome edition.

Notice all buttons out of the way of the shooting hand/thumb. I'd arrange some of them or assign them a bit differently, but I'd never change their physical location. One of the cleanest designed cameras ever built.

So while the LC1 isn't perfect, I've learned how to move around these minor inconveniences. Since I  use ISO 100 almost exclusively I don't need that button. AEL lock is accomplished by a half press of the shutter button (I use manual focus most of the time so I don't mind it relegated to a half press of the shutter release), and the playback is already located on the main four way control pad. The changes I suggest would be minor handling improvements for a successor.

The draw for me is the perfect size of the LC1 for two hands. It's not too big or too small, and you can shoot with it all day long. Shown with the included pinch style lens hood which helps protect that gorgeous lens.

Now the part that really gets me hot about the LC1 are it's unique design traits. First of all, a manually coupled, fixed lens is very rare. Even more rare though is a manually coupled fixed lens that has internal zooming. To date, only four camera's ever produced have a manually coupled fixed lens that also zooms internally, the LC1/Digilux 2, and the Panasonic FZ30/50. There is something about the feeling of using a lens designed this way. Magnificent. Then on top of that you have a two position flash- wherein the first position is a dedicated and designed bounce flash position. Only two designs have this feature, the DMC-LC1/Digilux 2 and the DMC-L1/Digilux 3 (the latter are DSLR's). And you can't count the cameras that have a pop up flash that you can pull back to bounce, it's not an intended design feature. Why don't more manufactures do that? Simple, they lose sales on flash guns. So they say.

ISO 100, a little blur is enough to put focus on the main subject. The LC1 is capable of blurring out backgrounds even with a bit of distance from you and the main subject.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LC1: Handling

There are a few things that make the lens a pleasure to use. First of all, its a completely manual, internal zooming design. Let me say that again, its full manual, its internal zooming. Why is that a big deal? Well for several reasons. One, its supremely quiet and smooth. Two, the camera never changes length while you zoom. Therefore its balance point always stays the same, it won't protrude further out, and there is no zoom creep, ever. This adds a huge pleasure factor to shooting with the LC1, and again, words cannot make you feel what I'm talking about.  And the lens is all metal, there's no rubber or plastic to lessen the experience. But let me share my experience of holding and using the LC1 for the first time (and every time since).

Both of your hands bring the LC1 to your eye. The cool all metal, perfectly weighted and balanced feel of the camera in your hands. It's milled metal zoom ring in your left hand's thumb and fingertips. The body in your right palm, all fingers relaxed, hands completely relaxed, it feels like a custom fit to you. Fingers fall to the controls naturally, effortlessly. Each hand feels the equal weight of the LC1, you smile in the pleasure of just holding it. You can't believe how balanced it feels. No other camera has felt like this.

One handed or two, it's a comfortable camera to use. It is not a forgiving camera, and that's exactly one of the top reasons why I love it so much.

Then you zoom in a bit. It's buttery smooth and precise feel are almost unrivaled- the perfect dampening, and with no sign of imprecision to be found. Your fingertips have never felt anything like it. You pause, wait, wow. You take your eye off the viewfinder in disbelief, looking at the lens with a child like amazement, a smile so big you could drool and not care if anyone saw you. It's focus ring, it's equal, its aperture ring, the same quality. You weren't prepared for this. Your so happy all you want to do is take pictures, with the camera feeling like an extension of your body. You don't have to think about where controls are, diving into menus, none of that. Just a beautiful camera in your hands waiting for you to press the shutter.

So at this point of the experience, you really don't care too much now about the image quality capability of of the LC1. The enjoyment of using this camera is unlike any other, and for me that's most of what I desire when I photograph, a pleasurable experience. You just want to go out and photograph with the LC1, it will drive you to get off the couch and get out and make images. You will be charmed by it to do so, I promise. But the LC1 is an anomaly, a rare camera that has come along only once in fifteen years in the digital age. In a way this is a sad reality, that we don't have more cameras that feel this special.

So much attention to detail went into its design, so much thought to the photographer, so much homage paid to fundamentals, to analog control, and in a way to historic and timeless camera design. Heart and soul went into its design. You can sense it when you use it, feel it when you release the shutter, and completely appreciate it all every time you use it. This is what enthusiasts need more of. They always need a camera available to them that by design alone really makes you want to get out and shoot with it.


Triple rings on the lens barrel, all metal, precise, smooth, all manual. Simple controls, clean all metal design, even the finish and types of rubber used were designed to last and not deteriorate.  After 15 years, this particular LC1 looks almost new.

To borrow a Jack Black saying, the LC1 never seems to run out of special rocket sauce. If you buy one trust me when I say you'll fall in love with it in no time. You've been warned.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LC1: Mastering the LC1

Part of the appeal of Leica rangefinders, and the LC1 too, is that they are designed more like musical instruments than digital devices. Practice will yield better and better results. The more you practice, the more intimate the relationship between the LC1 and the photographer. The camera is designed as such, so that muscle memory of the controls can become second nature to both hands. The eye, and the mind, can then concentrate solely composing a scene then making an exposure. But you must understand the characteristics of the camera. How it meters, how much workable dynamic range you have, and how well it will auto focus, etc. Knowing the LC1 takes practice, and time.

And I can promise, that if you stick with it, you will get stunning results. The journey isn't an easy one, but as you improve, so does your sense of achievement and mastery of photography itself. And that kind of satisfaction is completely lost on today's instant gratification popularity. Incentive should come from your will and desire to conquer the challenge of photography. Your tool is only as good as you are using it.

That said, the LC1 can be a finicky camera. It will punish you by overexposing highlights very easily and, don't try to rely on a raw file to save them, because you will not. Also, you won't get much latitude in your shadows either, so forget about shooting for highlights and bringing up shadows later. So, you just need to get your exposure right the first time if you want the best from the LC1. That is part of the beauty of it though,it forces you to think and to get your shot right. The joy here is that you'll love earning a great photograph!

Better get your highlights and shadows just right, there's no room for error!

Getting your focus right can be a challenge too. Although the autofocus works just fine in most circumstances, its slow by today's standards and it will occasionally miss. And manual focus, even with the magnification aid, takes a sharp eye and practice to really nail it down. But, that is also part of the charm of the LC1. Not anyone can just pick it up and make fantastic images, only the seasoned practiced LC1 photographer will get the most out of it. And when you do, you get a reward that most camera's cant give you. Satisfaction of taking your time to do it right, earning it.



Panasonic Lumix DMC-LC1: Image Quality

Fortunately, the LC1 has proficient image quality.  It's not just all about the experience of using this camera that makes it special. The combination of a star lens and capable sensor, combine to make high quality images, but it's more about the atmosphere that makes them special than the technical image quality itself. I suggest staying at ISO 100. It's fast lens and relatively modest max shutter speed (1/2000th in Manual, up to 1/4000 in Aperture Priority) will dictate that you do most of the time anyways, so get used to this ISO setting and forget it. One less thing to think about, right? Focus on proper metering and exposure, and better composition instead of fiddling with settings, you'll get used to it trust me.

Avocado Seed and the Egg. ISO 100, 90mm f/2.4 1/8th of a second.... hand held (no blur).

The LC1 will reward you with beautiful images that belie your downgraded expectations of its fifteen year old, five megapixel sensor. Funny isn't it? You know, the diminishing returns of digital sensors these days when you can make a gorgeous 13x19" print with an outdated fifteen year old camera, no?
That's not to say that modern advances aren't appreciated by me, they certainly are. Yet the LC1 at the very least makes me pause and think just how much still photographers really need more modern digital sensors.


Leica M9 shot with The Lumix DMC-LC1, ISO 100 f/2.2 90mm. A truly classic digital camera that I love, along with the M8.

Need is dictated of course by what you intend to do with your images. Yet if  you only need to make a still image, is the LC1 sufficient? It is for most of my needs, but not all. I keep this in mind when I'm going out to shoot. Mostly I go out to shoot with the intention only of enjoying making images knowing that I'm able to max out at 30" wide, tops. The below image of my daughter is my favorite of her yet, which was taken during the course of writing this article. I immediately ordered it on a canvas print mounted on 1" stand out at 16"x20", without any hesitation.


My daughter and the Sea. ISO 100, 1/1000th of a second, f/5.6. One single shot. This shot is on my wall on canvas at 16x20". Taken recently during this review period.
 Moving now to the lens, oh my, the LC1 lens. Owners of this camera know what I'm about to say next, don't you? Sure you do. They know what's up. Leica's 28-90mm f/2-2.4 Vario-Summilux lens is quite simply, a work of art. Even by today's standards, this is one of the finest lenses ever designed for any camera, film or digital, zoom or prime. It's a complete design. Optical performance, finish, build quality, handling, and tactile pleasure are absolutely first rate. Its as sharp as the best prime lenses at all focal lengths. It has nearly no weaknesses with aberrations or obtrusive glare, or ghosting. There are no digital corrections necessary at all (they didn't do those in 2003) on the raw or Jpeg files.

When you can manage some background blur, it looks fantastic. 90mm f/2.4, ISO 100.

Say that about a modern zoom fixed lens, I dare you! Being fully transparent, it's Leica Vario-Summicron lens is my favorite fixed zoom lens of all time- hands down. It could quite possibly be my favorite lens I've ever used for digital. And while it won't beat some other fixed lens designs for macro capability, it doesn't matter to me, I don't care. It's just that good.

The Jpegs exhibit no corrections or noise reduction made from the raw file. So if you nail your exposure right, you may not even need to process a raw file, they are that good (just reduce the sharpening to its lowest setting). I like to process raw files regardless, so I do. Here is an example of the out of camera Jpeg (sharpness to lowest, contrast and color are default settings). I changed the white balance a bit, and raised the shadow values a little. First image is the raw conversion, second Jpeg.

Raw converson, ACR 1/15th of a second hand held.
Jpeg out of camera. Note the stronger contrast and color shift vs the raw conversion. I still like this Jpeg though a lot!


Panasonic Lumix DMC-LC1: Camera Design and the Industry

There are some other really well designed digital camera out there too, yet let's be honest, they are really a minority. I'm not talking about capable camera designs either, I'm talking about cameras that are just flat out a blast to use. That challenge us. That reward us. That help teach photographers the basics. Those are the kind of cameras that have staying power on the market, and those you'll want to keep for life. Fujifilm and Leica are attempting to tap into this magic, and for that I give them credit for trying. But both manufactures need to make even more specific products.

Ricoh need to push their GR line even further as well, include a model with a viewfinder, maybe even a full frame model or a 1" size sensor model. Both with viewfinders, and make them optical/hybrids! Go out on a limb, take a risk! True photographers are waiting to buy them up. Don't go half way trying to please amateurs and pro's alike, we need separate specific products. Take your time to really perfect a design before release. Make a pure product with no compromises.

I call out two companies Leica and Fujifilm, because they don't seem afraid. While Panasonic are a great camera company, I feel they are trying to cater to too many different types of shooters with one design. The LC1 is the exception of the rule. Here are some examples of what I'm talking about with Leica and Fujifilm that were hits with true photographers that arguably gave them a real reputation for making proper digital cameras.

Leica introduced the M 9/Type 262/ and MD. All three of these cameras are phenomenal. They are all more simple, more classic, and thus beloved by their owners. And they all have sold very well. Fujifilm made the X20 (no other compact like it), the XT1/2, and of course the X100 which quite arguably made the biggest splash at any photo show ever. Owners of those cameras all have raved about them. Noticing a pattern here?

Fujifilm X-20, another excellent unique design that no other maker has attempted before.

It's simple, all of these designs adhere to classic design- where analog controls and optical appointments are at the forefront of its design ethos. Metal and glass and beautifully engineered precise appointments pull on heartstrings. They are proven, they feel good in the hand, they work. They are simple. Photographers need less distractions, not more. There is something very special about having to improve your skill to use the tool better. Like playing a musical instrument. Nothing can replace the joy of earned and practiced skills. Classic designs work  because an essentials-only designed tool is all that is needed to make a great photograph. The more pleasurable it is to use, the more you want to master it and use it.

So its that simple. Camera manufactures need to focus more on one segment of the market- and that is  making more simple and pleasurable cameras to use. I stress camera, not device. They ought to stress design based on a camera being much more about the experience of using it, rather than features or specifications it can advertise. Don't leave out fundamental controls. Put them in places that fall easily to the hand. Make the finder, glass or electronic, easy on the eye, with essential information available for exposure and focus. Make a quality product so that there is pride of ownership.

Mobile phones have taken over the snapshot crowd and that is perfectly fine. Let them have their mobile phones for that. Gone are the cheap and crappy compact cameras that photographers never really liked anyways. The camera market has changed, it is for us photographers again. It's our time. Times have sure changed dramatically in fifteen years haven't they? Boy! And since photographers are what the industry has to court now, make it known what you like and what you want.

Vote with your wallet, be a patient buyer, trust me when I say that your purchase has more power than a blog review or words of any kind will ever have. Make it known that cameras like the LC1 are vital, needed, desired, and coveted, and that you are willing to buy a successor of one. They need to hear us. This is my plea, and me saying that I would vote with my wallet for one.

We need more of you to say so. You don't have to settle for what is on the shelves. Not buying a camera is just as powerful as buying one. It sends a signal that you want something better. And you, the photographer, deserve better. You deserve better cameras, just like the LC1.

Remember, the measure of a great camera design isn't what its capable of; rather its how much it makes you want to pick it up and use it.

Stay focused.

-Carl

The LC1 is dead. Long live the LC1.


8 comments:

  1. LC1 product support page:
    https://shop.panasonic.com/support-only/DMC-LC1.html

    ReplyDelete
  2. Well Carl, you've certainly outdone yourself this time. It's a great overview and review of the LC1. I have a feeling it won't be your last post on that incredible camera ... as well as the Digilux 2. The passion you put into the review is certainly well-deserved. The LC1/D2 is a brilliant camera that will stand the test of time. It's well on its way to earning the title "A Digital Classic."

    By coincidence (if I may call it that), I had just finished taking pictures of my D2 and was getting ready to put it up for sale when I decided to take a breather, go online and read for a bit. I read your review in its entirety, turned around, looked at my D2 — sitting so beautifully in my product shot area — and, of course, decided to hold onto it and use it more ... MUCH more.

    So Carl, thank you not only for the LC1 review but also for saving me from making a big, BIG mistake. Not only is my D2 100% pristine, the serial number is in the 300xxxxx range. It's one of the last D2s ever made! It looks and performs as new.

    Best,
    Steve

    ReplyDelete
  3. This comment made writing the review all the more worthwhile! Thank you so much Steve, and I am glad that you decided against selling it. It's not only valuable monetarily in that condition, but quite a lot of fun to shoot with. Trust me,and I think you already know this, it will entice you again to take it out. Sometimes that is the benefit of having several cameras, you just need a break here and there. But as you know, the good ones always call you back :).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Perhaps I should also let you know that I purchased a Fuji X-E2 based on your review of same; figured I'd try it out and send it back if it doesn't feel right in the hand. Well, it feels right alright. Great camera. I use it all the time, indoors or out. I don't think I would have considered it if it weren't for your insights. Trust that your thoughts reach many and are appreciated by many. Keep up the good work.

      - Steve

      Delete
  4. Excellent write up. No need for an update short of the sensor coming to an eventual end of life. Meets my focal length and print needs. No processing required and something I have no interest in with digital photography. Tried an X100 and while a wonderful camera, 35mm alone was too limiting.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Awesome Steve! As far as interchangeable lens cameras go, its one of the best type I can find that mimic a rangefinder in handling etc. :) The XE2s grip doesnt feel right, the XE3 is too small...Many thanks for the positive thoughts bud, made my day!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thx Anonymous... :) We do need another, with not much changed!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Perhaps you are right. An improved EVF with frame lines....:) always wanted an M2.

    ReplyDelete