The gear that changed my (photographic) life: the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3

Looking back, the LX3’s clever use of its sensor wasn’t the aspect that had most impact on me.

In terms of my own photography, probably the most significant camera I’ve owned is my first SLR: a Pentax P30 (P3 in the US). It was a birthday present, bought second-hand when I was in my early teens and it introduced me to many of the basic concepts of photography. It’s the camera I shot with when I tried my hand in the darkroom and it still holds a special place in my heart. I’ve not used it for many years, but it was still working quite happily the last time I tried.

But the one that has perhaps ended up having most effect on me was the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3. I’d only been formally reviewing cameras for sixth months and the LX3 was the eighth camera I was asked to cover. All had been compacts, some had been better than others, but I recognized there was something different about the LX3.

The most significant camera I’ve ever owned is my Pentax P30 but the camera that’s had most impact on me is perhaps the Panasonic LX3

I’d enjoyed using the camera, which is always a good start, but it was when I got to selecting images for the gallery that it really hit home that this was something a bit special. Part of it was that the aspect ratio switch on the top of the lens had prompted me to make greater use of the camera’s multi-aspect sensor. But more than this, the pictures just looked better.

Looking back, there’s not a good shot in there, not amongst my images, at least. But the general image quality was so much higher than I’d got used to, from the middling IXUSes and woeful superzooms I’d owned and reviewed up to that point. It was the first time that it really sank in to me just how much difference sensor size and lens brightness could make.

Obscure but important details

Up until that point, when filling in that part of the spec sheet I’d rather glazed over, not fully appreciating the difference between the small sensor formats. And I suspect it’s not just me that struggles to mentally conjure the size differences between 1/2.3”-type and 1/1.7”-type sensors.

The LX3 uses a series of crops from a 11.3MP 1/1.63″ sensor. The largest of these crops is 66% larger than the 1/2.5″ sensor in the Canon A720 IS that I’d reviewed just beforehand. This is not something I was able to work out in my head.

I’m not great at fractions at the best of times but mix in some decimals, add an unfamiliarity with inches, demand the mental gymnastics of relating diagonals to area and garnish with some inherent inconsistencies of the naming system, and I won’t be able to spontaneously comprehend the impact.

But that difference was there to be seen.

Exponents of √2

Then there was the brighter lens. F2.0-2.8 won’t get you much in the way of shallow depth-of-field in most circumstances, but it gets you a lot more light than the F2.8-4.8 lenses that had become typical elsewhere. Again, it’s not necessarily easy to think in exponents of the square root of two, but there are few enough commonly quoted F-stops that you quickly learn that F2.0 is a whole stop faster than F2.8 and that doubling the number would give a two-stop difference, so it’s easier to at least get a feel for the magnitude of the numbers.

Camera Lens Lens
(full frame equiv. terms)
Canon Powershot A720 IS 5.8 – 34.8mm
F2.8 – 4.9
35 – 210mm
F17 – 30
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 (4:3 sensor region) 5.1 – 12.8mm
F2.0 – 2.8
24 – 60mm
F9 – 13
Olympus E-510
with kit zoom
14 – 42mm
F3.5 – 5.6
28 – 84mm
F7 – 11
It has its detractors, but the idea of equivalence can help overcome the ambiguity of sensor size and aperture impact, by reporting everything on a common basis. Here it’s clear that the LX3 offered capabilities closer to a contemporary DLSR costing twice as much, rather than a conventional compact.

The LX3 helped me see the light, if you’ll excuse the tenuous pun. There are a great many other things that make one camera enjoyable and another one less so, but so much of image quality stems from how much light you can capture. The LX3 did well on both fronts.

It would be another couple of years until I really understood how that additional light delivers the additional quality, but the LX3 was the camera that made me really recognize and appreciate the differences a bigger sensor and a brighter lens can make to almost any type of camera.

Straightening out a wrinkle

The LX3 was also interesting in that its lens required distortion correction and, when we first processed the Raw files from a pre-production sample, these corrections weren’t being applied. At a stroke it became clear how, almost overnight, compact cameras had gone from offering zooms that started at 35 or 36mm equiv., to suddenly gaining 28 and 24mm wide-angle capabilities: we’d just not encountered enough of these cameras with Raw to be able to see behind the curtain.

Wide-angle lenses had just started to become commonplace in compact cameras, but the LX3’s Raw output finally gave away how the change had come about.

With its limited 24-60mm equivalent focal length range, the LX3 also teaches a valuable lesson about the trade-offs required to create a camera that’s small, offers good image quality and could be launched at a comparatively affordable $500/£399.

Looking back, the LX3 was a great camera. Its JPEG color wasn’t a patch on the output of any modern camera but it helped inspire a resurgence of enthusiast compacts with short, bright lenses, before the 1” sensor rendering the whole lot obsolete. Back before equivalence simplified things, it was a camera that helped me cut through the fog of obscure sensor size terminology, learn the value of a lens that stays bright across its range, and appreciate that maths can provide a more compact alternative to extra glass when you’re designing a lens. None of us as individuals get to decide whether it’s seen as a classic, but it was a hugely significant camera to me.

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