I would like to start off this review by explaining the various uses that cameras fulfill for me. My ideal camera would be the size of a small cell phone, have all the controls of a DSLR, a 20 megapixel sensor, a 10 hour/1,000 shot battery and a lens that captures enough light to be able to shoot bright shots at ISO 100 in a dim room. However, we all know that that is not going to happen. A Canon 5DMkII may fulfill those quality requirements, but I need a backpack to carry it along with all its accessories. On the other hand, my Casio EX-S10 is smaller than my iPhone, but the pics it takes are noticeably grainy in all but the most ideal of conditions due to the use of high ISOs to offset the small sensor and lens. So, what to do?
Being an avid photobug, I previously owned 2 cameras; a large DSLR-style Sony (now lost, will be replaced with a Canon EOS series DSLR) and a Casio EX-S series camera. The DSLR came with me to events and travel expeditions. While it took outstanding photos, many a photo opportunity was missed because I didn't have a camera on hand. This is what originally motivated me to get a second, compact cam. The photos from the Casio are excellent for an ultracompact, but they are clearly not from a high quality shooter. However, post-shot work in Photoshop can result in acceptable results, and a mediocre photo is better than no photo, when faced with a great photo op.
Soon, however, I was discovering that while the Casio was good enough for happy-snaps, I was more and more often wishing for the ability to take high quality shots in more situations. So I decided to buy another camera, specifically as a halfway between a DSLR and the Casio. Coincidentally, at the same time, I also decided to get an underwater camera for scuba trips. I started doing research, and almost bought the excellent Canon G10. However, I eventually decided on the Panasonic LX3. While they are both excellent cameras neither being better in all areas, the LX3 better suited the sort of shots that I would be taking; better low light performance and noise control at higher ISO settings, despite a lower megapixel count. I have nothing but disdain for the trend to up megapixel count at the expense of overall photo quality, but that rant is the subject of a whole other blog post.
Panasonic Lumix LX3
My choice was between the Panasonic LX3 and the Canon G10. Despite the fact that the G10's resolution is a full 50% more than the LX3 (15mp versus 10mp for the LX3) I chose the Lumix due to its smaller size, better low light performance, better noise control at higher ISO and the better reviews it received for its UI. I intended to use the camera underwater, where light is scarce and low light-performance is likely to be more important than raw megapixels. Also, I usually shoot in 7mp anyway to save space and reduce shot to shot latency. 7mp is high enough to print a full A3 poster sized print, and I doubt I'll ever need to print larger than that.
The camera's overall performance is outstanding. It is very compact and easy to use, and has a very weighty, substantial feel to it, nice and solid in the hand. Totally unlike the cheap plastic cameras that are so common today. It offers superb control over exposures, which would even make basic DSLR users happy.
The clarity is outstanding, detail is easily rendered right up to the 10mp of the sensor, and 100% crops reveal very little in the way of artifacts or chromatic aberration. Barrel distortion at the wide end of the zoom is noticeable in shots where perspective lines trace into the corners, but this is to be expected in a camera this size. Noise does get detectable from above ISO 200, but the image processing goes a good job and the photos can always be Photoshopped to reduce noise and improve colour.
Colour reproduction is excellent. I'd previously only seen this level of rendering detail from DSLRs. All colours seem to be captured accurately, even those difficult bright reds that tend to destroy contrast. Noise is kept low, due to the sensor being able to make the most out of available light and use the lowest possible ISO setting. At ISO 80 the photos are indistinguishable from a good DSLR.
One of the most impressive things about the camera to me is the dynamic range of the sensor. Dark areas of a shot can be lightened without too much destruction of detail and bright areas don't get burned out either. This provides the editing process a lot more room to make adjustments to a photo in order to achieve the exact look that the photographer is aiming for.
I plan to buy a DSLR for those times when I'm going out specifically to take photos. It will stay in my travel bag and come with me whenever I travel somewhere interesting. I will keep my Casio, which is small enough to live permanently in my pocket next to my cell phone. Previously, my Casio and a DSLR were all that I required to always have a good cam, but the LX3 fills the spot in the middle, reducing the number of times I see a great shot but cannot capture it properly. It will come with me on day trips and other outings where the Casio will likely not suffice but where I don't want to be laden down with a large amount of camera kit. I think I will get a lot of good use out of my LX3.
10Bar Underwater Housing
The 10Bar underwater housing for the LX3 is excellent. It's acrylic back plate is extremely meaty and durable, and the overall build quality feels like it would withstand just about anything. The updated version that I have allows access to all controls, including the directional button that provides exposure control.
No issues have been experienced with it down to about 40m. The front glass appears to be made from good quality material, it seems to be quite scratch resistant and does not absorb much of the incident light or offset the colour the way cheap perspex housings tend to.
In addition to the greater difficulty one has manipulating the equipment underwater, there is the added factor that generally, underwater photography is more difficult to master than above water photography. Even the most basic of shots requires careful consideration of focal length, field depth, aperture and shutter settings, white balance, lighting and subject movement. Above water it seems any amateur can produce acceptable results with no knowledge of shutters and apertures these days. Below water, however, one can't rely on modern cameras' auto settings to produce even the most basic of photos. The LX3 does not provide the full range of controls that a DSLR does, however it does provide enough control to produce good photos that can be shown to dive buddies without drawing snickers.
I have purchased a Pelican case to keep the whole kit in. I keep the housing, the LX3, my Casio EX-S10, spare batteries and chargers for both in the one indestructible case. Having a contains-all kit like this has really simplified traveling with my photographic equipment. Overall cost of the case, cameras, housing and accessories is about $2,000; quite a good deal all considered.
For underwater photographers, I would highly recommend the LX3 and 10Bar housing as they provide a great entry point to the art and give you plenty of control over your shots. That a camera delivering this quality and feature set is as small as the LX3 is is unbelievable. Given that underwater photography is far more difficult than photography above water, the LX3 provides a gentle introduction into the more advanced skills while also doubling as an outstanding above water camera. For those who are not into scuba diving, the LX3 provides the absolute best camera possible short of a DSLR. The only other camera that comes close is the Canon G10, and that is significantly larger and heavier. It is also more complex, and if you are going to sacrifice portability and simplicity then you may as well just buy an entry-level DSLR and get all the benefits that it provides. For beginners looking for a point and shoot camera or pros looking for a good backup, the LX3 is the camera of choice.