Leica Digilux 3
Retro styling and a high-performance lens will attract traditionalists to this capable DSLR camera.In its new Digilux 3 DSLR, Leica has once again partnered with Panasonic to produce a digital camera with a body design that’s reminiscent of Leica’s rangefinder cameras but with electronics that are purely Panasonic. However, this time, the liaison between Olympus and Panasonic has also contributed to the new camera’s design and functionality. The image sensor appears to be the same 4/3 type Live MOS chip that was developed by Panasonic and first used in the Olympus E-330. . . [more]
In its new Digilux 3 DSLR, Leica has once again partnered with Panasonic to produce a digital camera with a body design that’s reminiscent of Leica’s rangefinder cameras but with electronics that are purely Panasonic. However, this time, the liaison between Olympus and Panasonic has also contributed to the new camera’s design and functionality. The image sensor appears to be the same 4/3 type Live MOS chip that was developed by Panasonic and first used in the Olympus E-330.
This isn’t surprising as the same technologies were used by Panasonic in its DMC-L1, which is a close ‘cousin’ to the Digilux 3. Furthermore, the 3’s shutter and mirror assembly, SuperSonic Wave Filter (SSWF) and Live View function are the same on all three cameras.
With only 7.5 megapixel resolution (effective) and a field-of-view crop factor of 2x, the Digilux 3 faces strong competition from the current crop of 10-megapixel DSLRs that are selling for less than half the price of either the Leica or Panasonic cameras. Its pixel pitch is only 5.6 x 5.6
, compared with 6.07 µm for the Nikon D40X, D80, D200, Pentax K10D and Samsung Digimax GX10 so it may struggle to match the cheaper cameras’ noise levels.
Body and Lens
The body of the Digilux 3 is a composite, with the top and most of the rear panel entirely covered in brushed metal (probably aluminium), while the remainder of the camera appears to be made from polycarbonate, going on the inside of the battery and card compartments. The overall ‘feel’ of the camera is mixed. Some aspects feel very Leica-like while others are somewhat plasticky.
As we mentioned in our review of the Panasonic L1, the overall design of the camera body is quite uncomfortable to use for protracted shooting sessions. Compared with the Olympus E-330, which is nice to hold and use, the Digilux 3’s grip is rather shallow, there’s no thumb rest and the shutter button is poorly positioned and not angled for ease of use. The shutter ring encircles the shutter release button and both are awkwardly placed with respect to the camera strap eyelet.
A large part of the top panel is taken up by the pop-up flash, which works in the same way as the flash on Panasonic’s L1 camera – and also the flash on the Digilux 2, a sophisticated digicam that was released be Leica in 2004. This flash has two positions, both activated by the same button. A gentle touch on the button lifts the flash to face upwards, thereby providing bounce flash facilities. Press a little harder and a hinged arm tilts the flash head to face forwards for direct flash.
The viewfinder on the Digilux 3 is disappointing, being somewhat dull and cramped; just like its equivalent on the Panasonic L1. It’s difficult to focus manually using the viewfinder so most photographers will opt for the Live View mode (see below) where the subject is much easier to see.
The lens mounts onto a metal plate and you can see the angled mirror just inside the camera body when the lens is removed. The lens itself also appears to be made from both metal and plastic and has rubber coated focusing and zoom rings. Leica appears to be placing a lot of faith in the Leica D Vario-Elmarit 14-50mm kit lens it bundles with the camera, which obviously accounts for a large part of the Digilux 3’s overall price tag. It appears to be the same lens as Panasonic supplies with its L1 camera and, although tagged with ‘Leica Camera Germany’ it’s also labelled ‘Made in Japan’. Panasonic produces this hybrid lens to Leica’s specifications, taking the optical components from Leica but including its own integrated optical image stabiliser (O.I.S.).
The lens itself consists of 16 elements in 12 groups and includes two aspherical elements. It boasts an aperture of f/2.8 at the widest zoom setting and a focal length equivalent to 28-100mm in 35mm format. Zooming is fully manual and the zoom ring is wide, comfortable to use and well-positioned. An on/off switch is provided for engaging the Mega O.I.S stabilisation and the aperture ring, which is nearest the camera body, has settings for f/2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16 and 22 plus an A’ position for automatic aperture control.
A similar strategy applies to the shutter speed dial, which has an A position for Aperture-priority AE plus click-stops at 1/3-stop intervals for shutter speeds from 2-60 seconds to 1/4000 second . There’s also a B position for long exposures up to 8 minutes. With both the aperture and shutter speed rings set to A, the camera is set for fully automatic exposure. With both settings on manual, manual exposures can be adjusted in match-needle mode.
The Live View function on the Digilux 3 is almost identical to the Panasonic system and the Digilux 3 also has a fixed LCD (unlike the Olympus E-330 whose LCD is adjustable). A button above the display switches between DVF (viewfinder) and LCD (Live View on the LCD). In DVF mode the LCD shows a status display, while in LCD mode the viewfinder is blocked when the reflex mirror swings to one side to allow light to pass to the Live View sensor. Switching between views takes a second or two and it’s quite a noisy process. But there’s a huge advantage in being able to see exactly what you will record with the Live View mode.
Live View mode also provides several additional viewing options, including on-demand grid lines, a histogram display and a high-angle setting that lets you shoot with the camera above your head. You can enlarge part of the screen to make manual focusing easier and check depth of field by holding down the aperture button on the rear panel. You can also set the camera to record pictures with a 3:2 aspect ratio for printing on standard papers or select 16:9 format for widescreen shots. These settings apply for all JPEG sizes.
Unlike most DSLRs, the Digilux 3 has additional digital zoom controls, which can only be used in Live View mode. The Extended Optical Zoom function is set in the Record menu. It allows photographers to expand the zoom range by 25% (up to the equivalent focal length of 150mm in 35mm format). Resolution is reduced to 3-megapixels in 4;3 aspect ratio, 2.5-megapixels in 3:2 mode and 2-megapixels in 16:9 mode. 2x and 4x digital zoom is also supported and you can combine extended optical zoom with digital zoom to reach a focal length of up to 300mm (equivalent to 600mm in 35mm format), with resolution reduced to 3-megapixels.
You either love or loathe the Digimax 3’s control system, which is virtually identical to the Panasonic L1’s design. Traditionalists will appreciate the ability to change apertures by turning a ring on the lens and shutter speeds by moving a ring on the top panel. However, if you fit a lens without an aperture ring (for example from Olympus, one of the other Four Thirds lens manufacturers), you have to set the apertures through the Custom menu, which is pretty laborious. For more information on the Digimax’s controls system, refer to our review of the Panasonic DMC-L1.
Although the LCD acts as a basic status monitor for some camera functions, there is no data display and, if you decide to switch of the LCD (which is rather bright when your eye is at the viewfinder), no easy way to see how controls like, ISO, metering and AF modes, battery status and white balance are set. The viewfinder display shows aperture and shutter speed settings, exposure compensation and the number of frames remaining, but nothing else.
The default setting for the camera does not display each shot after it is taken but a dedicated Play button allows you to view the shot for as long as you wish and you can move from one shot to the next with the horizontal buttons on the arrow pad. One nice feature of the camera is the ability to obtain an enlarged view of the subject in quick review mode. This lets you check focus and exposure quickly and easily. Rotating the Command dial determines the degree of enlargement, while the arrow pad lets you move about the image. The Delete button also works in playback zoom mode.
The Command dial also lets you choose between single-shot, and index playback modes with a choice of 9 or 25 thumbnail images displayed. Calendar playback, which displays days on which pictures were taken for the selected month, is also provided.
Although the Panasonic DMC-L1 is slightly cheaper (RRP $3849), Leica provides a few sweeteners to persuade buyers to choose its camera over the Panasonic model. Buyer’s will need to place their own values on the following advantages that Leica lists in favour of its Digilux 3:
– A three-year warranty, compared with one year for the Panasonic camera.
– A bundled 1GB memory card.
– Adobe Photoshop Elements 4.0 is supplied as the bundled software. (This is not supplied with Panasonic’s camera.)
– Proprietary firmware settings bias image colour and contrast more towards a ‘European’ standard than the Panasonic camera’s settings. This firmware cannot be installed on the Panasonic camera.
– The Digilux 3 does not automatically choose ISO 800 under low light conditions, where the Panasonic automatically defaults to ISO 800 in low light.
-The Digilux 3 retains the Flash Off mode when it is selected, even after the camera has been switched off and on again. The Panasonic defaults automatically to Auto Flash under the same conditions.
We’re a bit dubious about the claim that the Leica ‘looks and feels better’ but there’s a certain cachet about that Leica red dot!
In many respects the test camera turned in the kind of performance you would expect from a camera bearing the Leica name. The colours in our test shot were more natural looking and dynamic range was wider than we’ve seen in most competing cameras. Portrait shots were exceptionally well handled with plenty of detail and all the delicate tonal nuances you would want. Close-ups were also excellent and the camera’s high resolution lets you crop shots without sacrificing picture quality.
Imatest confirmed our subjective assessments of the Digimax 3’s picture quality. Colour accuracy was very good and saturation was only a trace below normal levels, instead of being elevated as is it in most digital cameras. Lateral chromatic aberration was low in all test shots. Imatest picked up some differences in resolution between the centre and edge of test shots but we saw no evidence of unsharp edges in normal photographs. Slight barrel distortion was observed in test shots at the 14mm lens setting but no distortion was found beyond about 20mm.
Resolution between ISO 100 and 400 was as good as you would expect from a 7.5-megapixel DSLR. However a gradual decline in resolution occurred from ISO 400 to ISO 1600. Nevertheless, shots taken at ISO 1600 retained their apparent sharpness and lifelike colours. Image noise was generally very well controlled and relatively low at high sensitivity settings. Flash performance was average, although the tiltable flash head proved very useful for bounce flash shots.
The auto white balance had the usually problems with incandescent lighting and failed to completely remove the colour cast in fluorescent light shots. However, better performance was delivered by the pre-sets and close to neutral colours with the manual measurement function. Long exposures at night had very low noise levels, even at ISO 1600, although noise was visible in shots taken under normal lighting at high sensitivity settings.
The autofocusing system showed only average responsiveness and there were times when the camera took almost a second to lock onto the subject – and times when a shot was taken without the subject in focus. With pre-focusing, the average capture lag of 0.5 seconds reduced to less than 0.2 seconds. It took three seconds, on average, to display the image on the LCD after the shot was taken. The continuous shooting mode captured high-resolution JPEG shots at 0.35 seconds intervals. Ten seconds was required to process a burst of 22 shots.
Performance-wise there’s a lot to like about the Digimax 3 – especially if you’re keen on portraiture. The subtle colours and tonality provide a completely different look to shots from most other cameras. However, it’s a pity Leica didn’t seek some design advice from Olympus instead of Panasonic. The result may have been a camera that was more comfortable to use – without compromising on the nice traditional touches that make the Digilux 3 (and its Panasonic cousin) so engaging.
The $3800 price tag is a big ‘ask’ for potential buyers, fast Leica lens notwithstanding. How it compares with 10-megapixel DSLRs from Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony at around half the price is something individual buyers must decide for themselves.
Backlighting and flare.
Auto white balance with incandescent lighting.
Auto white balance with fluorescent lighting.
Long exposure at ISO 1600.
Image sensor: 17.3 x 13.0 mm LiveMOS sensor with 7.9 million photosites (7.5 megapixel effective)
Lens mount: Four Thirds standard; Leica D Vario-Elmarit 14-50mm f/2.8-3.5 ASPH lens supplied
Focal length crop factor: 2x
Image formats: Raw, JPEG (Exif 2.21)
Image Sizes: 4:3 format ““ 3136 x 2352, 2560 x 1920, 2048 x 1536; 3:2 format ““ 3136 x 2080, 2560 x 1712, 2048 x 1360; 16:9 format ““ 3136 x 1760, 1920 x 1080.
Shutter speed range: 60-1/4000 sec. plus Bulb
Self-timer: 2 or 10 second delay
Image Stabilisation: Lens-shift optical
Dust removal: ultrasonic protective filter
Exposure Compensation: +/- 2EV in 1/3EV increments
Focus system: 3-point TTL phase difference detection
Focus modes: Single-shot, Continuous, Manual focus; auto or manual focus point selection; AF assist lamp
Exposure metering/control: TTL open aperture metering 49-zone (with optical viewfinder), 256-zone (in Live View mode); P, A, S, and M shooting modes
Colour space options: sRGB, Adobe RGB
Custom functions: 3 Custom Sets, 14 functions
ISO range: Auto, ISO 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600
White balance: Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Shadow, Halogen, Flash, Manual (x2); Kelvin temperature setting 2500 to 10.000 K in 31 steps
Flash: Pop-up flash with GN 13; Flash modes ““ auto, off, daylight fill-in, slow synch; red-eye reduction provided. X-synch at 1.160 sec.
Sequence shooting: 3 or 2 fps for 6 Raw images or unlimited JPEGs
Storage Media: SD, SDHC, MMC cards
Viewfinder: Eye ““level TTL Optical Porro finder (95% FOV)
LCD monitor: 2.5-inch TFT colour display with 207,000 pixels (100% coverage)
PC interface: USB 2.0 Hi-Speed
Power supply: Rechargeable Lithium-ion battery; ~450 shots per charge (CIPA Standard)
Dimensions (wxhxd): 145.8 x 86.9 x 80 mm
Weight: approx. 530 grams (body only)
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