Panasonic is one of the largest and best-established electrical manufactures in the world It has had a presence in consumer digital imaging for several years.
As well as enthusiast-friendly digital compact cameras, Panasonic has also made a name for itself in recent years with a range of luxury 'LX' models, the LX1, LX2, and now the LX3.
Coming almost two years after the introduction of the LX2, the LX3 features a high-quality 10-million pixel sensor paired with a fast-aperture Leica-designed lens, in a metal body with plenty of manual control over exposure settings.
In theory, the LX3 should be the perfect backup camera for a DSLR photographer. In a brave and unusual move, Panasonic decided to stick with the 10 million-pixel resolution of the LX2, rather than increasing the pixel count of its new flagship in line with other models in the Lumix range.
Only 10 megapixels
Panasonic claims this decision was taken to optimise the image quality, and if true, it represents a refreshing change from the 'pack 'em in' approach to digital camera's pixel counts that we have seen in recent years.
Like the LX2 before it, the LX3 is a solid-feeling, classy lump of metal that looks and feels like it means business.
A 'proper' hotshoe on the top of the body allows you to fit an optical viewfinder (optional) or a (forthcoming) dedicated flash unit, and the optional DMW-LW46 Wide Conversion Lens can be attached to an accessory ring around the front of the lens, allowing the lens to be extended to a wideangle setting of 18mm.
A Panasonic camera just wouldn't feel right without a range of daft scene presets though, and the LX3 doesn't disappoint here either. I especially like the 'Pinhole' scene mode, which effectively replicates the low-contrast, heavily vignetted pinhole camera 'look', albeit in files limited to a disappointingly low resolution of 2.5 million pixels.
In use, the DMC LX3 handles in a similar way to the LX2, with the exception of the slightly larger, brighter LCD screen. The automatic focus isn't the fastest we've ever used - even compared to similar digital compact cameras - but it almost always finds its mark, and when it works, face detection is a useful addition to the feature set.
We say 'when it works' because when set to face detection AF, the LX-3 can behave rather oddly. And we have found on occasion that it diligently sets about recognising 'faces' in scenes that contain no such thing - the wheels of a car, the eyelets of a boat's anchor mooring, and sunflowers, to name but three examples.
When a real face is present the system is reasonably reliable though, and usually falters only when the subject presents his or her profile to the camera, or (sometimes) when presented with someone that wears glasses.
Rather than simply providing Face Detection AF alongside other automatic exposure/shooting options in the menu system, Panasonic has also opted to combine all of its 'auto' features into the 'iA' (Intelligent Auto) shooting mode.
In this mode the LX3 basically takes complete control over image-making, and does a remarkably good job of discerning the intended subject, selecting an appropriate ISO sensitivity and balancing colour and contrast for punchy, print-ready JPEG images.
Automatic exposure modes are all very well, but one function that sets the LX-3 apart from a lot of the competition is raw capture mode.
Great low-light performance
We found that in average scenes at low ISO sensitivities, the benefits of shooting in raw mode are limited to fractionally more detail in highlight and shadow areas and greater control over sharpening. At high ISO settings, however, the noise-reduction options provided by Silkypix Developer Studio 3.0 SE (supplied) make it possible to glean considerably more detail from raw files taken in poor light.
Unlike some previous Panasonic digital compact cameras though, the Lumix DMC LX3 remains impressively usable at high ISO settings in JPEG capture, and although undoubtedly noisy, images up to ISO 3200 are acceptable at small print sizes.
Raw+JPEG simultaneous recording (not available in SCN and iA modes) allows advanced photographers to enjoy the best of both worlds.
Overall, in the LX-3 Panasonic has delivered a cracking digital compact camera, and one that will not only satisfy the majority of 'enthusiast' point and shoot photographers, but also a lot of DSLR photographers who hanker for a lightweight, compact backup.
Image quality is great at low to medium ISO sensitivities, and apart from some softness and fringing in the corners of images shot at the 24mm end of the zoom, pictures from the newly developed 10 million-pixel sensor look lovely, especially when created from raw files converted using the supplied Silkypix software.
The LX-3 might not be cheap, but you get what you pay for, and this is one of the best and most versatile compacts we've ever tested.