Breaking into the fiercely competitive SLR market takes nerves of steel and deep pockets. It's something both Sony and Panasonic are attempting to do, but to improve their odds, each has drawn on the experience of an existing player.

While Sony took over the intellectual property of Konica Minolta's SLR division, Panasonic linked up with Olympus and Leica in order to develop its SLR range.

The first fruit of this unusual union was the Lumix DMC-L1 - an overpriced and overweight SLR with a cracking Leica Vario D-Elmarit lens, and boasting Panasonic's Mega-OIS image stabilisation at its heart.

Sadly, the optics were too pricey to make the camera affordable and the clunky analogue feel wasn't to everyone's taste, although older photographers liked the conventional manual speed dial and aperture ring.

Now Panasonic has decided to take a second bite at the cherry by altering its design philosophy. The new design is being marketed at owners of compact or bridge cameras who'd like to trade up to an SLR without losing ease of use or the convenience of being able to compose shots on screen.

The result is the DMC-L10 - a camera that's been built to a price but which still offers a lot of innovation. Gone is the solid metal body of the L1 and the 14-50mm f/2.8-3.5 lens.

The new camera has a cheaper-feeling kit lens with the same zoom range, but a slower f/3.8-5.6 maximum aperture. There's no focus scale on the new lens either, but it does still have Panasonic's Mega-OIS image stabilising technology built in as standard.

Standout feature

The L10's standout feature is its 2.5-inch, twist-and-swivel LCD screen, which can be used in conjunction with the Live View function to offer photographers the ability to take overhead or low-angle shots without having to crawl on their bellies.

Mind you, that's just as well, as the L10's viewfinder is about as pokey as a Shih Tzu's kennel and needs the optional magnifying eyecup that Panasonic wisely includes. Occasionally you'll need to manually focus, as the three-point AF system isn't the world's fastest and the points are closely spaced.

Fortunately, the Live View feature has a 10x magnification for accurate manual focusing. There's also a hybrid auto-focus for when you're working in Live View mode.

While the L10's conventional SLR focus relies on the usual phase differential method, in Live View the L10 switches to contrast detection, which means that it can offer face-detection technology. It's a clever system and an industry first, but it's a bit sluggish and hardly ideal for action shots.

Surprisingly for a camera of this price, the L10 doesn't have a separate LCD status screen to show things like ISO setting and exposure. This means that everything must be set using either the on-screen menus or the plethora of short-cut buttons that litter the camera's compact but slightly plastic body.

The settings are easy to use, although the lack of a dedicated EV compensation button is confusing at first - until you discover the rear thumbwheel is the compensation control.

In addition to the regular P, A, S, M exposure settings and a number of special Scene modes, the L10 also has a series of selectable Film modes.

The description of the modes varies from Vibrant, Nostalgic and Smooth, through to black and white versions of the same modes. The effect is only actioned when you're shooting in JPEG mode, but as there's the option to shoot JPEG and RAW together, it's an interesting feature that a lot of people moving up from point-and-shoot cameras will probably appreciate and enjoy using.

Venus mars

The L10's sensor is one of Panasonic's own 10MP LiveMOS designs. It's similar to the one fitted in the Olympus E-510. However, when it comes to image processing, Panasonic has used its own Venus III chip to handle things and it could be this that's to blame for a slight softness in shots at higher ISO settings.

That's not to say that the image quality from the L10 is poor - certainly not - but this is a camera that doesn't have a lot of latitude, and it does appear to blow highlights easily and cut in with noise reduction a little too early.

The colours can also be a little oversaturated and high in contrast. It's possible to bypass these side effects by shooting in RAW or altering the settings on the Film mode, but that's not really what beginners expect.

Balancing act

Our one other gripe lies with the auto white balance function. When it works, it works well, but it's difficult to produce accurate colour under some tungsten lights. Even when switching to one of the manual presets or the custom function, a sickly yellow pall continued to hang over some of our test shots.

No doubt it's something that can be easily cured with a firmware update, but it's a little disconcerting on a camera with this sort of price tag and Panasonic's normally impeccable performance when it comes to white balance.

The Lumix DMC-L10 will probably appeal to more people than its rather eccentric and expensive predecessor. It's certainly easy to use and comes packed with features.

The twist-and-swivel screen with its Live View function can radically change your approach to composition, plus it gives you the opportunity to take low-level shots without embarrassing yourself. Perhaps one day all SLRs will have such a feature, but for now it's Panasonic and Olympus that are leading the way.

The price and the four-thirds mount may put off many of the compact and bridge camera users that Panasonic hopes to attract with the L10. Only time will tell.

Via PhotoRadar