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Leica D-Lux 3 Compact Digital Camera


Forget any hope of diplomacy in this mini-review.  It's late, I just got back into the country, and I'm suffering the toxic side effects of the medication they give you to prevent malaria.  To tell you the truth, naming a camera D-Lux 3 makes someone at Leica sound like a Texan.  "You'd love our new camera.  It's D-Lux."  It may seem normal, given the tendency of Leica people to shorten the names of their cameras in absurd ways:

– 'Lux (isn't that a unit of light measurement?)

– 'Cron (sounds like a tribe in Liberia)

– Nocti' (third declension female dative: "to the night")

– WATE (a while to get one of these)

– MATE (hmm... with a lens or a person?)...

...but all jokes aside, the name does nothing but cause confusion with the Digilux 3, which is a much bigger 4/3 format digital camera with interchangeable lenses.

The Leica D-Lux is the twin of the Panasonic Lumix LX-2.  Same Leica lens, same general arrangement, same gimmicks.  They're even made in the same factory in Japan.  Wait, did I say that?  I should qualify that statement by telling you that it's a very special corner of the factory that is hermetically sealed, with a positive pressurization of Leica essence to help keep Panasonic's technical prowess from seeping in.

The three major differences between the two are color noise reduction (less on the Leica), a bigger grip (on the Panasonic) and a trashy two-tone color scheme (the Panasonic black version).   The Leica also has a longer warranty.  Of those differences, the color noise reduction is the main issue (and much less of one if you only shoot RAW files).  I shoot RAW files but because I'm really shallow.  I mostly buy cameras based on how they look.*  So I prefer the Leica.

*Let's ask ourselves: why hasn't class consciousness completely taken over the photographic world?  I'm not talking about the cost alone but the message that using certain cameras conveys.  We recognize this in cars, clothes, and even the celebrities we follow.

The blow-by-blow

1.     Overall image quality.  This is the big one.  At ISO 100, images are slightly softer than an M8 that costs 10 times as much and has a sensor many times bigger.  If you are outdoors most of the time and shooting at wide-angles, you probably won't need to worry about noise.  A lot of people seem to be fixated on small-sensor cameras being "noisy" at their base ISOs.   I remember film (and still use it).  Noise at the base ISO of this camera is a petty complaint.

That said, color noise gets pretty heavy at ISO 400.  Yes, you will notice it - but much less in bright light than the shadows.  ISO 400 may be a monochrome-only exercise if you are planning to print to 8x10.

The camera has an auto ISO function (based on light level) and an "intelligent" ISO setting (based on, among other things, subject movement).  These seem to push for high ISO, even in bright light, a practice that increases noise and decreases dynamic range.  I would suggest forgetting about either of these two settings.  It's easy enough to change ISO via the main menu.  Just remember this rule.  Inside, ISO 400.  Outside, ISO 100.  See?  There's your intelligent ISO setting...

2.     Exposure metering.  Metering can be set any number of ways, all of which require careful examination of the live histogram on the display screen.  Even then, there is a tendency for the histogram to jump right after the shot.  The autobracketing function mitigates this somewhat (by producing at least one picture with a histogram readout like the live one), but I don't see any real reason in a live-sensor situation for a one-stop disconnect between the predicted histogram and the real one.  Expect to keep this camera set to -2/3 in most situations and -1-1/3 in others.

3.     Lens.  I took this camera to Brazil and shot it for two weeks.  I never paid attention to the focal length of the lens or its maximum aperture.  That either says very good things about the camera or bad things about my attentiveness.  In reality, I don't really have any innate sense about how the focal lengths translate (although I do have some rough ideas; see below) - and the maximum aperture is something you're basically stuck with.  Make the best of what you have.

Pictures are sharp from corner to corner at the wide settings and somewhat softer at "normal" lens lengths (what is roughly equivalent to 50mm and longer in 24x36 format).  Optimum aperture is f/4-5.6 at all focal lengths.  This is a very, very good zoom lens.

The lens is manufactured by Panasonic under license from Leica.  I finally looked.  It's a 6.3-25.2 (i.e., 4x optical zoom).  The angle of view when the camera is set to 16:9 aspect is (at least across the frame width) like a 28mm lens.  This is important because that extra width coupled with the extra sensor width helps frame pictures with large vertical objects.  Set the camera to 16:9, the lens to the widest setting, hold the camera in the vertical orientation at eye level or above, put the top of the object at the top of the screen, check it with the viewscreen grid and shoot.  Come back in Lightroom and make a 2:3 aspect crop; synchronize across all frames; slide the part shown up and down as necessary.  Cool.

Focusing is quiet.  Zooming is quiet.  The shutter is quiet.  Lens retraction on shutdown is a few seconds.   There is no attachment point for a filter or a lens hood.  It would be nice to be able to attach a polarizer, but alas...

Now, some things that haven't been addressed in other reviews.

1.  Form factor.  This camera s a little bigger than a deck of playing cards and about 2" deep including the lens barrel and lens cap.  The lens cap is necessary because the lnes does not have a protective shutter built into the front.  The lens barrel does give you two conveniently placed controls for AF mode (regular, close or off) and the aspect ratio (4:3, 2:3, or 16:9). 

Since I am guessing some doctors will hit this page, you can describe the camera sitting on the palm of your hand as follows: if the short side of the camera is parallel to the carpal bone of the thumb (extended at 90 degrees from the wrist axis), the other short end of the camera is centered on the metacarpal bones of the fingers.

The whole package will, in fact, fit in the front pocket of a pair of Levi's 501s (or in my case, 517 boot cuts).  But it still makes a bulge that looks like a can of chewing tobacco (yuck).  Better in the breast pocket of a sportcoat, but then it looks like you might be packing a Beretta.  The Leica leather case is protective, but it would attract attention on a belt loop.

My feeling is that the design of this camera could have been improved by making it a folded-optic camera (the type of camera where the body is flat and the focal length is created by a porroprism and internal zoom mechanism).  That likely would mean a slower lens and a smaller optical zoom range, but if you have seen how small and thin a Sony T5 is compared to the D-Lux, you would understand why.  In addition, moving to this design, particularly a Sony-like arrangement where sliding a door both uncovered the lens and turned on the camera, you would:

– increase durability

– eliminate the need for a separate lens cap, and

– obviate the annoying lags associated with extending and retracting the lens

In fact, if you have ever seen the JPG image quality coming out of Sony's cameras, you might conclude that the D-Lux's major saving grace is the RAW functionality over anything else. Fortunately for Leica, the cabal of Japanese camera manufacturers has decided that cheap ultracompacts don't get RAW.  Not yet.  Perhaps the best part about "compacting" the D-Lux 3 would be that the C-Lux will not need to be maintained as a separate item.

2.  Flash.  I know that the hard-core Leica fans will almost reflexively tell you that flash is something they never use.  But for a social camera, it's a necessity.  Your friends will only tolerate raccoon-eye pictures once.  And for a lot of digital work, you need to reduce the brightness range of a scene by using a flash to fill in the shadows a touch.

The D-Lux's flash pops up from a position above and to the user's left of the lens.  It's not enought to meaningfully reduce redeye but it does clear the lens barrel (you can see how the  barrel would cast a shadow if the flash did not pop up).  You should put the camera on ISO 400 to use it.  Range is about 3m.  The flash exposure control is probably the weakest aspect of metering on this camera.  It's pretty ironic, given that Panasonic (Matsushita) makes most flashes sold under the Nikon, Canon and Sony brands.

Maybe it's the Malarone talking, but wouldn't it be cool if the pop-up flash were replaced with a pop-up 16:9 optical viewfinder? 

3.  Storage.  The D-Lux makes absolutely massive RAW files (20Mb apiece) and forces you to make simultaneous full-size, full-quality JPG files.  In practical terms, this is 21Mb a shot and 89 pictures per 2Gb SanDisk Ultra II SD card.  This is about half of the capacity of the same card used in a Leica M8 for RAW pictures.  More disturbing, perhaps, is that the D-Lux card format is flatly incompatible with the M8 format, meaning that you're not simply going to grab a half-full card from one camera and put it in another.  This camera does benefit from accelerated cards.  Write time for a RAW file is 4 seconds with an Ultra II and about 8 with a 4Gb SDHC card.  It does not appear that there is any kind of frame buffer.  Note that the camera will not retract the len until writing the RAW file is finished.

4.     Focusing.  Fast focusing is not a strong point in compacts, and the D-Lux is no exception.  Manual focusing benefits from a couple of magnification modes - and there is a nifty depth-of-field scale.  But it doesn't look like your preset is "remembered" if you switch to AF and then later switch back to manual (this is a feature on cameras like the Hexar AF and the Ricoh GR Digital II).  All of that said, the camera is above average at detecting and achieving focus accurately.  Contrary to what one review says, the AF assist is NOT infrared but instead the usual annoying orange LED.  Infrared would be useless anyway, since passive CCD-based focusing (which is looking through a heavy IR filter) wouldn't be able to see the reflected light from the assist unit anyway.  Using IR would also result in a focusing error.

5.  Odd controls.  Consistent with other digital P&S shoot cameras, the D-Lux has a bunch of superfluous features that are accessible using major controls like the mode selector wheel.  First is a modal playback mode (i.e., one that does not switch to shooting mode when you press the shutter button lightly).  Second is the movie function.  Third is shutter priority mode, which was a pretty common functionality in the 1960s (because it allowed AE without an electronic shutter) but whose only real function today is stopping action, something that can be added via a "sports" function on the scene mode.  These functions are not problematic in themselves; instead, they become problems because you can accidentally switch them on by putting your camera back in a bag.

A different issue is that the lens stops down in A mode when you put your finger on the button.  In theory, this gives a DOF preview.  In practice, it can make it very tough to see the scene you are photographing.  Similar things happen in S and M modes.  This "simulation" is not necessary (forget selective focus with small cameras) and could be replaced by the EV offset scale that is already shown in the M mode.

The last thing is that there are extra buttons.  Exposure compensation is accessible via the small joystick-like controller - but is also activated separately (with a completely different graphic display) by one of the buttons in the directional keypad.  Why?!

The image stabilization button is also strangely prominent.  The system only has two settings and "off."  If this is going to get its own button, then it should cycle through its settings by pressing the button.  Realistically, the only time you are going to turn off the stabilization is on a tripod.  But if you are going through that type of trouble, you can find the right setting on a menu,

6.  Lack of an optical viewfinder (pro/con).  Frankly, those who think this is a deal-breaker are missing the mark.  I sympathize somewhat in that I like to shoot at eye level.  But this is a compact digital camera.  If it included an optical viewfinder, the camera would pork up to the size of a Canon Powershot G9.  If it contained a zoom mechanism, auto parallax correction, masking for aspect ratio, or a diopter adjustment, it would make the body of the camera much thicker.  If you want things like this, you might really want a Leica M8 or an Epson R-D1.

External finders are not really an answer for compact camera.  They are bulky (seriously impacting pocketability - see my upcoming review of the Ricoh GR Digital II for a discussion of this), easy to lose, and expensive (this camera already costs $600 - good finders are a minimum of $125 apiece).  If your emphasis is architectural, they are markedly inferior to the grid view shown on the live view screen.  The best option is the Leica Universal Wideangle Finder 16-28mm (due to its inbuilt bubble level), but it is expensive and bulky.

Moreover, with continuous zoom on this camera (and zoom that does not remember its position before the camera is switched off), it wouldn't be practical to use a fixed-length accessory finder.  It might be helpful to use a zoom finder from the bad old days, but because the Leica does not read out the lens focal length while you are shooting, it would be difficult to match the field of view to the frame.

7.  Battery life.  The battery life on the D-Lux 3 is very impressive - you can easily fill four cards with pictures.  The battery is tiny and the charger is tiny.  This, however, points to the shortcomings in the engineering of the M8. 

How is it possible that you can use a battery one-fourth the size of the M8's, get the same overall life, and yet perform many functions that the M8 does not: writing massive 20mb RAW files, running a live-view screen full time, stopping down the lens via stepper motor, autofocusing, and zooming?

The relatively poor battery life of the M8 is likely a function of using a mechanical shutter instead of a self-shuttered CCD.  Hopefully, the mechanical aspect of shutter control can be eliminated in the future.  But given Leica's glacial technological progress, I wouldn't hold my breath.

The Conclusion

Wow.  Yes.  If you think you want it, buy it.  The D-Lux 3, for all of its irritating little quirks, is a very competent camera for travel photography and general enjoyment.  It's slow for street shooting, and it will probably upset manual focus aficionados, too, but those are niche markets already served by other digital cameras.  Thumbs up.