Panasonic is My Hero

Many years ago at one of the first RESfests in San Francisco, some Panasonic engineers approached me and the guys who would eventually become my Orphanage business partners. They had some prototype cameras that they wanted to show us, behind closed doors. We were presented with two plastic shells, one of which bore a strong resemblance to what we now know as the venerable DVX100, complete with the built-in faux matte box. They asked our opinions about many features, including the form factors, and of course we picked the one that eventually became the DVX100. As the session ended, the Japanese gentlemen asked us for one must-have feature that we hadn't discussed. We simultaniously said "24p." They smiled, and nodded, and thanked us.

It's easy to take for granted the enormous leap that Panasonic made by introducing a consumer camera that shot 24p. I still admire them for that bold move. Sure, someone would have done it eventually, but it's because of their courage that we now have so many excellent 24p choices, from the mature to the impulse-buy.

The only camera I own that I love more than my DVX100 is my Canon 5D. Although I frequently lug it around with me, there is only one camera that I am literally never without: my Panasonic Lumix LX2. The LX2 is a terrific little 16:9, 10 megapixel, raw-shooting camera marred by only one fatal flaw: piss-poor low-light performance. In fact, when I replaced my LX1 with the LX2, I lamented that Panasonic had increased the megapixel count, following what seemed like a relentless trend in consumer digicams; the more-is-more megapixel marketing barrage that packs so many pixels into tiny CCDs that each must fight for a tiny shred of light, resulting in noisy images with unnecessarily huge file sizes.

Lately I've been entertaining the idea of ditching the aging LX2. The Canon G9 and the new Ricoh GX200 were possibilities. I played with a GX200 last weekend, and it was sweet. Shoots raw as fast as my LX2 shoots JPEG, has a lens that is wide as hell, fast, and doesn't stick out too far beyond the camera body when retracted.

Despite the somewhat noisy 12 megapixel images, my finger was poised over the click-to-buy button.

Then Panasonic announced the LX3. From the press release:

At the heart of the LX3 is a key component that distinguishes it from all other compact cameras: a 1/1.63-inch 10.1-megapixel CCD. Boldly defying the trend to cram in the most pixels possible, Panasonic limited the LX3's large 1/1.63-inch CCD to 10.1 megapixels. This made it possible to make each pixel around 45% larger than those in ordinary 10-megapixel cameras. As a result, both sensitivity and saturation is around 40% higher than in ordinary models, giving the LX3 exquisite image quality with both excellent sensitivity and a wide dynamic range.

In other words, they kept the same resolution as the LX2, but made the chip bigger.

They made the chip bigger! (actually they totally did not, see update below)

Bigger chips mean so many good things. Big chips mean shallower depth-of-field at equivalent settings. Big chips mean big pixels, which means more light hits each photosite. More light means less gain, less noise per pixel. Less noise means more dynamic range. Bigger chips mean better pictures.

Bless you Panasonic. I hope you start a trend. Eventually people will realize that these crazy-high megapixel cameras are making their images look worse instead of better. I sincerely hope that low-light sensitivity and film-like dynamic range can somehow become as consumer lust-inducing as the megapixel number wrongly has.

For those of you looking for a true "digital rangefinder," or, like me, the digital replacement for your trusty old Yashica T4, you won't find it until the megapixel race reverses and becomes a race to the bottom of the Pixel Density charts. Pixel Density is a term coined by the lovely folks at, and it is such a better indicator of a camera's image creation pros and cons than pixel count that they have placed it right below megapixels in all their camera listings. The pixel density of the LX2 is 25 MP/cm² (megapixels per square centimeter). The pixel density of the 5D is 1.5 MP/cm². Less is so very much more.

The LX3 also sports a fast (f/2.0 at the wide end), wide zoom similar to the Ricoh's, and some other nifty things like an optional wide-angle adapter and hot shoe.

And then, as if that wasn't enough (which it is), I continued to read the specs and see that while the SD video mode on the LX3 shoots useful 848x480 video at 30 fps just like the LX2, its HD video mode (1280x720) has been bumped up from 15 to 24 fps.


24p HD video in your pocket.

Now don't get me wrong—I'm not suggesting that you're going to shoot the sequel to White Red Panic with the LX3. Video from P&S cameras is always ass. But it can be useful ass (if you saw my presentation at SF FCPUG you know this), and it always killed me that amidst the 30p shooting modes there was never a 25p mode for our PAL pals, or even, hey, I can dream can't I?, a 24p mode.

I'm sure some poor engineer at Panasonic Japan views the 24p HD mode as a huge failure. If only I'd tried a little harder, he's thinking, maybe it could have been 30p. I hope I still have a job in the morning.

Well you are my hero, guy-who-fell-just-short-of-30p. And in turn, Panasonic is once again my hero. While you may not be at the tippy top of the 24p prosumer video game that you created, you have once again ensured that I will never go anywhere without a Lumix at my side.

UPDATE: There's been a flurry of discussion about this camera and its sensor, and some helpful folks on Twitter pointed out this article that clarifies the "increase" in sensor size. Turns out the chip is barely bigger at all, and in fact the LX3 will actually use a smaller imaging area than the LX2 did when shooting in 16:9 mode. I'm still getting one of these things, but I sure won't be hyping its "enlarged" sensor anymore. Grumble.