And finally the day arrived that I managed to put together the guts to write about this 15 year old vintage camera from 2004: the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LC1.
Why the guts, one may ask?.. Let me explain. Over my decades long amateur photographer career I used dozens of different film and digital cameras.
Yet, never had a camera triggered so much confusion and mixed feelings on me.
Flirting with the Lumix LC1
I remember back in 2004 when Panasonic announced the Lumix LC1 it caught my attention because of its looks and the 28 – 90mm f/2.0-2.4 lens. The fact this was a Leica lens did not trigger any emotion on me though. At that time I didn’t know or care about the Leica brand and its legacy.
In fact, Leica launched their own version of this camera – the Leica Digilux 2 – which is exactly the same camera with minor tweaks. There is a very interesting review of the Digilux 2 written by Leica expert Thorsten Overgaard that you can read here in case you are interested.
To me though, the Lumix LC1 seemed right and looked right, perhaps even better than the more expensive Leica. And the lens did look the part as well. The whole combo in black colour was beautifully designed with the right proportions.
At that time I had yet to decide how to migrate to digital. My everyday camera was the Canon EOS 3 beast coupled with a 28 – 135mm f3.5 – 5.6 lens… And I felt attracted by the Lumix LC1 because it looked gorgeous and had a focal length that I was used to.
I was very close to getting one. “In-built lens with useful zoom range, no crop factor, no complications“, I thought.
Remember, this was early days and I wasn’t used to cropped factors. I guess nobody was… The affordable Canon DSLRs had APS-C sized sensors, so the 1.6x factor made me nervous.
Well, long story short, I ended up buying a Canon 300D and forgot about the Lumix LC1.
But over the years…
…from time to time I would Google-search the LC1 and check photos of this gorgeous camera just to cherish the beauty of its looks. I kept flirting and thinking “heck, perhaps one day I will just buy one because this truly looks like a classic”.
My feelings towards the LC1 further exacerbated with the launch of the Olympus E-P1 and the retro-chic movement that it started.
There was the Leica M8, and then the M9, and Fuji in the meantime launched the X-100, then the XPro-1. All of a sudden the photo community was excited with this new vintage classic appeal, all these digital cameras that looked so appealing with the retro looks, the direct controls of shutter speed dials and lens aperture rings, together with brown leather straps and adapter rings to couple old manual lenses to mirrorless bodies.
And then you realize the LC1 already had all these components back in 2004 because it had what we call today as rangefinder style design.
The right ingredients
This camera had them all: shutter speed dial, 3 rings in the lens body for aperture, manual focus and zoom. And this last one is no bulshit by-wire ring so common in current cameras now: it’s a real mechanical zoom ring that mechanically moves the internal members of the lens with no electric motors involved.
These alone are good enough for an intuitive control of your photo experience. But then there is more. With the focusing ring, you actually set the camera to MF, AF or AF-Macro mode. Just like in the current Leica Q and Q2.
Then you have an EVF to frame your photos like any photographer should – how many times do we cry today for would be perfect cameras that for whatever reason have no in-built EVF? The LC1 dates back to 2004 and had an EVF.
Apart from these, you will find other direct control switches in the camera body which are self-explanatory and contribute for a no-nonsense, photographer friendly operation. No unnecessary diving into stupid digital menus.
Then you have nice touches, like the built-in flash which can be set to bounce. I mean, when was the last time anybody launched a camera with such feature? Mind me, most cameras nowadays not even have a built-in flash.
Pop-up flash: normal (left) and bounce (right)
I’ve been using the LC1 for over a month now and it’s been a very pleasant experience.
The lens is superb. And the 28 – 90mm focal length is very flexible and useful for a variety of situations. The lens body shows markings for 28, 35, 50, 70 and 90 mm, which are typical lenghts for primes. So when I zoom in or out I mentally change the lens, and just step zoom to the length I’m changing to before looking through the EVF.
I’ve never done this before, but for me this is a good method. I see a potential scene in front of me, I chose the lens I would use – 28? 35? 70? – turn the zoom ring accordingly and then look through the EVF to compose and shoot.
As opposed to looking through the EVF first, then zooming in and out with no clue… It puts some discipline to the process and things become more deliberate.
I love the feel of the manual zoom ring. It’s butter smooth and since it is not by-wire, the feeling is very engaging indeed. You can zoom in and out with precision and adjust the speed as you turn. It feels direct and connected, and if I am to choose one single feature to highlight in the LC1, this would be the one. It’s a shame that all fixed lens cameras nowadays come with motorized zooms.
The lens aperture ring is solidly built as well and performs as one would expect. Turn it to your desired aperture and get the tactile feed-back of the clicks. Put it in the “A” position if you want the camera to pick the aperture for you. Simple and efficient as it should be.
Then you have the focusing ring, turn it and the screen – EVF or LCD, whichever you are using – will automatically magnify to assist. There is no focus peaking, but frankly you don’t need that. The process is simple and smooth, no extra buttons to press and it doesn’t interrupt your flow. It works.
This all sounds very nice and beautiful and I’d love to say this is a perfect everyday camera, but…
…the problem is that the LC1, while providing all the right ingredients for a perfect camera, it’s actually hampered by the technological limitations from 15 years ago.
The EVF is difficult get used to and accept, as in 2019. It’s small, low-res and there are no mid-tones in both colour or brightness levels. In fact, it has a blueish tone and all shadows are simply black. There is no dynamic range.
But still, I can marginally live with that. After a while, I just got used to it and able to anticipate what the colours and shadows and everything else will look like in the photo. So the EVF, with all its shortcomings, is still a useful tool to accurately frame your shot, if not to verify the colours and shadows.
Then there is the ISO which tops up at 400, and the maximum shutter speed at 1/2000 of a second. Limitations? Yes indeed. Show-stoppers? Yes and no, depending on the situation.
My main problem though is the writing speed. The LC1 is slow, and objectively a RAW + JPEG photo (there is no RAW only option) takes approximately 6 seconds to process and get written in the SD card. Take a photo, then wait, wait and wait… The 6 seconds feel like forever and you can think of how many photo ops you are potentially missing over that period.
Things get even worst if you are shooting in low light. Probably because of noise reduction or whatever reason related to low light capturing and processing, the RAW + JPEG can take up to 10 seconds in these occasions. I’ve clocked it myself when I realized things were getting slower than usual when shooting a dark scene.
Can I live with these shortcomings?
Yes, I can… And it’s not the end of the world to wait 6 seconds, or even 10 seconds, between each click.
The main question is: why go through this? Is it worth it?
This is where my mixed feelings grow. Objectively, I could crucify all these shortcomings which are totally unacceptable in 2019. But such approach would be against the very idea of using a vintage camera. As is, drive a vintage car and then complain for the lack of power steering… The defects and the old school technology are all part of the whole experience, right?
But going back to the worth it question, the fundamental factor is the image quality of the LC1.
Let’s get this out of the way first: this is not a camera for low light. The noise it produces at ISO 400 is unbearable, unless you decide to convert to black & white and accept the noise as grain that gives character to the image. Almost film like.
Otherwise, low light photos in full colour are simply awful. You can try noise reduction filters in Lightroom or whatever photo editing tool you use, but frankly, not worth the effort.
When the conditions are right though, the photos look good. After all, we need to understand we are dealing with 2004 technology here, and high ISO performance to shoot in the dark the way we do today was totally unthinkable back then – and not a problem at all, this was how it was in the film days.
It’s just that current technology and high ISO advances had turned all photographers into vampires who never shoot in broad daylight and are overly concerned with high ISO performance.
Whatever. Let’s not get side-tracked.
Under broad daylight it’s where the LC1 can perform and show its true colours (no pun intended…). Well, the colours from the LC1’s RAW files are indeed quite rich. Maybe because it sports an old-school CCD sensor.
Are the images Leica-esque? Too strong a word to classify, but indeed the deepness of the colours do remind me of that special ambiance I find in some photos taken with my Leica M-E.
Technically speaking though, the LC1 has limited dynamic range and a tendency to underexpose when shooting outdoors, which is rather surprising since normally the cameras have a propensity to go the opposite way and overexpose. Anyway, this is the LC1’s behaviour and the end result is very much the combination of its limited dynamic range and underexposure.
Which I don’t dislike, I must say.
Playing with the LC1, I realized you can get some nice bokeh as well, but the increased depth of field from this small size CMOS sensor means you have to get very close to a subject to get some bokeh.
The LC1 as a street camera?
Well, perhaps I’d say NO because the LC1 is so damn slow?..
Writing speed is slow – 6 seconds between clicks, as mentioned earlier – but otherwise the AF is acceptable, there is MF if need be, and there is not much shutter lag.
The 6 seconds is a deal breaker though, as so many opportunities will vanish in front of you. Forget the decisive moment… It will disappear while the camera is lifting its heavy weight to get the file written.
So it’s more about observing the scene and having just one shot to capture it: get it or forget it.
Bottom line is…
… if you want to use this camera in 2019, then you better enjoy the suffering that comes with it.
Hence my mixed feelings, because while on one hand I hate all the shortcomings of the LC1 described above, on the other hand I really have a passion for this camera due to its perfect concept, design and features which are exceptional – to say the least – for a camera that dates back to 2004.
And the LC1 is a classic because?..
Because, as far as I know, there is no other fixed-lens camera ever since the LC1 with all its features. The Leica X Vario comes close, but it has no EVF and the lens is not as fast in terms of aperture.
Fujifilm had an interesting foray with the X10, X20 and X30, but those were really not up to the standard we are talking now. Manual zoom and EVF, yes, but no aperture ring or shutter speed dial. And, well, no prestigious Leica lens as well.
The Lumix LX100 would be the spiritual successor of the LC1. But for the LX100, Panasonic decided to couple the camera body with a rather uninspiring motorized zoom that is controlled by the typical collar switch surrounding the shutter button, just like any other stupid point & shoot.
While the LX100 looks elegant and classy with the lens retracted, turn it on and that ugly looking Leica lens sticks out like a cheap point & shoot, which is a real shame. Just take a look and compare it to the gravitas of the LC1.
Disappointing, to say the least.
Had Panasonic opted instead for a fixed, internal zooming lens controlled by a manual zoom ring, just like the LC1, then the LX100 would be perfect.
In any case, this is just to say the LC1 had no real successor, just a couple of cameras that came close, but not really exacly like the it – which is rather sad because the LC1’s concept back in 2004 was rock solid and ahead of time. It started the retro-chic movement that became so popular later in the years before everybody else.
Unfortunately, the technology in 2004 was just not up standard – otherwise, the LC1 would have enjoyed more success. Nevertheless, it is still a beautiful piece of photo machinery that deserves a place in the digital cameras Hall of Fame.
I have owned an LC1 and a Digilux 2 (and 3) and there is definitely something about the colors and file quality that stays with me. I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment – it is frustratingly slow to shoot RAW, and I can’t settle on just JPEGs when I am out shooting.
The first LC1, I owned since 2007 until its motherboard died in 2011 or so. When a decent D2 appeared on that dreaded auction site, I decided that it was time to reacquaint myself with this camera. I wish I could say that I have used this camera frequently, but the *idea* of the camera and the files it produces is far more enticing than the reality.
Bottom line, I don’t see myself ever selling this camera – even if it doesn’t get much use since it feels like such a special tool. Thank you for the write up. Great pictures.
I have owned four of these amazing cameras…and now have two pristine ones in my posession.
Will NEVER let them go.
There is just some indefinable beauty to their files that I’ve been unable to find in many other cams that I’ve tried.
If you are lucky to find one – jump on it …and keep it.
Best regards, Angus
I vaguely remember when the LC1 came out, I had no job and no money, and wasn’t even really into photography all, but I thought, that’s the camera I want if I could afford it. So, when I could, I got one. I took it on a trip to Iceland around 2007 or so and just loved it. With no preconceived notions about write speed or sensor noisiness, it just performed great and I had no complaints other than not being able to take good shots at night.
I guess that’s what ultimately made me move on, not being able to take great night shots. I got a Ricoh GXR with the 28MM module for my next trip and sold the LC1. GXR had almost everything, but not quite as mechanical. Focus ring (by wire) on the lens, EVF (although it wasn’t built in), no zoom, but, 28mm was my most used focal length.
I have patiently waited for ANYONE to release a digital camera with the same features you have mentioned. A wide zoom range, fast lens, physical controls for everything and most importantly a built in EVF. I am not sure it’s really coming. The Leica X Vario could have been great.
I think the closest thing is probably the Leica CL with kit zoom at this point. Not a built in lens, but at this point I doubt Leica will make another X Vario.
For digital these days I switched to Fuji X100F which I think is a good substitute. It does have crop zoom, but with the higher resolution you can still get good image resolution even with the smaller sensor size.
I have also switched over to film for about half my photography now, and just today got in the mail a Leica R Vario Elmar 35-70mm zoom. When I mounted it on my Leicaflex, it gives me the closest feel I’ve had to the LC1. I just got a wave of nostalgia just holding it. The lens feels like it’s about the same size as the one on the LC1 (67mm filter, I think LC1 is 69mm if I remember right).
The nostalgia was so strong I had to hunt down some LC1 reviews. Thanks for putting together a great writeup on this underappreciated camera. With the advancement on sensors and EVF panels, it would be a real pleasure if Leica / Panasonic used this exact same lens design and updated the camera body to go with it. I would buy it in a heartbeat.
It’s great to read this review, but I must disagree about the night shots. Once I’d realised how to use it I’ve found I can take really amazing night shots of static subjects using long exposures. Set aperture to Auto, focus to infinity, zoom as you want to frame the shot, then try exposures of 2-8 seconds at 100ASA. I’ve found the results for nighttime city shots are really excellent. Highlights (e.g. brightly lit windows) do not burn out, while dark areas are brought up to good exposure with sharp detail. Other more recent cameras I’ve tried usually burn out the highlights under these conditions – maybe the CCD sensor is the key here? But this is now a camera I love for night shots!
Great little review of the LC1. As a photographer and photography teacher going back to the 60’s and 70’s I’ve noticed two things, first digital has always tried to emulate great film images and secondly that’s rarely achieved. I’ve yet to see a digital BW image match the richness and depth of a hand printed BW image, close but still a ways off.
As far as color Kodachrome was always the holy grail of color. Having used many, many digital cameras from full frame Nikon equipment, to the latest Fuji X series, only one comes close to the feel of Kodachrome 25, and that’s the LC1. Don’t know what it is, and only if you shot Kodachrome could you feel it, a lifelike feel to the images. I have an L1, and it doesn’t even achieve it like the LC1. Sure you have to shoot at ASA 100, but remember Kodachrome was ASA 25, just work with the limitations.
As far as design, the Fuji XE-2 I have with the stock zoom that comes with it, really is the only modern digital that emulates the LC1 with the zoom on the lens and f/stop control on the lens, also quality in the images at higher ISO’s.