Vintage Digital: Panasonic Lumix DMC-LC1

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.

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A real classic: Lumix LC1 and its 28 – 80mm f/2.0 – 2.4 Leica Vario Summicron.

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.

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The so-called rangefinder-esque design… in 2004.

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.

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That rangefinder look…

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.

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Shutter-speed dial and other self explanatory direct controls…
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…and 3 butter smooth manual rings at the lens body.

Pop-up flash: normal (left) and bounce (right)

The experience

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…

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.

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EVF and LCD from yesteryear: note the EVF / LCD button (nope, no proximity sensor here)

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.

Bokeh

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.

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Lumix LX100 ii and its cheap looking Leica lens

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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