The Rollei 35S, the Panasonic LX3 and the Holy Grail
If you look around this site you will see photos made using a variety of film and digital equipment. From 1976 onwards I used successive generations of Canon SLR, but I also shot some of my favourite photos on a Rollei 35S that was always tucked into a pocket 'just in case'. In the last 5 years I have moved almost entirely to digital, and in common with many photographers that has presented a problem : where was the digital compact to do the same job?
The Rollei was a tiny 35mm film camera with an excellent retractable f2.8 40mm Sonnar lens that caused a stir when announced. Barely larger than a packet of fags it gave results that were indistinguishable from a big, heavy SLR with a decent prime lens. Its hair-shirt design with simple match needle exposure metering and scale focus-by-guesstimation were a small price to pay for its pocketability. Had I not carried it everywhere I'd have just memories of missed photos such as this:
Lots of noise about nothing
In the digital era, nothing has yet come close to the Rollei. Compact digitals are great snapshot cameras but that's as far as it goes. Although they possess zoom lenses and automation undreamed of in the Rollei era, and in comparably sized packages, almost without exception they fail to approach DSLR quality. A few manage it at their base ISO of 80 or 100, only to become next to useless in less than summer-holiday light. ISO400, the staple of Tri-X-generation anytime, anywhere photographers is next to unusable on virtually all of them.
The reason is simple : digicams use tiny sensors, 5mm x 4mm is typical - vastly smaller (and cheaper) than 35mm x 24mm full frame or even the APS-ish 22mm x 15mm fitted to low to mid-market DSLR's. Even if the lenses are up to it, the limited size of the photosites on small sensors brings problems of sensitivity and shadow noise.
This is compounded by manufacturers cramming ever-increasing numbers of pixels into the small sensor's area. No matter how useful megapixels may be as a marketing bullet, anyone who actually wants unconditional image quality will quickly be disappointed by scads of blue-green fog as the light fades.
This has led to years of debate among digital photographers about which small camera is good enough to fit in a pocket yet deliver the goods. Some have come close, most notably the Sigma DP1, to which Sigma fitted their excellent and relatively enormous 20.7 x 13.8 mm Foveon sensor. Whilst unquestionably capable of delivering image quality that would satisfy enthusiasts, Sigma managed to hobble the camera in other ways. The 28mm-equivalent lens is optically wonderful, but just too wide-angled for most tastes, and operationally the camera is arcane and far from slick. A version with a more appealing 45mm-ish lens is available later this year, but unless Sigma have radically updated the handling they will again have missed the target. It's also a bit of a feature of the Foveon design that noise at higher ISO's tends to be more of a problem than cameras with conventional Bayer sensors. Shame.
What many of us still want is the digital equivalent of the Rollei 35S and its peers. The Minox 35 and Olympus XA were favourite photographers' pocket-fodder too - although I own an XA and seldom used it once I discovered it was optically mediocre, despite it possessing the rangefinder that the Rollei lacked.
So why on earth, many of us have asked, don't the manufacturers cater for the large number of pro's and enthusiasts who have been begging for a real, competent camera that just happens to be small enough to carry anywhere?
The answer is, I believe, a matter of history lessons expensively learned by the camera manufacturers. Film SLR's defined and led the explosion of interest in photography that began with the 1960's introduction of the Pentax. SLR's were a wonderful opportunity for camera makers, who could not only sell cameras but entire ranges of lenses, accessories, filters, flashes, gadgets and gizmos. Photography became the national hobby, second only to angling in terms of followers, and by the late 1960's AP was selling over 1m copies a week to those eager to learn. Then, as automation and manufacturing improved, the 35mm AE compact was born and quickly acquired zoom lenses and AF. They were relatively cheap. They were easy to use.
This all but killed the golden goose. The vast majority of buyers were not enthusiasts and didn't want to lug gadget bags full of lenses and SLR bodies when a small point-and-shoot could do the job for them at a fraction of the cost. They no longer had to learn anything, the camera did it all for them, so once they'd purchased there was nothing else to buy except a few rolls of film a year.
In revenue terms this was a disaster for SLR sales, and it also broke the aspirational ladder toward high-end reflexes, more lenses, darkroom kit. In interest terms it was a disaster for photography, as it slipped from the public conciousness instead of sucking them in. Magazines such as the excellent 'Photo Technique' (which had always been about photos and the why and how, instead of about the equipment) could no longer survive.
By the 1980's photography had separated into a shrunken enthusiast market and a moribund consumer mass market who'd bought their compacts and disengaged as they wandered off to spend elsewhere. The latter were quickly distracted by the arrival of affordable home video. And that was that; photography was pretty much in the doldrums until digital arrived.
It's my belief that this time around the manufacturers are determined to maintain a clear separation between their DSLR's and compacts. If they allowed compacts to rival DSLR's in terms of quality, once again they'd kill their own market. Yes sir, you can have a nice, easy to use compact but if you want better quality, buy a DSLR.
So we keep seeing the major names, Canon, Nikon etc, failing to deliver quite what their high end compacts promise. Take a look at the Canon G9 and G10. They look like serious cameras, they shoot RAW, they are beautifully made and operationally excellent, and image quality is remarkable at low ISO. But above ISO200 it all starts falling apart.
Manufacturers keep on cramming more and more pixels into these tiny sensors, far beyond what consumers need or the laws of physics endorse. It's widely supposed that this is a 'more-is-better' marketing requirement. I have to wonder if the ulterior motive is to ensure the image quality differential is retained despite the rapid improvements of camera processing and sensor technology.
In 2004 I bought a Canon Sureshot S50 as a pocket camera, which had a meagre 5mpel. This was plenty for a pocket camera, my 10D DLSR of the same year was only 6mpel . The S50 (with 13 MP/cm²) was incapable of tolerable noise at ISO200, and 100 was safer. The 10D's APS-C sensor (1.8 MP/cm²) was usable at ISO1600, or even 3200 with some careful post-production.
The 2008 G10 still has the same size sensor as the S50, but now 14.7mpel (34 MP/cm²) instead of 5. Canon's50D, the latest descendant of the 10D, has 15.1mpel (4.5 MP/cm²). Both cameras have roughly trebled their pixel count relative to their 2004 antecedents. They have maintained the same huge differential in pixel density, and this seems likely to be strategy rather than coincidence. It looks as if manufacturers want to cap the ability of compacts to snapshot conditions.
All that time I and thousands of others have been hoping sooner or later someone would break ranks and produce a genuinely competent compact that would not throw in the towel when the light gets dim. My S50 broke some months ago, so the quest for a good compact became a more active concern. I really don't like not carrying a camera even on a trip to the shops.
I looked at the G10 and the startling low-ISO image quality reported by Luminous Landscape, but by ISO400 it was scarcely better than the S50 at 200. It also requires a very large pocket and, at £400 street price, a large wallet.
I also looked at the appealing Ricoh Caplio GX200, which has acquired something of a cult following for its small size, handling and image quality - up to ISO200.
The other camera I looked at, however, was a bit different ; the National Panasonic Lumix LX3 (also sold for a lot more money in svelte Leica livery as the DLUX4).
I have always dismissed Panasonic as a maker of cute but noisier-than-average compacts. It's somewhat surprising that in the LX3 they made a point of restraining pixel count to 10.1mpel, much less than anyone who listens to marketing would expect for the price. What's more Panasonic had used a just-slightly-bigger 1/1.63" sensor giving an overall pixel density of 24 MP/cm². This is a long way from being comparable with DLSR's but is 30% better than its contemporaries. Sample photos around the net did indeed suggest noise might be less of a problem.
I also liked the f2-f2.8 lens (Leica, even on the poor peoples' Panasonic version), the handling sounded promising, and the camera is genuinely small and pocketable unlike the lumpy G10. It's also widely discounted to around £330. Still a lot of cash but then the Rollei cost me rather more in 1976 money, I think around £180.
It's true the lens has only a modest zoom ratio from 24mm equivalent to 60mm, but the Rollei had a fixed 40mm and that seldom troubled me. Could the LX3 possibly, finally, step into its ageing shoes?
The only thing I really wasn't happy about was the lack of an optical viewfinder, but manufacturers seem to have forgotten how to make them. The Rollei's is delightful. Invariably I compose in the camera and don't crop, so I almost never used the windowed hole Canon drilled through the S50 because it was as much use for composition as a white stick.
There is an aftermarket Panasonic hotshoe viewfinder but it costs a ludicrous 50% of the camera itself and only shows wideangle coverage anyway. No self-adjusting parallax marks or brightlines here. The lump stuck to the top of the body will also ruin the pocketability. No thanks.
After a lot of indecision - given my experience with the S50 I swore I would never again buy a camera with a sub-APS sensor - I recently bought an LX3 as the only way to find out if it was really any good. I'm not going to witter on about the user interface, the solid build quality, the fact is it's pleasure to use and gives great control of all aspects a photographer - as opposed to a point-and-shooter - is likely to want, with easy and quick control of focus, exposure and ISO off the joystick nipple. That stuff is all out there in reviews on the web, and if you're interested enough to be reading this, you've probably read them already. The main thing I needed to know was whether, like the little ancient Rollei, the images it produced made it worth carrying at all.
This poses an obvious question, whether it might be better to do all noise reduction in Neat Image instead of Silkypix? The empirical answer is: maybe. NI is capable of much stronger reduction but also produces more artifacts and smears detail (but not edges) more. My preferred solution is to run the RAW through a safely conservative preset in Silkypix, then apply further reduction in NI if a more aggressive approach is needed, supplemented with PS reduction of false colour in problem areas.
Only shoot RAW
The above show what is possible shooting RAW and using the bundled Silkypix RAW processor. It goes without saying that if you shoot JPEG instead of RAW, the camera doesn't begin to match these results. At ISO400, 800 they are fairly horrible with smeary noise reduction eliminating a fair bit of sharpness as well as (rather less successfully) dealing with noise. But since I have no intention of shooting other than RAW I regard all in-camera JPEG as a freebie for the indolent and clueless :-)
Apples and oranges, but even so... I'm keeping it
Comparisons of digital with film are always difficult, as the two fail in such different ways. Ultimately I regard the print as the test, screens are deceptive. I am quite picky and have never liked to enlarge 35mm ISO400 beyond 14x9" because for me grain and sharpness began to degrade uncomfortably.
This turned out to be true for my first digital DSLR, a Canon 10D, as well. Beyond 14x9", although and noise and edge sharpness were fine, digital mush began to obscure fine detail in a way that I found visually dissonant. Film does not degrade in such a brick-wall manner, it just gently fuzzes things.
Having made prints from the LX3, I find that 14x9" is again the natural limit. I wouldn't personally want to go larger.
Its limitations are of course different from film, and different again from the 10D with £1,000-worth of L-lens attached. At 14x9" the LX3 is up against the limits of its optics and sensor size where the Canon is running out of pixels to make use of the optics. Fine-textured detail such as foliage is tending toward mush in both cameras. But, overall, if a decent 14x9" print from ISO400 and below is the aim, the LX3 is in the same ballpark. This is remarkable.
Beyond that gets more problematic. Certainly the LX3's ISO800 images take a fair bit of work to be usable, but they are usable. ISO800 film had its limitations too, and if I didn't have to, I didn't use it. I don't believe I ever shot any with the little Rollei. With the exception of a few rolls of Reala (ISO100) it was all 400.
So what is truly useful about the LX3 is its ISO400 images. With a little care in post production these really are good enough to claim equivalence with the Rollei on ISO400 film, and the £1500 10D DLSR from 2004. That's good enough for my pocket.
The fast, sharp lens and image stabilisation also mean that ISO400 can achieve more than it could in years gone by. f2.8 on the Rollei was of limited use unless you had a tape measure handy, thanks to scale focussing and narrow depth of field at close range. The LX3 does a decent job of accurate focus even in conditions that cause the G10 indecision at the tele end (this low-light fumbling seems to be a generic weakness of elite Canon compacts, the S50 was hopeless and even when the AF claimed a sharp telephoto image it seldom was). LX3 focus remains good even with the AF assist lamp off (I hate the bloody things, Leica M's never needed them). It just takes longer to lock on, but doesn't hunt repeatedly or fib that it has focus when it hasn't. Manual focus is very usable too c/o a magnified central display whilst you adjust it.
Now this is the web and of course the pixel-peepers will find fault with the LX3. If you want 5D, D3 or 1DS quality, or even current APS-C quality - and some will - the LX3 doesn't come close, of course not. If you want a longer zoom ratio so you can dump your 25lb gadget bag, you're out of luck. Yes it has lots of limitations but none of them stop it being a brilliant, landmark, responsive, well made and genuinely carry-and-use anywhere camera that really, finally can deliver the goods at ISO400. For that alone I love it, and the Rollei, whilst certainly not outclassed, no longer serves as an uncomfortable reminder of what is not now possible thanks to progress.
Whether it will still work after 3 decades, like the Rollei does, I doubt. But hopefully Panasonic opening this forbidden door a little will beget whole new generations of serious compacts that satisfy photographers rather than consumers. I don't think high-end compacts threaten DLSR's much. For the most part the buyers will be keen photographers buying as well, not instead, and accepting the limitations. After all, the little Rollei was first introduced c.1966 and 2m. sold never hurt the film SLR boom. Unless manufacturers start jamming full-frame sensors into G10-like cameras for £300, we'll carry on throwing the serious DSLR money at them every few years.
I'll add a few more photos here, as and when. I'll also post a follow-up about Silkypix SE, the RAW converter that is bundled with the LX3 as it's an important part of getting the best from this little camera. First acquaintance is a run-away-screaming experience : the Silkypix user interface is a conceptual homage to MC Escher with added Japlish inscrutability. I mean : what the hell is a 'taste' and why would I want to save it? But it too really is something special once you get to know it. I'm now so impressed with it that I have stopped using all my previous RAW converters and upgraded to the Studio edition that handles my DSLR RAW as well.