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In use the L1 has its ups and downs. It doesn’t start up as quickly as some DSLRs, but it is ready to go in just over a second, which is fast enough for most people. The AF system is nice and quick in good light, and focuses well although often a bit more slowly in low light. It only has three focus points, clustered close together in the middle of the frame. It is possible to select one of these focus points manually, but this has to be selected in the custom menu. In viewfinder mode shutter lag is minimal.
In high speed continuous shooting in JPEG mode the L1 is exceptionally fast, shooting at over three frames a second, and appears to be able to maintain this rate until the memory card is full. Adding RAW shooting doesn’t slow the shooting speed, but does limit it to a six-shot burst, which then takes fifteen seconds to write to the memory card. Fortunately the buffer is dynamic, so an additional shot can be taken once the first has been written.
JPEG files at maximum quality average around 4MB, although some were as high as 5.7MB. RAW files are 14.34MB. Shooting JPEG only, a 1GB card is enough for 135 shots, or 44 if shooting RAW too. Battery life seemed to be excellent. The big 1500mAh Li-ion cell was still reading 2/3 full after over 235 shots.
The Panasonic L1 borrows heavily from another recent SLR camera that I’ve reviewed here, the Olympus E-330. Not only does it use the Four Thirds sensor and lens mount, it also uses the E-330’s convoluted optical path to provide the same live monitor view, or rather it uses some of it. The E-330 has two live view modes, one of which uses a second CCD in the optical path to provide a continuous live view.
The L1 has the same optical path but the secondary CCD itself is absent, so it only has one live view mode. This has several disadvantages, not least of which is the very dark viewfinder. It also makes using the live view mode very slow, since because it uses the CCD the reflex mirror has to move for metering, and then again for focusing, and the view is frozen while it does this.
The L1 has a nice sharp 2.5-in LCD monitor with 207k pixels, but whereas the E-330 had a hinged monitor which was useful for overhead or waist-level shooting using the live view mode, the monitor on the L1 is fixed so it doesn’t have this advantage. In fact it’s hard to name any advantage that the L1 has at all.
The build quality of the camera body is very good, with a solid metal chassis and only a few plastic parts. The finish is very good, with a textured rubber coating over most of the camera body and a smooth black lacquered finish over the rest of it. The fit and mounting of most of the controls is also very solid, although I found that the switches for metering mode, drive mode and even the on/off switch were quite loose and easy to jog accidentally.