Unfortunately, and rather surprisingly, the build quality of the Leica lens is not so good. I know there are some people who would burn me as a heretic for saying so, but I was not impressed. The action of the zoom ring is very rough, with a definite ‘clunk’ half way through its travel, and it actually stuck briefly while I was using it. The lens barrel itself is plastic, and feels quite cheap and flimsy in places.
It seems odd to me that Panasonic would go to the trouble of having a retro-style aperture control ring, but then design the lens with a slow and unresponsive electro-mechanical manual focus ring. Also, I’m pretty sure that the front elements of real Leica lenses aren’t supposed to wobble. This one does, which really can’t help with the optical quality.
It’s the quality of that lens that is the main selling point of the camera, and while it is good, it’s not as good as I’d hoped. I found corner softness, slight chromatic aberration and noticeable barrel distortion, none to an alarming degree but certainly more than I’d expect from such an expensive lens. I took the same sample shots with it as I have taken with several other mid-range DSLRs, including the £400, 6-megapixel Pentax K100D, and to be honest I thought the Pentax produced better pictures.
Panasonic cameras have always had a reputation for image noise problems, and unfortunately the L1 is no exception. There was visible noise from 400 ISO upwards, and shots at the 1600 ISO maximum were effectively unusable. There were also visible purple fringes on a number of high-contrast shots, again not something I’d expect to see on a camera claiming professional credentials. While the AF system performed well, I did encounter some problems with the exposure metering. It seemed easily confused by high contrast or backlit subjects, and required frequent use of exposure compensation to correct it.
Although the Panasonic DMC-L1 is an interesting first SLR and the retro styling will no doubt appeal to some, and while its performance and build quality are excellent, the uncomfortable handling, dark viewfinder and fiddly controls are a handicap. It suffers from the usual Panasonic image noise problems, and the optical quality of the Leica-branded lens isn’t all its cracked up to be. There are better DSLRs with better lenses for a lot less money.