The digital camera industry has seen some highly productive partnerships between big electronics companies and traditional camera brands, particularly in the area of digital SLRs. Sony partnered with Konica-Minolta, which resulted in the Alpha A100, Samsung joined forces with Pentax to launch its re-badged line of GX-series SLRs, and now Panasonic has teamed up with Leica and Olympus to produce the DMC-L1, the company’s first foray into the competitive DSLR market, and the first non-Olympus camera to use the Four Thirds sensor and lens mount format.
The L1 is a 7.5-megapixel digital SLR featuring live monitor view (only the second digital SLR to do so) and supplied with a fast f/2.8–3.5 Leica-branded lens. It currently sells on the high street for a whopping £1,349.99, although it is available from at least one online retailer for around £1,150. This seems expensive at first glance, especially compared to other similarly specified SLRs, but a Canon EOS 400D with a EF-S 17-55mm f2.8 IS USM lens will cost you nearly £1,100. Fast lenses are very expensive.
The lens supplied with the L1 is certainly an impressive-looking item. It is physically very large, 98mm long and 77mm in diameter, and weighs just over 500g, contributing nearly half of the total weight of the kit. Its maximum aperture of f/2.8–3.5 is much faster than the standard kit lenses supplied with rival cameras. It is also fitted with Panasonic’s proprietary optical image stabilisation system, Mega OIS, which has been shown to provide at least two stops of additional stability. The lens is not currently available separately, which will probably disappoint many Olympus owners. Likewise the L1 is not available body-only, so there’s no chance of saving money by getting it with a less expensive Olympus or Sigma 4/3 lens.
Panasonic trades heavily on this almost religious reverence that a lot of photographers have for the Leica name, even though its Leica-branded lenses are in fact made by Panasonic in a factory in Japan. The design of the L1 is clearly intended to resemble a classic 35mm rangefinder camera, and all the publicity pictures of it are carefully shot to emphasise that aspect.
However this is a bit of a fraud, because as soon as you actually handle the camera or even see it from any angle other than front-on you realise that beyond the retro-styled shutter speed dial and aperture ring - and the huge price tag - it bears no relation to a rangefinder camera at all. For a start it’s twice as thick and twice as heavy. The camera body measures 145 x 86.9 x 80mm, and with the lens attached weighs a hefty 1080g. The main advantages that rangefinder cameras have over SLRs are their light weight and slim size, but the L1 has neither so why is it designed to look like a rangefinder?