Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Panasonic Lumix DMC LX3 Review

Everest Summiter, Joanne Soo, descending the Low's Peak Circuit via ferrata, Mt. Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo. Panasonic LX3, 1/500, f/4, ISO 80.

There are only 2 serious compact cameras that I considered as a replacement for my compact adventure camera: the Panasonic Lumix DMC LX3 and the Canon G10. While I prefered the control layout and feel of the G10, I chose the LX3 because of its bright f/2.0-2.8, 24-60mm wide-angle to mid-range zoom, similar to what I’d get on a full-frame DSLR with a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.

Jack Chen spotting Soo Wan Ming on the 1st ascent(?) of 'Kenneth's Chalk' (V0), Shithouse Boulder, Mt. Kinabalu Summit Plateau. Panasonic LX3, 1/400, f/4, ISO 80.

I’m a little late to the party, but since I’ve put about 3000 frames through this camera, I thought I’d throw in my own totally subjective, non-analytical thoughts into the review mix.

+
Fast, Sharp, Wide, Optically Image Stabilized Leica Lens
The lens on this baby is amazing, and is what makes using this camera a joy. The maximum aperture is f/2 at 24mm: the fastest and widest in its class.

Excellent Image Quality

I guess it’s the combination of the largish sensor, low noise (although I limit mine to ISO 400) and good dynamic range. DSLR quality? Not quite, but at low ISOs, it’s close.

RAW Burst Mode
Up to 3 RAW frames at 2.5 frames per second.

-

There are a few criticisms, but I'm nitpicking ;o)
- Poor Pop-Up Flash Performance
- Slow start up time
- Controls feel cramped
- Joystick too easy to accidentally shift
- Mode Dial too easy to accidentally shift
- Grip too small, slick, and does not feel secure for one handed shooting
- Battery door is flimsy
- LCD hard to read in outdoor sunlight

Shadow of me photographing Wilfred Tok, owner and operator of Mountain Torq, on the via ferrata cables. Panasonic LX3, 1/500, f/4.5, ISO 80.

In The Field

I’ve never used this camera in Manual Mode. I just don’t think the controls are set up well for that. I prefer to use one of the Semi-Auto (A or S Modes) or Program (P) Mode and use the joystick to dial in some exposure compensation, and it works very well like this. Sometimes though, the controls (both the mode dial and the joystick) are a little too easy to shift and I do wish they were a bit stiffer to prevent accidental shifting.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 with modified LC-1 lens cap and Lowepro D-Pods 30 case.

Speed of access is important in adventure or travel photography. This is how fast you can get to your camera and take your first shot. I keep my LX3 in a modified Lowepro D-Pods 30 and use a modified Ricoh lens cap. I usually turn on the camera before I take it out of the bag, but because of the extending lens, this is not possible with the LX3, so I lose a little time here, and the camera feels slow when starting up to the time I’m able to take my first shot.

Jispal Singh and Jack Chen on their way back to the hut after a day of climbing, Mt. Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo. Panasonic LX3, 1/320, f/2, ISO 80.

In the hand, the camera almost feels ‘too small’ with a miniscule grip, and cramped controls. But if you think about it, that’s what we want, a small compact and lightweight camera. The addition of an optical viewfinder would have been nice, but would have added bulk and weight. Panasonic’s solution is the Auto Power LCD function, which ‘gains up’ the LCD in bright light. It works, but you’ll probably need to remove your sunglasses to see the LCD well.

Useable apertures run from f/2 (f/2.8 at 60mm) to f/8. The sweet spot for maximizing sharpness on this lens is about f/4. Isolating a subject with a nice background blur using a large aperture like f/2.8 is going to be tough - the short focal lengths and small sensor size on small compact cameras combine to give the image a large depth of field. On the flipside, f/8 isn’t really a small enough aperture to give a nice sunstar when shooting into the sun. This is not a criticism, just a limitation of the way these small compact cameras work.

Making our way down the via ferrata cables to the base of the climb. Panasonic LX3, 1/200, f/8, ISO 80.

Conclusion
The Panasonic LX3 is not the camera for everyone. Some users may prefer a zoom with more reach, but for me the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3is a near perfect adventure camera: Excellent image quality with a fast, and useful, wide to midrange zoom lens in a compact and lightweight package.

Other Notes:
Lens Cap Mod

This uses a modified Ricoh LC-1 Lens Cap. This is a great addition for the camera and there are a number of mods out there.

Ian Ho’s method is the easiest, requiring nothing more than forcing the LC1 lens cap through the threads of the LX3, and then using some spacers to hold the flaps out of the way. The method I used was the ‘Chinese’ method, requiring painstaking sanding and cutting away of excess material on the inside of the lens cap. Be careful with this method though, I stabbed myself in the finger doing this, but the final results are the best, with the slimmest profile, does not require any spacers, and does not get in the way of the pop-up flash. If you screw up the ‘Chinese’ method, then you can still do the ‘glue-on’ method, whereby you sand down the LC1 even further, and simply epoxy the LC-1 to the LX3’s screw on mount. This isn’t as slim as the Chinese method, and still requires spacers.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Walking the Torq

Bypassing the anchors on the Low's Peak Circuit via ferrata. Panasonic Lumix LX3, 1/100, f/2.2, ISO 80.

I spent a week on Mt. Kinabalu at the invitation of Wilfred Tok, owner and operator of Mountain Torq, the World's highest via ferrata. The original purpose of the trip was to help Wilfred bolt up some new sport climbing routes, and then have some time to ourselves. We managed to try out some of Wilfred's sport routes, explore Alexandra (one of the neighbouring peaks), do some bouldering (including putting up what we think is a new problem) as well as walk up the Low's Peak summit and do the Low's Peak Circuit Via Ferrata.

The Start of the Low's Peak Circuit via ferrata on the summit plateau. Panasonic LX3, 1/800, f/4.5, ISO 80.

Kinabalu National Park is strictly regulated, and while our expedition-climbing permit allowed us a lot of freedom, most people would be required to engage a local “guide” and follow a structured itinerary. Most people plan for just two days on the mountain, spending the first day hiking up to Mountain Torq’s Pendant Hut situated at 3270m (10,728’), then trying to catch a few hours of sleep before having to leave the hut at 2:30am in order to catch sunrise on Low’s Peak (Mt. Kinabalu’s highest point at 4095m).

Soo Wan Ming belaying Joanne Soo up the 2nd pitch of a yet-to-be-named 10 pitch climb(5.10a+/6a+). Panasonic LX3, 1/320, f/2.8, ISO 80.

On the descent from the summit plateau, Mountain Torq offers two via ferrata routes. The descent by the shorter, and easier, via ferrata route called ‘Walk The Torq’ is taken by almost all participants who spend just one night at the Pendant Hut. If you’re more gung ho, are fitter, and can afford the time, I’d suggest spending another night and doing the Low’s Peak Circuit route, touted as the World’s highest via ferrata. It is much more exposed, and takes longer to do, but is much more fun!

Rapping off the central gully of Alexandra after climbing the NE Face. Panasonic LX3, 1/2000. f/2.0, ISO 80.

Recommedations

Diamox
I’d recommend anyone ascending from sea level to read up on Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and consider speaking to your doctor about taking Diamox as a precaution.

Rain Gear
Besides all your insulating layers, you’re going to need good raingear. Bring the best you can afford. Kinabalu is a big mountain sitting in the tropics: Think ‘Cold’ and ‘Wet’. An umbrella is fine for the lower mountain; a poncho is better; but high on the mountain, nothing beats waterproof/breathable rainwear. My top pick for a rain jacket is The North Face Triumph Anorak; bombproof and lightweight.

Leather Gloves
The via ferrata can rip up tender hands, bring along a pair of leather gloves like belay or biking gloves.

Best Time to Visit
Rain can occur at any time, whatever the season. Mornings are usually clear, but clouds and rain can form by late morning. The dry season, and hence best time to visit is from April to September.

See the Mountain Torq website for a comprehensive equipment list and more information.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Baba Yetu and Mado Kara Mieru

While looking for some tunes to go along with a slideshow I made recently, I came across this track by Christoper Tin. It's actually a remixed version of the opening song from a computer game called 'Civilization IV':

Baba Yetu (feat. Soweto Gospel Choir) - Excerpt by ChristopherTin

He's got an upcoming album called 'Calling All Dawns' set to be released on October 1st. These two songs are samples of the first two tracks of the album. I can't wait for it!

Mado Kara Mieru (feat. Lia, Aoi Tada, Kaori Omura) - Excerpt by ChristopherTin

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Searching for a New Tent

The 'Mid pitched out in Loihuno, 1st night out on the Tour de Timor.

We were in our tent, just about to lie down to sleep when Laura said to me:

“Oh look, a scorpion.”

We have a BD Megamid, a tarp tent, which means it has no floor, and hence no bug protection. And so at 9 o’clock that night, on the second night of the Tour de Timor, we moved our tent from the edge of the brush out onto the middle of the dirt road, where we felt safe from scorpions and other creepy crawlies.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of ‘Mid tents. They are fast to set up, light, strong, and incredibly spacious for their weight. I’ve pitched them while climbing on the icy slopes of the Tetons and Mt. Rainier, backpacking in Yosemite, and trekking in the sweaty jungles of S.E. Asia.

Their weaknesses are:

1. No bug protection; and
2. Not freestanding.

MSR Hubba Hubba HP without fly.

My first tent was a Chouinard Pyramid, the predecessor to the BD Megamid, so I’m on my second ‘Mid. I seem to go in cycles, and seem to always come back to a ‘Mid for their bombproof simplicity. And so this cycle has me looking for a new ‘scorpion proof’ tent. At the moment, the front-runner is the MSR Hubba Hubba HP, which (as a weight weenie) I’ve worked out to be the same weight as my Megamid plus groundsheet.

Let me know if I’m the right track :o)