The Good: Unique wide-aspect sensor produces terrific wide images
The Bad: Bulkier than comparable compact cameras; pricey
The Bottom Line: Great pictures, some unique features
Wide screens are showing up in a lot of places these days—not just on TVs and personal computers. To my surprise, I recently discovered two in a digital camera.
I noticed the features right off the bat in Panasonic's (MC) Lumix DMC-LX2, the latest subject of my ongoing research into the cosmic question of whether a lousy photographer can actually take the occasional good photo (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/25/07, "The FinePix F31fd Makes Pictures a Snap").
Having taken a few shots with this camera, I'm firmly convinced that your odds of a better picture tick decidedly upward with the help of the Lumix LX2.
Worth a Second Look
A big reason: the so-called charge coupled device, or CCD, a nifty tool found in most digital cameras that senses and records light. What makes the CCD inside this camera different is not its size per se, but its width. Most cameras have an aspect ratio of 4:3—yielding squarish images that for every four inches wide are three inches high. The same goes for most standard TV screens.
But this camera can handle an aspect ratio of 16:9, the same as high-definition TVs. In the same way the TV's ratio allows for more pleasurable viewing of wide-screen movies, the camera enables more visually stunning panoramic views—no more images that look squeezed into too small a frame. Those were the kinds of shots taken by my last film camera. The results were rarely worth a second look.
The camera also enables two other ratios, the standard 4:3 as well as 3:2, all set by a switch atop the lens enclosure. When engaged at 16:9, the entire CCD is in use, and the camera is using all its available pixels—all 10 million of them, resulting in astonishingly good detail. I imported a batch of photos into iPhoto on my Apple (AAPL) 15.4-inch MacBook Pro, and found that the photos shot in 16:9 looked right at home on the computer's wide screen, which boasts an aspect ratio of 16:10.
Bigger File Size, Too
The feature's one downside—and it's a small one—is that adding all those extra pixels to the image increases the amount of storage space you'll need. The pictures I took in 16:9 tended to be about 4 megabytes and change, whereas those shot in 4:3 were about 3 MB. No biggie really, just make sure you buy a 2-gigabyte SD card to store them all. The included 32-MB card and 13-MB internal storage won't hold many photos at all.
The second wide screen I noticed was the LCD viewfinder and display. It, too, was in 16:9 format, which made for a nice touch.
Some might wonder whether the wider image specs are just a novelty. I say no. This is a pretty good all-around camera that helped me win the battle against another picture-taking problem I often have: eliminating motion. I have a tendency to grab the camera, point quickly and shoot, especially in fast-moving social situations, like at a party or when meeting friends for dinner. My shots often have a blurred quality that makes them look lousy, though I console my lack of patience and photographic dexterity by deeming them "arty."
Keeping It Steady
Panasonic has developed a sensor system that notices when your hands are moving up and down or side to side, and then moves the lenses accordingly in order to try to cancel out motion effects that show up in the picture. I found this feature, when enabled, improved my odds of scoring a decent shot.
Physically, this camera tends toward bulky in an era when digital cameras are getting sleeker, smaller and lighter all the time. And its large Leica lens adds visual heft, making it appear heavier than it actually is. In contrast, cameras like the Nikon Coolpix S9 are embedding smaller lenses inside the camera body.
The final question is whether I would pay the list price of $499. Maybe not. I also have tried FujiFilm's $399 FinePix F31fd and gave it a higher rating. Still, with luck, you'll be able to nab the Lumix for less than list. I've seen it available online for less than $400. So if wide angles are your thing, do some comparison-shopping before lining up for the Lumix.