Technique: Bring This Camera Everywhere!
I’m a big proponent of always carrying a camera. And as I’ve written elsewhere, ‘If you don’t have a camera, you can’t make a photo.’ As soon as you let this guideline slip, a unique visual opportunity will occur and you won’t be able to capture it. A caveat is: always carry a good camera (why lessen the magic of a unique event with a poor quality photo?). My father had given me an antique Leica IIIa for my tenth birthday and I carried it everywhere and made photos of everything. When I was in school I was ‘the kid with the camera.’ While many of those photos aren’t very good, the point is that I was always ready —constantly going through the motions of making photos taught me how to work under numerous lighting situations. I never relegated my photography to ‘perfect sunny days.’
Over the years my philosophy has resulted in towing around various and different amounts of equipment. Constantly carrying a film-based SLR with a full set of lenses really was pretty awkward, not to mention the big bag of film! It’s one thing to have a camera, it’s another to try to anticipate every possible situation all the time. Beginning in 2001, my ‘everywhere camera’ was a Contax G2 range finder, which had its benefits, but was comparatively heavy, and while it came with interchangeable lenses, these tended to fill my pockets.
In summer of 2009, my digital guru Eric Rosenthal lent me a Panasonic DMC LX-3; I was immediately convinced of its merits and bought one. Since then I’ve made great use of it, and I feel it is as near as perfect an ‘everywhere camera’ as I’ve ever owned. The LX-3 has a variety of kin, including the newer LX-5, as well as the almost identical Leica D-Lux3/4/5 models, with newer models recently introduced. I’ve only used the LX-3, and I’m not intending to compare my camera with the gamut of similar models or its competitors available to photographers today. Rather, I describe its pros and cons, and how this tool has benefited my photography.
The LX-3 offers several key qualities that have allowed me to make numerous excellent photographs: it’s compact, versatile, flexible, fast, durable, and offers exceptionally high quality images for its relatively small size. I can bring it just about everywhere (within reason), and with it I have a dependable tool to make photos. Three of my principle objections to many small. ‘snapshot-style’ cameras are their low-quality optics, an inability to operate the camera manually, and an unavoidable delay from the time the shutter-button is pressed to the time the shutter opens. With the LX-3, not only I can get around all of these problems, but I get performance that rivals that of much larger camera systems.
The LX-3 is equipped with a great lens — a Leica Vario-Summicron f2.0-2.8/5.1-12.8 [mm] ASPH, which is extremely sharp, fast, and offers a nice color palate. While the LX-3 has a variety of modes, it has manual capabilities that allow me to set shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and focus settings (although manual focusing is awkward). Furthermore, when automatic settings are used, these allow for a degree of manual override including the ability to change metering modes and make adjustments with exposure compensation. The degree of delay varies depending on how the camera is set; when the LX-3 is used as a fully automatic camera, or allowed to ‘sleep’ between exposures, there is an objectionable delay. However, when operated manually, setting focus and exposures using the toggle switch, and leaving it ‘queued up’ and ready to go, exposure can be made virtually instantaneously. I’ve used my LX-3 set at 1/2000th of a second to capture a German ICE-3 gliding along at more than 160 mph—no easy feat even with an SLR. If you ever want that ‘deer in the headlights’ feeling, try photographing a truly high-speed train full frame with a standard lens (and no 10 frames-per-second motor drive!).
I’ve found several failings with the LX-3. It lacks a built-in view finder. While there is a separate viewfinder attachment, I’ve shied away from this for two reasons: it’s relatively expensive, and I’ll surely lose it. So while in most situations the window at the back of the camera works reasonably well, it suffers in bright daylight, and I don’t like to stand around with the camera at arms length trying to compose an image. While other models have longer zooms, the LX-3’s range is limited to a view roughly equivalent to 28-65mm on a traditional 35mm film camera. This ranges suits about 85 percent of my requirements, while having the side effect of taking away the ‘telephoto crutch’, which forces me to work with more conventional focal lengths. The battery life on the LX-3 is poor, so as a result I carry three or four batteries with me, especially in cold weather. On a busy day, I can easily tap through three batteries.
Another flaw is slow cycle time, which is partly a function of how I’ve set up the camera. I expose both a RAW and large JPG file simultaneously. While jpegs suit most of my requirements, I’m not just taking photos for today, and I’m uncomfortable with long-term storage problems and compression qualities inherent to JPG format. Furthermore, RAW files offer considerably more data, and this can be valuable both for publication and situations where post processing manipulations are necessary (both topics for another day). But, I’ve made prints from in-camera jpegs up to 13×19 inches that are fantastically sharp and colorful (including the photo displayed here). And I’ve used LX-3 jpegs in books and magazines.
The LX-3 also offers a variety of in-camera color profiles with various color palates and saturation levels; while these are strictly applied to the jpegs, they allow for added creativity when composing images. It has an excellent image stabilizer, which allows for very slow shutter speeds hand-held, and can be switched off when necessary. Another distinctive tool is the ability to control the aspect ratio (external dimensions) in camera; its four standard ratios range from a square to 16:9. In addition, there are myriad controls that enable a high-degree of customization for both user convenience and file output.
Control, flexibility, and high quality are the prized qualities that sold me on the camera. The LX-3 may appear as a snapshot camera to the unknowing observer but it offers most of the control and quality that I’d expect from a high-end SLR. My intended purpose for LX-3 was as a ‘everywhere camera’ to be carried when I wasn’t carrying my full camera kit, but it soon developed into my staple tool for railway photography, as well as urban adventures and other projects. Later installments of Tracking the Light will highlight images made with the LX-3, to demonstrate its abilities as a high quality image making machine.