The Coolpix, PowerShot, Lumix Challenge


You forced me to do it.

The Back Story

I've been harping on compact cameras for some time. We serious shooters want a compact camera we can carry with us all the time that does a respectable job with image quality, and has enough flexibility to be useful in most casual shooting situations we encounter. Every pro has that demand. Every aspiring pro has that demand. Every serious DSLR shooter has that demand.

The problem, of course, is that the sensors used on most compacts are ridiculously small. An FX sensor has 864 square millimeters of light collection area, a DX sensor has about 372 square millimeters, and the typical compact sensor measures in at a measly 43 square millimeters. More light collection area means more signal. More signal generally means less noise.

It's been a surprise to many that compact sensors have managed as well as they have. The cameras we'll be discussing today have photosites on the order of 2 microns across. Not too many years back most engineers would have said that such a sensor would have been been beyond the quantum limit (i.e. shot noise limited). Somewhere along the way we broke limits that were once considered sacred.

As this has always been a Nikon-related site, many of my reviews and comments made years ago were regarding Coolpix models. Back in the olden days of digital, some of the 3mp Coolpix models did indeed perform impressively compared to their brethren. But somewhere in the progression from the Coolpix 5700 to the 8800, Nikon seemed to start to go off course. And the 8800 itself was the end of the "serious" Coolpix models.

Sure, Nikon made some more Coolpix models they called serious and even gave the P designation to in order to indicate that they were "professional." But the cameras themselves, such as the P4, were serious steps backwards in almost every respect. Moreover, we lost the ability to shoot raw files with Coolpix models, meaning that we couldn't get in and try to correct the data's deficiencies ourselves. Each subsequent P model was looked at by Nikon shooters as "maybe this is the one," and each was rejected. Meanwhile, Canon continued making serious top compacts with the G line. Each generation seemed to get a little better and better, and slowly but surely Nikon's reign in having "the top compact" not only came to end, but Nikon was left in the dust.

Frequent readers of this site know that I switched to a Leica D-Lux 3 and Ricoh GX-100 for my compact camera needs. Not that these cameras were perfect pixel wise. In some ways, they were worse than other compacts. But I learned how to shoot both at base ISO in raw and coax very good images out of them, especially since both have superb lenses. Moreover, both companies (Panasonic in the Leica's case) produced camera designs that were very photographer centric. The controls I wanted were there, easy to use in the heat of shooting, and very, very direct. Meanwhile, the Coolpix line went GameBoy in control design. Coolpix AF performance was terrible, shutter lag was endemic, and even the lenses seemed to go downhill.

Still, when I wrote my "I want an APS compact article" there really wasn't a compact I'd call well rounded. All had enough defects and liabilities that I had to be very careful to work around them.

This summer, all the players renewed their cameras, and Nikon finally seemed to want to get back in the game, announcing the P6000 with a set of features that looked very good on paper. Until you looked at the fine print: raw files weren't traditional Nikon raw files. As I've written elsewhere, Nikon blew this big time. Mac users lose raw support with Nikon's software, Windows users get limited raw support with Nikon's software. Moreover, when questioned about this, the company was silent and let the Internet fora just blast them (including many posts by myself). Still, they are supporting advertisements in newspapers in the US that tought its "raw" capability despite only shipping a modest Windows conversion support (ViewNX). Fortunately, Adobe and others came along and supported the P6000's unique raw format, so we have some standard tools that allow us access to the raw data. Why Adobe could do it almost immediately and Nikon is still having trouble delivering all of their limited support is a question for another day. Bottom line: Nikon screwed up big time with the launch of the P6000.

So much so that I originally wrote "boycott the P6000" and said I wouldn't buy one. However, with all the new compacts and the constant email demands of me to talk about the current state of compacts, I have acquiesced and purchased several of this latest round to see where we stand. That's where I'm headed with this article, so keep reading.

Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan

But first, let's meet our contenders. For this quick test we've got the Canon PowerShot G10 (back left in photo), Nikon Coolpix P6000 (middle camera in photo), and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 (right front camera in photo; also sold under the Leica D-Lux 4 name). While testing these, I was comparing against results with my older Leica D-Lux 3 (also sold under the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2 name), my Ricoh GX-100, and my Sigma DP1. I'll make some peripheral comments about those cameras as we progress, but my main comments are about the primary three.

Let's look at the important differences between them:
  Canon G10 Nikon P6000 Lumix LX3
Megapixels 14.7 13.5 10.1
Lens 28-140mm f/2.8-f/4.5 28-112mm f/2.7-f/5.9 24-60mm f/2-2.8
ISO range 80-1600 64-2000 80-3200
LCD 3", 461k dot 2.7", 230k dot 3", 460k dot
Shutter speeds 15s - 1/4000 8s - 1/2000 60s - 1/2000
Size 109x78x46mm 107x66x42mm 109x60x27mm but lens sticks out
Weight 350g 240g 265g
Significant Other Features Optical viewfinder, dedicated ISO and compensation dials GPS, Ethernet, optical viewfinder 16:9 and 3:2 formats, HD video

Pretty much every other feature you can regard as being close enough to being interchangeable. They all have PASM and scene modes. They all have macro capability, image stabilization, built-in flashes with hot shoes, and a host of other similar features. The bottom line is that they all have relatively rich feature sets and lots of user (manual) control ability. Thus, there really are only three things we have to talk about:

  1. What's the difference in image quality? Are any good enough for a serious shooter to carry around all the time?
  2. What's the difference in handling? Do any of them get in the way of the serious shooter who wants to control the camera?
  3. Do any of the key feature differences in the table I just presented come into play for a serious shooter? And do any of the common features between them (e.g. autofocus) stand out as better on one than the other?

I'll give you the short answer to each:

  1. The Canon has the best image quality at the restricted ISO range you should use. The Nikon and the Panasonic aren't slouches, but both have issues.
  2. The Panasonic wins the photographer-centric handling contest, though Canon has stepped up its game and for most things can be considered photographer-centric enough. Nikon hasn't upped their game, unfortunately. Perhaps they need directions to the ball park.
  3. The Canon has the most useful lens overall, though if you're a wide angle aficionado like me the Panasonic will appeal to you more, especially since it stays very fast through its range. The Nikon lens lags behind the others. Indeed, if you look at that table closely, you'll see that the Nikon has a bunch of "last generation" choices and really only the low weight and built-in GPS are truly attractive.

If you can't guess already that the Canon and Panasonic will stay in my arsenal and the Nikon won't, well, go back and re-read all that. Or, if you want more detail, plow into the full detail on these three subjects below. We'll do this out of order, starting with the features:

Feature Sets

Copyright 2008 Thom HoganCopyright 2008 Thom Hogan

The Panasonic is probably the most basic of the three. If the lens didn't stick out so far it would be the smallest of the three. The big standout feature is the lens, though. First, it goes wide (24mm equivalent). Second, it's fast (f/2 at the wide end, and still only f/2.8 at the telephoto end). This last bit is a little more important than it first sounds, as the aperture range gives you a little more chance to fight diffraction impacts and produce a bit of depth of field isolation. The Panasonic has a not-quite one stop advantage in the lens over the others at equivalent focal lengths, something not to be ignored. The lens itself is a Leica design, and as that suggests, the lens is very good, with excellent edge-to-edge sharpness and only one real problem I'll eventually get to later in the review. The 3200 ISO capability is a joke (heck, all the ISOs above about 400 on these cameras are essentially unusable for serious work), but note the 60 second limit on the shutter speed. Panasonic has tried to make a flexible camera here, giving you a wider range of exposure options than the other two present. In practice, that's probably wider than it's truly capable of, but I like the fact that they haven't arbitrarily cut off options here. The 16:9 aspect ratio choice is a love it or hate it thing. The 10mp size is just enough lower than the Canon and Nikon to potentially show up as resolution differences in large prints. But if you never output beyond 8x10", it probably isn't an issue.

Copyright 2008 Thom HoganCopyright 2008 Thom Hogan

The Canon's standout feature is also its lens, though for different reasons. The 28-140mm range is a big one, taking you from a basic wide angle through what in the film days used to be a solid telephoto point. If you used a G9, you'll miss the 200mm reach, but you'll love the 28mm breadth. This generation of the G has become a better close-in performer, and I personally appreciate that. The other standout feature is that 14.7mp number. That's more than the DSLRs I currently shoot with. If those pixels are even halfway usable, the G10 obviously can be my substitute for when I don't want to carry my full system with me. On the other hand, the primary negative feature with the G10 is size and weight. It's simply bigger and heavier than the other two. It's bigger than it's predecessor, too, though the G10 is a teeny bit heavier. Bottom line: you need a slightly bigger pocket to consider the G10 a pocket camera.

Copyright 2008 Thom HoganCopyright 2008 Thom Hogan

When we get to the Nikon, some of the features are underwhelming. I'm not happy with the 8 second shutter speed limit, nor does ISO 64 get me too excited considering that we're talking about cameras that are going to be challenged as we boost ISO. The lens isn't nearly as impressive as the Canon's, having less range and hitting a poor f/5.9 at 112mm. Nor is it in the same league of fastness as the Panasonic's lens. Still, this is a respectable focal range, and more than good enough for a walk-around camera. It's that f/5.9 that bothers me the most. Essentially, the telephoto end doesn't give you any flexibility to avoid the diffraction nor does it give you any depth of field isolation capability. The lens specifications feel consumerish to me instead of serious. That's in stark contrast to the other two cameras. On the other hand, we have that GPS and Ethernet to consider. I'll have more to say about the Ethernet later, but let's just call it useless as a feature for the time being; ignore it in the table of features. The GPS on the other hand is a very interesting addition. Geotagging is indeed something many serious shooters are interested in, and the Coolpix has it nicely built into the camera. Indeed, it's the smallest and most convenient geotagged photo option I know of at present.

Conclusion: I'm torn between the Panasonic and Canon, and the primary thing involved in that is the lens/megapixel tradeoffs. As mostly a scenic and travel photographer, both the 24mm and the f/2 of the Panasonic immediately attract me. On the other hand, so do the 140mm and 14.7mp of the Canon. Too bad I can't have both. Wait a second, they're small enough cameras I could just carry both. Unfortunately, I'm not much into geotagging (I can recite the basic coordinates of every place I go, and I don't have any real need for more specific values), so the Nikon's feature set tends to be second fiddle almost across the board. The only thing going for it is that it will slip into a smaller pocket than the other two.

 

Handling

Realistically, most of us could live with the feature set of any of the three cameras if we had to. But not if camera handling got in the way or image quality sucked. In case you haven't guessed it, we're working our way up a ladder here. It's possible that not every camera is going to get to the top. If we're comfortable with the features, the next thing we want to know is if the camera gets in the way of using them, or whether it facilitates using them.

Once again the Panasonic is fairly basic, but in some respects that's very welcome. At the top of the camera we've got the ubiquitous Mode dial, where most of us are going to be dialing in A, S, or M. C1 and C2 give us customized setups quickly, which is nice. And unique to the Panasonic is iA, as in Intelligent Auto. In this mode the camera really works hard to figure out what it is we're trying to do and guess at which settings are most important. Surprisingly, it often gets it right. It's worth exploring if you get this camera. In addition, we've got 24 Scene modes if you really want help.

The LX3 gets a lot of little things right. For example, there's an On/Off switch. I'm very much against putting an On/Off button next to the shutter release button. On my Ricoh GX-100, this is a huge design flaw--I can't count how many times I'm pressed the wrong button. The Nikon and Canon at least have distinct shutter releases so it's difficult to mix that up with the power buttons, but it's still possible to take a wild jab at the right top of the camera trying to take a picture, miss, and turn the cameras off. You can't do that on the Panasonic. The LX3 has other switches, too: focus (AF, Macro, MF), and Aspect (16:9, 3:2, 4:3). These things give the LX3 a bit of classic feel to them. Not so classic: turn the camera on with the lens cap on the lens, and you get the "remove lens cap and press >" Unfortunately, that looks like the playback button (the Panasonic doesn't have one, it has a playback switch labeled >). What they really mean is the right button on the Direction pad. I point this out because it's a curious failing on a mostly flaw-free design.

Things like apertures, shutter speeds, and exposure compensation are set with the little thumb joystick. You'll need to study this a bit the first time you use it, as the design isn't intuitive. It is, however, consistent and simple to learn. Once learned, making a setting is a snap, and generally does not require you to move your hand position from shooting position, which is a very nice touch. Pressing in on the joystick and holding it brings up a quick menu of common settings (metering, focus, white balance, film simulations, etc.), which you then navigate with the joystick. 99% of what a serious shooter wants to set is right there at your thumb tip.

The LX3 does overload the Direction pad buttons, like most compact cameras, but frankly I don't find myself using those overloads much. The LX3 does not have an optical viewfinder, which some will miss. But none of the cameras with optical viewfinders have a usable one, so it's not much of a lapse. Better: the hot shoe is centered on the lens, so you can use an optional optical viewfinder mounted in the shoe if you wish.

Playback is modal on the LX3 (you move a switch from shoot to play). Works fine by me. Zooming isn't continuous, but there's plenty of steps and the control (in the traditional high-end compact position around the shutter release, where you don't have to move your hand position) isn't over sensitive as it is on some cameras.

Overall, shooting with the Panasonic is a serious shooters dream, once the interface is learned. It just feels direct, the camera doesn't ever really get in the way, and pretty much anything I want to do can be done, and the things I want to do are right up there at my fingertip. Startup is quick enough (assuming you took off the lens cap).

The Canon has almost a classic mini-rangefinder type of look to it. Besides the Mode dial up top (again with C1 and C2 custom positions), there's a ISO dial and exposure compensation dial. This retro design will immediately appeal to old-school photographers, though it means moving your hands and not being quite as direct as the Panasonic. Nice touch: the setting markers light up with LEDs: it's difficult to set these dials wrong. We've got 17 Scene modes if you're one of those that like to count things you're not likely to use much.

Operationally, the Canon is more gimmicky than the Panasonic. The control wheel surrounding the Direction pad, like that of the G9, takes a bit of getting used to, and it's easy to hit the wrong thing. You won't be operating the G10 with gloves on, even thin ones. Moreover, while the control wheel is near your usual thumb position, it requires a shift of your thumb position and a two-hand hold on the camera to operate. Likewise, the * button requires a finger shift and compromises your hand position on the right side of the camera. For a big camera, you'd think that it would be better suited to a solid right hand position, but it isn't. This is something only the smallest camera, the Coolpix, gets close to right. In Manual exposure mode, the slightly odd UI shows up: you normally would be setting apertures when you come into this mode, but to set shutter speeds you have to press the metering button to modally move to the other field. Another press of the metering button and you're changing the metering method, then back to apertures. While that top plate on the G10 is classic old school controls, the back panel is classic Canon button overload.

The G10 has an optical viewfinder, but it doesn't cover nearly enough of the image area to be useful. The G10 has its hot shoe aligned with the lens, so using something like the Voightlander 28/35 optical finder in the shoe works as a substitute.

Playback is via the usual dedicated button. Zooming is again not continuous, and the Canon has a strange overshoot-and-return aspect to the zoom steps that seems out of place. Still, there are plenty of steps.

In sum, the Canon has all the controls you might want (and some you don't want), has probably the most informative and clear display while shooting, but it feels a little indirect to me compared to the Panasonic. There's a little too much control overload and cramming on the Canon G10 interface. The control wheel, Direction pad, and Func Set button are concentric controls with four buttons arrayed around it, which is a lot of interface controls pushed into a small area. Beyond the fact that many are overloaded with additional or modal functions, it's just too easy to hit the wrong thing, and as I said, this is not a camera you shoot with gloves on. Startup is again quick enough, and the camera has it's own built-in lens cap that retracts during startup.

The Nikon has a couple of extra functions on its Mode dial in addition to the usual PASM, Scene, and a U1 and U2 configurable positions. One is GPS, the other Internet. The GPS position means that you can't get to the GPS position/signal screen or menus while shooting; you have to make those settings first, then return back to a shooting mode. This is analogous to the old SETUP option on the older Coolpix Mode dials, only now it's a dedicated function. Frankly, I don't like this method. I prefer to have my cameras configured "ready to shoot" and not change those controls. My Ricoh has the annoying habit of moving the Mode dial when I put it in my pocket or bag; the Coolpix doesn't. But still, I want to leave things set and keep them there, not be twisting in and out just to enable/disable a function.

We get 15 scene modes. But the Scene menu is an oddity amongst the cameras: Nikon has appended Image Quality and Image Size options to the end of the scene list. This is the sort of confusing, unorganized aspect of the camera that bothers me a lot. Since the Scene menu is just another tabbed menu, it seems odd that these non-Scene items don't move to another tab. But then again, when you move to, say, Aperture-priority exposure mode, you get an A menu, and it has those image options on it along with a bunch of things I'd say are really setup options (there's a setup tab that they aren't on). The menu system, in other words, feels incompletely thought out and its organization feels loose, a problem Nikon is now having with the DSLR menus, too. On top of that, long scrolling lists feel out of place on a compact camera.

As if to emphasize that last point, the P6000 has both a FN button to which you can assign a menu item, and a MyMenu button, to which you can assign the things you use most. Curiously, if you've got MyMenu up, you have to cancel it with the MyMenu button to get to the Menus, you can't just press the Menu button (and vice versa). This just all feels cobbled together and messy to me.

For controlling apertures and shutter speeds we've got the usual Rear Command dial, but the old button and dial interface is missing here. Press the exposure compensation button (on the overloaded Direction pad) and you have to use the Direction pad to change the compensation. For a Nikon DSLR user, little things like that will slow you down at first. Curiously, changing manual focus is a traditional hold button-and-use-dial action. Make up your mind Nikon. To top things off, the whole button positioning is non-DSLR. The buttons on the left from top to bottom go Function, MyMenu, Focus, Playback, and Menu. On most Nikon DSLRs the order is Playback, Menu, and then specialty buttons. Have the Coolpix designers actually seen a Nikon DSLR?

The Nikon's optical viewfinder, like the Canon's, doesn't show enough of the frame to be useful, plus it's offset more physically, which means parralax is more of a problem on close-in use. Worse still, Nikon has offset the hot shoe, so using an optical finder in the shoe isn't really going to solve the problem.

Playback has its own dedicated button. Zooming is not continuous, but the Nikon appears to have more steps than the other two cameras, and at least does its movement quickly and directly. Other things to note: the battery indicator is not always shown on the Coolpix, and Nikon supplies an AC adapter to charge the battery in the camera, not a battery charger. Yuck.

Overall, I find the Coolpix more of a scattered user interface than the other two, and one that feels a little more kludgey to control. On the flip side, the hand position is such that you really could do most of your high-level changes with one hand, and you'll have a bit more of a chance of pressing the right button or using the right control with gloves on than with the Canon. The Nikon is a little slower to first picture than the other two, but not enough to get worried about.

Conclusion: the Panasonic is a photographer's camera. It shows that the designers actually care about serious shooting, and making changes to virtually anything you'd change with any regularity is straightforward once you learn how the thumb joystick works. The Canon's weak point is the tight grouping of small controls in the lower right corner of the camera back, but it, too, feels pretty straightforward in regular shooting. The Coolpix is the clumsiest in terms of interface. I'd strongly suggest that Nikon take a long hard look at what make the Panasonic and the Ricoh so straightforward and controllable without having to drop into complex and poorly organized menus. There's a simplicity of design in the Panasonic and Ricoh designs that's not quite matched by the Canon, and definitely not approached by the Nikon. If you're going to give us control, give us direct, easy control. Panasonic wins that round. Go figure, as they aren't really known as a still camera company. That, to me, is a bit of an indictment of the two traditional camera companies: they can't even get what should be relatively traditional camera designs right any more.

Performance

I'll cut to the chase: none of these cameras are going to win the award for low noise. If you're thinking about using them above ISO 400 (some might say 200), think again. Those DSLRs really spoiled us in this respect. Even in the SLR film world we didn't have great quality images above ISO 800, and for most of my life we didn't have it at ISO 800, either. Thus, I'm not overly upset about not being able to dial up the ISO on these cameras, especially the Panasonic with it's nice fast f/2 lens. Still, it's going to stop a lot of people from getting too excited about these cameras.

I've got a lot of things to talk about regarding performance. A few things I won't talk about are battery life (not great on any of these cameras, but I don't have enough field experience with any of them yet to dial that into a reliable number), and I won't talk about the movie performance, how effectively the scene modes work, and a host of other things. In this section, I'm going to talk about four basic things: autofocus performance, lens quality, low ISO image quality performance (i.e. "best possible picture"), and high ISO degradation.

Before we get to image evaluation I should point out that I didn't spend a lot of time evaluating JPEGs. Since I'm looking for the compact that can get me the best possible image quality, I did most of my evaluation using the latest version of Adobe ACR, and then trying to tweak out the last bit of detail I could from each raw file. I'll make a few comments about JPEGs, but ultimately my assessments rely upon what I could get out of the raw files.

Focus

The Panasonic is respectably fast for a contrast-based system. It's not DSLR quality--no compact is going to tweak contrast focusing to the levels you get with DSLRs--but what I find about the LX3 is that it is consistent. It drives to the focus point and stops, and it does this relatively fast. Sometimes the LX3 will drive the wrong way, reverse direction and go to the focus point, which obviously slows it down a bit. Low light doesn't seem to deter it much, at least if the subject is within range of the assist light. Overall the autofocus performance is something I can live with. Manual focus shines. Flip the switch to MF, use the thumb joystick to move the focus while judging the automatically supplied zoomed area in the middle of the frame. Pretty simple, and pretty direct.

Surprisingly, the Canon G10 was faster than the Panasonic in bright light. In low light, it was much more inconsistent, especially at the telephoto end. I learned quickly that if the assist lamp had to come on, the camera was going to be more leisurely. But on well lit scenes with contrast, the Canon was ready as fast as any compact I've tried with autofocus. Manual focus shines. Press the MF button, use the control wheel while judging the automatically supplied zoomed area in the middle of the frame. Just as simple and direct as the Panasonic, though I had a harder time judging focus accuracy on the Canon's LCD than the Panasonic's.

The Nikon was certainly the fastest Coolpix I've seen in a long while when it came to autofocusing, but it seems to be a little more erratic than the Canon in terms of focus speed. Sometimes it gets there about as fast as the Panasonic, sometimes it just steps in and around the focus point for awhile. This seems to happen more often at telephoto and with macro focus. Again, in low light, the autofocus time becomes more erratic, too, just like the Canon. Manual focus isn't very direct. Press the MF button on the Direction pad until you've selected MF, press OK, then hold the other MF button on the (left) back of the camera and use the Command dial while judging the automatically supplied zoom area in the middle of the frame. Yes, there are two buttons marked MF. This again points out the Coolpix's strange design decisions. Beyond that, the lower dot count of the LCD on the Coolpix makes it very difficult to judge manual focus.

Conclusion: I can live with any of the three in autofocus for my kind of work, but in the short time I've been using them, the Canon tends to frustrate me the least outdoors, the Panasonic the least indoors. I'd judge the Nikon as being the laggard of the three for autofocus, but again not by as much as previous Coolpix models. You won't be shooting action with these cameras without doing some focus anticipation. On the flip side, I prefer manual focus for my work, and the Coolpix is just downright too indirect and doesn't have a good enough LCD to use that way.

Lens Quality

The images you'll see in this section are all raw conversions (unfortunately with different converters). This makes it a little difficult to assess whether some of my perceptions are camera limited or converter limited. Where possible, I tried using the same converter and comparing, and I also tried more than one converter on each camera to verify what I saw. (Footnote: I need to go back and redo the small JPEGs for the Panasonic I show, as something broke in my automatic processing chain and they've come out a bit bland here. Rest assured, the colors and contrast on the LX3 were pretty much equal to the other two cameras, even if that doesn't show here. When I get a chance and the converters all catch up with the cameras, I'll replace these images with ones run with the same processing chain. Until then, consider the Panasonic samples substandard to what the camera actually can do.)

The Panasonic, in particular, has very substandard in-camera processing, though both the Canon and Nikon leave some image quality on the table when they convert to JPEG, too. As always, go by what I write, not by what you see. By the time these images get converted for the Web I can't guarantee that you see what I see. Indeed, I don't spend any real time trying to optimize such images for the Web, as I've found that just the JPEG conversion alone tends to add a level of disguise to what the cameras are really capable of.

The Panasonic sports a Leica-designed lens. Obviously we're expecting good things. Let's see what the quick testing found. First up, sharpness tests:

Panasonic LX3
100% crops
Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan
  In the center, the lens is sharp and clear, and the sensor is the gating element to resolution. At the corner you can see the impact of the linear distortion, but the lens is still actually decently sharp.

Next, let's look at the linear distortion. (Note: the original post of this article used raw conversions that apparently imposed a problem of their own into the testing. I've now retested using JPEG and other raw converters to get a better handle on the real numbers.)

Panasonic 24mm
There's a modest amount of barrel distortion. I needed a +3 or +4 to correct it using Photoshop's Lens Correction Distortion filter. However, something I've noticed in doing these retests is that my sample may have a slightly off center lens alignment. The lower corners are more distorted than the top, and more soft, indicative of a lens that is slightly miscentered. In my 16:9 retest, I got the same +3 or +4 value.
Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan
Panasonic 60mm
Close to correct. I probably wouldn't apply any distortion correction to this result. Again, I saw a bit more softness in the lower corners than the upper.
Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan

Finally, let's take a look at the overall range of the lens:

Panasonic 24mm
The 24mm coupled with the 16:9 aspect ratio gives a very nice wide perspective on scenes. Since the 16:9 is a crop of the overall sensor's capability, you would get more at the top and bottom of the frame using 4:3.
Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan
Panasonic 60mm
But fully zoomed in, you won't be able to isolate subjects much.
Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan

Overall, the Panasonic's weak point is the linear distortion of the lens. I found it to be well corrected for most everything else, and even light falloff was relatively well handled. But this is not a camera to shoot architecture with, especially wide.

The Nikon sports a Nikkor ED lens. Again, we're expecting good things, as Nikkors tend to be well designed optics.

Nikon Coolpix P6000
100% crops
Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan
  In the center, the lens is sharp, with the sensor the gating element to resolution. However, there was a tiny bit less contrast than I expected. At the corner you can see the impact of the linear distortion, but the lens is still actually decently sharp, though it's lost a bit of contrast and has just a hint of softness.

Next, let's look at the linear distortion:

Nikkor 28mm
There's a modest amount of barrel distortion at the wide end. I needed between +3 and +5 on Photoshop's Lens Correction Distortion filter before I got straight lines.
Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan
Nikkor 112mm
Distortion is very low at the telephoto end. In my tests I found a teeny amount of barrel distortion, not really enough to worry about.
Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan

Finally, let's take a look at the overall range of the lens:

Nikkor 28mm
Doesn't quite have the wide impact the Panasonic gets with the 24mm and 16:9 combo. Still, sufficiently wide for landscape work.

Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan
Nikkor 112mm
The 4x zoom of the Nikkor is a good all-round choice. You won't get dramatic telephoto reach out of it, but as you can see you are able to get just enough change to make for a different picture from the same spot.
Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan

Overall, the Nikkor's weakest aspect is the chromatic aberration on high contrast edges:

Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan

Unfortunately, that's enough to knock it out of the running for me, as it's mostly uncorrectable. If it weren't for that aspect of the lens, it would be a winning lens otherwise.

Which brings us to the Canon.

Canon Powershot G10
100% crops
Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan
  In the center, the lens is sharp, with the sensor the gating element to resolution. At the corner you can see the impact of the linear distortion, but the lens is still actually decently sharp, though it's lost a bit of contrast and has a bit of chromatic aberration.

Next, let's look at the linear distortion:

Canon 28mm
There's a modest amount of barrel distortion at the wide end. +5 on Photoshop's Lens Correction Distortion filter before I got straight lines.
Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan
Canon 140mm
Distortion is very low at the telephoto end. There's about a -1 pincushion distortion to remove.
Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan

Finally, let's take a look at the overall range of the lens:

Canon 28mm
Doesn't quite have the wide impact the Panasonic gets with the 24mm and 16:9 combo. Still, sufficiently wide for landscape work.

Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan
Canon 140mm
The 5x zoom of the Canon provides a bit more reach than the Nikon and feels distinctly more telephoto. One thing to note: I left the cameras in auto exposure mode and the Canon seems more sensitive to subjects than the other two: it's underexposed the telephoto result compared to the wide angle, despite my not changing anything other than focal length. Bottom line: trust the Canon's exposure a little less than the other two. Fortunately, there's an easily seen histogram display during shooting that can help you there.
Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan

Overall, the Canon lens doesn't have a severe flaw. It's got a tiny bit of every problem a lens might have, but not enough get upset about. Basically, a very worthwhile performance. Yes, I know you want to see the chromatic aberration to compare to the Nikon, so here it is:

Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan

A much better performance than the Nikon, don't you think? Yes, there's a bit of chromatic aberration there, but it's much more controlled and it's actually easier to remove than the CA with the Nikon.

Conclusion: the Canon and Panasonic come closest to being flawless leness. I'm bothered by the difference in sharpness between top and bottom on the Panasonic, though. Meanwhile, the Nikon has the huge drawback of excessive chromatic aberration.

Low ISO Image Quality

My basic philosophy with compacts is to shoot them at the base ISO whenever possible, shoot raw, and learn how to tweak every last ounce of image quality out of every pixel. In this section, I'm talking about what happened when I did just that. Things are complicated a bit by the lack of support for the Panasonic LX3 in the Adobe converters as I write this, so I had to try a few to make sure that there wasn't a converter-specific issue I was seeing.

Panasonic: what amazed me most was how much better every raw file I worked with looked than the camera could do with its Venus in-camera imaging ASIC. The difference is so apparent that I can't really consider the LX3 a camera that I'd drop down to JPEG for. Moreover, evaluating images on the camera's LCD is deceptive: they just look worse than they'll actually be as you zoom in to look at the pixels. Right now the converters that support the LX3 are all in what I'd call either the second tier (Silkypix) or maverick category (RPP), so I wonder a bit about whether I got everything I could out of the images. But other than a bit more noise than the other two cameras, I find nothing that disturbs me too much in the raw pixels. Indeed, I thought maybe the lens on this camera was only decent until I started running the raw files. Suddenly, acuity popped way up. Overall, I'd say the Panasonic does okay when I spend time in the converter squeezing out pixel integrity. Still, the LX3 didn't move the bar much from the LX2, and I would actually say that it doesn't match what I can get out of my Ricoh GX-100. When we hit the high ISO values (see next section, below), some of my comments change. In particular, there now is a pattern to the noise that's objectionable and difficult to remove. (Due to the raw converter issue I had in the original test, I've retested the Panasonic with different converters. My conclusions here and for most other tests have not changed, though they did for linear distortion.)

Canon: lordy or lordy! It's a good thing I had some warning from a few others who'd used this camera before I started running the G10 raw files. Remember, I've had a G9 for awhile and use it when I need a compact with reach, so I was familiar with what that camera could do. To put it bluntly: the G10 is visibly and significantly better at base ISO, despite the pixel boost. I actually think some of this is the lens, as a few of the things I fought on the G9 certainly were impacted by lens issues. Nevertheless, I wasn't expecting to see such respectable 14mp images as I got out of the G10. Unlike the Panasonic, Canon seems to know how to work that raw data in camera, so the JPEGs out of the G10 are quite respectable, too, at least at the base ISO. Michael Reichmann went so far as to compare the G10 to a MF camera. No, the G10 isn't that good, but it is good. Real good.

Nikon: missed it by thaaat much. You've probbly already guessed where I'm going here. The Coolpix, like the Canon, seems to coax quite a bit out these small sensors, more than you'd expect. The EXPEED engine does a credible job with JPEGs, and at base ISO the P6000 is better with more pixels than any of the other P-Coolpix models that preceded it. Clearly better. Except the lens tends to let you down. There's that nasty chromatic aberration, for one thing. The other thing I noticed is that while the P6000 does pretty well on the flat test charts, it's actually a bit soft in the corners in the real world. Not terribly so. I've seen lenses that cost more than the entire P6000 that soften up more in the corners. The problem is that I have to compare the best I can get out of the Coolpix with the best I can get out of the Canon. The bottom line is that the P6000 probably would match or best the G10 with the right lens at base ISO. Unfortunately, Nikon spent money putting in an Ethernet connection, not upgrading the lens. The pity is that the Nikon seems to have coaxed a wee bit more dynamic range out of the P6000 than Canon got out of the G10.

Conclusion: hands down, the Canon. While you can get excellent images up to maybe 14" out of the others, the Canon just gets there more easily. I actually felt less like I was pushing compact pixels with the G10 than any other compact I've used. The Nikon is a very credible second at base ISO. But for my work that chromatic aberration problem just puts it out of contention.

High ISO

Do I even need to go there? Really? You're telling me that you're actually going to set one of these cameras above ISO 400? Are you nuts?

What you'll see in this section are sample images that form a sort of three-way test. I shot them as the highest quality raw and JPEG at ISO 800 and Auto white balance, with image stabilization, all on an unlit scene. This produced shutter speeds from 1/5 to 1/20 (lens differences come into play). Basically, I wanted to show what would happen if you shot in low light with the cameras handheld and on auto, which is typically what you'd be doing with them if you're shooting in a scene that requires a higher ISO such as 800.

Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan
Panasonic full scene: Curiously, the LX3 underexposed this scene but got the white balance right. Image stabilization is helped by the fact that the fast f/2-2.8 lens is almost certainly going to set a higher shutter speed in low light situations than the other two cameras.

Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan
Panasonic 100%: Edges are highly compromised (a little difficult to see here, but look at the bottom of the upper right color patch). Noise is rampant (note that the black borders look mottled). Unlike the Coolpix (below), the noise artifacts tend to be straight up and down or horizontal on the image.

Panasonic conclusion: pixel mush with JPEGs, pointalism with raw. Too much noise to fully correct for at ISO 800. Stay lower.

Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan
Canon full scene: The G10 went for an overly warm white balance. Image stabilization was good, despite a 1/10 shutter speed.

Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan
Canon 100%: probably the best result of the bunch, even if it is visibly noisy. The reason why I say that is that the Canon tended to hold edges well and produced lots of noise, but a slightly more random noise than the other two. In a pinch, I can run post processing noise reduction on this and get acceptable, though still not great, results at ISO 800 on the Canon
.

Canon: noisy JPEGs, eyebleeding raw. Canon appears to have taken a mostly hands off approach whereever they can, which produces noise, but noise that you have some hope of minimizing in post processing without killing all detail. Venture carefully into the high ISOs with this camera.

Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan
Nikon full scene: Auto white balance is off in a more warm magenta fashion than the Canon, and is the worst performance of the bunch. Image stabilization was marginal in repeated testing, but okay. It produces a difference, but perhaps lags a half stop behind the others.

Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan
Nikon 100%: in-camera image processsing reduces edge clarity, yet we still have an enormous number of noise defects. You might notice on the blue patch that we're getting some strange diagonal hatching on false bright bits. It's too regular and quite noticeable. Colors are still vibrant, though, probably the best of the bunch.

Nikon conclusion: where'd the megapixels go? The camera is heavy handed at high ISO values, preserving color over edges and detail. The question is this: is all that processing going to produce an artifact you can see and object to? Not for small prints, which seems to be where Nikon tweaked this camera for, but go large and you need to be careful, as they start coming into visibility.

Conclusion: trust me on this, you really don't want to venture too far with ISO on any of these cameras. I don't know how Canon managed to get 14million nice pixels at the base ISO, but I can assure you that they don't know how to do it at ISO 1600. Nikon took the easy route: they eventually just start binning (grouping pixels together) and the bins aren't exactly noise free, either. The sensor in the Panasonic appears to be challenged when presented with amplification; it shudders and moans and then presents you with edges that aren't edges anymore. ISO 200 is usable on all three. Most people may find ISO 400 on the Canon and Nikon quite usable, fewer will say that with the Panasonic. Move any higher and we'll lose most takers, though the Canon can be coaxed to an almost reasonable result with post processing NR at ISO 800.

Conclusion

If you need pixels, you need the Canon, hands down. If you need the fast, wide, defect-free lens, you need the Panasonic. You don't need the Coolpix.

While that last statement may seem like a rude conclusion, the Coolpix just doesn't excel in any of the four performance categories. Unfortunately, this just means the same thing is still true: we're still waiting for a state-of-the-art Coolpix to reappear. I'd say we've been waiting since as far back as the 5400, maybe longer. For a company that prides itself on serving professional and very serious amateur photographers, the Coolpix lineup simple isn't rising up to the levels that others are achieving. Sure, the P6000 does a pretty good job. Indeed, a better job than the last few generations of high end Coolpix. But the current mark to hit is higher than Nikon is aiming. The clumsy design elements don't help things. And adding an Ethernet interface pretty much solely to enable MyPicturetown is an arrogant design mistake. All of us end up paying the extra cost for something almost none of us would use. Nikon is not Flickr. This is a Microsoft like mistake, and not the only one in the camera. Bottom line: the P6000 is overpriced for what it achieves and how it achieves it.

Meanwhile, the G10 delivers more of what we serious shooters want, with no institutional baggage. Now that Canon has fixed the top plate controls, I hope they'll spend some time thinking about how to lower the mis-hit rate on the back controls (hint: the designers need to wear gloves, even thin ones, while testing). Almost everything about the G10 speaks to purpose: serious build, serious controls, serious image quality. I always felt the G9 didn't quite get above the bar. The G10 is above the bar.

Panasonic to their credit hasn't compromised anything that made the LX2 a good camera. On the other hand, they haven't gone very far from where they were. It's really the lens that's changed the most, and fortunately the change there is mostly right on target, especially since Panasonic has made it cover the full 4:3 sensor (a change from the way they did things on the LX2). I'm concerned a bit about the bottom softness I see on my sample, but not enough for it to be a deal breaker. There's still not quite enough pixels compared to the competitors, and a little too much mush when you get down to the pixel level at anything but raw at the base ISO.

Unfortunately, no single camera quite hits the nail fully on the head. For my mark, the Canon comes the closest for my types of use, though the Panasonic provides capabilities that I sometimes need and stays in the bag, too. The Nikon will get sold off and I'll go back to waiting for Nikon to design a decent compact.

 
Quick Evaluation


Coolpix P6000
Not Recommended
; a decent performing Coolpix, but there's nothing stellar here; you can do better.

starstarstarstarstar features
starstarstarstarstarperformance
starstarstastarstar build
starstarstarstarstar value

Too many compromises, not enough performance (it barely gets three stars). Still, a better effort than the P4, P5000, P5100, and P80. Nikon has yet to deliver a truly competitive serious compact.

Canon PowerShot G10
Recommended
; solid, almost exceptional.

starstarstarstarstar features
starstarstarstarstarperformance
starstarstarstarstar build
starstarstarstarstar value

Surprisingly good update to the G9, with excellent image quality at low ISO.

Panasonic Lumix LX-3
Recommended
(barely); Only 10mp with a bit of pixel mush in JPEGs may be problematic for some.

features
performance
build
value

The sensor and in-camera processing holds this camera back in all respects. Otherwise, it would have been my top choice.

Table of Contents
Others


Since I mentioned a few other cameras that I compared the three being reviewed to, I'll deal with them briefly here:

Leica D-Lux 3 (Panasonic LX2). For a raw still shooter this camera pretty much equals the LX3 in most aspects, though the lens lags somewhat. If you can pick one up cheap, this is worth looking at. But note that it is optimized for 16:9, not 4:3 or 3:2.

Ricoh GX-100. I haven't extensively tested the GX-200 that superceded it, but I kind of have the same feeling with the Ricoh update as I do with the Panasonic: the bar didn't move very far, thus the original is worth looking for on the cheap. The GX-100 is still perhaps my favorite compact, partly because of the exceptional 24mm lens quality, partly because I've learned how to coax very good results out of its base ISO DNG files. Arguably, the Canon G10 generates better, bigger files, but don't write off the Ricoh at base ISO. Less pixel mush than the Panasonic.

Sigma DP1. Great sensor, terrible camera. The DP1 is a frustrating camera in use, and not very flexible, either. While the resolution is up there close to a 12mp camera, the DP1 just tends to get in the way unless you treat it as a slow, fully manual camera. The 28mm f/4 fixed lens is good, but it's not very flexible.

Bottom Line: We're still waiting for the ultimate serious compact camera, but the Canon, Ricoh, and Panasonic can manage to tide us over until what we really want shows up.

Versioning of Review:
11/4/2008: initial post.
11/6/2008: fixed LX3 distortion and size comments, retested LX3 with different converters, added viewfinder comments.

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