Go ahead. The next time you’re shopping for a new piece of gear and you can’t decide between three attractive choices, fire off emails to each manufacturer and see if they’re open to loaning you some samples to play with for a month or so.

Aha. See? So there are some advantages to being an internationally-beloved technology pundit.

And no, I wasn’t being mercenary. The field of “premium point-and-shoot” cameras has really found its spurs in recent years and it was nigh-time that I wrote a comparative review of the Nikon CoolPix P6000, the Panasonic Lumix LX3, and the Canon Powershot G10. The fact that I’d had a void in my coat pocket ever since my beloved Kodak V705 gave up the ghost had nothing to do with it.

(Seriously, dude…you’re just embarrassing yourself by even implying such a thing.)

The photo world has been going moderately ga-ga over the LX3. And who can blame them after shots like this one started to saturate Flickr?

Center stage at the Colonial Theater, Boston.

Center stage at the Colonial Theater, Boston.

The LX3 redefines your expectations of compact cameras. If I saw this photo in anybody else’s Flickr stream, I’d have immediately thought “SLR. Tripod. Decent lens. Remote shutter release.” But in truth, all I did was stop for about five seconds on my way across the stage, take the LX3 out of my pocket, snap a quick photo, and then hustle to catch up to the pal who was showing me around after a performance of “Spamalot.”

I carried the LX3 with me faithfully for about a month and and its shots never disappointed. The LX3 has one hell of a lens. Made by Leica, it’s both very fast and very wide for a pocket camera, opening all the way to f2.0 and as wide as 24mm. Maybe that bit of extra wide-angle doesn’t seem like much (the Nikon’s lens zooms back to 28mm) but when you’re shooting a scene like this one, it’s the difference between a photo that’s framed by the natural margins of the stage, and one that’s simply cut off at the edges.

Plus, Panasonic has wisely chosen to step away from the digicam industry’s — oh, let’s call it a “spitting” contest — for megapixels. The LX3 is “just” 10MP, compared with 13.5 for the Nikon. The loss isn’t one that’s sorely felt by this photographer (it’s been ages since one of my photos was bought for use as a mural) but the benefits are profound. The image sensor has been engineered so that each individual pixel is far more sensitive and meaningful, which makes for superb clarity and low-light performance.

So! Slam-dunk for the LX3, eh? Done and dusted.

Nnnno. No. Nope.

Nuh-uh.

The LX3 takes exceptionally-good photos. But I wanted a pocket camera…and the Panasonic simply ain’t one of those.

Instead, it’s a “Hang it around your neck like it’s a giant diamond-encrusted medallion and you’re a 1980’s rapper” camera.

Which is perfectly fine. That’s well within the tradition of 35mm Leica rangefinder cameras. But it’s not the style of camera I wanted. When I’m in a situation where I can sling a camera around my neck, I’ll wear my SLR, thankyew.

What a shame. The Panasonic might take great photos, but I found it to be fairly annoying as a casual camera. Viz:

  1. There’s no integrated lens cover. I had to send a short note of apology to Panasonic; I lost the LX3’s lens cap somewhere during Week One.
  2. The LX3 isn’t substantially larger than the Nikon (I think it’s technically smaller in most dimensions) but the lens bit sticks out from the main body, which gives it a slightly awkward profile. The bloody thing was always getting caught on something as I tried to extract it from a pocket or a belt pouch. By the time I got it out, Mr. Brad Pitt and Mr. George Cooney had stopped making out with each other and my chance at a major tabloid bidding war evaporated. And even if I had managed to extract it swiftly, I’d still have missed the shot, because of
  3. Those stupid retro-style mechanical function switches. They kept getting bumped around into random settings. I’d look at what I shot, curse discreetly, and wonder why the image had come out all blurry and elongated. Then I’d do a switch check and shake my head. Yeah, well, it wasn’t set to Manual Focus and Vistavision Aspect Ratio when I put it in my pocket. Yet somehow, by the time I took it out again…d’ohh!

Even as a Biz Markie-style wearable camera, I found the LX3 offer a less-than-lavish shooting experience. There seem to be buttons and controls everywhere except actually inside the threaded tripod mount; there’s no place to “park” my fingers . The labeling on the buttons is a cruel joke, too. Many of the most important function buttons are marked only by a bit of unpainted embossing in the shiny metal. Unless the light hits them Just So, figuring out which button does what is a matter of guesswork.

This camera is no piece of junk. It’s built like a rock (a metal one, anyway) and it takes fantastic photos. People I respect (Scott? Stand front and center, please) love it.

It was just the wrong (wrong wrong wrong) camera for me. It would have been like casting Gene Hackman as Michael Corleone. He’s a fantastic actor, but that role belonged to Al Pacino. The LX3 was woefully miscast in the part of Andy Ihnatko’s Pocket Camera.

Next: what I expect from a pocket camera, why the CoolPix P6000 was the right and happy choice, and why the Canon G10 gets about three sentences from me, maximum.