You can get a great digital camera for $500 these days, and there are several that I can think of would make fantastic travel companions. But if it were my money, I’d buy the new Panasonic DMC-LX3. With a fast and wide Leica lens, excellent low-light performance, and rugged metal construction, the LX3 earns my recommendation for best $500 travel camera.
My Best In Class Pick
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3
First, a confession: this recommendation wasn’t as straightforward as I’d like it to be. Several digital camera manufacturers have fantastic $500 travel cameras. Canon, in particular, recently announced its PowerShot G10 model, successor to the wildly popular G9. That camera became something of a darling among professional photographers looking for a compact camera that they could take anywhere. The G10, although packing a few too many megapixels for my taste, promises to be another hit for those looking for a quality camera in a travel-friendly size. If for some reason you don’t need or want the features on the LX3, particularly the low-light performance and excellent video capabilities, I do recommend a look at the G10. Okay, with that disclaimer out of the way, here are three features of the DMC-LX3 that helped it elbow its way to the top of my travel camera list:
The lens. Designed by the famous glass-crafters at Leica, the lens on the DMC-LX3 has a maximum aperture of f2, better than any camera in its class. Since the lens captures much more light than other compact cameras, the LX3 has an advantage in low-light photography. The lens also has Image Stabilization, which helps to minimize camera shake when slower shutter speeds are needed. Indoor photos, or even low-light outdoor pictures, will be clearer and sharper with the fantastic lens on the LX3. The lens’s zoom range goes from 24-60mm, a 2.5x zoom range. That does start out much wider than other cameras in the same class, which is very useful for many travel photographs where you need to fit more in the frame. However, at only 60mm, the long end of the lens won’t get you as close as you might like. The designers have clearly focused on a zoom range useful for street and travel photography. The result is “quality over quantity,” a fast, sharp lens that does the basics so very well.
The image sensor. Mediocre low-light picture quality has long been a source of frustration for users of compact digital cameras. (It’s probably the number one reason why these users end up upgrading to an SLR.) The engineers at Panasonic responded to this dilemma by reversing the industry “megapixel race,” the silly marketing-driven contest where camera makers cram more and more pixels into tiny sensors. Panasonic limited the LX3’s image sensor to a sensible 10.1 megapixels, which is really more than most people need. 10 megapixel resolution is still sufficient to print a high-quality 8x10, which most people only do occasionally. Fewer pixels mean higher quality pixels. By maximizing the size of the photodiode, the sensor is able to have better sensitivity and a wider dynamic range. (Better dynamic range means the camera can capture brighter areas without blowing them out to pure white, and darker area that still retain details.)
In image quality tests, the camera produces results as good as or better than any compact camera on the market. The LX3 is capable of producing large prints with excellent detail, all with a very useful range of high ISO settings. The quality is not SLR-level yet, but Panasonic’s emphasis on quality of pixels over quantity of pixels has indeed paid off. The Lumix DMC-LX3 takes excellent pictures in a variety of lighting conditions.
HD Video. I know this shouldn’t be a requirement on a digital still camera, but it sure makes life easier when traveling. Nobody wants to carry two cameras on those long day trips, so it’s nice to have one camera that does both stills and video. The Lumix captures HD resolution video clips just as easily as it does photographs. It’s perfect for recording those short vacation highlights.
The LX3 shines in many other ways, of course. It has all the high-tech features of today’s newest digital cameras, snappy performance, intelligent controls and software, etc. It encases all those features in a beautifully designed and manufactured metal shell. The Lumix DMC-LX3 has an infectious quality about it; it just begs to be picked up and used as a serious photographic tool.
Comparison with Canon Powershot G10
Make no mistake about it: Many, many photographers are already putting their orders in for a Canon Powershot G10. But the Panasonic DMC-LX3 does edge out the G10 in two areas that I think are critical for walk-around and travel photography. First, the lens is faster (lets in more light) and wider (better for street shooting). Secondly, Panasonic decided to be sensible about the sensor design. Instead of cramming in the maximum amount of megapixels, the design team limited the MP count to 10, meaning the noise (grain) in low-light shots will be minimized. Thirdly, the LX3 records HD video clips, so travellers will not need to tote around a second camera to capture all those vacation memories, both still and motion.
- +Fast and sharp lens
- +Superb low-light performance
- +Wide angle lens
- +High-quality HD video recording
- -Zoom a little on the short side (no telephoto)
- -Controls take a little time to get used to
Where to buy
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3
See It »
Comparing My Best In Class Pick with Other Good Choices
|Product||Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3||Canon PowerShot G10|
|Body Material||Metal and plastic||Metal and Plastic|
Close Image Stabilization Available Image stabilization features are designed to reduce the blur that results from normal, minute shaking of a lens due to hand-held shooting. However, image stabilization does not prevent motion blur caused by the movement of the subject or by extreme movements of the camera.
|HD Video Available||Yes||No|
Close Min Focal Length (35 mm equivalent) The 35 mm equivalent focal length is a measure that indicates the angle of view of a particular combination of a camera lens and the sensor size. The term originates from the time when the vast majority of photography was done with 35 mm film. On any 35 mm film camera, a 30 mm or less lens is considered a wide-angle lens.
|24 mm||28 mm|
Close Max Focal Length (35 mm equivalent) The 35 mm equivalent focal length is a measure that indicates the angle of view of a particular combination of a camera lens and the sensor size. The term originates from the time when the vast majority of photography was done with 35 mm film. Larger max focal lengths make distant objects appear more magnified.
|60 mm||140 mm|
Canon Powershot G10
The Powershot G10 is the successor to the very popular Powershot G9, a camera that earned a place over many a photographer’s shoulder. Key changes from the G9 include a new, higher resolution sensor and a more useful 5x zoom range that opens the wide-angle view to 28mm. There are the other expected changes… the new Digic IV image processor and a higher-quality LCD. The camera, with it’s retro-styling, is just as beautiful and durable as the G9 was. It is a serious photographic tool, one of the best non-SLR cameras on the market.
Where to buy
Canon PowerShot G10
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- For Travel Photos
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- For Photos in Low Light