Panasonic LX100 review – a compact tour de force

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1/250, f/5.6, 200 ISO, 10.9-34mm at 10.9mm

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The competition among premium compact cameras has never been fiercer. Bigger sensors and brighter lenses are pushing up image quality, performance is rising and the quality of their controls and viewfinders is putting some SLRs to shame. It’s quite an achievement, then, that the Panasonic LX100 is comfortably the most impressive premium compact we’ve seen. Released at the end of 2014, this fantastic camera wowed us, it’s dropped in price since then too, and continues to be the compact camera to beat – although the new Canon G7 X is a strong contender.

The LX 100’s light-gathering ability sets a new high for a compact camera with a zoom lens. While rival cameras such as the Sony RX100 III use a 1in sensor, the LX100’s Micro Four Thirds sensor is almost double the size by surface area. That doesn’t tell the whole story, as the camera doesn’t use all of the sensor’s surface area to capture a photo. The usable area varies depending on the selected aspect ratio; for 4:3 photos, the sensor size is effectively 50 per cent bigger than the RX100 III’s. This produces 12.5-megapixel photos from the 16-megapixel sensor. This might sound like a drawback, but the lens would have been quite a bit bulkier if it had to cover the entire sensor area.

Factor that in, and the LX100’s effective sensor size is smaller than that of the Canon G1 X Mark II. However, sensor size is only one factor in a camera’s ability to capture light. The LX100’s f/1.7-2.8 aperture is brighter than the Canon’s f/2-3.9 lens, and is enough to put it out in front.

That means a shallower depth of field for flattering portraits, and it puts the LX100 on course for class-leading image quality in low light. Its aperture and sensor combination are equivalent to f/3.7-6.2 on a full-frame camera, so it’s not unreasonable to think of this as full-frame quality in a pocket-size camera. It’s an extraordinary technical achievement, all the more so considering that optical stabilisation is built in.

Calling the LX100 pocket sized might be a bit of a stretch, though. Measuring 70mm from its lens cap to its viewfinder, it just about squeezes into trouser pockets but fits more comfortably in a coat pocket or bag. It comes with a neck rather than a wrist strap. At 407g, it’s lighter than the Canon G1 X Mk II (557g) but not as svelte as the Sony RX100 III (288g).

Then again, the Sony RX100 III doesn’t offer so many physical controls. The LX100 has an aperture ring on the lens and dials on the top plate for shutter speed and exposure compensation. As with various recent Fujifilm cameras, having dedicated aperture and shutter speed controls means there’s no need for a PASM mode dial, as you can simply adjust the relevant control directly or leave both on A for Program mode. There’s also a dedicated button to override all settings and put the camera into Intelligent Auto mode.

A second lens ring is assigned to zoom by default, although we found it frustratingly slow to traverse the 3.1x zoom range. It felt easier to use the lever around the shutter button for zooming duties, freeing up the lens ring for ISO speed, white balance or creative filters. This ring has quite a loose movement, though, so there’s a fair risk of nudging it by accident. It worked superbly for manual focus, though, amply assisted by a magnified picture-in-picture area while making adjustments and a peaking option that highlights sharply focused parts of the frame.

With dedicated buttons for creative filters, AE/AF lock, ISO speed, white balance, autofocus mode and drive mode, plus three customisable buttons and an elegant Quick Menu system, access to manual controls is extremely fluid. However, we’re disappointed that the LCD screen isn’t touch sensitive. Other Panasonic cameras make great use of their touchscreens for moving the autofocus point and navigating the Quick Menu. The LX100 is packed with sophisticated autofocus modes including fast subject tracking, the ability to position the spot focus area right into the corners and to vary its size from a pinpoint to almost the full frame height. However, without a touchscreen these features are slightly clumsy to access. The screen isn’t articulated either – a feature we value very highly, and one that the rivals from Sony and Canon both offer.

The flash has been spun off as a detachable unit, which seems like a reasonable compromise to keep the size down. We’re glad to see that it sits in a standard hotshoe, so a more powerful flashgun or wireless trigger can be used instead. The supplied unit is rated at Guide Number 7 at ISO 100, which is no brighter than most integrated flashes. However, it behaved very oddly in our tests, with an On/Off switch that worked in reverse and serious problems with flash metering. The flash’s firmware is at version 0.4 on our test sample, so hopefully these issues are either atypical or will be ironed out by the time the camera reaches the shops.

Panasonic’s Wi-Fi implementation is as good as it gets, with full control over photographic settings in remote viewfinder mode – including touchscreen autofocus control. This is particularly welcome while capturing video. We also appreciate how both the camera and the app’s controls are accessible at the same time – most cameras allow one or the other. There’s a stop-motion animation capture mode, complete with the ability to convert a sequence of photos into a video file. A geo-tagging feature uses the smartphone’s GPS function to create a log and then retrospectively tag photos on the camera.

Performance was seriously fast in our tests. It focused and captured a photo in about 150ms on average, and remained responsive and accurate in low light. Photos were captured every 0.6 seconds in normal use. Continuous mode ran at 11.6fps for 96 JPEGs or 23 RAW frames before slowing. Selecting continuous autofocus delivered speeds between 5.9fps and 4.3fps, depending on the subject matter and light conditions. All of these results are up there with the best we’ve seen. The relatively modest 24-75mm (equivalent) focal length range means this isn’t really a camera for action photography, but it’s great to know that the speed is there should you need it.

VIDEO QUALITY

Videos are captured at resolutions up to 4K (3,840×2,160) at 24 or 25fps. We’re not sure how many potential buyers will see this as a must-have feature, but the quality of the 4K footage is superb. Even after resizing to fit a 1080p display, 4K footage looked significantly more detailed than its 1080p clips, which were excellent in their own right.

There’s full control over exposure settings but the Cinelike colour presets included with the Panasonic GH4 and FZ1000 are absent here. Even so, creating a custom Photo Style with minimum contrast and sharpness gave a good base for applying colour correction and sharpening in video-editing software. However, with no microphone input, slow motion or high-bit-rate 1080p capture, this feels more like an extremely high quality point-and-shoot video camera than a serious videographer’s camera.

Panasonic’s target audience for the LX100 is more likely to be interested in the 4K Photo mode. After enabling it in the menu, video is captured at the aspect ratio selected on the switch on the lens, from a choice of 3:2, 16:9, 1:1 or 4:3. These aren’t normal ratios for video but the videos effectively contain 8-megapixel photos captured at 25fps. During video playback, any frame can be converted into a JPEG with a couple of button pushes, complete with EXIF data.

Image quality of these 4K photos is somewhat limited by the AVC video compression, which struggled a little with fast motion and noise – when a single frame is scrutinised at least. Even so, it’s a handy trick for capturing action with split-second timing, and without having to fill the memory card with hundreds of 12-megapixel photos in continuous mode.

^ The 4K Photo mode captures 4K video in a variety of aspect ratios, ready for conversion into photos. Capturing wildlife is somewhat hampered by the small zoom range, though. (1/400s, f/2.8, ISO 200, 84mm equivalent)

^ Image quality deteriorates quite quickly as the ISO speed goes up in 4K Photo mode. (1/2,000s, f/2.8, ISO 1600, 84mm equivalent)

 

IMAGE QUALITY

Image quality from the LX100’s 12-megapixel JPEGs was excellent, but there were a few areas where it didn’t quite match our towering expectations. It struggled slightly with dense textures, with a digitised quality and a hint of noise even in brightly lit scenes. Focus was pin sharp in the centre of frames but it softened at the edges. However, these were problems that we only spotted because we went looking for them. It’s hard to imagine them making a significant impact in normal use.

The LX100 really proved its worth when shooting in low light. The bright lens meant we could often shoot indoors at the minimum ISO 200 speed, allowing the camera to deliver its best possible image quality. When diminishing light pushed the ISO speed up, image quality remained excellent with print-quality results at ISO 1600. Brighter and sharply focused areas of frames tended to look better than other areas at fast ISO speeds, so the results depended as much on the subject matter than the camera settings. However, the combination of a bright lens and big sensor produced some stunning results.

^ We can’t fault the focus in the centre of the frame but the dense foliage doesn’t quite have the crisp smoothness we’d hope for. Focus towards the edges of the frame is a little soft. (1/200s, f/5.6, ISO 200, 24mm equivalent)

^ This shot has come out better. The engraved text is crisp and the ivy looks detailed and natural. (1/125s, f/2.8, ISO 200, 37mm equivalent)

^ Details are pin sharp in this telephoto shot, although focus falls away a little at the edges. Shadows and highlights are expertly handled. (1/1,000s, f/5.6, ISO 200, 75mm equivalent)

^ The wide-aperture lens allows for indoor shots at the base ISO 200 setting. There’s a hint of noise in the skin tones but we wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. (1/60s, f/2, ISO 200, 24mm equivalent)

^ ISO 1600 and noise is still understated, although it’s a little worse in the out-of-focus parts of the frame. (1/100s, f/3.2, ISO 1600, 50mm equivalent)

^ Skin textures at ISO 1600 are a tougher challenge but the camera has coped well. (1/60s, f/1.7, ISO 1600, 24mm equivalent)

^ Shaded skin and areas of block colour look messy at ISO 6400. Then again, few cameras can capture moving subjects in very low light as well as this. (1/125s, f/2.1, ISO 6400, 28mm equivalent)

^ Selecting a 1/250s shutter speed to freeze motion in low light, image quality remains impressively high at ISO 8000. (1/250s, f/2.7, ISO 8000, 50mm equivalent)

CONCLUSION

Factor in the superb viewfinder and controls, breakneck performance and 4K video mode, and the LX100 sets a new standard for compact cameras. The Sony RX100 III is smaller and lighter but the LX100 is hardly bulky and we much prefer its controls and superior image quality in low light. Its only significant limitation is the inability to switch lenses. Then again, there is no interchangeable lens that matches this one’s specifications. The only CSCs that can match the LX100 for image quality without the added expense of multiple lenses are the full-frame Sony A7 series and the Fujifilm X-E2and Fujifilm X-T1. The Fuji X-T1 and Sony A7 cost £1,200 but the X-E2 is currently available for £830. It matches the LX100 for physical controls but not for performance, video quality or compactness.

Originally launched at £700 it was a lot to pay for a compact camera, but considering the quality on offer, we thought it more than a fair price. Since its release the price has dropped as low as £619 for the silver version of the LX100, which is a great price for a great camera.

 


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