It has been a very interesting time for serious compact cameras over the last few years. On one hand, the push of smartphones as alternative cameras is obvious. On the other hand, the progress in technology , chiefly sensor and lens design, allows for cameras to get smaller and smaller. The 1/1.7″ and even the 2/3 ” (by Fuji) seems relegated to extinction since Sony seems to have imposed its 1″ sensor as the “minimum de rigueur”. First, we got the different iterations of the Sony RX100 (currently on its third version). Last Photokina, it was Canon trying to rivalize Sony with its G7X. Now, Panasonic is entering the arena with its new LX100. For those of you who are not aware of the commercial agreement between Panasonic and Leica, be aware that Leica has a rebadged version of the same camera under the name Leica Dlux Typ 109.
Panasonic intends to upset its competitors by offering a larger sensor than its two new rivals. Does it live up to its ambitions ?
ERGONOMICS & CONTROLS :First things first : the LX- 100 is a small camera, especially when you consider it features a ” large” 4/3 sensor (more on that later) and a bright zoom with a maximum aperture of 1.7 at its wide end (24mm equivalent) and 2.8 at its longest end (75mm equivalent). This is no small achievement and indeed the lens is very small considering the above specs. There has been a considering work in developing such a small lens and a technical compromise as we will see later in this review. As a sidenote, something odd: I bought my camera in a shop in Brussels (Belgium). The box contains paper instruction manuals in SEVEN languages but NO English manual !! (When contacted the dealer open another box and it was not there either !)
The camera in the off position measures: W11.5 X H6.6 X D5.5 cms (4.53 x 2.6 x 2.17″) and weighs just under 400 grs (less than 14 ounces) with battery and card. These official dimensions are, in my opinion, a little bit disingenuous regarding the depth of the camera as it does not take into account the protruding EVF. In effect, the real depth of the camera is closer to 6.5 cms (2.5″).The camera comes in either black or a mix of silver and brown faux-leather finish.
The LX 100, contrary to its Leica sibling has a small built-in grip that contributes to giving it a rather nice feeling in the hand (aided in no small part by the thumbrest on the back). I have normal size hands for a male adult but I personally would have favored a somewhat deeper grip.
The lens protrudes only by 2.5cms (1 inch) when camera is powered off but extends to a more impressive 6.3cms (2.5″) at the longest 75mm reach. The lens tube when extended does not seem too wobbly but the lack of a lens hood option is an issue to protect the camera from rain , dust and flare (which the lens is pretty prone to). The lens accepts 43mm screw-on filters and comes with a clip-on plastic cap. There is also a optional interesting cap that opens and closes automatically like the ones first seen on the Ricoh GX100 and Olympus XZ1 models. But Panasonic decided to make this cap an optional accessory and as a result we get not only a very overpriced cap ( $40 for a plastic cap !!) and one which is still NOT available in Mid-december, i.e eight weeks after the camera became first available !!
The battery is said to provide around 300 shots but I think this is going to depend a lot depending on how often you use the EVF and the burst mode. Battery takes about 2h40 minutes to fully recharge in the provided battery charger.
The camera feels nicely built at first glance. The price to pay for miniaturization is some very small buttons and levers. The on/off lever switch will be hard to operate by anyone with large hands (or gloves). The camera features “A” dials both for shutter speeds (top plate of the camera) and apertures (on the lens ring) meaning there is no mode dial on top of the camera or front and back dials. This layout was first developed on film cameras and then reappeared on digital cameras like the Panasonic LC-1 and more recently on the Fuji X100 series and Leica X. Whether you like this arrangement depends in great part, in my opinion, of what you are used to with your past and/or current cameras. As for me, this is my first digital camera designed like this and if the LX100 is not your main camera it may take some time to get used to. One thing that bothers me in shutter priority mode is that the value you set on the top dial is not always the one you chose because the dial changes speeds in full increments while the camera uses half-speeds as well. This is one of the sacrifices made with this “no-mode dial” design.
This simplistic button layout is aimed at so- called experts but this cannot be said of every feature of the LX-100.
In fact, a few hours of operating the camera makes it obvious that the camera suffers of a kind of ” double personality disorder”.
Let me explain : by its technical specs (sensor size, lens technical specs..) , the camera is no doubt aimed at “serious photographers” who want to have a large array of controls. Yet, one cannot help noticing that some of the controls layout are definitely aimed at entry- level users; case in point : the placement of the I-Auto mode and the filters button.
Some of the early reviews complain that the i-auto button is so closed to the on-off switch that it easily engaged involuntarily. This is true but can be resolved by modifying how to engage this i- auto mode in the menu. This is one of the few options by default that shows Panasonic is trying to cater to two different kinds of users.
Unfortunately, the filter and the i-auto buttons cannot be assigned to another function. Maybe in a future firmware update? In a similar fashion, the REC button on the back cannot be customized, only turned off. Three buttons that cannot be customized is disappointing in a so-called “expert” compact.
The LCD has a -too- classic 921,000 pixels resolution meaning that it does not benefit of the white dot for better visibilty of the LCD in bright light. In such instances , visibility is pretty good but no match to my Ricoh GR !
One of the big feature of the camera is that it has a built-in high resolution (2.7 millions pixels) EVF. While the resolution of the EVF is at the top of what is available today, it does not match the quality of the EPSON EVF found in other hybrid cameras (like the Olympus Em-1 or Fuji XT-1). In some instances, like panning using the Evf, one would notice a rainbow effect. It is also important to know that this EVF has a 16:9 ratio which means that it is going to be a cropped view for the other ratios. I personally find this a minus for stills and cannot help noticing that the LX100 has a sensor with a 4:3 ratio , a 3:2 ratio for the LCD and a 16: 9 ratio for the EVF !!! In addition the colors in the EVF are too saturated and not always a good indication of what the file recorded will look like but you can adjust brightness, contrast and saturation of the EVF in the menu. Despite not being as good as the EPSON evf (like the one in the Olympus Em-1) it is very nice to have and, on this score, the LX100 has the edge over the Canon G7X which has no evf (even as an option) and the RX100 mark III as well because its EVF has to be deployed and collapsed.
The menu itself has also its list of flaws and inconsistencies. There are no less than SIX different display options but it is not possible to display only a selection of those. The menu is a clear illustration of the ambivalent personality of the LX100 I mentioned earlier. There are a bunch of silly options in the menu like setting a profile for baby or pet ! the filter menu offers no less than 22 filters but with no option to custom select them in the menu (which is possible for instance on my Olympus EM-1).
Among the most notable missing features is the absence of neutral density filter. It is especially disappointing because the LX100 base sensitivity is not 100 but 200 ISO (there is a 100 ASA setting but this reduces dynamic range which is not one of the camera strengths in the first place !)
In the next section, I will write about file quality with some center and corner crops comparing the LX 100 results with two other cameras. Stay tuned…