Monday, April 11, 2011

Panasonic DMC-LX5 Review

No, I have not given up my dSLR, but I have been re-evaluating some priories as of late. My philosophy used to be that a camera is for the using, and that the quality afforded by a dSLR beat relying on somebody else's compact hands down. If portability was a factor, then it was simply a matter of strapping on a prime lens and making the kit smaller. Well, more is more, so it doesn't hurt to have a second camera kicking around. I found my copy of the LX5 for a price that couldn't be refused and jumped on it. And to be honest, as a portable kick-around camera, it's going to do nicely.

The build quality is very nice... very nice indeed. You get a metal body... a real metal body... something that you wouldn't get in full in the Nikon dSLR world until you reach the D300 level of camera. Cameras are for looking at things, but the LX5 is very nice to look at in itself. The whole range-finder aesthetic thing works very nicely for it... it has a very precise, very purposeful aura about it. Shooting in public, you wouldn't be mistaken for anything less than an enthusiast with this piece of kit.

The buttons are on the small side, but have a solid feel to them. However, the labeling is hard to read. The rubber grip on the front is welcome, but not as useful as it might seem. The protruding grip may make you think that the camera can be held one-handed with your right hand, fingers wrapped around the grip with the camera nestled in the palm of your hand. In reality, this is too small a form factor to use that grip consistently. Like any camera, it does better when it is cradled in your left hand... this is the hand that carries the weight of the camera... the hand barely touches the camera, with only the pads of the fingers on the control surfaces.

The controls work  well, but they are on the small side. The scroll wheel on the back is a welcome  change from the joystick used on the LX3. A  nice touch is that it is also a toggle button... scroll it sideways to control your aperture or shutter speed, but if you depress the wheel, the control toggles to exposure compensation. Complete one touch control over exposure without having to dive into the 4-way controller. Nice. Very nice. Nikon could have a thing or two learn from this. However, as a a pure control surface, the multi-ring on the Canon S95 or the control ring on the back of the Canon G12 are easier to use... in the end, larger is better. It's something that needs to be improved upon, because the exposure control dial is the heart and soul of an enthusiast camera. It's akin to having a sports car with a properly sorted gearbox.

The unique selling proposition is the lens. Very fast, and very wide. Stays reasonably fast through its zoom range, unlike lens from competitors that advertise a fast aperture at the wide end, only to have it all evaporate by the end of the zoom range. This makes the camera very usable. Consider it's bigger brother, the m4/3 GF-2. Panasonic's kit lens goes from 14-42mm, or 28-84mm in full frame speak. The LX5's lens is the equivalent of 24-90mm. So roughly speaking, both lenses cover the same zoom range, albeit the LX5 is arguably more useful because it can go wider. However, the kit lens for the GF-2 is a very pedestrian f3.5-5.6, whereas the LX-5 is f/2.0-3.3. What this means is that the lens on the smaller camera is 2/3 a stop brighter on the wide end, and 1.5 stops brighter on the zoom end. Bear with me, just a bit more math.... The difference between the area of the two sensors is about 4.5 times. So, all things being equal, the m4/3 should have more than two stops worth of light gathering power over it's smaller sibling. Or, said another way, noise-wise, ISO 400 on the m4/3 would look like ISO 100 on the LX5. But if you are not using a prime lens with the m4/3 camera, then the difference in light gathering ability is greatly hindered by the kit lens... the advantage over the compact camera then only becomes a little over one stop. That is not to say that the LX-5 will rival a larger format camera in quality... but it is an indication of just how useful it's lens makes it, and that it you've been used to the dogma that a larger sensor camera is miles better than any compact... the numbers might give you pause for thought. For a little bit anyway. The other part of the equation that makes  the LX5 so useable is image stabilization, of which Panasonic is probably up their with compact camera. Half-press the shutter and the image on the viewscreen freezes in an almost eerie way. 

Speaking of the lens, unlike the Canon G12 or S95, it does not have an automatic lens cover. This is actually a minor inconvenience, as you can lash the lens cap to the strap lug on the camera body. Not elegant, but also not worth fussing over. The cap has  nice feel to it, and definitely does not feel like any afterthought, unlike caps from some other cameras that I have tried.

JPEG. 24mm, ISO 80, f/4/0, 1/800s.
Camera does great job exposing the
sky. Detail is a bit impaired because
this was shot through a window,
not because of the camera.
And yes... the magically little "L" on the camera. (If only it were a red dot instead!) Not to burst anybody's bubble, but this is a Leica-approved lens, but not a lens made by Leica. Take's some of the magic away, but nobody will argue that Leica does not know optics. For what it's worth, that also means that the Leica D-LUX 5 is also not made by Leica themselves. In case your wondering... is there any difference between these two? From the samples that I've seen.... yes.... barely. The Leica images look a tad bit more saturated and contrasty, but the difference appears to be electronic, similar to a slight tug of the tone curve in post processing. By comparison, there was a real, if subtle, optical difference between the two predecessors. The D-Lux 4 had better lens coatings that the LX3, which made for... you guessed it, slightly more saturated and contrasty images. Guess Leica figured that it was just cheaper to do it electronically this time. To be fair, the huge price difference between the D-LUX and the LX camera is because of Leica's bundling of Adobe Lightroom. If you were already in the market for Lightroom, then the Leica stops looking like such a ripoff so expensive. The Panasonic comes bundled with SilkyPix, which is downmarket, competent... but rather unintuitive. Even though Nikon's Capture NX is a clunky piece of code, it does fairly well for an in-house piece of software from an ergonomics standpoint.

At the time of shooting, I'm still coming to terms with the white balance of the camera. I can confirm that, as you've no doubt read elsewhere, that the colour balance can be a bit on the cool side. This can take a bit getting used to. As a personal note, I use a D80 with Tamron glass... warm colour rendition from the glass and Nikon's tendency to over cook reds a tad. It's going to take quite a getting used to. And if you've read the hardcore reviews, you will have already heard that this camera does not get it's best results from out of camera jpegs. There's just no getting around it, if you want great results, you have to go RAW. The in camera engine is a blunt tool that under realizes a lot of fine and subtle detail. This is a bit of a wasted opportunity... as a pocket camera you'd hope that you could feel free to step away from the rigors of post-processing.

Output is "only" 10mp, but it's just about right for this class of camera. Any more pixels and you get more mush, not more resolution. The selectable aspect ratio is surprisingly useful. If you have a print size in mind, you can preselect it before shooting to make the most of the pixels that you have at hand. The pixel resolution is similar, but decreases ever so slightly as you go from 4:3 to 3:2 to 16:9, but the good thing is that effective angle of view remains constant for each ratio. The camera can do this because it's actually using a larger than average 3:2 ratio sensor, and depending on which aspect ratio you choose, it will crop the picture slightly.

The final thing that I like about this camera is the pop-up flash. You have to manually release it if you want to use it. I much prefer this to the method used in the S95, where the flash is electronically released by motor... one less thing to go wrong. Popped up, it's nice and far away from the lens, reducing red-eye.

RAW. 24mm, ISO 80, f/2.0, 1/100s

In the end, could the LX-5 satisfy a die-hard dSLR user? Yes... but it depends. If conditions are good to ideal, then yes. If expectations are reasonable, then yes. If you needed to do something very specific with your dSLR, then the answer is 'no'. For example, no compact camera (or 4/3 camera for that matter) can replicate the shallow depth of field that an 85mm f/1.4 lens could. And it goes without saying that you're stuck if you want to shoot at very high magnifications with the LX5. But the key thing out of all of those is expectations. If you are pixel peeper, then maybe even a D700 wouldn't satisfy you. However, a decent enthusiast compact camera will make competent 8" by 10" prints.

And to be honest, at smaller prints, noise just simply doesn't make a different anymore... it's dynamic range where dSLR prints really shine. If you've been using a dSLR for a while and then go back to a compact, albeit a quality compact like the LX5, the biggest thing that you'd miss outside of high ISO noise will probably be the soft bokeh that you get with the larger format sensor. If you pixel peep, there's no way around it, the files from a compact just plain look more 'digital' than a dSLR.

Natural competitors to the Panasonic LX5 are the Canon S95, the G12 and the Nikon P7000. There's also the Olympus XZ-1 and the Samsung TL500. The latter two are out of the running. Both are harder to come by because of the more competitive distribution channels of Canon and Nikon, and both the Samsung and Oly lag behind at higher ISO's. The S95 is the choice where pocketability is the most important issue, but the Panasonic's lens is more useful. With the S95, you wouldn't really be thinking about depth of field control, and the lens isn't good enough to shoot flashless in low light. It's a camera that you would use like any other casual compact camera... only the results would be better

The G12 is easier to find in stores, and is a very mature product. It's also quick clunky, and would be a stretch to call pocketable. The P7000 even more so. However, both of these cameras have better jpeg engines than the Panasonic, so if out of camera convenience is a priority, either of these may be a better choice. Same goes if you want more zoom reach. However, 24-90mm is the classic 'standard zoom' range (Actually, it's really a wide to portrait length range, people's notion of what is 'standard' is getting bigger as the years go by). If you do most of your shooting n this range,it makes sense to maximize the the glass that you can use for this range as well. Adding more zoom to a already compromised aperture range may not fit the bill.

If there's one thing I would recommend, it's to turn off all of the extraneous information that gets displayed on the view screen. There are three settings. One is with a bazillion menu icons lining the left and top of the screen. The second is without the icons and only a set of grid lines for framing. The third is for a completely unobstructed view. I'd opt for the latter.... the camera will still display the shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings when you half press the shutter release.

And that's where the LX5 fits in. If you have a dSLR because you want control over the shooting process, you'd be likely to pick the LX5 for exactly the same reason. The only thing is, unless you use a Panasonic m4/3 camera, you won't be using the same workflow as your dSLR. You'll have to think differently when you shoot and you'll have to post process with different goals in mind. This was why I was originally a fan of reducing the size of my dSLR kit rather than having a secondary camera... the bulk is less, but the camera is fundamentally the same. If only Nikon made a compact camera this well.

If you want one, I would say go for it. Panasonic's camera distribution in North America is notoriously fickle. Great product hampered by mediocre distribution. If I were a betting man, I would say that you would be able to find a G12 all the way up to the day that it was replaced, but that the LX5 is likely to go out of stock before it's run is over. As is the case for me, I found mine on a Craigslist, which may or may not be such an easy thing to replicate. Demand for these cameras is fairly high, and people have not been so willing to let go of them. At the time of writing, used prices hovered just north of $400 in my location, up to $450. New prices still list above $500, but if you are careful and price match, you should be able to steer that downwards.

For a further discussion about this camera's jpeg engine see the companion review.

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