Thursday, December 11, 2014

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100 and Leica D-Lux Type 109 Review


There are very few surprises left in the age of the internet. It's not a surprise that Panasonic launched the m4/3-based DMC-LX100 at Photokina 2014; what is truly a surprise is the interpretation that they came up with. By letting go of the notion that they had to use the entire area of a m4/3 sensor Panasonic freed themselves to produce a camera that stayed within the mission of previous LX-series cameras: extremely enthusiast-oriented but small and elegant. This is something that the LX100 (like the RX100 cameras) does well in a way that the Canon G1 X Mark II doesn't; the Canon went for a large sensor and fast lens without truly considering how it would affect the overall design philosophy of the camera. The end result is something that is large and a bit unwieldy compared to the more nimble offerings that it has to compete with.

How nimble is the LX100, really? It looks big because it recalls the chunky 4/3 DSMC-LC1 of yore, but it is just a tad bit wider than the LX7... almost the same height and 1cm thicker. This puts it in roughly the same size territory as the Fujifilm X30, but the LX100 does this with a faster lens and a larger sensor. Correspondingly, the price tag is larger as well. The headline specs are:

  • 4/3 16mp sensor, multi-aspect crop to 12mp 
  • Lens is equiv. focal length 24-75mm, f/1.7-2.8
  • ISO range: 200-25600 (extended to ISO 100)
  • 4K video at 30fps, 60fps for 1080p
  • 3" LCD screen
  • Built-in Wi-Fi and NFC
  • Hot shoe mount. Clip-on flash

The virtues of this camera speak for itself... but it is also a part of a worrying trend. Nearly ever new enthusiast-level offering in the "small and light" category... interchangeable lens or not... costs at least $600 USD or more. At least in North America, there simply aren't enough buyers willing to pay this much money for a "secondary" camera. All of the manufacturers have been racing ahead of each other to climb of the "premium price hill" but there is only so much room at the top. Will it be the first to get there who lasts (Sony RX100) or will the crown be past to a new comer like the LX100?

Body and Design


As with previous iterations, the LX100 is the cousin of the Leica D-Lux. What's different this time is that Panasonic is manufactured in China, whereas the Leica is manufactured in Japan. (The lenses for Leica's T Type 701 are also manufactured in Japan.)

Left: Panasonic LX100   Right: Leica D-Lux with included flash

Though it's a common knock that the Leica is a re-branded Panasonic, this time it is even more true... but in reverse; in some ways, the LX100 feels like its the adaptation of the D-Lux. Previous editions in this line used different metal stampings; the Panasonic cameras previously used  a different body shell shape that had a bump-out under the front drip rubber grip. That's gone now, both cameras use essentially the same body shell. There are minor differences, notably that the Leica uses rectangular buttons in keeping with the rest of the Leica line-up. The grip on the LX100 is purely a rubber add-on; on the silver version, it's a faux-leather brown that looks incredibly chintzy. If anything, it feels like the LX100 was made to be a copy of the D-Lux, not the other way around. The button layout is recognizably Panasonic, but the subject spirit of camera operation is closer to what you would expect with a Leica. Some of this comes down to the size of the camera; it's not big, but it's not a compact camera. There's more room for your fingers to spread out than on the LX7/D-Lux 6; the tactile feeling of the camera in your hand comes closer to how the Leica X2/ X (113) feel than how the previous cameras did.


The silvers version of the LX100 has a flat brushed aluminum look. The texture is subtle, so it unfortunately does not convey a particularly premium feeling. Compare that to the Fujifilm X30, which shares a similar metal finish with the X100s and X100t. The Fujifilm cameras have a crackle-finish texture; when you look at the finish of the silver tops, you can see more "depth" in the surface than with the Panasonic. Aesthetically speaking, the black version of the LX100 is the prettier version, as the silver version suffers from having too many different silver-ish textures... the body is one texture, whereas the lens barrel is another and the control rings are yet another. From far away you can't tell, but up close it looks a bit busy and undecided from a design standpoint. It goes without saying, the black Leica version is understated and beautiful.

Top: Fujifilm X30   Bottom: Panasonic LX100

The control-layout is  bit of a departure for Panasonic, as there is no longer a dedicated mode dial. Also gone is the useful rear control wheel/jog dial used on the LX7 and LX5. Unfortunately, what has carried over from the previous cameras is the button operation. Panasonic compacts have always suffered from having small-ish feeling buttons; the LX100 isn't any different. This doesn't mean that small buttons can't be comfortable, but that the Panasonic buttons tend to have a tactile quality that remind you that you are using small-ish controls. Shutter and aperture automation are controlled in the same way that the Fujifilm X-series of cameras is controlled by. Depending on how you use the two, you will be able to put the camera in fully automatic, aperture priority, shutter priority or full manual exposure mode. For those who aren't photographically inclined, there is the "iA" button, short for "intelligent auto". When activated, this button overrides the aperture ring and shutter dial and places the camera in fully automatic mode.


The elimination of the mode dial also removes non-enthusiast features like scene modes. In its place, there is a dedicated "filter" button that allows the camera to shoot in real-time with various art filters; its the same feature as used in the GX7.  The camera will bog down if you shoot with an art filter, though. The LCD screen refresh will slow considerably as the effects are applied to live view. One questionable aspect of these system is the placement of the filter button; its next to the shutter release where other cameras tend to have programmable function buttons. This is an odd consumer-centric choice for an enthusiast camera of this type.

Like the LX7, there is a dedicated aperture ring, which is now supplement by a manual focus ring. The focus ring is not as programmable as other such controls on cameras like Canon G1 X Mark II. It does have a pleasingly smooth resistance to it, but it's a tad bit too thin for truly comfortable use. The aperture wheel allows for easy direct control. It has two flanges to improve handling, which is an odd choice because the wheel is also overly stiff. It's almost as if the designers knew that the aperture wheel has too much resistance, so they added the flanges to help. This is a strange design choice given that the aperture wheel is an electronic control, not a mechanical one. For stills photography, the stiffness of the aperture ring doesn't matter that much, but it has implications for video. (More about that later.)

Autofocus Operation


The LX100 uses the same DFD (Depth from Defocus) technology that the GH4 and FZ1000 use. In a nutshell, DFD allows a contrast-detection AF system to achieve focus lock speeds similar to what you would see in a phase-detection system. In single-shot situations (stationary subjects) the system works brilliantly, but it does have its limitations with moving subjects. However, focus control is disappointing. There are simply to many button presses required to move the focus point around. There are two work-around methods; the first is to use the direct focus area mode, which maps focus control to the four-way controller. This isn't a perfect solution as it changes the default functions on the four-way controller. The second work-around is to use the AF tracking mode, which works in singe-shot and continuous autofocus modes. In single shot mode, a half-press of the shutter button activates tracking; the camera will now follow a subject across the frame if it moves or if you recompose.  If you are in single-shot mode and use tracking to recompose a picture, you must half press the shutter again to achieve focus lock. To reset tracking, press the center button on the four-way controller: the focus indicator will return to the center of the screen.

The tracking function is curiously better at following a subject than it is at focusing on it. In continuous autofocus mode it will track a subject side-to-side across the frame like in sing-shot mode... and quickly at that... but the system is slow to track autofocus fore-aft. However, at any time during AF tracking a half-press of the button will bring the subject into focus at instance when the shutter button was half pressed. In other words, the LX100 can't track fast-moving subjects in the way that a DSLR can... but it could be if it was engineered to. The tracking mode is very quick to recognize a subject moving across the frame, but it can't focus quickly. Single-shot focus is extremely, but that doesn't seem to be tied directly into the tracking mode. It seems to be that the missing ingredient in the system is software and not hardware.

Lens


Like previous LX-series cameras, the LX100 is capable of switching its output image ratio, From 4:3, 3:2, 19:9 to 1:1. As you progress through the ratios, the resolution drops from 12.7mp to 9.5mp. The camera can achieve this because the sensor is larger than the output area; each setting changes the way the output image is cropped from input data. However, no matter which way you crop, the diagonal angle of view is the same in each aspect ratio mode; that is, the subject magnification remains the same.

Construction


Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 ASPH POWER OIS lens compared to LX100

Panasonic (and Leica) have had past success at pushing the boundaries of  what compact camera lenses are capable of. Cameras like the LX5 and LX7 were ahead of the curve in terms of maximum aperture, and in each case the extra amount of lens speed that these cameras had other their competitors did not come with the optical shortcomings that you would associate with consumer-level fast lenses. The LX100 continues that trend. Even with the size reduction that comes with reducing the traditional Micro Four Thirds image circle, the new lens is smaller than its specifications would suggest because internally, the 5 lens groups can move independently of one another, something that few other lenses can do. For comparison, the Panasonic Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm f/2.8 ASPH Power OIS covers the same range as the LX100 but dwarfs it in size. It's not a direct comparison, as the true m4/3 lens has to cover a larger image circle, but it does give you an idea of how shrunk down the LX100 actually is.

Relative Aperture


The following is a list of various high-end compact cameras in terms of maximum aperture relative to a APS-C camera. (Effective aperture is the ratio of the sensor size relative to APS-C as applied to the physical aperture of the each individual camera lens.) The figure for the LX100 is for the 4/3 crop mode; dynamic range value is estimated from DxO's landscape score for the GX7:


Average Effective Aperture Camera Effective Max Wide Aperture Effective Max Long Aperture DXO Landscape (Dynamic Range)





5.5 Panasonic LX7 4.2 6.8 11.7
4.1 Sony RX100M3 3.2 5.0 12.4
5.9 Panasonic GM5 (kit) 4.6 7.3 11.7
3.3 Panasonic LX100 2.5 4.1 12.2
3.6 Canon G1X Mark II 2.4 4.7 10.8
4.6 Sony A6000 (kit lens) 3.5 5.6 13.7


As you can see, the LX100 makes a very good showing for itself, giving the largest effective aperture of the group by virtue of having a combination of fast aperture and the third largest sensor. Note that while its predecessor, the LX7, had the smallest sensor of the group, it actually comes up slightly ahead of the GM5, which has a much larger sensor. Though this does speak to why the LX7 (and its cousin, the Leica D-Lux 6) were such well loved cameras, it doesn't tell the whole story. Effective aperture comparisons don't account for sensor efficiency and dynamic range. Even if the LX7 has slightly better effective aperture stats, it has worse real-world dynamic range than the GM1. Here is a visual summary of how the cameras compare when you do account for dynamic range:


Basically, cameras that are closer to the upper left quadrant of the graph give a shooting experience that is more like what you get from a DSLR or large sensor mirrorless camera, whereas the bottom right quadrant is closer to what a point and shoot is like to use. If it seems like the competition in this field is fierce, here is one reason why: nobody quite hits it out of the part. The Sony A6000 is categorically distinct from the rest of the cameras listed here; it is larger and serves a different purpose but it is also price competitive. The A6000 is held back by a middling kit lens, but in this form it probably gives the best value of the bunch. The RX100M3 and the LX100 make good compromises, though they are expensive for what you are getting. Note that the RX100M3 plots a little better than it actually is its lens is almost completely f/2.8 throughout and only f/1.8 for a breath bit at the wide end. On paper, at least, this makes the LX100 an extremely competitive camera, as it has the best average effective aperture and (probably) the third best dynamic range of the group.

Optical Image Quality


In general use, the LX100's lens lives up to its specifications. There's an obvious drop-off in sharpness towards the corners, but otherwise, the center is consistent and maximum aperture is usable. Overall subjective sharpness is better at the wide end of the lens, and using it fully extended at 75mm equivalent and wide-open produces the weakest results, though still usable. This is pretty much in keeping with most contemporary high-end compacts and many mirrorless cameras; subjectively the lens quality is pleasing, but true corner-to-corner optical performance isn't necessarily possible because of the size and space constraints.

Sensor Image Quality


Still Image Quality



The following is an ad hoc demonstration of the camera's JPEG output quality through the ISO range. Pay attention to the legibility of the soda bottles for detail retention (or lack thereof) as the ISO value rises, speckling in the broad colour patches for overall image noise, as well as the harshness of the reflections and shadows as dynamic range decreases. These samples are not directly comparable to similar samples found elsewhere in this blog because of variable ambient lighting conditions.

All of the following were shot at 28mm equivalent, f/3.5 with center-weighted metering. The Panasonic cameras were set to default rendering, whereas the Sony had high ISO noise reduction turned off; however, the gross differences between the cameras are fairly evident. Note that the Sony RX100M3 is metering the scene 1/3 EV brighter than both of the Panasonic; however, the GH4 and LX100 are producing a brightness rendition that is closer to what the human eye would have perceived. Click on images for 100% crop view.

Base ISO
 
The RX100M3's lower base ISO comes in handy for harsh scenes and luminous targets. If the exposures were equalized, there would be more of a difference to see in how each camera handles highlights; regardless, the Sony 1/1" BSI sensor does very well at low ISO against the LX100. In this case, more is more, and the high resolution of the Sony wins with little penalty to dynamic range and noise.

The following is how the cameras perform as you rise through the ISO range. Because they are the same sensor (or similar, or at least related), the LX100 and GH4 produce similar looking results, the difference being that the LX100 applies more noise suppression in the higher ISO range. Both of the Panasonic cameras can be used in a care-free manner for casual shooting up to ISO 1600 before noise (or nosie suppression) becomes intrusive. The Sony, as good as it is, has a smaller sensor; its comfort limit is ISO 800 if you want relative intact per-pixel image quality.

ISO 200

ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 12800
ISO 25600

ISO 6400 is still usable on the Panasonic , but anything higher than this is a produce of the imagination of the camera companys' marketing departments. If you equalize the output of the three cameras to the same 12mp(ish) size of the LX100, the RX100M3 makes for a better showing. The following are shots re-sampled to 12mp. When you view images at the same magnification, the Sony becomes more competitive. It still has a bit more noise, but the edges are crisper because of the increased data sample of its higher native resolution.

ISO 1600, equalized to 12mp

Video Image Quality


The default video quality is crisp and more sharpened than what you would get with the GH4. Like the overall zeitgeist of the camera, the video quality is more consumer-oriented than with it's semi-professional big brother. The LX100 doesn't use a full sensor output to produce its video; the output is take from the same sensor area that the it sued for 16:9 stills. Additionally, the video output from the sensor uses pixel-skipping; unlike cameras like the Sony RX100M3 which take a full sensor read-out and then resample to 1080p. (The GH4 is different in that it uses pixel-binning to produce its output... the input from adjacent pixels is combined before the data is read off the sensor.) The end result is that the LX100 tends to produce aliasing and moire on relatively coarse details. For 4K output, the video is taken from a smaller crop area, but without the pixel skipping.

Unfortunately, what ultimately limits the LX100's video usage is not the quality but the handling. The buttons are simple to small and recessed to operate the camera without jostling it. The same is true for the aperture ring; you can adjust the aperture during video, but it is impossible to change it without jarring the camera because of the tightness of the the click mechanism. Videographers will also miss having a dedicated microphone input jack. This is a shortcoming that the LX100 shares with the GX7, and is a feature that is sorely missing on a camera that is capable of 4K video.

Comparisons




Panasonic DMC-LX100 vs Leica D-Lux (Type 109)


Panasonic, like Olympus, Sony and Fujifilm, is a in a fight to get to sustainable profitability. At their current sales pace and distribution strength, they can't do so in North America. Hence, if Panasonic can't get maximal revenue selling cameras to the public, they can at least realize some of that earning potential by "selling" cameras to Leica. Leica unlike many other camera companies, does in fact make money, but in order to do so under their current business model they need to address both the high end of the market  (M240 and S cameras) as well as the aspirational lower-end (Leica T, compacts). Remember, Leica is not a camera company for the wealthiest 1% of the population; they are in the business to sell cameras to the following 19% who aspire to by like the 1%.

Though the whole point of Leica is that the cameras are not a bargain, the gap between the D-Lux and the LX100 isn't insurmountably great. Launch price for the LX100 is $899 USD, whereas the Leica version carries a MSRP of $1,195 USD. For the extra $300, you get a red dot a better warranty and a free download of Adobe Lightroom. In this case, the Leica price premium of 33%, though almost the same markup in absolute dollars, is percentage-wise, slightly better than the difference between the D-Lux 6 and the LX7. The usual Leica shenanigans apply: if you go for the D-Lux and then decide that you wanted a front grip all along, they will be happy to sell you one for $160.  The normal rules of pricing don't apply, but at the very least, overspending on a D-Lux is financially more responsible than overspending on a M240.In other words, the Leica version may be the better value... if you don't already possess Adobe Lightroom. The cost difference between the two cameras can, with a stretch, be rationalized by its inclusion and by the fact that Leica offers a better warranty and better warranty performance. This is something that doesn't convey well if you've only ever dealt with the normal camera companies, but if anything ever goes wrong with a Leica camera, you can have it serviced anywhere in the world. The cost of an out-of-warranty repair might not be cheap, but communication between the company and the customer is usually prompt and clear.

On a marketing front, Leica sells many of the Panasonic compacts in the way that Mercedes sells many CLA's. From a business perspective, it's an important part of the business model, but the tricky part is to sell volume without diluting the brand. Here is what Leica does that few camera companies can get away with: the camera is "good enough" that the technology isn't the main focus of the sale. Nor should it be, as the DFD technology and unique floating element design of the lens are very obviously Panasonic's. Of course, the LX100 will be the better value as time goes on: Panasonic cameras, being mortal, will be subject to discounting and price reductions as they live out their lifestyle. The price for Leica cameras changes very little in the same period of time.

Panasonic DMC-LX100 vs Sony RX100M3


Between these two cameras, the RX100M3 is the one that is more oriented towards enthusiasts. There's a higher level of customization to the Sony, and the video quality is excellent. However, the LX100 obviously has it over the Sony in terms of image quality. The difference in resolution won't matter for most people, and once you start getting into very dim situations, the RX100M3 is "sort of good" while the LX100 is "very good" The differentiating factor will likely come down to pocket-ability, as the extremely small size of the RX100 cameras has proven to be a big selling factor. The LX100 isn't actually that much larger, but it it is bulkier because of its lens.

Panasonic DMC-LX100 vs Fujifilm X30


Between the LX100 and the Fujifilm X30, the LX100 is obviously the better camera. It's also far mroe expensive. In other words, they might be two different cameras, but they more or less fall at two different points on the same price-to-performance curve. In many ways, the Fujifilm X20 and X30 cameras are what the LX5 and LX7 cameras would have been with larger sensors... dedicated manual controls combined with fast lenses. The X30 continues that tradition, and even though it is behind in terms of image quality, and its near the top of the class when it comes to features and build quality.


The difference between the two comes down to budget, but if you do choose the X30, you getting a slightly weightier camera, better tactile button response, a faster responding EVF and a flip out screen.

Panasonic DMC-LX100 vs Canon G1 X Mark II

 
On paper this is a close fight. The Panasonic has the faster aperture lens are arguably better sensor output, but the Canon simply has a bigger sensor and a lens with a longer reach. In practice, the LX100 ends up being a better all-around camera. It's smaller, lighter and fits better in your hand. The Canon is extremely bulky and suffers for being front heaving with a relatively small surface for which to grip on to. Both will deliver image quality superior to any compact camera, but the LX100 adds to this with faster autofocus operation. However, the G1 X Mark II, being introduced earlier in 2014, is deeper into its model lifecycle and is into the portion when discounts are more common. On a pure value for money basis, the Canon is superior and offers more customization, but the Panasonic will likely appeal to more people because of its better ergonomics.

Concluding Thoughts


The LX100 isn't cheap. Combine this with the DFD focusing technology from the GH4 and FZ1000 and you have the latest iteration of the proverbial small, go-anywhere, shoot-any time kind of camera. It's a strong value proposition; ostensibly, the LX100 is going to steal some sales from its GM5 and GX7 siblings, but that appears to be a calculated move on the part of Panasonic.

4 years later:  2014: LX100   2010: LX5

However, in going up-market the LX100 is also leaving some of its traditional customers behind. It's substantially more expensive than the LX5 and LX7 cameras that came before it; for the price that you pay for the LX100, you are getting something that will likely be your primary camera, whereas before the LX-series was something of an enthusiast-oriented secondary camera to backup a DSLR. Therein lies the problem; in a globally shrinking camera market the price-points at the lower end of the spectrum have been giving way. All of the camera companies are now trying to make up for the decline by selling more expensive products, even if it means selling less units overall.

However, if you are in the market for the LX100, you will be getting what is perhaps the best image quality ever offered on a compact camera.... the definition of "compact" perhaps being stretched here. It's less of a standout compared to what you could have for the same price in terms of an interchangable lens mirrorless camera, though. That's what's frustrating about the LX100; it might be the best camera of its kind, but its also not a perfect camera either. Most of the shortcomings won't seriously impede on the picture taking experience, but with a greater price comes greater expectations. There are things that could be improved, but it could very well be the best low-light compact available on the market.





With thanks to Broadway Camera

4 comments:

  1. OK I think you didn't use HDR mode, I did this with the Leica Type 109 sister: normally the ISO settings 12500 and 25000 are for emergency purposes only, but when you enable HDR the results are completely different, astonishingly good and usable under conditions where you have nearly no light

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    1. That is true; the hdr mode will combine 3 exposures, so the reduced noise benefit comes from the "+" exposure of the three shot bracket. (Very) roughly speaking, if you set the HDR strength to max, it's a 3EV bracket.... the + shot being 3EV is like lowering the ISO from 25600 to 3200. Conversely, it's like raising the "-" shot to ISO 400,000...

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