Panasonic LX100 Field Test Part I
Panasonic LX100 Field Test Part I
An enthusiast compact head-to-head with Sony and Canon!
By Michael Tomkins | Posted: 12/08/2014
Ever since Sony launched its RX100-series camera line a couple of years ago, I've been a big fan of compact cameras with large sensors and zoom lenses. (In fact, truth be told I'd been asking the manufacturers to make just such a camera at every chance I got, for several years before the RX100-series hit the scene.)
The Panasonic LX100 takes that concept and runs with it, fitting in an even larger sensor than those of the RX100-series or Canon's G7X, yet still remaining at least coat-pocket friendly. To say that I wanted to get my hands on this camera was an understatement.
Compact is a relative thing
Sure, I had concerns about camera size: One of my favorite features of the RX100-series cameras is that I can slip them in a pants pocket and almost forget they're there. That's simply not possible with the Panasonic LX100: It's fine for a coat pocket or modestly-sized bag or purse, but except in the winter I don't wear a jacket, and I seldom carry a bag.
But that larger body and lens were what was needed to boost the sensor size, and I had a feeling I'd want the better image quality it had the potential to bring, especially in low light. Perhaps it was time to go back to a shoulder strap; this would still be a noticeably smaller camera than a DSLR or mirrorless model with similar lens, after all. (And for that matter, it's also quite a bit smaller than what's realistically its closest competitor -- Canon's rather larger G1X-series line.)
A camera made for photographers
On taking it out of the box, I immediately appreciated the Panasonic LX100's controls. It felt like a photographic tool in a way the RX100-series and G7X simply don't, thanks to dedicated external controls for aperture, shutter speed and exposure compensation. By contrast, its more svelte rivals feel more like consumer cameras, although the G7X does at least sport a dedicated exposure compensation dial.
Twin controls rings on the lens
I also instantly appreciated the fact that with a somewhat larger lens, there was room for two separate lens rings. It has always bothered me slightly that the RX100's lens ring is stepless when using it to control aperture. It makes it more obvious that it's a fly-by-wire control, and feels disconnected. Conversely, though, the G7X's stepped lens ring is awkward when used to control focus or lens zoom.
Here, I had the best of both worlds. The Panasonic LX100's front ring has click detents for aperture control, while the rear ring is smooth and stepless. That's not to say that it was perfect, though. The LX100's lens isn't a constant-aperture zoom, and so if you zoom in somewhat, it's possible for the aperture ring to differ from the actual aperture of the lens at the widest settings.
I also felt that the aperture dial itself could have benefited from a slightly greater resistance, because I found myself just occasionally bumping it. Given that there's no Mode dial on this camera -- a feature I actually like, other than for this quirk -- it's possible to unintentionally change not only the aperture setting, but to switch from Program or Shutter-priority operation to Aperture-priority or fully Manual respectively.
Fiddling with lens caps
Another thing I quickly realized when shooting with the Panasonic LX100 alongside the Sony RX100 III and Canon G7X -- I was lucky enough to have all three cameras, plus the earlier Sony RX100 and RX100 II on my desk at the same time; see side-by-side photos in our updated Canon G7X gallery and Sony RX100 III gallery -- was that the LX100 lacks a built-in lens barrier. It's obvious if you're paying attention, but I must admit I didn't consciously note it until I got my hands on the camera.
The bundled lens cap isn't too terribly bulky, comes complete with a cap leash, and probably provides better protection for the lens. With that said, though, I am not a fan of cap leashes because they're forever tangling around the shoulder or wrist strap, or the lens cap distracts me as it swings back and forth. And I was always worried about accidentally misplacing the lens cap, so most of the time it went in a pocket and stayed there all of the time I was out shooting. In effect, the LX100's lens went unprotected, while the other cameras had at least a modicum of protection when switched off.
There is a petal lens cap on the way for the Panasonic LX100, incidentally, but at around US$40 for a cap, it's quite pricey. It's also not available yet. Personally, I'd like to see it just replace the standard lens cap in the product bundle.
Top -- 24mm-equivalent, 1/60 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 320
Bottom -- 75mm-equivalent, 1/125 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 320
Do less zoom and less resolution mean less versatility?
And of course, the LX100's lens was rather shorter than those of the first and second-generation RX100-series cameras, not to mention the Canon G7X. That gave me more pause for thought than it did with the Sony RX100 III, which has the shortest zoom of the bunch. Why? Because the Panasonic LX100 also has the lowest resolution, and that meant it provided the least opportunity for cropping.
When it comes to flash, it's external only
And there was one other design feature of the LX100 that concerned me: Its lack of a built-in flash strobe. Honestly, in a camera whose main design goal is reduced size and weight compared to an interchangeable-lens camera, I just don't see the presence of a hot shoe as that big of an advantage.
I'd much rather have had an internal flash that's always available when I need it, and which takes up less space than an accessory strobe. Not that the LX100's bundled flash strobe is that bulky, really, but it's another thing I need to remember to bring, and to slip in a pocket somewhere. Nor does it come with a protective hard case -- just a soft bag that made me worry for its longevity.
I know that not everyone agrees with me on this, though. Plenty of you prefer the possibility of greater flash range provided by an external strobe, and in that case, the Panasonic LX100 offers a versatility matched only by the RX100 II, which also offers a hot shoe.
An electronic viewfinder you'll actually use
But there was another feature of the LX100 that I fell instantly in love with: its built-in electronic viewfinder. Among its competitors, only the Canon G1X II, Sony RX100 II, and Sony RX100 III offer electronic finders, and for all but the RX100 III, these are bulky, expensive external accessories. The LX100 and RX100 III are thus your only options if you want a built-in EVF, and while Sony's nifty popup finder is technically impressive, I much preferred the fixed-position finder in the LX100.
For one thing, there was no need to extend it every time I turned the camera on. Sure, Sony cleverly powers up the RX100 III as soon as you flick the lever to raise the finder, but before you can use it, you still have to manually extend the rear lens of the finder to prepare it for use. With the LX100, the electronic viewfinder is just there, ready whenever you need it.
Perhaps more importantly, though, it's a much nicer viewfinder than that of the Sony. The viewfinder image is both roomier and noticeably higher-resolution than that of the RX100 III. Where on the RX100 III I found the EVF to be a worthwhile tool of last resort when the main LCD was obscured by sunlight, on the Panasonic LX100 I found myself using the viewfinder quite often even if the LCD was perfectly visible.
And I should note that while it's a field-sequential display (which cycles through red, green and blue colors in turn, rather than using adjacent subpixels of different primary colors to provide a full-color image), I really didn't notice much of the rainbow artifacts from which field-sequential displays sometimes suffer. I did, though, find the shallow viewfinder eyecup wasn't great at preventing glare. Under direct sunlight, I sometimes had to shield the finder with my spare hand, just as I did with the RX100 III's finder.
The fixed-position LCD is definitely less versatile
As great as that finder is, the Panasonic LX100 does trail its smaller-bodied competitors in one surprising respect that I think is something of a shame. The RX100 II, RX100 III and G7X all sport tilting LCD monitors, but that in the LX100 is fixed in position. It also lacks the touch-sensitive overlay of the G7X's screen.
I can certainly understand that Panasonic was doing everything possible to counter the fact that its larger sensor (and that sensor's need for a larger lens) already put it at a size disadvantage, but the lack of an articulated screen is a shame, because it makes the camera rather less useful for shots from over your head, down at your hips, or even low to the ground. And focus point selection is rather more cumbersome than the tap-to-select of the Canon.
Still, I can live with these, even if I hope to see a followup model add both features one day. At least the LCD monitor itself has quite good viewing angles, and provides a sharp, clear picture that's visible in reasonably bright light.
Aspect ratio is a meaningful variable, once more
One advantage of the Panasonic LX100 takes some getting used to -- in fact, thus far I'm still struggling to remember its presence. Unlike most cameras, the LX100 offers meaningful aspect ratio choices.
For most cameras, switching aspect ratios simply means throwing data away, and that's never struck me as a worthwhile tradeoff for the added creativity it brings. If you switch a 3:2-aspect camera to its 4:3-aspect mode, for example, then pixels from the left and right edges of the picture are cropped and discarded, but nothing is added to the top and bottom of the image.
In effect, you could get the exact same crop once you get home if you'd shot in 3:2-aspect, and perhaps could have cropped more precisely than you'd have been able to frame while taking the shot. For that reason, I've mostly avoided using in-camera aspect ratio settings, and just cropped my images post-capture. But the Panasonic LX100 is different.
Like a few of the company's past models, the image sensor is actually larger than the image circle of the lens, and so light doesn't reach right into the corners of the sensor. This might seem a curious decision, but it allows Panasonic to mask off different areas of the sensor that reach right to the edge of the image circle for each aspect ratio. For example, if you switch from 3:2 to 4:3-aspect shooting on this camera, pixels aren't just discarded at the left and right edges of the image, but the capture area actually increases a little vertically.
This takes a little getting used to, because it means that there is no one aspect ratio that's "best" -- the ideal choice varies from shot to shot, and so it makes sense once again to choose your aspect ratio at capture time. The problem is that so many other cameras over the years have taught me the opposite that I find it hard to remember to think in those terms.
When I can remember to -- or alternatively, if I set the aspect ratio bracketing mode -- it's really nice to feel that aspect ratio is a meaningful variable once more, though. I have a feeling if I shot with the LX100 regularly for a little while, I'd probably find myself playing with aspect ratio quite regularly, and doubly so given there's a dedicated control right on top of the lens.
Excellent performance all around
One thing that definitely put a smile on my face as I wandered around downtown Knoxville shooting with all three cameras side by side was the Panasonic LX100's performance. Sure, I wasn't shooting sports, but then none of these cameras have long enough lenses to be well-suited to sports anyway, unless you're pretty close to the action. But for more general shooting, the LX100 was easily swift enough to capture active kids and pets or the like, and it felt significantly faster than either the RX100 III or G7X.
That's likely due in no small part to Panasonic's Depth from Defocus autofocus technology, and the swift Venus Engine processor will also play its part. Subjectively, I'd say that the LX100 had the lead in both focus speed and burst performance, with the RX100 III and G7X each having a slight edge over each other in some respects, but trailing in others.
But what of the pictures?
The most important thing, though, is the image quality. And at base sensitivity, there's no way around it: The Panasonic LX100's lower-res sensor simply doesn't capture as much detail as those of the Sony RX100 III and Canon G7X. (You can see side-by-side shots from these cameras, shot at the same time as the LX100 shots in this Field Test, in my updated Canon G7X gallery and Sony RX100 III gallery, respectively.)
With that said, though, the difference wasn't as significant as their respective megapixel ratings might suggest. And while thus far I haven't shot in very low light, as the ISO sensitivity was raised towards sunset, the image quality balance definitely started to turn more in favor of the LX100 even despite its lower resolution.
And that's just considering detail and noise. I thought that image quality in other respects was easily the equal of the other cameras, or perhaps there was a slight edge in Panasonic's favor, with good white balance and color, and quite accurate exposure metering.
Looking forward to more side-by-side comparison
I've got to be honest, as well -- I wasn't expecting the Panasonic LX100 to win the image quality battle at low sensitivity. There's only so much you can do in terms of image processing to make up for a lower sensor resolution. It's at night that I really expect the LX100 to shine, though, and I'll have a side-by-side comparison with the RX100 III and G7X to test that theory out. I'm also planning to compare movie capture with all three cameras. If there's anything in particular that you'd like to see me take a look at, drop me a note in the comments below, and I'll do my best to answer your requests as well!