Panasonic LX100 Field Test Part II
Panasonic LX100 Field Test Part II
Bright lens, big sensor: This compact street shooter adores the night!
By Michael Tomkins | Posted: 04/22/2015
When I started my review of the Panasonic LX100 with my first Field Test, I found much to like about this capable enthusiast compact. (Not read it yet? You might want to start there first!)
Sure, it's not as small as rivals like the Canon G7X and Sony RX100, RX100 II or RX100 III, but I loved its approachable, intuitive controls and handy electronic viewfinder. And while it lags its rivals in terms of resolution, it still provides great daytime image quality and excellent performance.
Want to see how the LX100 compares to its rivals? Read our comparisons below:
It's at night that I really expected the Panasonic LX100 to be in its element, though. The smaller, higher-resolution sensors in the RX100-series and Canon G7X seemed to have their work cut out for them against the Panasonic LX100, even if it doesn't actually use the full real-estate of its sensor in any given aspect ratio.
Of course, that's offset somewhat by the fact that the Sony RX100 III and Canon G7X both use backside-illuminated sensors where the LX100 doesn't, meaning that proportionately more of their sensor area is devoted to light gathering. With so many variables in play here, I certainly didn't want to prejudge any of these cameras -- the way to an answer was to be found in a side-by-side comparison after the sun had set.
And so that's precisely what I did, taking all three cameras for a nighttime shoot-out, with the goal of deciding which was my favorite when the lighting conditions weren't so ideal.
(Want to see more on how the G7X fared? You'll find info on its night-shooting abilities in my Canon G7X Field Test Part II.)
The enthusiast compact shooutout continues at night
It's been quite rainy in the evenings recently, as it tends to be at this time of year in Knoxville, Tennessee. Cold and warm fronts have been fighting back and forth across the area, and each one brought with it another downpour, and another evening in which I had to pass on my evening's shooting plans.
Spotting an evening that seemed promising, at last, I headed downtown with the Panasonic LX100, Sony RX100 III and Canon G7X to get the comparison underway. I set all three cameras to their defaults, and then switched them to Aperture-priority mode with a fixed f/5.6 aperture to provide a fair basis for comparison. Each camera was also set to enable its step zoom function so I could easily match the focal lengths when framing, and the ISO sensitivity was manually set to the same level for each shot. And as usual for my reviews, I also enabled exposure bracketing and raw+JPEG storage.
I started off at ISO 6400 with a shot of Knoxville's Market Square, with the pavilion nicely lit up but not currently being used. Comparing the LX100 to the Canon G7X and Sony RX100, the Panasonic's resolution deficit that I saw in the daytime seemed to have been all but erased. All three cameras suffered from noise and the after-effects of noise reduction, but the LX100's shot was noticeably cleaner than its rivals, and the crispest of the bunch as well.
Of course, part of that is down to the fact that its image renders a little smaller, but even so, all else being equal it should be trailing the other two cameras by quite some distance due to its sensor resolution deficit. Yet not only did it nicely retain detail in most of the pavilion's brick columns, but the plaque on the left column was even just about as legible as it was from the much higher-res RX100 III and G7X.
Moving on, I tried some shots at ISO 12,800, the highest sensitivity offered by Canon and Sony's cameras. While all three cameras again provided results that would be usable for small prints, they were clearly pushing the limits here. I'd personally stay at ISO 6400 or below with the Panasonic LX100 most of the time, and probably at ISO 3200 or below for its two rivals. Again, I give the LX100 a slight edge here in detail and crispness, even having downsampled the images from the Canon and Sony to match the resolution of the Panasonic.
And dropping back down to ISO 3200, again I saw much the same thing: The LX100's images kept up with its rivals, despite the significantly lower resolution. You can make your own call using the images in my Panasonic LX100 gallery, and comparing side by side with my updated Sony RX100 III gallery and Canon G7X gallery.
Another day, another night shoot
With that comparison out of the way -- and curtailed slightly by my having to head home a bit early -- I decided to limit my shooting for the remainder of the comparison to just the Panasonic and Canon cameras, given that we've long-since finalized our Sony RX100 III review. (And frankly, juggling three cameras from different manufacturers while trying to remember to maintain settings parity between them can get rather stressful and time-consuming.)
For a change of scenery, I decided to start my walk from Knoxville's Old City, a district jam-packed with bars, nightclubs and coffee shops. The light splashed across the front of Patrick Sullivan's Saloon caught my eye, as did the sounds of folks enjoying their evening across the road at Boyd's Jig and Reel. I quite like shooting Boyd's at high sensitivity, because the fine detail in the tartan pattern of its sign is a tough challenge for a camera's noise reduction system. The LX100 did a good job, retaining the pattern of diagonal lines in the tartan in all but the white bar, which was blown out by a bright spotlight.
Walking up towards downtown, I grabbed a couple more shots enroute, noting that the auto white balance system did struggle just a little with to neutralize the strong yellow cast from the city street lighting. That's pretty easy to fix, though -- either by shooting with a preset or manual white balance, or simply shooting in raw -- and I've seen a lot worse in out-of-camera JPEGs before. I paused to take a long-exposure shot of a train passing through a railyard that runs along the back of downtown, but you won't see it in the gallery.
A rare quirk in the otherwise-impressive autofocus
The reason: The Panasonic LX100 point-blank refused to focus on it. Actually, that's not quite true. What it did was to indicate that the subject was in focus when it was actually nowhere near to being correctly focused. Mostly, I've found the LX100 to focus quickly and confidently, but with this particular shot, no matter how I tried to frame, it simply wouldn't focus even though the Canon G7X alongside it had no such problems.
I'm speculating here, but my guess is that the many small, bright highlights in the scene -- streetlights from above, and reflections of them from vehicles in the adjacent carpark -- were throwing off the LX100's Depth from Defocus AF system. It's the only time I've seen this issue in my time with the camera, but I think worthy of a mention anyway because I've never seen a camera so reliably indicate a focus lock with a completely out-of-focus subject, even after reframing.
On the plus side, manual focus will get you out of the situation just fine, and I did indeed shoot the scene with manual focus just to be sure. As it happened, though, it wasn't the photogenic shot I was hoping for, so I haven't included it in the gallery.
Continuing my walk up to Market Square, I spotted an attractively-retro looking bicycle with whitewall tires, and grabbed a couple of quick shots. The Panasonic's screen being fixed in place, I had to get down on one knee to frame the shot as I wanted it, but the result was pretty impressive for a handheld, low-light shot at ISO 4000 from a fixed-lens compact that would easily fit in a jacket pocket or small purse. Even the tiny white "hairs" on the whitewalls, left over from the molding process, are clearly visible and yet noise is well-controlled.
Really high sensitivity for a (coat)-pocket camera
Continuing on from Market Square, I took a shortcut through Strong Alley, a back alley that is rapidly becoming one of my favorite places in Knoxville thanks to its wonderfully vibrant and eclectic street art. Every time I visit, something has changed, and this time was no different with a large painting of a shark catching my eye -- and the LX100's lens. At ISO 12,800, the little Panasonic captured plenty of detail both in the painting and texture of the wall. Again, it was all rendered rather too warm for my tastes, but even in JPEG mode, a few quick clicks in Photoshop is enough to fix it.
But what of the very highest sensitivities, well beyond what's offered by the RX100 III and G7X? Surprisingly, I found even ISO 16,000 to be quite usable, as you'll see in the shot of Suttree's Tavern sign below. Handheld at 1/30th second with the lens at 75mm-equivalent and f/2.8, the LX100 renders even the finest lines in the sign, and while the flat areas in the sign and wall behind are rather noisy, this would certainly be fine for a modest print size.
I wouldn't recommend straying beyond that unless you have no alternative, though. By the time I reached the maximum sensitivity of ISO 25,600 equivalent, images were really suffering both from noise and the effects of noise reduction, and colors were somewhat washed out.
I almost had to pinch myself when remembering that I was shooting at ISO 25,600 with a coat-pocket compact camera, though, and the results here were certainly no worse than what the RX100 III and G7X managed at their own maximum sensitivities.
Update: I missed sharing my videos!
When I first published this Field Test back in April, it seems I was suffering from brain fade. Although I shot a fair few videos with the Panasonic LX100 during my time with the camera, I somehow missed uploading them, a point which I've only just realized as I'm now finalizing the review. (Sincere apologies for any of you who've been waiting to see what videos from the LX100 looked like!)
Unfortunately, in the time between my Field Test going live and the last t's being crossed and i's dotted so we could conclude the review, I managed to misplace the videos I'd shot. (Doubtless they're somewhere in my archives, but at a certain point, it makes no sense to keep hunting when we still have the camera in-house.)
Hence, rather than my own videos which have gone astray, Associate Editor William Brawley popped out with the Panasonic LX100 for me, and shot a few new videos. You can see them below, along with links to download the (huge) original files, straight from the camera. The results pretty much speak for themselves. Image stabilization isn't the best we've seen, but it certainly takes care of the worst of the shakes, while autofocus is quite responsive and shifts smoothly.
The lens's power zoom mechanism does introduce a little audible noise into your videos, but I think most shooters would be satisfied with just a little noise in exchange for the ability to control framing as their video progresses. The only thing I really found objectionable -- and it's noticeable both in 4K and Full HD video -- is an occasional flickering as the LX100 adjusts exposure to take account of varying scene brightness. It's subtle, but noticeable enough that it bothered me a little. If you find it troublesome, though, you can control exposure manually, fixing it at a level suitable to your subject.
See our sample videos below, and if you want to see the original files (since YouTube compresses content for quicker playback), click the links alongside each video!
4K video: The two clips above were shot at the Panasonic LX100's maximum video resolution of 3,840 x 2,160 pixels, with a rate of 29.970 frames per second. Back when the LX100 first launched, 4K video was unique in this class of cameras, and even now it's still a rare feature.
Full HD video: This final clip was shot at 1,920 x 1,080 pixels with a rate of 59.940 frames per second. As you can see, the optical zoom remains active during video capture, allowing you to bring your subject a bit closer if you want to focus the viewer's attention.
All good things come to an end -- and so must this Field Test
Want to see more of my night shots from the Panasonic LX100? Take a look in the gallery and you'll find them amongst close to 100 real-world photos shot throughout our review. (And don't forget our many lab samples, as well!)
And that brings my Field Test to its conclusion. I've had a lot of fun shooting with the Panasonic LX100, especially in low light when my own personal Sony RX100 would ordinarily start to struggle. Of course, the LX100 isn't the pocket camera that my Sony is, but were I in the market for a compact fixed-lens camera, that low-light performance might be enough to persuade me to look past its larger size.
The Panasonic LX100 is a lot of fun to shoot with, and it can make some really great photos without the need to carry bulky lenses, tripods and more around town. Considering all that it lets me leave at home, perhaps bringing along a jacket or small bag to carry it in -- or a shoulder strap to sling it from -- isn't such a big ask!
If you'd like to find out more about the cameras to which I've been comparing the Panasonic LX100, head over to their reviews and read my Field Tests for the full story: