The New Pocket Camera of Choice
There is a problem in the camera industry, and only a few companies rise above the rest to overcome it. What is that problem, you ask? It is that most camera are designed by engineers, not photographers. What this means is that we can end up with some quite terrific technology but with it encased in cameras which handle like a sack of loose potatoes.
I know that I am not alone in this thinking. Those web and print reviewers who have been at the game since the pre-digital era generally are like-minded. Since almost all cameras now produce image quality that exceeds what all except a handful of pros and advanced amateurs require, we have turned our attention to ergonomics and haptics.
This is where the problem lies. When companies design their cameras as pieces of consumer electronics they miss the essence of photographic usability. But, as I said, there are a few companies that still “get it“, though not always, and not completely. Panasonic is one of those companies, and the LX100 embodies much that is of good photographer-centric camera design.
The new Panasonic LX100 is the current moment’s pocket camera of choice, at least in my experience, which includes most recent offerings. This includes the Sony RX100 MKIII which I’ve been using for some months. As a “camera” the LX100 eclipses the Sony and every other fixed lens camera available, except possibly the Sony RX1, which with it’s much higher price and with its fixed focal length lens is a somewhat different animal. Some others have more megapixels, some are smaller, and some have articulated LCDs. But few are closer to the purity of the photographer’s ethos than the LX100. It is a straightforward photographer’s tool.
With a manual shutter speed dial, a manual aperture ring, and a manual exposure compensation ring, the LX100 will greatly appeal to photographers who eschew menus and modal controls when it comes to basic camera functions.
There is a decent (though not extraordinary) rear LCD. It is not articulated and it is not a touch screen. While articulation is missed, touch not so much because the camera has its basic controls as mechanical dials and knobs.
The size is also not too small. As much as I have enjoyed the Sony RX100 and more recently the RX100 MKIII, which fit nicely in a pants or shirt pocket, they can be smaller than is comfortable to use on anything except an occasional basis. The LX100 is just sufficiently larger, that while it precludes fitting in a pants pocket, it does in a jacket pocket, a purse, or over the shoulder – becoming almost unnoticeable. I find the size to be in the Goldilocks zone – not too small and not to big. Just right for a regular-use compact camera.
The only comparable camera (in some ways) is the Sony RX1, and as already mentioned, though it is much more expensive, has a fixed focal length lens, and does not have a built-in EVF. But, it carries a very similar design gestalt to the Panasonic LX100, and thus making it quite dissimilar to other Sony cameras which are typically much more modal and menu driven.
The sensor in this camera is essentially that from the GX7 while the processing electronics (Venus engine) is from the GH4. The sensor is Four Thirds size, which makes it much larger than that in almost all other compact cameras. This, combined with a modest MP count makes for quite high image quality.
Having shot a good many stills last year with the GH4, (some of which are in my new book), and since the sensor and processing chip are well known entities, there are no surprises when it comes to the LX100’s image quality.
Though because of the variable aspect ratio feature (see below) the files are closer to 13MP than the 16mp size of the sensor. This is a trade-off that I accept.
The lens is a 24-75mm equivalent Leica Vario Summiliux with an aperture of f/1.7–2.8. The lens is, of course, built by Panasonic, but to a Leica design. It is quite an extraordinary lens. It doesn’t take more than a few days of shooting to see that there is little in the way of aberration, and sharpness and contrast are at a very high level.
Frankly, if the lens were an interchangeable Micro Four Third optic I’d consider it worth the price. In this case, the camera is thrown in for free.
Variable Aspect Ratios
Though not new with the LX100, Panasonic sometimes puts variable aspect ratio capability into their cameras. This is not a simply a crop of the sensor’s largest output, but is an actual aspect ratio change. The camera’s sensor is a 16MP device, but whether you choose 4:3, 3:2, 16:9 or 1:1 you end up with about a 13 MP file; even in raw.
Having this ability to select an aspect ratio based on what the image “wants” really appeals to me. I mostly dislike 3:2, which is what DSLRs give. This format is either too wide, or not wide enough. I find myself usually cropping to something close to 4:3, but likely as a consequence of shooting 2¼ square professionally with my Hasselblad 500C and EL for so many years I find myself frequently cropping to 1:1 during post processing. With the LX100 it’s an enjoyable discipline and practice – choosing the aspect ratio and cropping in camera.
Shot by Chris Sanderson on an Iphone 6+ at -25C
Notice how at one point I have to take my glove off to change a setting.
The buttons on the LX100 are recessed too deeply to be pressed while wearing gloves.
The brief video above was taken by Chris Sanderson as we took a walk along the shore of Lake Ontario one January afternoon when the temperature was -25c. Nuts, I know, but with a new camera to test I was eager to get outdoors. Chris was set-up to shoot video, but with his new iPhone 6+ in-hand we were able to capture this brief video.
An Egregious Design Error
All is not perfect in LX100-land though. I am particularly annoyed that this camera, with its professional pretensions, devotes two buttons (count them – two) on the valuable real-estate of the camera’s top panel to features that few serious users will ever use… a gimmicky “Filter” button, and an iA button which completely automates the camera.
Actually, I could live with these if they could be reprogrammed as custom buttons. But they can’t. I frequently find myself pressing the Filter button accidently, but fortunately the iA button can be set so that it takes a long press to activate, otherwise it would drive me nuts.
Panasonic – having these two relatively useless buttons not user programmable is a design oversight. Please correct this with a firmware update at your earliest. It turns a camera that I would otherwise highly recommend into one that is more awkward to use than it need be.
Since the LX100 is generally based on the processor of the GH4, it isn’t surprising that it shoots 4K video. It shoots very high quality 4K video in fact, making it the smallest “adjustable” 4K camera (I’m excluding GoPros and the like). I’ve just finished shooting a brief product tutorial with it, and the image quality is quite outstanding.
Sadly, there is no built-in ND filter so a 43mm external filter will be required for when shooting in bright conditions to help keep the shutter speed in the “cine” zone and also avoid too small apertures.
Also missing is a mic input jack. This is a really regrettable omission, since the built in mic is clearly only suitable for creating a sync track when an external audio recorder is used. I have a small Olympus audio recorder which I mount via the accessory shoe. I leave the recorder running for the duration of an “event” and then simply use the camera’s audio as a sync guide track in Final Cut.
I should also note that the Video record button is poorly placed, along with being deeply recessed and hard to actuate. If Panasonic made one of the top panel buttons, such as “Filter” custom programmable it would go a long way to alleviate this issue.
Every camera that can shoot video is in effect a high speed stills camera. But until 4K came on the scene the size of the images was 2MP or less, and therefore not of much use for fine-art or pro applications. But, with the advent of 4K video it is now possible to extract 8 Megapixel stills from a 30 FPS video stream. These are big enough for an 11X14″ print or a double page magazine spread.
The LX100 allows the selection of individual frames in-camera. Pause the video playback, find a frame you want, and the camera can save it as an 8MP JPG. This is fine, and of course can also be done in your non-linear editing software.
Two things that put something of a crimp on this are that if you’re properly setup to shoot video the camera will be set to something like 1/50 sec or 1/60 sec. This is what’s required for a natural “filmic” look. Set a shutter speed of 1/125 sec or higher so that extracted stills can freeze action and your video will look very choppy and unnatural.
Panasonic has incorporated something that they call 4K Stills into the LX100. This is a mode which is similar to shooting video, but with one major advantage – you can change the aspect ratio, just as you can with stills. So rather than being stuck with 16:9 and having to crop your stills from there, you can choose to shoot “video” in 4:3, 3:2, 1:1 and of course 16:9 of you wish. Now set the shutter speed to something appropriate for capturing stills ( 1/125 sec or higher) and effectively what you’ll be shooting when you press the video record button are 30 FPS stills sequences of unlimited length.
The LX100 has both a mechanical and an electronic shutter; user selectable. In addition to allowing a much higher top shutter speed the electronic shutter is totally silent. If you select “Silent Mode” the camera chooses the electronic shutter and also turns off all other sounds, making the camera effectively totally silent in operation. For candid shooting in quiet environments, this is an extremely useful feature.
Be aware that the electronic shutter isn’t for everyday use though. It can create strange artifacts under some artificial lighting conditions and is limited at the low end of the shutter speed range.
There’s a lot to like about the Panasonic LX100. It bridges the gap between some of the very small fixed lens compacts and smaller mirrorless systems, offering a reasonably priced pocketable camera with a built-in EVF and 4K video capability. Stills image quality is high, comparable to other MFT cameras, and only falling behind APS-C sensor equipped cameras when it comes to ultimate enlargeability. If 13X19″ prints are as big as you need, then you won’t be disappointed in the LX100’s files, especially raws processed out from the latest version of Lightroom or Camera Raw.