Review: Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX1 Digital Camera
If you normally shoot with a digital SLR camera, then you're used to certain features: removable lenses, speedy performance, a high-quality viewfinder, raw format capability, and more. I've been shooting with a digital SLR since Canon released the EOS D30 in 2000, and I would never consider any other type of camera for serious photography, but it's hard not to be a little envious when I see people carrying around tiny, lightweight cameras that fit in a coat pocket. There are often times when carrying a full-blown SLR isn't practical, but those tiny cameras almost always have compromises that I'm just not interested in making.
However, the unique features of the $599 Panasonic's DMC-LX1, an 8.4-megapixel point-and-shoot, make it a good point-and-shoot for some photographers whose regular camera is an SLR.
Though it's as small as many point-and-shoot cameras, the LX1 includes a few features that most point-and-shoots don't have. In addition to an image-stabilized lens, the LX1 lets you shoot raw files, and it has a wider aspect ratio. Most point-and-shoots use the same 4:3 aspect ratio as your TV. If you're used to the 3:2 aspect ratio of a digital SLR (or of 35mm film), shooting with a 4:3 camera can feel downright claustrophobic.
The LX1 is the first digital point-and-shoot camera that can switch aspect ratios between 4:3, 3:2, and an extremely wide 16:9. Other cameras in this category that offer a 3:2 mode achieve it by letterboxing the regular 4:3 image. On the LX1, when you change to a wider aspect ratio, you actually get a wider picture.
Nice-Looking and Stable
The LX1 is an extremely attractive, all-metal camera with a simple design that evokes traditional Leica 35mm cameras.
The camera's body is basically a rectangle with rounded ends. Light cameras (the LX1 is 7.8 ounces) can be difficult to handle and easy to drop, but the small rounded metal piece on the right front of the camera provides a place to hook your ring finger, making for a very comfortable grip (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. The beautiful, all-metal design of the Panasonic DMC-LX1 is comfortable to hold, despite its small size
The back of the camera has a 2.5" LCD screen that's bright and easy to see in full daylight. LCD quality is especially important on a camera without an optical viewfinder, and the LX1's screen delivers.
You access the battery and Secure Digital card from the bottom of the camera, where you'll also find a metal tripod mount. The mount is not positioned along the center axis of the lens, so if you were hoping to shoot precise, tripod-mounted panoramas (an intriguing prospect with the wide 16:9 mode), you're out of luck. You can, of course, shoot panoramas by hand.
The Leica-made lens has a 35mm equivalent range of 28 to 112mm when shooting in 16:9 mode. If you switch to 4:3 or 3:2 aspect ratio, the range changes to 34 to 136mm. At all aspect ratios, the lens varies from f2.8 at the wide end to 4.9 at the telephoto end.
The lens uses Panasonic's Mega OIS optical image-stabilization technology. Like all stabilization mechanisms, Mega OIS attempts to eliminate the slight jitters and twitches that arise from a shaky hand. The Leica's stabilization is top-notch, adding noticeable stability at all focal lengths.
Image stabilization lets you shoot sharper images, makes it easier to frame shots when using an extremely telephoto lens, and often allows you to shoot handheld in low light situations that would normally be too dark for stable handheld shooting.
The main advantage to image stabilization on a camera like the LX1 is that it's hard to hold a small, very light camera steady. While a tiny point-and-shoot camera might be easier to carry than a bulky SLR, its small size usually makes stable shooting difficult. Although the LX1 doesn't have an optical viewfinder, the presence of the stabilizer makes shooting with the camera feel much less like the usual point-and-shoot experience. (And yes, I agree, "The Point-And-Shoot Experience" is a great name for a band. Maybe a gangsta rap/Jimi Hendrix/Cartier-Bresson tribute band of some kind.)
Full Feature Set
Another problem with setting down your SLR and picking up a point-and-shoot is trying to cram your photographic habits into a smaller feature set. With the LX1, though, you'll find most of the controls you're used to having on your SLR.
The mode dial on the top of the camera provides access to a full automatic mode, along with Program, Shutter and Aperture Priority, and a full manual mode. Two scene modes provide all of the dedicated scene settings that you'll find on most cameras (snow, landscape, slow-sync flash, etc.), while a movie mode lets you shoot full-frame movies -- something you can't do with your SLR.
Movie mode includes options for 30 or 10 frames per second, both with sound. The difference, of course, is that 10 frames per second will be a little jerkier but will result in smaller files. You can use movie mode in either 4:3 mode or 16:9 mode, but not 3:2.
Unfortunately, the LX1 has a dedicated playback mode for both movies and still photos, meaning you have to turn the dial to switch from shooting to playback. If you're used to a digital SLR's "shooting priority" orientation (where a half-press of the shutter takes you out of playback mode, for immediate shooting), a dedicated playback mode can feel like a step backward.
I prefer not to navigate multiple levels of menus to find and change a parameter. One of the nicest design features of the LX1 is the number of parameters that are configurable using switches and buttons on the outside of the camera.
A three-way switch on the side of the lens lets you change from autofocus to macro mode to manual focus. On the back of the camera, dedicated buttons let you change exposure compensation, flash modes, and timer options, while an AE Lock button lets you lock exposure.
A dedicated review button puts you into a limited playback mode where you can review your images, with options for deleting, zooming, and panning. A half-press of the shutter returns you to shooting mode. In review mode, however, you can't see any EXIF information or histograms. For that, you must use the mode dial to change to playback mode. I would much prefer a review button that simply put you in normal playback mode.
You enter the camera's menuing system using a single rear-mounted button. In the menu, you'll have access to white balance, ISO (with choices of Auto, 80, 100, 200, and 400), Quality (TIFF, two levels of JPEG compression, and raw), and autofocus mode.
The LX1 comes with many other standard options, including continuous autofocus, and some special coloring effects. In addition, you can adjust contrast, sharpness, saturation, and noise reduction, though these controls are irrelevant if you're shooting raw. If you'll shoot JPEG predominantly, then the camera's default settings will probably be fine for almost all situations. Having the additional picture controls is certainly handy if you don't want to do a lot of post-processing.
The LX1 can display a live histogram while shooting, which can facilitate easier exposure choices when you're working in tricky lighting situations.
Broadening Your Perspective
On the top of the LX1's lens is a three-way switch that lets you select an aspect ratio. It was a smart decision to make this an external control, as it means you're more likely to use this feature and experiment with different compositions.
Figure 2 shows the same image shot at each of the aspect ratio settings.
Figure 2. The same scene shot with each of the Lumix LX1's aspect ratios. Note that when shooting in a wider mode, you actually get a wider image. Some other cameras cheat by cropping to change aspect ratio. Click on image for a full-sized view.
Obviously, changing the aspect ratio changes the pixel dimensions of the captured image. Through the camera's menuing system, you can select different dimensions for each aspect ratio. While the LX1 is capable of capturing an 8.4-megapixel image, you'll only get this pixel count when shooting in 16:9 mode with the camera set to 3840 x 2160 pixels. In 16:9 aspect ratio you can also shoot at 3072 x 1728 or 1920 x 1080. As you switch to 3:2 or 4:3, your pixel count will go down.
The highest pixel count available in 4:3 mode is 2880 x 2160, or roughly 6.2 megapixels. So, if you're dead set on an 8-megapixel camera that can shoot at 4:3, the LX1 is not for you.
While the LX1 has a number of nice features, it's the switchable aspect ratio that really makes it a fun camera to use. The 16:9 mode lets you create compositions that would normally require cropping, but without having to imagine what the crop might look like (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Shooting in 16:9 mode is lots of fun and enables compositions that would normally require extra cropping. Click on image for a full-size view.
Panasonic was smart to include the option to change aspect ratios. While 16:9 shooting is a great feature, there are times when it's too wide. If you're used to shooting in 4:3 or 3:2, then you probably tend to visualize your scenes in those dimensions, so it's nice to be able to make the camera behave in a way that feels "normal."
Note that the LX1's LCD has a 4:3 aspect ratio, so when shooting in 16:9 mode, your images will be letterboxed on the camera's screen. I didn't find this to be a problem, though some users have expressed disappointment that they can't see a 16:9 image full-screen on the LCD.
Performance and Image Quality
The LX1 is a respectably speedy camera for a point-and-shoot. With a burst rate of around 3 frames per second (when using a fast card) and a peppy interface, the camera feels very responsive. There's no discernable shutter lag, and playback and deleting is snappy. The camera powers up and wakes from sleep very quickly, as well.
That said, if you're used to a fast SLR (5 FPS or better), the burst shooting mode will be something to get used to. Also, if you're going to do a lot of raw shooting, invest in fast media. If you use a standard-speed SD card, you can forget about shooting bursts in raw mode. Writing out a full 8.4-megapixel raw file can take a while on slower cards.
When it comes to image quality, you have to accept that images from even the best point-and-shoot camera are probably going to be noisier than images from current-generation SLRs.
That said, the LX1 does seem to suffer from more noise troubles than the typical point-and-shoot. While ISO 80 and 100 are fairly clean, at 200 and 400 things get pretty grainy, with splotchy chrominance-type noise that impacted fine detail (Figure 4).
Figure 4. The LX1 suffers from frustrating noise troubles when shooting at high ISO, as can be seen in this ISO 400 image. Both luminance and chrominance noise abound.
On the other hand, I could solve most of the LX1's noise problems with noise-reducing software. (See my article on software options at http://www.creativepro.com/story/feature/22546.html.)
Also, as with any camera, whether noise is an issue depends on how you output your images. For 5" x 7" prints, you'll probably find that the LX1's noise is not much of a problem.
Still, at higher ISOs, the LX1's noise means that image quality is compromised in low light. This is a real shame, since its image-stabilized lens makes it an ideal low-light candidate.
If you're intending to shoot only snapshots for quick output, the LX1's noise might just be a deal-breaker. However, if you're shooting raw, odds are that you're already committed to spending a little more time with your images and so can accept the need to perform the necessary noise reduction.
Except for the noise problem, the LX1 yields very good images. As you'd expect, the Leica lens -- combined with the image stabilization -- yields excellent sharpness. The camera's metering and autofocus is very good, and overall color is full and saturated without being overblown.
I'm still not crazy about shooting with a digital point-and-shoot. Using an LCD screen as a viewfinder is a drag both because the screen can be hard to see in bright light (though the LX1 is particularly good in this regard) and because it can only show you an image that's within the dynamic range of the screen. That can make exposure choices more difficult. And, in general, an LCD viewfinder just isn't as comfortable or enjoyable to use as a bright, optical, SLR viewfinder.
That said, there's a lot to like about the LX1. You won't give up any critical controls compared to an SLR, and the raw format and adjustable aspect ratios give you more image-editing and compositional options than you'll normally have on a small camera.
Though it's not as tiny as some cameras, the LX1 still fits nicely in a coat pocket or bag, and it's a lot easier than lugging a full SLR kit.
The noise issue is a problem but not a total deal-breaker for me. You can treat the noise issue with software, and for landscape shooting, the camera's ISO 80 and 100 are very clean. If you think you'll shoot mostly indoor snapshots in low light, you might want a different camera. Otherwise, the LX1 is an excellent option for the SLR shooter who wants a smaller alternative for occasional use.
Read more by Ben Long.
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