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Panasonic Lumix DMC–LX2 camera review

Being a diehard SLR user I never thought I would buy a point–and–shot camera. Such cameras usually are too much of a compromise in terms of image quality and control of crucial shooting settings—so much so that I was reluctant to even consider the class in general. Then, however, I came across a camera that boasted a set of features that was attractive enough to make me prepared to live with the inevitable shortcomings of compact point–and–shoots: wide–angle 16:9 aspect ratio packed into a compact, robust body with a beautiful 2.8–inch LCD display and, furthermore, backed up by comprehensive photographic controls; image quality was said to be quite decent, too. At least on paper, the Panasonic Lumix DMC–LX2 looked like a worthwhile photographic tool and it thus became my first digital compact camera.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2

Before I turn to particularities of where the camera has lived up to my expectations and what could be further improved, I would like to stop for a minute to have a look at what unavoidable shortcomings a serious photographer who considers buying the Lumix LX2 will have to live with.

Why a point–and–shoot and caveats

A given class of cameras is most suited for its intended use. I currently use a medium format system (Hasselblad) with slide film for landscapes—it is big, heavy and slow but allows approaching subjects in a contemplative manner and produces stunning image quality. For social events and other situations where shooting speed is crucial I use a Nikon DSLR with zoom lenses, autofocus, matrix metering, etc. This system is smaller, much faster and more convenient than the Hasselblad but not petite by any means; image quality is satisfactory through to ISO800 and A3 print size. Then there also are situations where even a DSLR is a bit too much to lug around and this is where point–and–shoot cameras come in—here, you gain compactness but lose both speed of operation and image quality. Would it ever occur to me to photograph a social event with a point–and–shoot camera, or use the Nikon to photograph landscapes, or take the Hasselblad on a non–photographic trip? Of course no. Horses for courses—we should use adequate tools to not miss any photographic opportunities and produce the best image quality possible in a given situation. In other words, if there is a choice between regretting not being able to take a shot at all and taking it with a point–and–shoot camera, I personally pick the latter.

One, however, should be forewarned of the drawbacks of point–and–shoot cameras as a class—they commonly fall behind in the following aspects:

  • Startup times are generally slow. Some reviews report that start–up time of the Lumix LX2 is just over one second; what is not mentioned, however, is that right after startup you are taken to 28mm (35mm equivalent) and need to further adjust zoom and autofocus—in actuality, the time between turning the camera on and taking the first shot is noticeably longer than just a couple of seconds.

  • Zoom adjustment is slow and not stepless; autofocus is also far from instant (especially in dim light); shutter lug is not unnoticeable. If you want to successfully photograph your kids playing soccer get at least an entry–level DSLR instead.

  • Due to the sensor size (very small) image quality in general and high ISO performance in particular are nowhere near DSLRs (as of early 2007, the chip found in Fujifilm Finepix F30 is probably the only exception). As you might have read elsewhere, in case of the LX2 anything above ISO200 is pretty much useless (more on this below).

  • Most point–and–shoot cameras are very poor in terms of photographic features that they offer and degree of control that they allow (as you will see below, however, this is where the Panasonic LX2 is a rare exception).

  • Flash photography is nowhere near as sophisticated as, say, Nikon's Creative Lighting System. This means that quite often you will find yourself disappointed with either insufficient flash range or improper flash exposure.

Once again, these are not drawbacks of the Panasonic LX2 in particular but rather restrictions of this camera class. One should simply learn to work within these limitations—remember that we are talking about taking pictures with an imperfect camera vs. missing many photographic opportunities altogether. With this out of the way, let's have a look at what features of the LX2 a keen photographer is going to appreciate and what could be further improved.

Features you are likely to appreciate

  • This, of course, is very personal but I absolutely love the combination of the wide angle of view (equivalent to 28mm in 35mm format) and widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio, as it offers a very unique perspective on the world. And if need be, you can always switch to 3:2 and 4:3 aspect ratio (at the cost of loosing some megapixels, though).

  • Aperture–priority, shutter–priority, manual and auto exposure modes. DSLR users will feel at home here.

  • Being a novice to point–and–shoots, I really appreciate having live histogram. It allows to see immediately what suggested (or manual) exposure, as well as exposure compensation, will result in without having to take a shot and review it. To put it differently, you can change exposure and/or its compensation until you like what histogram shows and only then take a shot. Even current DSLRs do not offer this feature—one can see histogram only after actually taking a picture.

  • The Lumix LX2 is one of the very few point–and–shoot cameras that can shoot RAW format. This is important for when you take a photograph that matters to you and would like to fine–tune the image and/or produce a large print of high quality. The software provided with the camera (Silkypix Developer Studio 2.0) allows extracting every bit of information that RAW files produced by the camera contain.

  • With the use of joystick all vital shooting settings (shutter speed, aperture, ISO, RAW/JPG mode, exposure compensation, autofocus, metering mode) can be easily and intuitively changed without having to go into and browse through menus. I find that after setting main global settings when using the camera for the first time I need to go into menus really seldom.

  • Dedicated switches on the barrel of the lens for autofocus mode (AF, macro AF and manual focus) and aspect ratio (16:9, 3:2 and 4:3) make life a lot easier, too.

  • If you choose so, all vital shooting information, i.e. current ISO, shooting mode (P, A, S, M, etc.), image format (RAW, JPG fine or JPG standard), metering mode, exposure compensation, etc., can be constantly shown on the display so that you always know what you are doing. Heck, even my Nikon D70s does not directly show current ISO setting!

  • The 2.8–inch LCD display is huge, bright and contrasty. The camera also boasts two very unique and useful features that further improve its functionality: power display, which boasts display's brightness for shooting in bright sunlight and high angle, which makes the LCD easily viewable when you hold the camera above your head. The display noticeably protrudes from the camera but apparently is made of a scratch–resistant material and after a couple of months of casual use it still does not show a single scratch. Apple iPod engineers definitely should have a look at this material.

  • Superb built quality—better than that of most plastic prosumer DSLRs!

  • Though not a panacea, image stabilization works great - at 28mm (equivalent) I can get perfectly sharp photos handholding at 1/6 seconds!

  • Battery charger is very small, light and plugs directly into power socket—great for travel.

  • There is a gazillion of scene modes for those who need them but, unlike so many prosumer DSLRs, they are gracefully hidden in SCN shooting mode and do not irritate those who do not use them.

  • What I have to say about the lens cannot be exhausted in a short paragraph and so I am dedicating a whole section to it below.

The Leica lens...

... is absolutely superb. My overall impression is that it generally performs at least on par with prosumer DSLR zooms that have an equivalent focal length range and much, much better than you would expect from a lens on a point–and–shoot camera. Details of its performance are as follows:

  • Very, very sharp—I did not conduct thorough tests but I am yet to notice any difference in sharpness at different apertures and/or focal lengths in real–life photographs.

  • Very flare resistant. As with any lens, it is possible to cause contrast degradation and induce ghosting but one really has to go out of his way to accomplish this.

  • Does not show noticeable light fall–off even wide open and at all focal length settings. A picture of a blank wall will show very mild and gradual light fall–off at f/2.8 at the wide end, though.

  • Exhibits no immediately visible distortion at all focal length settings. For the most demanding photographers, it shows noticeable–in–tests barrel distortion of a somewhat complex signature at 28mm and almost imperceptible pincushion distortion at longer focal length settings; note, however, that in test shots I ran straight lines along the long side of the frame, which is a lot longer than in any other format (3:2 or 3:4).

  • Chromatic aberrations (colour fringing) are visible in the corners around contrasty edges but reasonably well controlled (and can be dealt with in Silkypix or Adobe Camera Raw).

What could be further improved

The Lumix LX2, of course, is not perfect—all the drawbacks inherent to this class of cameras aside, it has a few quirks of its own. Below is what I found less enthusiastic about the camera:

  • A JPG file of standard quality (read pretty much useless for serious purposes) is automatically written together with the RAW file and this cannot be canceled. While I understand why this has to be done (otherwise reviewing RAW files would be extremely slow) I still find this quite bothersome.

  • At full resolution RAW files are huge—about 20MB each; as a JPG file always accompanies each RAW file, on the average we are looking at 21.5MB per shot. A 2GB SD card can only hold about 85 images.

  • While the camera feels quite snappy if you shoot JPG this, unfortunately, is not the case when you shoot RAW—the camera freezes for somewhere between three and four seconds after a shot is taken and the file is being written to SD card. This slows the camera down quite drastically.

  • Histogram is too small for critical examination; no RGB histogram is shown.

  • LCD brightness massively depends on angle of view.

  • Battery life is very descent but not superb—for one thing, I would not feel comfortable heading out for the day with only one battery. The battery is quite small, though, and adding a second one does not add much weight or bulk.

  • Ergonomics are generally nice but shooting with one hand feels neither comfortable nor safe.

  • Macro AF is very sluggish; this being said, though, one is unlikely to be in hurry when shooting in macro mode.

  • Very strangely, focal length and exposure compensation data is not shown when reviewing images in–camera (but thankfully can be seen in both Silkypix and Adobe Camera Raw).

  • Image quality needs a separate section, too—see below.

Image quality

A lot has been said about high ISO performance and aggressive noise reduction problems of the Lumix LX2. Poor image quality at ISO settings higher than ISO200 (and I personally avoid even ISO200 whenever possible) means that for serious photographers the Lumix LX2 is essentially an ISO100 camera. At the same time, in situations where you are prepared or have to accept high noise levels at higher ISO settings and shoot in JPG format, one is strongly advised to turn in–camera noise reduction to low to avoid getting unpleasantly smudgy results.

Pentax engineers have said in this interview that It doesn't take long to produce an acceptable level of quality images at the base sensitivity (ISO 100), however, as the sensitivity increases step by step, at some point, terrible images will be produced. The real effort starts from this point, trying to pin point possible reasons, mainly by trial and error, often having to make new Cbs (circuit boards). This gives me an impression that Panasonic engineers took their time designing a very well thought out camera body but did not dedicate an adequate amount of time to ensure that the sensor they put into it actually produces acceptable image quality at higher ISO settings. Pipe dreaming for a moment, imagine what this camera would have been had they put the superb sensor found in the Fujifilm S30 into the LX2 camera body!

While these issues, obviously, are deal breakers for some photographers, being used to shooting ISO100 slide film I personally do not find them too problematic as long as the camera produces satisfactory image quality at ISO100—and that it does. If you do not mind doing a bit of post–processing in Silkypix or any other RAW converter software, 10.4MP files from the camera suffice to produce beautiful 35X20cm prints at a printing resolution of 300dpi.

Conclusions

Panasonic has certainly gone the right way with the Lumix LX series cameras and produced a superb photographic tool that even serious photographers would not sniff at despite it being a compact point–and–shoot. The LX2's unique features clearly differentiate it from the army of mostly indistinguishable compact cameras and, most importantly, it perfectly fits into a serious photographer's collection of tools. If you are prepared to work around the shortcomings of this camera class and the quirks specific to the LX2 (especially live with the fact that for any serious purposes it essentially is an ISO100 camera), then it most certainly will help you expanding your photographic opportunities.


 
Photo of the month
 

A sketch of Spain
Panasonic Lumix DMC–LX2