Sunday, June 14, 2015

Panasonic DMC-LX100 - First Impressions

Note: This is not a full review of the LX100 as I lack the technical expertise to do it justice.  For a couple of good, in-depth technical reviews, check out this one at DPReview and this one at Camera Labs.

I got into photography as a hobby as a young man, and over the years I've owned a number of cameras, including a very capable DSLR with some fine lenses.  One of the hardest things to accept has been that I just don't like carrying around a big camera and a lot of associated gear.  I love the freedom of full manual control, but I hate the weight and bulk of the traditional setup.  For these reasons, earlier this year I finally sold off my DSLR and lenses (which spent most of the time on the shelf gathering dust) and went looking for something that would better suit my needs.

My short list of desired features went something like this:
  • Something small, light, portable
  • A good quality non-removable lens 
  • Full manual controls
  • Good low-light sensitivity (I never learned to properly use a flash and thus prefer natural light)
  • Minimum image size of 10 megapixels
  • The ability to shoot RAW as well as JPEG
The camera which I chose, and which ticks off all the boxes for me, was the Panasonic DMC-LX100.  I have had the camera for about a week, and today I'm going to lay out my overall impression of this camera.  


Controls & Handling

The LX100 is small - not shirt-pocket small, but probably coat-pocket small.  However it is large enough to fit comfortably in my hands which are medium sized for an adult male.  There's a comfortable grip on the right-hand side and hand-holding feels quite normal, even though almost all my previous cameras have been a lot bigger.

The LX100 gives full manual control of the things a photographer cares about - ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and focus.  One of the neat things about this camera is that several of these controls are laid out in a traditional way - the shutter speed is selected with a dial on top of the camera, the aperture using a ring on the lens, likewise a ring for manual focus (this ring serves various functions depending upon the mode in which the camera is used), and an exposure compensation dial on top.  Shutter speed and aperture can be fine tuned using a dial on the back of the camera - in other words you can select values in between those found on the physical controls.

The camera allows for a full range of settings from full manual to full automatic.  Shutter priority, aperture priority, manual or automatic focus (with an array of autofocus modes), manual or automatic ISO selection, it's all there.

Shooting with the LX100 feels very familiar - after selecting some combination of manual and automatic settings, I aim the camera at my subject, use a half-shutter press to evaluate exposure and focus, recompose the shot if necessary and shoot.  It's a satisfying experience.

As with nearly all digital cameras, many features can only be accessed through a menu system, others through a variety of dedicated buttons on the camera.  Initially I found the menu system a bit daunting, but it's pretty well organized and I quickly got familiar with the locations of those features I most frequently use.  There is also a "quick menu" feature that allows you to customize an abbreviated set of features you're interested in.  

One thing I really appreciate is the electronic viewfinder.  While the camera's LCD screen is decent, my eyesight is not, and the ability to look through a clear, bright viewfinder with a dioptic adjustment is a big deal for me.


Performance

The LX100 is a serious piece of equipment, despite being labeled a "point and shoot" on Panasonic's web site.  It is outfitted with a really nice, fast Leica lens with a maximum aperture of f1.7, and that's paired up with a micro four-thirds sensor.  This camera does really well in low-light.  Image quality appears to me to be very good, as good or better than my old DSLR, although my own capabilities are not often up to the task of getting the best out of the camera.  In short I do not feel like the camera is holding me back.

There are certain things I have had to learn to pay attention to when using this camera.  The two biggest are autofocus and automatic ISO.  In both cases the camera does not always make the choices I would prefer.  

The camera has a 49-area autofocus which should - in theory - produce good results, but I have found myself using the single-area setting more and more, which allows me to point the camera at my subject and use the half-press shutter method to evaluate focus.  One thing I do appreciate is the ability to focus manually using the lens-mounted ring, and the camera has a neat "focus-peaking" feature than makes evaluating precise focus on macro shots much easier.

As for ISO, the camera has a tendency to err on the side of selecting higher ISO settings than I would like.  I have taken some shots of roses in my yard, in plenty of light, only to find later that the camera selected an ISO of 1600 and they turned out grainier than I wanted.  Setting the ISO is certainly easy enough, so when I know I have plenty of light I just pick something suitably low.  On the other hand, I find the image quality to be better at higher ISO settings than I was ever able to achieve with my previous cameras.  Indoor hand-held shots at ISO 1600 have produced some very acceptable results.

Although I highly prize all the manual controls, the camera does a reasonable job in full-auto mode, and it has a dedicated button for activating that.  Press it once and the camera becomes a real point and shoot, so snapping spontaneous shots (or handing it over to a non-photographer) is simple.  Pressing it again returns the camera to the previous state.

One of the outstanding features of the camera is that it has a nine-leaf aperture, which produces very round and soft out-of-focus areas (what real photographers call bokeh).  I love taking close-up shots of subjects with a large aperture setting and getting that lovely, soft look to the background.

One of the few things I would change if I could is I'd like a little longer focal-length.  The effective zoom range is 24mm to 75mm.  I'd like it be able to do optical zoom out to about 100mm.  You aren't going to get up close to subject with this camera unless you carry it up close - taking pictures of this birds and squirrels on the feeders in my front yard isn't so easy with the LX100. 


Interesting Features

Although I mainly bought this camera for its ability to operate like a traditional all manual camera, there are a number of things I've found to be pleasant, even fun surprises:
  • Wireless control - The LX100 can be paired with an Android or IOS phone or tablet, offering some interesting possibilities.  When paired, you can view what the camera sees on the remote device, adjust some (but not nearly all) settings, and shoot.  If you are shooting something on a tripod and want to avoid shaking the camera by pressing the shutter button, this is the way to do that.  It also means if you want to be in a group shot, you can set up the camera and take your time getting situated and fire it off.  The wifi app also lets you transfer images and movies to the phone or tablet for easy upload to social media sites.  The pairing process, however, can be a bit of a pain.  I have it working pretty reliably now but only after a lot of trial and error getting the process down.  I might do a separate blog post on this at some point.
  • Time-lapse movies - I am not writing about the camera's considerable movie-making features because I rarely take videos, but one of the neat things you can do is full in-camera time-lapse photography.  You set up the camera on a tripod or otherwise secure it, adjust the normal features (shutter speed, aperture, ISO, focus) or set some of these to automatic, pick how often you want shots to be taken and how many you want it to take, and let the LX100 go to work.  At the end of the process you are prompted to process the images into a video, with selections for the video quality and frame rate, and even whether to make the video in forward or reverse order of images.  One of the neat things is that you can go back after the fact and reprocess the images into videos with different settings.
  • Panoramas - The camera lets you take panoramic shots, panning as it shoots, and it stitches the images together automatically.  So far I have found this produces good quality panoramas.  Shooting panoramas by manually stitching images together in an external computer program may produce better results, but I always found it too cumbersome to mess with.  But since the LX100 makes it so easy, I have found myself using it on occasion and I'm happy with the results.


Accessories

I have outfitted my LX100 with a few accessory options.  I put a B+W UV/Haze filter on the lens and it will likely stay there for the life of the camera.  I know there are a variety of opinions about this, but to me, it's cheap insurance for the lens.  When I sold off my DSLR equipment earlier this year, I was able to guarantee my buyers that the lenses were completely clean and free of scratches because I did this with every lens I bought.

I am not fond of traditional lens caps, which are easy to lose, so I was interested in getting a more-or-less permanently mounted auto-opening lens cap for this camera.  Panasonic makes one, but theirs is about $40 US, and according to various reports will not close over the lens with a filter installed (such as the UV lens I use).  I opted for an aftermarket cap, the JJC ALC-LX100.  It fits well and closes over the UV lens perfectly.

I bought a Gariz "Mirror Less" leather wrist strap for the camera.  Although the LX100 comes with a traditional neck strap, it is a small enough camera that it feels quite comfortable on the wrist, and the Gariz strap is a good choice.  It fits well and it looks very classy.

I bought two spare batteries (aftermarket replacements for the DMW-BLG10).  Battery life varies a LOT depending upon how you use the camera.  If you're just taking photos, especially without flash, it may last quite a while.  If you are shooting video, doing a lot with wifi, doing time-lapse shots and processing into video, all these things can knock the battery down really fast.

Finally I picked up a Lowepro Format 110 bag just to keep the camera, batteries & charger, and USB cable all in one place.  


Final Thoughts

I am really pleased with the Panasonic DMC-LX100.  It fills my requirements for portability, manual control and image quality.  It's got more digital tricks than I have time to write about here, and which will provide endless learning opportunities.  My list of complaints is minimal; most of the things other reviewers have complained about (lack of external mic for videos, lack of touch screen LCD) just don't matter to me.

More importantly, it's got me doing photography again.  I carry this camera with me, because I can.  It's easy to pick up any time I have a few spare moments.  The manual controls and great ergonomic layout make the camera a joy to hold and use.  I am back to doing photography, because the LX100 gives me the right set of tools to do it.  

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