There aren’t that many choices for fully-featured, pocketable compacts at the moment; in my ongoing quest to find the ideal take-everywhere companion, I’ve probably tried most of them. Current top of the heap is the Sony RX100; I’ve also used the GR-Digital series, Fuji XF1 and Panasonic LX/ Leica D-Lux series. For whatever reason, I’ve never really bonded with the Canon S-series, so that’s never made it into my pocket; same with any of the Nikon Coolpixes, though I’m really hoping the A will change that. Whilst I loved the RX100 for its fantastic sensor, the lens arguably lets the package down: it may be fast one the wide end, but for it to keep up with the sensor in the corners, you have to stop down a bit (thereby negating this advantage) and the tele end is just plain slow.
Regular readers will know I’m a firm believer in carrying a camera at all times; the question is, what should that camera-for-when-you-don’t-want-to-carry-a-camera be? Let’s just say the hunt goes on. As part of the quest, I borrowed a D-Lux 6 from Leica Malaysia to put it through its paces on my recent trip to Japan. Thanks to an enormous work backload, I’ve only just had a chance to finish looking through the files in detail.
First off: I’ve had a lot of people asking if the Leica version is any different to the Panasonic version. Physically, they are identical but for the cosmetics – the Leica has a nicer, cleaner (but also slipperier) design and square buttons. The Panasonic has a few more curves, flourishes, chrome bits and a small but welcome front grip. Menu cosmetics are different. Both have identical sensors, lenses, EVF capability, and as far as I can tell, file output. The Leica version is more expensive, but includes Lightroom and an extended warranty; in the end, it washes out price-wise. Buy the Leica if you need processing software or intend to keep the camera a bit longer; the warranty helps and it holds resale value a bit better, too. I reviewed this version because it’s what I happened to have access to.
The headline spec for both cameras is the lens: a 24-90mm f1.4-2.3 (!) diagonal 35mm equivalent – I’ll explain this in a minute – Leica-designed ‘Vario Summilux’. It’s coupled to a 1/1.7″, 12MP sensor that never outputs more than 10MP; this is because the diagonal angle of view of the lens is always constant, so the image circle is slightly larger than the sensor. This means that the horizontal field of view actually gets wider as your change aspect ratios (on a handy slider on top of the lens barrel) rather than merely cropping – the 16:9 option has the horizontal angle of view roughly equivalent to a 21-22mm in 35mm terms. It is supposedly an updated version of the sensor in the predecessor (LX5, D-Lux 5). I used one of these extensively and loved the optical quality of the lens and its close focus ability throughout the entire zoom range; fortunately neither has changed.
Shooting with easily-switchable multiple aspect ratios is an interesting experience. I’m used to this normally – my Nikons are 3:2; my Hasselblads are square; my OM-D is 4:3. I regularly compose and crop to 16:9. So in theory, the Swiss Army Knife switch should be perfect for me. In reality, I found it a little disorienting to use, because it distracted me from forcing myself to compose for the aspect ratio. It doesn’t help that if you normally crop down, then either the horizontal or vertical angle of view stays the same – this is obviously not the case with the DL6/LX7. I found my compositions were much stronger if I just picked one aspect ratio and stuck with it – for most of the trip, this happened to be square since I was also shooting with the Hasselblad.
Physically, the camera is a little larger than its predecessor; the mode dial is a little stiffer, it’s gained another thumb jog-tab on the back to activate the ND filter or change focus distance; some of the menus are a little different, and the big change is of course the addition of a physical aperture ring. It’s also a bit larger than the RX100. It still takes the same tilting EVF, which is welcome as it improves the overall stability and low-light usability of the camera dramatically. Too bad it also adds considerably to the price and bulk of the package, too. The battery is carried over from the previous version, which is a good thing for those who are upgrading and happen to have spares lying around.
I have to be honest: there are three things I really don’t like on the DL6/LX7, and they’re all related to the mechanical operation of the lens. First is the manual lens cap, second is the aperture ring, and third is the glacial slowness of the lens to zoom. The first two are actually related; let me explain. Though I’m used to lens caps with all of my other cameras, not having to deal with one on the RX100 means that it’s possible to do single-handed grabs where you draw, hit power, and shoot all in one action. Having to remove a lens cap first and then slide a switch is akin to remembering your wadding, ramming the ball and rod, then remembering to check your flint before priming the pan. It’s just annoying on a compact. (You also have to remember to hold it out of the way so it doesn’t inadvertently get in the shot.) You’re probably thinking that there isn’t room to put a retracting lens cap in since the front element is so damn enormous, but you’d be wrong: if they didn’t have the aperture ring – which is pointless on a compact because you have zero depth of field control at these kind of focal lengths anyway, regardless of the lens speed – then there’d be room for a sufficiently large retracing lens shutter.
That said, I’d be willing to suffer all of this and more, simply because the lens is so darned good. This is quite possibly the best lens ever fitted to a compact, and impressive in the pantheon of greats in its own right: you get sharp corners and very little lateral CA at f1.4 and full wide, which is an impressive performance indeed. Other than those corners, there’s no loss of resolution anywhere due to chromatic aberration; at base ISO, pixel-level results are so crisp that you’re left wondering if the camera has an AA filter. Even more impressively, there’s no visible penalty in closeup performance despite the speed of the lens; the camera focuses very close at all focal lengths, and extremely close – front element nearly touching subject – at full wide. (I can’t actually think when you might use this, as perspective distortion is horrible and proper lighting is nearly impossible, but that doesn’t mean somebody else can’t find a use for it.)
I didn’t see any weak spots in the range, either; the lens is easily the best part of the optical system, and complemented well by a very effective stabiliser. I still think Panasonic does the best optical stabilizers in any compact; they’re easily good for another 2 stops over that fitted to the RX100, for instance. Put it this way: it appears the camera’s designers placed so much emphasis on the resolving power of the lens that there’s a built in 3-stop ND filter to allow use of the lens wide open, the menu has an option to choose whether program mode follows a generic option, an optimal MTF option(!), or tries to keep things at maximum aperture. Speaking of aperture, the aperture ring is only active with A or M modes selected on the dial (why they didn’t make A mode a position on the ring like previous Leica digitals is unknown); in every other position, the ring does nothing. If the selected aperture on the ring is wider than possible at the chosen zoom setting, the camera will just open the lens up fully.
ISO comparison against the RX100: both shot raw, opened in the latest version of ACR with all settings at default zeroes. No NR or sharpening. RX100 images downsized to match the DL6 in size, with the DL6 set to 3:2 aspect ratio to match the RX100. Exposure for the beginning image was 2s f2.8 ISO 80. Full size 100% crops are available here (low ISO) and here (high ISO).
The real weak spot in the imaging chain is the sensor. Though it’s an updated design (mainly focusing on throughput speed – the DL6/LX7 does 1080p60 and 11fps at full resolution), the base 1/1.7″ unit has been around since 2008 in the LX3. Back then it was an impressive piece of hardware for a compact – offering a good-quality ISO 400 and usable-in-a-pinch ISO 800, with about 11 stops of dynamic range – today, it’s decidedly ordinary, especially in the face of sensors like the 1″ 20MP, 10fps, 14bit unit in the RX100. I don’t honestly think the imaging characteristics have improved much since then: it wasn’t bad, but it’s certainly no longer state of the art, and I think I’ve been spoiled by the Sony.
At base ISO – 80 – you get hints of what the lens is capable of; it’s easily outresolving the sensor by some considerable margin. Too bad you can also see traces of an underlying noise pattern, too. There’s one final fly in the ointment: be careful if you’re shooting with the sun directly in the frame; at the wrong angle, there’s the possibility of internal reflections off some part of the optical system, resulting in series of magenta blotches (see below). However, this is extremely rare and I only saw it a couple of times after deliberately pointing the camera into an exposure that was easily 1/4000s f8 ISO 80.
All that said, the lens and IS system mean that the DL6/LX7 isn’t as bad in low light conditions as you might think; in fact, it’s surprisingly good. I almost never had to go over ISO 400 thanks to the extraordinary light-gathering ability of the lens; with the RX100, I’d probably be at 3200 and wishing for a bit more. There’s no arguing that the sensor is probably three stops or so behind the RX100; however, at the long end, you’ve already lost slightly over two stops on the lens (f2.3 vs f4.9) and you can claw back another stop or more from the IS system. As you can see from the sample crops, things become a bit more complicated still: downsizing the RX100’s files result in crisper images up to a point, but there also seems to be something muddy in there eating up fine detail, too – perhaps it’s the non-cancelable noise reduction, even when shooting raw.
To be honest, I came away from my experience with this camera more perplexed than ever. Some of the files at base ISO blew me away; for an 8MP (or thereabouts, depending on the aspect ratio) file, the detail resolved was incredible. The lens is quite possibly the best ever fitted to a compact, and one of the most impressive zooms I’ve ever shot with (24-90/1.4-2.3 on a DSLR, anybody? M43 even? I didn’t think so). It’s fast and responsive; very nearly as fast as the RX100. It also also has superior close focus ability – handy if you’re using it on a trip to document the various objects you see and eat*. We have some operational niggles like the lens cap and slow zooming, and the disappointment in the files at ISO 800 and beyond. You’ll notice I didn’t say anything about battery life or usability; the former is excellent (I shot up to 400 frames in one day with the EVF, and the 3-segment gauge didn’t move off full) and the latter is relatively transparent – set what you need to set, use the quick menu or programmable function keys for everything else. Or just run it in RAW, program mode, and spot meter like I did.
*I used a D-Lux 5 with a couple of creatively-deployed LED panels to photograph food with great success; you can see some examples here.
As usual, the final verdict on this camera boils down to a question of tradeoffs. Do you want flexibility in the lens, or does ultimate technical image quality (sensor) matter more? I have to say that if you have no intention of printing over 13×19″, then this makes a fantastic travel companion that will do excellent macro work at a push. The RX100 will go much larger – I’ve done 20×30″ – but suffers from terrible close up performance (both distance and clearly non-optimized optics) and a slow telephoto end due to the physical size requirements of a longer focal length to cover a larger sensor at a given angle of view. I’d love to see the DL6/LX7’s lens paired with a better sensor; this combination has the potential to do some amazing things. Until then, it’s worth taking price into consideration: whilst the Sony is still over $600, the Panasonic version has now fallen to below $300 – and that makes it a heck of a lot of camera for the money. MT
Thanks to Leica Malaysia for the loan camera.
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