Sony has the RX100 series. Canon has their G Powershots. Nikon…never mind. But Panasonic has the ooseX series, and the accompanying Leica D Lux redesign; I reviewed its predecessor, the LX7/ D Lux 6 some time back, and owned an LX3 back when it was pretty much the only choice for a serious compact – variable aspect ratios and all. In the intervening years since the last generation, sensors have grown – even in compacts – and the bar has been raised. I’ve spent a few days with the LX100/D Lux 109 twins and have some rather polarising thoughts…
Firstly, the sensor has grown to almost 4/3 (more on this later), but the body hasn’t. And in fact, I think the increase in body size is a good thing: it’s improved handling markedly, but not compromised portability so much that you’d notice. The LX7 was a jacket-pocket camera, and this is pretty much the same. Panasonic (or Leica) deserve high praise on the haptics and ergonomics of this camera. And it doesn’t do any harm that from a pure design standpoint, this is an Very sexy camera – especially the Leica version, with its simplified surfaces. There are mechanical rings for the things that matter like shutter speed, aperture and exposure compensation; ‘A’ positions on the dials negate the need for a mode dial, and ‘pet smile beauty retouch’ modes have thankfully been relegated to two tiny and pretty much negligible buttons on the top panel – if only they were reassignable too, like the other three function buttons and D-pad.
What isn’t instantly accessible via mechanical controls is easily assigned to shortcut buttons or accessed via the quick menu or LCD in status mode, which looks much like the top panel function of a traditional SLR. There is a good – 2.4 million pixel and noticeably brighter/larger than the RX100III – EVF and enough distance between EVF and controls that you can actually use it without feeling cramped. Battery life appears solid, but without a detailed gauge I have no way to tell. I’ve been averaging ~200 shots mostly using the EVF with no movement on the indicator before recharging to prepare for the next day.
It also has the other plethora of features expected from cameras of this class nowadays – a panorama stitching mode, wifi image transfer and a smartphone remote control app, HDMI out, and solid movie modes. Oh yes, not just solid: 4K30p or 24p at 100mbps, or 1080p60/30. The omission of 50/24/25p at 1080p is curious, though. It’s an interestingly video-centric spec for a camera that is poorly geared for video: you don’t have stepless aperture or shutter control, and a real problem with the clicks of the dials being transmitted through the camera body both in jerks and sounds if you have to change exposure. Footage looks excellent, as expected – however I can’t speak for 4K at full resolution because I have no means of viewing it. I’ve left the most interesting part til last: it has an electronic shutter up to 1/16,000th of a second, and will sync flashes at this speed, too – successfully tested with both SB900s and a Profoto B1 via Air remote. I’m sure there’s a use for this…
But – it’s not perfect, and the misses are frustrating. There are some things which can’t be fixed easily, like the fact the EVF is field-sequential and not simultaneous RGB, so some tearing is experienced with fast panning or moving your eye, and the somewhat variable detent resistance on the dials and knobs (exposure compensation and shutter are perfect, aperture is far too loose* and easily moved going in and out of a pocket). The flash is external and detachable, which is an acceptable tradeoff for the EVF and most users with that fast lens. A touch screen would have been nice, too – the square icons look like buttons that with easily changed settings, to my iphone-biased eyes. But there are other things which leave you scratching your head: why can’t the lens ring be assigned to stepless iris for video or menu control or AF point selection, for instance? You get zoom, ISO and off. Even MF override – the obvious choice – is not the default selection and is buried in another menu. Hmmm.
*On the Leicas, but not the Panasonics. It seems that loose aperture rings are a recent trend with Leica of late since all of the new lenses and cameras I’ve handled have been consistently easier to turn that older models or equivalent Panasonics. Personally, I prefer the stiffer rings on the LX100. That one didn’t change aperture out of a pocket, the D Lux did.
And then there’s the lens-sensor pairing. LX cameras have always had variable aspect ratios that maintain the diagonal angle of view of the focal length; which depending on how you look at it, either the sensor is larger than you expect or the lens smaller. The upshot is that the lens’ image circle never fully covers the sensor. This is again the case for the LX100: the sensor is the same as the GX7 (and presumably GM1/5, and who knows which other models) at 16MP nominal, but the LX100 never uses more than about 12.7MP of it. And because of the heavily reduced image circle, square is a crop of the 4:3 aspect ratio, instead of being a bit taller. (3:2 and 16:9 are longer than 4:3 though, being 4272px, 4480px and 4112px respectively.) It’s also important to note that moving that aspect ratio switch also affects the captured area: your raw file will contain only the selected aspect ratio, and not a tag that crops it out of the full sensor area with vignetting. So, choose wisely when shooting: you gain some real field of view advantages, but you also give up some flexibility.
The upshot is that the engineers have managed to cram a much faster lens and larger sensor into an overall smaller package than you’d expect; the lens is an ambitious 24-75/1.7-2.8 equivalent, compared to the 24-90/1.4-2.3 of its predecessor. The downside is that it appears the optics rely on some pretty heavy software correction, especially in the corners. Everything looks great in the centre, though. The jpegs look pretty good, but the raw files less so. This is especially noticeable in ACR because the camera is not officially supported yet: to open the files, you retag the EXIF headers with ‘DMC-GX7’ (which is why you’ll notice a strange camera in the EXIF of the sample images). ACR reads the images just fine, but doesn’t apply any lens profiles – since there aren’t any.
It’s pretty obvious there’s a difference between the raw and JPEG files. Curiously, distortion isn’t as bad as you’d expect, though. I can only hope that a profile will eke out a bit more performance when the camera is officially supported. For now, the lens is excellent in the centre, outresolving the sensor at all apertures – but not so great at the edges. It has a visually pleasing rendition though, I suppose especially if you’re doing portraits with the subject mainly in the middle. We can also rule out sample variation as both cameras had near identical optical performance.
This leaves us with a lens that is fixed and not quite as perfect as we’d like, mated to a sensor that’s large for a compact but still a bit smaller than adequate for larger prints. This makes for easy file handling, but means you really need to watch your shot discipline to get the most out of the limited number of pixels. I can’t help but wonder if a better choice would have been go with the 20MP 1″ sensor that’s in the FZ1000/ RX100III, and use the extra lens size to eke out even more speed – f1.4-2.3 like the previous camera, or even bit faster at the long end perhaps. Fortunately, the decent IS system and EVF (for face-bracing) makes this quite a bit easier. Take care with focusing, though: the aperture is fast enough that misses will be obviously visible at full size, but not necessarily during capture or on-camera playback. I was caught out by one of the cameras being defective (consistently front-focusing) resulting in a number of unusable images. Having tested three units now, I think we can rule that out as a one-off incident. It should be capable of extremely good pixel acuity especially in the centre; if you’re not getting that, chances are it’s a focusing problem.
Actual pixel-quality is what we’re familiar with from M4/3: solid if you get your exposure right (which is easy because the camera has an exposure zebra with adjustable levels) but with limited latitude for highlight recovery, or pushing shadows at higher ISOs. Color is academic because you can change that quite easily with a profile – it’s worth noting that there’s little change in tonal/spectral response at higher sensitivities though, which is a good thing. That said, I’d suggest limiting auto-ISO to 800 or lower – firstly because your lens is fast enough, and secondly, the IS system is good enough to make those marginal 1/20-ish shutter speeds mostly fine; the pixel density per degree FOV isn’t that critically high, either. But the main reason is because we have no control over the auto-ISO behaviour: it’s set an upper threshold, and that’s it. We really need at least a 1/FL multiplier option.
This leaves us with two questions: who’s it for, and how does it compare against the competition – including its GM5 sibling, which now has an EVF? I’ll address the latter question first. Firstly, I don’t think it’s a Ricoh GR replacement: that camera punches at a much higher level of image quality, and is actually pocketable into fairly small pockets because nothing protrudes when powered down. The GR feels more like a serious tool to me; the LX100 / D Lux 109 is a fun camera, but doesn’t quite make it into the big leagues image quality-wise. It’s the same price as the GM5 and 12-32/3.5-5.6 kit lens; unless it’s going to be part of an existing M4/3 kit, I’d take the LX100 / D Lux 109 for two reasons: the controls are enormously better, and preparing for shooting with the GM5 is a three-step process: lens cap off, extend lens, power on. The LX100 can be one step (power on) with the optional petal lens cap. That makes a big difference in practice. It’s also a bit more versatile in low light, with a lens that’s two stops faster (albeit the 12-32 is optically better). I haven’t used the latest Canon offerings, but it’s a tougher call against the RX100III: that has a tilt screen, quite a bit more resolution, poorer high ISO performance, weaker video, a bit less manual control, but once again becomes pocketable. I think it boils down to firstly which works better for you personally, or whether any one of the individual features is critical to you.
Who’s it for is a much tougher question to answer; I’d say it’s a camera of averages. For the majority of people – mildly enthusiastic photographers, holiday snappers, families and the like – again, it’s going to be more camera than they need. In fact, I think it’s going to be somewhat intimidating because of the apparent lack of automation and unexpected results if one of the dials inadvertently gets knocked off position. It will be a clear step up from the cameraphone or compact and have more than enough resolution for Facebook or email. For the serious amateur coming from an older camera or smaller format, the size and level of control will delight and liberate. For those coming from current-generation M4/3, performance will be as-expected, but again, the form factor will be liberating – possibly liberating enough to just pair it with a GM5 and say 75/1.8 or 35-100/2.8 for telephoto needs, and be done completely. Travellers on a serious weight budget will love it.
You’ll notice I’ve left out the very serious photographer. The kind of person who prints large or Ultraprints or both. The kind of photographer who owns different tripods for different purposes and uses Otii and medium format, and might perhaps write an occasional review. I realise that my needs and expectations are rather different to the majority of consumers, amateurs and enthusiasts, which is why I’ve left it til last. It’s also why I’m going to preface it by saying that what works for me may not be the best choice for everybody; think about your output objectives first. I really enjoyed shooting with the LX100 / D Lux 109; there is something intrinsically right about the haptics, controls and tactility of this camera. It seems to get away from most of the historical issues I’ve had with Panasonic around consumer electronics controls and menus rather than photographic ones; in many ways, I feel this is a successor to both the original Leica Digilux 2/ Panasonic LC1 and the modern Leica M: completely user-controllable with ease, compact and very discrete, and in a smaller than expected form factor. In other words: a very sensibly-chosen set of compromises leading to an enjoyable photographic experience – and thus images where there may not otherwise have been any.
I realise my hesitation with the hardware has been one of expectation: approach it thinking it’s a compact and you’ll be pleasantly surprised; approach it with the expectations that it’s going to match the best of M4/3 and perhaps come close to a GR and you’re going to be slightly disappointed on the image quality front. The controls and ergonomics rival that of the GR. Yet, if you stop and think about it, it manages to do things that neither of those types of camera can do, in a smaller package. It handily beats the Sony R1 from many years ago, which was the first large-sensor fixed-zoom all-in-one – and is about the size of that camera’s handgrip alone. The LX100 / D Lux 109 is so close to being a perfect out-of-the-park home run on all counts that it’s honestly a bit painful; hopefully proper ACR support and lens profile will bring things a bit closer to the boundaries. Yet the reality is that even as a very serious photographer, I can’t see myself carrying two compacts; it’s either this or the GR, but not both. And I’m not sure this supplants the D750-50/1.8G combination on the fun and dependability factors (it doesn’t do any harm that the D750 is right up there in the image quality department, either). Bottom line is, I’d have trouble committing to one – the choices are so good – and so diverse – that there’s a place for them all if your wallet can stand it, especially when it’s that joy of the shooting experience you’re trying to rekindle on your downtime between assignments. I suppose it’s a good thing I don’t have to decide, then. MT
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