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FIELD REVIEW: PANASONIC LX-1
By Vandit Kalia
February 2006

My quest for a camera to complement my SLR is something that has been doing on for a while now. First, I got the Sony W1 - which was nice enough, but lacked RAW, and so did not fit into my workflow. Then I got the Canon S70, which had RAW and produced very nice images, but was somewhat slow in focussing. The S70 got assigned to full-time underwater use in a housing, and so I was left looking for a compact "carry everywhere" solution. After comparing specs at DPReview, the Panasonic LX-1 jumped to the top of line.

The specs appeared to be ideal: a sharp Leica lens covering 28-112mm (in 35mm terms), RAW mode, 8.2 megapixels, a 16:9 aspect ratio, image stabilization and lots of manual controls. A quick check of the various user forums revealed one consistent trend – very sharp lens, but high noise, especially at higher ISOs. However, the more I read, the more it appeared that this noise could be managed with careful post-processing.

So I decided to take the plunge – helped in no small bit, I have to confess, by just how cool this camera looks. Yes, I know, it ain't the looks but performance and while I don't tend to get too emotionally attached to looks, this camera is a stunner: black metal finish (silver available, if you so desire), matte silver lens, sleek looking - truly a thing of beauty. I ought to be ashamed, but I am not.


Open dome

Handling and Ergonomics

This camera feels like a photographer’s camera, starting with the manual exposure controls: program shift, aperture & shutter priority modes, as well as full manual. There is a joystick on the back, just where the right thumb lies, which lts you adjust the aperture and shutter values without delving through any menus or such.

One great feature on the camera is an AF/AE lock button on the back, which can be modified to lock both or just one. I cannot explain how much easier this simple button makes your life if you are shooting in tricky light. My typical approach with an SLR is to meter on some uniformly lit part of the scene, lock exposure, dial in exposure compensation as needed and then shoot – this is fast, and works in virtually every situation I encounter (including with Velvia). This button on the LX-1 allows me replicate this process without really thinking too much about which button to push, and so on. That means I can focus on the aesthetic elements of the shot, instead of mucking around with the camera controls. I cannot express how happy this simple button makes me.

The flash has a dedicated button, manual focus has a dedicated button, the image stabilizer has its own button, and the top of the lens has a slider for setting the aspect ratio (useful if you shoot JPEG – in RAW, you get the full 16:9 image regardless). The camera also comes with the usual 3 metering modes (spot, meter and evaluative/matrix/multi-zone thingummy).

Changing the ISO requires you to press down the joystick, which brings up a menu of the most common parameters that one might want to adjust while shooting (ISO, image size and white balance). To be honest, this doesn’t bother me so much – for my intended usage with this camera, I don’t really expect to find myself in a situation where I’ll need to adjust the ISO from shot to shot. Also, after using the camera a few times, my initial reservations disappeared - it really is quite easy and intuitive to access these functions. Canon has implemented something like this in its own cameras, using the FUNC button, but they lose it by putting the button in all sorts of places, surrounded by other, similar buttons. Panasonic's joystick-based implementation is much better.

Also, while the camera does have something called “9 area AF”, you cannot manually select them – activating the 9 point AF mode means the camera gets to decide which of the nine to select. If you’d like control over which AF point the camera selects, you have two choices: a big central focus point, or a small central focus point.

This might appear a little basic when compared to Canon and Sony digicams, where you can simply shift the focus point around to wherever you want, but to be honest, I find that moving the focus point around using a joystick to be extremely tedious. "Lock and recompose” is much faster and my preferred way of shooting, so I am perfectly happy with this arrangement.

There is also a “3 AF high speed mode” and a “central point high speed mode” – the manual isn’t very clear on what these modes do (higher speed, I would assume) and points out that using them might cause the LCD to freeze. No viewfinder, frozen LCD – yeah, that’s going to be very helpful when shooting action, which is when you'd need the fast AF to begin with. Hmmm, maybe I am missing something. Be that as it may, he normal AF mode works well enough for me, so I haven’t bothered with the high-speed AF.

One welcome addition to the camera is what Panasonic calls Optical Image Stablization (O.I.S.). There are 2 modes, one where the IS is on all the time (presumably only while the shutter is half-pressed? The manual doesn’t say), and another where it kicks in just while taking the shot.

A button in the front of the camera lets you switch between autofocus, manual focus and macro focus (which is essentially a close-focusing mode). Manual focus also enlarges the center part of the LCD to aid focus. Now, I don't use manual focus on small digicams, as I find it really hard to achieve critical focus through an LCD screen, even if enlarged - I simply put the camera's AF sensor on my subject, and let the camera's magic do its thing, but.. a slider, not a menu function! Hallelujah. I'm buying Paansonic's design team a beer for this.


Sea View

There is also a continuous shooting mode, a video mode, something called flip animation and a few other features, all of which I soundly ignored. DPReview is your best bet for all that stuff. There's also a flash - but if you plan to do serious work with a flash, do yourself a favor and get a camera which can accommodate an external flash: this one cannot, and rightfully so. Who, after all, would buy a compact digicam only to slap a big external flash on it?

Overall, I am very happy with the design and features of the camera. It is well-designed for a serious shooter, with all the controls one would reasonably want to use while shooting. And it comes in a package which slips into the outer pockets of my cargo pants very easily.

Usage in the field

Shortly after I bought the camera, I had to go to Kuwait for some work. Having a free weekend, I decided to take the camera out for a walk. It was not the perfect day – very cloudy, lot of haze – but hey, it was still a day of shooting, which is better than nothing!

Let me get something out of the way: I really like viewfinders. I find the limited field of vision of a viewfinder puts me in a frame of mind that yields better images. Don't know if this is due to the limited field of view effectively shutting out the rest of the world, or just force of habit from SLR usage, but I get better photos this way. The camera doesn’t have a viewfinder. Compared to other digicams, it isn't really a big loss, as I have yet to see a digital compact with a usable viewfinder (I use the LCDs in all of them, and not by choice), but a good viewfinder would have been nice.

[Note: After having used it for a little longer, I find that I've adjusted to no viewfinder quite easily. A good optical finder would still be nice, but not having a crappy tunnelly viewfinder is no big loss]

The LCD is nice enough, with a real-time histogram preview and a very nice option to pull up a 3x3 overlay of gridlines, which really helps me keep the horizontal level (until I get it fixed surgically, my left eye is pretty much there for display purposes only - for some reason, this makes it very hard for me to align my horizontals). It also has an option of ratcheting up the brightness for use in sunny conditions.

I used the camera in RAW mode – in this mode, the camera shoots a RAW as well as a high-res JPEG, and takes about 2 seconds to save the file to card, during which time no shooting is possible. Each image takes 18MB - 16MB for the RAW file and 2MB for the JPEG. That’s barely 50 images per 1GB card - boo!!! Canon can squeeze its RAW into 9MB, so what’s taking so much space here? Also, another boo for not providing the ability to adjust the size of the saved JPEG (or even let us turn it off entirely). Still, given that costs of memory cards are dropping, this is a minor irritant after all - and if you convert to DNG later, you ca nreduce the file sizes to <8MB for archiving.

With the S70, there is a perceptible lag between the pressing of the shutter and the taking of the photo. Some of it is focus lag, and some of it is shutter lag – it isn’t as bad as it was with my old 2001-era Olympus C3000, but it is still irritating, and spoils an otherwise great camera. The LX-1, on the other hand, is much faster at shooting. No, it won’t match an SLR, and no, I have no quantitative test numbers on the lag, but after a day of shooting, I didn’t get the feeling that the camera was slow in shooting – so that’s a good thing.

Image quality is top notch - that Leica lens on the camera is a scorcher, and it shows. Lots of detail, excellent contast, very good edge sharpness, etc. etc. I think every review of this camera agrees on this one point, so there is not much point spending too much time here: suffice to say, it is a very good lens!

Given that the DPreview article slams the camera in this area, I was quite pleasantly surprised to find a surprising amount of dynamic range for a compact – probably a good 5-6 stops in RAW mode. That puts it on par with slide film and is a good "bare minimum" amount. A nice byproduct of this is that the camera does a very good job of avoiding blowing out the highlights. As mentioned earlier, I took my test shots on an overcast day, where the sky was a quite bright and an unattractive grey – a recipe for disaster, and given my experience with other P&Ses, I was expecting to do a lot of careful metering and under-exposing to avoid burnt-out highlights. Yet, between the dynamic range of the sensor and the evaluative meter of the body, the camera did a better-than-expected job of capturing detail which could be recovered in RAW post-processing. I very rarely had to over-ride the controls to prevent burnt-out highlights.


The joys of a wider aspect ratio: 4:3 or even 3:2 would not have done this justice

Now, let’s get to something unique about this camera: 16:9. In two words: it rocks! Coupled with a very useful 28mm wideangle, this unique aspect ratio gives you the freedom to squeeze a lot more into the scene, without having to rely on a perspective-distorting extreme wideangle. A lot of cityscapes, and even full-length portraits, tend to be longer along one dimension than can be captured full-frame on a conventional camera - and also, the 16:9 aspect ratio seems to be a bit more in tune with the way my Cyclopean vision sees things. I often find that my travel shots tend to cry out for just a little wider aspect ratio and this just hits the spot: wider, but not getting into uber-wide panorama territory. Goldilocks would have been ecstatic.

Plus, the 8 megapixels means that it is always possible to crop down to a more conventional aspect ratio without losing too much in the way of image quality

Now, let’s get to the noise.

Here is a test shot - shot at ISO 400, in RAW mode - this resulted in 2 files, a RAW image and a JPEG image. I then processed the RAW image in 2 ways - one was my usual workflow: capture sharpening (PK Sharpener), noise reduction (Noise Ninja), curves, saturation & sharpening; the other was the exact same workflow (ie, with the same values), but without the noise reduction step. For final sharpening, I used moderate USM in this example (ie, not optimized for either image), rather than PK Sharpener - my rationale being that if I sharpen the cleaned up image to the optimal level, I would over-sharpen the version with no noise reduction, which would make it look worse.


Test image for noise comparison

The following 100% crops are from the default JPEG image, from the processed RAW image without noise reduction and from the procesed RAW image with noise reduction:


Default JPEG image

 


 RAW - without any NR

 
RAW - with extreme NR

                                                                

The above results speak for themselves.

Yes, there is a lot of noise in the 400 ASA image in the default RAW image, but remember - this is with NO noise reduction. All JPEGs have some noise reduction, so it isnt fair to use this as a basis of the final image..

The JPEG image does a fairly good job of cleaning up the noise - remember that you are looking at 100% crops and the results would be a *lot* better with prints. I had set the in-camera parameters as follows: high noise reduction, high sharpening and high saturation, but I suspect that these parameters were not applied to the JPEG while shooting in RAW mode (haven't tested it, and so cannot say for sure, but the JPEG did not have very high color saturation at all, which leads me to assume that none of the parameters were applied). If this is indeed the case, then JPEG-only shooters can expect even better noise performance.

For the processed RAW image with Noise Ninja applied, I cranked up the noise reduction a fair amount to show what is doable, at the risk of losing some detail (not sharpening the image to the optimal level doesn't help either). Were I processing for printing, I'd have left a bit more noise in there, as I find a little bit of noise to be a good thing. Still, as can be seen above, the noise issue can be removed as per taste - so it is a non-starter for RAW shooters.

Battery life should be ok. The manual states that the battery is good for 240 shots under test conditions (which it is nice enough to list - kudos, Panasonic). The first day, the battery indicator went from 3 bars (full) to 1 bars after only 30-40 shots. However, this turned out to be due a problem in charging. When I had finished my initial charging the battery, the LED on the charger was flashing green, which I took to be a sign for "done" (a solid green light indicates "charging"). However, a persual of the camera manual indicates that a flashing green light is a sign of a problem, although what the problem could be in a simple charge, I cannot say. So it turns out that I was out shooting with a new and inadequately charged battery, which explains the short battery life. The next day, the battery charged well enough and the LED went off to indicate a full charge - and the camera had enough juice for a full day of shooting, with ample IS and LCD usage. And it has been like that since.

The OIS feature works as promised – however, as of yet, I have not figured out whether Mode 1 is better than Mode 2 (one is always on, the other activates IS at the time of shooting) – sometimes one is better, sometimes the other. Nor can I state how many stops it adds, as I do not know my own handholding capabilities with this camera yet. While I am quite good at handholding an SLR and big telephotos, holding the camera out at arm's length to compose with a viewfinder is still something that doesn't come naturally to me.

Summary

As should be clear from the above, my initial reaction to this camera is very favorable.

It has a very sharp lens, and is designed to fit the needs of an experienced shooter - i.e., more emphasis on features which help in image-taking, and less emphasis on useless bells and whistles. The controls are laid out in a manner that makes them easy to use - the joystick controls pretty much all the parameters you'd want to adjust while taking a shot, and after only a couple of hours, this becomes very intuitive. Most importantly, the image quality and reasonable dynamic range makes it worth using these controls and over-rides.


Baboon at zoo

Noise is indeed higher than typical - especially at higher ISOs. However, it isn't as bad as reviews make it out to be, and if you are shooting in RAW mode, it is a non-issue. The high RAW file size means you'll need more in the way of memory cards, as well.

This camera is obviously not a replaement for a DSLR - it would be silly to evaluate a compact digicam from that angle. However, as compact digital cameras go, this appears to be pretty much the best overall offering, provided you are wiling to shoot RAW. Travel and street photographers will love its small size, wide angle of coverage and unobtrusive profile. It doesn't call attention to itself, and provides crisp, prompt handling designed for serious photographers in mind - with image quality to match.

All of you who like prowling the streets with a rangefinder or small SLR with a 28 or 35mm on it, or DSLR users looking for a compact complement to their rig - here's something for you!

Addendum

Since posting this, a few people have brought to my attention a few other features that I didn't pick up, either by oversight or because they didn't come up in my style of shooting:

MM from photo.net pointed out in manual focus mode, the camera actually shows a depth of field indicator. Checked it out - sure enough, it does. More kudos to Panasonic! This actually makes the manual focus mode usable, in my opinion.

JH from robgalbraith.com pointed out a foible: in Manual mode, the AE/AF Lock button is disabled. This obviously doesn't matter much if you use that button to lock exposure, but if you have it set to engage the camera's autofocus (like using CF4-1 on Canon SLRs - see my article on The Art of Autofocus for more info), then this can be a bit annoying. Personally, I don't plan to use this camera for shooting action & don't need to de-link the autofocus from the shutter, so it isn't a huge deal for me. But it is worth noting, nonetheless.

Image Samples

The images below are test shots taken while playing with the camera. For some "proper" photography done with this camera , please see the Compact Camera Project: Misty Darjeeling


Health food!

 


Fisherman with catch

 


Fishermen at work

 

 
     

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