“The best camera is the one that you have with you!”
The above quote is some of the best photography advice I have ever received.
I’ve been doing photography for fourty years and I have owned several 35mm cameras and a few digital SLRs culminating with my formidable Nikon D700 “full-frame” Pro DSLR. A whole 6 years later, that camera still provides superb image quality and very little noise at high ISO. It’s only 12MP and it was basically the last DSLR released by Nikon without video capability, but it is still a superb camera today.
It has one big flaw: it is a very large and very heavy camera. When combined with the holy-trinity of professional Nikkor lenses (the 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8, all superb but large, heavy and expensive) this basic “kit” occupies a large camera bag and weights about 20 lbs when including flash, batteries and a macro lens. When I was younger, I had no problem going hiking or street-walking with such a kit, but today I couldn’t be bothered. I also never took this kit for traveling, too cumbersome and valuable for that. At most I would take just the camera along with the all-purpose 24-70mm lens, but even that is quite large as you can see to the right and weights about 5 lbs, which is a lot of weight to lug around on your shoulder all day.
As a result, I just wasn’t carrying this camera around very much at all and I missed a lot of good photo opportunities. So in 2008 I bought a Panasonic Lumix LX3 which was the first advanced compact camera I found with excellent manual controls and image quality. All of a sudden, this was my “best” camera, because it was usually the one I had with me. My Nikon got relegated to studio work, macro work, and the occasional field trip that I organized specifically with serious photography in mind. Unfortunately, that LX3 got stolen in 2010 so I bought the new and improved Lumix LX5 to replace it and I still own that camera to this day. The LX5 is an ideal travel camera and a camera that I can just keep in my briefcase at all times or carry in a coat pocket. Unfortunately, about 9 months ago I lost my LX5 charger and haven’t got around to replacing it yet. So for those past 9 months my Galaxy S4 has become my “best” camera as it is the one I always have with me. However, the very small sensor sizes and lack of creative controls on a cell phone are very limiting for any serious photographer.
So in this period of time I started looking for something better. While I love my LX5, I increasingly found its significant noise at mid to high ISO, slow autofocus and lack of depth-of-field control limiting. Panasonic’s now 2 year old LX7 was only marginally improved over the LX5 and Sony had since come out with the RX-100, a similarly compact camera but with a larger sensor size (1″ vs the LX5’s 1/1.63″ or.61″) and greatly improved image quality, video and auto-focus performance. I was almost ready to purchase a Sony RX100 III when Panasonic announced the Lumix LX100.
The LX100 is a true advanced compact camera in the tradition of the LX line, but it raises the bar significantly. While Sony, Nikon and Canon all recently released advanced compact cameras with 1″ sensors, the LX100 is the first to come out with a 4/3″ (1.33″) sensor in such a compact size. As you can see in the chart below, the 4/3″ sensor has twice the surface area of 1″ sensors and 5 times the area of the LX7’s sensor. Cell phones generally have tiny 1/3.2″ sensors. Amazingly, Panasonic increased the sensor size but maintained the pixel count to a smart 16MP (12.8 usable because of the multiple aspect-ratios), so those pixels are quite large. Why all this attention to sensor and pixel size? Because contrary to popular belief, the biggest factor affecting image quality is not pixel count but pixel size. In fact, the race to very high pixel counts in cell phones (the current norm appears to be about 13MP) is ridiculous as it increases the processing and storage capacity needed and most people only use those pictures for Internet posting, where 1MP is usually sufficient. Cell phones certainly don’t need more than 5MP and their quality would be much higher if they stuck to that, but the public blindly demands higher pixel counts.
The Lumix LX100’s larger sensor size means lower noise at high ISO. Looking at early sample pictures, at 3200 ISO the fotos are very usable and beat the Sony RX100’s easily. They even seem to approach that of my D700. ISO 6400 appears to be still quite usable and even ISO12800 would be usable in a pinch if you don’t plan to make large prints. With good high ISO capability combined with the lens’ fast f1.7 aperture and image stabilization this camera should be quite good in low light situations. Everything else being equal, larger pixels also mean better dynamic range and better color depth.
Another significant benefit of a larger sensor is the increased creative control over depth-of-field, so you can keep backgrounds out of focus for example. To sweeten the deal some more, the LX100’s lens sports a 9-blade iris which should provide for beautiful bokeh. Putting this large a sensor with a fast lens in such a compact camera is quite an engineering feat and a significant improvement for any serious photographer. This compact camera should be able to compete directly on image quality and creative control with larger Micro 4/3 cameras, prosumer DSLRs and bridge cameras.
There are many other features of this camera that I like as they make it an advanced camera for “serious” photography:
- The presence of a high-quality 60fps electronic viewfinder. Framing at arms length with an LCD screen is always less than ideal and hard to do in full sun.
- The aperture and zoom rings on the lens barrel, like a proper camera!
- The shutter speed and exposure controls on the top, like a proper camera!
- Ability to save RAW files, essential for post-processing.
- 1/4000 shutter speed, 1/16,000 with the electronic shutter.
- High quality Leica lens with a very wide 24mm setting and fast f/1.7-f/2.8 maximum aperture. For street and travel photography, the 24mm wide-angle is far more important to me than a longer telephoto.
- 4K video with the ability to pull 8MP photos from the video at 25fps.
- 11fps with focus and exposure fixed on first shot, or 6.5fps with focus and exposure tracking. 40fps with the electronic shutter.
- Advanced and fast autofocus that works even in very low light (-3EV).
- Separate compact flash provided, much better than a puny built-in flash.
- Built-in time-lapse and stop-motion recording modes and ability to control the camera via a smartphone.
Things I would like to see different:
- I wish they would have removed the multiple aspect ratios. While they are useful, I would prefer having just a standard 3:2 aspect ratio and get the full 16MP. I can crop in post-processing.
- I wish the LCD was articulated. I find that feature very useful and it should be touch enabled as well to permit the selection of the focus point. This is very handy when working on a tripod.
- it would have been nice to have a 100mm focal length, but I wouldn’t want to sacrifice lens size or speed, so the 75mm is just as well for me, I can zoom with my feet. 85-90mm would have been useful for portraits though… But then I still have my D700.
Overall my quibbles are pretty small. This looks like it will be the best advanced compact camera yet and according to the first reviews coming out the camera is a joy to use and the image quality is superb for this class of camera. A near perfect combination of size, creative control, features and image quality, allowing me to both have an excellent camera and always have it with me. A great rangefinder-style travel and street photography camera.
Some will say: why not buy one of Panasonic’s compact models with the same sensor but interchangeable lens like the GX7 or GM5? They are after-all just as compact if you put a 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens on it. First, I really don’t feel like buying and messing with a bunch of lenses, I already have my Nikon for that. Second, just the price of the 24-70mm f/2.8 lens for Micro 4/3 is more than the LX100 costs and makes the camera far larger too, defeating the purpose.
I will definitely be purchasing a Lumix LX100 when they become available in my area.