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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!
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.
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
Fisherman with catch
Fishermen at work