Review of the Panasonic LX100

June 01, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

I don't often do camera reviews. There is a simple reason...other people on the interweb have relationships with camera companies and access to all the latest and greatest gear and can dedicate far more time and energy than I into reviewing a camera. 

In a previous incarnation of my website and blog, I did a review of the Sony HX9V. This was a small compact camera that easily fits in your pocket. It had great video capabilities and a 20X optical zoom lens. The video quality was stunning and back in 2011-2012 when I bought the camera, I took this camera everywhere with me, and I used it daily. It took a real bashing. I took it on my first Safari trip to South Africa with me in May 2013 and used it for B-roll video to good effect. But as I had used it so much, it started to loose performance, most notably slow zoom and auto focus. I still have it and I still use it occasionally, but I needed to retire the camera and find an alternative. 

I am a strong advocate of travelling with a small compact camera as a B-cam. When you travel you never know what might happen. Your main camera might get lost, stolen or break. Therefore to have spent $$$ on the journey of a lifetime to a bucket list destination in the wilderness and be without a tool to document that would be devastating. Its for this reason I had the Sony HX9V, mainly for video and occasionally some stills. Its also handy to have a camera that can sit on your hip or in your pocket precisely to be at the ready to capture those moments on video of your experience.

So since I bought the Sony HX9V in 2011, the camera world has moved on a lot. Sony are now up to the HX60V (stop press HX90V) with a 30X optical zoom in 2015. 

But I was interested in another angle. 4K video.

After buying the GH4 last year principally as an affordable 4K acquisition tool, Panasonic launched the LX100 with 4K video capabilities and I decided to get one. I got mine October last year yet it has taken me a long time before I felt capable to pen my thoughts on this camera. 

Now I have used it quite extensively I feel I have an informed opinion of it worthy of a review. However this will be a very practical and pragmatic review. There won't be any test cards and optical performance statistics in this review. Neither will there be any thorough coverage of specs, if you want specs go to the Panasonic website here.

So first things first - this is a Micro 4/3 sensor camera that has a non-interchangeable lens. The sensor is 12.8 Megapixels. So whilst the dimensions of this camera put it firmly in the "compact" category, the sensor has a surface area 7 times larger than the sensors in standard compact cameras. It weights just under 400g which is very acceptable for this type of camera. 

The camera comes with a Leica Summilux F1.7-2.8 24-75mm lens. This is a 35mm lens focal equivalent. 75mm at the long end certainly isn't that great if you want to use the camera for wildlife photography. However for video and in 4K you have so much resolution that you can crop in a 1080p timeline without noticeable degradation in the image quality. So if you are thinking about this camera for primarily video work the focal length really shouldn't be an issue. But if you really want to use it as a hybrid stills and video camera, you need to be aware that the 75mm at the long end will limit getting wildlife close ups and portraits and so you will have to adjust your wildlife styles.

Still image from the LX100 of two lions in Sabi Sands. Knowing the focal range of the camera allows for some very effective "Wildscapes"

Besides the lens the first thing that hits you right out the box is the camera design. I have owned a number of Panasonic cameras over the years and the design has typically followed a similar theme in terms of the layout of the main buttons and functionality. The LX100 has a much more classic design and I would even go as far as to say it has elements of a range-finder camera. This took me a long time to get used to, specifically:

Change of aperture

The aperture is changed via the aperture ring which sits on the front of the lens. If you have been used to cameras with two dials situated on the top and back of the camera, this is a big change and takes time for your brain to instinctively move your hand forward to change the aperture via this ring. Having to put your hand anywhere around the lens other than for manual focus feels strange to me. I would have preferred Panasonic to have put the aperture control somewhere on the back of the camera - a push in dial like on their GF series of cameras would have been ideal.

The designer at Panasonic was clearly obsessed by putting as much functionality on the lens as possible!

 

Change of shutter speed

This is another one that takes a lot of getting used to. There is a shutter speed dial located on the top of the camera and starts at 1+, then goes in increments of 2, 4, 8, 15, 30, 60, 125, 250, 500, 1000, 2000 and finally 4000. But what if you want a shutter speed in-between these options? How do you dial that in? Well it isn't at all obvious. At the back of the camera there is a function dial to the right of the screen. By turning this dial you have access to the intermediate shutter speeds. This was the first thing I needed to work out when I wanted to use it for video as in Europe we shoot at 1/50 of a second in video, yet the shutter speed dial only allowed me 1/60th. It was a real head scratcher trying to work out how to get 1/50th when I first got the camera. 

The shutter speed dial is definitely coming from a range-finder experience.

The mystery of the missing shutter speeds!!!

For me these two functions take some getting use to in operating the camera. I can see that hobbyist, enthusiast and street photographers would get on well with these controls, and the retro/classic feel it gives. I'm tend to work pretty quickly in manual settings and between stills and videos when using a DSLR, and I would have preferred more intuitive controls to execute shutter speed and aperture quickly.

Zoom Lens

When I turn the camera on the zoom lens extends. I don't want the zoom lens extended when I turn the camera on. I want the zoom lens extended when I am ready to shoot video or take a photo....and that is not when I turn the camera on. I know most compacts do this, but the lens on the LX100 when extended is both sizeable and chunky. If I want to view or show images for example, I turn the camera on, and out comes the lens. To its credit the zoom does have a filter ring. This is very handy. For video a vari-nd filter is essential for locking in 1/50 shutter speed and controlling the exposure whilst allowing the freedom to chose your aperture for depth of field without over exposing. Having taken this camera in the field in South Africa I can tell you that in bright light at f 16 (the maximum aperture) you absolutely need the vari-nd filter....literally sunglasses for your lens. 

About 4 months in to the camera, the zoom motor on my lens started to develop a really horrible noise when powering the camera down, when the lens would retract, OR when zooming out. I was in the French Alps when I discovered this and I was shooting video, so I could clearly see that the noise was more pronounced through the audio meter levels in Final Cut Pro X. I took it back to the shop for a once over as it was under guarantee. They sent it to a Panasonic agent for repair. 3 weeks later I got it back with an assessment that "nothing is wrong with the camera, zoom lens noise levels are within the norms". I found that strange because on return, the camera had no longer the lens noise that I had. I am pretty sure the technician took a look, added a bit of lubricating grease to the motor and it did the trick. 

Aspect ratios

You have the choice of 3:2, 16:9, 1:1, and 4:3 aspect rations which are adjusted by yet another control situated on the lens. I like these choices and being able to chose them without diving into the menu is very handy. Bottom line with these aspect ratios is; 16:9 is your go to for 4K video and 1:1 is a very nice thing to have for Instagram. Just don't forget to change them between stills and video. And that's all I have to say about that!

Aspect ratios can be change via a button situated on....yes...the lens!

The 1:1 aspect ratio is perfect for social media platforms such as Instagram, and if you are big into Instagram, and are prepared to edit the images before uploading directly, then its a more than capable camera that will likely give your profile a real boost.

 

Shooting 4K

I'm not going to labour on about the why's and wherefore's of shooting 4K. Bottom line is as an acquisition medium it is the way to go. Dropping it into a 1080P HD timeline works a treat and the detail, and resolution is a step up from a full HD camera shooting 1080P. Downsides are a smaller sensor and so not such great low light capability and as always a lack of shallow depth of field from such sensors. Is the image as good as the GH4? It's close. The LX100 shoots 3840x2160, and so does the GH4, but the GH4 also shoots 4096x2160...so true 4K. So don't expect the LX100 to deliver the same level of video and 4K shooting flexibility as the GH4. But the LX100 does deliver a very nice image at 3840x2160. The more you shoot 4K with it, the more you appreciate the image coming from such a small camera as this. Having 4K in such a small compact serves a purpose especially for travel when you don't want to have a bag of lenses with you. And that is primarily what I use this camera for. And with the effective focal range being limited to 24-75mm, the 4K mode, does allow you to be smart and crop, allowing you effectively to zoom in on the image and gain a "false" focal length advantage in post. The limited 24-75mm lens when using 4K video shouldn't be that much of an issue, if you "shoot for the edit" and think ahead of how you can crop your image in post. 

My first real out with the camera, I shot this travelogue in South Africa:

Behind the Frame: A photographic journey in South Africa from Jon Bryant on Vimeo.

 

Timelapse

The camera includes the built in timelapse feature which we saw on the Panasonic GH3 and the GH4. This is a very useful feature. Very nice to be included in such a small compact camera. 

Other little quirks

It has no built in flash. Remember, its a small sensor and so low light is not the best. You need a flash. You are given one. But it comes "accessory like" with the camera and is added via the hot shoe. Then you have to drill into a menu to "switch it on". All rather a faff. At the end of the day if you have followed the evolution of Panasonic's G series, GF, or GX cameras you will know, you either get a viewfinder, or a flash and never both. The LX100 has the viewfinder where the flash is for the 1st generation GF1. And the GF1 had no view finder and was an expensive accessory you needed to buy and add....onto the hot shoe. As I use this camera mainly for video I am glad the EVF viewfinder is what trumps here, and it's an excellent viewfinder. But you can't help feeling if Panasonic had simply gone for the tried and tested two dial control for aperture and shutter speed they may have had space for a pop up flash built into the body.

Personally I find that the auto open and close lens cap, which costs £35 to be an overly expensive accessory. This should be included by default as it is much needed due to the automatic zoom extension on power up (did I mention that? :-) ). 

Conclusion

When Panasonic announced this camera I was really excited. As a GH4 shooter, I was really excited by the idea of 4K "in your pocket solution", that was as capable a stills camera as the first generation GF1 (which I own). It is a very capable camera, and has serious specs. It's design has taken a lot of getting used to. The 4K image is very nice, and the timelapse feature built in is very easy and convenient to use. The controls will take some getting used to if you have been used to shooting with the GH4. At 800-900 Euros, you are well on your way to a serious piece of kit, so my advice would be to get hands on with it in a shop and ask to have a play with your own SD card before deciding to purchase. Make sure you feel comfortable with it and it is the right camera for your needs before dropping the cash.


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