Panasonic Lumix LX100 Digital Camera Review
There's no doubting the LX100 is great, but is it the best compact camera ever?
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By the Numbers
The Panasonic LX100 doesn't outperform the Sony RX100 III and Canon G7X by leaps and bounds, but our lab testing found that it's without question a better all-around camera. The Four-Thirds sensor and Leica-branded lens yielded superb results in our still image quality testing while the 4K video was nearly on par with what we saw with the Panasonic GH4. Below you'll find our results in greater depth
This year has seen some incredible transitions in the camera market. Mirrorless cameras have been rapidly ascending in price and quality, full-frame cameras are hitting record low prices, and smartphone cameras continue to improve. And yet, if there's one kind of camera that has us more excited than ever it's high-end point-and-shoots.
For the last few years it seemed like the competition was simply ceding this part of the market to Sony's RX100, with the Ricoh GR and Fujifilm X100 duking it out for the true enthusiasts. Why even try to match the Sony RX100, especially with the new RX100 III that practically warped time and space to cram in a pop-up EVF? It's next to impossible to fit a sensor larger than the RX100's 1-incher into a compact body, let alone an EVF, along with a battery and processor. How can you even compete with The Best Point-and-Shoot Ever Made™? Simple: You make a better one.
Panasonic's done exactly that with the Lumix LX100 (MSRP $899.99). In a classic case of "Anything you can do I can do better", the LX100 goes toe-to-toe with the RX100 III and outpoints it in nearly every category. It's got a larger sensor, better EVF, much better handling, faster continuous shooting speed, and even 4K video shooting. It's even got an f/1.7-2.8 lens that's just as good as what Sony has to offer.
Canon may have just done its best impression of the RX100 with the new PowerShot G7 X, but the Panasonic LX100 has set a new bar.
Design & Handling
Not a perfect point-and-shoot, but pretty darn close.
As soon as you pick up the LX100, it becomes immediately apparent that this is more than just a juiced up Lumix LX7. The entire body feels extremely solid, with just enough heft that you'd never confuse this for anything less than a "real" camera. Unlike its competitors from Sony and Canon, the LX100 benefits from a thick, curved protrusion for grip, including a second nub of rubber on the back for your thumb. It provides some much-needed balance, which helps given the camera's heavier weight.
On the front of the LX100 you'll find the lens—it's hard to miss, obviously—which sticks out from the body by about an inch when the camera's off. It's far larger than what you'll see on most other high-end compact cameras, due both to the large maximum aperture and the big sensor that it has to cover.
Around the front of the lens is a clicky aperture ring with physical detents at every 1/3rd stop from f/1.7-f/16. This is complemented by a smooth-turning dial that can be used for either zoom or manual focus, and a multi-aspect ratio switch that we'll discuss in a moment.
Controlling the the LX100 is a breeze, giving you easily accessible options for either manual or automatic exposure control, depending on your skill level. In addition to the aperture ring on the lens there are also shutter speed and exposure compensation dials on the top of the camera.
Like cameras with a similar dial setup there's no mode dial here; the shutter/aperture dials give you manual control but can be set to the "A" setting to let the camera do the hard work. If you run into trouble there's also an "iA" button which puts the camera in full auto with a simple press.
The back of the LX100 features a number of other controls for various settings. These aren't nearly as pleasing to use as the physical dials, as Panasonic's love of small, recessed buttons is still going strong after all these years. There's also a control dial/directional pad for menu navigation and a quick menu button that gives you access to all the camera's major settings—exposure, white balance, image format, color mode, etc.—on either the rear LCD or the electronic viewfinder. Unlike other advanced Lumix cameras, Panasonic hasn't put in touch as an option. The LX100 works just fine without it, but it feels like a boneheaded omission.
Otherwise, we found shooting with the LX100 very enjoyable. The camera handles very well despite its compact size, switching from manual to automatic exposure is dead simple, and having an exposure compensation dial is a nice addition for people who prefer auto or priority modes.
The EVF is also just fantastic for a camera of this size. At 0.39 inches the panel is roughly the same size as the EVF on the RX100 III, though it's fixed and doesn't stow within the body like the Sony's. The entire camera is a bit bigger, but with the eyecup the LX100's viewfinder is better shielded from the sun, and your nose is less likely to get in the way.
Color Accuracy & White Balance
Panasonic cameras have generally torn through our color accuracy and white balance tests over the past year. They're generally the most accurate cameras that we test next to Canon cameras. The LX100, however, seems to have a slight green cast to its shadows that hindered color accuracy. We're not sure why this is, but even using several different white sources, the auto white balance, and various presets the smallest color error we could achieve was ∆C00 (saturation corrected) of 2.47.
That's not a terrible score (anything below 3 is fine, anything below 2.2 is great), but we're used to seeing sub-2.0 errors from Panasonic cameras. The most accurate mode is standard, with the other various modes (scenery, natural, vivid, etc.) all scoring worse. None of the modes were egregious, however, and shooting in RAW will let you sidestep these issues entirely.
Panasonic's Four Thirds sensor narrowly edges out the 1-inch crowd.
We don't often think of Micro Four Thirds cameras as having huge sensors; they're called "micro" after all. But the standard-sized Four Thirds sensor included in these cameras is actually considerably larger than the 1-inch type sensors found in cameras like the Sony RX100 III. In this case the LX100 is packing what appears to be the same sensor as the Panasonic GX7 along with the Venus Engine processor from the GH4. That combination yields incredible image quality, not to mention fast continuous shooting and 4K video.
In the lab, the LX100 simply shined. Though the white balance and color accuracy lagged behind what we're used to seeing from Panasonic, it provided very low noise levels even at high ISOs to go with excellent dynamic range. The roughly 24-75mm (full-frame equivalent) f/1.7-2.8 lens isn't shabby either, offering resolution that matches what Sony's been able to do with the RX100 cameras.
In video testing the LX100 is, without question, the strongest compact camera we've seen yet. While we expect other compacts to offer 4K video soon, the LX100 has video quality that is nearly a match for the Panasonic GH4. Though the hardware here isn't built to support life as a dedicated video camera, the LX100 can produce better video than anything in this price range next to Panasonic's own FZ1000.
The video is sharp, the codec renders motion and high frequency patterns excellently, and the camera produces usable—albeit noisy—video with barely any light at all. The lens and sensor combination even provide fairly narrow depth of field, giving you the look of a far more advanced (read: expensive) video camera.
Even if still shooting is more your thing, the LX100 is built for just about any kind of photography. It obviously copes well with still scenes, but its continuous shooting chops shouldn't be ignored. The camera shoots up to 12 fps continuously when capturing JPEGs, with a capacity of over 50 shots. That drops to around 9.3fps when shooting JPEG+RAW shots together, but capacity remains a healthy 20 shots.
Noise & Noise Reduction
Like other Panasonic cameras, high ISO noise reduction is found within the various color modes. This lets you set a different level of reduction depending on what scene you're shooting. NR is set on a sliding scale with the default in the middle. The default level of noise reduction is far lower than we see with most point-and-shoots—which usually use NR to overcome the noise inherent to small sensors.
At the default level we saw a low base ISO noise level (under 0.8% from ISO 100-400) that stayed between 1.1% and 1.3% through ISO 12,800. At the maximum ISO the default level of noise reduction just passed the 2% threshold beyond which shots generally look too noisy to be very useful. Generally speaking the noise reduction here is tasteful, preserving fine details while keeping noise down through ISO 1600. From ISO 3200 and beyond noise doesn't rise appreciably, but the details begin to get more muddled as the noise reduction steps it up to compensate for the increased sensitivity of the sensor.
If you are desperate to keep noise at a minimum you can ramp noise reduction all the way up, which keeps noise under 0.9% all the way to ISO 12,800. Even at ISO 25,600 noise only reached 1.3% at this setting. Of course, at higher ISO speeds fine detail is almost completely obliterated with noise reduction this high. If you want to preserve as much fine detail as possible you can turn NR all the way down, but we recommend shooting RAW at that point and applying more selective noise reduction where necessary after the fact.
Though you won't have your hand held by auto features, advanced shooters will be over the moon.
From a hardware perspective the LX100 has a very impressive resume. We've already covered the EVF, the lens, the sensor, the processor, and the manual control in some depth. The camera also has a nice, bright, detailed 3-inch rear LCD. It's just bright enough to be visible on a sunny day. It isn't touch-sensitive and doesn't articulate from the body, however. This wouldn't be a problem, but all too often the menu navigation doesn't respond in any logical way.
Take the "Quick Menu" for example. This menu is designed to be used during live view or video recording, giving you easy access to important settings. Unfortunately the design of this menu is incredibly frustrating. Two options stacked right on top of one another? No, you can't press the up key to go there. Menu showing a horizontal dial for ISO? Yeah, you have to press up first, or else turning the lone control dial takes you to an entirely different part of the menu. It's anything but intuitive, and this is a camera you'll just have to learn your way around.
Getting shots and video on and off the LX100 is a breeze, however. The camera has both HDMI and USB ports on the side, but it also includes WiFi built into the camera. To connect it to your phone you can download Panasonic's "Image App" from your respective Google or iOS app store. You can then use the app to connect via scanning a QR code, inputting the camera's WiFi info manually, or using NFC. We couldn't get NFC functioning for some reason, but the QR code scanning was quick and painless.
Once you have the phone and camera paired up you can view shots direct from the camera's memory card, use the phone as a remote control/viewfinder, or share shots direct to the web. The remote control functionality was the most interesting to me. It gives you control over all the major shooting settings in the camera, including metering, burst shooting, and optical zoom. It even lets you use the phone's touchscreen for touch-based focus and exposure adjustments—which you can't do on the camera. It doesn't have access over any other physical controls on the camera, however, so you can't set shutter/aperture manually and can't change the aspect ratio used on the sensor.
Speaking of the multi-aspect ratio sensor, there's a small physical switch right on top of the lens that lets you choose from 3:2, 4:3, 1:1, and 16:9 shooting. Unlike most cameras, which just take the largest possible 4:3 or 3:2 shots and crop off parts to give you a different aspect ratio, the LX100 gives you proper full-resolution shots in three different aspect ratios (the 1:1 is still cropped, technically). This does hinder the maximum resolution when shooting at, say 4:3, but it allows you to choose between ratios without losing any image data. It's also why the maximum resolution is just 12.3 megapixels despite this same sensor recording over 16 megapixels on the GX7. You win some, you lose some.
Luckily 12 megapixels is still plenty to record 4K (technically UHD) video, which tops out at about 8 megapixels per frame. The LX100 can match the Panasonic GH4 for video capture in this regard, recording 100Mbps UHD video at 30p and 24p. There's also a hot shoe for adding accessories, with a built-in stereo mic, audio level control, zebra patterns, and focus peaking that functions while recording video. There's no built-in 3.5mm mic or headphone jack, though, and the clicky detents on the exposure rings mean you're mostly limited to pre-set manual exposure or letting the camera's automatic metering take the wheel during recording.
Though there are plenty of point-and-shoots that can rattle off a quick burst of shots, there are actually very few that can keep up the pace for more than a second or two. The LX100, much like the Sony RX100 III, is just such a camera. In our tests we found the LX100 could fire off bursts of up to 12 frames per second for around 50 shots when shooting JPEG photos alone.
If you want to shoot RAW as well the speed does drop slightly, to around 9.3 frames per second, but capacity remains an impressive 20 frames. Once the capacity is full you'll see continuous shooting drop to just one frame per second while the camera clears the buffer to the memory card. While the card is filling up you can tweak settings and continue to frame up your next shot just as you normally would, which is a nice change from cameras that completely lock up once a burst is finished.
The LX100 has flaws and costs more than the competition, but it's worth every penny.
Fixed-lens cameras have been on a tear for the last two or three years. This trend arguably began with Fujifilm's original X100 and carried over into the truly compact camera segment with Sony's superb RX100, RX1, RX100 II, and this year's RX100 III. Go-anywhere cameras with large sensors, sharp lenses that would do well even in very low light, and excellent video quality have been dominating ever since.
The Panasonic LX100 doesn't reinvent the wheel. This isn't the Fosbury Flop of cameras, but it borrows nearly all of the best parts of the Sony RX100 III and the Fujifilm X100 and meets somewhere in the middle. From Sony you've got a compact camera that has a massive sensor, a built-in EVF, WiFi, and fast, sharp 3x zoom optics. From Fuji you've got a retro-chic manual control scheme replete with tactile dials and an emphasis on creative image processing modes.
Of course, these ingredients didn't assemble themselves. Panasonic's camera chefs added their own secret herbs and spices to the mix—fast burst shooting, a Four Thirds image sensor, 4K video with tons of control, and even a callback to the fan-favorite Lumix LX3 with a multi-aspect ratio sensor. It's a camera that evokes the best qualities of Panasonic while borrowing from some of the most successful fixed-lens cameras around.
There's still plenty of room for improvement, however. The EVF could be larger, the camera isn't compact enough to be pocketable, and the menu system practically cries out for touchscreen control that just isn't there. The control scheme also does nothing for video shooters, as toothy dials make an awful racket when adjusting exposure while recording. But given the superb quality elsewhere, these are venial sins.
The one truly black mark against the LX100 it's that it's more expensive than its closest competitors. At an MSRP of $899.99 it's a full $100 more expensive than the already pricey Sony RX100 III. It's also even more expensive if you compare it to high-end point-and-shoots without EVFs like the Canon G7 X and Ricoh GR. It's also the same price as the new Panasonic GM5, which has a similar sensor, cramped controls, a slightly crummier EVF, but the flexibility of an interchangeable lens mount. For our money, though, at $900 the LX100 gives you one of the best compact camera experiences around, with the kind of hardware, control, and performance that'll have you leaving your DSLR at home on the shelf.
In the main review the LX100's video was easy to sum up: it's the best we've ever seen from a compact camera. Period. It's easily a match for the Panasonic FZ1000 and GH4, the other two 4K-capable cameras that Panasonic released this past year. It's an impressive specimen that shoots excellent 4K and HD footage, has a razor-sharp lens, and has a large sensor that's sensitive even with extremely limited light.
Diving a bit deeper, the LX100 is impressive sharp. When shooting 4K video we were able to nearly outresolve our resolution test chart, which maxes out at 1,200 line pairs per picture height. Though we could easily resolve the final line pairs both vertically and horizontally the only reason we penalized the LX100 here was because of a slight issue with moire in these high frequency areas. It's not very perceptible when the camera is still, but if you pan this moire registers as a shimmering effect that's difficult to miss. Again, this is only extremely high frequency patterns, and the worst thing we can say about the LX100's resolving power is that it means we need to get a new chart.
The LX100 is also very impressive in low light. Even when shooting 4K video the Four-Thirds sensor and bright lens can record usably bright (50 IRE) video with just a single lux of light. That's remarkable for a compact camera and on par with pro-quality DSLRs. The footage will be quite noisy, of course, but in those situations it's better than nothing.