Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100 First Impressions

By Richard Butler

I'd argue the case that you can trace the rise of the good quality zoom compact back to Panasonic's LX3. Canon had been building its G series cameras for much longer, but by the time the LX3 arrived they were big, lumpy metal boxes with slow zoom lenses with controls and price tags that seemed out-of-proportion to the image quality they offered. The LX3 was small of form, fast of lens and capable of excellent images. I'd also argue that the LX100 moves the market forward just as much as the LX3 did.

I remember very clearly a moment during the writing of my Panasonic LX3 review that I started sifting through the photos I'd taken, and suddenly realized: 'these are better photos than I usually get from a compact.' It was the first time that I'd found myself really enjoying the results from a compact camera. The pictures were rather noisy by DSLR standards and the JPEG color was far from perfect, but the bright lens and variable aspect ratio sensor meant I used the LX3 more creatively and in a wider variety of situations than I would have done with any other camera.

Adobe Camera Raw conversion. Exposure +45, Highlights -23, Shadows +100
Out-of-camera JPEG - default settings
44mm Equiv
F5.6, 1/800th sec
ISO 200

It's much harder for the LX100 to surprise me in the same way; mainly because it's much more overt in signalling its capabilities. One look at the LX100 and you'll be left in no doubt that it's a camera aimed at photographers - dedicated dials and controls drop heavy hints about the image quality it's going to offer. And, based on my use of the camera, it lives up to that promise.

The LX100 isn't the first camera to combine a large sensor with a built-in zoom lens (Sony R1 fans, take your applause), or even the first sensibly-sized one (Leica's X Vario and Canon's G1 X models spring to mind), but it is the first to bring the LX3's short, fast zoom concept with it. The upshot is one of the most enjoyable and capable compacts I can remember using.

The LX100's 24-75mm equiv lens means it doesn't cover the 85-135mm equiv territory traditionally used for portraiture, but that doesn't mean you can't take people pictures with it.

Out-of-camera JPEG, shot with Face/Eye detection, unprocessed
75mm Equiv.
F2.8, 1/125th sec
ISO 1000

I find there are a number of factors that help me enjoy shooting with a camera, but the knowledge that it will produce results I'm happy with has to underpin this. And on that front, I think the LX100 delivers. On a camera with a bright lens I want easy access to the aperture value and I also want to quickly be able to dial-in some exposure compensation - the LX100 makes both pretty straightforward, which is much of the battle won. The camera also offers enough customization that I can tailor the rest of the camera's features to my liking - or, at least, enough to overcome the couple of minor irritations I had with it.

Sometimes the lens does just seem that bit too short, though. While I like this image and think the sky on the left adds something to it, it would have been nice to be able to zoom in closer and see what options that would have given, in terms of composition.

Adobe Camera Raw conversion with tone curve adjustment.
75mm Equiv.
F5.6, 1/1300th sec
ISO 200

Almost entirely as a result of my experiences with the LX3, I really like the multi-aspect ratio approach that Panasonic uses. That little switch, catching my eye every time I grab the camera, reminds me to think about different aspect ratios every time I compose a shot. For me that little creative nudge, combined with its contribution to keeping the size of the camera down, more than makes up for the loss of 4MP and a little bit of image sensor area that the multi-aspect design required (I still own a 12MP camera and, although having more pixels can be useful, I rarely find it necessary for the kinds of photos I'm taking).

A 75mm equivalent F2.8 lens on a 2.2x crop sensor gives a reasonable degree of background separation, even at sensible working distances.

Out-of-camera JPEG, unprocessed
75mm Equiv.
F2.8, 1/2000th
ISO 200

I'm a little more ambivalent about the electronic viewfinder. I'm not generally the kind of person that finds a viewfinder to be essential, perhaps because I've lived in some frequently grey cities. Thinking recently about the Canon G7 X, which offers more zoom range and the Sony RX100 III, which includes an electronic viewfinder has made me realize I'd usually rather have the extra reach. However, in the context of the LX100, since it doesn't appear to add too much bulk to the camera, I found the EVF to be useful both for improved visibility in bright light and for helping to stabilize the camera when shooting in really low light. In addition there's something about bracing the camera and peering through the viewfinder that I felt reinforced the sense that I was shooting with a 'proper' camera.

The only thing I didn't enjoy about the viewfinder is that it uses a field-sequential LCD panel - showing one color after another in sequence, rather than showing red, green and blue information at the same time. The result is a slight rainbow effect if I blink or pan the camera quickly. A lot of people will never notice this, while others simply won't mind. The LX100 is one of the first cameras to use this system where I've found myself finally drifting towards that second camp. Perhaps the refresh rate is slightly faster than the Lumix GX7's, but for whatever reason, although I'd sometimes notice it, the effect never put me off using the LX100.

Out-of-camera JPEG with dust mote cloned-out
54mm Equiv
F6.3, 1/400th sec
ISO 100

And the same was true of the other irritations I had with the camera. The biggest has been the method for selecting the autofocus point which, without Panasonic's excellent touchscreen system, is a bit rubbish. By default, to position the AF point, you press left, then down on the four-way controller, before you can start to use it to move the cursor. That's fine on a basic I'll-let-you-change-a-few-things-if-you-insist point-and-shoot, but not in keeping with the LX100's direct-access-to-everything-important approach. I can strongly recommend engaging 'Direct Focus Area' so that the four-way controller gives direct access. Yes it means re-defining most of the other buttons to control functions such as White Balance that have been displaced, but it means the camera is quicker to use.

The Auto ISO behavior also feels a little simplistic by modern standards, with the standard Auto mode favouring the use of shutter speeds between 1/4 and 1/8th of a second, over raising the camera's sensitivity. And, while it's true that the camera's very good stabilization will allow you to get usable shots of static subjects at those shutter speeds, it's not terribly useful for moving subjects. The Intelligent ISO mode does slightly better, attempting to assess the degree of movement in the scene before choosing a suitable shutter speed threshold, but I don't like the way it only tells you the ISO it's selected after you've taken your shot. Setting the lens dial to control ISO meant I was able to take control when I wanted to.

The LX100 may not be pocketable, but it's small enough that I've been able to take it out with me. I can't think of many other zoom compacts that look this good at ISO 12,800.

Adobe Camera Raw conversion, color adjusted towards JPEG rendition, Lum NR 24
72mm Equiv
F2.8, 1/30th sec
ISO 12,800

Then there's the lack of built-in flash. The LX100 comes with a clip-on flash that I never remember to take with me (I'm not a big user of fill-flash). It slots into the camera's hot shoe and, despite being freed from the constraints of the camera body, points resolutely forward. No tilt, no swivel, no bounce, just directly forward (something that's depressingly common with clip-on flashguns). And, just to reinforce the impression that it was prepared as something of an afterthought, the one that came with our LX100 has its On/Off markings printed on back-to-front.

But you know what? I don't really care. I don't mind in the slightest that the camera has a couple of foibles. I'm no more than slightly amused to find a couple of inexplicable quirks and rough edges. It simply doesn't matter.

And you know why not? Because the LX100 is a lovely camera.

Raw exposed to protect highlights, processed with Adobe Camera Raw, +3.85EV, Lum NR 30
24mm Equiv
F8, 1/3200 sec
ISO 200

It lets me do so much - whether it's grabbing a spontaneous shot of a rainbow or capturing some snaps at a friend's low-lit Birthday celebrations, the LX100 has stepped up to the occasion. Driving out to Eastern Washington to prepare a samples gallery, its lens gave me the width to get the landscape shots I wanted and provided the viewfinder to let me keep shooting in bright sunshine. It encouraged the use of different aspect ratios, then gave me the option to capture some 4K video immediately afterwards. Its autofocus is fast and generally dependable and it's just tended to support me well in getting the shots I want.

Raw conversion, highlights protected, shadows lifted Out-of-camera JPEG
60mm Equiv.
F2.8, 1/2500 sec
ISO 200

And, having said it wouldn't be able to surprise me as the LX3 had done, the LX100 has done exactly that. They may not be the best photos I'll ever take, but the LX100 let me shoot at ISO 12,800 and come away with results that impressed me. I'm not suggesting the LX100's images are as good as those of a Nikon D810, or even the best APS-C camera: it uses a sensor area half that size. The corners can be a bit soft at some focal lengths and there doesn't seem to be quite as much processing latitude (Raw dynamic range) as the latest sensors from Sony, but the LX100 has let me achieve more than I'd expect to do with any other compact.

The LX100 isn't much bigger than the old Canon G-series models the LX3 wrestled with. The difference is that the LX100 offers the image quality to match the camera size - marking another significant step forwards.