The Panasonic Lumix LX5 Review

Notesee below for comments on the changes from the September 2011 2.0 firmware release.

The Panasonic Lumix LX5 is a very capable camera, especially for it’s size, offering unusual speed and low-light capability  as compacts go. Having such a bright lens, even reasonably so at the long end (f/2-3.3) and decent high ISO up to 400, in a pinch maybe 640, raw files and an excellent 18mm wide adapter makes for a sophisticated little machine. You can get some excellent photo quality from the sharp lens and even if the length is restricted, at 90 vs 60, it’s a bit better here than the LX3 and the wide angle is more than usual on such cameras, starting at 24mm. Having features like the step zoom, auto memory of zoom and great bracketing help a lot with creative uses of it. On paper, it’s the perfect little camera.

In use it doesn’t quite live up to the expectations, for me at least. I personally find the small, plasticy controls a bit fiddly to use, often needing to delve into the menus for other commands. I also don’t find it as intuitive to use as my DSLRs, or a simple point and shoot, even after a year or so on having it, which suggests there is still a gap in the market for anyone who can make a better alternative for photographers. The ability to customize the function button helps a bit here, as does the dedicated ISO control and others. Coming from a DSLR, using the same control wheel for aperture and exposure compensation is annoying; a second control dial would be helpful. Also, the LCD screen is subpar, as is the low resolution EVF available, though some users find this very handy anyway, which means you won’t really know what you’ve shot until you have a computer in front of you. Another issue is the depth of field- even on low settings, due to the small sensor, just about everything is in focus unless you go really, really close to things, which makes it less interesting for portraits than I’d like.

It is great to have such a sensitive machine, virtually being pocketable. Yet the ergonomics make me think a small M4/3 camera would be preferable. Until they make an attractive one with built in evf, this helps me sit on the fence reasonably comfortably. get used to the quirks and you have a fine little photo-taking machine.

As a side-note, I use this along with the TZ7 when I want to travel light and not miss a shot. This comes out whenever the light dims, or for wide-angle, as the quality is so much better and then when I want to I can zoom into 300mm with the TZ7.

I think overall this is a nice little machine, but I wonder how long it can keep it’s head above water with mirror-less developing and increasing competition from similar cameras from Olympus for one. It’s unique features of having 24mm on the wide end and switchable aspect ratios don’t really make up for the lack of a second control dial and the fiddly nature of the one it has. Panasonic seems to have a habit of packing in features and forgetting how real photographers might want to access them comfortably. This makes this a less than perfect camera, but at it’s price point and size, certainly one of the best ones out there right now.

One more thing- Panasonic is issuing a firmware update in September which should improve the AF speed (which in some modes is already very good), make the LCD image more contrasty and also improve the interface. I for one am pleased they take the camera seriously enough to do this, which should help keep up with the Joneses for another year or so.

Pros

* Very sharp, bright lens, especially at wide angles (ranging 2.0-3.3)
24mm start
* Fast operation and AF thanks to Venus Engine Full HD (which perhaps will even improve in firmware 2.0)
* Fully-featured enthusiast model, including hotshoe, bracketing, various controls.
* Excellent wide angle adapter giving a rare (in the world of compacts) 18mm equivalent
* Rubber grip makes handholding easy
* Power OIS works well
* Very good 720p video even in low light
* Step zoom makes it easy to fix an angle of view and stick with it, like using a prime lens
* Small and light, yet fully featured controls (though see below for caveat), make for a great backup for anyone who wants a small, bright, wide portable lens.
* Decently fast writing of Raw files

Cons

* Poor high ISO above 400, which itself is pushing things
* Short lens compared to the competition (90mm vs 112mm and beyond)
* No small external flash available makes the hot-shoe somewhat redundant
* No EVF and the available one very low resolution
* Poor LCD display (though perhaps the firmware update will help here)
* Fiddly controls
* Only one control dial (and a small one at that)
* No 1080p video
* Mono audio and no provision for external mics
* Dated, unattractive interface operated by button rather than scroll wheel makes finding the settings you want a chore more than a pleasure
* Not looking so good with competing cameras offering brighter lenses and more photographic controls.
* Sometimes gives unnatural colours, especially for skies, which seems to be a Panasonic issue generally
* Jpeg engine gives worse results than competition, this is essentially a Raw camera for many.

Note- A new firmware.

Rather than prematurely update the camera, which like the LX3 before it presumably has a 2 year life cycle, Panasonic released a remarkable firmware update that addresses some of the issues the camera had. One change is the monitor becoming more vivid and more contrasty, as well as providing settings to colour-correct it. I personally do fid it more vivid now, which shows that the dullness I experienced before was not just a hardware issue. Presumably, the former was more ‘natural’, yet a corrected and more appealing preview is welcome.

Another change is to the AF, which does seem to be faster, giving the camera a more ‘zippy’ feeling. I never found it all that slow before, but having it sped up shows me that it was actually a bit sluggish- and still is compared to my DSLRs and presumably the mirrorless generation.

The third notable addition is the ‘miniature affect’ setting, that allows for one part of the image to be in focus and the rest heavily blurred, as if it was a small toy. It takes quite a while to process this, around 3-5 seconds, so it is not for fast shooting, but it is a very classy and configurable option.What this does, for me at least, is make up for the huge depth of field the photos often have, allowing for more artistic effects, while still in the camera. They don’t show up in the Raw file, so either change to Jpeg, or do Jpeg+Raw to get it. You can change the size of the in focus area and it’s location anywhere on the frame, which is very handy and effective, though of course nothing like as good as you could achieve with intense post-processing, for playful snaps, I’ma  fan of it. Also, if you shoot movies with this on, it’ll make for a slow-motion video by a factor of 10, which could well be interesting. Also, videos are now actively stablised, which may well make a difference to them, I’ll have to see.

All in all a very interesting update, which makes the camera a fresher item or me, but doesn’t and perhaps couldn’t help a lot of the cons of the machine. The short lens, the sometimes unappealing colours, the poor high or even middling ISO are all here to stay. Yet, there is still nothing around to beat it to my mind, at least until the smaller mirrorless solutions arrive. I can see myself replacing this with a M 4/3 camera with one of Panasonic’s coming ‘x’ pancake zooms. The price will be a lot more, but so will the quality and of course if I want, I can change the lenses altogether. In the meantime, for it’s small size and price, I can still recommend the LX5.

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