Life With the LX5
A while ago, I wrote a review of the LX-5, in which I tried to be fair in my assessments of whether it really stands up in the world of cameras we have today. After 1 1/2 years, I am still keenly using it, perhaps more than ever, as a take-around camera that fits nicely into my bag, certainly the best such camera I’ve ever had and probably one of the best in it’s class to this day. My first review was about six months ago and writing it got me to consider how I really feel about it as an ‘imaging machine’, that is, a vehicle for the sensor it contains. As you use a camera for longer, you get to know it a lot better and it tends to grow on you, (or not, as the case may be). In this case, my feelings about it have pretty much stayed the same, in that generally the sensor and imaging engine are some way behind the camera body itself, with all it’s useful dials, but that you do get a good enough image to work on later and really bring out it’s qualities. In a sense, a digital camera will never be ‘good enough’ for long. That being said, since the cameras of tomorrow will be replaced too, it is worth making the most of the camera you have today.
Sensor/processing limitations are handicaps unique to digital cameras, as all film cameras could be the same at the ‘imaging’ level just by changing film, lens quality aside. Yet then again thanks to post-processing, whether done in the camera or externally, many aberrations can be corrected for and new effects obtained. For this every reason, I prefer digital. Meanwhile, despite the need to often post-process with this camera, which I consider a Raw camera and not much of a ‘Jpeg camera’, as people say Olympus models especially are, I’ve gotten more and more use out of it simply because of its convenience.
The best camera is the one you have with you
Thanks to the lens, I am often surprised by its sharpness. The ability to change aspect modes and picture styles (creative styles, as Panasonic calls them) make for some creative possibilities, including a well-implemented bracketing function opening the way for HDRs. After being through a range of compacts, none of them having this combination of manual controls, wide, bright lens and decently large sensor (for a compact!), it is still an enjoyable camera to use. On the street it’s almost unnoticeable. Whilst people tended to notice me more with a DSLR, it certainly looks more like I am taking snaps with this one. People would pose, too, in a playful manner, rather than just trying to ‘look their best’ when faced with the relative heaviness of a DSLR. There is something to be said for light-hearted photography and sensors aside, the smaller cameras will definitely always have their place (though better sensors will make their IQ more equal in time). Bending the camera down to the smallest details for an almost-touching macro is no trouble at all here and you can shrink the DOF, especially at the maximum f/2, whilst still retaining much more in focus than on a larger sensor. Conversely, despite the diffraction issues when stopping down (I wouldn’t go above f/5.6 with this), for landscapes, the sharpness of a small sensor paired with a good lens can produce some memorable results, as anyone with a good compact will know.
Still, with all the convenience of having this small size, you do pay another price, which conventional reviews of such ‘high end compacts’ tend to disguise under the proviso that you shouldn’t expect too much from their relatively tiny sensors. High ISO above 400 is a bit of a joke, though especially in B&W you can get some usable results at 640-800, especially if you shoot in Raw. Well, Jpeg at this point is so bad in this camera, with smudgy-wudgy noise-reduction, that really you should only shoot Raw at 400 and above of you don’t want to drown in the smudginess. I prefer to shoot at 200 and under, letting the stabilisation take care of camera shake (as much as it can, it’s not so powerful as the name would suggest).
I suspect that Canon does better in this point, samples certainly suggest that, but here’s the thing. The LX5 has been around for about a year and a half and is still going strong, if not quite as strong as Panasonic may have hoped. In that time, Canon has been through the S90, S95 and now the S100, meanwhile Nikon has had the P7000, incrementally updated with the P7100, which mostly fixed some problems of slow operation speed in the former model. Whilst the S100 is probably the most advanced of the selection, you have to hand it to Panasonic for producing a design that would last so long in a competitive marketplace. Had I opted for one of her rivals back in 2010, I would have either upgraded by now or be missing out on more ‘complet’ models. So even if I’ll never know if I made the best choice, I’m sure glad I made a good one.
I’m still learning how to get the most out of the LX5 and if it’s most serious competition right now is the S100, it still has some advantages. The lens is generally regarded as sharper across the frame, despite a shorter reach (I do find 90mm a bit short in many cases, though no more so than on a DSLR kit lens) and as you zoom in, it is much brighter. The S100 has 1080p video, a big advance in my book and also much better high ISO from the camera. Knowing Canon vs Panasonic colours, I am pretty sure Canon will do a better job here and that in fact it always has done, right back to the S90 and before, yet to an extent if you shoot in Raw this can be solved, as I mostly do anyway. I even got a ‘custom colour’ pack from Kiss, which allows my LX5 Raws to be colour interpreted like any camera out there, from Leica to Nikon, which I do tend to use, despite the extra trouble. I wish the LX5 didn’t need so much processing to look ‘right’ to me and I know I’m not alone here. Still, it is good to know the files can take the transformation without posterising, or falling apart.
Although the LX5 is small, since I bought it, CSC have improved a lot, in features, speed and quality. with a zoom lens mounted, they are all a lot bigger than this, but their image quality, especially in worse light, is worlds ahead. Even Panasonic wonders if it is worth making a similar LX6. I feel that there is still a place for the high-end compact, though would prefer a CSC overall. The sensor is a major limitation, yet with careful post-processing, a lot can be made up for and it is brilliantly designed. The problem I have with CSC’s is actually picking one. I have narrowed my choices down a bit, but they iterate a lot and improve quickly. It is hard to know when to ‘jump on board’. So for now, the LX5 is my carry-around, or at times even pocket camera, which it works excellently at. and I am still learning my way around it.
So the LX5 may be getting longer in the tooth in the fast-changing world of compacts, but it’s still going strong, still in my bag and still out shooting. So there! I’ll close with a couple of wonderful videos from renowned pro Charlie Waite taking it for a spin. It may be a bit of an advertisement, but the inspiration offered here can help whatever the camera and it does show some of the flexibility the small form factor brings. Despite the poor high ISO performance, I like using it for street and walkabout photography for just this reason. Take it away, Charlie!