More on Mirrorless

Like a lot of people, during many years of DSLR use, I’d been wanting for some time a lighter, alternative and I decided a few months ago to follow my heart on this and give M4/3 a try. Thanks to some superb pricing, I found myself with an Olympus EPL-2 with the twin zoom kit, something I’d had my eye on for some time, but already having an extensive Nikon system, had been loath to start investing in another one. Yet realising that without too much outlay I could have a pretty comprehensive kit that is very little trouble to carry around and a real pleasure to use, I took the plunge and haven’t really looked back.

Seeing the quality I could get and in many cases superior sharpness and colour, has been quite a revelation. Olympus and Panasonic have given me access to a new family of relatively small, light lenses of incredible quality, with the promise of more to come. Just looking at the results from the 25mm f/1.4 Pana-Leica, or Olympus’s groundbreaking 75mm f/1.8 or 60mm macro is just astonishing. No, I don’t (yet) have a complete system on it, nor do I need to, as I have the Nikons for that. What I do have is a highly portable, if not quite ‘compact’ sized system, with very good sensors, ergonomics and lenses that are in many ways better than their equivalents on DSLR systems, which may come as a surprise to anyone assuming that bigger must necessarily be better.

Meanwhile, I have kept building my ‘main’ Nikon system and have some of the reasonably priced Nikon primes. They are a lot more fun to use than zooms and are sharp and bright, but no way do they have the character and level of interestingness of my M4/3 ones. There is a reason for this.  Whilst my 35mm and 50mm f/1.8’s are in many ways excellent lenses, with fine sharpness, bokeh and usability, they are offered as Nikon’s ‘second best’ to their larger, f/1.4 cousins. Meanwhile, on M4/3, there is no ‘full frame’ to encourage users to ‘upgrade’ to… To mind almost as ridiculous as asking 35mm film users to go out and get a medium format camera if they want a good lens!

Whilst there are grades of lenses on M4/3, you can get some incredible ones without too much outlay. Thanks to the smaller and ‘designed for digital’ sensors to cover, you can get some really excellent glass especially developed for them, a situation we previously only found with the high-end compacts (though M4/3 sensors are so much larger than such compacts that you have a big advantage). What really showed me the strength of the system was reviewing my images, seeing just what I was able to achieve with them. Thanks to Olympus’s intelligently built-in shake reduction and lenses that don’t really need to be stopped down, I could get away with much lower ISOs, so avoid the disadvantage here. I started to get some really amazing results and being able to use the small cameras more casually is undoubtedly a factor in this. In terms of the lens designers, the format means they can much more easily make small sharp creations, that perform really well indeed.

Here are my lenses and a little comment on what it’s like to use them. These aren’t of course reviews, but in a sense user reports. They an’t objective tests, but my feelings of what it’s like to use them. The reference point is all I really know; my experiences with Nikon’s line, on DX, which has it’s own significant advantages when it comes to dynamic range and depth of field control, not to mention being light years better at higher ISO’s (especially compared to the aging sensor in the EPL-2).

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A Mirrorless Ocean

In my last post on the topic, I started off reflecting on the sheer variety of mirrorless (or CSC, compact system cameras), and ended up seeing the spirit of playful creativity they bring. Today, I want to get back to the camera themselves. Like many, I continue to be a DSLR user with a compact, or compacts for backup. As my needs changed, I ended up getting more bodies to meet them, not to mention lenses, attachments, batteries and so on, this being life for a photo enthusiast or pro, you simply want the best tool for the job. Now we have a whole new range of possibilities opened up by this growing range of CSCs, which while they can’t yet, in my opinion, replace a DSLR in many areas, in others they may even be better than one, which isn’t something I could say about many compacts, by virtue of being ligher, smaller and much, much more discrite.

Interestingly, despite all being in their own way attractive and exciting they bring a new range of pros and cons, not just in the camera themselves, but as systems. I’ll go into what I see these as being below. By the way, the order is based around their approximate date of introduction, though I do save one for last. I’ll get onto which I like best in the conclusion, which if you’re anything like me you’ll scroll right down to, although I think you’ll be able to guess from the various summaries.

You’ll notice that the features of the camera are generally in the ‘pros’. Why? Well, to do anything else would just end up repeating them, as it’s generally the features that are lacking, or don’t work, that end up being cons. I’ve also tried to focus on balancing usability concerns along with IQ, to my mind (of course!), as unlike the bulky but ergonomically time-tested and proven DSLR’s, these are all about the portability, with IQ arguably coming a close second. Many of these cameras would never survive going toe to toe with a modern DSLR in IQ terms (though a few of them, interestingly enough may even surpass them), but then again, they don’t have to, it being enough they are all far, far better than even a ‘high end’ (1/1.7″ sensor) compact. With each of them I list the system name and crop factor compared to 35mm full-frame. It may be a dated frame of reference in our digital world, but it’s the only commonly-agreed one we have, so it serves a purpose. So here we go, an early 2012 survey of the CSC options of our time…

CSC Systems Today

Olympus Pen EP-3

Probably the nicest CSC of the bunch, but not necessarily the most powerful.

Olympus (Pen, Micro 4/3 mount, 2x)

Pros- The Pens offer a beautiful range of bodies, with retro-styling and built-in shake reduction (uniquely, as other manufacturers limit this to the lens-based stabilisation). As cameras to use, this is very attractive, as unattractive models just aren’t much fun. Being M 4/3, the longest standing CSC system and arguably the inspiration behind the others, there is already a great and growing selection of lenses, far better than any other CSC system. With the Panasonic made, though Leica-designed 20mm f/1.7, 25mm f/1.4 and 7-14mm wide-angle, you have some of the best lenses anywhere, certainly for the price. Olympus is catching up too, after initial efforts just to make lenses smaller, ending up with their decent folding zooms, they are now making world-class optics again, just as they did for the original 4/3 system, in the 12mm f/2 and 45mm f/1.8. What is unique about these lenses, aside from their relatively very small size, is their small price. there is just no way you could make lenses of this quality in this price range for a full-frame, or even probably an APS-C camera. Simple reason- a sensor that is easier to design for and much less glass needed to cover it.

The latest bodies have very fast contrast-detect autofocus, which works well in good light and with stationary subjects. Due to the inbuilt IS and styling, they are a favourite for using classic MF lenses with adapters, or perhaps even newer ones as well. Their software also offers excellent jpeg conversion, wonderful menus and creative ‘picture styles’, which along with the fantastically styled bodies, makes for a uniquely attractive photo-taking machine. Throw on a nice, stabilised prime and you could be in photographer’s heaven, especially with the recent EP-3. Very soon, the high-end, weather-sealed EM-5 will be released, along with a ‘new’ 16mp sensor and 5-axis stabilisation, built in viewfinder and weatherproofing., though until it comes out, we won’t know for sure how good it is.

Cons- The current highest end body (EP-3) is pricey, whilst older models, which are still on sale, have much worse AF. It uses an older, probably even 4-year old 12mp sensor, so you have to wonder if you are getting good value for money with it. No inbuilt EVF, just fairly low-resolution LCDs for focusing. There is a good external EVF, but it’s bulky, which seems to defeat the purpose of a small system. Also, the M 4/3 sensor is smaller than APS-C, as found in most DSLRs, making for worse dynamic range, high ISO and making it harder to limit the depth of field. The lack of phase-detect AF means the camera can’t do motion tracking very well, making them a poor choice for sports, crawling babies, even flowers swaying in the wind. If you found yourself missing a lot of shots on your compact due to movement, you may see the same thing happening here.

Another con is that despite being a large and growing system, it still lacks what many pros need- bright 2.8 zooms. Even if it had them, they would need to be at least f/2 to compensate for the smaller sensor, as are Olympus’s M4/3 zooms. They are probably (in f/2.8) coming though, as Panasonic has already shown prototypes at the latest CES show. Due to the laws of physics, they’ll be best balanced on the larger bodies making for a relatively compact system rather than a small one, as cropped-sensor DSLR users have been enjoying over the past decade, only more so.

Summary- Olympus offers the nicest bodies in my opinion, with the design, stabilisation and software. With the right lenses, you could really by in a photographer’s Nirvana. The only things holding me back right now are the lack of phase detect AF, which I suppose could be made up for if they develop an even better contrast detection alternative, and the seriously outdated sensor. The upcoming EM-5 promises a better sensor, though being micro 4/3, it will probably be a tweaked version of the one used in Panasonic’s G3/G1X, which is an improvement, but not nearly as good as it’s APS-C rivals, despite having much smaller lenses to compensate.

Panasonic G1X

Stylish and simple, this camera has everything going for it, but can it’s ‘evolution’ match other maker’s ‘revolutions’?

Panasonic (Various Bodies, Micro 4/3 mount, 2x)

Pros- Along with Olympus, newer models have very fast contrast-detection AF and the growing selection of lenses. The higher-end models have a newer 16mp sensor, that has better high ISO and dynamic range than the former 12mp sensor , which in the case of the rangefinder-styled G1x has made its way into a small body. The larger models have good, built-in EVFs, which gives them a mini-DSLR styling. They have excellent 1080p video, with fast AF, especially in the flagship GH2 model. If you want something smaller. though, with great controls, taken as a set, the G1X and it’s retracting power-zoom offer a great image quality combo in a small and stylish body.

Cons- Lower end models are like plastic Fisher-Price toys, seemingly to appeal to the lowest common denominator (ie a compact user looking to move up slightly). As with Olympus, no phase-detect AF, and the disadvantages of the smallish sensor in this category. Panasonic also has a reputation for poor jpeg output and dull, unnatural colours. After using their compacts, I’d have to agree to an extent. It’s not so much that their colours are always so bad these days… just that other makers do better, especially Olympus, with their incredible colour. Also, no OS in the bodies means it can’t be used with primes or legacy glass, a small point perhaps, but a missed opportunity all the same.

Whilst their primes are excellent and the original 14-45mm OiS zoom is a bit of a legend in its own lifetime, there seems to be a lot of controversy about the newer ‘x’ branded power-zooms. Perhaps as a consequence of their attempted miniaturisation (very effectively, I might add in the case of the diminutive 14-42mm x), I have seen a lot of complaints of the OiS not working and in fact blurring shots just when it is needed and also of the long ends being soft and blurry compared to their predecessors. Leica actually refused to have them branded with their name, as they depend so heavily on digital correction to resolve their various distortions. There also seems to be some variance in reports, as whilst some professional reviews praise them, users are having some really bad experiences and even advising to turn of the stabilisation and forgo using the long ends of the zoom. Seeing as they are quite expensive in their range, I’d personally hold off getting one until the issue is resolved, or else work within the limitations they might have, as having such a small, retractable zoom is very attractive, if it actually works well.

There is also and this is just my opinion (but not only my opinion), the absolutely dreadful interface and overlays Panasonic is plagued with. Much like my LX5, there are a collection of very useful features buried in menus with obscure terms (okay, it’s even worse for me as I need to work out the Japanese interface as Panasonic has yet to figure out how to make their menus bilingual). The overlays take up much of the screen, so you end up switching them off even if they would be useful. Plus their LCD’s are small and low resolution compared to the competition. I really get the feeling that whilst some of the cameras are seriously designed by and for photographers, the same can’t be said for the interface. Panasonic, if you are in any way listening, please rewrite the book here!

Summary- The higher end Panasonics offer a very compelling system, with some remarkable lenses. Yet to get an EVF, you need a bulky body that goes against the spirit of CSCs, giving them an underwhelming impression, despite their capabilities. If the new G1X had one, it would be just perfect, with its full range of controls, 16mp sensor and attractive styling, yet for now you are stuck with it being an accessory and an expensive one at that (without being as good as the Sony model, either). The G1X, like the similarly-styled GF1 before it, remains a very attractive camera, at a good price point, yet one that can’t be seen out of context of the competition it now faces in today’s crowded marketplace. After playing around with it for a bit, it’s a camera i can recommend, but not one I can solely recommend.

Unless you are doing video or can handle a larger body, I think Olympus has the edge… except for their outdated sensors, this is. I can’t say I find Panasonics as enjoyable to use as some other brands, due mainly to their interfaces, which for me prioritise the wrong controls, leaving others buried, but this is a small issue when compared with something like lens choice or image quality.

Overall, as they have done for so many years, Panasonic offers a serious selection, with many models (including some discontinued ones on sale for hefty discounts) offering a very good ‘bang for your buck’. Whether you can live with what often comes across as an electronic maker’s venture into cameras is up to you… I’ve certainly got a lot of good use from my Lumix compacts, whatever their shortcomings and the G1X is a very attractive package. I suppose my general feeling is that most of their cameras are a work in progress and other than the GH-2 they have yet to produce anything that comes across as ‘fully finished’ to me as a NEX 7, EP-3, or V-1. Talking of the NEX7…

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Relook at the Panasonic LX5

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.

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Small World

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.

Conclusion

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!

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.

Straight, No Chaser.

A Traditional Photography Blog - dehk © 2016

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