Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 Review
How Does it Compare?
With their new Lumix DMC-LX5, Panasonic has taken an already superb camera (the LX3), and made it even better. They've improved the image quality, zoom power, image stabilizer, movie mode, and battery life, while enhancing both the automatic and manual controls. The LX5's price tag is a bit high (just under $500), but it's arguably one of those most capable compact cameras on the market. The DMC-LX5 isn't a perfect camera, by any means. Viewing its RAW images tells me that the camera is capable of producing much better-looking JPEGs, and noise reduction can still be a little heavy in low contrast areas. The camera's burst mode remains disappointing, and the controls are tightly packed. Despite a few issues, the DMC-LX5 is a top pick for those looking for high image quality in a smaller package, and it earns my recommendation.
From most angles, the DMC-LX5 looks exactly like its predecessor, which is both good and bad. The LX5 is a midsize camera made almost entirely of metal, though the plastic door over the memory card/battery compartment is especially flimsy. The camera can be held and operated with one hand, though I found the controls to be small and too close together (though to be fair, there's not a lot of real estate to work with). One of the common complaints about the DMC-LX3 was that it lacked telephoto power (it topped out at 60 mm), and Panasonic has addressed this on the LX5 by providing a fast F2.0-3.3, 24 - 90 mm Leica lens. The LX5 has two different ways to extend the 3.8X zoom range. First, there's the old "extra optical zoom" feature, which gives you more zoom power (up to 6.7X) as you lower the resolution. The new feature is called Intelligent Zoom, and it's related to the Intelligent Resolution feature that I'll mention in a moment. This gives you 5X total zoom power at full resolution, with a barely noticeable drop in image quality.
For those unfamiliar with those aperture numbers (F2.0-3.3), they mean that the lens lets in considerably more light than what you'd find on a typical compact camera. Something else that's better than average is the LX5's CCD sensor which, at 1/1.7" in size, is larger than the 1/2.3" sensors found on most everything else. This sensor also allows the camera to take photos at all four aspect ratios (1:1, 4:3, 3:2, and 16:9) with the same field-of-view. Panasonic has improved the image stabilizer on the LX5, giving it the "Power OIS" designation. They say that it's twice as effective as the old "Mega OIS" system, and I'll have to take their word for it (it never disappointed me in real world use).
On the back of the camera you'll find a 3-inch LCD display with 461,000 pixels. As you'd imagine by that pixel count, everything is very sharp. The LCD has excellent outdoor and low light visibility, making it usable in nearly all shooting situations. If you'd like, you can add an optical or electronic viewfinder to the LX5, both of which attach via the hot shoe. The only things to keep in mind is that the optical viewfinder is designed for wide-angle use, and that the EVF's 202k pixel resolution isn't great. Speaking of accessories, the LX5 can also accept an external flash (it does have a hot shoe, after all), a wide-angle conversion lens, filters, and more.
Few compact cameras are as feature-packed as the LX5. If you just want to let the camera do all the work, then the LX5's Intelligent Auto mode is just what you're looking for. Panasonic has added so many features to iAuto that it's become too long to list them all, but I can tell you that it will automatically select a scene mode (for both stills and movies), detect faces, reduce blur, brighten shadows, and intelligently sharpen your photos. The camera doesn't just detect faces (which it does well), it can also learn who people are, and then give them priority in future photos. The LX5 has tons of scene modes, though the most interesting lower the resolution and raise the sensitivity, thus reducing image quality. Two other new point-and-shoot features include a Panorama Assist mode (which helps you line things up, but leaves the stitching for your PC) and a My Color feature, which is similar to Art Filters on Olympus cameras.
The manual controls have been enhanced as well. In addition to having control over the shutter speed, aperture, and focus, the LX5's white balance options have expanded, with the added ability to bracket (though there's still no fluorescent preset to be found). Speaking of which, you can also bracket for Film Mode (customizable color/contrast/sharpness/noise reduction settings), exposure, and aspect ratio. Naturally, the LX5 supports the RAW image format, and Panasonic includes a capable (but clunky) editing tool for working with these files.
The LX5's performance is top-notch, with really only one notable exception. The camera starts up in about 1.6 seconds, which is about average. Panasonic has advertised faster focusing speeds on the LX5, and I was not disappointed. Wide-angle focus times range from 0.2 - 0.4 seconds, with telephoto times about twice as long. Low light focusing was both accurate and quick, with focus times of one second or less. I didn't find shutter lag to be a problem, and shot-to-shot speeds were very brief, ranging from one second for JPEGs to three seconds for RAW+JPEG (adding the flash into the mix brought the JPEG times up to around three seconds). The LX5's battery life is considerably better than both the LX3 that it replaces, as well as the competition: you can take up to 400 shots per charge. The one performance-related area in which the LX5 disappoints is in the continuous shooting department. The camera can shoot at 2.5 frames/second, but for only 3 to 5 shots, depending on the image quality setting. There's a high speed burst mode in the scene menu, but it's at a low resolution and high sensitivity, so you'll likely be disappointed with the results.
The movie mode on the LX5 has also been nicely improved. While the LX3 could record 720p24 video, you were limited by a 7-8 minute time limit (per clip) and the inability to use the optical zoom. That's all changed on the new model, which now supports the AVCHD Lite codec, in addition to the M-JPEG codec used by the LX3. AVCHD Lite allows for 1280 x 720 videos at 60 interlaced frames per second (though the sensor output is only 30 fps) with unlimited recording time (outside of Europe) and digital sound. You can fit up to 30 minutes of video at the highest quality setting onto a 4GB SDHC card (high speed card recommended). If you want to use M-JPEG instead (which is easier to edit and share on your PC), then you'll still get 720p video (and a bunch of smaller resolutions), but you'll be limited to 8 minutes per clip. The file sizes are considerably larger, as well. What else is new in movie mode? Quite a bit, including full manual controls, use of the optical zoom (and image stabilizer), and a wind cut filter. The LX5 also sports automatic scene selection when in iAuto mode, plus a dedicated movie recording button. Video quality was quite good, aside from the occasional vertical streaks that can appear when bright light sources are in view.
That brings us to photo quality. While it's not going to replace a D-SLR, the LX5 produces photos that are of higher quality than your typical compact camera. Exposure was accurate, though even the large-sensored LX5 was not immune to some highlight clipping at times. I've got no complaints about color -- everything was nice and saturated. The LX5 has a new "Intelligent Resolution" feature which varies the amount of sharpening in an image, depending on the subject matter. For the most part, it works quite well, with "just right" sharpness, though on a few occasions there were some subjects in the frame (usually people) that seemed too soft. In normal lighting, the LX5 produces very clean-looking photos through ISO 400, with ISO 800 remaining usable -- and that's for JPEGs. The camera doesn't smudge details as badly as previous models, though I still notice that low contrast areas appear more mottled than I would've liked. The LX5 is at its best when you shoot RAW and do some post-processing, which tells me that its JPEG engine could be better (though this is typical for most cameras). Spending a few minutes converting the RAW images will allow you to turn soft and muddy ISO 1600 and 3200 photos into something you can actually use for small and perhaps midsize prints. Purple fringing popped up occasionally, as did some mild corner blurriness -- both things that you don't typically see on a Panasonic camera. Redeye performance was the total opposite of how things have been lately -- the LX5 had no redeye problems, thanks to its dual-pronged approach to reducing this annoyance.
The only other thing I wanted to mention is about the LX5's documentation. Despite the $500 price tag, there's only a brief "basic manual" in the box, with the full manual waiting for you in PDF format on an included CD-ROM. The manuals are not what I'd call user-friendly, but they're definitely detailed.
The Panasonic Lumix LX series has earned almost a cult following for its fast, wide-angle lens, manual controls, and expendability. I'm pleased to report that the LX5 continues that tradition, improving in nearly every respect. The only real issues I have with it are its JPEG engine and some design annoyances (small, clutter buttons and the flimsy memory card door). If you can deal (or work around) those issues, then you'll find that the LX5 is a camera that does just about everything -- and very well, to boot. It's a camera that I can recommend without hesitation.
What I liked:
- Very good photo quality, low noise though ISO 800 in good light (and things look better if you shoot RAW)
- Fast F2.0-3.3 lens with newly expanded 24 - 90 mm focal range
- New and improved optical image stabilization
- Midsize, well built body (in most respects)
- High resolution 3-inch LCD display with very good outdoor and low light visibility
- Full manual controls, with lots of white balance and bracketing options
- RAW image format supported, powerful (but clunky) editing software included
- Fast autofocus system, even in low light
- Intelligent Auto mode picks a scene for you, detects faces, tracks a moving subject, and brightens shadows, all automatically
- Intelligent Zoom feature gives you 5X zoom with minimal loss in image quality
- Four aspect ratios to choose from, with field-of-view remaining consistent
- Well-implemented face detection feature
- Redeye not a problem
- Records 720p video with digital sound, full manual controls, and use of optical zoom and image stabilizer; two codecs to choose from; wind cut filter handy for outdoor recording
- Excellent battery life
- Lots of optional extras: wide-angle lens, filters, external flash, optical/electronic viewfinders
- HDMI output
What I didn't care for:
- Best photo quality obtained by shooting RAW (translation: JPEG engine needs improvement)
- Noise reduction still a bit heavy on low contrast subjects; some subjects seem noticeable softer than the rest of the image
- Mild corner blurring, highlight clipping, and purple fringing
- Unremarkable burst mode
- Still no fluorescent white balance preset
- Small, cluttered buttons on back of camera; flimsy door over memory card/battery compartment
- Full manual on CD-ROM; manuals are not user-friendly
- A bit pricey
As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera or electronics store to try out the Lumix DMC-LX5 and its competitors before you buy!
Want to see how the photo quality turned out? Check out the DMC-LX5 photo gallery!