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Trip The Light Fantastic
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 promises exceptional low-light performance in a small package. Is this the Little Deuce Coup of compact digital cameras?
When Panasonic unleashed the posh Lumix LX3 compact digital camera in 2008, it was hailed for its fast-reacting shutter (a rarity for a compact camera in those days) and its easy-to-access manual controls. Now, two generations later, the new Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 (available in Black or White from Adorama for $499) adds the fastest lens to be found on any compact camera at f/1.4, a good old-fashioned aperture ring on the lens itself, and improvements in sensor quality.
Top view: Note prominent aperture ring dial and aspect ratio switches on lens barrell, stereo microphone in front of flash shoe, and quick-access red video button above the on-off switch on LX7's top plate.
Is the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 the ultimate low-light small-sensor compact that photo enthusiasts have been looking for? I had an LX7 for several weeks and used it in a wide variety of shooting situations, from street photography under heavy overcast skies to nighttime photos and wedding candids. Let's take a closer look and see how it did in the real world.
Back of a white Panasonic LX7; the camera is available in black and white bodies. Note data port below flash shoe to accomodate shoe-mounted accessories including electronic eye-level viewfinder.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 Key features
- 10MP sensor
- 9fps high-speed continuous shooting
- 24-90mm (35mm equivalent) f/1.4-2.3
- 3-inch, 920k LCD monitor
- Shutter speeds 60-1/4000 sec
- ISO range 80-6400
- RAW or JPG image file formats
- MPG-4, AVCHD video
- Price: Approx. $500
In The Hands
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 is small and light, and comfortable to carry and hold. A simple on-off switch starts up the camera within a second; A raised rubberized handgrip provides purchase, while the focus and aspect ratio switches on the side of the lens, as well as the intuitive aperture ring, provide easy access. While I rarely changed the aspect ratio, I welcomed the ability to quickly toggle between manual and autofocus modes, and used that feature often. Two convenient dials in back of the camera let you manually adjust focus and shutter speed when in those modes, while other frequently-used features, such as ISO AF/AE lock, and white balance are all a button-press away. A mode dial atop the camera accesses PASM, intelligent auto, scene, art filter and custom shooting modes as well as video, and a big red button next to the shutter release lets you shoot videos immediately.
There's a built-in stereo microphone, but alas, no external microphone jack. The flash shoe also accommodates the Panasonic DMW-LVF2 electronic viewfinder, something I found to be an essential tool, despite the extra cost, since I prefer shooting at eye-level. (Although the camera's anti-shake technology was effective, you can buy yourself a bit more stability when shooting at eye-level.) If you'd rather go the optical route, consider the matched Panasonic DMW-VF1 optical viewfinder, which will let you frame accurately at 24mm.
Low-light marvel: Shot at dusk at f/1.4 at 1/40 second at ISO 400, the LX7's wide maximum aperture allows just a bit more flexibility in hand-held exposures while maintaining considerable depth of focus.
In The Field: Street Photo Stress Test
One of the things Panasonic's entire compact camera line has excelled in for several years has been responsiveness, and the LX7 is no exception. In autofocus mode, focus acquisition time is nearly instantaneous, and when shooting in manual exposure mode and manual focus I found there to be virtually no lag time. When shooting JPEGs, the buffer cleared quickly, and I had not lag time even when shooting several images in quick succession.
But the thing that's really special about this camera is the lens. At 24mm (35mm equivalent), it has a widest aperture of f/1.4, the fastest lens to be found in any compact digital camera and a step up from its predecessor's f/2. Now, you might think that you'll get really nice focus fall-off at this setting, but because the actual minimum focal length is a short 4.7mm, depth of field is still quite deep, even at f/1.4. Not sure how much of the scene is in focus? A handy-dandy depth-of-field on-screen readout provides an accurate indication of the range of focus that is adjusted in real time as you change focal length, aperture and focus distance. This is great for street photographers, since most street photographers rely on hyperfocal distance to determine focus.
In this shot, made under heavy clouds in New York, I was able to shoot at 1/500 second at f/2.8 at ISO 400. Since the actual focal length is 4.7mm, I was able to use the handy on-screen hyperfocal distance indicator to determine that everything from about 3 feet, where the man on the right was, to 15 feet, where the young lady was standing, would be in focus.
The sensor, being 1/1.7 inches in size, performs best at ISO 100-200, so f/1.4 becomes more important when the light gets low if you want to maintain a fast shutter speed. Panasonic actually shrank the sensor slightly comparedto the previous-generation LX5, which had a 1.63-inch sensor. While this seems to go against the current trend towards larger sensors, the slightly smaller sensor has minimal effect on image quality but allowed engineers to build a faster lens in a camera that's essentially the same size. The results? I found that even when shooting on a cloudy late autumn day in New York that I could get an exposure of f/2.8 at 1/500 sec at ISO 200 and get outstanding depth of field, an accurate exposure, and excellent image quality.
Want shallow depth of field? You'll need to zoom out to the camera's modest telephoto setting, and get fairly close to your subject. But even at its longest extension, the lens gives you an f/2.3 top aperture, which is still quite fast and low-light-friendly.
Street photography demands split-second timing in order to capture nuances of expression and capture fleeting moments; when set in manual focus mode, the Panasonic LX7 showed virtually zero lag time, which let me concentrate on timing to get the above trio of shots.
My only beef with this camera is the built-in pop-up flash which, alas, performed typically for a built-in compact camera flash. Output was less than reliable and the range was short. Good thing there's (a) a hot shoe so you could add a shoe-mounted flash, (b) the f/1.4 aperture will let you avoid flash altogether in low-light situations and (c) this is not the kind of camera you would typically buy for its flash.
The bottom line for street shooters who don't want to spend thousands to gear up? The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 provides best-in-class performance and image quality, and its almost lag-free shutter release lets you concentrate on the timing needed to catch fast-changing scenes on the street.
The tilt-shift "miniature effect" and black-and-white filters are just two of many options for photographers who like to shake up their creativity.
While the Panasonic LX7 comports itself very well as a solid, traditional camera, it also has a fun factor, in the form of some 16 special effects filters that will satisfy even the most dedicated Instagrammer. Features include the tilt-shift “miniature effect” filter, soft focus, toy effect, star filter, cross process, high dynamic range, dynamic black and white, and more. There are 16 scene modes including panorama and 3D, and creative video modes that let you shoot in program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, manual exposure or 120fps high-speed video.
Video quality is up to 60fps at full HD 1080p resolution, and I found videos I shot with this camera to be acceptable for casual shooting. I do not recommend this camera for video, however, if you require an off-camera microphone because it lacks a microphone jack.
Low-light scene, above, shot at the LX7's native ISO 80; below: full 100% detail of the ice shows larger-sensor image quality.
Although we do not yet have DxOMark lab test results, I found that at ISO 100 and 200 image quality was excellent for up to 16x20 prints, and acceptable for 8x10 at ISO 400 (you can get away with 11x14 if you shoot in black and white). After that, noise levels quickly rise, and I wouldn't recommend going to ISO 800 or beyond. That's OK though, because with such a fast lens, you will rarely need to go past ISO 400, even in subdued light.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 features a 10MP sensor—more than enough resolution for up to 16x20-inch prints. The sensor is a tad larger than a typical compact digital camera sensor, and combined with the lower pixel density this should result in image quality that will surpass the more typical 16MP sensors that are common today.
Although I prefer shooting in manual exposure and focus modes, I shot this difficult-to-meter scene with the LX7 set to iAuto, putting the camera on autopilot. It did an admirable job here.
Conclusion and Recommendation
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 is the little deuce coup of compact digital cameras. With its super-responsive shutter release and quick-to-empty buffer, it did an outstanding job in tough street photography conditions, and should be excellent for photographing fast-moving pets, kids and sports action. Thanks to its class-leading f/1.4 wide aperture at its shortest focal length and f/2.3 aperture at its longest focal length, it offers exposure flexibility despite that helps to overcome the limits inherent in its small when shooting in low light. As long as you stick to lower ISOs, the LX7 will deliver outstanding image quality and give you great bang for your buck.