Two years on from the Lumix DMC-LX5, Panasonic refreshes its flagship compact camera series with a class-leading fast Leica lens and 11fps burst mode. Read the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 review...
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 at a glance:
- 1/1.7in (7.6×5.7mm) multi-aspect-ratio MOS sensor
- 10.1 million effective pixels
- ISO 80-6400 (extendable to ISO 12,800)
- 4.7-17.7mm (24-90mm equivalent) f/1.4-2.3 DC Vario-Summilux Leica lens
- 11fps high-speed burst mode
- Street price around £450
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 review – Introduction
Panasonic’s LX series has long been at the forefront of the ‘expert’ compact camera sector. Now more than ever, though, this market is fiercely contested by most of the top camera brands. Just this year we have seen the release of some excellent cameras with solid build and intuitive handling from the likes of Canon, Fujifilm and Sony. Panasonic’s latest flagship compact camera, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7, arrives two years after its predecessor, the Lumix DMC-LX5, and in that time much has changed.
The point of focus of this change seems to be the use of a large imaging sensor. A large sensor provides, among other things, a greater ability to collect light (and therefore improved performance in low light) and more control over depth of field, which makes it easier to blur a background. It comes as something of a surprise, then, that the imaging sensor in the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 is actually smaller than that in its predecessor, and therefore some of its direct competition, too, such as the Olympus XZ-1. The size difference of the sensor in these models is fractional, with the LX7 using a 1/1.7in (7.6×5.7mm approx) sensor compared to the 1/1.63in (8.1x6mm approx) unit of the Olympus XZ-1. However, there are compact cameras available that have significantly larger sensors, among them Canon’s PowerShot G1 X, Fujifilm’s X10 and Sony’s Cyber-shot DSC-RX100.
So why use a smaller sensor? The main reason is that Panasonic aims to build on the strengths the LX series already has – fast lenses in compact bodies – rather than push the newest model into new realms. The LX5 had a fast f/2 lens, but now the LX7 has a class-leading 24-90mm f/1.4-2.3 Leica optic (the Samsung EX2F also has a f/1.4 lens, but it is reduced to f/2.7 at its longest, 80mm focal length). To work with such wide apertures, the LX7 features a built-in, 3-stop ND filter, which means the f/1.4 setting can still be used in bright sunlight. Needless to say, the lens is the standout feature of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7, but I’m going to look at just how much the camera benefits from its class-leading features, and how it fares against the competition.
The Lumix DMC-LX7 is the fifth in Panasonic’s LX series of compact cameras, and draws on some great design work. Each camera in the range has offered a solid build, a focal range ideal for everyday use and wide apertures suited for use in low light. Outwardly, very little has changed in this new model, and to a degree the same can be said for the specification, although this is by no means a bad thing. However, there are some key improvements that make the LX7 the best model yet.
Like its LX5 predecessor, the LX7 uses a multi-aspect ratio sensor, which means it is designed to maximise the number of pixels used by the sensor when switching between aspects. The sensor is 7.6×5.7mm (approx) in size and packs in 12.7 million pixels, with up to 10.1 million pixels (effective) being used at any one time. To encourage the use of the 3:2, 4:3, 1:1 and 16:9 aspect ratios (of which 4:3 uses the largest number of pixels), the camera has a switch on its lens that makes it easy to swap between them. What’s new here is that the sensor is no longer a CCD type, but rather a ‘high-sensitivity’ MOS unit. MOS types typically consume less power, which is useful given the higher resolution of the LX7’s LCD with its power-hungry output. The change in sensor size, as well as the wider maximum aperture value, also means that the lens has been reworked.
The continuous shooting modes in the LX7 are a big improvement over previous models. Full-resolution capture is possible at 11fps for 12 frames with the focus and exposure fixed (compared to 2.5fps in the LX5). A 5fps burst mode allows continuous tracking AF during capture, while up to a 60fps burst is also possible at a 2.5-million-pixel image size.
Image: Where conditions are dull and flat, the impressive art setting in the creative control adds drama to the scene
Other shooting modes include a creative control menu that contains a mighty 16 picture effects, such as impressive art, and a scene mode menu with another 16 options, including HDR and 3D. The camera’s Intelligent Auto (iAuto) function uses the scene modes to create an appropriate auto exposure. Furthermore, a time-lapse mode has been added, for which a start date and time can be selected along with shooting intervals of up to 30mins for a total of 60 frames.
While the LX7 has a strong feature set that builds on its predecessor, other firms have made more advances during the past couple of years. A few features are missing that could have helped the LX7 to stand out from the crowd, such as GPS, Wi-Fi, an articulated screen and even touchscreen functionality. Also, some people may find the relatively low count of 10.1 million pixels, which enable 12.2×9.1in prints at 300ppi, too modest for their printing needs. However, for a camera of its type I found it was enough, and perfectly sufficient for A3 prints.
24-90mm Leica DC-Vario Summilux f/1.4-2.3 lens
The lens is the key improvement to the Lumix DMC-LX7. The sensor’s crop factor of 4.55x means that the focal length of the lens is now 4.7-17.7mm in order to achieve the 24-90mm effective length. This is the same effective focal length as the LX5’s lens and covers most situations.
The lens consists of 11 elements in 10 groups, including five aspherical and two ED elements, and one with a nano-surface coating to reduce flare and ghosting. At its wide 24mm focal length, the maximum aperture is f/1.4, reduced to f/1.9 at 50mm and f/2.3 at 90mm.
However, a sensor with a 4.55x crop factor does not offer great control over depth of field. At f/1.4, the depth of field is equivalent to using f/6.3 on a full-frame camera (1.4×4.55), and at the tele 90mm end, where f/2.3 is possible, this equates to around f/11. So while the level of blur achievable is respectable thanks to wide apertures, it is the increased level of light entering through the lens that is the true benefit, enhancing handheld low-light performance by allowing the use of low ISO settings.
Our resolution chart shows the camera benefits from an improved capacity to resolve detail, which is no doubt a reflection on the centre sharpness of the lens. Edge detail maintains good clarity, too. Detail in subjects close to the camera looks crisp and clean. Distortion is more noticeable when buildings and straight lines are in the frame. There is the usual barrel distortion at wide focal lengths and slight barrel distortion at 50mm, but at 90mm the camera appears largely distortion-free.
Image: The f/4 setting of the lens ensures that the crispest level of detail is achieved, although the widest f/1.4 aperture is still respectable
Build and handling
At a first glance, the Lumix DMC-LX7 appears to be the same size and made to the same high quality as the LX5. Delve a little deeper, however, and there are some key changes to how the LX7 handles.
In a move that will please photographers, an aperture ring has been added to the lens, covering the full aperture range of f/1.4 to f/8 in 1/3EV increments. This control is great for those who frequently shoot in aperture-priority or manual-exposure mode. The ring is manually controlled, although its setting can be electronically overridden. For example, the f/1.4 setting is not available at 90mm, so it is changed to its widest f/2.3 aperture. In this instance, to begin closing the aperture down from f/2.3 requires four clicks down the aperture ring.
As on the LX5, the lens ring on the LX7 also includes aspect ratio and focus modes. With such a prime position on the camera, I found that I switched between aspect ratios more frequently than usual, rather than cropping the frame post-capture.
To protect the lens, a separate lens cap is included. If the lens cap is still attached when starting up the camera, a message appears reminding you to remove it before shooting is possible, although image playback and menu navigation are possible. The message is necessary because the lens extends beyond the lens cap when in shooting mode, but days after I had started using the camera I still found this a regular frustration. Many other compact cameras feature a built-in lens cover that retracts on start up.
Shutter lag is negligible, but the LX7 is not the quickest camera to ready itself for shooting from start-up. From turning the camera on to zooming and then shooting takes a little over 5secs. I prefer the set-up of the Fujifilm X10, which uses its manual zoom lens to start up and zoom, taking less than 2secs from start-up to shooting.
Another addition to the LX7 is ND/Focus control, a press of which in shooting mode employs or removes the ND filter. Given the camera’s maximum 1/4000sec shutter speed, the f/1.4 aperture lets in too much light in bright sunshine so the ND filter is vital. The same applies to the minimum f/8 aperture, which is too fast for long exposures in daylight. Pushing the switch left or right controls manual focusing, which handily activates focus magnification. In playback mode, this switch doubles up with the control dial to scroll between images.
Like its predecessor, the LX7 has a hotshoe with accessory port, which holds the company’s latest DMW-LVF2 electronic viewfinder (EVF) and external flash units. Next to the hotshoe is a stereo microphone, with stereo sound being new to this camera. The pop-up flash is on a very solid spring mechanism and has good clearance from the lens in its elevated position. The usual manual control over the flash is possible, which includes ±2EV adjustment, first and second curtain, plus auto and redeye reduction modes.
Despite using the same 1,250mAh-capacity battery as its predecessor, the measured battery life of the LX7 is 330 shots compared to 400 shots in the LX5. This is most likely due to the LX7’s high-resolution screen. All in all, though, the handling and navigation of the controls, dials and menus (including the quick menu) is intuitive.
White balance and colour
There are six colour modes available, and having used them all I am happy with the results from the standard colour mode, in which tones are very punchy and realistic. On a bright sunny day, blues in the sky and greens in the fields are good straight out of the camera. However, when using the vivid or scenery modes, the saturation is pushed a little too far to be believable. Of course, each colour mode can be tweaked for contrast, saturation, sharpness and noise reduction, according to taste, with a custom setting possible to create a preferred setting. Having shot our colour chart for the entire ISO range under the same lighting conditions, I am impressed with how the colours are faithfully rendered and remain vivid, despite the presence of noise at the higher settings.
One of the direct controls on the four-way rear pad is for white balance, where the choice between auto white balance (AWB), five presets and two custom settings can be made. The AWB setting performs as I would expect it to for a camera at this level, not always being spot on and often reducing colour tones to give a neutral result. To keep the warmth of a sunset or the greens in a forest, it is therefore good practice to use the appropriate preset.
Just like the LX5, the Lumix DMC-LX7 uses a multi-segment metering system with 23 points. Whether in strong daylight or low-contrast light, the camera is quick to latch onto a subject. When the light is really low, the AF assist lamp is used to aid focusing, which is helpful for close-range subjects.
For greater control over autofocus, spot focus can be used, the size of which can be adjusted to any one of four settings. The largest size fills the majority of the frame, while the smallest covers around 3%, which enables precise work. With the smallest size selected, the spot can be chosen from any one of 713 areas, navigated by the four-way D-pad. I would have liked to see the touchscreen employed here, as featured in Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-TZ30 and its CSCs, because touch AF speeds up selection of the spot no end.
One advantage of the LX7’s small sensor is its 1cm macro mode, when the camera is set to its widest 24mm focal length. The macro AF mode can be found on the switch on the lens. For manual focusing, the new ND/focus button on the rear of the camera is helpful. Push left or right and focus assist ensures it is easy to view the point of focus.
AF tracking works well for everyday images, but is not designed to be used for the fast and erratic movements of most sports. Handily, tracking AF is available in the 5fps high-speed burst mode and also full time in video recording.
Whether it be in spot, centreweighted or evaluative mode, the metering system is linked to the active AF points. The evaluative metering mode is both reliable and predictable, which means it is one less thing to think about when taking pictures. For shooting in the iAuto (Intelligent Auto) mode, the exposure settings are controlled by the camera, depending on the scene it recognises. Those who tend to leave the camera in its auto mode will find iAuto reliable for the majority of scenes.
Noise, resolution and sensitivity
Image: In these unedited JPEG and raw images, detail is much crisper in the raw file. However, the JPEG does a good job with the colours, resulting in bold, realistic blues
These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured at the mid end of the zoom (approx 50mm). We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.
With the same 10.1-million-pixel resolution as its predecessor, it is impressive that the performance of the Lumix DMC-LX7 has been enhanced. Our resolution charts indicate increased centre sharpness, and the camera reaches the 24 mark in raw and the 22 mark in JPEG capture, when set to ISO 100 and an optimum aperture. More detail can be obtained from raw files. In JPEG images, there is a noticeable drop in sharpness at ISO 400, where luminance noise becomes apparent and noise reduction kicks in.
In the two years of the LX5’s lifetime, the expert compact camera market has moved on in terms of ability to resolve detail. For example, Sony’s Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 has an imaging sensor that is twice the size of the LX7’s (116mm2 compared to 49mm2) and twice the number of pixels, so it can resolve a significantly higher level of detail and produce prints at twice the size.
I found the LX7’s ability to resolve detail and control noise is affected dramatically by the chosen aperture and ISO settings. For the crispest detail f/2.8-4 is best, with the new Leica lens capable of good results.
Likewise, to avoid mushy detail that results from luminance and chroma noise, using a setting under ISO 800 is advisable. In the highest native setting of ISO 6400 (which is a 1-stop advantage compared to the LX5), detail is not great, and there is banding and bruising over shadow and midtone areas in the scene.
LCD, viewfinder and video
In all but bright, direct sunlight, the Lumix DMC-LX7’s 3in TFT LCD screen offers a clear and easily viewable display. The resolution of the screen has been upped to 920,000 dots, but the screen remains a fixed type with no articulation. It almost comes as a surprise (and certainly a disappointment) to find that there is no touch functionality, especially given that the technology has been used in Panasonic’s own compact system cameras and its travel-zoom Lumix DMC-TZ30.
Given its size, there is no room for a built-in viewfinder. However, thanks to the accessory port by the hotshoe, there is the option to use an EVF. The LX7 is compatible with the company’s DMW-LVF2 EVF (£230.99), which has a crisp display and 1.44-million-dot resolution.
For a camera at this level, the 1080p progressive AVCHD video capture at 50fps is impressive. Furthermore, stereo sound is available, although the two microphones are crammed together on the top-plate.
Image: The extra detail that can be extracted from the dark areas of this shot is limited
Judging from landscape images in both sunny and overcast conditions, the Lumix DMC-LX7 is capable of recording a wide range of tones. Cloud detail and blues in the skies are faithfully reproduced. Likewise, detail can be brought back from shadow areas by brightening the exposure a good 1-2EV before shadow noise becomes a problem. The LX5 held its own against the competition two years ago, and the LX7 does the same today.
For scenes where the range of tones is beyond the recording ability of the camera, the LX7 offers an HDR mode in the scene mode menu, which takes three consecutive frames and combines them for a wide dynamic range. Also, auto exposure bracketing at ±3EV is available over three frames. Of all the scene modes, I found HDR the most helpful, as it enhances the discernible level of detail and keeps the images looking relatively ‘real’.
Two years ago, in a crowded market, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 proved to be the best all-rounder and received an award from AP. Now, there is even greater competition. Samsung’s EX2F is an obvious competitor, as both feature an f/1.4 lens and similar focal range. The Lumix DMC-LX7 is slightly smaller, although the EX2F features built-in Wi-Fi and an articulated LCD screen.
Image: Samsung EX2F
Currently setting the standard for pocket cameras, Sony’s Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 features a sensor twice the size and twice the resolution of the LX7, and it is smaller. Both cameras handle well, and include aperture rings. Another compact camera with great handling is the stylish Fujifilm X10, which offers a more intuitive manually controlled zoom lens and an optical viewfinder.
Image: Cyber-shot DSC-RX100
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 may not score as highly as other recently reviewed cameras, such as the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 and Fujifilm X10, but it is still a very capable camera and the best Lumix LX camera yet. The introduction of an aperture ring and new fast Leica lens should appeal to ‘proper’ photographers. Also, the LX7’s video modes have been greatly improved and are up there with the best in this class.
I cannot help but feel that Panasonic has missed a trick here. Two years have passed since the LX5 was introduced, and the competition has moved on, but the LX7 has not improved enough. I do not mind the relatively small-sized sensor and low resolution – for a camera at this level I would not be considering exhibition-sized prints. What I would have liked to see, and what could have set this camera apart, is some of the technology from the firm’s Lumix G-series CSCs, especially the touchscreen with touch AF and shutter. For those who want to carry a compact camera every day, the LX7 is an excellent choice. However, there are a couple of other models that I would choose first.