Few digital camera vendors are likely to spare a kind word for the smartphones that are remorselessly devouring their business, but that shouldn’t stop photographers from being grateful. They almost certainly have smartphones to thank for the flourishing of the high end of the compact camera market, where large image sensors, fast lenses, advanced controls and retro designs tailored to a photographic sensibility now abound.
The Lumix LX100 is a perfect case-in-point. It delivers a range of features that advanced shooters will appreciate in a camera body sized more for fanny packs than professional gear bags. We paired with New Jersey-based photographer David Patiño to see what a gear bag toting pro would make of it.
The LX100 uses a 16-megapixel Micro Four Thirds image sensor paired with a 24–75mm (full-frame equivalent) f/1.7–2.8 Leica Vario-Summilux lens. The sensor is actually larger than the lens, so you’ll only ever be snapping a 12.8-megapixel crop of the sensor. The mismatch is in the service of a feature called Multi Aspect mode that lets you change image aspect ratios while preserving the same overall resolution. You can switch between 1:1, 16:9, 4:3, and 3:2 to experiment with different framing.
Mechanical shutter speeds range from 60 seconds down to 1/4000 sec, but can reach as fast as 1/16,000 sec in electronic shutter mode. The native sensitivity range is ISO 100–25,600.
The LX100 can record 4K video (3840×2160 pixels) at 30, 25 or 24 fps. You can also record 1920x1080p60 video with a maximum bit rate of 28Mbps using the AVCHD codec.
Despite the presence of a large image sensor and f/1.7 lens, the LX100 manages to be slim and trim at just 0.86 pounds with battery and memory card. It’s not quite pocketable, but close enough.
It features a well-contoured front grip for your fingers and a rear grip for your thumb, making single-handed shooting effortless. There are familiar dials for shutter speed and exposure compensation on the top of the camera. The lens barrel offers a well-balanced focus ring, plus an aperture ring that clicks into place at each stop. A small switch for selecting aspect ratio sits between the focus ring and camera body—a bit too close, if you ask us. Off to the side of the lens barrel is a toggle switch for focus modes that’s also crammed in a bit too tightly.
The 3-inch display performs well in bright light, but it doesn’t tilt or flip out, which limits its utility. There’s also a 0.38-inch live viewfinder—good in a pinch, but not all that impressive.
There’s no built-in flash, but one is bundled with the camera. While on-camera flash is anathema to many shooters, the LX100 is still a point-and-shoot, and some users will undoubtedly miss having the option (competitive models, like Sony’s Cyber-shot RX100 III, offer them). Plus, as Patiño told us, bundling the flash separately is “just one more thing to lose.” Another thing you may lose is the lens cap. It can’t be clipped on and isn’t built-in.
There are three customizable function buttons on the back of the camera and a dedicated video button, so there’s ample room to tailor the LX100 to your needs. We would have traded in the dedicated filter effects button for a fourth custom button, but your mileage may vary.
Simply put, the images from the LX100 are DSLR-like. The shallow depth of field when shooting with this lens wide open in tandem with the large image sensor is a fantastic one-two punch. Patiño described the lens as one of the best—if not the best—he’s ever seen on a compact camera.
Low-light performance is similarly impressive, Patiño told us. We enjoyed predictably solid results through ISO 6400 and some useable images at ISO 12,800. What you don’t have, of course, is DSLR-like resolution and as much malleability from RAW files—even at low ISOs, attempting to recover shadow details in Adobe Camera RAW introduced noise rather quickly. Some fine details would get lost a bit on JPEGs, too, but overall the colors from the LX100 in JPEG popped nicely. Bottom line: Very few compact cameras can match the image quality from the LX100.
The DSLR qualities carry over to video as well, with the ability to adjust aperture and shutter speed on the fly during filming. You can achieve a nice shallow depth of field, or soak in more light when opening up the Leica lens. Both the 4K and HD video clips we shot were well-saturated and the image stabilizer did a decent job keeping footage relatively shake-free.
The LX100 also marks the debut of a new feature from Panasonic, dubbed 4K Photo Mode. Think of it as frame grabbing with a twist. Rather than pull stills from the LX100’s 4K video, where you’re locked into a 16:9 aspect ratio, 4K Photo Mode gives you the option to record in all the aspect ratios supported by the camera. We found it simple enough to use: when playing back your video in camera, you can pause playback and advance, frame-by-frame, through your video clip to find a favored still. Hit the “save” button and voila, you have an 8-megapixel JPEG, complete with EXIF data.
The virtue of 4K Photo Mode over burst shooting is that you’ll have more frames to choose from than you would simply using images shot in one of the camera’s continuous modes. We found that if the subject is moving rapidly, you’re more likely to get an in-focus image from the video than from the continuous modes. The trade-off is that you’re dealing with less resolution—8 megapixels versus 12—and you’re stuck with JPEGs only.
The LX100 clocks in at a speedy 11 fps for RAW+JPEG capture, with a buffer capable of storing up to about 20 images (using a Class 10 SDXC card) with the LCD off—faster than Canon’s Powershot G1 X Mark II. You can fire off up to 60 JPEGs at a motion-freezing 40 fps in a super high continuous mode, too, though AF locks at the first frame. The camera starts relatively quickly, though you’ll get a slight delay as the lens extends upon startup.
The LX100 also acquires focus quickly, and it offers excellent subject tracking during both stills and video. One thing we would have liked is more aggressive focus peaking. While the LX100 offers it in two settings, even in the strongest setting, it isn’t displayed prominently enough to be useful.
The LX100 has a battery life of 350 pictures per CIPA standards when framing with the LCD only, besting both the Canon Powershot G1 X Mark II and the RX100 III in the stamina department. Battery life will sink to as low as 270 pictures when using an external flash and EVF.
Panasonic hit almost all the right notes with the LX100, delivering a potent point-and-shoot with excellent image quality in a compact, customizable package. While it doesn’t offer the resolution or tilting display that you’ll find on Sony’s RX100 III, it does offer 4K video, a design that accentuates its professional capabilities and an absolutely terrific lens. It deserves a home in your gear bag or fanny pack, if that’s your thing (seriously, we won’t judge you).
PROS: Great image quality; large sensor; fast, bright lens; 4K video recording; multiple aspect ratio mode.
CONS: Display is fixed; no built-in flash; unimpressive live viewfinder; weak focus peaking.