Meet the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 - the very pinnacle of the company’s compact camera range. The first thing you’ll notice when you pick it up is that it’s also nigh on the smallest Panasonic makes as well. With the same squared off Soviet looks that make it both appealing on the eye and the pocket as well.
As with the rest of these high powered mini-machines, the LX5 is also surprisingly easy and non-fiddly to use - certainly for the most part, anyway. If you didn’t know any better, it’d look very much like a mid- to low-range snapper. It has a fairly standard five-button navigation array, quick menu control and playback mode with the only clues to something greater are the AF/AE lock, the jog wheel for your thumb and the dedicated video record on the top.
The insides are where this compact holds the aces though. The CCD sensor has been redesigned yet again from the improvements made on the LX3 and the decent 1/1.63-inch size unit offers a wider dynamic range, increased sensitivity and better colour saturation. Panasonic claims an increase of numbers around 30-40 per cent and, although it’s impossible for the user to quantify the facts, we were certainly pleased with the depth of colour and even exposure offered across our pictures. Low light performance, we’ll have to save for the full review.
The Leica optics don’t disappoint either. There’s the same F/2.0, 24mm Summicron lens as on the LX3, but they’ve managed to eke out the zoom in this compact to 3.8x, 90mm equivalent. It was a little frustratingly short after having had our hands on the Panasonic FZ100, but if you want more telephoto prowess, you’d best plump for another model.
What you get instead, though, is the promise with this wide aperture of all the fun of narrow depth of field photography. In practice, it takes a fair bit of menu delving to set it up and the jog wheel is a touch tight too the thumb to really come into its own here - the way the focus ring works on the Canon PowerShot S90 - but there are all sorts of other ways to get into the menus instead.
What the LX5 does have on the lens barrel is the aspect ratio selector, as appeared on the previous model, and one can’t help wondering why Panasonic has bothered using such a good area for a function that not only just serves to reduce your effective sensor size, but can also be very easily achieved with cropping after the fact anyway.
The line of the LX5 isn’t broken by a flash because the little devil is concealed in the body and, refreshingly, pops-up on your command rather than when the camera thinks it fit. There is a hot shoe for an external light source but it should offer reasonable results without, given that the camera ISO goes up to 3200 before pixel mixing kicks in - up through ISO 6400 and ISO 12800 where the options max out. Realistically, we found you can certainly be shooting at ISO 800 without bumping into any noise issues. Combine that with the wide lens aperture and you’ll find you don’t need that flash as often as you might think.
There’s no burst shooting button on the chassis that you get with the FZ100 but that doesn’t mean you can’t get any shutter action out of the LX5. It shoots 2.5fps at full resolution but, slightly disappointingly, only for 5 frames. If what you’re trying to record is fairly predictable then you’ll be able to catch it clearly enough with the LX5, but otherwise it’s not really what it’s designed for. Naturally, you can sacrifice the detail for speed but, again, the bottom line is to opt for another camera if action shots are what you’re after.
Where it is quick is in the focus and shutter response. The LX5 uses Panasonic’s sonic speed AF technology which in practice means that you barely notice the thing having to work at all when it zeroes in. In fact, it gets to the point when you’re not sure if it’s actually performed the task as you scan about with the camera. A good bit of scrutinising of the very crisp 460k dot, 3-inch LED backed screen confirms it’s all happened - even if the depth of the colour shown doesn’t quite match what you see on your computer - before you get the almost instantaneous joy that is the 0.007 second shutter lag when you decide it’s time to snap. It comes across as if using an SLR for responsiveness - only without the pleasure of the mirror flick.
Once you chuck in 720p video recording and the fact that the whole thing is just 271g, it makes for a rather nice package.
While it’s hard to argue that the Panasonic LX5 doesn’t have everything you could ask for in a high-end compact camera, it does rather feel that you’re kept at arms length from it. It’s an obvious machine to use for point and press activity and there’s certainly enough automatic options to keep your shots properly exposed but, at the same time, there didn’t seem a lot to enjoy about it for DLSR or higher knowledge users looking for a kick around camera to keep on them at all times. Most of the manual fun was just too far from your fingertips to make that possible.
All the same, we certainly wouldn’t say that this isn’t a good machine. It works well. It takes great pictures, but somehow it just isn’t a whole lot of fun. People choosing it as a step up aren’t going to learn a lot from it and enthusiasts might rather play with something else. If you want a top notch point and press though, this might be what you’re after.