There’s no sign of the high-end compact camera market slowing down. Panasonic, which reinvigorated the affordable premium sector with the launch of the LX3 back in 2008, has been a front-runner in the category and looks to continue this success with its latest Lumix LX7 model.
But where other manufacturers are lining up larger sensors for premium image quality performance - think Sony RX100 and Canon G1 X - the LX7 has done the exact opposite: its 1/1.7-in sensor is slightly smaller than that found in its Lumix LX5 predecessor. But only by a fraction.
Instead the LX7’s design focuses on a couple of key premium features: it’s got an f/1.4-2.3 aperture lens, includes a physical aperture ring (plus focus and aspect ratio switches), and there’s no mucking around when it comes to build quality.
Even without the very biggest of sensors available, can the LX7 amount to more than the sum of its parts; is this the ultimate high-end compact?
There’s a lot to be said for large sensors, and that’s why many manufacturers use them in their products to attract demand.
A large sensor has larger sensor nodes ("pixels") and therefore tends to produce a cleaner signal which, dependent on some processing magic, results in clean and crisp images.
The Lumix LX7’s sensor isn’t small per se, it just may be construed as such because of many competitors launching small-bodied, larger-sensor models in recent years.
To put it in perspective, the 1/1.7-in sensor size has close to 20 per cent less surface area than the 1/1.63-in version found in the LX5. But it’s still a larger-than-average sensor, and the 10-megapixel count is conservative, which avoids too many "pixels" getting crammed on to the sensor’s surface.
Although there’s no resolution increase compared to the LX5, the LX7’s multi-aspect-ratio sensor is brand new and, therefore, should take merit from Panasonic's ongoing engineering work. It may not be big, but that’s not the be all and end all…
The 24-90mm (equivalent) f/1.4-2.3 aperture Leica DC Vario-Summilux lens on the front of the LX7 has a whole lot of high points. Any lens brandished with the Leica name attests quality, and that super-wide f/1.4 aperture at the widest-angle setting is unrivalled in this class. The aperture can remain as bright as f/2.3 even when at the longest 90mm end of the zoom.
And herein lies a reason why the sensor is a little smaller: it’s the trade-off required to implant a super-bright lens while keeping the camera body small.
To many this aperture and size combination will outdo the large body of the Canon G1 X. And while the LX7 might look as if it can’t withstand the Sony RX100 in an "on paper" spec comparison, it’s the Panasonic’s design that has a couple of exciting tricks up its sleeve.
The Leica brand name on the lens is a lead in to a camera body that, in many respects, feels like a Leica compact camera. The LX7 will also - at least, almost certainly - reappear as a red-dot-badged (and far pricier) Leica D-Lux6 in the not too distant future.
The LX7’s standout feature is its old-skool-styled aperture ring around the lens itself. It twists from f/1.4 down to f/8.0 in thirds of a stop and has just enough resistance to hold in place without proving a problem to shift.
The lens barrel also hosts an aspect ratio switch to juggle between 1:1, 4:3, 3:2 and 16:9 ratios without the need to dive into the menus. The aspect ratios use different portions of the sensor’s height and width, depending on which one is selected, and it’s this that gives the LX7’s sensor its multi-aspect name.
A rear thumbwheel that also acts as a button to control exposure compensation sits to the side of a nudge-wheel that controls manual focus or can be depressed to activate the three-stop neutral density (ND) filter. The inclusion of an ND filter is an essential for making the most of the wide aperture in brighter conditions, in particular as there’s no thread on the LX7's lens for adding further filters.
To the side of the lens is a switch to select between autofocus (AF), macro autofocus and manual focus (MF).
Autofocus is impressive. It’s fast whether in the Face Detection, Subject Tracking, 23-Area or 1-Area modes. The single-area focus point can be adjusted between four sizes using the ND/Focus nudge-wheel and positioned almost anywhere on screen, excluding the outermost edges. A bit of a shame it’s not full-on edge-to-edge on this occasion, but maybe that will be updated in a future firmware release.
When the sun goes down the autofocus still keeps at it. The inclusion of a red AF-assist lamp is useful, but it deploys only when it absolutely has to. Even without its illumination the LX7’s ability to "grab hold" of a subject in low-light impresses.
If manual focus is your weapon of choice then, sadly, there’s no lens focus ring. Instead the rear ND/Focus dial - which is nudged left or right and can be held in position - deals with focus control. A focus assist feature zooms in on the screen to actual size, while a focus-distance measure shows not only where focus lies in a feet/metres scale but also the depth of field dependent on the aperture selected. A manual focus override option even means it's possible to autofocus first and adjust manual focus after, without the need to adjust the focus switch.
The LX7’s LCD screen is 3-inches in size and has a 920k-dot resolution. It’s capable, though not as premium as some top-of-the-line screens, such as the WRGB one found in the Sony RX100. Sunlight is a problem as with most screens, though as most of our testing was under extreme sun it proved problematic.
Fortunate, then, that the LX7 has a hothsoe and accessory port to accept an electronic viewfinder (EVF). It doesn’t come in the box, and the DMW-LVF2 EVF will set you back just shy of £220. It may not be cheap, and when added to the LX7’s £449 asking price it amounts to a total £668. At least the option’s available; we’d expect no less from such a camera.
Burst shooting is available at up to 11 frames per second (11fps) when using single autofocus, or 5fps when using continuous autofocus. There are also electronic shutter options to shoot JPEG-only 5MP images at 40fps and 2.5MP images at 60fps.
The burst mode is decent, and despite the odd blurry frame the continuous autofocus is far more responsive than many other contrast-detect-based autofocus systems. However shooting does become rather clunky when capturing raw files. For the utmost speed we would recommend JPEG shooting only, where it’s possible to capture up to 12 frames at the fastest pace before the camera has to stop in order to process to the card. It doesn't block you out of the controls totally, so adjustment and shooting as soon as there's some buffer space is possible.
In the full-on week of testing that we gave the LX7 in both the UK and Africa, the camera withstood everything we threw at it. Although the battery life is quoted as 330 shots per charge - down significantly on the LX5’s 400 shots per charge - we managed to whirr through 300 frames and still have one of the battery’s three bars showing as available. We’re unimpressed it's taken a step backwards here compared to its predecessor, but there’s enough juice to tackle a full day’s casual shooting no problems. We'd like to a see a per cent battery indicator for heightended accuracy, as the "three bar" approach is rather crude.
Does the LX7’s sensor size decrease have an impact on its images? We don’t think so. It’s as if Panasonic has squeezed LX5-like quality shots out of the LX7. For those hoping for better quality or higher-resolution images than its predecessor, however, that might ring around the ears as a bit of a disappointment.
On the whole though we reckon that the LX7’s images are cracking. Most of that is on account of the lens - the level of detail achieved, in particular at the centre of the image, is exceptional. Tiny veins threaded through leaves - as in the image below - pop out with dramatic clarity, and the wide aperture helps achieve pro-looking blurred backgrounds as and when required.
Of course there are a lot of competitors out there. The LX7 holds its own against the likes of the Canon PowerShot S100 at its low-mid ISO settings.
ISO 80-800 shots are packed with detail aplenty and image noise isn’t a big issue.
But it’s the higher ISO settings that are the LX7’s undoing. Results aren’t awful, but the camera is outperformed by competitors, and it’s hard to ignore the clout of the Sony RX100 in this regard. Even the Canon S100 will outperform the LX7 at its ISO 3200 setting.
Auto ISO tops out at 3200, and while ISO 6400-12,800 options are there if you need them, we’d advise against - it might be better to open the aperture up a little instead.
JPEGs straight from the camera are well exposed, but the default settings lack a little push of contrast and colours can appear a little muted. For printing this may be optimum, though a handful of presets and a custom photo style open up in-camera contrast, sharpness, saturation and noise reduction sliders for the utmost control. A little tweaking and the LX7 won’t fail to deliver.
If raw files are more your thing then the camera’s RW2 files can be read via the included SilkyPix software. We found each file to be around 12MB in size, which is abount three times the size of each equivalent high quality JPEG.
Movie mode also sees an overhaul. 1080p50 capture is available in AVCHD (28Mbps) or 1080p25 is included for MP4 file recording (17Mbps at best).
There’s full manual control - whether P, S, A or M - including live adjustment during recording, though it’s hard to keep the camera steady when nudging the controls.
The best part is the ability to fix the focus point position and size before recording, though it’s not then possible to move this around during capture.
Without a touchscreen and with no 3.5mm microphone jack there are one or two missed tricks, but otherwise the LX7 brings the series’ movie abilities bang up to date.
Even though it doesn’t have the biggest sensor on the market, the LX7 doesn’t fail to impress.
The design embodies exactly what a high-end camera should be: the physical aperture ring and other well-positioned controls ensure that the LX7 is easy to use, yet without ever holding any user control back. Autofocus is impressive and images are extra sharp thanks to the lens, plus there are few other cameras can compete with the f/1.4-2.3 wide aperture setting.
The 24-90mm equivalent lens might feel a little "short" for users looking to zoom in that extra bit further, and high ISO images really don’t meet or beat the competition, but otherwise the Lumix LX7 is a great success.
It’s taken some risks, but the package as a whole really pays off and shouldn't be underestimated; this here's a connoisseur's camera of choice.
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