Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX 5 Review

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It wasn't so long ago that DSLRs were out of financial reach for most enthusiast photographers. Back before DSLRs fell below the magic sub-$1000 mark, the only way for most people to 'go digital' was to invest in a high-quality compact, offering SLR-like control, but without the expensive extras - the large sensor and interchangeable lens mount.

These days, of course, DSLRs are far more attainable than they once were, making high-end compacts less of a 'next best thing' purchase than in the past, and more of a luxury. In fact, the high end compact sector is sometimes referred to as the 'luxury' compact market - a fact that is indicative of the changing times, as well as the greater purchasing power of today's enthusiast photographers. This is not to say that the air is thin this high up in the compact atmosphere - the release of the Panasonic LX3 in 2008 energized the high-end market, and since then, most of the major manufacturers have either released a camera into this segment, or have announced plans to do so. Those that never left (notably Canon and Nikon) have reinvigorated their ranges.

The Coolpix P7000 and the S95 (alongside its predecessor the S90) are very different from previous cameras in their long-established ranges and they clearly demonstrate a desire on the part of their designers to be taken seriously. They have no choice - fresh competiton from the likes of Samsung's EX1 and the new crop of mirrorless models from Sony, Panasonic and Samsung means that now more than ever, this is a buyers' market.

All three of the cameras featured in this group test have provenance. Canon's Powershot series is as old as consumer-level digital photography itself, likewise Nikon's Coolpix brand, and since the launch of the original LX1 in 2006, Panasonic has been one of the major players in what is sometimes now referred to as the 'luxury' compact camera market. It has been a while since Nikon seriously challenged this segment of the market, but the new Coolpix P7000 marks a significant break from previous 'top end' P-series, both in terms of functionality and design. All three of these cameras are aimed at enthusiasts, and despite their relatively compact frames, they are designed to offer a similar level of control over their key shooting parameters as a typical DSLR.

If there is an 'odd one out' it is arguably the Nikon Coolpix P7000. Significantly bulkier than either the S95 or LX5, the P7000 is a very different camera to the P6000 which it replaces. The P7000 is far more reminiscent of the Canon Powershot G-series (the latest addition to which, the Powershot G12, was recently tested here). The S95, by contrast, is the slimmest and neatest of the trio and of this group it is the most traditionally 'compact' in design - it is also the only truly 'shirt pocket' camera of the group. All three of these cameras share a similar design philosophy, being relatively small and compact while offering a high level of manual control. All are built to a high-quality, and all three boast high-end lenses with relatively fast aperture, stabilized lenses. Although all three also offer 10MP CCD sensors, the LX5's sensor is multi-aspect, which means that its 3:2, 16:9 and square format shooting modes do not take a serious bite into the effective resolution, making them arguably more useful than they might otherwise be.

This is especially true of the 16:9 mode, which at 9.5Mp offers roughly 25% greater pixel coverage than either the S95 or P7000 in the same aspect ratio. They also all offer the same (diagonal) angle of view at any given lens position (see exmple below).

The total resolution of the LX5's CCD sensor is never used to create a single image. The LX5 only ever uses a crop from it, depending on aspect ratio. Although this may seem perverse, the result is that the lens offers the same diagonal angle of view in 16:9, 4:3 and 3:2 formats, making it much easier to get a feel for the behavior of the lens. It also means you make the most of the sensor's area, getting similar pixel counts in all modes, rather than losing a lot of resolution to cropping.In terms of ergonomics, the S95 and LX5 are less 'boxy' than Nikon's P7000, primarily because they lack built-in optical viewfinders. None of them feature articulated LCD screens, but in keeping with their high-end credentials, all have DSLR-styled exposure mode dials.

Of the trio, the Nikon offers the most external control over key settings, and its utilitarian design makes it perhaps the most 'serious' looking. At the opposite end of the design spectrum is the Powershot S95, which - although it also offers excellent manual control - has the least number of external buttons.

All three cameras have at least one control dial for adjusting shooting settings, but the S95 and P7000 have two. The P7000's dials are both positioned on the camera's rear, while the S95 features a Control Ring around the lens mount which can be customized to a range of functions, including aperture/shutter adjustment. This unusual control point is one of our favorite things about the original Powershot S90. Something that the S95 lacks in this company, however, is a hotshoe for an external flash. This has another consequence - unlike the LX5 and the P7000, which offer support for an optional and built-in finder (Panasonic markets both an EVF and OVF for the LX5), a viewfinder cannot be added to the S95.

The lack of a hotshoe doesn't mean that you can't add a flashgun to the S95 though - the optional High Power Flash HF-DC1 is a small (and contrary to its name, relatively low-powered) slave unit which attaches to the S95 via a bracket screwed into the tripod mount.

10MP CCD sensorISO 80-320028-105mm (equivalent) stabilized lensPASM modes plus 'C' custom mode720p video mode (zoom and focus fixed at start of recording)Customizable multi-function Control RingCustomizable Shortcut button on rear.Compatible with Canon HF-DC1 external flashgun10MP CCD sensorISO 100-6400 28-200mm (equivalent) stabilized lensPASM modes plus 3 custom 'U' modes720p video mode Continuous AF / zoom possible in video modeMicrophone socket for external mic
Dual control dialsFlash hot shoeOptical viewfinderElectronic spirit levelDual (front and rear) IR receivers for optional wireless remote10MP CCD sensorISO 80-3200 (up to ISO 12,800 equivalent at reduced resolution)24-90mm (equivalent) stabilized lensPASM modes plus 'C1' and 'C2' custom modes720p video mode (Dedicated movie shooting buttonContinuous AF / Zoom possible in video modeFull manual control (PASM) in video shootingFlash hot shoeProvision for an external EVFExternal aspect ratio switchExternal focus mode switch

If you're new to digital photography you may wish to read the Digital Photography Glossary before diving into this article (it may help you understand some of the terms used).

Conclusion / Recommendation / Ratings are based on the opinion of the reviewer, you should read the ENTIRE review before coming to your own conclusions. Images which can be viewed at a larger size have a small magnifying glass icon in the bottom right corner of the image, clicking on the image will display a larger (typically VGA) image in a new window. To navigate the review simply use the next / previous page buttons, to jump to a particular section either pick the section from the drop down or select it from the navigation bar at the top. DPReview calibrate their monitors using Color Vision OptiCal at the (fairly well accepted) PC normal gamma 2.2, this means that on our monitors we can make out the difference between all of the (computer generated) grayscale blocks below. We recommend to make the most of this review you should be able to see the difference (at least) between X,Y and Z and ideally A,B and C.

This article is Copyright 2010 and may NOT in part or in whole be reproduced in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from the author.

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