Panasonic LX7 Review

Introduction

In 2012 Panasonic released the Lumix DMC-LX7 compact enthusiast camera as a replacement for the well regarded DMC-LX5. A favorite of enthusiast and pro photographers alike, the LX series built a solid reputation for fast, high quality Leica optics and photographer-friendly controls.

The LX7 continues this legacy with a new Leica F1.4-2.3 (24-90mm equivalent) lens, giving the LX7 exceptional low light versatility and depth of field control for a compact camera. Other additions include an improved sensor and updated Venus Engine to better control noise at high ISO, an aperture control ring around the lens, a neutral density filter, and 1080/60p video recording capability.

When released, the LX7 compared favorably to its enthusiast peers such as the Canon Powershot G12, Fujifilm X10, and Nikon Coolpix 7100. Sony had just introduced the first version of its revolutionary RX100 series of large sensor compact and, though rough around the edges, it showed tremendous vision for what could be possible in a compact camera.

But that was then, and this is now. Two years is a long time in the world of digital photography. The enthusiast camera market has experienced a bit of a renaissance with the introduction of credible small sensor cameras like the Canon Powershot G16, Olympus XZ-2, Pentax MX-1, Fujifilm X20 and others.  

More significantly, Canon and Sony now offer large sensor enthusiast cameras that threaten to shift the balance of power. Sony in particular seems to be sending a shot across the bow of Panasonic’s flagship LX7, with the specs of its recently launched RX100 III skewing noticeably in the direction of the LX7’s traditional strengths.

How does the two year old LX7 perform, and how does it stack up with today’s competition? Read on to find out.

Key Features

Panasonic’s LX series has always been feature-rich, curiously to the point of including functions such as “baby” and “pet” modes on cameras aimed at sophisticated users. That said, there are a handful of features on the LX7 worth highlighting: 

  • Built-in 3-stop neutral density (ND) filter
  • Creative Video mode
  • Intelligent Auto mode
  • Intelligent Resolution technology (i.Resolution)
  • HDR mode

A 3-stop ND filter is a welcome addition to the LX line, especially in light of the new F1.4 lens. The filter makes it possible to use the fast Leica glass wide open in all but the brightest sunlight or at smaller apertures to create motion blur. It’s also an important tool when shooting video, making it possible to dial in the correct shutter speed to achieve a natural film-like look. The Creative Video mode allows video shooters to access the camera’s full set of exposure controls while recording video.

Two ‘intelligent’ modes offer to improve your photos: Intelligent Auto is the LX7’s “set it and forget it” mode. It’s designed to automatically detect features such as ‘face’, ‘movement’, or ‘brightness’ in a photo and set exposure accordingly based on its library of scene modes. Intelligent Resolution technology (i.Resolution) aims to sharpen your photos selectively based on content, for example sharpening the edges of a building but not the blue sky in the background.

HDR mode takes three shots in rapid succession and blends them in camera. There’s no control over the exposure settings and the output is generally okay, however you’ll often get better results by setting up a proper HDR shot and processing it elsewhere.

Build and Handling

Visually, the LX7 hasn’t changed much from its predecessor. It’s a solid, mostly metal camera that feels natural in the hand. Controls are well placed, and dials and switches click into position nicely. It’s not quite shirt-pocketable, but is compact enough to squirrel away in a jacket pocket.

The LX7 has a super fast Leica F1.4-2.3, 4.7-17.7mm (24-90mm equivalent) lens. Even on a small sensor camera this will allow you to blur the background in photos (with careful composition) and shoot in low light while maintaining low ISO for improved image quality. The lens uses Panasonic’s effective Power OIS stabilization system to reduce motion at slow shutter speeds and smooth camera shake when shooting video.

The other significant addition to the LX7 is a manual aperture ring around the lens. The result is well executed and one can quickly dial through the range with nice 1/3 stop detents.

The rear of the camera is mostly unchanged from the LX5 except for the addition of a ND/Focus toggle. The LCD screen has doubled in resolution to 920,000 dots bringing it in line with its peers, and is generally readable even in daylight. One disappointment is the rear control dial which feels cheap compared to everything else on the camera and is difficult to turn. It works, but the experience could be so much better.

Pressing the Q.Menu button activates Panasonic’s useful (though not universally loved) Q.Menu interface from which it’s relatively easy to change just about any shooting-related setting imaginable. A quick tap on the Menu button reveals a tabbed view of all the camera’s settings.

On-screen display options include live histogram and electronic level. Curiously, the histogram shows values for the preview image instead of the selected exposure settings until the shutter is depressed halfway. The LX7 lacks focus peaking or zebra exposure warnings when shooting video, two useful features that have started to make their way into competitor’s cameras.

Performance

The LX7 is a strong performer by almost any measure. Power on the camera and you’re ready to shoot in just over a second. Shot-to-shot delay is on the order of one second whether you’re shooting JPEG, RAW, or both, and shutter lag is almost nonexistent. Autofocus is quick and accurate, generally coming in at under half a second. Panasonic’s Face Detection autofocus works surprisingly well, reliably nailing focus almost every time.

The metering system is accurate and reliable. I found that on very bright days or on scenes with high contrast it would sometimes clip the brightest highlights. These were usually recoverable in RAW files, but when shooting JPEGs I found that dialing in a -1/3 stop underexposure did the trick.

Auto white balance was generally accurate in all conditions except artificial lighting. Strangely, I experienced a wide range of color casts running the gamut from yellow to magenta while shooting indoors. This seemed particularly true when shooting near CFL (compact fluorescent) light bulbs, possibly due to inconsistent color spectrum pushing the WB in one direction or the other. Whatever the cause, manually setting white balance always provided accurate colors. 

The LX7 can record full 1080/60p video with stereo sound at 28 Mbps using the AVCHD codec. There’s also a high speed 720/120p setting. Video can quickly be initiated from any camera mode by pressing the dedicated video button, though advanced users will likely turn to the Creative Video mode where full manual control is available for all exposure tools. As with stills, the autofocus systems works quickly and provides continuous and reliable autofocus while recording.

Image Quality

Photos

The Leica lens is tack sharp corner to corner across its entire range with very little chromatic aberration. Photo quality is excellent and images are well exposed with accurate colors and saturation levels. The Venus Engine’s noise reduction can be a bit heavy handed but you can pull additional detail from the RAW files.

LX7 ISO Comparisons

The photos above illustrate out-of-camera JPEG and RAW images (adjusted in Adobe Camera Raw). JPEG files at ISO 80 and 100 have essentially no noise, and noise remains well controlled through ISO 400. At ISO 800 fine detail begins to disappear, though one could still make a decent print. By ISO 1600 smudging becomes prominent, and once we hit ISO 3200 the image starts to fall apart. The RAW files show how much detail the sensor is capturing. Luminance noise cleans up quite nicely in ACR and even the ISO 1600 image could be useful for web display or a small print.

How does the two years old LX7 fare among newer competitors? To answer that question we’ll compare it to a more recent small sensor camera, the Canon Powershot G16, as well as one of the new large sensor compacts, the Sony RX100 III.

Small Sensor Comparison

Spec-wise, the Canon G16 has a lot in common with the LX7, however it’s fitted with a newer 12 megapixel 1/1.7” CMOS sensor that’s fairly representative of the current batch of enthusiast cameras. It also has Canon’s DIGIC 6 processor.

Using the DPReview Studio Comparison tool, we can see that JPEG images from both cameras look good up to about ISO 800 (at the expense of some fine detail). The LX7 is a bit sharper, but the G16 is benefiting from slightly more resolution and could probably handle more sharpening in post. By the time we hit ISO 3200 things are pretty bad all around, though noise reduction seems more intrusive on the LX7. Overall the G16 holds up slightly better at high ISO.

Large Sensor Comparison

Around the time that Panasonic launched the LX7, Sony released its groundbreaking RX100 large sensor compact. Two years later, lets see how the LX7 stacks up to Sony’s third iteration of the line, the RX100 III.

The RX100 III outperforms the LX7 in every respect with regards to image quality. Even at IS0 100 where the LX7 is essentially noise free, the excellent lens and 20 megapixel 1” sensor on the Sony pulls out immensely more detail. Jump straight to ISO 1600 and the RX100 III is still capturing almost as much detail as the LX7 at ISO 100.

Video

The LX7 generated a lot of buzz among video enthusiasts and filmmakers. On paper its video specs appeared to exceed those of Panasonic’s indie filmmaker darling, the GH2, and more than a few filmmakers dreamed of toting around a pocketable camera to use for backup or as a B cam on productions.

The LX7 consistently produces high quality, well exposed videos that are as good, and in most cases better, than its current small sensor peers. Panasonic’s decision to give users full manual control is a big plus, and this is a significant advantage over models such as the Fujifilm X20 and Canon G16 that offer minimal video controls.

One minor nitpick about the LX7’s video are stair-step edges and moiré, which can be seen in the magnified section of the video above. It’s the result of sensor line skipping technology used to downscale images from a non-native resolution video sensor. In fairness to Panasonic this is how almost all stills cameras record video - including most DSLRs - so it’s not unique to the LX7. It’s a very good performance for a compact camera, though not quite good enough to fulfill all those indie filmmaker dreams.

Compared to the Sony RX100 III

The RX100 III records 1080/60p video at 50 Mbps using the XAVC S codec. Maybe not coincidentally, this happens to be the minimum bit rate required by most TV networks for use on broadcast television.

Further, Sony built the RX100 III to do full sensor readout at 60 frames/sec, negating the need for line skipping and effectively eliminating stair-step edges and moiré. Add in a large 1” sensor and we should expect to see some very impressive results.

The RX100 III delivers on its promise. Video quality is extremely high with accurate colors and low noise, and stair-stepping and moiré are basically non-existent. The RX100 III’s video simply looks photographic. The above video shows a close up of a diagonal wall and  telephone wires where the LX7 - and most other cameras - would almost certainly show stair-stepping artifacts. By any measure the Sony’s video exceeds the LX7 by a wide margin.

Conclusion

Conclusion - Pros

  • Fast and sharp Leica F1.4-2.3 lens enables low light shooting and blurred backgrounds
  • High quality 1080/60p video recording at 28 Mbps with full manual control
  • Neutral density filter for shooting wide apertures in bright light and controlling shutter speed in video
  • Excellent performance, including fast shot-to-shot times and quick autofocus
  • Manual aperture ring on lens

Conclusion - Cons

  • Rear control dial feels cheap and is difficult to use
  • No focus peaking or zebra exposure warnings
  • No external mic input for video recording
  • Histogram does not reflect actual exposure values until shutter button is depressed
  • Minor stair-step effects in video

The Panasonic LX7 is a worthy update to the LX5. Its standout feature is its beautiful Leica lens which is undoubtedly one of the best lenses ever paired with a compact camera. Cosmetically similar to its predecessor, it adds a manual aperture ring, 3-stop ND filter, and an improved LCD screen. Photos are sharp and well exposed, and performance is outstanding. Build quality is high with the notable exception of the rear control dial. If you’re considering moving up from the LX5 it’s a nice upgrade.

Video performance is impressive for a small sensor camera. Shooting at 1080/60p using the full 28 Mbps AVCHD bit rate produces very nice files with excellent dynamic range and color. Full manual control over every exposure variable, including the ND filter, allows videographers to dial in the exact settings needed to achieve a natural film-like look while avoiding motion blur or stroboscopic effects commonly associated with less sophisticated systems.

With respect to image quality, the LX7 just manages to keep up with newer enthusiast cameras such as the Canon Powershot G16. The G16 manages to eke out a bit more resolution and slightly higher ISO performance, though it’s not a big enough difference to recommend against the LX7.

Measuring the LX7 against the large sensor RX100 III is a different story. If you absolutely must have the best image quality money can buy in a compact camera, or near-broadcast quality video, the RX100 III is the clear choice. However, if images from a small sensor camera will meet your needs, and you plan to shoot video primarily for the web or small screens, the LX7 is a solid choice. It’s more fun to shoot with and inspires you to use it. It can also be found at street prices around $300 versus a hefty $800 for the RX100 III.