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Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2 Digital Camera Review
by Howard Creech -  10/22/2006

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2 digital camera - a study in contrasts

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There are quite a few compact/ultra-compact digital cameras that claim to be genuine photographic tools, but very few that really offer users anything near the level of creative control that most serious photographers demand.  Despite one noteworthy omission, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2 may be the exception to the rule. 

The LX2 is a retro-look ultra-compact digital camera that reminds me of the elegant little Leica/Minolta CL/CLE rangefinder series from the 70’s and 80’s.  Like the CL/CLE film cameras, Panasonic’s diminutive LX2 rewards savvy consumers with a very impressive combination of compact size and innovative design, a full slate of easily accessible automatic and manual controls, impressive ease of use, robust performance, and excellent image quality all shoehorned into a stylish metal alloy body that’s small enough to be dropped in a shirt pocket and tough enough to be taken just about anywhere.  

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The LX2 provides more manual exposure options and the best control layout of any camera in its class and the 4X Leica zoom is sharp as a tack (and starts at the equivalent of 28mm).  Clearly, this digicam was designed for serious photographers as an alternative to carrying around a bulky (and seriously un-pocketable) digital SLR, full time. The LX2 also incorporates the same Mega OIS optical image stabilization system as Panasonic’s larger digital cameras. Image Stabilization helps counter the effects of camera shake virtually guaranteeing sharper pictures, even at slower shutter speeds and in dim/low lighting. 

NUTS & BOLTS

LCD Screen


The LX2 doesn’t provide an optical viewfinder, and that seems an egregious omission on a digicam with this level of flexibility and manual/creative exposure control - for some users the lack of an optical viewfinder may present an insurmountable usability flaw.  LX2 users will have to rely on the 2.8 inch polycrystalline TFT LCD screen for all framing and composition chores. The hi-res (207,000 pixels) LCD screen is bright, sharp, hue accurate, fluid (fast refresh rate), and the display gains “up” (automatically brightens) in dim lighting - users can also manually boost LCD screen brightness. The LCD screen shows almost 100% of the image frame and is useable in bright outdoor lighting.  The LX2 also provides a live histogram display in shooting mode and a static histogram display in playback mode.  

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Aspect Ratio

Digital camera CCD/CMOS sensors generally provide a 4:3 aspect ratio - the same aspect ratio as a standard TV/computer monitor screen. The LX2’s sensor is approximately the same height as most digicam sensors, but much wider - giving users the option to capture true 16:9 aspect ratio images - the same aspect ratio as a wide-screen TV/computer monitor. The LX2 offers true 16:9 10 megapixel images, rather than the trimmed at the top and bottom images produced by most digicams that offer a 16:9 aspect.  The LX2’s standard 4:3 aspect ratio images are limited to 7.5 megapixels and 3:2 aspect ratio images are limited to 8.5 megapixels.  The LX2 uses the entire sensor for 16:9 aspect ratio shots, but crops 750,000 pixels off each side in the 3:2 aspect ratio (8.5 megapixels) and 1,250,0000 pixels off each side in the 4:3 aspect ratio (7.5 megapixels).  A slider switch on the lens barrel permits users to quickly and easily shift between the three aspect ratios. 

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(view medium image) (view large image) This street scene shot at the Highlands Neighborhood Festival showcases the LX2’s “extra-wide” 16:9 aspect ratio (and the Leica zoom’s 28mm setting).

Zoom

The LX2, like its predecessor, features an f2.8-f4.9/6.3-25.2mm (28-112 mm - 35mm equivalent) in 16:9 mode (34-136 mm in 4:3 mode) all glass Leica DC Vario-Elmarit optical zoom lens.  Unlike the vast majority of compact/ultra-compact digicams the lens doesn’t retract fully when not in use – which makes the camera a bit thicker (and slightly less pocketable) than most of its competition.  The LX2’s 28mm starting point (in 16:9 mode) provides users with a little extra width for those Grand Vista landscapes and for shooting tight interiors.   

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A second slider switch allows users to shift between auto focus, manual focus, and macro mode.  Closest focusing distance (in macro mode) is about 2 inches (5 centimeters) at the wide-angle end of the zoom. Of special note – the LX2’s macro mode works not only at the wide angle setting (like most compact/ultra-compact digicams) but across the entire zoom range – including at the telephoto setting (minimum focusing distance at the LX2’s telephoto setting is about 12 inches/30 centimeters) and that provides a bit of extra stand off distance, which is very useful when shooting butterflies, dragonflies, and other skittish little creatures.  The LX2’s Leica zoom produces consistently excellent macro images.

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(view medium image) (view large image) Pollen dusted Honey Bee in Morning Glory.  The image is sharp as a tack, with colors that are hue accurate and bold, but not garish. Check the amazing level of detail capture in the bee’s wings.

The LX2’s Leica zoom exhibits slight barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range, some very minor softness in the corners, and no visible pincushioning (straight lines bow in toward the center) at full telephoto. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is well below average - but I did see some blotching (chroma noise) in a couple of images with lots of blue sky.  Colors are bright, hue accurate, and near neutral (as opposed to the often garish over-saturation displayed by many P&S digicams), but native contrast is slightly hard. Zoom travel is fast, smooth (18 steps), and relatively quiet.

Noise is present, but well controlled even at the lowest (ISO) sensitivity setting, however LX2 users won’t see it unless they view the images full size.  For an 8x10 print of an image shot at the lowest sensitivity setting (ISO 100) noise shouldn’t be a problem.  At higher sensitivity settings (ISO 200 and up) noise is noticeably above average.  At the highest ISO settings (ISO 1600 and ISO 3200) noise levels are appallingly high.

Like all point and shoot digicams, the LX2 has difficulty exploiting the complete range of tones (from pure black to pure white), especially in brightly lit high-contrast scenes.  This dynamic range problem causes some minor but noticeable loss of shadow and highlight detail. The LX2’s very high default contrast (and aggressive default sharpening) aggravate these inherent dynamic range shortcomings and some shots end up looking a bit flat.  Most savvy photographers will dial down the contrast and adjust sharpening - or shoot important pictures in RAW mode and use Adobe ACR to fine tune images post-exposure. 

Image Stabilization (IS)

Panasonic’s Mega OIS (optical image stabilization) system works by shifting internal lens elements to compensate for camera shake/movement during exposure. IS permits photographers to shoot at shutter speeds up to 3 f-stops slower than would be possible without image stabilization. For example, if a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second is required to avoid the effects of camera shake (without image stabilization) the LX2 can capture a sharp image of the same subject (everything else being equal) at 1/60th of a second—that’s a great feature for photographers who like to shoot action/sports/wildlife and lowlight subjects.

The LX2’s Image Stabilization has two modes: in mode 1 (continuous IS) the LCD screen can be used for confirmation.  In mode 2 IS is engaged just prior to exposure, which is just as effective and uses much less battery power. Does the LX2’s IS system work? Yes, but image stabilization can’t accomplish miracles. Panasonic’s Mega OIS system can counteract for minor camera movement/camera shake, but it generally won’t neutralize sharp or sudden camera shifts or reduce blur caused by moving subjects or too rapid panning. LX2 users also have the option to turn IS off. Potential purchasers should keep in mind that using IS (especially in the continuous IS mode) will dramatically shorten battery life.


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(view medium image) (view large image) This shot of a Vert BMXer in mid-air at Louisville’s Extreme Park demonstrates how fast and accurate the LX2’s IS system (in mode 2) can be.  I tracked my subject, panning the camera through his run-up and jump and tripped the shutter about ½ a second before he hit the peak of his leap. Without IS I would have had to focus on the spot where I thought the action would occur – and wait until the BMXer entered the frame (if I’d guessed right) to trip the shutter.  Panning without IS would have resulted in a blurry image due to camera movement during exposure.

Savvy users will leave the LX2 in IS mode 2 full time because being able to consistently shoot at slower shutter speeds will keep the camera from shifting to higher sensitivity settings (and help avoid the accompanying higher noise levels at higher sensitivity settings).

Auto Focus (AF)

The LX2 utilizes a 9 focus point contrast detection AF system.  The camera’s CPU analyzes what’s in front of the camera and decides which of the 9 AF points is closest to the primary subject (closest subject priority) and then locks focus on that AF point.  Users can also opt for 1 AF point, 1 AF point - high speed, 3 AF point - high speed, and Spot (center) AF. Users can select a specific AF point with the joystick.  AF speed is on the high side of average for ultra-compact/compact zooms and consistently and dependably accurate – I counted 18 steps. There’s an AF assist beam for quicker and more accurate focusing in dim/low light.  There’s also a Continuous AF mode, which is a bit quicker (since it’s constantly focusing), but it uses more battery power.

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(view medium image) (view large image) This image of a Siamese cat in a distinctly Egyptian pose clearly demonstrates the efficacy of the LX2’s AF system – note tack sharp focus on eyes and whiskers.

Manual Focus (MF)

The LX2 provides manual focus capability for those situations where focus accuracy is critical.  Move the slider switch on the lens to the Manual Focus position and the center of the LCD is magnified and a distance scale appears on the right side of the screen so focus can be adjusted precisely (using the joystick).  

Flash

The LX2’s built-in multi mode (Auto - fires when needed, On - fill flash, Red-Eye Reduction, Slow Synch, and Off) tiny pop-up flash is activated by a top deck slider switch.  Panasonic claims the maximum range is about 13.5 feet (4.1 meters), but realistically anything beyond 10 feet is going to be fairly dark unless shot against light colored backgrounds with lots of ambient lighting. Flash coverage is a bit uneven for tight macro/close-up shooting.

Memory Media

The LX2 saves images to SD/MMC memory media or to 13MB of built-in memory. 

Image File Format(s)

JPEG & RAW

Connectivity

USB 2.0 out and A/V out

Power

The LX2 draws its juice from a Pansonic CGR-S005A (3.7 V 1150 mAh) Lithium-Ion  rechargeable battery. Panasonic claims the LX2 manages power better than its predecessor, but realistically micro-cam batteries (since they must be very small) can’t store as much power as larger batteries. I didn’t keep precise track of exposures (Panasonic claims the CGR-S005A is good for about 300 exposures) so I can’t quibble, although I’d guess 200 exposures is probably a more accurate number.  I didn’t have any problems with running out of power in the middle of a shoot - however power depth (how long the charge lasts) is actually dependent on shooting style (light or heavy review, frequent or rare delete, continuous IS or shutter IS, etc.) and a wide range of variables (temperature, etc.) so mileage may vary substantially.  The included charger needs about 120 minutes to fully charge the battery.

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EXPOSURE  

The LX2 provides serious shooters with a broad and comprehensive range of exposure options including: auto (P&S mode), program AE (P&S mode with user input), shutter priority mode (users select the shutter speed and the camera selects the appropriate aperture), aperture priority mode (users select the aperture and the camera selects the appropriate shutter speed), and manual mode (users select all exposure parameters). The LX2 also provides a very useful selection of Scene modes (Portrait, Soft Skin, Scenery, Sports, Night Portrait, Night Scenery, Self-Portrait, Food, Party, Candle, Fireworks, Starry Sky, Beach, Aerial photo, Snow, High Sensitivity, Baby1, Baby2). In all Scene Modes the camera's CPU automatically optimizes all exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed, white balance, sensitivity, etc.) for the specific image type selected.  The Auto (Auto, Program, and Scene) modes deliver dependably accurate exposures in virtually all outdoor lighting. Exposure accuracy in the camera’s Manual Exposure (Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual) modes is primarily dependent on the skill of the photographer.

Movie Mode  

LX2 users can record video clips (with audio) in 16:9 Aspect Ratio at 848 x 480 @ 30 fps and in 4:3 aspect ratio at 640x480 @ 30 fps with duration limited only by the capacity of the installed SD/MMC card.  The LX2 also provides a voice notation mode that allows users to add audio notes (5 seconds) to their still image files.

Metering

The LX2’s (default) intelligent multiple (evaluative) metering mode is reliably accurate in all but the most challenging lighting. Novice photographers won’t have to worry much about metering. More experienced photographers can opt for either Spot metering or Center-weighted Averaging metering.

White Balance (WB)

The LX2 provides users with an adequate selection of white balance options. WB settings include TTL Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Halogen, Flash and White Set1/2, plus a White Balance Adjustment option (+/-1500K in 150K increments).
At the auto WB setting the LX2’s native color interpolation is bright, a bit warm, and almost neutral.  

Sensitivity  

The LX2 provides a broad range of sensitivity settings, including: TTL Auto, and user selectable settings for ISO 100, 200, 400, 800, and 1600 ISO plus the High Sensitivity Scene Mode (ISO 3200). The LX2’s Intelligent ISO Control option detects subject movement and automatically shifts sensitivity and shutter speed upward to freeze action and preserve highlight detail.

In-Camera Image Adjustment  

Very light or very dark subjects can trick light metering systems into underexposing or overexposing images. The LX2’s exposure compensation mode allows users to subtly modify exposure parameters over a 4 EV range (+/-2 EV in 1/3 EV increments) to compensate for difficult lighting and subject/background reflectance/non-reflectance problems or to compensate for environmental exposure variables.  The LX2’s auto-bracketing mode allows shooters to capture 3 sequential images and vary exposure +/-1EV or +/-1/3EV between the 3 images.  Contrast, Saturation (color intensity), Sharpness and Noise Reduction can be adjusted over a 3 step (Low, Normal, & High) and color effects include cool, warm, B&W, and sepia.

DESIGN, CONTROLS, & ERGONOMICS

The LX2 is a compact elegantly understated retro look metal alloy bodied, point & shoot digicam available in either amateur silver or pro black.   All controls are logically placed and all camera functions are easily accessed and operation quickly becomes intuitive. The LX2 is a great choice for anyone who wants a camera that can be taken along everywhere and used in just about any (excluding extreme climates, combat/emergency, and underwater) environment. Build quality is very good and fit and finish are excellent.  Experienced photographers will have no problem using the LX2 right out of the box and beginners should be able to shoot consistently decent images after a quick scan through the user’s manual.

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Technical Specifications

Included

32MB SD card, CGR-S005A Battery, Charger, Wrist Strap, Lens Cap, USB & A/V cables, software CD’s, and (printed) user’s manual.

PERFORMANCE

Image Quality

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2 consistently produces very good to excellent quality images, especially up close.  Overall image quality is about average (for 6 -10 megapixel P&S digicams) – general detail capture is very good and shadow detail is also impressive.  Highlight detail is acceptable, but lacks punch and looks a bit flat.  Noise is barely discernible at ISO 100, but it is noticeable at ISO 200.  Above ISO 200 noise is so prevalent that it begins to affect image sharpness as the LX2 softens detail to hide the noise.  ISO 800 and ISO 1600 images are so noisy they are essentially useless (unless the shooter happens upon the Loch Ness Monster or an Alien abduction in progress).  I didn’t try the high sensitivity (ISO 3200) mode.

Where the LX2 really sparkles is color rendition - colors are bright, vibrant, absolutely hue accurate, and near neutral.  Reds and blues sparkle due to the lack of garish over saturation that is near ubiquitous in digicam images. 

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(view medium image) (view large image) Goldfinch feather on red Zinnia. Most digicams vastly over saturate red and that would have given the white feather a pinkish cast – the LX2’s superb Leica optics and near neutral color interpolation render both bright red flower and snow white feather accurately

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(view medium image) (view large image) The LX2 is clearly not a good choice for night shots – this night shot from Louisville’s newest entertainment venue shows noise, halo, Chromatic aberration (purple fringing), and camera shake. 

Timing/Shutter Lag

The Panasonic Lumix DMC \-LX2 is surprisingly fast and responsive, especially for a compact/ultra-compact P&S digicam - although lens travel from the wide angle end of the zoom range to the telephoto end of the zoom range is fairly slow (about 3 seconds). The boot-up cycle (about 1 second), shutter lag, shot to shot times, and write to card times (about ½ a second for 4:3 JPEG) are all faster than average. With pre-focus shutter lag basically disappears and from scratch the LX2 needs less than half a second to lock focus and trip the shutter.  Here’s another interesting contrast - shoot RAW images and everything changes – the LX2 needs about 5 seconds to write a RAW image to the SD card - during which the camera is locked.

A Few Concerns

The LX2’s Achilles’ heel is NOISE.  Users who plan to shoot exclusively at ISO 100 will be alright up to (and maybe beyond – depending on subject/lighting) 8x10 enlargements.  Like all compact/ultra-compact digicams the LX2 has red-eye issues because (with tiny cameras) it just isn’t physically possible to separate the flash and the lens sufficiently to avoid having both on essentially the same plane. 

I’m genuinely puzzled as to why Panasonic designed such an elegant and creatively flexible digital camera, but didn’t include an optical viewfinder.  Composition via the LCD screen (at arms length) method is fundamentally different from the way serious photographers compose images.  Composing through an optical viewfinder eliminates everything from sight except the field of view through the lens, making it much easier to use the zoom to precisely crop the composition – arms length composition is much slower, and the distraction of trying to isolate your composition from the surrounding chaos further slows down the process (and substantially lessens the graphic impact as the zoom is used to crop to the precise boundaries of the visualized composition) making it harder for the photographer to “see” the precise moment when all the elements of the composition align perfectly.

Conclusion

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2 provides what I consider an absolutely incredible assortment of contrasts; lots of creative flexibility and tons of manual exposure options, but no optical viewfinder.  Near neutral color interpolation, but soft default sharpening.  A tack sharp lens and superb detail capture, but high noise levels.  Image stabilization, but no USB 2.0 High Speed connectivity.  That’s an amazing collection of contrasting elements to be found in a single camera.  Here’s the final contrast – the LX2 is more expensive than most of its competition and it doesn’t do a better job in return for that extra money. 

In the final analysis the only thing that really matters (when considering a camera purchase) is image quality and in that department the LX2 delivers, consistently and dependably.  Potential purchasers who shoot lots of panoramas and don’t mind slaving over a hot computer (and heavily utilizing Adobe PhotoShop and the post-exposure noise reduction software of their choice) will love the LX2. 


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Pros

Elegant, ultra compact, user friendly, Fast, 2.5” LCD screen, excellent photo quality, 28 mm, 16:9 CCD, optical image stabilization, full manual controls, RAW mode

Cons

No optical viewfinder, Images are too noisy at higher ISO settings, slightly soft default sharpening, no USB 2.0 High Speed support, expensive