on September 25, 2013
The LX7 was an upgrade from my Leica D-Lux 4 (Lumix LX3). The LX7 is identical in function to the Leica D-Lux 6 in glass, sensor and overall function, has a nice built-in grip - the Leica does not, and there are only slight differences in menu user interface. The Leica will appeal to those who want to pay double or more for the name and little red dot, but there is no technical justification. Same camera. So the rest of this review is about the Lumix LX-7.
Lumix got this so exactly right, on a camera that has seen gentle evolutionary changes previously.
First of all, don't be bamboozled by pixel count. Although it is billed as 10MP, those are fat sensitive pixels on a large sensor area (1:1.7). They also evolved from a CCD to a richer, more sensitive CMOS sensor, as many manufacturers have done over the years. The picture quality is superb, even in very low light, and up to about ISO 1600. Shot at ISO 80-200, the resulting JPEGs are grainless up to 8x10 magnification, and will make a fine 16x20 uncropped. It seems folks are selling cameras with huge MP specs and teeny sensors these days; just so much marketing vaporware. This one makes no such nonsensical lie.
I can this a Leica-Sonic, because, make no mistake, Leica did profoundly influence the lens design. It's not that disingenuous to call it a Vario-Summilux; Summilux is Leica branding for their f1.4 lenses costing many thousands of dollars when made in Germany for the M-Series cameras, and this is a true f1.4 lens at 24mm equivalent. At the 90mm equivalent end of the range, it's still f2.3. Couple that with excellent anti-shake, and you have a discrete digicam for wideangle, normal and macro use which can shoot hand-held in near zero light at a half-second. It is not for telephoto-lovers, the 20x zoom cameras have more reach but nowhere near this image quality. But at the 24mm end, very little barrel distortion, sharp out to the corners, and you can focus in macro mode objects which nearly touch the lens!
Some unique features which no one else offers:
(1) The f1.4 lens. Are you kidding me? They are not. Go find it anywhere else, except on your fixed focal length prime lens for the DSLR. It not only allows extreme low light shooting, but even lets you create shallow depth-of field for close portraits, which no other digicams can. And if you want to do this in bright light, where the 1/4000 sec fastest shutter and ISO 80 would otherwise not allow you to use the f1.4 max aperture, it even has a built-in neutral density filter with a dedicated button, so you can still shoot wide open. Extraordinary lens. Okay, so maybe Ernst Leitz would turn over in the casket if he ever saw the Summilux name applied to a Japanese-manufactured lens on a pocket camera, but it's a fantastic lens.
(2) The variable aspect ratio switch - you can shoot 3:2 like traditional 35mm, 4:3 like an iPad, 16:9 if you know you are going to view on a widescreen monitor or TV, and - new for this version - even 1:1. All those crops come out of an oversized 12MP circular image sensor, so you can crop before you shoot, not after, and maintain far more image detail. At the flip of a switch just above the lens.
(3) The manual controls are extensive and well placed. You can certainly shoot in iA (intelligent auto) and be hard-pressed to screw up anything, or control everything. But for manual shooters, at least use P, so that you can override white balance, focus or aperture when needed. And the manual focus mode and metering mode controls are excellent. Any time you use A or M, or override the P setting with a well-placed multi-control dial, you see the resulting aperture/shutter speed pairings instantly.
(4) It has an aperture ring!! - While most digicams have only an f4-f8 aperture range, making manual control of aperture and shutter almost useless, this f1.4 lens has a manual aperture ring from f1.4 to f8 right on the lens barrel, so you can shoot in A mode like it was a traditional SLR. Even most modern DSLR lenses don't have one anymore. That is a priceless feature for aperture priority shooters.
(5) Exposure compensation. Any serious pro camera has a bias dial, the +/- exposure control that lets you bias the auto exposure up or down in 1-stop or partial stop increments. Go find it on an iPhone, nope. Go find it on most prosumer digicams; it is often buried in menus. But on the Lumix LX7, the multi-control ring lets you change it instantly, while the display shows you the plus/minus bias and and resulting aperture/shutter speed pairings, either on screen or in the viewfinder.
No camera's meter is smart enough to correctly expose every shot without exposure bias. I use this feature with nearly every picture I take, on every camera I use. I even use it on my Pantech Discover cell phone (sorry, Apple). But on the Lumix, it is utterly convenient and professional, an indispensable tool.
(6) The mode dial was stiffened up over earlier versions; it will no longer move by itself in the pocket or case. And when you change it, a spinning dial on the display easily shows you the set mode (iA, A, P, M, etc) in BIG letters, so you know the mode set without removing eyes from the screen or finder.
(7) Did I say "finder"? I am a 56-year old eyeglass wearer who grew up on pro Nikons with great optical viewfinders. While I loved my previous Leica-Sonic (the f2 lensed LX3 / D-Lux 4) for image quality and portability, I could not use it at arms length without the eyeglasses on and off like a yo-yo. So candid and action shots were nearly impossible, just like most arm's length digicams. So I never replaced my Nikon's normal lens or considered the Leica D-Lux 4 a true alternative. And after shooting, in bright light you couldn't see or edit what you shot, unless you hid inside someplace dark (same problem with DSLRs).
Enter the new Leica-Sonic (Lumix LX7) with the LVF2 viewfinder. The finder, made by Olympus but marketed for Leica (EVF) and Lumix (LVF), slides into the shoe, and transforms this little digicam into a near DSLR, in some ways better. It's bright, contrasty, shows you the accurate framing, focus and exposure and all settings - everything you can see on the 3" rear LCD. Or not. Flip back and forth between finder and screen with a button. Switch on and off the extra finder info with a button. Then review your just-shot picture in the finder as well. Not even my Nikons let me do this, so when you simply must verify exposure, focus or anything else outdoors, the EVF is transformative for photography. Yes, it does create some bulk, but as a tool, it is the single biggest advance in small cameras since we did away with film. Buying this accessory is essential, even if you have to carry it in a separate pocket.
(8) Framing. My Nikons and previous Leica-Sonic had an electronic grid you could overlay on the screen when you needed to line up composition, like the lines on a large-format camera's ground glass. It was too busy and distracting on a small screen. So this time around, Lumix replaced it with a live 'gyro', a horizon line and vertical line which move to help you keep the camera level while shooting, without getting in the way. As with all the other display features, it is easily turned off and on with a button.
(9) Frame Rate. I thought I had died and gone upstairs when I learned how to trick my Nikon D300 into shooting nine frames per second (fps) instead of the advertised six. It has allowed me to capture instants in time otherwise impossible. Anyone not trying out this feature is missing out on capturing something really spectacular; I've taught several students to capture sports action like pros by using high frame rate. Well, this Lumix LX7 shoots ELEVEN fps. Sorry Nikon, but the little mirror-less camera has you beat here. And with a class 10 SD card installed, it will keep up, even at full resolution. Wow.
Nitpick 1: I've read many reviews panning this camera because it does not have a retractable lens cover. Rather, it has a traditional cap which you manually remove and replace, just like on a real camera, and it attaches with a small string tether to the strap lug so you don't lose it while shooting. My response is "Bee-Eff-Dee". I have to uncap my Nikons to shoot them, and since their lenses interchange, the cap goes in my case or pocket while shooting. With the Lumix, at least you always know where the cap is. Let's face it; this is not a toy, it is a serious photographer's small camera (I will not call it a point-and-shoot, out of respect). So if you want a retractable lens cover, go get a toy camera. Else, deal with it.
Nitpick2: Panasonic markets this as having a 7.5x Intelligent Zoom. Please do not insult MY intelligence. This is a 3.8x OPTICAL zoom lens, a 24-90mm equivalent in 35mm film parlance. The fact that you can crop in from that by 'zooming' past the optical limits has little practical value. By now, most digicam buyers get that, so Panasonic is attempting to rebrand digital zoom as something more than digital in-camera crop. But it is not a 7.5x lens, and the product title should not feature than number. It cheapens an otherwise excellent product aimed at the prosumer market, not the K-Market.
Nitpick3: Ken Rockwell, who has authored many fine camera reviews, has routinely panned this Leica / Lumix camera series. In his words, "it's not a real Leica". Well, no kidding, Ken. It also does not cost ten thousands bucks, body alone, plus lenses at several thousand per. But for most ordinary humans wanting professional image quality and features without a mortgage, it is all the Leica we will ever need. And for me, I can ski with it at 50mph in my pocket, ride my bike with it in my saddle bag, and always have it handy. I don't know anyone who would treat a Leica M9 this way. Most of them sit locked behind glass display cabinets. Mine makes photos.
Bottom line: I still keep my Nikon's 50mm f1.4 lens for fine portraiture and product photography, and to keep at least one mid-range lens for the D300. But I recently sold my Nikon's ten-year-old massive 28-70mm f2.8 pro lens, for $900, once I bought the Lumix). Why? Because the LX7 obsoleted the Nikkor. The LX7 cost me far less in total with viewfinder, spare battery, cards, EVF, leather half-case and leather wrist strap than I sold the well-used Nikkor lens for. And because it is far more versatile and pocketable, it takes more and better pictures.
All I use the Nikon D300 now for is for ultrawide (the 16mm fisheye and 12-24mm lenses) and telephoto (the 70-210mm f2.8) shooting. For everything else, the LX7 with the EVF is now this professional photographer's primary camera.
Just don't call it a point-and-shoot. You will insult it.
Bob Reed / Alpine Images