Take two weeks off work. Leave the deteriorating weather of London behind and catch the fireworks in Hong Kong for Mid-Autumn Festival, sample the Spring sunshine of Melbourne, Australia and swing by Tokyo on the way home to check how the centuries-old temples sit alongside the neon bustle of Japan's capital. Sounds great – I'll pack my camera and let's go!
Therein lies the challenge. My name is Geoff and I am a photogeekaholic.I love technology. I love photography. I am fortunate enough to have the financial means to indulge this habit. My weapon of choice is a Canon 7D digital SLR and I have an array of lenses for almost every occasion, offering me focal lengths from 10mm for ultra-wide angle shots right up to 500mm for close-up sporting action and shooting my other passion, Formula One.
Unfortunately, all this gear comes at a price. I'm not talking about the cost of the camera itself, the lenses, filters, flashgun, bags or even the three-figure specialist insurance cost each year to protection my collection should the worst happen.
The hidden price I am referring to is weight.
When I travel, I like to cover my bases. I have a specialist photography backpack and I pack a variety of lenses. Catering to all possibilities I typically pack four lenses on a trip: an every-day walkaround lens, then something wide, something long and something fast. Then there are the filters, lens cleaning gear, a spare battery, charger, card reader... the list goes on. All in, my backpack weighs a hefty 5.5kg (12lb) and quite frankly I'm a little sick of lugging it all around with me.
What alternative did I have? For this trip, I decided to set myself a challenge with that very question: could I give up the thousands of pounds of digital SLR gear and replace it with a single compact camera and still take the photos I wanted?
Clearly my aging Canon IXUS was not up to the task. For this I needed something special. Something lightweight that fits in my pocket yet retains the full creative control of a digital SLR and matching as many high-performance features as possible.
Enter the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7, the flagship of the company's compact camera range. Costing around £400, the Lumix LX7 is not only two or three times the price most of us have paid for a typical point-and-shoot camera, it is also on the doorstep of entry-level digital SLRs like the Canon 600D and Nikon D3200 (both around £450).
As it happens, the LX7 is far from your typical point-and-shoot camera. 10.1 Megapixels and 3.8x optical zoom might not excite anyone, and most cameras can shoot 1080p video these days. Big deal. Up to ISO 6400 / 12800 (extended mode) promises good low-light performance, and a 920k dot 3in TFT screen...I'm listening. Burst mode? How do you fancy 11 frames per second?
The real party piece is the 24-90mm Leica lens, capable of an incredible f/1.4 aperture, giving the LX7 the equal fastest glass of any compact camera on the market. To put that into perspective, many professional dSLR lenses are "only" f/2.8 and a typical compact camera like the popular Lumix DMC-TZ25 is f/3.3 to f/5.9. The prospect of two full stops brighter than a Canon L-series lens is certainly one to savour.
How do these two cameras compare in their physical specification?
That a compact camera, even a larger example such as the LX7, is smaller and lighter than a full digital SLR is no surprise to anyone. The purpose of this article is to explore this comparison in more detail.
Starting with the front aspect, the difference is clear. The Canon 7D is 148 x 111mm (width x height) while the Lumix LX7 is 111 x 68mm. Indeed, the 7D looks almost big enough to swallow the LX7 whole, though it would be biting off more than it could chew. The EF 50mm f/1.4 lens shown here has a filter thread of 58mm and even if we mounted the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L II with its whopping 82mm thread, it would never make it down the 53mm "throat" of the EF mount.
Overlaying the two cameras the size comparison becomes even clearer.
Here we can see the difference in thickness: 74mm vs 46mm though this doesn't tell the full story. The Lumix LX7 has a 3.8x optical zoom lens that protrudes from the main body even when closed. However the 74mm thickness quoted for the Canon 7D includes no lens at all. The humble 18-55mm kit lens included with so many Canon models adds 70mm while the EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS adds 110mm for a total approaching 200mm without lens hood.
When it comes to weight, there almost isn't any comparison. The 7D is quoted at 820g body-only. However, add the battery, CF card and a 24-105 f/4 IS lens with hood and you have almost 1.7kg dangling around your neck. Or not as the case may be. In the photos below I am wearing a Cotton Carrier camera harness.
This clever quick-release system was developed by Canadian professional photographer Andy Cotton and it works by ensuring the weight is carried close to your body's centre of gravity and distributing the load across both shoulders; I can shoot a full day and not experience any neck pain. It's great for action photographers too. It isn't cheap (the RRP is US$149) and it can't help with the fatigue of carrying multiple kilograms of other gear, but I would certainly recommend it for die-hard dSLR enthusiasts.
Of course none of this gear can compare to a compact camera. The LX7 isn't a featherweight but at 309g with SD card and battery, you can sling it around your neck or over your shoulder and barely notice it's there.
For anyone who thinks this is an unfair test, using a semi-pro dSLR like the 7D, it is worth noting that using a mainstream APS-C model like an EOS 600D shaves around 300g from the bottom line. This might sound significant (it is, after all, an entire LX7-worth) however the lens and all the other gear is the same so you turn a 5.5kg pack into 5.2kg.
That the LX7 is lighter and more compact than a digital SLR is clearly a no-brainer. Now it's time to see how it performs and whether it can match the image quality and versatility of its semi-pro cousin.
The Leica lens on the LX7 has a focal range of 4.7 - 17.7mm, equivalent to 24 - 90mm or 3.8x optical zoom. In comparison the 18 - 55mm kit lens bundled with most of Canon's range provides 3.0x zoom and with the cropped sensor, actually equivalent to 29 - 88mm.
A lot of compact cameras are 28mm at the wide-end but the LX7 has a key advantage.
Using the lens fully wide open at 24mm it is easily possible to capture the full 297m / 975 feet height of the Eureka Tower, the tallest building in Melbourne, Australia, from the base; the results are not without some barrel distortion, however.
Meanwhile, in downtown Tokyo, Celine Dion has never been bigger. Again, with the LX7 it's possible to capture entire buildings in a single snap - no stitching required.
At the telephoto end of the focal range we start to bump into some physical limits. The 11-element lens has a maximum local length of 90mm and while this is fine for every day happy-snaps, here is one example of where there is no substitute for a dSLR camera (or at the very least, a decent bridge camera)
One morning I was walking around the side of my parents' house in rural Melbourne and I spotted this Kookaburra sat on the gate. I ran back inside and grabbed the LX7 and zoomed to maximum. This is the image I captured, resized to fit this page.
No problem, you say. You shot it at 10 megapixels. Just crop it to "zoom in". Let's see what that looks like, shall we?
Hardly inspiring. Arguably the LX7 hasn't done any worse than its direct competitors. The Samsung EX2F manages only 24-80mm f/1.4-2.7 while the Sony RX100 is longer at both ends (28-100mm) and slower (f/1.8-4.9), though double the pixel count (20MP).
Just as well I had the Canon 7D on hand. Luckily after a second dash inside to grab it (and a brief delay while I swapped the 24-105 f/4 L for my 70-300mm travel zoom) the bird was still resting on the gate and I managed this shot. With the 1.6 crop factor on the 7D, this gives the effect of shooting at 480mm on a 35mm camera.
It isn't a fast lens - a maximum aperture of f/5.6 at 300mm - but features three-stop Image Stabilisation (IS) which certainly helps capturing static subjects like this. I should also confess that this lens costs anything up to £399 on its own, which will buy you an entire LX7 if you shop around. You get what you pay for, to a degree.
Let's explore Aperture further on the next page.
For the uninitiated, the aperture setting on a camera controls the amount of light entering the lens. This is achieved by varying the diameter of an iris diaphragm, mimicking how the human eye works
Sometimes referred to as "f-number" or "f-value", the aperture value is inversely proportional to its size. For example, f/2.8 is a factor of two larger than f/4.0. In very simple terms, lower is better, as it represents a larger hole through which light can enter the camera.
A large aperture (small number, remember?) has two benefits in real life photography. The most important is that it allows you to achieve usable shutter speeds in dim light, where other cameras produce a blurry mess. If you are in good light, a large aperture will give you a higher shutter speed, freeze-framing fast-moving subjects.
The other benefit to your everyday photography is increased bokeh, derived from the Japanese for "blur", is the defocussing of the background to give your foreground subject extra punch. Here is an example shot on the LX7:
A shallow depth of field like this is one of the primary reasons mainstream consumers upgrade to a digital SLR. It is invariably the one factor cited as making photos look "professional". Sadly, either through ignorance or limited financial means, these same consumers rarely invest beyond the standard 18-55mm kit lens. With a maximum aperture of f/3.5 it simply isn't capable of replicating these results. To do so would require spending £1,000 or more on a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens that is still several stops slower than the LX7.
The Panasonic wunder-compact is f/1.4 at 24mm, easing out to f/2.3 at 90mm. This makes it the equal-fastest lens of any compact camera, matched only by the 24-80mm f/1.4-2.7 on the Samsung EX2F. It also means the LX7 is a good amount faster than the Lumix LX5 that preceded it, considered quick in its day at f/2.0 to f/3.3
Jealous dSLR owners can get down to f/1.4 but doing so will cost £300-400 (an entire LX7-worth) and you are limited to a fixed focal length such as 30mm or 50mm. Clearly the Panasonic compact represents great value for money, but how does it handle when you need the maximum possible aperture?
Aperture control has been available on compact cameras for the best part of a decade or more. Normally it requires entering an on-screen menu and several taps left or right on a D-pad to select the desired aperture. On the LX7, fine-tuning your aperture could not be easier.
Panasonic has moved the manual aperture contro from a small thumb dial on the back of the camera to a chunky rotating ring on the lens barrel. Falling easy to hand and requiring no on-screen menus, you can rapidly switch from f/8.0 to f/1.4 and back again with a twist of the wrist; the notched action provides a satisfying click with each stop.
What does all this mean in the real world? I found this pretty, purple flower in Kowloon Park, Hong Kong. Starting at f/8.0 (top left) you can see that the depth of field is deep and the background is in focus. Progressively increasing the aperture through f/5.6 to f/4.0 (bottom left) - this is the same maximum aperture of 24-105mm L lens on my Canon 7D. As you can see, the depth of field is still fairly deep and your eye is still distracted by background elements.
A further stop up the scale to f/2.8 (top right) and we're matching some of the best professional lenses. Sadly the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 weighs a monstrous 950g on its own, though the Mk II trims this to 805g - still nearly three times an entire LX7.
At f/2.0 the next image matches the Lumix LX5 and now you see the high levels of bokeh kicking in. The central flower becomes isolated from the background and your eye is naturally drawn to the centre of the frame.
Finally the LX7's party trick: f/1.4 for the shallowest DoF available from any compact camera and super smooth bokeh. Don't go crazy with this setting when shooting up close: at 30cm from the subject the total depth of field is a mere 2.4mm! Get things wrong and you can end up with portrait shots where the tip of your subject's nose is in focus but the rest of their face is blurry.
One area where Panasonic could improve is focal point selection. Eschewing touchscreen focus selection in favour of a traditional D-pad control, manual selection of any point off-centre requires time to mash buttons and move the box across the frame. This is no different on a dSLR like the 7D but the inclusion of touch-to-focus on the otherwise gorgeous 3in LCD screen would speed up the process.
Of course, a maximum aperture of f/1.4 is good for more than just lots of bokeh. It also allows workable shutter speeds in very low light. Keep reading to see how the LX7 copes with night photography.
Digital SLR cameras trade on their reputation for the highest image quality. Throw a large sensor and fast glass at the problem and photography gold comes out the other end. Or at least that's the theory.
What the industry is slowly learning, thanks to the boom in smartphone sales and image-processing apps such as Instagram, is that you can do some pretty special things if you apply some silicon horsepower to the art of photography. In this case I'm talking about low-light photography.
Picture this: it is 10 o'clock at night and sunset was over four hours ago. You are riding the Star Ferry south across Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour and you want to take a photo of the iconic International Finance Centre. The ferry is rocking steadily over the waves and you don't have a tripod or anything to lean on; you are fully handheld.
My first attempt leaves a lot to be desired:
The 7D wasn't even an option. With a maximum aperture of f/4.0 at 24mm, I needed ISO 3200 just to get a shutter speed of 1/8th second. This isn't fast enough to eliminate the motion blur caused by the boat as well as my hands, and introduced high levels of noise.
By cranking the LX7 to the maximum f/1.4 the Intelligent ISO control selected ISO 400 to reduce noise but still only managed the same 1/8 second shutter speed. As you can see (above) the results are disappointing. The overall scene is fairly blurry and if you examine the 100 per cent crop in the top corner, the detail of the individual windows is pretty mangled.
This was the perfect time to test out one of the LX7's party tricks: Intelligent Handheld Night Shot. With most compact cameras, Night Shot is usually just marketing fluff for a high ISO setting. The engineers at Panasonic have created something far smarter though.
Leveraging the burst-mode capabilities of the camera, this mode takes a number of photos in quick succession. Individually, any single shot is pretty rubbish (as we've seen) but following the machine-gun rattle of half a dozen snaps there is a few seconds' pause while the Venus Engine processor goes to work. It combines many photos into a single image, comparing pixels with neighbouring dots and figuring out how to keep the sharpest as if by magic.
The results speak for themselves. Admittedly, fine detail still isn't anything to brag about however it is enough to rescue your photo from a blurry mess and drag it up into the acceptable range.
Back on dry land and the LX7 can produce some fantastic night photography. It has in-body HDR but it wasn't necessary for this shot from the Hong Kong Mid-Autumn Festival.
The 24mm wide angle lens can be used to great effect at night. As the Golden Moon pavilion lit the night sky, the reflection pool presented the chance for some excellent mirrored symmetry. As you might notice from the camera blocking my shot, the guy next to me could only manage to frame the dome itself, while I could get both halves. Regrettably the colours came out rather muted and didn't reflect the orange hue of the real structure but that is something you can tweak in post production if needed.
The Tokyo skyline was equally full of cool buildings lit up at night. This is the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower. At 204m tall it is "only" the 25th tallest in Japan but its 50 stories makes it the second highest educational building, known for the Tokyo Mode Gakuen fashion school that gives the tower its name.
Having explored the still photography capabilities of the Lumix LX7, it is time to see how it handles shooting video.
One area where you might assume the 7D has the advantage is shooting video. After all, dSLR video is of such high quality that Hollywood uses them to make TV shows and movies these days.
For the casual consumer, however, using a 7D for filming the kids on holiday is a bit of a minefield. Sure, the image quality is very high but there is no continuous autofocus (though some Nikon models can). This forces you to shoot at a high depth of field to capture all the action, or film in bursts the same way a big-budget movie is made, fixing your focus before hitting "record". You are welcome to attempt a manual focus pull while filming but it is difficult to do without a tripod and can result in camera shake.
Which brings me neatly to the second nightmare of dSLR video: stabilisation. Many lenses do not feature optical image stabilisation (IS for Canon; VR for Nikon; OS for Sigma; VC for Tamron). Without this you are limited to using a tripod, nearby wall or some other solid object to steady your footage.
With the LX7 there are no such problems. The camera can shoot AVCHD Full HD 1080p at up to 50 frames per second, steadied with Panasonic Power O.I.S. or optical image stabilisation. There is also a high-speed MPEG-4 video mode that doubles this to 100fps for 720p PAL or 120fps in NTSC. When played back at the normal 25/30fps this acts as 1/4 speed slow-motion.
Of course you can still use the large aperture settings to narrow the depth of field and create some truly dramatic visuals.
Check out the test footage shot by our partner, mitch625:
As you can see, in the right hands, shooting video on the LX7 can yield some truly impressive results.
Could I sell all my dSLR gear and replace it with a single Lumix LX7? Based on this experience, very possibly. Panasonic has produced an extremely capable compact camera. For low-light party photos, it's unbeatable. For running around, its compact dimensions and light weight make it a good choice. The wide-angle 24mm lens is great for landscapes and city photography so the only real weakness is the relatively short 90mm telephoto. But how often do I need more zoom than that?
The best way to figure that out is to use software to analyse the EXIF data from your photos and summarise your most common settings. Freeware package Exposure Plot does just that, scanning a single folder or your entire collection and returning photo counts for focal length, shutter speed, aperture and ISO. It even accounts for the 1.6 crop factor on the 7D, equalising focal lengths to their 35mm equivalents.
Sampling one day from my shoot, using a mixture of LX7 and 7D, clearly my most popular focal length is fully wide open: 24mm on both the LX7 and 7D (shown as 40mm equivalent). Plenty of shots up to the 90mm max of the Panasonic but my third most popular length is the max 105mm (170mm equivalent) of my everyday Canon lens, suggesting not only that using the LX7 alone might leave me frustrated but that I would probably zoom further if the Canon had let me.
After two weeks on the road and hours of analysis, my conclusion will surprise nobody who knows me best. I have ordered an LX7 to add to my photographic arsenal and there will be days where that is the only camera I carry. When I'm out touring the entire day, I will supplement it with my 7D with a single long lens and leave the rest of the gear behind. With this combination, it is possible to have the best of both worlds. Happy shooting!