Back in 2008, in the blissful days before the bankers ruined everything, I was invited by Panasonic to a launch event for a new camera. This was not all that unusual; I'd been to many such events before, but this time it was a bit different. At enormous expense Panasonic flew myself and about a hundred other camera journalists down to Monte Carlo, put us up in a top-class hotel (the Fairmont, the one the cars go under in the Monaco Grand Prix) and generally treated us like minor royalty for three days. The point of all this extravagance was to announce the launch of the Lumix DMC-LX3, an unassuming-looking 10-megapixel compact camera with a 2.5x zoom, wide-angle lens. It might not have looked like much, but even then Panasonic must have known it had created something special.
The LX3 is one of the few digital cameras that is widely regarded as a classic. Although on paper its specification doesn't look all that impressive, its combination of a large 1/1.7in 10.1-megapixel sensor, a specially designed f/2 Leica lens and full manual exposure options, along with superb handling and outstanding image quality, made it a firm favourite with photography enthusiasts, and it went on to win a string of well-deserved awards. In 2010 the LX3 was replaced by the LX5, and while a free trip to Monaco was not included this time, it was still extremely well received by both the camera press and the buying public, despite being perceived as a fairly minor upgrade.
In August of 2012 Panasonic launched the latest in the LX series, the Lumix DMC-LX7, so can lightning strike three times or has the market moved on? There's no doubt that the LX7 faces stiffer competition than the LX3 or LX5 ever did. Its main rivals are the £360 Canon PowerShot S110, which has a 12.1-megapixel CMOS sensor and an f/2.0 24-120mm lens; the £350 Samsung EX2F (opens in new tab), with its 12.4-megapixel BSI CMOS and f/1.4 24-80mm lens; possibly the £480 Sony RX100, featuring a big 1in 20.2-megapixel sensor, and perhaps more realistically the £300 Fujifilm XF1, with its 2/3in 12-megapixel sensor, f/1.8 25-100mm lens and retro-stylish leatherette finish. You can pick up an LX7 for around £350 if you shop around online, so it's at least competitive, but how does it stand up to a closer look?
Design and features
The retro "real camera" look of the LX3 and LX5 has been a big selling point for the series, so not too surprisingly Panasonic hasn't messed around with it. What few changes there are to the exterior are fairly minor, and exist only to accommodate new features. The robust all-metal body is about 2mm taller to make room for the slightly wider lens barrel, and the flash hot-shoe has been moved back by about 4mm, slightly overhanging the body line, to provide space for the twin stereo microphones. Other than that, the body is virtually identical to the LX5, although the handgrip has reverted to the smaller shape of the LX3.
Like the previous models in the series, the LX7 offers a full range of manual control options, with shutter speeds from 1/2000th of a second all the way to 250 seconds available in manual exposure mode. The thumbwheel used to adjust shutter speed was a bit clunky on my review camera, but it would probably loosen up with longer use.
The control layout has seen a couple of minor changes and one very major one. The Quick Menu and Display buttons have swapped places, the function of a couple of the D-pad buttons has changed, and there is now a separate control wheel mounted just below the main mode dial, which is used to adjust manual focus, and to activate the useful new neutral-density filter mode.
The big change is the addition of an actual real-life aperture adjustment ring around the barrel of the lens, something that will have older photography enthusiasts going all misty-eyed with nostalgia. Of course it's actually an electronic control, but it feels just like the mechanical aperture rings found on old manual-exposure SLRs and rangefinder cameras, complete with 1/3-stop increments. With an aperture range from f/1.4 to f/8 it offers a useful degree of control too. Also on the lens barrel are the selectors for the focusing mode and the aspect ratio, which includes 1:1, 4:3, 3:2 and 16:9.
In terms of features, the biggest improvement is to the camera's main selling point, its superb Leica lens. In the face of competition from Samsung's excellent EX2F, Panasonic has made the lens even faster, with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 – 2.3, making it the fastest lens on any current digital camera. With a focal length range equivalent to 24-80mm it is a superbly versatile instrument, ideal for everything from low-light portraits to wide-angle landscapes.
Another major new feature is the inevitable addition of full HD video recording, with stereo audio, recording in the high quality AVCHD format. It features full manual exposure control in video mode, and even includes high-speed 50fps recording. The results are very good, but like most compact cameras the microphones do suffer from wind noise outdoors.
Fast and reliable performance is a key factor for any high-end digital camera, and the LX7 certainly doesn't disappoint. From a cold start it can power up and take a picture in approximately 1.5 seconds, which is exceptionally quick by any standard. In single shot mode, using raw plus fine JPEG capture and a standard Class 6 memory card it has a shot-to-shot time of approximately 0.7 seconds, which is also very impressive. It does slow down approximately 2.4 seconds after 16 shots as the buffer fills up, but even this rate is quicker than some cameras can manage at all, and it only does this in raw plus JPEG mode. Shooting in just JPEG fine mode doesn't slow it down at all.
A lot of the credit for the shooting speed must go to the autofocus system. The LX3 and LX5 had fast AF, but the LX7 is even faster. Even in low light or with a moving subject there is virtually no delay between pressing the shutter button and hearing the beep that confirms that it's focused. It is, I think, the best AF system I've ever seen on a compact camera.
As well as single shot, the LX7 has a wide range of continuous shooting options, ranging from two shots with single AF, all the way up to two electronic-shutter high-speed modes offering 40 or 60fps, although these are limited to resolutions of 5-megapixels and 2.5-megapixels respectively. The fastest it can shoot at full resolution is 11fps, which is still very fast.
The pop-up flash is also very impressive. It is amazingly powerful for its size, with a wide-angle range of over eight meters even at minimum ISO, and recharges from a full-power flash in less than four seconds.
I haven't been so impressed by the results from a digital compact since I first used the LX3 back in 2008. I shot a couple of hundred pictures while testing the LX7, without a single shot being out of focus, incorrectly exposed or affected by camera shake. Even shooting in low light without flash at a gig in a busy pub yielded results that were far better than I expected. Exposure metering is unfailingly accurate, dynamic range is better than any other compact I can think of, and the high-ISO noise control would almost put some digital SLRs to shame. It produces noise-free shots up to 1600 ISO and even at 6400 ISO the results are at least usable. The reduced-resolution 12,800 ISO maximum setting is a bit of a waste of time, but it's literally the only duff feature on the camera.
The lens is particularly noteworthy; it is pin-sharp from edge to edge, with no trace of chromatic aberration even in the corners of the frame. The level of fine detail is slightly limited by the 10-megapixel resolution, but the results are so sharp and contrasty that you really don't notice. I've said many times that the quality of a photograph is not a function of how many pixels it contains, and the LX7 proves this conclusively.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 is, as far as I'm concerned, the best compact camera currently available, at least of the ones that I've tried recently, and is a worthy successor to the classic LX3. It offers fast, reliable and accurate performance, a good range of genuinely useful features, outstanding build quality, excellent handling, and beautiful image quality under any shooting conditions. It even looks nice too. At £350 it is an expensive camera, but then so are most of its rivals, and to be frank you do get what you pay for. If you want the kind of image quality from a compact that this camera can deliver, then your choices are fairly limited.
READ: Panasonic Lumix LX7: Or how I learned to give up my Canon 7D and love the compact. (opens in new tab)
As usual these ISO test shots were taken using a table-top studio and tungsten studio lights, with tungsten white balance and +1EV exposure compensation. This is the full frame at 80 ISO, the lowest setting. (Click it for the full sized version).
The images in the slideshow below are crops taken from the full size JPEG photos, shot at progressively higher ISO settings.
Here's my usual detail comparison shot, of the carved door of 10 Cathedral Close, Exeter. This was shot in raw mode and converted using Adobe Camera Raw 7.3. (Click it for the full sized version).
While the total resolution might not be as large as some other compacts, the pin-sharp lens and ultra-sensitive sensor still manage to capture a huge amount of fine detail.
The Leica-branded lens is superb, producing pin-sharp results with minimal distortion. (Click it for the full sized version).
Centre sharpness is flawless. I've seen DSLRs not produce this level of quality.
The corners are sharp too, with no trace of chromatic aberration.
The larger pixel pitch of the 1/1.7in 10.1-megapixel sensor captures much greater dynamic range than most compacts. (Click it for the full sized version).
This is the wide-angle end of the zoom, equivalent to 24mm. (Click it for the full sized version).
This is the telephoto end of the zoom range, equivalent to 80mm. (Click it for the full sized version).
The powerful pop-up flash fills in the shadows on this shot, even against the light of the evening sun. (Click it for the full sized version).
Even in slightly overcast conditions, colours look rich and vibrant. (Click it for the full sized version).
The LX7's low-light performance is exemplary. This was taken at 1600 ISO with no flash. (Click it for the full sized version).
Manufacturer and model
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7
1/1.7in MOS, 12.8MP
[4:3] 3,648 x 2,736, [3:2] 3,776 x 25,20, [16:9] 3,968 x 2,232, [1:1] 2,736 x 2,736
3.8x optical, 4x digital
Focal length (35mm)
4.7 - 17.7mm (24 - 90mm equiv.)
f/1.4 – 2.3
250 - 1/4,000 sec
TTL contrast detection
PASM, iAuto, scene modes
Face / AF Tracking / 23-area / 1-area (flexible/scalable)
80 – 12,800
7.5cm (3.0in) TFT LCD, 920k dots
0.8 - 8.5m Wide, 0.3 - 5.2m Tele, ISO Auto
Single, multiple burst modes up to 60fps
Full HD 1920 x 1080, 50p AVCHD
Memory card slot
SD, SDHC, SDXC
1,250mAh Li-ion rechargeable
Mini HDMI, AV Output (PAL/NTSC), USB
Dimensions (W x H x D)
110.5 x 67.1 x 45.6 mm
Weight (body only)
295g inc. card and battery
Lens cap, neck strap, battery changer, manual, software CD
PHOTOfunSTUDIO 8.3 PE, SilkyPix Developer Studio, Adobe Reader