panasonic LX-2 review – new york

This weekend wasn’t the first time I’d taken the LX-2 on a big trip, but it was the first time since I’d gotten it that I convinced myself to take it on a big trip along with my D200. Since it’s a camera that most people are looking at either as an SLR backup or instead of buying an SLR in general, I thought it might be good to give an overall review of the LX-2, as well as comparing/contrasting it with SLR’s. I’m not planning to go through the ergonomics of the camera as such. Ergonomics and user interface is generally not your most important concern, particularly on a point and shoot. As a result, I plan to focus most on actually using the camera, and the pictures you (can) get out of it.

Before I start, let me say that I realize comparing the LX-2 with a D200 is not terribly fair. However, it’s important to keep in mind that most of the comparisons that hold true comparing the LX-2 with the D200 would also hold with the D40/D50, or XTi.

The Good

  1. Size & Weight – The LX-2 is small and light. For most of my trip I carried it in my coat pocket, which gave me easy access to using it. I also felt a bit more inconspicuous while taking pictures on streets and in subway station. Pulling out an SLR often draws a lot of attention, but snapping away with a point and shoot isn’t really seen as that big of a deal. As a result, you’re not too unwilling to try shots like this one in the middle of a large group of people during rush hour at Times Square:

  2. Features – I don’t know of any other point and shoot camera that packs this many features into one package. Full manual control, the ability to shoot in RAW, 60 second exposures, Image Stabilization, a decent movie mode, 16:9 native capture – the list goes on. The LX-2 is a very versatile camera that gives you n amazing amount of creative control without forcing you to carry around several pounds of equipment, which allows you to capture more shots than you would otherwise get.
  3. “Leica” lens – I put Leica in quotes because, like Sony with their “Zeiss” lenses, there’s probably more to the story than just the name. While the LX-2 is at least rebadged and sold as a real Leica with the red dot, if I were having to base my decision to buy an M8 or not based only on the LX-2, I would save my $5000. That said, the LX-2’s lens is very sharp, relatively contrasty, and very capable. It is honestly *at times* capable of rivaling my Nikon 17-55, though it does have one severe shortcoming, to be discussed later. At the end of the day though, you can still get beautiful, saturated results like this without too much work:

  4. Build Quality – The LX-2 doesn’t feel like a cheap, plasticy camera. It has a fair amount of metal in it, and you don’t feel like you’re going to break it by breathing around it. As previously mentioned, the fact that it’s basically a Leica without the red dot speaks highly to its construction.

The Not so Good

  1. Speed (the ISO kind) – Due to the nature of the LX-2’s sensor, noise is a serious problem. As a result, it is not advised to ever shoot much above 400 if you are planning on printing your picture, and it is certainly advisable to shoot at 100 whenever possible. If shooting at 100 is not possible, it’s often advisable to make it possible. The following are two pictures which somewhat illustrate my point. The subject is not really important, but each shows a 1:1 crop off an LX-2 image taken at the same time, of the same subject. The first image was taken at ISO 100, and the second at ISO 800. While the first image is blurred due to hand-holding at over 1/2 a second, you can still see an extreme amount of difference in the noise levels of the two images:

    Clearly, the LX-2 suffers both from chromatic and luminance noise in spades anytime the ISO increases.

  2. Noise (not the loud kind) – Even when shooting at ISO 100, the LX-2’s sensor still suffers from noise problems. Below are two images taken from the same spot, but slightly different perspectives. The first image is from the LX-2, and the second is from the D200. Both are 1:1 crops.

    Now on first glance these two cropped photos appear to have similar amounts of noise – which would be good if they had both been taken at 100, but unfortunately the LX-2 was on ISO 100 while the D200 was on ISO 400. Additionally, not only does the LX-2 image have approximately the same amount of noise as the D200’s photo @ISO 400, the D200 noise pattern is smaller and more film-like than that of the LX-2, leading to a more pleasant image overall.

    The combined message of these two points is simple – the LX-2 will have more noise and require you to shoot at a slower shutter speed. If you have a tripod or a well lit room or are shooting outdoors, this may not matter to you, but if you are an average point and shoot user who is just looking to take pictures of the dog and kids, this could cause you fits. Often you can compensate for some of this, but it is just a reality of the camera, and one that must be dealt with.

  3. Chromatic Aberration – Using Starfish’s filtering technique to spot problem areas for chromatic aberration is extremely instructive in this case. The following pictures represent almost the worst case for CA, but none the less shows the scope of the problem on the LX-2’s lens. The first is the normal image, unfiltered, followed by the filtered image, CA amplified by ~6dB (2 stops).

    Obviously in this case, the CA is extremely well defined and easily detectable in the original image as well. CA can lead to lack of sharpness and definition in your pictures, and in general is just something you’d prefer not to deal with.

  4. Filesize – The LX-2’s raw files take up 20MB each. The LX-2’s JPG’s take up 2-3 MB each. There is no option to turn the JPG off if you’re shooting RAW. The result of all of this is that you need extremely large memory cards in order to use the LX-2 for any length of time. The RAW files can be compressed to DNG’s after bringing them onto the computer, but it’s none the less a severe pain to not have an option to compress in native format.

The Wishlist

Not that any Panasonic/Leica engineers are out there reading this right now, but if they were, I do have a wishlist of things I’d like to see in an LX-3:

  1. A Less Noisy Sensor – The LX-2 is fantastic, but it would be much more so were it paired with a capable sensor. The Fuji F30, for instance, gives usable results up to 3200. Why can’t the LX-2?
  2. Faster write times / Smaller file sizes – This one is almost free. Reducing the filesize reduces write times and makes the memory go that much further. There’s no reason not to do it, and it would help shooting out significantly.
  3. Slightly better movie mode – The LX-2 does… well, ok. But 720p @30fps would be very nice. As would slightly better quality on the compression algorithms.

And… That’s about it.

The Verdict

The LX-2 is a very good camera for what it is, but a very bad camera for what it is not. It’s not good for shooting indoors (in general), shooting action (in general) or shooting in low light (in general). It is, however, capable of stunning results that will rival an SLR, and if your primary goal is artistic photography, it is certainly an investment worth making.

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