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As long as you're comfortable with using manual controls for photos and video, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 ($500 as of 9/27/2010) has to be in the running for your consideration--it's one of the best fixed-lens cameras on the market today. The 10-megapixel Lumix LX5, which offers a large (1/1.63-inch) CCD sensor for a point-and-shoot camera, is a versatile performer once you dive into its advanced controls.
The LX5 backs up its F2.0 ultra-wide-angle zoom lens (3.8X optical zoom, 24mm to 95mm) with manual controls for both stills and video, RAW shooting, an unbelievable macro mode that lets you practically touch the lens to your subject, fast and fine-tunable focus controls, and a button layout that offers easy access to in-camera settings. On the back is a 3-inch LCD screen for framing your shots, but no optical viewfinder; instead, a proprietary hot-shoe connection allows you to connect the same eye-level electronic viewfinder (EVF) that's compatible with Panasonic's G-series interchangeable-lens cameras.
In Video: Lumix DMC-LX5 is a Serious Point-and-Shoot
More than most portable point-and-shoots, this is a camera that truly looks and feels like a camera. It resembles a miniaturized, fixed-lens version of Panasonic's interchangeable-lens Lumix GF1, right down to the boxy, classic-looking frame, pop-up flash, and stand-alone lens cap. Although it's quite a bit smaller than the Micro Four-Thirds GF1, it's bigger than your average point-and-shoot camera. The LX5 won't fit in your pants pocket, but it's compact enough to fit in a jacket pocket or a purse.
Fast autofocus has become Panasonic's specialty over the past few years, and the LX5 continues the trend. You're able to power up the camera and snap a sharp shot within a second (just as long as you remember to remove the lens cap), and the camera rarely searches in and out in an attempt to lock focus on a subject. What's more, there are excellent focus controls that go beyond what we've seen on the vast majority of point-and-shoot cameras. Autofocus modes include a motion-tracking setting, a 23-area autofocus, and a variable autofocus setting that lets you set your focus area to an off-center area of the scene. You can also opt to set the LX5 to a step zoom setting, which lets you jump to six predefined focal lengths (24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 70mm, and 90mm) by tapping the zoom control, and the camera's autofocus reacts immediately.
A simple switch on the side of the lens lets you move quickly between autofocus, macro focus, and manual focus controls, and the LX5 offers stunning macro performance. With a minimum focus distance of 0.4 inches, this camera shines when it comes to extreme close-ups; you can practically touch the lens to your subject and get a crisp shot with a dramatically shallow depth of field.
Click on the two thumbnails (above, left) to see full-size images of the LX5's macro capabilities. Both the figurine and the paper clip were practically touching the lens.
The LX5 also offers a high ceiling for ISO sensitivity, with the ability to shoot at ISO 3200 at maximum resolution and at ISO 6400 and 12800 at a 3-megapixel resolution. In a near-pitch-black setting, images shot at the extreme high end of the ISO range showed plenty of visible noise, but color accuracy at these astronomical ISO settings was impressive.
At the expense of image detail when viewed at full size, the high ISO settings brightened up the scene to make it look like it was shot in bright indoor lighting. As long as you've got a tripod and aren't planning on enlarging your images too much, this camera does an amazing job of capturing usable, color-accurate images without a flash in extreme low-light settings.
Click on the thumbnail (above, left) to see the LX5's performance at ISO 12800. The photo was shot in a pitch-black room.
PCWorld Labs' Image- and Video-Quality Tests
It's a good thing that there are so many manual options to choose from, because the LX5 isn't the best performer when it's left to drive itself. In an unfortunate twist for novices, the LX5's main drawback appears in the mode that casual shooters would use the most: the Intelligent Auto mode.
In PCWorld Labs' subjective evaluations for image and video quality, which consisted of test shots taken in Intelligent Auto mode, the Lumix LX5 turned in disappointing results for all four image-quality categories--exposure, color accuracy, sharpness, and distortion. The LX5 earned an overall image-quality rating of Fair, as most of the shots taken in Intelligent Auto mode looked underexposed compared with other performance-minded point-and-shoots such as the Samsung TL500 and Canon PowerShot S90. The LX5 is definitely a camera that excels only when using its manual settings.
Click on any of our test images here to see them at full size.
Video quality, on the other hand, is excellent when using the camera's automated settings--at least in well-lit environments. The LX5 turned in the best video-quality rating we've seen in 2010, thanks to sharp, smooth test footage captured in bright light, as well as crisp audio captured by its on-board mono mic. Low-light video was less impressive using the camera's automated settings, but the LX5 does have adjustable ISO, white balance, and shutter settings that help capture improved footage in low-light situations. Overall, the LX5 earned a video quality score of Superior, and its in-camera adjustments when shooting video are a significant step beyond anything in its class.
Here are the test videos we shot for our subjective evaluations. Select "720p" from the drop-down menu in the lower right corner of each player for the highest-quality footage.
The button layout on the LX5 is also a standout feature, with well-placed physical controls for immediate access to manual settings. Two sliding switches reside on the ring of the lens itself: the autofocus/macro/manual focus selector, and a slider on top to change between 16:9, 4:3, 3:2, and 1:1 aspect ratios. On the top left of the camera is the pop-up flash, which you open with a dedicated slide button right next to it (you click it closed with your finger). Directly to the right of it are a proprietary hot shoe, which uses the same proprietary connector as its Micro Four-Thirds EVF and a few Panasonic external flashes.
The top right of the camera hosts a ten-selection mode dial, which lets you choose between Intelligent Auto mode, a range of color filters, scene modes, video mode, manual mode, aperture-priority mode, shutter-priority mode, program auto mode, and two user-defined custom settings. The shutter button, zoom controls, a dedicated record button, and a physical on/off toggle switch round out the controls on the top of the camera.
On the back, you get a thumb-operated scroll wheel (which also clicks down to select on-screen options), an autofocus/auto-exposure lock button, a playback button, a button for changing the LCD display options, a quick menu button that jumps to commonly used on-screen control options, and a four-way directional pad that also doubles as a one-touch access point to ISO settings, focus lock, and a user-defined function key. Somehow, despite so many buttons, the layout feels uncluttered and well-spaced.
Lumix LX5 vs. PowerShot S90
So how does this all-around all-star compare to Canon's PowerShot S90, which also offers a boatload of photographer-friendly controls in a more-compact package? The PowerShot S90 scored much better in our imaging tests--its Auto mode offers better performance in indoor settings. The S90 also offers a focus bracketing mode, which is one of the only features the LX5 is missing, and the S90's unique ring-around-the-lens control wheel is a handier way to access some of the in-camera controls.
The PowerShot S90 is a better choice as an all-purpose family camera--where family members share a camera--as it's well-suited for both those who take a lot of photos in Auto mode and those who want to dive into its manual controls. But for pure manual operation, it's hard to find a fixed-lens camera that tops the Lumix LX5. Its fine-tunable settings, macro mode, focus features, video options, low-light performance, and classic aesthetics are sure to make photography geeks freak (in a very good way). This is a great step-up camera for anyone who feels shackled by automated settings as well as a great on-the-go camera for anyone accustomed to a DSLR.
This story, "Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5: All-Around All-Star for Manual Shooters" was originally published by PCWorld.
The Lumix LX5 isn't the most novice-friendly camera, but it offers an insane amount of power for a fixed-lens camera when you dig into its manual controls.