Did the Panasonic LX100 Dethrone the RX100 as King of the Premium...

Did the Panasonic LX100 Dethrone the RX100 as King of the Premium Compacts?

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It’s pretty clear that for the past few years, SONY’s RX100 line has been the almost-indisputed champion when it comes to premium compact cameras. The original RX100 was ground-breaking in its quality and size, and is still sold today in fact, and then the second and third version managed to make very big improvements on their own.

At this point, the RX100 is a mature line of great, albeit pricey, point-and-shoot sized cameras that people love. And boy do people love them – if you search them out online, phrases like “best pocket camera ever made” are thrown around often. To be frank, the RX100 line just hasn’t had a lot of competition that can match its quality. Until the new Panasonic LX100 was recently released.

If you’re not familiar with the LX100, get ready, because it’s a doozy. This post will go into what it is, what it’s pros and cons are, how it differs from the RX100, and everything else you need to know. Before we get into that, here are a few things you need to know about it:

The basic things you need to know about the LX100:

  • It has a Micro Four Thirds sensor (bigger/better than most premium pocket cameras)

  • It features 4K video recording. This is a huge, almost unbelievable feature that’s not only a first for a pocket camera, but the big models of DSLR don’t even have plans for this yet.

  • It only packs 12.8MP (quite a few less than many other cameras, but there’s a notable upside to this we’ll discuss)

  • It has a Leica 1.7-2.8 (fast!) lens that goes from 24mm-75mm (almost the exact same as the RX100 M3)

If you wanted to summarize this camera, you could say that in many ways it’s an even more high-end version of the RX100 (a camera people already consider very high-end). However, does this comparison hold up under scrutiny? Let’s go through the camera and see. This whole review won’t really be a LX100 vs RX100 article, but I’ll bring up the differences/similarities when applicable.

  1. Image Quality

The lens is vital to image quality, of course, and the LX100 has quite a nice Leica 1.7-2.8. This lens is fast which means it’ll take much nicer pictures in low light than cheaper compact cameras. It’s a little bit faster than the RX100 M3 when you have it at the widest angle (ie. fully zoomed out), but the difference is not much, so they’ll behave about the same here.

Now, a note on my experience with this camera: While I’ve used it myself, I do not consider myself to be an expert on it. The camera was only released 3 months ago, and I’m not going to pretend I have done insane amounts of image quality tests on it. However, that’s fine, because in my opinion, you should never really just trust one source of information on Image Quality – quite often even smart, experienced people will have differing opinions on a certain piece of gear in this regard.

The best way to really judge the quality is to try out the camera of course, but also check out what other people are saying. (You can also review the images people have taken but honestly, everyone just posts their best shots, any almost any camera can take a few great shots here and there.)

SO, having said that, my personal experience is that all the shots I’ve taken with the camera are about on par with my RX100 M3, which is to say they look great.

A good image from the LX100 or RX100 is basically going to look just as good as one from a nice DSLR, so the real question is, how often are you going to take a good picture with the LX100? You can take some really nice photos now and then with a $100 point-and-shoot, but a majority of your pics will not be great, especially in non-optimal conditions (such as low light, weird lighting, etc.)

My experience with the LX100 is that most pictures I took were very good, even in low light or slightly wonky lighting conditions. The more automated modes are quite intelligent and choose decent settings, and the more manual modes (which are somewhat emphasized for the type of people buying this) are great.

Because of the f1.7-2.8 lens on this, you’re going to be able to get some nice, shallow DoF (depth of field) effects when you want them, although it’s not going to be quite as easy as with a full-sized DSLR and a nifty-fifty or other fast DSLR lens.

The DX100 has a Micro Four Thirds sensor, which is larger than the sensor in the RX100, and that should actually give you better low light performance and make it easier to get shallow depth of field effects, but sadly I never had both cameras with me at the same time to shoot comparison shots.

My tip for either of these cameras: If you’re taking a portrait, or some other shot where you really want the shallow depth of field, you’re going to have to work a bit harder than with a DSLR, so just think a few seconds ahead of time about how you can put a bit more distance between your subject and the background, or whatever you want more blurred.

Personally, I’m not a shallow depth of field junkie – I love the effect, but I really try to get a less pronounced version than some people seem to, and (luckily for me), that suits these cameras well. It seems like a lot of people get a DSLR, get a fast 50mm lens, and then start going hog wild with the shallow DoF, to the point where you can’t make anything but the subject out in any photo. That’s absolutely fine, and natural, but if you want your backgrounds to be somewhat blurred, but still recognizable, you’re going to be absolutely fine with most shots you take with this camera.

So, as I was saying about seeing what other people say: As of this writing, the camera has only been out for about 3 months, but a lot of reports have come in, and they’ve been largely positive. There has been a very small amount of talk that the pictures can be soft towards the edges, and I don’t honestly know what to think of it – I haven’t noticed it, and it’s not a universal complaint, but I did see enough people mention it that it probably is a concern in some cases. Perhaps there was a bad batch of lenses, or this only affected the earliest cameras? It’s hard to tell, but something to watch for I guess!

One last thing to note, and I think it’s actually a pretty big thing, is the fact that this camera is only 12MP. Now, there are definite technical reasons for it – it’s not like someone was asleep at the wheel or anything – but it is sort of strange to think of. I mean, on one hand, this camera has the absolute highest resolution video of any small camera ever, and yet for still photos it has one of the worst resolutions out there.

So without going into wild technical explanations, essentially the deal is that the camera is not actually using the full area of the Micro 4/3 sensor all the time, it’s just using different portions of it depending on what shape of picture you’re taking. Regardless, you’re not going to have as much latitude to do things to the photos after you take them – you won’t have as much room to crop for instance. The RX100 produces 20MP photos for instance, which is significantly higher than 12MP.

If you don’t plan to ever crop any photos, then having smaller files is not as huge a deal, although you’re still just dealing with less info when you do any sort of editing, such as color correction, etc.

There’s a real tendency in reviews to downplay resolution and just sort of go “ehhh, who cares, megapixels aren’t important, picture quality is important!”, as if the two are mutually exclusive. Facts are, with all other factors being equal, having higher resolution will give you a higher quality picture. People who act like it’s unrelated are just being disingenuous, and if they really think it makes no difference, they’d be snatching up all the 10 year old DSLRs that are overall great but shoot in 6MP. Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Now, having said all that, there can be low-light advantages to have less pixels over a larger area, but I couldn’t actually find any good data on whether this is a factor with the LX100 or not. All things being equal, I understand they have to make trade-offs and that 12MP is not horrible or anything, but it still feels somewhat anemic. However, for the majority of users, it won’t end up being a problem.

So the verdict on image quality? It’s great! I’ve mentioned a few little notes in this section, but overall, the image quality is just fantastic, and head and shoulders above what you used to be able to get in a camera this size before the whole Premium Compact revolution.

  1. Video Quality

I don’t even know how much I need to write here. It is a truly amazing thing that this camera shoots 4k. And not only that, but the video is very good quality, and look great.

Some people might not think they need 4K video right now, but here’s the bottom line for them: Pretty much anything you film in 4k on the LX100 and then downsample to 1080p is going to look better than anything you film in native 1080p on another camera. The details are going to be way sharper, and hopefully you’ll keep the original 4K files for some day in the future when you want/need them.

So actually, I’ve been meaning to write a bit of an editorial/rant on this, but I want to cover the whole issue of 4K right now. As I’m writing this, it’s February, 2015, and 4K is still somewhat controversial somehow. Let me break it down for you:

The big camera companies – I’m talking Canon and Nikon – have not taken any steps towards making 4K video affordable, or even accessible to shoot for the average person.

If you want to film any 4K using products from these guys, it will cost you insane amounts of money. If you want to move to a Mirrorless MFT camera, you have a few choices. One of them is the Sony a7S, which seems to be a great camera, but has 2 massive drawbacks: First, it costs $2500 right now (without lens). Second: It doesn’t actually record 4K internally to your memory card, you have to buy a second device and output the signal to it, and this will basically double the price, and make you have to lug around a second piece of gear.

So in my mind, this whole thing about “Oh the Sony records 4K, just not internally” is baloney. The Sony camera does not record 4K. It can output 4k to a $2000 external machine to record, but no, it is not a 4K camera, sorry, it’s not.

The far, far, far better choice is the Panasonic GH4, which is a lot like the Sony a7S, but it actually does record the 4K “internally”. It also costs less, about $1500 as of this writing, if you get it without a lens, and maybe $2000 in a kit with a lens.

Now listen, if you are reading this review just because the LX100 has 4K, and you don’t actually care about the small size of the camera, and you don’t mind spending $2000, I’m going to say right here: Get the GH4. It’s an incredible camera, you’ll be able to swap lenses out, it’s great.

Ugh, digression, okay, back to the state of 4K:

So there are very few choices right now to get 4K video, and they are mostly insanely expensive, and guess what photography people do when something is out of their reach and seems like it’s going to complicate their lives? They say it’s bad!

So some people say “You don’t need to film in 4K, nobody even has a 4K TV!” and while they may be right about the TVs for now, they’re missing the point: You film things to watch them later. And yes, we all may be happy enough with 1080p TVs right now, but guess what, the TV manufacturers are are ramping up 4K production like mad, prices are going down, and in a few years we’ll all have 4K TVs.

Listen, I filmed a lot of home movies on a nice Standard Definition camera about 10 years ago, they looked great, but I’m going to tell you right now, they don’t look as hot on a 1080p TV. They look okay. That is how your 1080p videos will look on a 4K TV in a few years – they will look acceptable, but they won’t be amazing. But here is the real thing: A decade down the line, when the TV companies need to continue to sell TVs, they *will be selling us all 8K or 10K TVs, and your 1080p movies will not look as hot then.

So do you need 4K video today, right this second? Well… yes. If you are filming anything you plan to watch in the future, you really should future-proof it as much as possible now. If you can’t afford to, fine, but this whole ignorant attitude of “Nobody will ever need 4K because I own a 1080p TV” is just silly.

So after alllll that ranting, let’s get back to the LX100 and the 4K video and what the quality is like: I’ll tell you after using it firsthand, it’s great, but here’s the thing: Because it’s 4K and there’s a nice lens on the camera, of course the video is great, they would actually have to work really hard at making it bad!

Is the video going to compare favorably to something shot in a $5000 Sony/Atimos setup? (oh wait add $500-$1000 to that for a lens!) I don’t even know – I guess it won’t be as good, but I’d have to see them both on a nice big 4K TV before making assumptions. Of course a nice camera with an interchangeable lens will be much more flexible, but I am really just trying to go out of my way to really express how huge this 4K feature is in this camera.

It is massive, and I will actually sort of kill any suspense of this review and say this: If you plan to film a decent amount of video at all with this camera, and you’re choosing between it and any other camera in its class and price range, it’s not even close, the video alone is so much better you should simply buy this.

If you’re not that interested in video and buying this mostly for stills, you can I guess ignore this whole section, but really, you’re still basically getting the amazing 4K video for free if you compare this camera to the RX100 M3 (which is basically the same price)

  1. Size / Weight

So this is where the first gotcha comes up with this camera!

When I bought my first RX100, one word kept jumping out at me from every single thing I read about it: POCKETABLE. To me, and many others, the whole idea of a premium compact camera is that it’s pocketable, and in fact a lot of people call these things “premium pocket cameras.”

The LX100 is bigger than the RX100 iii (aka RX100 M3) in every dimension. Not by a crazy, crazy amount, but yes, it’s a bit wider, a bit longer, and a bit deeper.

I can fit the RX100 into the front pocket of my jeans, and I’m quite happy with that, but it’s close, and I can’t manage it with the LX100. Having said that, not everyone is wearing jeans, and a lot of people may wear looser pants than me (I tend to buy pants in between skinny-fit and relaxed, just medium straight leg.)

So really, as far as size, you have to decide what size is the maximum you can handle. If you’re sticking your camera in a purse, or a jacket pocket, then any of the premium compacts may be fine, but no matter what you intend, you should check out that it’ll fit where you want it. The whole idea of these cameras is to be small enough that you can take it everywhere, and replace a DSLR in many situations, so if the LX100 winds up being too big for you and you start leaving it at home, it’s not much better than larger cameras.

So while that’s up to you, I do want to mention another thing, the weight: The LX100 is 13.9 ounces, which is significantly heavier (about 35%) than the RX100 M3 at 10.2 ounces. And the RX100 itself is not the lightest camera to begin with – it’s fine and everything, but it’s much heavier than traditional cameras of its size (thanks to it’s great workmanship and quality, as well as all the electronics and whatnot they have to pack in.)

For those of you outside the USA who might not be as familiar with ounces, this means the LX100 weighs 0.86 pounds or 0.39 kilograms. And the RX100 M3 weights 0.64 lbs, or 0.29kg

So, it’s not like it’s a huge anchor on you, but this is something to take into account. Size and weight is about as personal a preference as there can be with a camera, so make your own decisions.

  1. Value

So this is what a lot of it comes down to: Is this camera worth the money? I’m going to break it down for a few different situations, and you can pick which suits you more:

  • If money is no object, then just on a pure dollars/performance ratio, this camera is worth it, and it’s not even close.

  • If you’re choosing between this and the RX100 M3, again, the prices are almost the same (in fact this Panasonic is $50 cheaper as of this writing), and considering the fact they’re pretty darn similar in every respect except the 4K video, then again, yes, the LX100 is a great value, and I think the clear choice.

  • If you’re choosing between this and the RX100 M2 (which is still being manufactured), things are maybe a bit closer, since you could probably save $150 by getting the Sony. The main thing you’ll be losing out on the 4K video, which I personally think is well worth the $150, but if you’re mostly going for still shots, I think you could rate the two cameras as comparable values. You certainly would not be crazy for going with the RX100 ii.

  • If you’re choosing between this and the RX100 M1 (which is also still a current part of the RX100 line!), it’s kind of the same thing as with the M2: You’re going to save $250, give up the 4K video, and give up some other niceties that that RX100 M2 has, but let’s be honest, you’re now in the ballpark where you’ll be paying 33% less than the cost of the LX100, so this is not a crazy move.

SUMMARY:

All in all, I’d have to say the LX100 is an incredible camera, with a high price tag. If you’re relatively serious about photography and really value having the top of the top, I’d get it without hesitation. The only black mark you could really give it is that it costs a lot more than some of the entry level premium compacts.

If the $750 price tag is too much for you, you wouldn’t be crazy to get one of the older SONY RX100s by any means. They’ll still give you fantastic image quality in a very compact size (a little more compact than the Panasonic LX100 in fact.) I would, however, steer clear of the RX100 M3, unless there’s some feature on it you desperately want – to me, if the LX100 didn’t have the 4K video, the two would be very evenly paired, but with the 4K, it’s not even close and the LX100 is the clear winner.

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