The Panasonic Lumix LX5 scores best in file quality.
While micro cameras are getting all the headlines, with their raw file and video capture abilities plus their interchangeable lenses, compacts still have their place as truly pocketable snap cameras. Kevin Carter reviews four of the best.
Despite the increasing popularity of mirrorless cameras, professional photographers are still finding uses for high-end, small-sensor compacts. While it’s true the Sony NEX and some of the Micro Four Thirds camera bodies are truly pocket sized, many of the lenses are still only marginally smaller than the retrofocus types used for DSLRs with cropped sensors, and it’s even more noticeable with zooms.
“Nikon’s product range during the film era covered all customer requirements,” Jeremy Gilbert of Nikon told me recently. “We had a lot of variants available to suit the buyer, and the digital market is becoming very similar.”
The Canon Powershot G series compacts are the best established among professionals, in spite of a few years’ absence from the market, but Panasonic has also gained a foothold with its Lumix range; the latest model – the LX5 – reviewed here. Nikon compacts haven’t had quite the same appeal, but the arrival of the P7000 may change that, challenging the Canon G12 directly, alongside Samsung, which is making inroads with cameras such as the EX1.
Compare and contrast
All four cameras have 10-megapixel sensors, despite the availability of higher-resolution chips, sacrificing detail at lower sensitivities to gain improved dynamic range and lower noise at higher ISOs. Three feature 1/1.7-inch type CCDs (likely Sony made), whereas the Lumix sports a new 1/1.63-inch proprietary sensor, for increased sensitivity and colour saturation. Panasonic also says the photodiodes’ well depth has been increased, which may account for the low blooming in images.
The Lumix, has a Leica-branded image-stabilised zoom with a wider range than its predecessor (the LX3), equivalent to a 24-90mm f/2-3.3 in 35mm format. And although there’s a good deal of in-camera correction, the Vario-Summicron is a solid performer, with excellent centre and edge sharpness and the highest resolving power of the four, followed closely by that of the Schneider-Kreuznach-branded 24-72mm f/1.8-2.4 equivalent (also image-stabilised) of the Samsung.
The Canon and Nikon cameras have greater zoom ranges, the former using a 28-140mm f/2.8-4.5 IS equivalent, while the latter has a VR-enabled 28-200mm with a correspondingly variable maximum aperture of f/2.8-5.6. The Canon lens is notable for its negligible pincushion distortion, but none of the four suffer unduly, and barrelling, while visible at the widest settings, is no worse than -2.5°. Working from a tripod for either stills or video capture, the Canon and Samsung with their articulated screens are both more suited to the task and a pleasure to use. Canon’s layout of the top plate is especially clear and settings are easy to see at a glance. An optional EVF is available for the Lumix; however, operation is slightly fiddlier with ISOs selected from one key, while other key settings are chosen from another (Q) button. Over time, this should become second nature.
One particular feature I greatly appreciated was the Lumix’s ability to adjust the zoom in steps according to the 35mm focal-length equivalent. This is clearly displayed on-screen and is easily repeatable as a result; if you want to use the zoom at 50mm or 70mm for instance, then there’s no guesswork involved. You can do the same with the Nikon, but you must operate the zoom rocker, surrounding the shutter release while depressing the FN button at the same time (so long as it’s not assigned to another feature). Unless you’re particularly dexterous, it’s a two-handed task, and a fiddly one at that.
Pros and cons
In the hands, all four cameras reveal strengths and weaknesses. The Canon is really well built but heavy. The Lumix is small, light, pocketable and nimble feeling, but some of the controls are undersized; the playback button and Q-menu shortcut, for instance, require absolute fingertip accuracy. Nikon’s P7000 is roughly the same size as the G12, save for it being noticeably lighter, although the exposure compensation dial is quite easy to nudge inadvertently. In addition, while the Quick menu selector to the left is a good idea in theory, some of the processing behind the operation is tardy. It’s here you’ll find exposure bracketing allowing the usual choice of EV increments but, unlike that of the others, the Nikon will let you select between three and five shots. In 1 EV steps that means ±4 stop range. What’s more, you can choose between the shutter speed and ISO to be shifted (but not the aperture) and even the range; over, under or both. It’s a pity there isn’t an option to select seven shots: the Lumix, for instance, will allow a ±6 stop range with just three exposures, but both can be useful for HDR imaging.
All four cameras have dedicated hot shoes, the Canon and Nikon compacts having compatibility with their respective advanced E-TTL and i-TTL flash systems. The old Nikon SB-800 is about as large as you would want to use on the P7000, but there are TTL cords for both systems, and the Nikon even has a 2.5mm Mic socket, so an external mic is another valuable option. In the case of the G12, Canon also makes adapters to attach the company’s macro-flash units, but let’s not forget hot shoes are crucial for other accessories such as Pocket Wizards and spirit levels. Horizontal levels are in fact built in to both the Canon and the Nikon, but aren’t as precise as a good-quality spirit level.
The big screen
Without doubt, the Samsung has the best screen. Not only is it articulated, it’s a high-quality three-inch AMOLED type with superb colour, contrast and resolution, outdoing the others in bright light, but particularly so under mixed low-level lighting where its control of noise is notable.
While a similar size and resolution, the fixed Nikon panel has a distinctly warm tone. However, left to their default settings, resultant JPEGs have warmer tones too so, in that respect, the Nikon panel is accurate. With only 460K dots, the Lumix’s three-inch screen is the less detailed on paper, and it adopts the 3:2 aspect ratio over the others’ squarer 4:3 format, meaning even less real estate is used to display at the sensor’s native resolution. However, the panel’s detail doesn’t leave you feeling disadvantaged. What’s more, it has good colour, excellent refresh rates, wide viewing angles and efficient gain in low light.
Of the four, the Samsung, surprisingly, has the weakest video, with just 640×480 pixel 30fps as the maximum. While the Canon and Nikon have 720/24p video capture, there are some limitations with both and, if this is essential to you, the Panasonic is the one to go for. It has a choice of Motion JPEG or AVCHD Lite (720p) formats, the latter with three compression settings including a high bit rate, quality 17Mb/s option with capture up to 29 minutes and 59 seconds, a choice of exposure (AV, TV and manual) and optical zoom control.
Stills image quality is very high at low ISOs in all four cameras. However, there have been significant gains in noise control at higher ISOs, but it’s fair to say that, in terms of image quality, none of those reviewed can compare to the kind of detail, dynamic range and high-ISO performance of the best of the larger sensor compacts.
However, JPEGS from all four are surprisingly well detailed up to ISO 800, while at the same time keeping distracting noise levels in check. Above this, at ISO 16,000, the inevitable trade-off between noise reduction and fine detail is immediately apparent. I was also surprised to see marked auto white balance inaccuracies under incandescent lighting. In the past, the G series has fared well in this respect, but the G12 was one of the least well corrected. Not that the custom option couldn’t deal with the issue quickly, but the AWB of my older Canon G9 is better.
Raw files from the Nikon and the Canon aren’t currently supported in Adobe’s Camera Raw 6.2 and Lightroom 3.2, although unofficially supported in ACR 6.3 and LR 3.3 release candidates, making final quality assessment tricky, although their raw files are compatible with Capture NX2 and DPP respectively. Like both the Panasonic and Samsung though, with careful noise reduction in post-production, the advantages of raw mean greater potential for files at high gain, but anything above ISO 1600 is still best left to web use only.
While there are limitations with each of the cameras here, to my mind, the Lumix LX5 comes the closest to the ideal mix of image quality, versatility and portability. It is not only the physically smallest on test here, the Leica-branded Vario-Summicron is also an excellent performer, and the quality of the files, especially at ISO 400 and 800, leave me in no doubt that the Lumix would be the one of the four I would choose.
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