March 17, 2011
★ My Disappointment in Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-LX5 [Review]

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Check Please - LUMIX DMC-LX5

A month ago, a Lumix DMC-LX5 arrived at my door. It was announced a month prior to Canon’s S95 and although the two aren’t in the exact same category, their purpose to me was identical. The S95 was on me 24/7 in my back pocket and friends witnessed me grabbing the camera twice an hour to snap an interesting photo. The ring controls and user interface of Canon’s S95 were stellar and it’s rather amazing what they’ve accomplished in such a small body. Also, I didn’t fully appreciate the power of having a retractable lens. If you have a Canon P&S now and are thinking of switching to Lumix, I’d stick with Canon because their interface is identical on most of their pro models from G9 to G12 to the SX series to the S90/95, Canon has kept things the same as far as what is shown on screen and this makes switching very easy. I never reviewed the S95 here but every photo shot between September and February was with this camera. Let’s talk about the Lumix now.

For starters, the LX5 is larger than I expected and the lens does retract but not enough to really make a difference in the width. In fact, the lens makes this camera impossible to pocket and carry around without a photo bag but the body itself seems like a joke to hang on your neck because people will assume you’re a tourist compared to an SLR on your neck. Not pocketable and not wearable which makes this an awkward camera for day to day use.

The interface is of the utmost disgrace for anyone that shoots in manual mode. Making changes to the ISO, exposure and other key settings is time consuming. While in India, Austin and around town, I gave up shooting in manual and just kept the thing in auto which yielded okay photos but I didn’t feel like customizing the shots due to the time required. I assumed the time it took to change settings would improve as I got used to it but it didn’t.

Speaking of auto mode, the mode dial on the top of the camera is extremely sensitive as in, you put the camera in your bag and take it out and the ring has changed 3-4 stops to art mode or video mode. You can brush the dial with your pinky and change from auto to Aperture priority mode. It’s really that sensitive so, each time I grabbed the camera, I’d be forced to make absolutely sure that it was on auto mode and I often clicked the shutter and video started recording and I’d curse and then ask everyone to wait while I changed the mode back to auto.

The settings around the lens for aspect ratio are a bit useless. Most camera manufacturers have these modes but bury them a few menus deep. I don’t see why you would need to change from 4:3 to 16:9 to 3:4 enough to warranty a toggle switch for this. It’s a useless waste of space that would have been better used for aperture or white balance changes on the fly like you can do with the S95

I never have had more hatred for a lens cap in my life. Old school photographers grew up realizing that lens caps were a reality and, on my Canon 5D I deal with them each day but, on a point and shoot, the lens cap was just a pain in the ass. I’d have to take it off constantly since, like I said, the camera is pulled out of my pocket or bag every 20 minutes when I’m traveling. This sort of on/off to protect the precious Leica lens became extremely annoying. Maybe I was spoiled by the S95′s retractable lens with auto lens cover when you pressed the off button but I simply never got used to the LX5′s lens cap ordeal over the course of 4 weeks of daily shooting.

The photo quality from the LX5 was good enough but that quality was in no way conveyed to me on the LCD during preview mode. The LCD reminds me of the old DSLR days of the 5D Mark I when the preview was so small and low brightness that you could kind of gauge how you did with the exposure but you really couldn’t tell if the shot was great until you got home. I often re-shot a few times just because I really didn’t think it came out that great. In 2011, LCDs shouldn’t have this problem and the LX5 preview felt degraded, grainy, blurry and way too colorful compared to what I saw in Lightroom back home. I have no clue why previews looked so bad on the LCD screen.

There is absolutely no way to turn off the AF Assist beam that shines a bright red light in people’s faces before shooting. I like taking shots of “moments” in life and that beam makes people go, “huh?!?!” and they look over. I’m no creepy stalker type but I take photos of friends laughing or enjoying a moment and that light is very annoying. Also, landscape shots where the zoom is “infinite” the AF assist light will go, “can’t local length” and flash a bright red error on the screen. It will snap the shot anyway but that’s a very annoying feature when you’re shooting something more than 500 feet away like a coast line from a high rise hotel.

The video quality is 1080P but it shoots in the painful AVCHD format which is a format that nearly every video editing tool HATES. YouTube will accept it but will drop frames during the upload process. You have to buy pricey software to encode that software into an editable format like MOV or MP4. AVCHD is pretty much the devil of formats right now but Panasonic is leading the push as a supporter of it so we all have to deal with the pain. AVCHD to me is equivalent to a video camera shooting your entire video in Flash. It’s useless, hard to edit and you need special software to do anything with it. I ultimately shot in 720p on my Olympus PEN only because it gave me h.264 files that I could actually use.

The photos that came from the DMC-LX5 were good enough and sometimes better than my Canon S95 BUT with every caveat I’ve listed above and a retail price of $399 (exactly the same as the S95), I’m returning it back to Amazon. I can’t find a single reason to keep it over my other cameras and the size, dials, user interface and LCD quality are total deal-breakers. You’d think this camera came out 4 years ago but it’s less than a year old and I feel bad for anyone who drops $400 for the privilege of owning this camera.

Rating for me is 2 out of 5 only because the photo results are pretty good and the lens on it is a great Leica lens. Everything else falls short.

See also Snapsort’s side by side comparison of the S95 and LX5 (link)