Subscribe
RSS
Keywords
Archive
January (1) February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December

Searching for an outdoor photography aficionado’s camera

January 18, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

This article was originally posted October 6th 2010, on http://blog.wildvista.com. Some minor edits have been made to the text of the original post, and the post comments made at the original site have been removed.

The Lumix LX3 is no longer available, but was replaced by the Lumix LX5, and the currently available Lumix LX7.

Before getting into the detail, it’s worth defining what I mean by “outdoor photography aficionado”:

  • The outdoor bit: Someone whose idea of fun involves getting out into the wilder parts of the world, often for extended periods, and exploring landscapes that are — at least comparatively — little influenced by man.

  • The photography bit: Someone who cares about and is interested in f-stops, depth of field, white balance, bokeh, composition, pre-vizualisation, sensitometry, image quality, and all manner of other technical and artistic concepts in photography. Not in isolation as dry technical ideas or academic theories, but because such an understanding is critical to successfully translate an artistic vision into a physical image (without relying on blind luck).

Why a compact? Why now?

Recently, I’ve frequently found myself leaving my digital SLR (a Nikon D70) at home; it’s just too bulky and heavy to carry for day-long mountain walks, and too awkward and conspicuous for spur-of-the-moment ambles. It also adds considerably to the load for longer walks and multi-day treks, where the total weight carried is critical to one’s comfort and enjoyment.

So, with digital camera technology having improved markedly in the five years since the D70 was released, and with a trip to the Alps imminent, it seemed about time to review what was out there in the “enthusiast’s compact”/”prosumer compact” sector of the market.

A little history

Buying a compact was a step into the unknown for me. My introduction to photography, at the ripe old age of 10, was a tiny fixed-focus Prinzmatic that took 110 cartridge film. It wasn’t long before I’d graduated to a Praktica LTL though, and was soon discovering the benefits, and pitfalls, of a fully manual SLR camera. Since then it’s been SLRs all the way, more or less.

I used a Pentax P30 for many years (which had an automatic programme mode, but manual focus), before moving on to a Nikon F80 — a lovely camera that I still miss. Teamed with Fuji Velvia slide film and a decent quality 28–105mm Nikkor lens that was ideal for travelling, I lugged this kit across five continents during a round-the-world trip in 2002/03. I also had a Ricoh GR1v compact on standby for those times when I wanted to go more light-weight, but ended up using the F80 the majority of the time.

This SLR-biased history left me somewhat ill-equipped to deal with the panoply of consumer compacts that dominate today’s market, so it took a while to get up to speed with current models’ specifications. It doesn’t help that manufacturers continue to add more and more “standard” bells and whistles to their compact cameras (such as video recording); this can make meaningful comparisons between different models a complex affair.

Key features

A good way to help see the wood for the trees, is to identify a small number of key features that you absolutely won’t compromise on. These are the features I went with:

  • Wide (less than 28mm focal length [35mm format equivalent])

  • RAW output

  • Fast lens (faster than f/2.8)

  • Pocketable (or close to)

Each feature is discussed in more detail below.

Wide

Demanding a wide-angle below 28mm actually rules out the majority of consumer compacts. 28mm (35mm format equivalent) — which is where the zooms on the majority of compacts stop — just isn’t wide enough for the type of photography I enjoy; that is, sweeping landscapes, often with great depth of field.

Raw

Again, once you exclude all models that don’t provide the option to output RAW files, you’re not left with much. I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom for image management and post-processing, and would be distinctly unhappy with the processing limitations imposed by having only JPEGs to work with.

Fast

Yet again, very few consumer compacts have a lens that’s wider than f/2.8. Dropping this to f/2.0 has the obvious benefit of doubling the intensity of light that can reach the sensor, but also helps to decrease the minimum depth of field available; useful for getting creative with bokeh, and something that’s often very difficult with compacts due to their much smaller sensor size than most digital SLRs.

Pocketable

OK, masses of choice here — not a great surprise as we’re only considering “compacts”, but it’s worth being a little more specific about what constitutes “pocketable”. I’m thinking small’ish jacket pocket rather than trouser pocket. Given that I usually carry my cameras in an easy-access CCS pouch attached to a waistbelt, rather than in my pocket, weight is as important as size.

What I’m prepared to do without

It soon becomes clear that in making the move from SLR to compact, some compromises will have to be made. Here are some of the things that I (begrudgingly) decided I could do without:

  • Long zoom: I enjoy wildlife photography a great deal, but it’s always playing second fiddle to the landscape. That’s simply because I rarely go out looking for wildlife shots — I just enjoy trying to create a half-decent image of, an ibex say, that I might bump into during a day’s trekking. So, rather than compromise the lens’ wide-angle performance for the sake of a long zoom, I’ve decided to ditch the long-end entirely.

  • Viewfinder: This one really hurts. The control and precision afforded by a decent viewfinder will be sorely missed. The viewfinder on my F80 was a joy to use — clear, bright, on-demand grid lines, succinct exposure data… — in comparison the viewfinder on the D70 makes trying to assess a scene about as much fun as viewing it through a toilet roll. Bleugghh. Time will tell how well I adapt to using a viewfinder-less camera.

  • Tactile zoom and focus controls: I find that compact digital cameras generally have very poor ergonomics in comparison to a quality SLR. It’s not that the manufacturers haven’t put enough effort into this aspect of their designs; rather, there just isn’t enough room for the various fiddly little buttons and dials that all digital compacts seem to require. I could pick up my F80, in the dark, and be ready to shoot, with full manual control over the camera within seconds. There’s not a hope in hell I could achieve this with a digital compact. None that I’ve seen anyway. And I’m going to hugely miss the feel and control of physical zoom and focus rings.

Decision made

I finally went for Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-LX3. Obviously, it meets the four “essentials” that I outlined above (24mm wide angle, RAW output, f/2.0 at the wide end, pocketable), and in reviews seemed to garner praise for its image quality.

Lumix DMC-LX3Lumix DMC-LX3Lumix DMC-LX3

Interestingly, I haven’t mentioned image quality up to now. When all’s said and done, if the image quality isn’t good enough, nothing else matters. What’s “good enough” is very difficult to nail down. What it doesn’t come down to these days, is numbers of Megapixels. Beyond a reasonable number of MPs (let’s say, 6MP, for the sake of argument), noise performance and colour rendition are the things to watch, and in either case, the larger the physical size of the sensor, the better.

Which is why my 10MP LX3 will almost certainly come up short compared to the images I can get out of a 5-year-old 6MP D70. Again, so long as the image quality is good enough, I’ll be happy.

Results so far are promising. Shots from an early morning amble around the Hope Valley in the Derbyshire Peak District show that the LX3 copes well with the type of landscape shots I like to make (high dynamic range, backlit, expansive, large depth of field). No doubt as I learn more about the camera’s quirks, I’ll be able to do better, and start feeling more comfortable that it’s recording a scene as I want.

Epilogue

I bought my LX3 (or, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 to give it its full appellation) at the end of August, in full knowledge that the follow-up LX5 was about to be released in the UK. Bad timing I guess, but, aside from a longer zoom range (24–90mm for the LX5, compared with 24–60mm for the LX3), there doesn’t appear to be much else different between the cameras.

In summer 2011 the LX5 was itself replaced by the LX7. Compared to the LX3, the LX7 has an even faster lens (f/1.4), better image quality, much less shutter lag (0.2s cf. 0.8s), higher resolution video (1080p @ 60fps cf. 720p @ 24fps), and in-camera panorama creation. On the downside, the LX7 is larger and thicker than the LX3, and takes longer to start up (4s cf. 2.5s).

The Lumix LX7 is available from Amazon.