For the best-quality photographs, a digital SLR is the number-one choice. They're not always practical to lug around, though. Hence the existence of high-end, premium-priced compacts, such as Canon's class-leading PowerShot G11 and Panasonic's Lumix DMC-LX5, an update to the Lumix DMC-LX3. The LX5 will set you back around £400.
The LX5 has a reassuringly solid, metal body. From the front and the top, it resembles the Lumix DMC-GF1, yet, from the back, it's more like a £200 point-and-shoot camera, with dinky buttons. Like the GF1, it includes an integrated pop-up flash, and a hotshoe for an external flash or viewfinder. But it's a more manageable size, measuring 110 by 66 by 43mm.
Compared to competing high-end compacts, the LX5 feels more elegant and streamlined. The fact that it will slip into a jeans pocket inevitably means it will also get taken out more than your dSLR.
Panasonic suggests the LX5's grip is an improvement over that of the LX3. It's not huge, but its attractive faux-leather padding prevents the camera from feeling like it will slip from your grasp.
The camera's headline features include a 10.1-megapixel, high-sensitivity CCD sensor that enables a maximum ISO setting of 12,800. The camera also has a bright, wide-angle, 24mm-equivalent, f/2.0 lens, offering a 3.8x optical zoom, increased from its predecessor's 2.5x zoom.
The LX5 will let you shoot uncompressed raw files alongside JPEGs. Whether shooting raw files or JPEGs, the camera veritably zips along. Both files are committed to an SD, SDHC or SDXC card in 2 to 3 seconds, thanks to the latest-generation Venus Engine FHD processor.
The camera's clear, 76mm (3-inch), 460,000-pixel LCD screen is used for composing and reviewing shots. The 'quick menu' button on the back plate summons up a time-saving drop-down toolbar of essential shooting functions.
With a flick of the power switch, the LX5 readies itself for action in 2 seconds. A dedicated video-record button resides on the top plate for the recording of 720p high-definition movie clips in either the AVCHD Lite or Motion JPEG formats. The optical zoom can be used when filming, and its action is both smooth and quiet.
You can swap picture aspect ratios in a trice, via a control mounted just above the lens barrel. Usually such a feature is buried within the menu screens. The options on the dial are: the 4:3 ratio that's the industry standard for digital images; the boxier 3:2; the elongated 16:9; and the unusual 1:1. Slide a finger down and to the left of the lens surround and you'll find a further switch for swapping between autofocus, macro focus and manual focus. This is a camera you'll want to experiment with.
When shooting in a 4:3 ratio, you can access an 'extra optical zoom' option that boosts the standard 3.8x zoom. It introduces incremental resolution drops, though, as the camera is effectively performing a crop. Thus you get the equivalent of a 4.5x zoom at 7 megapixels, 5.4x at 5 megapixels and 6.7x at around 3 megapixels.
The camera offers a intelligent-auto mode for those who can't be bothered to fiddle with the settings, plus 'my colour' modes. We particularly liked the effect provided by the 'expressive' my-colour mode, which boosts primary colours so that they almost pop out of the screen. The shooting dial is also home to program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority and manual modes.
The razor-sharp clarity of the LX5's pictures really impresses. Like any digital compact, it's under clear, bright skies that the LX5 best struts its stuff, delivering even exposures and retaining plenty of sharp detail in both shadow and highlight areas.
When shooting in lower light or interiors, photos hold up well in terms of detail up to and including ISO 1,600. At ISO 3,200, noise starts to gradually intrude. If you use the ISO 6,400 or ISO 12,800 settings, you'll see the resolution fall to 3 megapixels, to limit the appearance of such degradation. The result is a distinctly painting-like effect.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 can't be considered a replacement for a dSLR, but its sharp pictures and portable dimensions make it a competent back-up. It's far too expensive, though, which loses the camera a star.
Edited by Charles Kloet
Note: We originally reviewed the pre-production model of the LX5 in July. This is a new review of the actual production model.