Taking good pictures, for the most part, is all about knowing how to control the amount of light entering your camera and how to compose your subject in as striking a manner as possible. Kit comes second, but still plays a pretty important role.
Most novice snappers would assume you'd only get the best results from a digital SLR or other high-end camera, but that isn't always true. Pocket cameras such as the Samsung EX2F, with its specialised controls, wide aperture lens and fairly conservative resolution, and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7, reviewed here, which boasts many of the same features, can give all but the best dSLRs a serious run for their money in every respect but lens versatility.
The LX7 is available now for around £400, which is hardly cheap, but hundreds of pounds less than bulkier shooters.
Pro features, compact body
The lens in this case gives you just less than four times zoom, equivalent to 28 to 90mm on a regular 35mm camera. Maximum aperture at wide-angle is f/1.4 -- the same as that on the Samsung EX2F. Where the aperture on the Samsung is controlled using either the thumbwheel on the rear or finger scroll to the front of the chassis, however, the LX7's control is more direct: a ring that surrounds the lens itself.
Between this and the body are two further controls with which you can switch between automatic, manual and macro focus, and the picture aspect ratio, with options for 1:1 square, traditional 4:3 and 3:2, and widescreen 16:9. Working this way is highly efficient, and you can dial in settings far more quickly in this pseudo-analogue mode than you would through even the best menus.
Changing the aspect ratio naturally adjusts the number of pixels in play, so while shooting at 4:3 lets you utilise the sensor's native 10-megapixel resolution, 3:2 trims it to 9.5 megapixels, 16:9 takes it down to nine, and square images are recorded at 7.5 megapixels.
As we saw with the Nikon 1 J2, fitting a camera with a fairly conservative resolution can pay dividends in delivering results with lower levels of noise, and that's certainly the case here, with the LX7 performing well in low light at medium-high sensitivities.
Maximum sensitivity in normal use is ISO 6,400, and if you're willing to compromise on resolution you can push it to twice that -- ISO 12,800 -- at which the maximum image size is a slightly cramped 3 megapixels.
At such high levels of sensitivity, though, there's a fair degree of dappling within the result, and when examined closely it does appear that the image has been skilfully painted rather than photographed, so it's not a setting you'd want to use too often.
At ISO 6,400, which the LX7 will happily shoot and its maximum resolution, there is a fair amount of grain in the image, but reducing it to ISO 1,600 produces more acceptable results. There's still some grain, but it's evenly distributed and doesn't interfere with the level of fine detail in the frame.
The LX7's maximum aperture of f/1.4 narrows to a still impressive f/2.3 at full telephoto. This allows for an extremely shallow depth of field and attractive de-focus, with smoothed textures and a pretty dreamy finish.
Minimum aperture at either wide-angle or telephoto is f/8, which should be enough to keep all but the closest elements focused in landscape shots. There's a neutral density filter built-in -- as there is in the EX2F -- which will help balance out stark contrasts by damping down overbearing highlights, such as bright skies.
Autofocus is impressively fast, and manual focus very easy to use, courtesy of a rocker behind the mode-selection wheel that lets you set the focus with the aid of an enlargement of the central part of the frame.
I performed my tests with the LX7 set to Aperture priority mode so I could look after depth of field while it considered everything else. It was set to record raw files with JPEG sidecars. The JPEG compression was extremely light, and consistently delivered a richer result than the untouched raw files, so if you don't want to do your own processing in post-production, you can let the camera do it internally with a high degree of confidence.
Colours were balanced, and even where parts of the image fell into deep shade there was plenty of detail in the raw file ready to be extracted by lifting the shadows.
Detail remains sharp right into the corners of the frame. This is impressive, as towards the edges and corners the lens has to work harder to keep everything evenly focused than it does at the centre, where the light can pass straight through without being bent to so extreme a degree.
Further, there was no evidence of colour fringing (aka chromatic aberration) in areas of sharp contrast, even where the contrast line was particularly fine, as with branches and twigs. Less finely tuned lenses than the Leica glass employed here can sometimes have trouble focusing each wavelength of incoming light at the same point on the sensor under these conditions, and introduce undesirable colour fringing.
As you might expect from a camera with so wide an aperture, macro performance was very good. Switching to the dedicated macro mode on the side of the lens arrangement set the minimum focusing distance to just 1cm, and maintained a very shallow depth of field.
The result was a series of images that drew the eye to the point of focus while gently defocussing everything around it, with only a small portion of the frame kept sharp.
Even when set to auto focus rather than macro, the f/1.4 maximum aperture at wide-angle allowed for some impressively shallow depth of field in regular shots. The barbed wire below, for example, was shot without the aid of the macro setting, yet only a tiny portion of twisted metal remains focused, while the spines pointing out from it and the fence line that runs through it are both thrown out of focus.
Returning to base, I tasked the LX7 with my usual still-life test, which involves shooting a collection of everyday objects with different surface colours and textures under studio lights, ambient light and using the on-board flash.
As is usually the case, the LX7 performed best under the studio lighting, with accurate reproduction of the original colours, well observed detail and extremely crisp contrasts. It wouldn't be going too far to say it was one of the best results achieved in this test by any camera.
Switching to ambient light caused the LX7 to increase its sensitivity from ISO 80 to ISO 125. This had very little effect on the degree of clarity at the centre of the image. As the camera had also widened its aperture, however, from the f/2.5 it employed under the studio lights to f/1.6 in this instance, the focused area didn't extend so far, and objects closer to the lens were out of focus in comparison to those at the centre of the frame. Colours, too, were not so punchy when shooting in ambient light.
Enabling the flash didn't change the aperture setting, and so made no difference to the depth of field. It did increase the sensitivity to ISO 320 however, and while there was a degree more grain evident in the result when compared directly with that shot under studio lighting, it wasn't sufficient to be of great concern, and wasn't evident until image was zoomed to 100 per cent, so is of no great issue. Of the three results, though, this last one shot using the on-board flash was the least appealing.
The LX7 shoots best-quality video at 1,920x1,080 pixels, 50 frames per second, progressive. If that's a little rich for your needs, you can drop it right down to 640x480 pixels, which is just about perfect for online use. You can also shoot high-speed videos at 1,280x720 pixels, which will produce smooth slow motion when played back at standard frame rates.
I tested it under both clear and overcast skies, and the colours it produced were an accurate reflection of the originals. There was some lack of clarity when filming when walking due to the motion caused by each step, but static shots and regular panning were no cause for concern.
Neither was the optical zoom mechanism, which remains active during filming and wasn't audible at all on the soundtrack, which was very impressive. The passing breeze, though, was evident despite the fact that wind cut was set to auto (the alternative is to turn it off entirely).
Transitions between direct sunlight and shadow were handled very smoothly, for a good video performance overall.
The LX7 is an addictive compact camera. The more you use it, the more you want to play. The direct control over the lens aperture is something that would greatly enhance the appeal of many compacts, and without question it's the LX7's best feature.
It has some very serious competition, however, in the form of the Samsung EX2F.
While Samsung hasn't implemented the same direct control, the use of a front-mounted finger wheel nonetheless makes aperture selection ridiculously easy. It, too, has a built-in neutral density filter and supplements the built-in flash with a hot shoe, like the LX7.
It sports a slightly higher resolution at 12 megapixels, yet in my tests exhibited similar performance at sensitivities as high as ISO 3,200. It has a second dial on the top to supplement the mode selector, which handles bracketing, timer and burst mode, boasts built-in Wi-Fi and an articulated screen -- both of which are missing from the LX7 -- and, crucially, you can pick one up for around £50 less than the LX7.
So, the EX2F is a more tempting proposition, but none of this should detract from the fact that the LX7 is a great camera in terms of design and human interaction.
If you revel in the sort of manual control that a dSLR or compact system camera with interchangeable lens can deliver, and you hanker for the same in a true compact, then the LX7 delivers precisely that. Indeed, the tactile experience may well be worth that extra £50 on its own.