The Perfect Pocket Camera?

LX and RX

I've been on this quest for the perfect small / pocket camera.  There is nothing wrong with any of the cameras that I own.  There's really nothing wrong with the iPhone 6+ either for that matter.  So why this quest?  I want more flexibility and quality than I can get out of the iPhone, I prefer to shoot RAW, and I don't care for what happens with digital zoom in the iPhone.   My first foray was to look at the beautiful and quite excellent Fujifilm X100T.  I really liked it, except that it is quite a bit more cash than I am willing to pay for a camera that is in a coat pocket or in the console of the car.

My good friend, Bryan Weiss of Daytripper Photo, had asked me to take a deep look at the Panasonic Lumix LX100 so I did some research and discovered a number of positive reviews.  I also wanted to take a much closer look at Sony's RX 100 III.  When I reviewed the original RX 100, I called it the best point and shoot in the market, period.  But there were missings that prevented me from buying that model, despite how good it was.

Must Have - A Viewfinder

I'm an old style photographer.  Holding a camera out near arm's length and trying to see what's happening on an LCD display is anathema to me.  It's ok for video, but I just cannot make stills comfortably this way.  If I have to shoot this way, the iPhone is just fine.  I need a viewfinder.  While I am used to optical viewfinders, the current crop of EVFs are extremely good, once you have tuned the display to suit and match the real world.  The Panasonic viewfinder is larger and better in my opinion, although it takes more tuning.  The Sony EVF is a pop up style and then you manually pull its lens back.  It sits nearly flush with the rear LCD plane.  For me as a left eyed shooter, this means that the LCD becomes a vacuum for nose prints. Thank goodness neither of these cameras are touchscreen.  I have noticed that some reviewers fail cameras without touchscreens.  Since I demand an eye level viewfinder, I have no use for touchscreens.  In this space, the LX100 wins.

The Glass Matters

Sometimes, smaller cameras suffer from poor quality or at least compromised lenses to help keep costs down, or on the assumption that buyers won't care.  Fortunately some manufacturers have figured out that there is a segment of photographers who want superlative glass in their "pocketable" cameras.  Sony uses a Zeiss lens with variable maximum aperture of 1.8 to 2.8 and a 35mm equivalent focal length range of 28mm to 100mm.  The Panasonic uses a Leica lens with variable maximum aperture of 1.7 to 2.8 and a 35mm equivalent focal length range of 22mm to 68mm.   Theses are not overly complex lenses nor do they have massive zoom ranges.  That said the optical designs are significant on both cases using special glass elements, and in the case of the Panasonic, aspherical elements.  Zeiss refers to the lens as a Vario Sonnar T* on the Sony.  Leica calls their lens a DC Vario Summilux on the Panasonic.  These are both superior lenses with excellent optical characteristics.  Both are optically fast, so the wider range gives this category to Sony.

Operational Modes

One of the principles of a great pocket camera needs to be the ability to grab images quickly, as well as have the ability to take the time to make every setting manually.  We see this in DSLR and better mirror-less cameras, but to find true flexibility in a pocket camera is a wonderful thing.  Both cameras provide the PASM equivalents.  On the Panasonic, the modes are selected by selections on the aperture ring and the shutter speed dial.  Yes, rings and dials, just like an old style camera.  The Sony is more like a newer DSLR with a modes dial, including scene modes.  Both cameras can shoot panoramas, the Sony has a dial selection, the Panasonic does it from a menu setting.  From a speed of use perspective, both cameras are sufficiently fast to change settings on, and both are easily learned.   Sony includes their Intelligent Auto mode which continues the excellence seen in the first RX100.  Panasonic has their iDynamics settings, basically a digital attempt at dynamic range expansion.  Both work well, but the simplicity of the iA mode makes the Sony a winner in the fully automatic mode.   When you get to semi-automatic and manual modes is where the Panasonic takes the leadership position.   It has a wonderfully elegant and simple exposure compensation dial positioned on the right edge of the top deck, in nearly the same position as the X100T.  Actually the top decks of the Fuji and the Lumix are very much alike.  Overall winner is the LX100.

Menus

in general, I tend to find camera menus to be very user hostile.  Sony has done a decent enough job without excessive scrolling and it's reasonably easy to find what you are looking for.  The Panasonic menus to be kind, need some work.  Not particularly intuitive with an odd cascading model.  There is context sensitive help that displays automatically with each menu option that makes learning the system relatively painless.  I don't really care for the depth and complexity of the LX100 menus but once acclimatization is complete they become usable and then their comprehensiveness becomes more evident.  Since I don't have to go to menus as often, and because of their comprehensiveness, the category winner is the LX100.

Buttons - Can There Be Too Many?

As technology moves along, there is a tendency for manufacturers to add button after button after button in the guise of creating functionality but often this results in a cluttered interface and user confusion.  The RX100 has two buttons on the top deck, power and shutter, and four buttons on the right rear.  One of them is a Fn button, the others are Menu, Playback and Context Sensitive help.  Top right rear is a dedicated button to start and stop movie recording.  There is a jog dial with four rocker positions for display configuration, drive control, flash control and JPEG picture style.  Simple.  The Panasonic team bought heavily into the more buttons are better story.  On the top deck is a dedicated button for their version of Intelligent Auto.  This is a tiny button and nearly flush to the deck.  It is right beside the power toggle making the top deck quite crowded.  The top rear panel has two programmable Fn buttons that default to EVF/LCD selection and WiFi.  To the right is a recessed Movie start/stop button and then a button for AE/AF Lock. These buttons are also tiny and if you are wearing gloves nearly unusable.  Lower right rear is the typical four button jog/rocker wheel arrangement.  The buttons starting top left going clockwise are Quick Menu, Playback, Display Configuration, and Fn1.  The centre of the rocker is Menu/Select and the rocker offers ISO, WB, Drive and Focus Pattern.  All are very small and like the top row require unencumbered fingers.  Thus the Sony wins this category if you favour simplicity and the Panasonic wins if you want programmability.  It also helps if you have very small fingers.

In Conclusion

These are both brilliant cameras, albeit with different primary use case implementations.  Point is, you won't lose regardless of which one you pick.   Image quality is superb in both cases.  The Sony's Supra-Auto is killer for full auto.  The Lumix has so much room for customization.  So if you are in the market for a very high quality non-interchangeable lens, point and shoot style camera, take a look at these two.  One will fit your hands best, or have the balance you need and it will be the right one for you.