The ideal travel camera

March 2, 2015

Each year or two there’s one new camera that stands out as special, particularly in the compact-to-pocket-size category. In 2012 it was the Sony RX100 that created a big sensation for packaging a large sensor into a tiny pocketable camera. At $699, it was considerably more expensive than other pocket cameras, but because its image quality set a new standard for pocket cameras, it became a huge success. Now there’s a new camera that’s even better.

I’ve been trying out the new Leica D-Lux 109, very similar to the Panasonic Lumix LX100. While not as small as the Sony, it’s small enough to fit in a coat pocket or small purse. It uses a much larger 13-megapixel sensor and a terrific Leica f/1.7 25mm to 75mm zoom lens, capable of shooting in the dimmest light.

The result is a camera that takes noticeably sharper images than any camera in its class and works in very low light conditions, even candlelight. That’s not only because of the sensor, but also because of the maximum aperture of f/1.7 - 2.8, the largest ever used on a compact camera.

The camera is a partnership between Panasonic, which designed the camera, and Leica, which developed the lens. The difference between each company’s version is mostly cosmetic.

Leica eliminates the built-in handgrip and textured surface of the Lumix for a smoothly finished flat black aluminum body. The Lumix costs $800 and the Leica costs $1,100. The Leica comes with a three-year warranty, instead of one, and a free copy of Lightroom software, worth about two-hundred dollars.

One of the unusual features for a camera this small is its built-in high-resolution electronic viewfinder, which works particularly well in both low-light and in bright sun, where the 3-inch LCD display becomes washed out.

In fact, I found that I much preferred using the viewfinder all the time, because I could hold the camera against my face for steadier shots. I wear glasses and was able to adjust the viewfinder for my vision and had no problem seeing the full view. The viewfinder turns on automatically and turns off the LCD when you put it up to your eye.

Like many people, I have missed the optical viewfinders on compact cameras, and found this electronic viewfinder to be even better.

While most cameras provide great results under normal lighting conditions, the more costly cameras do better under extreme conditions. This camera goes beyond other compact cameras and minimizes the need for flash. You can actually take decent images up to ISO 25,600.

That’s good because one of the compromises with this camera is that there is no built-in flash. Instead, there is an add-on flash about the size of two sugar cubes that slides onto the hot shoe.

The controls are more like those on DSLR cameras than on typical point-and-shoot models. There’s a dial on the top to select shutter speed or set to A for automatic. Similarly, around the lens is a dial with aperture settings adjustable for f-number and an A for automatic. When both dials are at A, the exposure follows an automatic programmed mode.

A second dial on the top to the right of the shutter speed dial is for adjusting exposure compensation, making it simple to override the automatic setting by up to three stops in each direction. One minor complaint is that the dial rotated inadvertently on occasion when it didn’t lock into place.

The camera includes a wealth of other features, such as multiple focus and metering options, customizable buttons, built-in Wi-Fi and shake reduction.

There is a small sliding switch on the top of the lens to set the image’s aspect ratio to 3:2, 16:9, 4:3 and square. Lumix and D-Lux cameras have had this for several generations and it comes in handy for adjusting the aspect ratio based on the scene.

What I found most impressive was the movie mode that allowed shooting up to 30 frames per second and up to 4K resolution. That’s full high definition. I shot several movies at a luau on a recent Hawaiian vacation with illumination provided only by tiki torches, and the results were excellent — very sharp, well illuminated and very smooth motion. The sharpness was helped by being able to hold the camera against my face, using the viewfinder, and thereby avoiding camera unsteadiness.

On the vacation, my wife used the Sony RX100 and I used the Leica D-Lux 109. The images from the latter were generally sharper in general and better exposed in dim lighting. Of course, some of my wife’s images were better because there’s more to good images than just the equipment.

The camera comes with a battery, plug-in battery charger, neck strap, lens cap and tether. I’d recommend the optional lens cap that automatically opens when the lens extends out and closes when the lens withdraws.

Overall, this may just be the perfect travel camera: light enough to carry everywhere, versatile enough to cover a wide range of scenes and lighting conditions, with results that rival much larger cameras.


Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press. Send comments to phil.baker@sddt.com. Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.

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