Editor’s Note: We would like to thank Backscatter for providing the Panasonic LX10, Nauticam NA-LX10 housing, Nauticam WWL-1 wide-angle wet lens, Nauticam CMC-1 macro wet lens, and additional accessories, which were used in this review.
When the carry-on sized Pelican case arrived from Backscatter, I was a bit shocked. Could a complete compact setup—with all necessary wet lenses and accessories—really fit in such an economic space?
I had been packing my DSLR rig, in a much bigger case, for days for the assignment, and yet I had one of the top-of-the-line compact cameras ready and set to go in a carry-on bag—the Panasonic Lumix LX10 and corresponding Nauticam housing.
I travel to Grand Cayman quite often for the year-round dive conditions, profundity of subjects and low diver-to-divemaster ratios provided by boutique operations like Cayman Turtle Divers. But doing so with a full DSLR setup (or two) adds frustration and baggage fees.
Needless to say, I was eager at the prospect of having all of the underwater photo gear needed in the airplane cabin. And with the super-compact, wallet-friendly, and capable LX10, the prospects were bright.
1. Overview of the Panasonic LX10
The LX10 sits at an interesting spot within the Panasonic lineup, somewhere in price between the LX7 and the LX100. But taken within the larger compact scene, the LX10 is a logical model for Panasonic to produce—aimed at competing with Sony’s RX100 line and Canon’s G7X series.
All of these models feature a 1"-type CMOS sensor and are priced between $700 and 1000. The RX100 V is at the higher end of this market, with an MSRP of $1000—but this model offers a built-in viewfinder, unlike the LX10 and G7X Mark II, both priced at $700. I thought I might miss the viewfinder, but after adjusting over a few dives, I found the 1,040,000-dot LCD screen more than capable for framing my shots. Less ideal for underwater photography, however, is the reliance on the touchscreen to access some key functions. For example, it’s impossible to play back a video without accessing the touchscreen.
The LX10 features the brightest (fastest) lens of the group—a 24–72mm equivalent f/1.4–2.8 zoom lens. Topside, the brightness of the lens, even at full zoom, is an awesome tool for bokeh and capturing fast subjects. There are also several unique photo modes available on the LX10: Post Focus, 4K Photo and Burst. These specialty modes are designed for topside purposes, but can be successfully reappropriated to benefit your underwater photography—more on that later. Finally, for video enthusiasts, the LX10 offers both 4K/30p and 1080/120p for ultra-high resolution and high-speed (slow-motion) video recording, respectively.
Highlights of the Panasonic LX10
- 20-megapixel 1"-type CMOS sensor
- 24–72mm equivalent f/1.4–2.8 zoom lens
- 7fps continuous shooting with autofocus (10fps without)
- 4K video at up to 30p (100Mbps)
- Full HD video at up to 60p (28 Mbps) with 120p high-speed mode
- 4K Photo, Post Focus and Focus Stacking modes
The LX10’s native lens is ideal for photographing medium-sized animals like this green moray eel
2. Overview of the Nauticam NA-LX10 Housing
Nauticam produced their first housing for Panasonic’s LX series in 2011, and has been committed to the line ever since. Their goal appears to be to complement the high-end compact with a housing to match—one that can take advantage of all the LX10 has to offer.
The $995 housing is constructed similarly to Nauticam’s models for DSLRs, carved out of a solid block of anodized aluminum for maximum durability. All controls are clearly marked, and there are advanced features like an M14 port for use with a vacuum valve. Even without the vacuum, you still feel confident in the housing’s seal thanks to the simple-yet-effective rotary latch, and Nauticam’s signature leak alarm system.
An optional accessory that I can highly recommend is the addition of handle brackets that connect to the Flexitray or Easitray. These help secure and stabilize the camera on the tray, which is often a struggle with compact cameras attached to independent trays. It proved especially useful for producing smooth video.
3. Nauticam NA-LX10 Ergonomics and Handling
Before getting into handling specifics, it’s important to discuss the process of installing the LX10 into the Nauticam housing. Nauticam faced a bit of a challenge in terms of designing a housing that easily accepts the camera. The on/off switch and aperture ring must both be placed in a specific position for insertion (“off” and f/11).
Nauticam was able to make installation easier by designing an on/off switch that can be extended outward before inserting the camera and then pushed in snugly afterward. If you are having trouble getting the camera to fit in the housing precisely, make sure this on/off button is pulled out. Also, line up both the camera’s aperture ring and the housing aperture ring inside to f/11.
The housing is extremely maneuverable, allowing me to get under a ledge to photograph this angelfish
The NA-LX10 handles like a DSLR housing, with the size and maneuverability of a compact camera. This is especially accentuated by the handle brackets, which add a level of stability and solidity. The shutter button is two-stage, meaning you can clearly feel the difference between when you’ve locked focus and when you’re ready to pull (or rather, push) the trigger.
The conundrum I faced with the trigger was deciding whether to try and press it from the handle, or to move my hand directly onto the camera housing. The housing has a great palm grip that makes this handling natural—however, it can result in a lot more stress on the hand and arm. In the end, I found the most effective way to push the shutter was by keeping both hands on the handles and using my middle finger to reach the trigger. If you have smaller hands, I would highly recommend adding the optional shutter release extension.
All buttons are clearly marked, but I would encourage developing a familiarity with the camera before trying to use it underwater. The menus are a bit more complex and lengthy than found on many compacts, and there are a variety of shooting modes. I spent several hours at the airport and on the plane getting familiar with the menus and controls.
Whenever I review a housing, especially one for a compact camera, the main controls I look at are those for exposure: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Here, the shutter dial is located on top of the housing next to a thumb grip and is very responsive. Deep grooves make it easy to gain traction to turn and the camera’s display shows exactly what shutter speed you’re changing to.
Big knobs and easy access to manual controls means I can spend more time being creative (adding a sunball and self-modeling) and less time fumbling with controls
The aperture dial is similar in size and design and is located near—perhaps a little too near—the port. If you’re not using handles or any wet lenses, then this dial is easy to access. But the addition of a large wet lens like the Nauticam WWL-1 makes it a tight space to reach. Even with my hand placed on the camera instead of the handle, it took extra effort to accurately change the aperture in that tight space.
ISO is not a setting often changed in underwater photography (see Sec. 8 for comments on ISO with video on the LX10). However, it is a bit inconvenient to change it when necessary on the LX10. The out-of-the-box method is by accessing the camera menu, selecting “sensitivity” and using the rear dial to make your selection. You can also half-press the shutter to access the ability to change ISO.
ISO isn’t the easiest to change with the NA-LX10 housing, but fortunately underwater photographers rely more on shutter speed and aperture—controls that are much more accessible on the housing
The “big knob” on the NA-LX10 housing isn’t for the shutter speed or aperture, but the zoom/manual focus control. This is aimed at underwater videographers who want to get creative with their zooming. It is a breeze to use, with oversized grooves and a truly smooth turn.
A nice additional control on the NA-LX10 is the ability to both pop up the flash and pop it down. The practicality of this may be because the LX10 doesn’t fully turn off unless you’ve popped down the flash. However, it benefits the underwater photographer because it allows the easy switch between shooting in natural light and using strobes.
Putting the LX10 in Nauticam housing to the test at the famed Stingray City in Grand Cayman
4. Wide-Angle Underwater Photography with the Panasonic LX10
Grand Cayman offers great opportunities for practicing wide-angle photography, with a variety of subjects, from reef scenics, to wrecks, turtles, and rays. However, at an equivalent focal length of 24mm, the wide end of the LX10’s zoom lens has its limitations—like any compact—so the addition of a wide-angle wet lens is highly recommended.
Nauticam has you covered with their impressive WWL-1 wide-angle attachment. With the use of this wet lens, I found wide-angle underwater photography to be where the Panasonic LX10 really shines. The WWL-1’s excellent optics combined with the added field of view make the LX10 a serious tool for taking images of wide-angle scenes.
This image, taken with the addition of the WWL-1, demonstrates the wide-angle field of view offered
The Panasonic LX10 and Nauticam WWL-1
The $1,150 Nauticam WWL-1 is no typical wide-angle wet lens. Constructed using six precise elements of optical glass, providing a field of view of up to 130 degrees, it produces excellent image quality—even when your subject is inches away. Adding the bayonet adaptor makes it easy to slip the WWL-1 on and off.
I was provided a buoyancy collar with the WWL-1, which turned out to be a necessary addition. To provide such impressive optics, the multiple glass elements add quite a bit of weight, and the buoyancy collar helps offset this weight.
The one caveat, as mentioned already, is that accessing the aperture ring with the WWL-1 attached is a bit of a nuisance. So, given that menu diving is required to access ISO, I relied heavily on just adjusting the shutter speed. Of course, changing shutter settings only impacts the natural light exposure, not the strobe exposure, so it’s no bad thing that this is the easiest setting to change.
Using a wet lens allows the shooter to get closer to large subjects and scenes, meaning more strobe light hits the foreground and adds color and contrast
Without a doubt, this powerful compact performs best in situations without fast-moving subjects—sponges, hard corals, soft corals, scenes, and so on. In such cases, you can absolutely rely on the 49-point autofocus to accurately focus on the scene. Because you’re shooting with a compact camera, there is still a noticeable delay between hitting the shutter and taking the picture, which is compounded when using the pop-up flash to trigger strobes. This can be tricky when timing a shot of a scene that includes a fleeting subject like schooling fish or a turtle. However, this can be mostly overcome by half-pressing the shutter on AF-C and pressing all the way just an instant before the right moment.
I loved using the LX10 in natural light conditions. Here, I could take full advantage of the superb autofocus and continuous shooting mode—and not miss a thing. I was shooting in RAW, so setting white balance in post-processing was a solid option, but with the LX10’s impressive manual white balance I often chose this option combined with Burst mode.
The shallow conditions of Stingray City are ideal for blasting out dozens of images in a matter of seconds using the LX10’s Burst mode with speedy autofocus
5. Macro Underwater Photography with the Panasonic LX10
There are certainly limitations to any compact’s built-in lens. Still, the LX10’s native lens offers a degree of versatility for many macro subjects. For example, I found success in photographing medium-sized macro subjects like banded coral shrimp and hermit crabs. When zoomed all of the way out, the 72mm (equivalent) focal length proved to be a critical tool for photographing shy subjects, or those that hide away inside of coral or sponges. I was able to fill the frame with a jawfish by using the zoom of the LX10’s native lens.
But given the binary of macro and wide angle in underwater photography, I believe many users of the LX10 will invest in a macro wet lens—and for good reason. With the addition of the Nauticam CMC-1 macro wet lens, I was able to capture images of smaller subjects that would otherwise be impossible with the native lens.
The built-in lens offers a zoom range that benefits an underwater photographer trying to shoot shy subjects like this jawfish
The Panasonic LX10 and Nauticam CMC-1
If you plan on shooting subjects smaller than the size of a golf ball, then the Nauticam CMC-1 wet lens is a must. The camera’s built-in lens is great for zooming in on shy subjects, but if you want to get close to your macro subject for serious magnification, then the $320 CMC-1 is an excellent choice. The lens offers up to 2.3x magnification, while also reducing the minimum focus distance—especially when combined with the LX10’s AF Macro focus mode.
The secretary blenny is a popular subject for critter photographers in the Caribbean. The CMC-1 makes it possible to photograph these pea-sized fish, which wouldn’t be feasible with the built-in lens. I preferred to use the single-point autofocus mode or AF Macro mode in situations when shooting especially small critters. Multi-point AF is great for fast-moving situations, but single-point AF is perfect for zeroing in on a particular spot—typically, the eyes—when shooting macro.
Single-point autofocus was the right choice for shooting tiny, but stationary subjects with the CMC-1 wet lens
Thanks to the CMC-1, I was able to fill the frame with this minute hermit crab hiding in a gorgonian
6. ISO Performance and Image Quality
Pushing the limits of ISO, especially with compacts, isn’t ideal when it produces tons of noise. However, the wreck of the ex-USS Kittiwake presents unique challenges: Inside, light isn’t plentiful in all spaces, so the use of a higher ISO becomes necessary. It was here that I tested the ISO performance of the LX10.
Inside the popular wreck, debris is frequently kicked up, making it tricky to avoid backscatter in your images. The trick is to rely less on strobes and more on natural light, plus the camera’s light sensitivity. Pushing the LX10’s ISO past 1000, I found noise was very well controlled, with little noticeable impact on the image. I had already expected very good low-light performance after trying ultra-high ISOs on land and finding acceptable results all the way up to ISO 1600.
I boosted the sensitivity inside the Kittiwake and was very impressed with the lack of noise even up an ISO of 1600
Another key test for a camera’s low-light performance is the ability to bring out shadows even when shooting at more modest ISOs. I took an image of a snapper inside a cave at an ISO of 200. In the image straight out of the camera, the strobes did a great job of exposing the foreground, while the background detail was completely lost. But after adjusting the shadows in post-processing, I was able to bring out much of that detail without adding an unacceptable amount of noise.
There’s plenty of hidden information in the LX10’s RAW images that can be revealed in post-processing
The amount of detail recorded in each image was impressive, as the 100% crop on the right shows
7. Specialty Modes: Burst, 4K Image and Post Focus
The LX10 offers several specialized shooting modes, some of which are useful for underwater photography. These include Burst, 4K Image, and Post Focus. It’s important to note that for all of these modes, you can’t use your strobes, so shooting has to be done in natural light or with the addition of video lights.
Burst Mode: The LX10 is capable of taking 10 frames per second at full 20-megapixel resolution. I found this useful when shooting in shallow conditions, in natural light, with faster-moving subjects. Employing the LX10’s Burst mode at the famed “Stingray City,” I was able to rattle off many frames in rapid succession to capture that perfect over-under moment—which you’d be very lucky to achieve if you were shooting one frame at a time.
With a smaller dome it can be difficult to capture clear over-unders. Shooting rapidly in Burst mode increased my chances of capturing such an image
4K Image: In the LX10’s 4K Image mode, the camera captures the scene in 4K video and then allows you to extract 8-megapixel stills. Essentially, this increases the frame rate up to 30 frames per second. This is perfect for nailing a critical macro shot, like a blenny yawning. Using an additional continuous light adds color and contrast. Then you shoot video, waiting for that specific moment of special behavior. When it happens, you simply extract the singular image—or enjoy the 4K video!
I used the 4K Image mode to pull this still of a yawning blenny
Post Focus: In Post Focus mode, the camera captures a series of images in rapid succession at a variety of the 49 focus points. In an ideal world, you would be performing this task on a tripod or with a relatively steady hand—underwater, this is less practical. However, I found that even in mild underwater conditions, the Post Focus mode worked well to capture scenes of macro critters at shallow apertures. This allowed me to select the exact focus point after the fact.
Shooting at shallow apertures to blur the background, the Post Focus mode allows the user to choose the desired point of focus after taking the picture
8. Underwater Video with the Panasonic LX10
It almost goes without mentioning in today’s 4K-driven world, but the LX10 is very much up to date when it comes to capturing video at the top resolution. In fact, not only does the LX10 capture 4K/30p, but it is also capable of recording 1080/120p for super slow-motion footage.
One important consideration is the crop factor when shooting video in 4K—the effective equivalent focal length increases to 36–108mm. This is fine for shy macro subjects like the jawfish in the sample video, especially with added pro video features like focus peaking (where in-focus areas of the frame are highlighted on screen) and zebras (where overexposed areas are highlighted). However, this crop factor is not ideal for wide angle. I found myself needing the Nauticam WWL-1 wet lens even for medium-sized animals like turtles in order to get close and reduce the amount of water between the subject and the camera.
The LX10’s manual white balance control is impressive. I was able to manually white balance to 35 feet: In the video below, you can see this demonstrated both in the clips of the gorgonian swaying in the current and the jawfish. Additionally, the LX10 offers several white balance presets, meaning you can save a white balance setting for 10, 20, and 30 feet if you’re shooting in similar conditions.
Video test with the Panasonic LX10 in Nauticam housing
One big limitation is that the LX10 doesn’t offer Auto ISO when shooting video in manual mode. In order to have the camera automatically adjust ISO, you’ll need to give it control of either the shutter speed or aperture. Cayman offers a variety of lighting situations, from shallow, bright reefs to the dark insides of the Kittiwake wreck—and I prefer to have the camera automatically choose the ISO while handing over control of aperture.
The 4K capabilities of the LX10 will certainly catch the attention of still shooters who also want high-quality video with pro recording features. However, the lack of Auto ISO, short battery life, significant crop factor, and use of only part of the sensor (about two-thirds of the full sensor width) places the LX10 slightly behind some of its competition.
9. Who Should Consider the Panasonic LX10 in Nauticam Housing?
Looking back at the images captured by the LX10—especially the detail and low-light performance in wide angle—it’s hard to imagine that a compact camera was the tool used. I also shot with a DSLR on this assignment and it can be difficult to tell the difference between the results.
Sure, there are still some frustrations that come with using a compact—including occasional autofocus troubles, shutter delay, and the limitations of the native lens. But some of these can be overcome with the features of the LX10. For example, the use of 4K Photo mode and focus stacking can help in situations where any autofocus delay could cost a shot. And Burst mode eliminates any shutter delay in fast-moving, natural light situations.
The 4K capabilities and high-speed video up to 120p are nice to have—along with more-advanced features like focus peaking and zebras. But the lack of Auto ISO in video mode and the crop factor that limits wide-angle shooting in 4K might be considered significant drawbacks for those who fancy themselves as underwater videographers.
Images from the LX10 reveal superb detail and well-controlled noise in low-light situations
Especially with compacts, a camera is only as good as the housing it’s in. The Nauticam NA-LX10 might be at the high end for compact housings, but what you get is top-notch ergonomics that make adjusting settings on the fly as pain-free as possible—despite the LX10’s deep menus and plethora of custom function buttons. In addition, any native lens limitations are overcome with the excellent optics provided by Nauticam’s WWL-1 and CMC-1 wet lenses.
For this shooter (who has lugged far more than their fair share of camera gear around the planet), the true testament to the LX10 is the ability to fit it all—camera, housing, wet lenses, lighting, and accessories—in a single compact carry-on case. This isn’t a new ability for compact setups, but a system that can do that and rival the image quality of my mid-range DSLR is something novel. I may just have found my new quick travel kit.
Panasonic and Nauticam want you to have it all: excellent image quality, pro-level features, and no excess baggage fees!