Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ Series
12x Zoom And Image Stabilization Go A Long Way In This Digicam

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It's not often a camera like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ comes along. But when it does, it thankfully arrives in several flavors to suit various tastes, in 4-, and 5-Mp versions, priced at $499 (DMC-FZ15), and $599 (DMC-FZ20), respectively.

For starters, what makes the Lumix FZ stand out is the Leica DC Vario-Elmarit 6-72mm/12x optical zoom lens, which translates into 36-432mm, in 35mm parlance. More astounding still is the maximum aperture: f/2.8, which defines a fast lens for this zoom range, one eminently suited to low-light situations. As if that weren't enough, optical image stabilization should help when shooting in subdued light at relatively long shutter speeds, a key feature we'll be testing.

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ20 certainly looks impressive and imposing, thanks in large measure to its fast Leica f/2.8 12x zoom lens, which incorporates highly corrected glass elements and internal movements. On the lens barrel you can see the AF/MF switch.

If it were a prime lens on a 35mm SLR, this glass would be huge! Of course, this is not a 35mm SLR, or even a D-SLR. But it is an EVFD--Electronic View Finder Digital. If you're not a fan of EVFD cameras, this one might turn you around. While it lacks low-light image amplification, the EVF does work well enough in poorly lit situations. The advantage of any EVF is that all the information, including a live histogram in this instance, is in front of you, so there's no need to take your eye away from the subject to check an external display. What's more, the external controls are easily identified by touch, for the most part, keeping you focused on what's in front of the camera. I particularly appreciate the full-information EVF display, since it relieves me of having to don glasses to read the external LCD monitor. It also helps that this camera has an adjustable diopter correction as well.

The user interface on back of the FZ20 is uncluttered, with buttons that are easy enough to identify by touch as you view through the electronic viewfinder. You can also review images in the EVF, or on the LCD monitor, as shown.

What makes the camera appear so imposing is not simply the all black body and quasi-SLR look. For a midsize compact, it looms large. You see, on the face of it, the camera in my hands sported a long snout. Except that this protuberance was not all glass. Half of it is the lens shade, which comes in two sections. You would think that the deep tube (first section, or "adapter" as they call it) would suffice--and frankly, it seemed to do the trick. But Panasonic adds the more typical wave-shaped wide-zoom shade in front of that.

The front section of the shade has to be removed before using the built-in flash, to prevent vignetting. And removing it, as well as mounting it, is a bit of a chore. Still, I use the complete hood assembly, figuring it's there for a reason. (I'm actually surprised the whole thing doesn't cause vignetting at wide settings, but it doesn't.

So, now we get to the Leica DC Vario-Elmarit lens itself. For a 12x f/2.8 optic, it's awfully short, protruding an extra inch when the camera is turned on (all movements are internal beyond this point). What gives the lens that striking appearance is its wide girth.

As to the performance of the lens itself, the sharpness was there, but not the snap. The lens' construction is commendable, boasting a combination of aspherics and ED glass. But 13 elements in 8 groups apparently take their toll on contrast.

There is one area where this glass performed exceptionally well, a comment on its multi-coated optics. I intentionally pointed the lens toward the sun, which was partially hidden behind a tree, in an effort to create a high-flare situation. The EVF image showed the vertical flare lines typical of CCD imagers when directed at a point light source. Despite that, the resultant image was clean and flare-free. (Caution: do not point a lens directly at the sun, especially a telephoto, as it may damage the imaging sensor and your eyes.)

Zooming And Focusing
Zooming is electronic, not my favorite form of focal-length control. But here the zooming steps are discrete and small enough to comfortably let you define the image area. And the operation is fast--stopping briefly at the end of the zoom range, to give you time to decide whether to go the distance with digital zoom--to 4x. Digital zoom holds up fairly well, provided a low electronic gain setting (ISO) is used, with ISO 200 being the practical limit. At ISO 400, chromatic noise is obtrusive and intrusive within the normal zoom range, and is considerably more pronounced with digital telephoto.

In moderate to bright light levels, focusing was fast for a point-and-shoot--nothing wishy-washy about this system. Even at low-light levels, the camera was not annoyingly tardy. In fact, there are four AF modes to choose from in the Record menu: 9-zone, 3-zone, 1-zone, and Spot. For scenics, you may want the most liberal setting, bringing in the reins for portraits and close-up subjects. After some initial testing, I found myself most comfortable with 1-zone focusing, especially after noting that 9-zone focusing takes longer and is not consistent. In low light and with troublesome subjects, the AF may default to a wide-area sensitivity when it otherwise fails to find its target in the selected mode.

In the wide angle view, it's obvious that the camera handles contrasty outdoor scenes well. The next shot reflects the incredible reach at 12x. Engaging digital zoom for a 48x view, we can still see optical image stabilization playing a role (note the wire running across the scene), but chromatic noise resulting from high electronic gain (ISO 400) takes its toll, making the image appear less sharp. Shutter speeds (in sec, l to r): 1/30, 1/50, 1/40.

Where AF failed was with moving subjects. It simply was not fast enough. The camera offers a Manual Focus mode, but the EVF is not crisp enough for you to focus manually, especially with subjects in motion. There is an AF override while in Manual Focus, but to be blunt, I don't see the point. I did try continuous AF once, but that did not seem to help when I was photographing some ducks in New York's Central Park. On the other hand, I was impressed with rapid sequence shooting, especially with auto-bracketing. On the flip side, this camera makes you wait until the images are processed before letting you proceed.

It is worthwhile pointing out that the lens focuses fairly close without invoking a macro setting, rewarding me with richly detailed and colorful shots of a bird of paradise blossom, when taken with flash. The macro setting is on the mode dial, instead of employing a dedicated switch or button. Focusing in macro is down to an incredible 1.9" (5cm), at the wide setting. At this near distance, not only can you not use flash (because of vignetting), but if you're not careful, the camera may block the available light. Resetting focal length to a longer setting while in Macro mode should alleviate the vignetting problem, with flash as well. (To play it safe, I'd recommend removing the entire lens hood assembly for macro shooting.)

While the camera has a Macro mode, it is also capable of amazing close-ups without invoking this setting (this was shot from a few inches away at 130mm). The built-in flash helped to bring out the rich tapestry of color in this bird of paradise bloom.

Holding Steady
The Lumix FZ offers two modes of Optical Image Stabilization (OIS). There's always the option of turning it off, but I don't think there's enough of a battery drain to warrant it. The modest 680 maH li ion battery held up well, although the built-in flash and external monitor were hardly used during my tests.

Mode 1 OIS keeps the viewfinder image steady as you compose and shoot. Mode 2 only kicks in when the shutter button is pressed, and doesn't assist with viewing.

Now, here's the rub. If you use Mode 1 to better compose the image, the stabilization effect during capture will not be as neat and tidy, and some blur may creep in. If you use Mode 2, the image may be crisper, with image stabilization brought fully to bear on the problem, but jittery hands may produce an image that is crooked, or with composition otherwise thrown off somewhat. Initial tests showed this to be true, with Mode 2 producing sharper results; however, composition was off more times than it was on. Composition was indeed better in Mode 1, although shutter delay (as truly minimal as it was) may have allowed just enough camera movement at times to skew a shot.

I expected the elegantly decorated lobby of New York City's Park Lane Hotel to pose more of a challenge, but the FZ20 handled it admirably. Note how the camera managed to hold tones throughout, with OIS helping to keep the picture blur-free (image cropped slightly). Auto white balance, 36mm, ISO 200, 1/10 sec.

Contrary to the instruction manual, I did observe that OIS was helpful even when employing 4x digital zoom. However, it failed very decidedly when panning with moving subjects (as hinted at in the manual). And there were other times when OIS just didn't seem to help at all--the possible culprit being light levels that dipped below an allowable threshold.

I found that optical image stabilization on the Lumix FZ20 produced acceptably sharp results at shutter speeds down to 1/30 sec and what I judged to be critically sharp images at 1/50, with the lens zoomed out to 432mm (an odd focal length, I know). In other words, that translates into better than a 4-stop window in handheld photography, given that the optimum shutter speed would have otherwise been 1/500 second (as determined by the recommended handheld shutter speed=reciprocal of lens focal length rule).

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ20 is a serious camera that's also a joy to use. But I have to qualify that by adding that its reach is longer than its bite is hard: It can pull in those distant images, but it doesn't do so with the impact one expects of a Leica lens. Despite some issues I may have with it, the camera did deliver often enough under conditions where other cameras would simply have fallen on their face. In short, you can expect the DMC-FZ to cover a wide range of subjects with aplomb.

There Ain't A Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On--and For Good Reason
The company's website offers the following explanation for its optical image stabilization technology: "Our MEGA Optical Image Stabilizer helps minimize the hand movement that causes many photos to look blurry. The key to this Panasonic technology is a built-in gyrosensor that detects any hand movement. Once hand movement is identified, a signal is relayed to a tiny microcomputer inside the camera, which instantly calculates the compensation needed. A linear motor then shifts the optical image stabilizer lens as necessary to guide incoming light from the image straight to the CCD. Plus, the Venus Engine II LSI makes the process from detection to compensation even faster and more accurate. This helps extend the MEGA Optical Image Stabilizer correction range all the way to four steps below (i.e., slower than) the shutter speed--generally considered to be the limit for hand movement compensation."

Pricing And Information

DMC-FZ20: $599; DMC-FZ15: $499
For more info, check out their website: www.panasonic.com.

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