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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ1

Steve's Conclusion

The Panasonic DMC-FZ1 is what I would call a top of the line point-n-shoot with a world- class zoom lens. The exposure system is automatic, the user cannot directly control the shutter speed or aperture. The mode dial allows you to select from a variety of Automatic Exposure modes from Simple for beginners to Panning and Night Portrait for the more advanced users.

This is a two-megapixel camera with an optically stabilized 12x Leica zoom lens with a focal length coverage of 35-420mm in 135mm equivalent. That's a lot of lens by anybody's standards especially when the vast majority of other digicams only have 3x zooms. There are only a small handful of other cameras with a lens even close to this, the most popular being the Olympus C-2100 UltraZoom and the Canon Pro 90IS both of which have 10x optically stabilized lenses. Recently Olympus has produced some new 10x UltraZoom cameras (C720UZ, C730UZ) but these lack the stabilization system that makes these long lenses really useable. The longer the focal length the more susceptible the camera is to image blurring from camera shake. Most people do not carry a tripod around with them so you either need to use a faster shutter speed or have a stabilized lens when you zoom out beyond 5x. The stabilizer also makes the camera capable of taking handheld shots in lower light levels without the flash. This particular lens is also exceptional in the fact that it maintains the fast f/2.8 aperture throughout the entire focal range. I noticed a moderate amount of barrel distortion in full wide angle but no detectable pin cushioning in full telephoto. The zoom mechanism is smooth and one of the quietest that I've ever used and only takes about two and a half seconds to extend on power up.

Like all cameras with a big zoom the FZ1 uses an electronic viewfinder (EVF) instead of the usual optical viewfinder. The EVF is a miniature color LCD monitor that is magnified and made to have your eye very close to it. There are a number of positive and negative things about EVFs -- the big plus is that they afford you a through the lens view of your subject. Being an electronic display means that it is easy to overlay camera and exposure data on top of the live image. It can also be used for in-field review of images as well as accessing the camera's menu system, all of which is handy when the lighting conditions make the large color LCD difficult to see. This is a high-resolution EVF with very good color rendition and there's a diopter adjustment to match the user's eyesight. As with all things there are some negatives. After capturing an image the EVF (or the LCD if used as the viewfinder) will "freeze" for about 1.5 to 4 seconds (depending on review setting) as the image is being processed. This may not sound like a big deal but if you're trying to follow rapid-moving subjects you can lose them in this delay time. Quite possibly the biggest negative to an EVF is that it can be next to impossible to see anything in low light conditions. All in all though, under the majority of "average" shooting situations I don't think that most users will find too much to complain about.

The FZ1 is a fairly robust camera with just 4-5 seconds required to power up and extend the lens and be ready to capture the first image. In single frame mode it takes about four seconds to process and store each image. Switching to Review brings up the last captured image in only two seconds and a tap of the shutter button instantly returns you to capture mode. There are two burst capture modes, High speed (4fps) and Low speed (2fps) that capture up to four frames in Fine quality or up to seven frames in Standard quality. In burst mode it only takes about 6-7 seconds to fully process the buffer and you can shoot another sequence. In movie mode the camera streams the data to the SD card, it's ready to shoot another movie clip with no delay. The only limit on the length of a movie clip is the amount of available space on your SD card. Sound is recorded with the movie and even though the zoom lens mechanism is almost totally silent you cannot zoom in or out during movie recording. You can preset the focal length before you begin recording. The sound recording feature can also be used to attach 10-sec audio notes to still images.

The FZ1's image quality is quite good. In normal use when encountered no problems with the white balance and pretty much left it in Auto all the time. There are presets for typical lighting conditions (sunny, cloudy, incandescent) and a custom manual setting if you're a perfectionist. The exposure system turned out consistently well-saturated and properly exposed images with only an occasional under-exposure on a few of our beach shots with very bright sand. In these cases under-exposure is highly preferred to over- exposure where highlights will "blow out" the details. The colors were very true to the original scene and there are menu options for Picture Adjust (Natural, Standard and Vivid) that let you do some in-camera fine tuning of the saturation when desired. The FZ1 also offers an AE Bracketing mode whereby the camera will take three shots in rapid sequence and varies the exposure (+/- 1/3, 2/3 or 1.0EV) on each shot. One of those three shots is bound to be "just right" and you can always just delete the other two -- that's the beauty of digital photography.

The camera is powered by a proprietary lithium-ion rechargeable battery pack and it does the job well considering that you always have either the EVF or LCD turned on when using the camera. Panasonic includes a small rapid charger that also serves as an AC power adapter when used with the supplied DC power cable. The charger will fully replenish a depleted battery pack in 90 minutes or less. Battery run time is approx. 100 minutes when using the color LCD (200 still pictures) and approx. 120 minutes with the EVF (240 still pictures.) This is calculated based on shooting one shot every 30 seconds and using the flash 50% of the time. As with all cameras that use a proprietary battery, we recommend that you purchase a second battery or your picture-taking fun is over when the battery is depleted. Battery packs are charged outside of the camera so it's easy to charge one and use another

Ergonomically the FZ1 is a well-designed camera that feels good in your hand. The dials and buttons are easy to access and clearly labeled as to their function(s). The camera is much smaller than you would imagine, it is only slightly larger than palm-size. Fully loaded with battery and SD card it's light enough (11.3 ounces) to be worn around your neck or hand carried for an entire day without causing any fatigue. The FZ1 makes an excellent tourist camera, especially if you're going on safari or attending sporting events. With this lens you are never too far away from any subject. I've received hundreds of emails from Olympus C-2100 owners telling me that they had forgotten how much fun it was to take pictures -- I'm sure that Panasonic's FZ1 will also stimulate many new and old photographers this year.

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