Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ1 Review

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Steve's Conclusion

Panasonic's "FZ" series models have been popular from day one, and have been among some of the finest super-zoom models in this category since their debut. Panasonic has added yet another awesome model for 2007, the Lumix DMC-FZ18. While it retains almost all of the features we loved on past models, like MEGA O.I.S. image stabilization system, a large 2.5-inch LCD, color EVF, Venus Engine III image processor, 27MB of internal memory, etc. The DMC-FZ18 also boasts 8-megapixels of resolution, Face Detection technology, wide format 848x480 (30fps) video mode, and a much more versatile 18x "wide" optical zoom lens. As with past models, this is a stylish and compact SLR style camera that can be used as a fully automatic point-n-shoot for beginners or as a photographic tool by more advanced users with exposure modes like Aperture priority, Shutter priority, Custom and Full manual.

By far, the most important feature of the FZ18 is the high-quality Leica Vario-Elmarit 18x zoom lens. It covers a focal length of 28-504mm in 35mm equivalence. Unlike most super-zoom models that favor the telephoto ends, the FZ18 features a very respectable 28mm wide angle extreme, which will allow you to capture beautiful landscapes, group portraits, etc. And, with 18x (504mm) magnification, you can bring distant subjects up close and in your face. This remarkable lens is also fast, with a wide angle aperture of f/2.8 and f/4.2 at telephoto, which enhances your ability to capture sharp images in marginal lighting conditions. To help aid in the battle of camera shake and motion blur, the FZ18 features Panasonic's exclusive MEGA O.I.S. (Optical Image Stabilization) system, which is far superior to many other model's digital stabilization modes. The lens exhibits an average amount of barrel distortion at full wide angle as well as slight pincushioning at full telephoto end of the zoom range. Chromatic aberrations (aka purple fringing) were surprisingly scarce in areas of extreme contrast.

Usually, the longer the focal length of a lens, the more likely it is that you will see traces of camera shake (blurring of the subject due to camera movement). Non-stabilized lenses with high power telephoto capabilities require the use of a tripod or a faster shutter speed to overcome blur; the rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed no slower than the reciprocal of the lens focal length, 1/400 of a second when using a 400mm lens for example. Depending on the lighting conditions, a high ISO setting might be required to use a fast shutter speed, compromising image quality (noise) to avoid blur. This is not an issue with the FZ18. Its MEGA O.I.S. stabilization system reduces the effect of camera shake and allows you to capture images using slower than normal shutter speeds.

The FZ18's ergonomics are very similar to the last "FZ" series model we reviewed, the FZ8 . The large handgrip gives it a nice secure feeling in your hands and the controls are well-placed and easy to reach with your fingertips. The menu system is logically organized, allowing for easy navigating and quick changes to camera settings. The FZ18, like many super-zoom digicams, features both a large (2.5- inch) color LCD and a high-quality color EVF (Electronic ViewFinder). EVFs are just tiny LCDs (this one is 0.44-inches) that are located in the eyepiece and magnified for easy viewing. This particular EVF showed very good color rendition and there's a diopter adjustment to match your eyesight. EVFs have many advantages over optical viewfinders, providing an accurate viewfinder image, a wealth of overlay exposure information, and the ability to playback images. However there are some drawbacks as well, like a delayed live image (not the case with the FZ18), freezing when using the burst capture mode and they consume about as much power from the battery as the LCD on the back does.

Both displays are very high-quality, and I found were a pleasure to use whether indoors or out. When shooting outdoors, the LCD was bright enough to be usable on sunny days, however, the coating is quite reflective, which can make it difficult to see at times. The EVF's eyepiece is deep enough to help block out most of the ambient light, even on bright days, making it a nice choice in these conditions. When in marginal lighting, both viewfinders "gain up" nicely, which will help when framing your subjects; something that was almost impossible with 35mm film cameras.

Shooting performance was very robust for a super-zoom model. It took only 1.9 seconds to power up and capture the first image; pretty amazing when you consider it has to boot up and extend that 18x lens. Shutter lag, the time between depressing the shutter release to actually capturing the image, was almost instantaneous when pre-focused and only 2/10 of a second including autofocus. In single frame mode, the shot to shot delay averaged only 1.2 second without use of the flash and between 1.4 and 2 seconds with the flash, depending on subject distance and battery life.

The FZ18 offers two burst (continuous) capture modes to choose from: Normal speed captured 4 images in about 8/10 of a seconds (approx. 5fps) before filling the buffer; surpassing Panasonic's claim of 3fps. It flushes the buffer almost instantly, with only about a 1 second delay before you can capture another 4 shot burst. Unlimited mode continuously captured full resolution images at about 2.5fps, and is limited only by memory card capacity. Both the LCD and EVF viewfinders briefly display the last image captured in burst mode, which makes it a bit difficult to follow fast moving subjects. Our tests were done using a standard Lexar 1GB SD card, Program exposure mode, Large/Fine quality, preview off, flash off, and all other settings at default (unless otherwise noted.) Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.

The overall image quality when using the 8M Fine mode was very good for a consumer model. The majority of our images are tach sharp, with very little edge softness. Exposure is accurate, and color saturation is very pleasing. The camera also performs well indoors. The built-in popup flash has a powerful range (by consumer digicam standards) of approx. 19.68 feet at wide angle and ISO auto. I used the Portrait Advanced Scene mode set to Normal, with Face Detection AF enabled. I found the flash worked very well, even in large rooms, like a large poll barn. I was able to capture usable group portraits of 16 kids at a local Halloween party. While the image is a stop or so underexposed, it's nothing a few seconds in an image editor can't fix. Also, the FZ18 offers flash output adjustment, ±2EV in 1/3EV steps. When shooting couple portraits from about 5 - 6 feet away, the camera produced beautiful close-up portraits, showing good flash exposure, sharp facial details and accurate skin tones. I found the Face Detection AF mode worked very well, finding the two faces in our portrait example almost instantly.

Like other "FZ" series models, the FZ18 features and impressive Macro focus mode. Using it, you can achieve sharp focus on subjects as close as 0.39 in. (1cm) from the lens, and it also does an excellent job of "squelching" the flash to ensure the subject is not overexposed. You can see an example of how well the Macro mode works by looking at our Candy Dish shot on the samples page. Thanks to the AF-assist lamp, you can focus on your subjects in low lighting to complete darkness, and I found the "red" glow of the beam also helps illuminate your subject in the dark.

The FZ18's movie mode has been upgraded from past models. Not only can you record at VGA sized (640x480), but you can also capture video at WVGA (848x480) size. These videos are recorded with sound, and you can choose either 30 or 10 frames per second. There is also a smaller QVGA (320x240) resolution that is great when wanting to conserve precious space on your memory card or when sending clips to family members and friends via email; just be sure they have some sort of high-speed Internet. Like still images, during movie capture you have full use of the cameras MEGA O.I.S. system for steady hand-held movies. Overall, our movie samples look good, showing typical amounts of compression noise.

Power is supplied by the same proprietary 7.2v 710 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery pack that previous models have used. Panasonic claims you can capture up to 400 images on a single charge. I found battery life was very good, especially considering that you always have either the EVF or LCD turned on when using the camera. Panasonic also includes their small DE-A43 rapid AC charger, which will fully replenish a depleted battery pack in 90 minutes or less. During our testing, we were able to capture about 117 images and conclude many of our other tests with power to spare. As with all cameras that use a proprietary battery, we recommend that you purchase at least one extra battery pack and keep it charged and ready at all times.

Bottom line - we have loved Panasonic's "FZ" series since we reviewed the DMC-FZ1 back in 2003. The Lumix DMC-FZ18 continues their tradition of offering outstanding shooting performance, excellent image quality, loads of useful exposure settings, and a Very powerful zoom range (with O.I.S.), all packed in a stylish shell. This camera will make a great choice for anyone in the market for a versatile 8-megapixel digicam, especially if they are planing on a vacation that entails lots sport, wildlife, or portrait photography. That said, with a street price of US$399 or less, we feel the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 offers great "bang for your buck", and is sure to be a very popular model this 2007 holiday season.

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