Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ4 Review
The most prominent feature of the FZ4 is its 12x Leica Vario-Elmarit zoom lens, with a focal length coverage of 35-420mm in 35mm equivalence. Anyone who has used a digicam with a long focal length zoom knows that these lenses really add to the overall "fun factor" of using a camera, allowing them to bring distant subjects closer and capture sports action across the playing field. But the longer the focal length, the more susceptible images are to blurring from camera shake. Non-stabilized cameras with high power telephoto lenses require the use a tripod or a faster shutter speed to overcome the camera-shake issue; the rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed no slower than the reciprocal of the lens focal length, 1/400 second when using a 400mm lens for example. Depending on the lighting conditions, a high ISO setting might be required to use a high shutter speed, compromising image quality (noise) to avoid blur.
But that's not the case with the FZ4; its optically-stabilized lens reduces the effect of camera-shake when using its telephoto capabilities, allowing you to capture blur-free images at slower than normal shutter speeds. In fact, I was able to consistently capture sharp hand-held images at shutter speeds as low as 1/60 of a second at full telephoto, and a high percentage of shots at even lower speeds. With the FZ4's Mega O.I.S (Optical Image Stabilizer) feature, you'll be more concerned with subject movement than camera shake at low shutter speeds. This remarkable lens is also fast, with a wide angle aperture of f/2.8 and a telephoto aperture of f/3.3, further enhancing your ability to capture sharp images in marginal lighting conditions. I noticed an average amount of barrel distortion at full wide angle and slight pincushioning at full telephoto. However, I was surprised to see that there was very little chromatic aberration (purple fringing on highlights) in high-contrast areas.
Ergonomically the FZ4 is a well-designed camera, having a good secure feeling in your hands and well-placed controls that are easy to use but difficult to hit by accident. The camera's size and weight are smaller than you would expect given the aperture and focal length range of its lens. The FZ4, like most megazoom digicams, features both an LCD and EVF (Electronic ViewFinder.) The EVF is a miniature color LCD monitor located in the eyepiece that is magnified and made to have the users eye very close to it. This is a high-resolution EVF with very good color rendition and there's a diopter adjustment to match the user's eyesight. EVF's have their advantages over optical viewfinders, providing an accurate viewfinder image, a wealth of overlay exposure information, and the ability to play back images. They also have their disadvantages, including a delayed live image and "freezing" during continuous shooting; the FZ4's is no exception. Both the LCD and EVF worked well. When shooting outdoors, the LCD was bright enough to be usable on sunny days, but you'll prefer the EVF on the brightest of days with the sun at your back. Indoors in low-ambient lighting the viewfinders do not "gain up" but I was still able to frame the subject in most cases. In completely dark conditions the AF-assist will focus properly within its working range of up to about ten feet but you can't really see what you're aiming at as the viewfinder is totally dark.
The FZ4's shooting performance was quite robust. It took only 3.5 seconds to power on and capture the first image, and about 3 seconds to wake the FZ4 from its power-saving sleep mode. Shutter lag, the time between depressing the shutter release to actually capturing the image, measured approx. 1/10 of a second when pre-focused. Shutter lag including autofocus measured 1 second in 9-area AF mode, but only 4/10 in 1 or 3-area High Speed autofocus mode. Shutter lag times included approximately 1/10 attributable to the delay in the live image presented by either the LCD or EVF. In single frame mode, the shot-to-shot delay averaged only 8/10 second in High Speed AF mode, and 1.5 seconds in 9-area AF mode. Shot-to-shot times slowed to about 3.2 seconds shooting TIFF images. Flash recycle time ranged between 2 and 3.5 seconds depending on subject distance.
The FZ4 offers three burst (continuous) capture modes to choose from: High speed (4fps), Low speed (2fps), and No limit (2.5fps) Both High and Low speed modes captured 5 images before filling the FZ4's buffer, and took about 2 seconds before the next burst could be taken. No Limit mode allows you to continuously capture images, and is limited only by memory card capacity. Both the LCD and EVF viewfinders "froze" during continuous image capture, briefly displaying the last captured image rather than the live image. Because the FZ4 has no optical viewfinder, this behavior will limit your ability to follow a moving subject while shooting in burst mode. Our tests were done using a Transcend 60x 512MB 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.
Power is supplied 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 also includes their small DE-993 rapid AC charger. This charger will fully replenish a depleted battery pack in 90 minutes or less. During our testing, 1 bar remained on the battery condition indicator after FZ4 captured 280 images. As with all cameras that use a proprietary battery, we recommend that you purchase at least one extra battery pack; there's nothing more disappointing than missing a photo opt due to a dead battery. These packs are charged outside of the camera so it's easy to charge one and use another.
The overall image quality when using 4-megapixel Fine mode was good. Its Auto white balance setting worked well in a variety of conditions, with fine-tunable presets available for typical lighting conditions (sunny, cloudy, incandescent, fluorescent, etc.) and a custom manual setting. Outdoors the exposure system produced well-saturated and properly exposed images, although the FZ4 had a tendency to underexpose our beach samples. Both outdoor and indoors images showed colors that were very true to the original scene. At ISO 64 noise is absent, at ISO 100 and 200 it is detectable in shadow areas, and at ISO 400 noise is noticeable in shadows and detectable in highlight areas.
The FZ4's movie mode resolution trails the competition, offering only 320x240 at 30 or 10fps without sound when most offer a 640x480 resolution. The big zoom does help fill the frame with your moving subject, but the zoom can be used only to compose before, not during, recording. The FZ4's Optical Image Stabilizer can be used during movie recording.
Bottom line - The Lumix DMC-FZ4 will make an great choice for the family or tourist user, especially if you're shooting your children's sporting events. With its 12x optical zoom lens, you'll be able to fill the frame with distant subjects, and with its 4 fps continuous shooting, you'll get all the action. Its 4-megapixel Fine images have enough resolution to create quality 8x10-inch prints, even with some cropping. With an MSRP of $449, it offers a good overall value. If you like the FZ4's features but want more resolution, consider the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5; it offers 5-megapixels of resolution, adds sound recording to movies, and only costs $50 more.
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