By Matt Metzker
While the ZR3 is not what we'd consider an ultra-compact, it is still very pocketable measuring just 3.85 x 2.15 x 1.02 inches and weighing in at 5.6 ounces with battery and card installed. This is quite impressive when you consider it's packing an 8x zoom. The right hand side is enlarged, which offers a nice comfortable grip. This also allows for one handed shooting and zooming. With some practice, you could also start recording video with one hand thanks to the dedicated movie mode record button. It's located a bit further down, which isn't the easiest to push when using just one hand. All of the other controls are well placed, however the buttons are quite small. If you've owned a Lumix camera in the past, you'll be right at home with the onscreen menus. They are logically organized, and depending on the mode being used offer as little, or as many options as you'd like. The 2.7-inch LCD screen was a pleasure to use, wth a nice bright display that makes it usable in most lighting situations. The surface is a bit reflective at times, and also collects fingerprints very easily. However, these never caused any issues with us seeing our subjects in various conditions.
The ZR3's image quality is what we'd expect to see from a Panasonic camera, pretty awesome. We used the iAuto (intelligent Auto) exposure mode, and outdoors it helped the camera produce the best looking photos. They show rich colors, and pleasing sharpness and contrast. Exposure can be a bit strong at times, as can be seen with the blown out highlights in our local WWII Cannon photo. When shooting indoors, the ZR3 also did well, especially with close-up portraits. Again, we used iAuto, which produced the best photos in our opinion. Since the ISO is fully automatic even in Program mode (you can limit the highest setting however), there's no real benefit in using it over the capable iAuto mode. Noise levels are slightly above average for a compact camera, so you can be confident that the ZR3 will capture decent photos in lower lighting. The POWER O.I.S. system also helps reduce camera shake quite well when shooting indoors without the flash. For instances where a flash it needed, the camera controls the output nicely; just don't expect to illuminate and entire room with it.
The 8x wide optical zoom lens offers a nice versatile 25-200mm equivalent zoom range. This will afford you a great deal of framing possibilities, from tight close-ups to large groups or vast landscapes. Overall the lens helps the camera produce sharp photos throughout the zoom range with moderate barrel distortion at the wide angle end; which is typical with all consumer models. One new feature on the ZR3 is the Intelligent Zoom function. This is automatically enabled in iAuto mode (you can not turn it off) and is optional in Program mode via the record menu. This extends the effective zoom range to 10x, kind of like an intelligent digital zoom. We tested this function on our usual Museum subject, and found that even at full 10x, the ZR3 captured pleasing photos. Resolution is left unchanged, so when at 10x you are still recording 14-megapixels. At first we were a bit Leary to recommend using this function, however it seems over all the years they have perfected digital zoom quite well. I do however only recommend using this Intelligent Zoom option. The ZR3 also offers Extra Optical Zoom, which takes the range out to 16.9x. This is sure to show a noticeable decrease in image quality compared the Intelligent Zoom, not to mention reduces the max. resolution.
Like most Lumix models, the ZR3 allows you to capture their standard Motion JPEG movies at 848x480 (WVGA), 640x480 (VGA) and 320x240 (QVGA) with sound. Like many new models, the ZR3 also allows for 720p (1280x720) Motion JPEG videos. To further enhance the ZR3, Panasonic has added an AVCHD Lite HD mode, which offers the same quality as Motion JPEG with much smaller files sizes (about 60% smaller). You can also use the optical zoom while recording, which is still not a standard feature on digicams these days. Our videos look good when you consider that this is a pocket camera. Even in lower lighting, there was minimal noise. The only complaints I have are they videos could have been a bit sharper, and the camera did have some issues with the strong lighting entering the room from the window.
Powering the ZR3 is a small 3.6V, 895mAh rechargeable Li-Ion battery pack. Battery life was a bit short of Panasonic's claim of 330 photos on a single charge. It only allowed us to capture about 200 photos on a single charge, and we then had to charge the battery in order to finish up our photos, along with our usual tests. We recommend you add a second battery pack to your purchase if possible. This is not "mandatory", as 200 photos is a good amount, however it will help ensure you don't miss a unique photo opportunity due to a dead battery.
Bottom Line - Panasonic's Lumix DMC-ZR3 is a very nice compact camera. This unit offers the benefits of a small pocket-size camera, with some of the versatility of a super-zoom with it's 8x optical zoom and Intelligent Zoom function. The camera captures pleasing photos and video in various shooting conditions, and also does well in lower lighting. Not to mention the ZR3 is quite fast for a camera in this price range. With a MSRP of about US$300, the ZR3 is on the higher end of the price scale, however we feel it's well worth the extra coin.
Panasonic has announced an updated firmware for the Lumix DMC-ZR3
Details - Lumix DMC-ZR3 Firmware Update Version 1.1 (06/28/2010).
This update adds the following improvements:
- Optimization of Light amount for INON external flash (S-2000/D-2000/Z-240)