Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ15 Review

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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ15

Steve's Conclusion

The DMC-FZ15 is Panasonic's mid-range entry in it's 2004 Lumix "FZ" series of super zoom consumer digicams, between the 5-megapixel DMC-FZ20, and the 3-megapixel DMC-FZ3. The DMC-FZ15 incorporates many of its siblings features, including the Leica 12x Mega O.I.S (Optical Image Stabilizer) zoom lens and robust shooting performance, but offers a maximum resolution of 4-megapixels. The FZ15's operation can be as simple or complex as you want, with Programmed Auto Exposure ans Scene modes to satisfy the needs of the beginner to intermediate user, and a broad range of controls and exposure modes demanded by the advanced photographer.

The most dominant feature of the FZ15 is its 12x Leica Vario-Elmarit optical zoom lens, with a focal length coverage of 36-432mm in 35mm equivalence. It uses Panasonic's Mega Optical Image Stabilization technology, which reduces the effect of camera shake in your long telephoto shots, and makes the camera capable of taking handheld shots in lower light levels and at slower shutter speeds without using the flash. In field use, O.I.S. proved to be very effective, producing a high percentage of blur-free shots in conditions that would otherwise have required the use of a tripod; our sample photos of the volleyball player and lunar eclipse are good examples of the benefits of O.I.S. for your handheld shots.

This remarkable lens also maintains a fast f/2.8 aperture throughout the entire zoom range, further enhancing your ability to capture sharp images in marginal lighting conditions. I counted over 80 steps in the zoom mechanism between full wide angle and full telephoto, more than enough for you to carefully compose your shots. The lens produced a noticeable amount of barrel distortion at full wide angle, with slight pincushioning at full telephoto. It produced surprisingly little chromatic aberration (purple fringing on highlights) in high-contrast areas throughout the zoom range. Images were sharp from corner to corner throughout most of the zoom zoom range; there was some loss of sharpness at the edges at full telephoto.

The FZ15 is a robust performer. Power up to first image captured measured 4.5 seconds, most of which is consumed by extending the lens; waking the camera from its power-saving sleep mode took the same 4.5 seconds. Shutter lag, the time between depressing the shutter release to actually capturing the image, measured approx. 1/10 of a second when pre-focused and 3/10 of a second including autofocus; those times were measured using both the LCD and EVF, which impose a slight delay in the presentation of the live image. In single frame mode, the shot-to-shot delay averaged only 8/10 second without the using the flash, and 1.2 to 4 seconds with the flash, depending on subject distance. When using TIFF mode, it slows down to about 3.5 seconds between frames.

The FZ15 offers three burst (continuous) capture modes to choose from: High speed (4fps), Low speed (2fps), and No limit (2fps.) Using High speed mode, I was able to capture 5 frames in about 1.1 seconds, with a 3 second delay before the next sequence could be taken. In Low speed mode, I captured 5 frames in about 2 seconds, with a 1.5 second delay before the camera was ready for the next shot. In No Limit, the FZ15 captured images continuously at a rate of one every 4/10 second. Our tests were done using a Sandisk Ultra II 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.

Like most consumer super zooms, the FZ15 has no optical viewfinder; you have a choice of using the LCD or eye-level Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) with diopter adjustment. The two are equally functional, useful for composing and reviewing your shots, and to access the camera's menu system; they are both bright and resolute. When shooting outdoors, the LCD has very few angles that reflect the sun, and the eyepiece of the EVF is deep enough to keep out ambient light. However in conditions of low-ambient lighting, the EVF does not "gain up" or intensify the image, sometimes making shot composition difficult. The viewfinder data/histogram overlay shows as much or as little exposure information as you want; simply press the Display button until the viewfinder meets your needs. One thing I really like about these cameras is the Manual focusing feature. To focus manually, slide the lens focus switch to MF, then rotate the focus ring on the lens. As you rotate the ring, the FZ15 enlarges the center of the image, which enables you to accurately determine focus. The FZ15 offers even more help by allowing you to momentarily activate AF, providing a good starting point for your manual focus effort.

With its powerful 12x zoom and robust shooting performance, the FZ15 screams to be used as a sports shooter, but it suffers from a problem common to most super zoom consumer digicams, interruption of the live image on the EVF and LCD viewfinders during autofocus and continuous shooting. During AF, the FZ15 freezes its viewfinder display. Although its AF delay measured only 3/10 second, that's an eternity when you're trying to capture even a moderately fast moving subject. Your best results will be obtained when you can predict subject movement, and pre-focus on an area where the subject will be. Burst shooting presents another issue; the FZ15's viewfinder goes blank except for a brief instant when it displays the last image captured. While this is better than blanking for the entire duration of the burst, it is useful only when you can predict the movement of your subject. I don't mean to be overly critical of Panasonic; as I said, these issues are common among consumer super zooms. It's just that the FZ15 has such a nice lens/performance combination that it's a shame that Panasonic hasn't solved these viewfinder issues.

While its automatic and scene modes appeal to the beginner, the FZ15 will be most appreciated by intermediate and advanced users because of its flexible exposure modes and advanced features. In addition to Programmed Auto, it offers aperture-priority, shutter-priority and full manual exposure modes. The camera's meter continues to operate in Manual mode, providing an indication of under/over exposure in the viewfinder to help find the correct settings. Settings are easily changed by first pressing the Exposure button, then using the 4-way controller to affect aperture and shutter speed values. There's even a Program Shift function which allows you to modify the automatic exposure settings chosen by Program AE mode. In addition, exposure compensation, auto bracketing (both White Balance and Exposure) and flash compensation settings can be directly accessed by pressing "up" on the 4-way controller while in any shooting mode. Menu settings allow control of White Balance, ISO, metering mode, and AF mode. Contrast, Sharpness, Saturation and level of Noise Reduction also fall under the control of the FZ15's logically-organized menu system.

As with past Lumix "FZ" models, I was pleased with the ergonomics of the FZ15. It is small enough to be considered a "compact super zoom", yet is large enough to give it a good secure feeling in your hands. The controls are easy to use and clearly labeled as to their function(s). 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. The claimed battery life is approx. 240 still pictures when using the color LCD and approx. 270 still pictures using the EVF (based on CIPA standards.) Our test FZ15 exceeded Panasonic's claims, capturing 315 shots before the battery was depleted. As with all cameras that use a proprietary battery, we recommend that you purchase at least one extra battery pack; there's nothing more aggravating then 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.

We were pleased with the overall image quality when using 2304x1728 (4- megapixel) Fine mode. With its 12x zoom you can get close to the action, even at the other end of the soccer field. The autofocus system and lens produced consistently sharp results, although there's some loss of sharpness at the edge of the image when using its telephoto capabilities. Our outdoor images were consistently well-exposed and richly saturated right out of the camera, but you can override the degree of sharpness, contrast and saturation using the camera's menu system. If you have a large memory card, you can also use the camera's TIFF quality setting, this is a lossless format that uses a low compression ratio to ensure you don't lose detail, but beware because the average file size is 11.68MB.

Indoors it also performs well. With its focus-assist lamp, the FZ15's autofocus system is able to focus on your subject in low-ambient lighting to almost total darkness. We welcome this upgrade and are glad Panasonic has heard user's cry for this feature. In completely dark conditions the AF-assist will focus properly within its working range of up to ten feet or so but you can't really see what you're aiming at as the viewfinder is totally dark. When shooting indoors, its 36mm wide angle extreme and powerful flash should be sufficient for most indoor situations. The FZ15 is effective at squelching its flash at close range, and has good macro focusing; it would be a good choice for taking product shots for inclusion on web pages or online auction listings.

The FZ15's movie mode is adequate for capturing family clips, but it does not record sound. Continuous autofocus can be enabled in movie mode, but the lens can not be zoomed while recording.

The Lumix DMC-FZ15 is a great addition to the Panasonic family. It has great image quality, speedy performance, and reasonable price tag of $499. As I mentioned earlier, my only disappointment with the FZ15 is the interruption of the live viewfinder image during autofocus and burst shooting - but that's true of all super zooms with electronic viewfinders today. That issue aside, the FZ15 is a worthy competitor in the super zoom class, and well worth your consideration. If you'd like an extra megapixel, flash hot shoe and the ability to record sound with your movies, consider the DMC-FZ20 for $100 more. Or if you'd like to save $100, check out our review of the 3-megapixel DMC-FZ3, which includes many of the features found on this camera, but can be had for about $399.

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