Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ20 Review

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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ20

Steve's Conclusion

Holding the "top of the line" spot of Panasonic's Lumix "FZ" series (as of 10/2004), the DMC-FZ20 incorporates many of the features like the Leica 12x Mega O.I.S (Optical Image Stabilizer) zoom lens found on its predecessor the DMC-FZ10, but adds more resolution with a 5-megapixel imager, a lossless TIFF quality format, a focus-assist lamp to aid its AF system in low light, and increases performance with its Venus Engine II LSI image processor.

It offers an exposure mode that fits the experience level of every user in your household. While it will continue to appeal to the beginner with its easy-to-use Program AE exposure mode, Panasonic has addressed the needs of the intermediate and advanced users with flexible exposure modes and advanced features. In addition, it offers aperture-priority, shutter-priority and full manual control. Settings are 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 and flash compensation settings can be directly accessed by pressing "up" on the 4-way controller while in any shooting mode.

As with past Lumix "FZ" models, I was pleased with the ergonomics of the FZ20. 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). It features both an LCD and like most all "Super Zoom" cameras an 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. Both displays worked well. 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. Indoors in low-ambient lighting the EVF does 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 ten feet or so but you can't really see what you're aiming at as the viewfinder is totally dark. The viewfinder data 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 FZ20 enlarges the center of the image, which enables you to accurately determine focus. The FZ20 offers even more help by allowing you to momentarily activate AF, providing a good starting point for your manual focus effort.

The FZ20 is quite the performer. Power up to first image captured measured just under 5 seconds, most of which is consumed by extending the lens. The all important shutter lag (time between depressing the shutter release to actually capturing the image) measure approx. 1/10 of a second when pre-focused and 6/10 of a second including autofocus. In single frame mode, the shot-to-shot delay averaged only 1.4 seconds without the using the flash, and 1.6 seconds with the flash. When using TIFF mode, it slows down to about 3.5 seconds between frames. The FZ20 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 9/10 of a second. In Low speed mode, I captured 4 frames in about 1.3 seconds. No limit mode allows you to continuously capture images, and is limited only by memory card capacity. In both burst and single exposure modes, it takes less than 2 seconds to process a full buffer. Like most cameras that feature a burst mode, the LCD and EVF "froze" during burst mode capture; you will be unable to follow the action while shooting in burst mode because there is no optical viewfinder. 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.

The most dominant feature of the FZ20 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 O.I.S 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. 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. However, we recommend you use a camera support like a tripod or monopod whenever using the telephoto capabilities of a camera, even if they have some sort of image stabilization. This will also help eliminate the affects of camera shake. We did noticed an average amount of barrel distortion at full wide angle, with slight pincushioning at full telephoto. There was also an average amount of chromatic aberration (purple fringing on highlights) in high-contrast areas, however it is quite a bit less than when compared to other "super zoom" models in this price range.

We were pleased with the overall image quality when using 2560x1920 (5- megapixel) Fine mode. With its 12x zoom you can get close to the action, even at the other end of the football 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 14.7MB. Noise levels were average in high and low contrast areas, but you can only see this noise when looking at a 100% enlarged image. This is something that most users will not see, especially when printing the typical 4x6-inch print.

Indoors it also performs well. With its focus-assist lamp, the FZ20'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. When shooting indoors, its 36mm wide angle extreme and powerful flash should be sufficient for most indoor situation. If you need a more powerful flash, simply connect one to its built-in flash hot shoe. The FZ20 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.

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.) We had no problems capturing all of our sample images (over 150 shots) and concluding our other tests on a single charge. 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.

Bottom line - the Lumix DMC-FZ20 is a great addition to the Panasonic family. With its great image quality, speedy performance, and reasonable price tag of $599, its sure to make a great gift idea for your holiday gift list. If this is out of your price range and you'd still like to have a similar camera, 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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