Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ1 Review
In an entry-level point-n-shoot digicam market dominated by "me-too" 3x optical
zoom 4 and 5-megapixel compact cameras, Panasonic has moved beyond the ordinary
with their 2005 models, the LZ1 and LZ2, equipping them
with a 6x optical zoom lens and image stabilization. With its Simple and Scene
modes, the 4-megapixel LZ1 automates all of its exposure functions, allowing the beginner
to concentrate on the picture, not the camera. Normal mode gives the more experienced
user control of white balance, ISO, focusing modes and image processing options,
but the advanced user will not find aperture priority, shutter priority or
manual exposure modes.
While its size is not ultra-compact, the LZ1 can easily be carried in a pocket or purse, its 6x optical zoom lens neatly retracting into the body. The back of the camera is dominated by its large 2-inch LCD monitor, the only viewfinder. It was effective for menu navigation, image review and as a viewfinder in the bright Florida sun, but it fails to "gain-up" in marginal lighting, sometimes limiting its effectiveness indoors. The LZ1's controls are well-placed, being easy to use and not subject to accidental activation. The menu system was simple to use, providing ample control over the camera's limited functions.
The Lumix DC-VARIO 6x optical zoom lens offers a lot of flexibility in composing your shots with its 37-222mm (35mm equivalent) focal length range. The LZ1's 35mm wide-angle provides a field of view sufficient for most indoor group portraits and outdoor landscapes shots. Its 222mm telephoto extreme enables you to bring distant subjects much closer than the competition, and the MEGA O.I.S. (Optical Image Stabilization) helps reduce the occurrence of camera shake at longer focal lengths and slower shutter speeds. O.I.S. proved to be very effective, allowing me to capture consistently sharp images at relatively slow shutter speeds; you'll be more concerned with subject movement than camera shake using O.I.S. The lens exhibits a bit of barrel distortion at full wide angle, but virtually no distortion at moderate and telephoto focal lengths. A slight degree of chromatic aberration (purple fringing in high contrast areas) was present at all focal lengths, but not enough to be concerned about. Unlike other Panasonic digicams, the LZ1's lens does not carry the Leica brand, and sharpness suffered a bit; it produced images that were sharp at the centers, but a bit soft at the edges.
Shooting performance was good. From power up to first image captured measured about 4 seconds. Shutter lag was almost absent when pre-focused, measuring less than 1/10 second. However, the LCD viewfinder delay's the live image by about 1/10 second, so lag including viewfinder delay was about 1/10 second. Lag with autofocus measured 8/10 second including viewfinder delay. Rapid shooting in single exposure mode captured images at 2 second intervals without flash, and between 4 and 9 second intervals with flash, depending on subject distance. The LZ1 offers three Burst mode settings to choose from (Low-speed, High-speed, No-limit.) Using the Low-speed setting, I was able to capture 4 frames in about 1.5 seconds. High-speed captured 4 frames in approx. 8/10 second. No-limit mode allows you to continuously capture frames at about 1.7fps, limited only by available memory. Our tests were done using a Sandisk Ultra II 256MB SD card, shooting in "Normal" mode, size/quality set at 2304x1728/Fine, 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 2304/Fine mode was only average. The majority or our outdoor test shots were sharp and properly exposed, but noise was detectable in shadow areas even at the camera's lowest sensitivity, ISO 64. In addition, the LZ1 applies more sharpening than I care for, compounding the effects of noise. Image noise is quite noticeable at ISO 100, and objectionable at ISO 200 and 400. While users of the camera's Normal exposure mode can limit noise by selecting ISO 64, beginners who use Simple and Scene modes will be disappointed when the camera selects ISO 200 or higher. Outdoor portraits were well exposed with natural skin tones; indoor flash portraits were largely without red eyes when red eye reduction flash mode was used. Although not equipped with a focus-assist lamp, the LZ1's autofocus system performed reasonably well in average room lighting at wide angle; zooming into the telephoto range reduces the lens aperture and autofocus fails more frequently. The flash range is limited at low ISO settings (under 6 feet at ISO 64, 7 feet at ISO 100); the range increases at ISO 200 and 400, but so does image noise. The flash does "throttle down" when using Macro mode, ensuring that it will not over-expose the subject.
The LZ1's movie mode captures 320x240 clips without sound at either 10 or 30 frames per second, lagging the competition's 640x480 resolution. The 6x optical zoom lens can be used to compose the movie before, but not during, recording. The LZ1's image stabilization feature is effective in movie mode, and especially useful at the telephoto end of the zoom range.
Bottom line - Panasonic's Lumix DMC-LZ1 is an interesting alternative in the entry-level digicam market; its combination of a 6x optical zoom lens, 4-megapixel resolution and image stabilization is unique in the under-$250 category. This is a point-n-shoot that can be used by any member of the family, but the results in any of its automatic modes can be compromised by image noise if the camera chooses a sensitivity higher than ISO 100. With a street price of under $250, its combination of features seems compelling, but you'll need to limit ISO to 100 or 64 to realize its best results. If you like the LZ1's features but prefer greater resolution and movies with sound, consider the Panasonic DMC-LZ2; you'll get 5-megapixels of resolution for only $50 more, but you'll find more noise in its ISO 80 images, and its continuous shooting performance is less robust.
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