Depending on how you use your photos, you'll either be thrilled or disappointed with the 12.1-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS15. For around £130, you get a good-looking ultra-compact camera with plenty of automatic shooting options and a couple of noteworthy features, such as a 29mm-equivalent wideangle lens with a 5x zoom. The DMC-FS15's shutter lag is slightly too long for snapping moving subjects and its photo quality isn't good enough for large prints, but, if your subjects keep still and your prints are smaller than 5 by 7 inches, you'll probably like this camera.
The DMC-FS15's brushed metal casing (available in blue, black and silver) with chrome accents keeps it from looking too generic. The blue version will probably get some second glances, but it otherwise looks like the basic point-and-shoot camera that it is. It's reasonably thin and lightweight, too, so there'll be no problems putting it in a trouser pocket or small bag.
The controls are simple enough so that out-of-the-box use shouldn't be a problem for those familiar with digital cameras. A switch for powering the camera on and off sits on top, next to the shutter release and zoom ring. There's also a small button for quickly changing to Panasonic's 'intelligent auto' mode, which determines the most suitable scene mode and helps correct any blurring, focus and brightness issues.
On the back, to the top right of the LCD display, is a switch to go from shooting to playback. Below that, to the left, is a mode button. Again, it's all pretty simple. The only confusing part may be the 'quick menu' button on the back, at the lower right. This brings up a vertical bar of shooting-mode-sensitive options. If what you're looking to adjust isn't there, a general 'menu/set' button sits at the centre of the four navigational buttons that double as exposure, flash, macro and timer controls.
The DMC-FS15 is heavy on auto-shooting features, so don't expect controls over aperture or shutter speed. In 'normal picture' mode, you get the most control over results, with settings for focus, light metering, colour effects, white balance, ISO and exposure. You also get access to Panasonic's 'intelligent ISO' for limiting the sensitivity to a maximum of ISO 400, 800 or 1,600. Due to the poor photo results at ISO 1,600, we recommend using the 'ISO max 800' setting for low-light situations, and 'ISO max 400' for bright conditions.
The DMC-FS15 has 26 scene modes. The list includes familiar ones, like 'portrait', 'landscape' and 'night scenery', and more unusual artistic options, like 'pinhole' and 'film grain' (the last two are limited to shots of 3 megapixels and below). A 'my scene' option is also available, letting you associate a favourite scene mode with a spot in the shooting-mode menu. The fully automatic intelligent-auto mode gets a spot on the shooting menu, too. There's a movie mode capable of capturing VGA-quality video clips, but there's no use of the optical zoom while recording.
No speed demon
The DMC-FS15's performance falls in line with the majority of cameras in its price range. Start-up time is 2 seconds, with shot-to-shot times averaging 3.1 seconds without flash and 3.3 seconds with. From focus to capture in bright lighting conditions takes a long 0.7 seconds. In dim lighting, the time goes up to a more typical 1 second. Speed-wise, the only thing the camera does well is burst-shooting, at 1.8 frames per second.