From the company that brought us the Toughbook comes the Lumix FT3, Panasonic’s rugged go-anywhere camera. It’s waterproof to 12m (so long as you remember to lock the battery door) and shock-proof when dropped from 2m. You can even freeze it to −10C. But how does this £329 snapper perform in less demanding situations?
Build quality and handling
Front and back, the FT3 is a slab of tough metal, with plastic detailing top and bottom. The lens, which protrudes from the fattest point by just 1mm, is protected by a window to keep out any damp, yet Panasonic warns that it can still develop condensation when moved from cold to warm environments (think slopes to apres-ski, where you’ll probably want to take bar shots) or if it's used under water shortly after being hot (so, at the beach).
The lens is mounted in the upper-right corner, which is awkward if you’re holding the camera with both hands -- particularly when panning a video shot, where we found our fingers occasionally straying into the frame.
Around the back, there’s a 2.7-inch screen that’s vibrant and easy to view, even in bright sunlight. It can be set to power down after two, five or 10 minutes. We set it to five to stress the battery, and although we never switched off manually, we got back from a full afternoon of shooting with the battery gauge still showing a full charge. It takes a little over two hours to replenish, at which point it’s good for 360 pictures or 180 minutes of video.
A small lump in the top of the case houses an integrated GPS receiver, which was more than a match for our dedicated handheld GPS device. This geotags your photos, and you can opt to have location information displayed on screen in a number of formats, including place names or landmarks.
We chose the latter, which are drawn from a database of a million points of interest -- in our area this included a kids’ playground and even a branch of Matalan. The database was last updated in December 2010 and can’t be revised once it’s in the camera, although you can add a selection of your own landmarks, named however you see fit.
The GPS feature is a smart addition, but it does have a couple of drawbacks. First, it remains active even when the camera is switched off, periodically updating its position and drawing a small charge from the battery. You’ll need to remember to disable it every time you power down to avoid this. Second, and of greater concern for more intrepid travellers, is that it’s illegal to take GPS-enabled devices into some countries, and the signal may be blocked in China and those parts of other countries that run along its borders. Check before you travel.
The FT3 has much to recommend it, but many of its pros are evenly matched by its cons. Start-up takes less than a second -- good news for sports fans -- but the zoom is slow enough to miss whatever you’re after. It has 19MB of built-in memory, but this is enough for just three shots at the highest quality, and while there are separate shutter buttons for stills and video, switching from one to the other invokes a two-second pause. A manual mode switch might have been quicker.
That said, once settled in either mode, it’s responsive. Recovery time between shots in our tests was two seconds when using the internal storage or a regular SD card, and one second using class 4 SDHC storage. If you need anything faster, there’s a Hi-Speed Burst mode that can write up to 100 pictures at a rate of 10 per second, but only if you drop the resolution to three megapixels or lower. If you’re doing this with the flash, the maximum number of stills recorded is five.
There’s a full complement of flash modes, with on, off and auto supplemented by red eye reduction and slow sync, which balances both foreground and background in poorly-lit scenes.
The flash was a particular highlight of the FT3. In our portrait test it retained realistic flesh tones and came close to replicating the results of our studio-lit shot for which the flash was suppressed. As can be seen from our test shot, the ambient lighting conditions in our test environment were particularly poor during our tests, forcing the camera to increase its sensitivity setting to ISO to 400, which resulted in a grainy image.
Sensitivity ranges from ISO 100 to ISO 1,600, and the six pre-set resolutions top out at 4,000 x 3,000 pixels -- 12 megapixels. You’ll have to look hard to find much in the way of chromatic aberration (improperly rendered colours); it’s there, but only in extreme examples where fine branches stretch out across a plain sky. Elsewhere, where black window frames sat on an overcast sky, the FT3 perfectly aligned each colour for a crisp, impressive result.
The Leica lens boasts an impressive range, despite being captive inside the body. Equivalent at its widest to 28mm in a 35mm camera, and zooming to 128mm, it’s a decent all-rounder for those who want to shoot as many landscapes as they do wildlife and family shots. Even the 4x digital zoom is impressively clean. Minimum focal distance is 5cm in macro mode, which isn’t available when using the Intelligent Auto preset, and 30cm in all other situations.
Macro performance is particularly impressive. Exposure is perfectly balanced across the frame, with a shallow depth of field throwing anything but the focal point slightly out for a very pleasing result.
There are five autofocus modes, including face detection and AF Tracking, which follows the focused subject as it moves within the frame. With a total of 23 focal points across the sensor it was quick to lock onto subjects throughout our tests, in both Intelligent Auto and scene modes.
Detail was well resolved in all lighting conditions, as can be seen from our static scene, with the flash again coming close to replicating a studio lighting set-up.
There are 26 scene modes to choose from, and while some are of value -- portrait, night scenery and aerial, for example, the latter for taking pictures through aircraft windows -- others are of less immediate value. Pet scene, for instance, supplements its exposure setting with the option to enter your animal’s birthday so its age can be added to the shot.
Further, while film grain achieves a fully organic result by ramping up the ISO to its maximum 1,600, HDR should be used with care. Using the Art variant, colours in our test shots were over-saturated, and sharp contrasts where trees met the sky were haloed.
The panorama assist is half-hearted, previewing the edge of your previous shot so you can align it with the next, but leaving you to stitch them manually after downloading the results onto your computer.
There’s a 3D shooting mode, too. Sweep the camera back and forth through a 10cm arc and it’ll pick the two most appropriate frames to construct the image. Played back on the camera itself, it’ll obviously only be rendered as a flat 2D shot, as you need a 3D-enabled TV to render it in its full glory.
There’s an HDMI-out port behind the battery flap for plugging the camera directly into a compatible television, and if you have a Panasonic Viera model you can use the company’s Viera Link to control it remotely.
There are two movie modes: QuickTime Motion JPEG, optimised for computer use, and AVCHD at a maximum of 1,920x1,080, 50 frames per second interlaced. We used the latter in our tests, and the results were impressive.
The slow zoom comes into its own here, as it’s smooth and quiet. Its physical range of movement is so small that it isn’t picked up on the movie soundtrack, and the wind noise reduction setting will reduce unwanted distractions yet further. We found it to be particularly good at picking up quiet sounds close to the camera even against a noisier backdrop, such as the cheeping of a duckling close to a busy road.
The image stabiliser was good for ironing out small shakes in highly-zoomed handheld footage, but wasn’t up to the job of smoothing video shots while walking. There’s a standard tripod mount on the base of the unit if you’d rather use this to steady your shots, and rudimentary editing tools for splitting video and retrieving grabs from still frames in the movie stream.
The FT3 is a lifestyle camera, perfectly suited to outdoors use. Look no further if your life is a concert of backpack travel, shallow snorkelling and rough sports; it’s man enough to withstand the inevitable knocks and scrapes that will come its way.
For anyone living a more sedentary life, or who wants an all-round snapper for daily use, this probably isn’t it, which is a shame as in any other casing its creative filters deserve to draw a crowd. The FT3’s slow zoom, dull-feeling buttons and awkwardly-positioned lens meant we spent more time thinking about how -- rather than what -- we were shooting.