The most notable feature on the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX7 is its optical image stabilisation, a rarity on ultracompact cameras. While optical stabilisation is often used to steady long zooms that are prone to producing blurry images caused by camera shake, it can be equally useful in counteracting the lack of steadiness inherent in holding a lightweight camera at arm's length to shoot.
There are two OIS modes on the Lumix DMC-FX7, and they're available for both still shots and video. Mode 1 is active all the time -- similar to continuous autofocus -- while Mode 2 remains at standby until you press the shutter release, offering, according to Panasonic, a greater degree of stabilisation. Both modes make it possible to hand-hold this camera at a shutter speed two or more settings lower than would normally be practical; if you're able to get sharp images at 1/30 second, the OIS feature gives similar steadiness at 1/8 second. Of course, stabilisation does nothing to freeze subject motion and adds shutter lag to the picture-taking process. OIS can be switched off when not needed to improve performance or when the camera is mounted on a tripod.
The Leica DC Vario-Elmarit 3x zoom lens offers a practical 35mm-to-105mm focal-length range (35mm-camera equivalent) and provides dual apertures of f/2.8 and f/5 at the wide-angle setting and f/5 and f/10 when cranked out to telephoto.
The lens focuses down to 50mm in macro mode, and you can choose from single-point, three-point, or nine-point autofocus, plus spot focus. You won't find any manual exposure adjustments available beyond EV settings; the multisegment/spot-metering system will select the correct aperture and choose a shutter speed from 8 seconds to 1/2,000 of a second. There is, however, an autobracketing option to let you try out different exposure combinations automatically.
A limited number of fun features are available, including a flip animation mode that can capture 100 images at 320x240 resolution to create as long as 20 seconds of jerky animation. Unfortunately, video clips are limited to the same resolution at your choice of 10fps or 30fps, with audio. You can add as much as 10 seconds of audio annotation to photos, along with cool, warm, black-and-white, or sepia special effects.
Auto review has a useful zoom feature, which lets you magnify an image 2x, 4x, 8x or 16x using the zoom lever, and the LCD also displays a little navigator window representing the full image area, with a scrollable outline showing the part of the picture currently enlarged.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX7's performance figures were generally quite good, especially in the shutter-lag arena, where the camera clocked a good 0.6-second timing under high-contrast lighting and a decent 0.9 seconds under more challenging low-contrast lighting, thanks to the built-in focus-assist lamp.
While this camera's burst mode wasn't among the fastest we've tested, it was certainly versatile. You can choose high-speed and low-speed bursts or an Infinity mode that cuts the capture rate in half but can continue shooting for as long as your memory card has space. We got 3 full-resolution shots in 1.7 seconds using low-speed burst mode and 7 shots in 4 seconds at 640x480 resolution in high-speed mode. The Infinity mode yielded about 19 shots per minute until our index finger tired.
The Lumix was slow to rouse from its slumber, requiring almost 5 seconds to wake up and report for duty. Once powered up, it snapped off photos every 2.4 seconds without flash and every 4.2 seconds with the speed light switched on.
The big LCD viewfinder was easier to use under medium to bright light levels than it was in dim light. The viewer doesn't gain up in low light, making viewing of poorly lit subjects difficult. It did work well outdoors under all conditions except direct sunlight.
The built-in electronic flash fills the frame with anaemic but even illumination out to about 4m at the wide-angle setting at ISO 400 and only 2.2m at telephoto. The slow-sync flash option is particularly useful when combined with image stabilisation to brighten the background in flash pictures.
Most photographers will be very pleased with the images that the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX7 camera produces, even when making A4 or larger prints. As expected, the Leica lens produced sharp, detail-filled images, with less distortion and fewer chromatic aberrations than we've seen in some other cameras in this class. Image defects, such as they were, seemed to be attributable more to the sensor and processing system than to the lens. For example, while images were generally well exposed and full of detail in both shadows and highlights, a bit of noise was visible even at ISO 100 and became more obvious when we boosted sensitivity to ISO 400. JPEG artefacts also showed up under high magnification.
Colours were generally quite accurate, if slightly muted, with the exception of some greens in grass and foliage, which were often too harsh. Flesh tones were sometimes a little yellow. The automatic white-balance controls did a good job indoors and out, but the camera's red-eye-reduction system didn't totally eliminate reddish pupils.
Edited by Aimee Baldridge
Additional editing by Nick Hide