The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150 could be the biggest threat yet to consumer-grade digital SLRs. Panasonic's latest superzoom packs a fold-out screen, HD movie recording and an impressive set of optics, yet its body remains compact and light. The specifications more than justify its £400 price tag and so, it would seem, does its output.
You can't miss the barrel on the front of the case. It's home to a monster 24x zoom that takes the lens from a landscape-loving 25mm to a tight 600mm (35mm equivalent). This is supplemented by a 4x digital zoom, but, with so much optical power at your fingers, it's a shame to invoke it. The lens is bright at its widest setting, too. Here, the aperture stretches to f2.8, narrowing to f8.0 at full zoom.
There are two zoom controls -- a cuff around the shutter release and a rocker on the side of the barrel. This is a neat move on Panasonic's part, as the cuff is most useful when using the rear-mounted LCD, and the rocker when your eye is pressed to the viewfinder. In the latter pose, your hands automatically change their position on the camera's body, gripping the barrel so that your left thumb instinctively falls onto the rocker.
The camera's resolution is fairly conservative. When shooting in a 4:3 aspect ratio, which matches non-wide-screen displays, it tops out at 12 megapixels. Switch to the more traditional, print-friendly 3:2 ratio and it drops to 10 megapixels. Either of these is good for printing at A2 sizes, which will suffice for most users, so it's refreshing to see a manufacturer selling its products on a more meaningful metric than pixels alone.
With a more powerful zoom but lower resolution than the industry average, how does the DMC-FZ150 perform when put to the test?
Shooting on a bright, cloudless day, we started with our regular outdoor scenery shots. The results were vivid, although never extreme. Grass remained a natural, neutral green, and the sky a vibrant blue, fading evenly as it closed in on the horizon. Detail was maintained across the frame, with engravings on gravestones close to the lens and distant architectural detail crisply rendered in the same shot. There was very slight fringing in some parts, where the sharp edge of stonework met the sky, but this was only evident when zoomed in to 100 per cent and, even then, only on close inspection.
So impressed were we by the results of this first test that we set the FZ150 a far more demanding chromatic aberration test, shooting a church gate against a low sun. Again, it passed with flying colours, with minor aberration evident in only one part of the image, to the right, where the roof ran through the light sky. The light spectrum was evenly focused throughout the rest of the image, with even the narrow metal cross on the roof of the gate crisply rendered.
We performed the majority of our tests using the 'intelligent auto' setting, allowing the camera to choose the focal distance, aperture and shutter speed itself. On the whole, this mode worked well, with only the most extreme examples of high contrast foxing it. White plumage on both a swan and a seagull shot against a dark background, in a frame where the background dominated, would sometimes be burned out as the camera metered for the overall tone of the shot.
But, when we allowed the camera to work with the feathers instead, the results were first-class. The detail in the close-up shot below of a swan cleaning its wing clearly shows the lie of its feathers and the individual vanes coming from each quill. Despite having very little colour data to work with, the FZ150 has produced a balanced, engaging and perfectly exposed result.
The camera's macro performance can't be faulted either, allowing us to get within 1cm of our subject to produce an image with a very short area of focus. Individual strands of fine cobwebs were perfectly rendered in our test, along with dust, sand and decaying wood. The quick fall-off in the area of focus helps draw the eye, for a very satisfying result overall.
Even the so-called 'creative' filters serve a genuine purpose. While we feel ourselves unlikely to use the pinhole or film-grain settings -- these effects can be achieved with greater flexibility in post-production -- we put the high-dynamic-range option to good use in shooting scenes where only part of the subject was well exposed.
In the example below, the dark canopy of a covered seating area dominates the shot, drawing the eye away from the scenery that's visible through it. But, after taking the image for a second time using the HDR tool (overlaid on the right-hand side of the image), the canopy has been considerably brightened. The FZ150's light touch pays dividends here, avoiding unsightly haloes around sharp contrasts, and retaining the shadow detail on the red brick wall below.
The HDR setting isn't a tool to be used without consideration, though. Applying the same setting when it wasn't required degraded the result. In the image below, the wall has again been brought out of the shadows, but the trees, which were evenly lit in the original, now appear to have been illuminated by a harsh light that hasn't quite reached the tips of each branch.
The dedicated 1080p movie mode is almost as flexible as its stills equivalent, with options for program AE, aperture and shutter priority, as well as manual exposure. For those who want to grab a few seconds of video in the middle of shooting stills, there's an automated quick movie button mounted behind the shutter release.
Movies are shot in wide-screen and written as an AVCHD stream. This mode changes the zoom's focal length slightly, to 28mm-672mm, 35mm equivalent -- but not its overall range. At its most extreme, you really need to use a tripod or balance the camera on a wall or bench, as can be seen from our handheld results below, for which we enabled the internal image stabiliser.
The captured images are pin-sharp, smooth, and look great when downloaded and played back in full screen. But the overall results are spoiled by excessive background noise, including wind noise, despite the fact that the wind-cut option was set to 'auto' (the only alternative is 'off').
Build quality and menus
The viewfinder is digital, not optical, and it's slightly grainy, too, so it's something of a disappointment. Flipping out the 3-inch LCD display switches off the viewfinder, and vice versa, but there's no need to fold everything back into place if you want to switch between them, as there's a handy viewfinder/LCD button behind the mode dial.
The panel itself is vivid and bright, and displays none of the graininess of the viewfinder. It's articulated to swivel through 360 degrees, so you can fold it back on itself in the style of a traditional camera display, or tilt it for creative overhead or low-level shots. Better yet, because it can also face forward, at which point it peeps around the side of the body, you can use it to frame yourself when taking timed shots against a scenic background, without all the usual guesswork.
There's a wealth of buttons for accessing the most common shooting tools, including shortcuts for movie recording, burst shooting, and focus and exposure locks.
The top-mounted mode dial has 14 settings, covering the usual bases -- shutter priority, aperture priority, manual exposure and so on -- alongside three custom settings, day and night portrait modes, and 'creative control'. Select the latter and you can use the aforementioned pinhole, film grain and miniature settings, among others.
Composing shots is a breeze, thanks to the 23 focus points, face tracking and a neat scalable metering area that lets you set both where the focal point should sit in your composition and how much of the frame should be used to gauge the correct exposure.
Venture beyond the intelligent auto setting and you'll quickly get to grips with an extremely well-implemented thumb wheel, which both rotates and presses. Each time you press it to confirm a selection, it simultaneously selects an alternative function. So, switch to either shutter or aperture priority and each press of the wheel switches you to EV compensation and either the shutter speed or aperture size. Opt for full manual, and it cycles through shutter and aperture in turn, saving you several tours of the menu.
This is good, as many of the menus are over-long and need to be broken down into sub-sections. The set-up menu alone runs to seven pages, and, while the set button confirms an action (and enters the menus themselves), if you mistakenly press this to step down a level into a function, you're instead thrown out of the menu altogether. You should instead press right. This division of tasks takes some getting used to.
The same dual controls are evident elsewhere. Switch to manual focus and start making adjustments with the thumb wheel, and you can subsequently switch to left and right on the four-way pad if you find that easier. Skip the thumb wheel and start out with left and right, though, and you'll actually step into ISO or timer settings instead. Greater consistency would be welcome.
The camera shoots to SD, SDHC and SDXC cards, and has a generous 70MB of built-in storage, which is sufficient for 15 shots, or 1 minute and 50 seconds of video, each at the highest resolution.
Sensitivity runs to ISO 3,200 in the normal scheme of things, and can be pushed to 6,400 in high-sensitivity mode, with +/-3EV compensation in 1/3EV steps. There's full manual control over exposure, as well as aperture and shutter priority auto exposure if you'd rather battle with only half of the equation.
There are plenty of tools to help you take better shots, including a grid of thirds and live histogram. Switch from auto to manual focusing and, as you change the focal length using the thumb wheel, the centre of the image zooms on the LCD to give you a closer look. Believe us, you'll need this feature. Even with this assistance, we found it very difficult to hit the right spot.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150 is an impressive piece of kit, let down only slightly by the intrusive wind noise we experienced in our videos, and the viewfinder. In packing such a long zoom into so small a body, Panasonic has produced a great piece of kit for roaming snappers who don't want to carry a bag full of lenses on their travels. The FZ150 is versatile, light, flexible and up to the job of capturing just about anything you'd care to point it at, without either getting in your way or leaving you liable to fees for excess baggage at the airport.
Edited by Charles Kloet