The 8-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 packs a monster-sized 18x zoom lens. There are cameras with higher megapixel counts for less than the FZ18's £250 price tag, but few have as many features. We tested to see if Panasonic had overreached itself, cramming so much into a compact package.
The giant Leica lens dominates the surprisingly lightweight body. There's a contoured grip for the right hand and a curved thumb rest. Other SLR-style features include a large, retro-styled silver mode wheel, a satisfyingly brisk pop-up flash and a viewfinder.
As on many superzooms it has an electronic viewfinder, but this 188,000 pixel EVF is better than most, giving decent real-time previews of your exposure alterations. The FZ18 also has a dioptre that allows you to dial the focus of the EVF to suit your eye. The viewfinder also protrudes slightly from the back of the camera, making it deeper but stopping you from plastering your face up against the 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD screen.
The FZ18 has so many useful features that we don't have the space to go over them all. Shutter priority, aperture priority and manual modes are available, as well as 14 scene modes. Odd choices include aerial photo mode and food mode, which surely can't be used often enough to merit first place in the menus. These are probably best ignored as the primary modes on the mode dial, like sport and landscape, have handy subsets such as indoor and outdoor.
Full manual mode and programmed manual mode give you an enormous amount of control over pictures. Another great feature is the ability to save your settings in three different customised modes.
The enormous zoom, equivalent to 28-504mm on a 35mm film camera, is extremely responsive and feels like it isn't moving in increments at all. It also reacts to the speed you move the zoom rocker, zooming faster when the zoom is pressed harder.
We especially like the calendar view in playback mode, which groups images by date, and the quick shooting menu intuitively controlled by the dinky little joystick.
The FZ18 gives images that are crisp and vibrant. Exposures are well-handled and colours are rich and natural, although dynamic range is not as wide as we'd like, leading to some blown-out highlights. The huge lens shows almost no sign of distortion, even at the wide end.
Normal burst mode explodes out of the block with 2 frames per second -- for four shots. Switching to unlimited burst mode is more satisfying, filling a 2GB SanDisk Ultra II memory card in one go by snapping for 6 minutes and 32 seconds and showing no signs of stopping. That's an overall 1.5fps, although a faster card and a shorter time spent leaning on the shutter would probably yield 2fps.
We expected noise to be a problem in low light situations, as the enormous zoom is saddled with an average-sized sensor. When noise threatens, you can cap the ISO speed by setting a maximum that still allows the camera to alter ISO level according to circumstances. A maximum of ISO 800 combined with Panasonic's excellent mega OIS system and unobtrusive noise reduction can rescue images in so-so light.
The option to shoot raw footage does allow some control over noise and noise reduction in post-processing with the bundled raw software. However, we found that the FZ18 produced crisp, well-controlled JPEGs and raw files were more useful for aesthetic adjustments than rescuing tainted images.
The Panasonic DMC-FZ18 is one of the two more expensive 8-megapixel 18x superzooms along with the Olympus SP-560UZ. The Fujifilm S8000fd weighs in at £200 but doesn't shoot raw. The FZ18 certainly justifies the expense with its dSLR-style controls, excellent image quality and myriad of features.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday