We suspect that Panasonic's Lumix DMC-FZ20 -- clad in either cool black or shiny silver -- will soon replace the DMC-FZ10 as a cult favourite among megazoom aficionados. The new model offers a stunning, optically-stabilised 12x Leica zoom lens that reaches out to 432mm (35mm equivalent), 5-megapixel resolution, and some worthwhile performance improvements.
If you love supertelephoto photography, this Panasonic looks like the camera to beat. With its bulbous, oversize lens, the Panasonic Lumix FZ20 looks like a can of beef stew with a camera welded on to one end. It's also front-heavy, and since the right-hand grip is thin and short, the camera feels somewhat awkward to handle. The black-painted plastic body, which weighs 581g with its battery and SD card installed, seems adequately constructed with a tolerable heft for a megazoom model.
Although we generally like the placement of the controls, the all-important shutter release is about a centimetre too far back, making it moderately uncomfortable to reach. You access most of the camera's features via the Menu button. The menus are easy to understand and quick to navigate with the four-way controller, but there's one bit of control logic that we found annoying: in Aperture- and Shutter-priority modes, you must use the button labeled Exp to switch between modes for setting exposure compensation (the default) and changing the aperture or the shutter speed. It adds an unnecessary button-click to important settings that you should be able to access quickly and directly.
Though the Panasonic FZ20's lens makes the camera look and feel awkward, it is the most remarkable fixed-lens optical system in the digital camera world. It incorporates an optically-stabilized 12x Leica DC Vario-Elmarit zoom, which covers the range from 36mm to 432mm (35mm equivalent). A 12x zoom lens that only goes as wide as 36mm -- especially a Leica -- seems almost a tragedy, but telephoto junkies will rejoice. The optical stabilisation makes the extreme telephoto focal lengths feasible in a digital camera that most people will normally shoot handheld.
The lens opens up to f/2.8 throughout its zoom range, a truly impressive feat. Equally nice, it has a firm but smooth manual-focus ring and a prominent, lens-mounted switch for selecting between auto or manual focus. The autofocus system offers the choice of four different AF-area modes: nine-area, three-area, single area, and spot. Finally, the lens accepts an accessory 8x wide-angle converter and, for those who think 432mm is wimpy, a 1.5x telephoto converter.
The FZ20 covers all the exposure bases. In addition to all four standard exposure modes, you can select from nine scene modes. There are three light-metering modes -- Multiple, Centre-Weighted, and Spot -- and you can set exposure compensation to ±2EV or use the three-shot exposure bracketing function. For white balance, your options are auto, manual, or any of four presets. Light-sensitivity settings include ISO 80, ISO 100, ISO 200, and ISO 400.
The FZ20 stores images on SD/MMC cards, and it can capture JPEGs or TIFFs at six different resolutions and two JPEG compression settings. As with many cameras, you can adjust the contrast, the colour saturation, and the sharpness of your images, but the FZ20 also gives you three levels of adjustment for the amount of noise reduction processing the camera applies, an unusual and potentially useful feature.
In film mode, the camera can record 30fps, 320 x 240-pixel M-JPEG video with sound. The length of your video clips is limited only by your card's capacity.Panasonic touts the performance benefits of the FZ20's Venus II image-processing chip, and our performance testing largely bears out the company's claims. The camera's 4.4-second start-up time is a bit long, but its shot-to-shot time is relatively quick: typically 1.2 seconds with decent light and as little as 1.8 seconds with flash. Even TIFF shots were surprisingly zippy: it took just under 4 seconds from one shot to the next. The fastest burst shooting mode snapped 3.6 frames per second, for four shots, but if you're willing to slow down to about 2fps, the camera can shoot without pausing until your card fills. Shutter delay with autofocus isn't quite so impressive -- 0.9 seconds in all light -- but we measured it at less than 0.1 second using manual focus.
Panasonic also promotes improvements in its Mega Optical Image Stabilization system, and it does indeed work remarkably well. It delivered sharp, handheld photos with shutter speeds as much as three stops slower than would be possible without the system.