As their prices converge, it's getting more difficult to decide whether to buy a digital SLR or a sophisticated megazoom camera such as the 8-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30. The successor to the 5-megapixel FZ20, the FZ30 is also equipped with optical image stabilisation, a solid feature set and a 12x zoom Leica DC Vario-Elmarit lens with a 35mm-to-420mm focal range (35mm-camera equivalent).
The FZ30 is far less expensive than a dSLR, for which you'd need two or more image-stabilised lenses to gain the same focal range. Though the dSLR would give you better performance, additional features and better image quality, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 is a viable alternative for photographers who want maximum flexibility for a (relatively) small cash outlay.
At 720g with an SD/MMC card and the proprietary battery installed, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 is larger and heavier than other megazooms. Its high-profile grip delivers a steady hold, though it might be too large for those with smaller hands. An angled shutter button sits atop the grip, as do the mode dial, the power switch, the continuous-shooting control and the IS button. Small command dials for adjusting aperture and shutter speed are positioned on the front and the rear of the grip, although the latter is located too far to the right to reach comfortably with your thumb.
On the back of the FZ30, you'll find a standard control layout with an AE lock, an EVF/LCD switch and menu and delete buttons. In auto mode, the up arrow on the four-way controller turns on the camera's backlight function. In all other modes, it scrolls through the exposure-compensation, exposure-bracketing and flash-intensity controls. The right arrow controls the pop-up flash settings, the left arrow accesses the self-timer and the down arrow puts the camera into playback mode.
A focus switch on the left side of the lens barrel complements the SLR-like manual zoom and focus rings. The top position keeps the camera on autofocus (you always operate the zoom manually); under that you'll find the AF-macro setting, followed by manual focus. Sitting underneath the three-position switch is a focus button that activates a nine-point grid with selectable focus points; it's operable in all but manual-focus mode. However, when using manual focus, you can press the focus button to use AF for just one shot.
Since the FZ30 has some not-so-obvious features (and a few that can be confusing), it's important to study the user guide before attempting more advanced shooting. While the camera provides onboard text descriptions of the scene modes, some of the submenu icons are difficult to decipher.
Optional accessory lenses help expand the camera's already broad focal range, but at around £150 per lens, you'll be stretching your budget into dSLR territory. Additionally, you can attach an external flash to the FZ30's hotshoe, and the camera has a port for a wired remote control as well.