While the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ45's lens may not be removable like a dSLR, with such a broad focal range on offer -- 25mm to 600mm equivalent in 35mm terms for here -- this could well be all the lens you'll ever need. It's as adept at snapping candid portraits as it is at squeezing the landscape into your frame.
Expect to pay in the region of £250 for this 14.1-megapixel, 24x megazoom, which isn't much more than a standard 5x zoom pocket model -- and quite the bargain if it lives up to its promise.
Flick the top-mounted on/off switch and the FZ45 readies itself for action in just over two seconds, the rear LCD blinking into life and the lens adjusting to maximum wide-angle setting, poised for the first shot.
With styling and handling that make it appear like a baby digital SLR, Panasonic is describing the FZ45 as a 'hybrid sports' model, a curious description that makes it sound like an energy drink rather than the successor to the superb FZ38.
The sports bit means it can shoot up to 10 frames per second and also features AF tracking to keep your subject in focus as they move through the frame. The trade-off is a resolution drop to 3 megapixels at top shooting speed, so images will appear softer than they already do at maximum zoom setting.
The hybrid part refers to the FZ45's ability to shoot HD video. It offers HD movies in AVCHD Lite or Motion JPEG format with the bonus of stereo sound. Left and right microphones are located above the FZ45's lens and set within the mechanism for the pop-up flash to keep the camera compact.
There's also a very useful one-touch video record button, a press of which kick-starts recording whichever alternate shooting mode might be selected on the chunky mode dial at any given time.
Ready for its close up
To continue with the positives, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ45 is robustly built, if a little plasticky to the touch. It sports a fixed, non-tilting 3-inch, 230k-dot LCD -- look to the FZ100 if you'd prefer a rotating screen.
A dedicated button allows users to switch between the electronic viewfinder and the LCD, but most of the time we didn't feel the need to deviate from the larger screen, which was perfectly adequate under most lighting conditions.
While a jog dial enhances ease of use, My Colour Mode and Film Mode make it easy to customise effects, and Intelligent Zoom extends the zoom ratio by approximately 1.3x, providing up to 32x equivalent should you wish, the trade-off being a further softening of detail.
A rocker switch for controlling the optical zoom encircles the shutter release button, ensuring it's always at your fingertip. Give this a nudge and the lens takes around 3 seconds to motor through its optical range, or 4 seconds to paddle on up to a 32x equivalent if you keep your finger resting on it.
Although the optical zoom can be deployed for shooting video, which even when it's such a big feature of this class of camera isn't always the case, its operational speed is slowed right down. This is so that the zoom, which isn't completely silent in operation, is nevertheless as unobtrusive as possible.
Big lens, small mercies
The potential pitfalls of using a longer than average lens on a smaller than average chassis are visible camera shake and softening of detail, getting more pronounced towards the further you zoom.
To combat this, Panasonic has deployed optical image stabilisation (its own Power OIS) rather than the sensor-shift variety. It's only partially successful, in that we needed two or three attempts to get our subject sharp when shooting handheld at longer focal lengths. It is possible though, which is commendable in itself.
Generally images are as warm and as colourful as we'd expect from a Panasonic camera on its default settings. Coming after our test of the manufacturer's interchangeable lens Lumix DMC-GF2 however, the difference in quality -- in terms of crispness of image -- was quite pronounced. It really does seem you get what you pay for and a £250 camera is not going to equal the quality of another costing £600. Funny that.
The FZ45 gave us a sense of déjà vu and in truth it feels like nothing we haven't already seen before. Competitors such as Canon's PowerShot SX30 IS have upped the ante with a class-leading 35x optical range.
That said, while the FZ45 is not as technically impressive as it might once have looked, its current pricing suggests something of a bargain for those on the lookout for a paparazzi-style focal range without a monstrous price tag.
Edited by Nick Hide