Superzoom may be an intermediate class of cameras, filling the gap between compacts and dSLRs, but they're more than a poor-man's pro snapper. They may not have an interchangeable lens or a full-frame sensor, but there is plenty to recommend. Chief among those recommendations is the lens, which is often more powerful and better tuned to each model's sensor than far more expensive dSLR equivalents.
That's particularly true of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ48. Its Leica-built lens is bright and clear, while the mammoth zoom makes it one of the most versatile sub-£300 cameras currently on sale.
We tested it by shooting various flora, including a teasel and rose hips, and in each case we were bowled over by the results. The macro performance of the FZ48 was exemplary, with a short, sharp sweet spot where the focus was perfectly fixed, and a rapid fall off to the front and rear.
The rose hip was particularly well captured, with the fine bark of its leading branch and the individual veins in the leaves both extremely clear. These contrasted well with the smooth skin of the hips themselves and the blurred background, which pulled the subject forward within the frame.
We can put this down to the FZ48's maximum aperture of f/2.8 at wide angle, and f/5.2 at full telephoto. This would be impressive in a regular compact's 5x zoom, and doubly here, where the FZ48's lens tops out at 24x optical. If it were transplanted to a regular 35mm camera, this would equate to a 25-600mm lens.
You can push this yet further to 32x using what Panasonic calls 'intelligent zoom'. Usually we shy away from such features, as this means digital zoom effectively cropping and enhancing the centre of the frame using in-camera software. In this instance, though, Panasonic has pulled it off. The results remain sharp and clear, and you'd be hard-pressed to tell that it isn't a purely optical effect. An optical image stabiliser helps here, shifting the lens mechanics to keep your subject accurately framed at long zooms by counteracting hand shake.
It is extremely difficult to fault the quality of the captured image at all zoom levels, with vibrant, realistic colours and sharp detail characteristics throughout our test results.
This will have been helped by Panasonic's decision to employ a fairly conservative 12.1 megapixel sensor. It features around 25 per cent fewer pixels than some smaller pocket cameras, but as image quality rarely has anything to do with the size of a photo, it's the perfect choice for this semi-pro superzoom. This is particularly true since the powerful zoom gives you a better chance of positioning even distant subjects where you want them within the frame at the point of capture, negating the need to crop and zoom in post-production.
Natural colours, such as countryside greens, blue skies and still waters were rendered vividly in our test results, with sufficient tonal depth to clearly pick out detail in areas dominated by a fairly narrow gamut, such as the blue canal and green banks below.
The Leica-built lens perfectly focused light at all wavelengths as it fell on the sensor. It eliminated any possible fringing, which can sometimes occur when the lens splits the various tones in the same way that a prism splits white light into its constituent parts.
Focus remained sharp right into the edges and corners of each frame. There was no noticeable vignetting -- an optical defect where borders are darker than the centre and the picture appears to recede into the centre of the frame. This can happen where the level of captured light falls off, such as with particularly long zooms, producing a more claustrophobic result.
Bringing the FZ48 indoors, we shot a still-life collection of objects with different surface textures and colours under studio lighting. The results were among the best we have seen from any camera: written text retained sharp edges as it receded from the lens; there was a smooth transition between graduated colours; and detail was well defined, even in dark areas, such as peppercorns cast in shadow.
We repeated the test twice, once using the available ambient light and once again with the onboard flash. Under ambient light, the FZ48 cranked up its sensitivity to ISO 400, which naturally introduced a degree of noise into the image. This was only evident when the results were zoomed to 100% and looked like a very fine and even mesh across the surface of the image. It also reduced the shutter speed to 1/30 second, which would have been too slow for us to support without using a tripod, but in doing so rewarded us with perfect exposure across the frame. There was no evidence of lost detail in shadow areas or clipped highlights.
The results were very similar when shot using the flash. Again it set the sensitivity to ISO 400, but halved the shutter speed to 1/60 second. Once more, exposure and colour retention was very well balanced, with only very slight noise and little in the way of harsh shadows. Impressive all round.
There's no getting away from the fact that the FZ48 is a chunky beast. It's compact, with a fat hand grip and a snubby barrel that makes it comfortable to hold for extended periods. The shutter release is set on the point of the grip, with a rather stiff zoom control surrounding it. We hope that with extended use this would loosen up.
What won't improve over time, though, is the electronic viewfinder, which is grainy and slow to update. Sweep across the scene you want to frame and it ticks past, rather than sliding. Fortunately there's no such problem with the rear-mounted LCD, which is bright and crisp, with room for plenty of shooting data. However, the low-def on-screen menus are starting to look outdated and could do with some smartening up.
Fortunately you needn't use the menus too often as the most commonly used scene modes, including landscape, sport and night portrait, have dedicated spots on the shooting mode selector. These sit alongside program, aperture and shutter priority, full manual and intelligent auto. This latter mode is becoming more common in consumer cameras. It greatly eases the shooting experience, both for first-timers and anyone who wants to think more about what they're snapping than the physics of achieving the result they want.
Aperture and shutter priority modes are well implemented, with a rear-mounted thumbwheel running you through each scale. Pressing it while tweaking manual mode switches you between the shutter and aperture settings.
Impressively, these modes are also available in movie mode, allowing you to set aperture and shutter speed manually on your videos.
There's little else in the FZ48's specs and settings that strays far from what we've come to expect in a high-end consumer camera. Maximum shutter speed is 1/2,000 of a second, with the slowest pegged at 60 seconds. Sensitivity runs on a scale from ISO 100 to ISO 1,600, with a high sensitivity mode pushing this yet further to ISO 6,400. The two- and 10-second self-timer options are supplemented by a second 10-second setting that takes three separate shots. Images are written to SD, SDHC, SDXC or 70MB of internal storage, which is enough for 15 shots at the highest quality setting.
The FZ48's native movie format is AVCHD at a maximum resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels at 50fps interlaced. As with its stills performance, the results here are excellent.
Detail remained sharp throughout our pans and zooms, with vibrant, realistic colours accurately captured. We were particularly impressed by how efficiently it suppressed the noise of the zoom. The mechanism is fairly quiet anyway, but you'll have to listen very closely indeed to find any trace of it on our videos.
We were less impressed by its wind noise suppression, which was set to auto throughout our tests, but it regained some points for the efficiency with which it captured the sounds of distant subjects in less breezy locations.
Small, neat and richly featured: add up the specs and the FZ48 starts to look like a bargain. On its own, a bright dSLR lens of equivalent power to this one would cost several times the price of this whole camera. What you're not getting, of course, is the larger sensor found in a dSLR or the option to swap out that lens for a fish-eye or other creative element. That second criticism is true of any superzoom, and the first is easy to counter: by keeping a lid on the pixel count, this camera delivers equivalent results to a dSLR anyway -- just on a slightly smaller scale.
The FZ48 is one of the most versatile cameras you can buy right now without an interchangeable lens. If you're not yet ready to step up to a dSLR, it's the perfect halfway house.