If you were tempted by the FZ200 reviewed here last month but the high price put you off, then your face will beam with childish delight at Panasonic dangling the FZ62 in front of your outstretched arms -- for nearly half the cost.
It's slightly smaller and a touch lighter, has 16.1 megapixels to the FZ200's 12.1 and an identical zoom.
You can pick up the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ62 from £270. So where have the corners been cut?
Despite being half an inch or so smaller than the FZ200 in every direction, this is still a chunky beast, although a bulky handgrip surrounding the battery neatly balances out the 24x zoom. The lens is equivalent to 25-600mm on a regular 35mm camera, ably framing landscapes at the wider end of the scale and finely detailed shots at full telephoto.
The maximum aperture at wide angle is an impressive f/2.8, which maintains a good shallow depth of field in portraits. Here though, we come to our first big difference between the FZ200 and FZ62. While the more expensive model maintained that aperture through the full length of its zoom, it narrows to a (still respectable) f/5.2 at 600mm in the FZ62. That makes the FZ200 the more appealing -- and more exciting -- choice. In both cameras, the minimum aperture at any zoom is f/8.
There's an automatic mode, as well as full control over aperture and shutter speed in the various priority and manual modes. The controls are well thought out and easy to manage, and it implements Panasonic's familiar dual-scale gauge on the display to show you how long each exposure will be at any given aperture. There are two customisable function buttons that you can set as shortcuts for whichever controls you use most often.
It's a shame that with so much manual control at your disposal, Panasonic hasn't gone the whole hog and included an option to record raw files -- your only options are two levels of JPEG compression. This is another point that differentiates it from the FZ200, where both raw and JPEG are supported.
There's no optical viewfinder, but the 3-inch rear LCD is supplemented by a digital eyepiece with diopter control, so you can adjust its clarity and focus. It's sharp and bright, and although it doesn't refresh quite as smoothly as the rear display, it's fine-grained and the graphics are easy to read.
Sensitivity ranges from ISO 100 to ISO 3,200 in regular use. You can unlock ISO 6,400 if you switch to high-sensitivity mode, but doing so reduces the size of your image from the full 16 megapixels (4,608x3,456 pixels) to between 2 and 3 megapixels, depending on the image aspect you've chosen.
Stills shot at ISO 3,200 were characterised by considerable levels of grain, which obviously affected the clarity of the result, as can be seen in the image above. Fine detail, such as the writing on the Jack Daniel's label, is lost at this level.
I performed my tests with the FZ62 set to Intelligent Auto, so it could make its own decisions as to the best settings for each shot.
Results were good, with sharp edges and punchy colours evident throughout. Illumination was very well handled, even in scenes with sharp contrasts, although there were clipped highlights where particularly light surfaces directly caught the sun, such as with white and cream material.
Detail remained sharp right into the corners. This is often the part of the image that lacks clarity in an otherwise evenly focused frame, as the lens has to work hardest to reorientate the incoming light to hit the sensor.
The FZ62 was set to save JPEGs at the highest quality, yet there was evidence of compression in some results, particularly in those parts of the image that exhibited sharp contrasts. It was also evident where fine detail fell outside of the field of focus -- fine detail in areas of flat colour could look smeared rather than de-focussed.
Minimum focusing distance in macro mode is just 1cm at wide angle and 30cm in regular use. Macro mode delivers a satisfyingly shallow depth of field, which helps to pick out your subject from its surroundings, although zooming to 100 per cent again reveals the effect of compression on the image.
It should be noted that the 16.1-megapixel sensor delivers such large images that unless you crop them fairly harshly, either for printing or use online, this compression won't be visible and will have little effect on your overall appreciation of the picture. It'll be an issue only in the unlikely event that the combination of close focusing in macro mode, coupled with a long zoom when shooting distant subjects, is still insufficient to frame the exact shot you're after.
When tasked with shooting a collection of everyday objects in a studio environment, it turned in an excellent result under professional lighting. It exposed the scene for 1/125 of a second at ISO 100 to produce a very clean frame with sharp contrasts, and very clear writing on the labels of small bottles and a bus ticket.
It was forced to extend the exposure time and increase its sensitivity setting -- to ISO 400 -- when shooting under dimmer ambient light. This had a marginal impact on clarity, increased the level of noise slightly and shifted the colours, which were less vibrant than they had been under studio lighting.
Performing the test for a third time using the onboard flash resulted in the longest exposure, which ran to a full second. Richer tones were darker, such as the box at the centre of the composition. Results were less detailed under these conditions than when using professional lighting. However, they were otherwise balanced and the hard shadows were kept to a minimum.
Movies are recorded at 1,920x1,080i resolution, 50 frames per second or 25fps, and you can opt for progressive output at 1,280x720 pixels if you prefer. Lower resolution options are available, which are perfect for sharing online.
The recorded footage is very good. Colours are punchy, action is smooth and contrasts are sharp. The zoom remains active through its full extent when recording and there was no evidence of noise from the lens motors on the soundtrack, aside from a slight click when the zoom rocker was released at the end of filming.
The FZ62 is very similar to the FZ200 in many ways, but a lot of the latter's most compelling features are missing. This is to be expected in a camera that's so much cheaper and Panasonic has compensated by upping the resolution considerably. However, neither the lower price nor the higher resolution are strong enough reasons to match its sibling's four-star score.
The long zoom remains the biggest temptation here. And if you don't need those features that would appeal mostly to more serious photographers, such as the ability to shoot to raw files and the constant f/2.8 maximum aperture, the FZ62 could fit the bill. If your budget would stretch to it though, the FZ200 will have longer lasting appeal.