Compared to digital SLRs and some other superzoom cameras, the small, lightweight 6-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 feels almost like a toy. Only after acknowledging its powerful 12x (36mm-to-432mm, 35mm-equivalent) optically stabilised lens, manual controls, extended selection of scene modes and VGA movie capture do you realise that this camera's capabilities far outstrip its size and weight. Despite some image flaws, this modest upgrade to the 5-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5 is likely to be as popular as its predecessor, appealing to a broad range of photographers who want a camera that will allow them to improve -- or prove -- their photographic skills.
Available in black or silver, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7's plastic-and-metal body feels well-made, despite its light weight -- a mere 357g with an SD card and the proprietary battery installed. You won't be putting this camera in your pocket, but you'll barely know it's there when it's slung over your shoulder or around your neck.
In the box, you'll find a lens adaptor that accommodates the bundled lens hood and optional filters. Unfortunately, the adaptor-hood combo causes vignetting at wide angles, with or without the flash. Frankly, using the lens hood was just too much of an ordeal, so we often left it at home when out shooting.
On top of the comfortably sized handgrip, you'll find the zoom lever, a button for activating the two optical image stabilisation modes, and an AF/MF button that switches between autofocus and manual focus. Program, aperture- and shutter-priority, manual, macro, movie, scene and the camera's Simple mode, which allows for no-brainer shooting, are accessed via the camera's small but smoothly ratcheted mode dial.
Even with the new, larger -- but still low-resolution -- 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD, there's plenty of room for external controls on the back of the camera. There, you'll find buttons to pop up the flash and to switch between the EVF and the LCD, as well as a joystick to adjust manual exposure settings and manual focus, a control button that cycles between display options and controls the display mode, and a dual-purpose control for both continuous shooting or deleting shots. The left, right and down arrow pads on the four-way controller provide direct access to the self-timer, the flash modes and review/playback. The up arrow invokes exposure compensation (exposure bracketing in full manual mode), flash compensation and white-balance fine-tuning (in all but automatic white balance). In Simple mode, the same arrow accesses only the backlight option.
The centre button calls up the menu and acts as a set button. All in all, it's a pretty convenient layout, and you rarely have to go into the menu. Even when you do, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7's menu system is easy to navigate.
Two of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7's main features -- its 12x zoom lens and its optical image stabiliser (OIS) -- work well together. Like other Panasonic OIS cameras, the DMC-FZ7 has two image stabilisation modes -- one is always on, the other is activated when you press the shutter halfway. We prefer the latter mode as it's less draining on the battery. Either allowed us to shoot slower shutter speeds than normal (about two stops), decreasing the need to push the ISO higher or use a tripod in low light.
The lens, which covers a 35mm-equivalent focal range of 36mm to 432mm, sports a maximum aperture ranging from f/2.8 to f/3.3. New for the FZ series is manual focus control via the joystick. There are two MF-assist options -- one enlarges just the centre of the screen, while the other enlarges the entire screen for more accurate focusing. The camera's multiple AF modes include high-speed AF modes that freeze the screen briefly and, of course, standard AF.
Enthusiasts who crave high-end features will appreciate the DMC-FZ7's manual exposure controls, with shutter speeds ranging from 8 seconds to 1/2,000 second or 60 seconds to 1/2,000 second in full manual mode. Colour-bias tweaking is available for all but auto white balance -- contrast, sharpness and saturation adjustments as well as multiple metering modes are also available.