Big numbers in a small case are what the Panasonic Lumix DMC-SZ7 is all about. Under the hood is an impressive set of specs, including a 14.1-megapixel sensor and a 10x optical zoom, equivalent to 25-250mm in a 35mm camera. To put that into context, most consumer-grade dSLRs are bundled with kit lenses of around 18-55mm.
Despite these impressive features, the DMC-SZ7 is keenly priced at £200.
There's optical stabilisation to help you hand-hold the longest zoom, and a 4x optical zoom on top if you need to get closer and don't mind resorting to cropping and enhancing the central part of your image. The closest focusing distance at wide angle is 10cm, and at full telephoto zoom, it stands at 150cm. Both of these are fairly pedestrian, but the macro setting takes you as close as 5cm.
At this level, the extent of captured detail is truly impressive, with plenty of texture and an attractive drop-off in the level of focus outside of the focal sweet spot.
The Leica lens is sharp and quick to find focus, with 23 focus points and optional face tracking. Combine this with the DMC-SZ7's swift start-up, which throughout my tests completed in a second or less, and it's well tuned for snapping spontaneous family moments.
With an optional high-sensitivity setting pushing up the maximum ISO to 6,400, from its regular ISO 100-3,200, I found it performed extremely well in dimly-lit settings. It rarely had trouble finding and locking onto my subjects.
Exposure compensation runs -/+3.0EV in 1/3EV steps. This is par for the course in a pocket camera. The shutter speed range, however, is a little unambitious, standing at 1/1,600 second at the fastest end of the scale, and stretching to 8 seconds. The latter should be sufficient to capture fireworks and the former to photograph sports. But if you want to blur pedestrians out of nighttime street scenes or smooth out the ripples in water, you might find 8 seconds too brief.
Features and build
It's small enough to slip into a pocket, but well balanced and easy to hold, thanks in part to a spotted thumb rest to the rear that gives you extra purchase. This is one of the few features on the back of the case which -- aside from half a dozen buttons -- is almost entirely consumed by the 3-inch LCD screen. This is bright and fine-grained. If you choose not to give it over entirely to the live view, it can be overlaid by three levels of information, including a regular grid of thirds to help compose shots.
The DMC-SZ7 is a very tactile camera. Panasonic has used switches in many places where a rival might have opted for simple push buttons. This reduces the likelihood of it turning on in your pocket, or of swapping shooting for playback. It's well built and sturdy too, with a smart metal case in a choice of three colours. The buttons are metal -- other cameras at this price would likely have settled for plastic.
The menus are comprehensive and well laid out, and among the regular shooting options you'll find some rudimentary built-in editing features. These include cropping and resizing stills and dividing videos, if you prefer not to perform these tasks in post-production.
I performed my tests using Intelligent Auto. This is one of five preset shooting modes that also encompass scene modes, from which there are 16 to choose, including portrait, sunset and 'through glass'. There's also a 3D mode, which takes two shots as you pan the camera left to right by 10cm.
Intelligent Auto lets the camera choose the best settings for the shot, including not only exposure and sensitivity, but also focus and aperture. So if the image needs macro settings, it'll make that judgement itself.
I started in the particularly challenging surroundings of an aquarium, which was dimly lit and involved shooting the subjects through thick glass. This might have been problematic had the camera focused on the glass rather than the scene beyond it, but it did an excellent job of accurately identifying the subject in each shot and exposing it well. Both stark contrasts and scenes were handled with little tonal variation, despite the fact I hadn't chosen to use the 'through glass' mode.
However, when I switched to shooting regular day-lit scenes, there was more evidence of noise in the results, particularly in areas of fine detail such as the face of Big Ben and the spokes of the London Eye in the image below. This was despite the image being exposed for just 1/400 second at the lowest sensitivity setting of ISO 100. Naturally, there's no option to shoot in raw format in a camera of this class.
There was also evidence in some scenes of very slight chromatic aberration, which is a fringing effect where the lens doesn't quite focus each wavelength of the available light in the same place on the sensor. This was only obvious when zooming the image to 100 per cent, and so is unlikely to be evident when the result is printed or used online, unless it's cropped and enlarged. However, as can be seen in the image below, there is a fine purple fringe on the edge of these discarded roofing tiles that was not visible to the naked eye.
Overall, though, I was impressed by the still shots produced by the DMC-SZ7, which were both realistic and demonstrated an impressive level of detail, right into the corners and edges of each frame.
The DMC-SZ7's native video resolution and format is 1080i AVCHD, although you can switch this for AVCHD Lite (1,280x720 pixels) if you want to conserve space on your card. Each of these need converting before they can be imported to some consumer editing apps, such as iMovie.
Options are few and far between, but shooting using regular settings rather than Intelligent Auto does allow you to switch on continuous auto-focus and opt to reduce wind noise, depending on conditions.
Again, the DMC-SZ7 put in a sterling performance here, finding focus in difficult surroundings such as the aquarium, just as easily as it did when tasked with capturing more conventional scenes. The recorded soundtrack was clear and clean, with no evidence of any noise from the powered zoom and only occasional intrusion from the wind.
The colours in the captured video stream were realistic and true to their originals, with plenty of detail even in areas with a fairly narrow colour palette, such as the foaming of a weir, as you can see in the test movie.
Despite some slight concern at the heavy-handed compression I observed in the results from overcast conditions using Intelligent Auto, the DMC-SZ7's performance on the whole was very good.
Size-wise, it's spot-on for slipping into a pocket, even with such an impressive lens. There's some very responsive electronics under the hood too, which should let you capture spontaneous moments.
All in all then, it's a fine choice for anyone after an inexpensive point-and-shoot snapper for daily use.