Compact cameras with long-reaching optical zoom lenses are all the rage right now. Panasonic's 5-megapixel DMC-TZ1 is its latest entry, with a 35mm-to-350mm (35mm equivalent), f/2.8-to-f/4.2 10x Leica optical zoom lens in a body that measures 112 by 58 by 41mm, and 264g with lens retracted and battery and SD card included. Though not quite as thin, it's about the same height and width as the dual-lens, 6-megapixel Kodak EasyShare V610, which has a higher suggested price than the Panasonic and doesn't include optical image stabilisation.
The DMC-TZ1's extra thickness can be attributed to its large lens, the chunky grip that houses the memory card and the 1,000mAh rechargeable lithium-ion battery. The grip gives the camera a unique look compared to the legions of boxy designs on the market, while also providing a solid outcrop to grasp, making one-handed shooting a possibility.
Speaking of one-handed shooting, the controls are neatly organised on the right of the camera, so you can keep your left hand free and still access the menus. The mode dial, the shutter button (surrounded by the zoom rocker), the image-stabilisation selector and the power switch sit on top of the camera, with all but the dial clustered above the grip. LCD mode, trash and a four-way-plus-enter cluster of buttons round out the controls and are located on the bottom right of the camera back, next to the 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD.
Exposure controls are limited to full auto and plus or minus 2EV (in 1/3EV steps) of exposure compensation. It includes automatic bracketing, so you can set the camera to automatically vary the exposure by up to plus or minus 1EV when you capture a series of three shots. Thus, one shot will be full auto, another will be up to -1EV and the third up to +1EV. This is useful if you're in tricky lighting, and you want to make sure you get a good shot. Unfortunately, the lack of manual controls, such as aperture and shutter priority, means the DMC-TZ1 won't be enough for the artsy crowd who want to control their apertures for effect.
The camera's 18 scene modes offer some level of control when shooting in specific situations, including such favourites as Food and Aerial modes. There's also a high-sensitivity mode that boosts the ISO past the normal ISO 800 limit and automatically sets it somewhere between ISO 800 and ISO 1,600. The manual warns that in this mode, the resulting image may be a lower resolution, though in our field tests, it was still more than 4 megapixels. But given our noise test results (see below), you'll probably want to steer clear of this mode.
Metering options include spot, centre-weighted and multiple, which is similar to some cameras' matrix mode and combines measurements from the entire image area to calculate the proper exposure. There are five autofocus modes, including nine-area, one-area, spot, three-area high-speed and one-area high-speed. All of the AF modes zero in on the middle of the screen, while the three-area mode narrows that to a horizontal band centred top to bottom, and the others narrow it further to a small area in the centre. In macro mode, the DMC-TZ1 can focus as close as 51mm from its subject at its widest zoom setting.
Like some other Panasonic cameras, the DMC-TZ1 lets you choose the aspect ratio of your pictures -- 4:3, 3:2 or 16:9. The 4:3 option makes the most of the image sensor, while the other two modes crop pixels from the top and bottom. You can also choose from 4:3 or 16:9 in the camera's movie mode, which can capture up to 848x480 resolution at up to 30fps with mono sound.
One of the coolest features in the DMC-TZ1 is its Flip Animation mode. It lets you combine up to 100 still images into a short movie at either 5fps or 10fps. Get yourself some green clay and you too can create your own Gumby-style clips -- just be careful not to move the camera too much between frames.
Panasonic's DMC-TZ1 performed well in our speed trials. Time taken from power up to capturing the first image was a speedy 1.6 seconds, and time between subsequent shots measured 1.8 seconds without flash and a slightly more sluggish 2.6 seconds with flash enabled. Shutter lag was also fast -- 0.5 seconds in high-contrast lighting and 1.2 seconds in low-contrast situations. The burst mode has three speed options -- in its fastest, we were able to capture five low-quality (low compression) images at 3.1fps and three high-quality shots at 2.5fps.
There is no optical viewfinder, so you'll have to use the 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD to frame your shots. Thankfully, the screen was easily visible even in bright sunlight. It also did a remarkable job of gaining up in low light while still maintaining a decent representation of colours, so you won't be left in the dark when shooting images in your favourite dimly lit dance club.
Automatic white balance produced extremely yellowish casts in images shot with our lab's tungsten lights. The Tungsten preset did a much better job, though, leaving a slightly warm cast that wasn't perfectly neutral but kept that tungsten feel alive. The manual white-balance setting did a good job of neutralising colours.