Even though it’s on the high-priced side for a point-and-shoot, this ultra zoom digicam is one of 2007’s most popular cameras (at least if you go by many of the imaging sites). There are some obvious reasons for this: the 8-megapixel camera has a whopping 18x zoom with a range of 28-504mm. To buy a D-SLR and lens kit with that range of focal lengths would set you back a bundle. The camera also has optical image stabilization, an electronic viewfinder along with a 2.5-inch LCD monitor, a load of manual options, captures RAW files plus it has Face Detection, the feature du jour for the digicam world. Note: there are several other ultra zooms available including the Olympus SP-560 ($449 USD) and Fujifilm FinePix S8000 ($399 USD). We recently received the Olympus and will review that one shortly but first it was the FZ18’s turn in the barrel. Let’s see if it’s worth all the Internet buzz…
Features and Design
The DMC-FZ18 is a very attractive camera in its own way. Although it doesn’t have the sleekness of a Canon ELPH or Sony T series digicam, it has a comforting “camera” feel. It has a nice indented handgrip, looks for all the world like a D-SLR, features good proportions and just has a nice vibe about it. Available in black or silver (which we had), the FZ18 is substantial, measuring 4.63 x 2.96 x 3.47 (WHD, in inches) and weighs close to a pound with the battery and card. This one will be worn on your shoulder or around your neck. Still even with the battery it did not weigh or wear me down, a big difference with any D-SLR.
Here’s another big difference with a D-SLR—the camera has a built-in 28-504mm Leica DC Vario-Elmarit lens. No single lens offers that focal length and you’d need at least two to achieve that range when compared to the FZ18—and don’t forget about the added weight or hassle of switching lenses. Clearly this is one of the biggest reasons this camera is so popular. For some reason, Panasonic continues to provide a lens hood that causes vignetting when using the flash. If you buy this camera, leave the hood in the box as well as the adaptor ring the hoods attaches to. Just snap the lens cap into place—attached to the body via a high-tech piece of string–and off you go.
The front of this camera is really dominated by the lens, leaving little room for extraneous decals. Panasonic did plaster the left of the lens barrel with 18x, MEGA O.I.S. and other detritus. On the front you’ll also find an AF Assist lamp, a mic and a faux leather coating on the pistol grip which is a nice dark gray. This camera is a bit taller than the recently reviewed compact 10x Sony DSC-H3 and it felt just right in my hands. You know the drill—make sure you do your own hands-on test before you buy any camera or camcorder.
The top has a nicely arranged control layout with a slider on/off switch, controls to switch between auto and manual focus, for macro, the shutter with surrounding zoom toggle, manual pop-up flash and a substantial mode dial. On the dial is an “iA” setting instead of the usual “Auto.” With Intelligent Auto the camera makes adjustments depending on the subject in front of it. It will automatically pick the scene mode (portrait, scenery, macro, night scenery and night portrait). If it senses faces, it’ll switch to Face Detection that detects up to 15 faces. iA also offers Continuous Auto Focus which keeps subjects in focus without having to press the shutter halfway. It’s neat watching the modes change as you move from subject to subject (icons appear on the LCD).
If you want to move beyond Intelligent Auto and use your own brain, the dial has options for portrait, landscape, sports, night portrait, a raft of scene modes, custom and a movie mode (842 x 480 at 30 fps is the top resolution). The camera also has settings for manual, shutter- and aperture-priority as well as program auto exposure (AE). Unlike some other point-and-shoots, you have a wide range of apertures and shutter speeds to choose from. With manual focus a center inset enlarges the subject to make sure you get a sharp image.
The rear of the camera has a good 2.5-inch LCD screen rated 205K pixels. It doesn’t smear too badly as you change subjects. Like the DMC-TZ3 if you press the LCD mode button, you can brighten the screen to deal with strong sunshine and even adjust it so you can shoot on an angle over your head. These are very nice options but I’d still like a larger screen. Like most other 10x and greater zoom point-and-shoots, the FZ18 has a small electronic viewfinder (EVF) to use if you’d like the hold the camera close to your eye. It has a diopter control to fine-tune the focus. A button next to EVF lets you switch between views. To the left of the viewfinder is the key to pop up the flash. Other buttons on the right side include AF/AE Lock, Display/LCD Monitor, another to change the burst mode (or delete while in playback) plus the usual four-way control with center set button. The points let you adjust the flash, review images, adjust the self-timer and exposure compensation (flash level and auto bracketing, depending on the mode). A small joystick helps you navigate through the menus; they’re very straightforward and easy to understand. There’s a nice rest for your thumb on the far right side (also with the faux leather covering) and a speaker next to the EVF. As you can see there are far more adjustments available on this point-and-shoot than most others out there. You can even adjust the amount of noise reduction. It practically ranks up with Canon PowerShot G9 for tweakability.
On the left side are the DC-in and USB ports and on the bottom is the slot for the large lithium ion battery rated at 400 shots (EVF in use, not LCD) and SD/SDHC cards. The camera comes with the basic kit including battery/charger, cables, lens cap (with string), lens hood with adaptor, an OK 148-page owner’s manual and a CD-ROM with SilkyPix Developer Studio 2.1SE to process RAW files, ArcSoft MediaImpression and Panorama Maker, Photo Fun Studio, drivers and so on. Although is has 27MB of internal memory, definitely purchase a 2GB SDHC card, especially if you plan to shoot RAW. We did exactly that and went off to put the FZ18 through its paces.
Image Courtesy of Panasonic
Testing and Use
In less than two seconds, the DMC-FZ18 is good to go as the lens extends, noticeably quicker than the TZ3 and about the same as the Sony H3. Starting off at the highest JPEG resolution in the iA mode I took a variety of shots indoors and out. When you’re in auto you cannot change any parameters other than engaging backlight compensation or popping open or closing the flash. This is all well and good since auto is basically aim-and-forget time. Note: the backlight compensation did a good job capturing more detail in the area surrounding a brightly lit window. This should definitely be used when shooting anyone or anything backlit; your shots will look a lot better.
While shooting in iA in single shot mode, the camera did a decent job saving the files to the card although it’s definitely not a D-SLR, especially since it cannot shoot in RAW in this mode. Moving into unlimited continuous (burst) mode with the flash off, the camera was quite responsive. Panasonic states a spec of 2 images per second and this matched my real world results. This is a far quicker camera than the company’s TZ3 and matches the speedy Sony DSC-H3, another 8MP competitor. In another nod to the D-SLR’s superiority this camera also can’t shoot in burst mode if you choose the RAW setting. Remember this camera costs around $350 USD and the cheapest D-SLR is over $500 USD so you definitely get what you pay for.
Even with those complaints the FZ18’s lens is a real winner. I’m a big fan of the wide-angle 28mm setting and this one has it plus you can zoom in an incredible 18x (504mm). Definitely give this a try at your local store—you’ll be impressed as I was.
Image Courtesy of Panasonic
Once you step toward the myriad manual options, you’ll be happy as a clam if adjusting photo parameters is your thing. The FZ18 has loads of them including white balance fine adjustment that lets you adjust the levels of amber, blue, green and magenta in the image. I haven’t tested any point-and-shoot recently that has this level WB tuning. Most of the traditional manual options (aperture, shutter speed, focus) are handled by the joystick and it works well. I only wish you could see the effects of your aperture/speed adjustments on the LCD screen (the Sony DSC-H3 has this).
After making my various rounds it was time to see how the 8.5×11 prints turned out straight from the camera with no adjustments (even the RAW files which used SilkyPix’s average settings with no exposure bias). When I took some shots of a foggy morning landscape, the FZ18 captured the subtlety, mood and detail quite well with very little noise and purple fringing with high-contrast tree limbs/sky views. Taking close-ups of bushes had a nice pop especially with the softened background. Images taken indoors also had very accurate colors and a pleasing look. Where the camera fell down was with some still lifes taken with available light. The iA kicked the ISO up to 800 and with every Panasonic this is heading into dangerous ground filled with way too much digital noise. Definitely stay below 400 if you buy this one. Also the camera had some difficulty grabbing focus with non-contrasty subjects. The AF Assist lamp helped but it did grab. For the most part, the FZ18 is a fast operator, saving files with minimal lag. And the optical image stabilization did a fine job eliminating blur with extreme telephoto shots.
In this case all the Internet buzz was right on target. This is probably the best super zoom camera (12x and above) I’ve tested to date. It’s responsive, saves files relatively quickly, has a boatload of manual adjustments and its Intelligent Auto works very nicely. As always with Panasonic digicams, there are issues with noise once you go over 400 ISO but there’s a blocker to prevent it going higher than that but that feature doesn’t work in iA mode. Forget the purported 6400 rating since it takes a full-frame D-SLR costing 10 times more to pull off that stunt properly. Still the little package has a lot going for it. It’s $350 USD well worth spending. Is it better than the Olympus SP-560 UZ? Click back shortly to find out…
• Very good photos in a variety of settings
• Amazing focal range including wide angle
• Manual options galore
• Still too much noise at ISO 400 and above
• Poorly designed lens hood; chuck it