This is the newest generation of Panasonic’s highly-regarded line-up of mega zoom cameras. With 8-megapixel resolution, a 12x Leica optical zoom and built-in optical image stabilization, this digicam is a decent alternative for those looking for D-SLR features but don’t want the hassle of interchangeable lenses plus they’d like the ability to view a live image on a 2-inch LCD screen and take short videos. The DMC-FZ30 feels very much like D-SLR yet costs a lot less–especially when you budget the cost of lenses that would equal this focal range (a hefty 35-420mm in 35mm terms). Although a good camera, it has its problems but none of them are so bad as to chuck it into the recycle bin as I felt like doing with the Casio Exilim Card EX-S500. To discover the good, the bad and not-so-ugly, turn the page.
Features and Design
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 is available in black or silver finish; I much prefer the black since it gives a heavy D-SLR vibe. When you snap on the lens hood, only the savviest photographers will know any different. However, I’d put the shade on once to admire the view then return it to the box since you’ll run into vignetting problems when using the flash. The camera does have a very clean look with a minimum amount of keys and dials.
The front is dominated by the 12x Leica DC Vario-Elmarit zoom that translates to 35-420mm in 35mm terms, a huge range that’s the best available. The Samsung Pro 815, announced earlier, is supposed to have a 15x optical zoom but it has a strong whiff of vaporware about it since it was due in August. Zoom through the very real DMC-FZ30 and you’ll be amazed at how close distant subjects appear. I used a pre-production model on a boat sailing through New York harbor as well as production edition in the leafy suburbs of New Jersey (yes, it’s called the Garden State for a reason). I really enjoyed this capability on land and sea. It’s a winner for travelers, just as I liked the 12x zooms on the 5MP Sony DSC-H1 ($449) and Canon S2 IS ($469). Adding to the D-SLR-like feel, there are two rings on the lens to adjust zoom level and for manual focus. There’s not much else on the front other than an AF Assist beam, some low-key logos and a jog wheel on the hand grip to manually adjust the aperture.
The top of the camera has a hot shoe for optional flashes, a manual pop-up flash, a mode dial, the Mega OIS on/off key as well as one for a burst mode, the power switch and shutter.
The rear has a 2-inch LCD (rated a very fine 230K pixels) that pivots so you can hold the camera in a variety of positions including over your head. It folds neatly with the screen toward the body to protect it when you’re not using it. There’s a very accurate electronic viewfinder (235K pixels) with a diopter adjustment and four of the usual keys: display, menu, delete and EVF/LCD as well as four-way cursor control keys. There’s also an AE Lock button, something not typically found on point-and-shoot digicams. You’ll also find another jog wheel to adjust shutter speed.
The right side has a door covering the SD Memory Card slot, while a panel on the left opens to connectors for AV out/digital, a DC input and a remote (something else you don’t typically find on cameras in this class). Also on the left is a handy switch for adjusting focus types (auto, macro and manual). A smaller button below this lets you pre-focus the shot when you’re in manual focus. On the bottom you’ll find the battery compartment (proprietary lithium ion rated an O.K. 280 shots) and a tripod mount. By comparison the Sony Cybershot DSC-H1 is rated 290 and the Canon PowerShot S2 IS is a sizzling 550!
The Lumix DMC-FZ30 comes with an insulting 16MB SD Memory Card (it doesn’t even hold one RAW file), battery/charger, A/V and USB cables, lens cap, neck strap, lens hood. The software CD ROM has the driver, ArcSoft software suite and PhotoFun Studio Viewer. It’s not Photoshop Elements but it’s more than enough to get you started. Note: although the camera captures RAW files–a very nice feature–you cannot open the files with the supplied software. Pretty bizarre. RAW files are uncompressed, basically a digital negative, that you open and adjust using software such as Adobe Photoshop CS2. The camera also has a 148-page owner’s manual but no Quick Start guide. The manual is written in classic Japanese style–awkward, dense, loaded with tiny footnotes and cutesy illustrations. Why can’t the benefits of globalization reach this nook and cranny of customer service?
Once the battery was charged and a high-speed 1GB SanDisk Extreme III card was loaded it was time to set up the camera. Even though the camera has only a 2-inch LCD, quality is so good, it’s a breeze to read (the Sony DSC-H1 has a 2.5-incher). Setting the date and time was simple with the four-way controller. It doesn’t have a “set” or enter key so making adjustments was a bit different than other digicams but it’s not really a big deal. As noted, the camera has a RAW option (as well as TIFF and JPEG). We set the camera to RAW and immediately saw why a 1GB card is critical since it holds approximately 40 images compared to 200-plus JPEGs at best compression (3264 x 2448 pixels). And definitely opt for high-speed to help save the huge files and to get the best video quality (640 x 480 pixels at 30 fps).
Image Courtesy of Panasonic
The Lumix DMC-FZ30 starts up very quickly–under a second–and you’re ready to go. Like almost all digicams from top companies, Panasonic engineers have juiced the internal circuitry to improve start-up, focus time and practically eliminate shutter lag (Panasonic calls its hot chip the Venus Engine II). With the mode dial initially set to Auto, I took a variety of shots several sunny early Fall days inside and out (I had already taken some images during a press preview in the harbor but that wasn’t a production model). Ergonomically, the camera is a dream. Adjusting the powerful zoom feels just like a D-SLR and then some. With the two rings on the barrel, you frame your shot and then, if you’re in manual focus, you simply adjust the inner ring. It feels great. In fact, I kept it in manual focus most of the time. The camera also has a neat feature called MF Assist that enlarges the center of the screen so you can really make sure you’ve locked in on the subject.
While taking shots, I kept the camera in the Mega OIS setting Mode 2. With it, the stabilizing circuitry kicks in when you depress the shutter, rather than Mode 1 when OIS is constantly working. It’s generally more accurate and like the 12x zoom, is a terrific feature. With such powerful zooms even the slightest shake can ruin a shot. OIS eliminated most of these issues. This is also very helpful when shooting indoors with available light.
The DMC-FZ30 is indeed a pleasure to use. Along with Auto, the mode dial was heavily used as was Menu to make a variety of adjustments including sensitivity (80-400). Like all digicams, it has a number of Scene modes (Scenery, Portrait and so on) that let the camera make the settings for you. In the aperture- and shutter-priority modes, the convenient jog dials made tweaks a breeze. The EVF is very detailed and I found myself using it most of the time. The 2-inch LCD can be twisted in order to take over head shots. Since it was a bit early for the Thanksgiving Day Parade, I didn’t really make use of it but just having it as an option is a good thing.
After some time in the field, it was time to view the results onscreen and to make some 8.5×11 prints. It was at this time that the DMC-FZ30 versus an 8MP or even a 6MP D-SLR contest came to a screeching halt (the D-SLRs win hands down). Making full bleed prints with no editing or enhancements the amount of noise was very high, so much so that was a bit disconcerting particularly at 200 and 400. There was some purple fringing too but nothing as bothersome as the noise. At 80 and 100 photos were good but not spectacular. Having just shot with a 6MP Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D D-SLR with excellent results, the comparison was all the more jarring. The highly lauded 6MP FujiFilm FinePix F10 for $399 handled noise, much, much better with an ISO reaching 1600. Sure I could make smaller prints but that defeats the purpose of an 8MP camera. I also could spend time with Adobe Photoshop CS2 cleaning up the RAW files but that adds $500 to the total cost, not an insignificant sum in anyone’s universe.
On the plus side, the flash was quite good and accurate thanks to the AF Assist lamp (don’t bother with the supplied sunshade). Videos were VHS level and you can use the zoom while recording clips. Again, these are O.K. for short movies but definitely not a replacement for a MiniDV camcorder.
Image Courtesy of Panasonic
With a camera that had so much going for it–a great 12x Leica lens, optical image stabilization and 8MP resolution–the Lumix DMC-FZ30 should have rung the bell. It didn’t. The price is right too: it costs around $600. By comparison an 8MP D-SLR like the Canon Digital Rebel XT is $800 for the body and an image stabilized 100-400mm zoom would set you back another $1,400! Unfortunately, digital noise is a problem at higher ISOs. Bummer. If tweaking RAW files in PhotoShop CS2 is your style, then this camera is worth a long look. Other shoppers should consider mega zoom cameras from other companies, even though there is no direct competitor.
- Terrific zoom range
- Built-in optical image stabilization (2 modes)
- Great feel with zoom and manual focus
- Excellent menus
- High-quality 2-inch LCD screen and EVF
- Very noisy above 100 ISO
- No USB Hi-Speed connection
- Supplied software lacks RAW conversion