With warm weather breaking out all over, wanderlust is infecting the country. And what better way to document your travels than with a potent 12x mega-zoom digicam that bring subjects in your face–for better or worse. Canon, Panasonic and Sony are the major players in this category with very popular 12x zoom cameras such as the new Canon 6MP Powershot S3 IS ($499), the 6-megapixel Sony Cybershot DSC-H2 ($399) and the 7.2MP -H5 for $499 as well as Panasonic’s 8MP DMC-FZ30 ($649). Along with mega zooms these cameras have optical image stabilization–not electronic–in order to reduce image shake when taking extreme telephoto images or shooting in low light. The two features pack a powerful one-two punch and separate them from other super zoom cameras. It’s no wonder prices hold on these digicams compared to most other models that seem to drop in price every other day. For the record Kodak also has a 12x mega zoom but the P850 ($399) has a 5MP imager and uses electronic image stabilization, not optical. The 6-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 is the company’s newest mega zoom and we definitely wanted to try it, especially after our uneven experiences with its larger sibling, the FZ30. After charging the battery and loading a card, we hit the road…
The DMC-FZ7 is a surprisingly light camera, tipping the scales at 13.8 ounces with SD card, lens hood and battery. If you take off the lens hood, the camera is very compact, measuring 4.48 x 2.8 x 3.1 (WHD, in inches), slightly smaller than the Sony DSC-H2, very close to the Canon S3 IS and much smaller than the FZ30. In other words, this one is a good choice for travelers who want a 12x optical zoom that delivers a range of 36-432mm (35mm equivalent). Sweet, as Mr. Cartman says.
The black-bodied digicam we tested is fairly button and decal free, other than a few self-serving items and the usual keys found on almost every digicam. (The camera is also available with a silver finish.) The front is dominated by the lens which is a Leica DC Vario-Elmarit design with mega zoom capability. You’ll also find an AF Assist lamp and a tiny microphone. The camera has a built-in pistol grip on the right that’s reasonably comfortable although I wouldn’t mind the depth of the FZ30. Note to all potential purchasers of this camera or any other–do your own hands-on test since my preferences might be wildly different than your own. That said, the FZ7 felt all right, not great.
On the top of the camera is a pop-up flash (manually operated unfortunately), a mode dial, the wide/tele zoom toggle switch, a button to set the level of optical image stabilization and another to change from auto to manual focus.
The rear of the camera is dominated by a 2.5-inch LCD screen rated a so-so 114K pixels. There’s a power key, flash open button and another to switch between the LCD or viewfinder. The .33-inch electronic viewfinder has a diopter adjustment and is rated 114K pixels. To the right of the LCD screen is a four-way controller with center set button, a joystick to navigate through certain onscreen menus and a key to cycle through the displays and a delete key. The left side has a compartment containing the DC in and A/V out connections while the bottom has a door that covers the battery/memory card compartment and a tripod mount. In all, a fairly logical set-up with no real surprises or faux pas.
The DMC-FZ7 comes with just about everything you need to start firing away. It has lithium ion battery rated a nice 320 shots (per CIPA testing), a charger, USB and A/V cables, lens hood, an ArcSoft software bundle on CD ROM, a 132-page Owner’s Manual and a measly 16MB SD card. Budget another $40 or so for a one gig card to hold a bunch of 2816 x 2112 pixel files. You might consider a 2GB card since if you shoot in TIFF mode it’ll hold around 100 compared to 650 JPEGs.
Image Courtesy of Panasonic
The DMC-FZ7 is ready to go in less than two seconds as the lens barrel extends and then you’re good to go. I typically start in Auto then move into manual adjustments. At the outset I noticed something strange. Almost every digicam with a mode dial has a green camera icon or an “Auto” indication. Not this Panasonic. For some bizarre reason a red heart is the auto setting. Other cameras use the heart to save favorites. Memo to Panasonic engineers: change the red heart to a green camera icon and be like the rest of the world.
This little hiccup aside, the camera was fairly responsive in the “heart” mode. You literally cannot change important settings other than image size and, as the manual states, it’s for beginners. Turning the dial to P for Program AE opens up a much wider photographic world where you can make adjustments until your nails wear down, if that’s your thing.
One of the best features of this mega zoom edition is Mega O.I.S. (Optical Image Stabilization). In fact it’s found on all new Panasonic digicams. The system uses a physical system to adjust for camera movement instead of electronic circuitry, eliminating any potential picture degradation. There are three settings available: off, mode 1 and mode 2. In mode 1 the stabilizer is constantly engaged. With mode 2, O.I.S. kicks in when you depress the shutter. Both work well. In the red Heart setting, the camera is in mode 1, basically eliminating the off chance a tyro might turn the O.I.S. off.
The importance of image stabilization for a mega zoom camera cannot be overestimated. When you zoom all the way to 12x (432mm) every little shake and twitch will show up in your photos. Unless you’re using a tripod, blurry shots are a given. Not so with O.I.S. Shooting some New York skyscrapers from wide to full telephoto quickly proved this. With O.I.S. engaged, steeples were tack sharp; with it off there were blurs. And even if just drink decaf coffee, blur will happen. With O.I.S. you can sip a few double espressos (high-test) and still get sharp photos.
Adjusting the camera is very simple with well-designed onscreen menus. I liked the LCD brightness options. By pressing the LCD key on the back you have an option for Power LCD to brighten the overall screen. A unique setting is “High Angle” that lets you hold the camera above your head and the screen is viewable. Nice thinking there. Even though the screen could have more pixels, I had no problems under a variety of conditions including strong sunlight.
Although the camera is point-and-shoot with the Heart mode there are a number of other options including over a dozen Scene settings. One even lets you push the ISO to 1600. The results are as you’d expect–awful–with blizzards of noise. Still it’s an option–even though a bad one–for taking shots in available light. You’re better off just popping open the flash.
Image Courtesy of Panasonic
The FZ7 has aperture and shutter priority modes. Just flick up the joystick and you can change the aperture between f/2.8-8.0. Shutter options range between a nice long 8 seconds to 1/2000th of a second. Manual lets you change both settings. Manual focus is also nicely implemented by adjusting the joystick; an insert window magnifies the subject so you can make sure it’s razor sharp.
Like almost all better digicams, the DMC-FZ7 also takes 640 x 480 pixel video clips at 30 frames per second (VHS levels). Quality is O.K., good enough to grab a clip for the family. With the proliferation of widescreen HDTVs, the camera also takes 848 x 480 pixel 16:9 format videos at 30 fps. OIS works when taking videos but only in mode 1 (constantly on).
After taking a ton of photos in a variety of settings it was time to take stock of Panasonic’s latest mega zoom camera. And the verdict? Mixed but leaning to the positive side.
As noted, start-up time was nice and fast. However, there was a bit of a lag when the camera saved TIFF files. This is to be expected since only D-SLRs really eliminate this lag and deliver almost instantaneous response. Fortunately, the camera has a good burst mode but only in JPEG (3 fps). I found the camera very easy to use, but having the owner’s manual nearby certainly helped. Panasonic does not have the good onscreen descriptions like HP or Kodak; perhaps next year when they get around to changing the red heart icon to its proper green!
There is no getting away from it: the best part of this camera is its combination of a 12x optical zoom and optical image stabilization. Everything else seemed secondary. Using 3x zooms on most digicams and then having the ability to really zoom in on a subject is wonderful. As for the quality of the images themselves, Panasonic still needs to work on its noise levels. Shooting in daylight, the camera delivered very nice photos although I did see some purple fringing of stark edges against cloudy skies at the extreme end of the telephoto range. Once you adjusted the ISO above 200, noise became annoying, the same problem as with the 8MP Panasonic DMC-FZ30. I made many 8 Â½ x 11 prints and was happy with the ones taken outdoors or with the flash. A 6MP imaging device is more than enough for good letter-sized prints. Problems arose when pushing the ISO. If adjusting ISOs is a foreign language for you, this is much less of an issue.
Vacationers should put the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 on their packing lists. How high on the list depends on your shooting style. If you’re one for pushing ISOs, the FZ7 is not for you. However, if you’re going to stick to ISO 200 and below, by all means give this camera a try. With its amazing lens, compact package, optical image stabilization and manual options, this is a very solid mega-zoom–especially with a street price of less than $350.
- Amazing 12x optical zoom
- Optical image stabilization
- Respectable LCD screen
- Extensive manual controls
- Good battery life
- Noise above 200 ISO
- Manually operated pop-up flash
- LCD screen could be better
- Slow saving files to card
- Must budget for large high-speed SD card