I’m all for mega zoom cameras. With zooms ranging from 10x up to 18x these cameras offer tremendous shooting options for shutterbugs. Want to bring your subject close? The telephoto does it for you. And since they’re much lighter than any D-SLR with a long zoom lens they’re a breeze to carry around. As an added bonus they cost a heck of a lot less. What could be wrong with that? Plenty as D-SLRs are much more responsive and due to their larger imaging devices deliver bigger prints with much less digital noise. Still you can’t beat the portability of a camera like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3, a compact 7-megapixel digicam with a 10x zoom, a large 3-inch LCD and optical image stabilization. This camera has a focal length of 28-280mm, giving that extra wide angle I like so much. One of its nearest competitors is the new Sony Cybershot DSC-H3, an 8MP model with a 10x zoom, OIS but a smaller 2.5-inch screen ($299 USD). Its range is a more traditional 38-380mm and it has more manual exposure options than the TZ3. Note: we’ll have a review sample soon and let you know which one is better since they both have the same list price. In the meantime, how good is the TZ3? There’s only one way to find out…
Features and Design
The silver, black or blue bodied digicam (your call) feels very solid and weighs around 9 ounces with the battery. About the size of a pack of cards when turned off, the lens protrudes an additional inch when powered up. Still it’s a very compact 10x zoom camera that’s just dandy for travelers (4.2 x 2.37 x 1.47, WHD, in inches, lens closed). Another nice touch is the built-in lens cover, something not found on other mega zooms. By the way, the TZ stands for Travel Zoom. As you’d imagine, the front is dominated by the Leica DC Vario-Elmar lens that equals 28-280mm in 35mm terms. You’ll also find the flash, the AF illuminator lamp and a few logos and decals (touting the 10x, naturally). There’s also a contrasting metallic accent that adds a bit of sophistication.
The top is pretty basic: a shutter button with surrounding wide-tele zoom ring, power switch, a dedicated button to change the optical image stabilization modes, pinholes for the mic and speaker as well as the main mode dial. With the dial you can change from auto, macro, playback and movie modes with 848 x 480 pixels at 30 fps in 16:9 aspect ratio the best quality. The camera offers 21 scene modes and you can pick two as default settings for SCN 1 and SCN 2 on the dial. There’s also a direct print option and a Simple mode which basically locks the camera down so you can’t make any changes and ostensibly screw things up. About the only thing you can do is adjust Backlight Compensation. Also on the dial is an Intelligent ISO setting that boosts the sensitivity for indoor shots. You can also limit the top level to 800 or 1250 (something I’d heartily recommend). A Clipboard mode lets you shoot documents that are saved to internal memory.
As you’d imagine, the rear of the TZ3 is dominated by the 3-inch LCD rated 230K pixels. It’s an OK screen that has troubles with direct sunlight. There are two ways to rectify this. Getting to the LCD adjustment is fairly simple (hit menu, move into setup and take care of business) or more simply you can tap the dedicated Display/LCD Mode key. Press it for a second and you have the option to boost screen brightness. You can also hit High Angle and hold the camera over your head, angle it down and take a shot. This is very cool. You also have a number of screen display options (with or without grid lines, view a histogram, see all the icons or none). To the right of the screen is a four-way controller with center Menu/Set button. At the four points you can change exposure compensation, flash setting, instant review and the self timer. Below this cluster are the combo Function/Delete key and the Display/LCD mode key.
On the right side is a compartment for USB out and DC-in. On the bottom is the slot for the battery and SD card.
The Lumix DMC-TZ3 comes with everything you need to get started other than an SD/SDHC card. You get the battery, compact charger, strap, A/V and USB cables, a 108-page owner’s manual and a CD-ROM with the Lumix Simple Viewer and PhotoFunStudio viewer software.
After charging the battery and loading a 2-gig card, it was time to test this camera out.
Image Courtesy of Panasonic
Testing and Use
The TZ3 is good to go in about two seconds as the lens extends; this is about standard for a 2007 digicam but not the quickest I’ve handled. I began in Auto then moved to few other manual options available. I set the camera to maximum resolution (7MP, 3072 x 2304 pixels) with the least compression and initially auto white balance and ISO (sensitivity) with OIS engaged. Note: this is a true aim-and-forget camera—there are no manual adjustments for aperture or shutter speed so if those options have any appeal for you, look at another model. Also this camera does not have face detection, one of the most popular new features of the year. With most of the bad news on table it was time to start clicking in earnest.
Since it was Thanksgiving, I had the opportunity to take shots of lots of smiling faces on a trip to Florida. Even without face detection, the TZ3 did a very good job capturing smiles with very good exposures. Where the camera fell on its face (pun intended) was speed. Slipping the camera into continuous mode to capture a “birthday cake–blow out the candles” situation, the TZ3 chugged along; it took about four seconds for the flash to recycle (and this was with a charged battery). A few memories were missed because of this and it’s one of the reasons D-SLRs are catching on—no point-and-shoot digicam can match the speed—and the Panasonic definitely was slower than other aim-and-forget digicams recently tested. Although Panasonic claims three shots per second in continuous mode, I don’t know on which planet they determined this figure. That said, the 28mm wide angle setting came in very handy and it’s a real plus compared to the more traditional 35mm spec.
Image Courtesy of Panasonic
Beyond the usual turkey day festivities, I used the camera to capture the last leaves of fall and my usual indoor subjects (flower arrangements, cats and so on). When shooting outdoors, the TZ3 is fairly responsive with no problems grabbing focus. I could easily see the owner of this camera strolling along on a vacation, taking photos galore. Shooting indoors gave me the opportunity to see how well the OIS and ISO worked since I disabled the flash. Again the response was not the fastest and with no way to adjust shutter speed or aperture you’re at the mercy of the camera’s adjustments (not a great thing, I might add).
Once the card was loaded with images it was time to crank out 8.5×11 full bleed prints with no tweaking in the camera or printer. Before I get into the positives let me state that Panasonic Lumix digicams still have serious issues with digital noise when you hit ISO 400 when shooting with the flash off. Do not expect to turn out large pristine prints at these levels as you’ll be disappointed. Even though the OIS did a good job with blur, the images fell apart at anything 400 or higher. Too bad. As far as the shots taken with the flash, they were good for the most part although a few were a tad overexposed. Touristy outdoor photos were quite good, with accurate, natural colors and no discernible purple fringing with buildings or tree branches against the sky. I liked them and the prints were more than acceptable.
The 7MP Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3 goes for around $260 USD (silver), a bit more in different colors. At this price it’s a good choice for people who want to take a versatile digicam along on their travels. The 28mm lens is great for landscapes and people shots; it’s one of my favorite features on this or any point-and-shoot camera. Before you drop the bucks, realize it’s not the fastest model on the block with a continuous shooting mode (with flash) that’ll have you twiddling your thumbs. And that old Panasonic bugaboo of too much digital noise at high ISOs is still with us. If you can deal with these issues, check it out.
• Compact 10x zoom
• Optical image stabilization
• Nice, large LCD screen
• Pokey performance
• Noisy at 400 ISO and beyond