There’s an old saying in photography—the best camera is the one you have with you. Meaning something is always better than nothing for capturing snapshots. That said, while we all have cell phones with built-in cameras, for any function other than quickly sharing photos with another mobile handset or via online outlet, quality is pretty poor.
This year, we’ve already tested one excellent solution in the 12MP Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, a handy carry-around camera. Panasonic’s new DMC-ZS1 is similar in many ways, including a compact body, a potent 12x wide-angle zoom, intelligent auto and other features. It also costs $50 less since it’s a 10 megapixel digicam rather the Canon’s 12. So is this our new top pick of grab-and-go camreas? Let’s start shooting and find out…
Features and Design
Panasonic has never really been known for its cutting-edge industrial design. Good engineering, yes; Paris runway styling, no. Bearing this in mind, the tasty aesthetic touches common to the PowerShot aren’t found here, and the ZS1 proves rather understated as a result. We received a black one to test, but it’s also available with a silver finish. Not to rag on the manufacturer, but we’re really tired of silver-colored digicams and suggest going black or sticking with the red of the SX 200 IS. (Anything but a silver Altoids tin configuration…)
Speaking of the SX200 – which we liked a great deal – the ZS1 also has a 12x wide-angle zoom, but instead of the Canon’s 28mm opening focal length, the ZS1 is 25mm (25-300mm total). This is a big plus, as you can take wider group shots and landscapes that go beyond the ordinary. The Panasonic is even thinner than the Canon to boot, measuring just 4.1 x 2.3 x 1.3 (WHD in inches) versus 4.1 x 2.4 x 1.5. Even though the official measurements say it’s .2-inches, in the real world it seems much slimmer. The ZS1 weighs 7.6 ounces fully loaded, while the Canon is 8.6 as well. In either instance, you can pop it in your pocket and carry it around all day with a minimum of hassle.
The Leica DC Vario-Elmar lens dominates the front. You’ll also find the AF Assist lamp, flash, several unobtrusive logos and a silver accent on the grip. On the top is the mode dial, shutter button surrounded by the wide/tele toggle, power switch, mic and speaker. The dial offers iAuto (Intelligent Auto) where the camera guesses the scene in front of it and makes the requisite adjustments. All told, the feature works fairly well. There’s another Auto icon where you can tweak the basic settings somewhat (no aperture or shutter speed though) as well. You can adjust white balance, change the type of exposure, put a limit on ISO and so on.
Knowing Panasonic cameras’ propensity for digital noise, we set the test unit at ISO 400 maximum; the basic range reaches 1600, however, in the High Sensitivity scene mode, it hits 6400 (at 3MP). (More on this in a bit…) There are also MS (My Scene) on the dial where you pick a favorite Scene mode as a default; SCN (scene) to scroll through the 27 options; Movie (only WVGA 848 x 480 at 30 fps, not HD); and Clipboard options. With the Clipboard, you can record 2MP images to memory for future reference for things such as timetables and menus.
The rear is dominated by a 2.7-inch LCD rated 230K pixels. It’s an attractive display, and the company does users a big favor by having LCD adjustments a click away when you hit the Q. Menu key under the main controller. We had no problems using it in direct sunlight. On the top right is the main record/playback mode switch, while the standard four-way controller with center set button is below it. The on-screen menu system is very easy to use as well. There’s also a Display key to get rid of icon clutter or engage grid lines as well as the Q. Menu button.
The right side has a compartment for the USB-A/V outs; unfortunately, this is a proprietary output so you’re locked into the Panasonic ecosystem. The bottom of the camera has a metal tripod mount and compartment for the battery and SD card.
What’s In The Box
The Lumix DMC-ZS1 comes with battery, plug-in charger, USB and A/V cables as well as a CD-ROM with PhotofunStudio Ver. 3.0, ArcSoft MediaImpression and Panorama Maker for handling files. You also get a 144-page Owner’s Manual that also covers the ZS3, the more expensive big brother of the ZS1.
Once the battery was charged and loaded with a 2GB SD card, it was time to take some stills and video clips.
Performance and Use
Like every digicam from a top brand, the ZS1 is good to go within two seconds of hitting the power switch, as the lens extends and LCD pops to life. This Lumix is a 10MP camera, meaning it records 3648 x 2736 pixel JPEG files, a resolution that’s just fine for the vast majority of shutterbugs. We set it to maximum with best resolution, started off in iAuto, then moved to regular auto and scene modes and took some video clips as well.
We were very pleasantly surprised how quickly this one focused in general, and how well it captured images in burst mode, grabbing 2.5 frames per second for five images then taking a breather. While not DSLR levels, it’s far better than most aim-and-forget digicams. Overall, using the camera was effortless. After taking a raft of images indoors and out it was time to closely examine them and make full-bleed 8.5×11 prints.
We have to give Panasonic some credit for finally taming the noise monster. Typically, with older Lumix cameras, you couldn’t hit ISO 400 before encountering a firestorm of noise. With the 10MP ZS1, this setting was solid and a large print at 800 proved useable, while one at 1600 was very bad. Even so, it was a vast improvement. As for images taken outdoors, they were spot-on, with very accurate colors and nice detail. Even zoomed to the max (12x) there was no purple fringing. The company’s Mega OIS did its usual fine job of eliminating blur, resulting in some tack-sharp shots.
As for the video, it looked passable on a monitor, but blown up on a 50-inch HDTV, you definitely wouldn’t trade in your Blu-ray player. Simply put, it was adequate.
Panasonic is clearly trying to make a name for itself in the digicam market. With the LX3, GH1 and this new ’09 model, the company is putting itself within shouting distance of Canon, Nikon and Sony, and giving these competitors a nice run for the money. To wit, the Lumix DMC-ZS1 is a good, compact digicam with an excellent 12x wide-angle lens that takes high-quality photos.
Granted, it doesn’t have any manual adjustments to speak of, or HD video capability. That being said, you still can’t go wrong choosing this camera for everyday shooting. Overall, the Canon SX200 IS has more going for it but that in no way detracts from the current contender. Heft them both before you decide, then let ergonomics be your guide.
- Extremely compact
- Takes very good photos
- Nice 25mm wide-angle 12x zoom
- Very quick 2.5 fps shooting
- Quality screen with easy adjustments
- Optical image stabilization
- WVGA not HD video
- No manual adjustments
- Forget ISO 1600 and High Sensitivity setting
- Proprietary output