You’ve read our squawks about the endless search for the perfect two-in-one imaging device (good pictures and videos in a single package). For the most part we’ve concentrated on camcorders since they start out with fine video. Unfortunately other than a few Canons we’ve been generally disappointed with these supposed hybrids since they really can’t grab quality still images. Panasonic is flipping this formula on its head, starting off with a solid camera and adding high-quality movies to the mix. In this instance, the Lumix DMC-ZS3 is the first digicam with AVCHD Lite, a lesser quality codec compared to the AVCHD used in most high-def camcorders. Rather than 1080I, Lite records 720P at 60 frames per second, which in theory should be far better than 1280 x 720 30 fps clips taken by many 2009 cameras. In fact we just reviewed the Canon PowerShot SD970 IS with this feature and weren’t too thrilled with the video results. Now will AVCHD Lite be a heavyweight or a bust? Time to check it out…
Features and Design
The Panasonic ZS3 is the successor to the very popular TZ5, a camera that’s part of the Travel Zoom series because of its compact size and potent 10x optical zoom. With the ZS3, the company bumped the resolution to 10-megapixels from nine and increased the zoom to 12x. Better yet, the already wide-angle Lumix was made wider with an opening focal length of 25mm instead of the TZ5’s 28mm. This lets you take even larger group photos, far more interesting landscapes, portraits and loads more. We’re big fans of wide-angle lenses and this is a real plus. However, we’re not big fans of Wi-Fi enabled digicams such as the reviewed TZ50 which was basically the TZ5 with wireless capability. We thought that camera was O.K. so we were intrigued to learn if the newer version would be an improvement. And, of course, there’s AVCHD Lite video.
The Lumix DMC-ZS3 is a compact (available in silver-, black-, blue or red) digicam measuring 4.1 inches wide, 2.35 high and 1.3 deep; it weighs 7.6 ounces fully loaded. Travelers—and everyone else—will have no issues carrying this one around all day and night. The front is dominated by the 12x Leica DC Vario-Elmar lens which extends when you power up and folds neatly with a built-in lens cover when shut down. Focal length is 25-300mm, an excellent range. Also on the front is a flash, AF Assist lamp, a nice metal accent on the grip and several low-key logos touting various features including Mega OIS (optical image stabilization).
On the top you’ll find a four pinhole speaker, a stereo mic, on/off switch, a shutter button surrounded by the zoom toggle as well as a mode dial. The dial is very basic, offering options for iA (intelligent Auto), Auto which is more like Program AE on other digicams, two options for favorite scene modes (My Scene Mode 1-2), access to all 27 scene modes with SCN and Clipboard which saves images such as maps or train schedules to internal memory for future reference. This is clearly a point-and-shoot with zero options for individual shutter speeds or f/stops. If these tweaks are crucial, look elsewhere. Consider the sophisticated Lumix LX3 we liked so much or the more affordable Canon SX200 IS.
The rear of the ZS3 has an excellent 3-inch LCD screen rated at 460K pixels – about as good as you’ll find on a compact digicam. The Canon SD970 IS also has this level screen and both stand out from the competition. The ZS3 display worked well in all conditions including dark rooms and bright beaches although we did have to crank it up in direct sunlight. Another note: the less expensive ZS1 has a high-angle option for shooting overhead but this one does not have it unfortunately.
To the right of the screen are controls for play/record, a dedicated video record button, display and quick menu keys. Of course there’s a four-way controller with center set button. The four options include exposure compensation, flash/macro and self timer along with up/down, left/right for walking through the menus. On the right side you’ll find a compartment with mini HDMI and USB connections while the bottom of the Made In Japan camera has a slot for the rechargeable battery and SDHC card. Definitely use a Class 6 card for faster read/write speeds—especially with HD video.
What’s In The Box
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 comes with the camera, battery, plug-in charger, wrist strap, USB and A/V cables along with a 144-page owner’s manual. Put a mini HDMI cable on your shopping list along with a 4-gig Class 6 SDHC card. The supplied CD-ROM has PhotoFunStudio 3.0 HD, ArcSoft MediaImpression and PanoramaMaker to handle images and videos.
With the battery charged and loaded, it was time to put the ZS3 through its paces.
Performance and Use
Although the ZS3 has a 12.7-megapixel chip, it only captures 3648 x 2736 10MP JPEG stills. The extra pixel power is for the enhanced video of 1280 x 720 at 60 frames per second. Before taking videos, we tested the camera’s picture-taking abilities to see if it was in the running for our mythical dream two-in-one device.
As usual we started off in iA, moved to Auto (Program AE) then into HD movie land. With Intelligent Auto, the camera “guesses” the subject in front of it and changes to the appropriate scene mode (portrait, night portrait and so on; six options total). It worked well. There really aren’t many other options in iA other than resolution, single/burst mode or boosting the LCD brightness. We tried the burst mode outdoors since it disables the flash. Panasonic rates it at 1.8 fps which is decent for a point-and-shoot. In fact it’s almost twice as fast as the just reviewed SD970 IS but that’s a 12MP camera versus 10. Unfortunately after three shots it pauses to catch a breather—a D-SLR it is not.
After iA it was time to work in Auto (Program Auto). Here you have many more options although forget shutter speeds and f/stops. Like all Panasonics and decent aim-and-forget digicams, the ZS3 has optical image stabilization. We set it to Auto and also set the Intelligent ISO to max out at 400 before testing individual ISO settings (80-1600). The camera offers white balance adjustments as well as i-exposure and i-contrast to add detail to subjects in shadows. The camera has Face Detection with a twist. Called Face Recognition, it’ll optimize the exposure for a favorite face your store in memory. The camera also offers a variety of focusing options; we used 11-area AF.
The ZS3 is the first digicam with AVCHD Lite. We set this at best compression (SH) which records at 17 Mbps, a level found in many HD camcorders. This is pretty amazing, but realize the best AVCHD models record at 24 Mbps. Still 17 is very good for a point-and-shoot and as good as you’ll get at the price. (The 10MP Canon PowerShot SX1 records 1080P clips but it costs $599.) Also good is the fact you can zoom the entire range of the lens optically rather than digitally. The down side? The camera picks up some slight sounds of the lens motor. At least you get superior video quality unlike the results from a digital zoom along with good stereo audio.
Once we had taken a variety of stills, prints were made, files closely examined on the monitor while the photos and videos were displayed on a 50-inch plasma. Before getting into the results, lets state the ZS3 is no-brainer simple to use. It felt right, the screen is top notch and the menu system is child’s play. Whatever this camera can offer, you’ll access it in a second or two. That said, the ZS3 is not the quickest digicam in its class, especially when using the flash. And burst mode, while relatively speedy will not make anyone forget the truly fast response of a D-SLR.
Now for the results and we’ll deal with the video first: considering this is a $399 digicam, quality was very good, far superior to the typical 720P at 30 frames per second found in other cameras. The AVCHD Lite codec delivered accurate colors with very little noise in broad expanses of beach skies—and this was on a 50-inch screen. The fact the camera has an optical zoom in movie mode is a real plus and Panasonic did a good job muffling most of the noise from the lens. Now is this video as good as a $750 HD camcorder? Hardly and not nearly as tack sharp as the Canons we’ve rated so highly this year. And there was no getting away from digital noise in dim scenes taken in available light. Very good video, not great is the takeaway here.
As for stills, the camera did a good but not great job here as well. Colors were spot on but did not have the pop you’ll get from better PowerShots and Nikon Coolpix cameras. Focusing was relatively quick but you really need to brace yourself to get a sharp photo. The focal length is a real winner and we especially liked to 25mm option. Definitely check it out at a local retailer to see why you should seriously go wide with your next camera.
One of the more pleasant surprises was the lack of digital noise at higher ISOs. We’ve complained about Panasonics for years but the ZS3 was good up to 800; even the reduced-resolution High Sensitivity setting (up to 6400) was usable for a small print.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 goes to the top of the list for sub-$400 digicams. With its 12x wide-angle zoom, compact size and very good high-def video, the camera comes close to our two-in-one fantasy device. It’s not perfect though with its lack of manual settings, hard-to-obtain super sharpness in stills and video and other issues we’ve detailed here. When you search the web for ZS3 prices, you’ll rarely find it going for less than list—and that tells you all you need to know about this highly-regarded camera.
- Good, accurate stills, excellent 720P videos
- Quality Leica wide-angle 12x zoom
- Very good 3-inch LCD
- Easy to use menu system
- Optical zoom with movies
- Stills/videos not super-sharp
- Color doesn’t have “pop”
- No manual adjustments (shutter speeds, f/stops)
- Relatively slow