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Hands on with Panasonic’s new Lumix digital cameras

Panasnoic G5k

Panasonic announced six new Lumix cameras and three lenses today, some of which have some pretty cool spin. We got a chance to handle some of this new gear before it hits shelves – here’s the scoop.

What’s new

The new Panasonic Lumix cameras run the gamut from a Compact System Camera, several new long-zoom models, another with the obligatory Wi-Fi connectivity, and some fairly standard point-and-shoots. Panasonic offered few specifics on pricing and availability, except in the case of the FZ200 mega-zoom, which is a pretty special camera as you’ll find out shortly.

One of the key releases is the Lumix DMC-G5, the company’s latest mirrorless Compact System Camera. Due later this fall for around $1,000 with 14-42mm power zoom lens — this is as close as we could discover — the 16-megapixel Micro Four Thirds G5 has a burst mode of 6 fps, making it faster than most entry-level DSLRs and CSCs. It also shoots AVCHD Progressive videos at camcorder-level 28Mbps compression rate.

The camera will replace the G3 and has a new processor to improve focusing speed as well as overall response. Panasonic brought us to The Track In Sonoma race course in California to test some of the new models. This was pretty nervy as speeding race cars are a tough test, even for high-end DSLRs. In the case of the DMC-G5 it did a decent job, but you’re not going to see the results on the cover of Car and Driver. We shot Audi TTs on a slalom course with better results than Audi R8s on the main track. A lot of this had to do with the fact shooting race cars is not a specialty of ours, the camera positions on the track weren’t the best, and also the lack of a wide range of lenses. But let’s get real and not compare this to a Nikon D4 or Canon 1D X. The camera worked well enough in burst mode and more often than not captured non-shaky images. Colors were quite good, but we wouldn’t expect anything less in the bright California sun.

Speaking of bright sun, the G5’s articulating 3-inch LCD (rated 920K dots) handled it fairly well, but in many instances we used the built-in Electronic Viewfinder. This EVF is one of the best we’ve ever seen. This makes sense since it’s 1.44 million pixels rather than the 200K of many competitors. A built-in eye sensor turns it on quickly as you raise the camera to your face so you won’t miss a shot. This viewfinder helps separate it from the plethora of mirrorless cameras on the market.

At Ram’s Gate Winery we had a good chance to test the camera’s low-light capability in the wine cellar. The G5 has an ISO range of 160 to 12,800 and the shots we took at very high sensitivity settings were much better than our previous experiences with Panasonic cameras. Don’t get us wrong: There was plenty of noise at 12,800, which is totally expected with Micro Four Thirds sensors. But the results were much improved and very good at 3,200. Our complaint with Panasonic CSCs has less to do with capabilities — it’s all about the money. They generally cost more than the competition. At close to $1,000, we’re nearing Sony NEX-7 territory.

Panasonic DMC-G5 sample photos

Panasonic Lumix DMC G5 sample picture barrels
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Check out our full review of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G5 digital camera.

The G5 also has 14 “art” filters (up from 6 in the G3). A nice preview feature lets you see what your image looks like before you press the shutter. We used the star filter in the wine cellar for some old-school effects. Filters are fun and we suggest you play with them as much as your sensibilities allow.

Another appealing new camera was the DMC-FZ200 with a 24x optical zoom and 12-megapixel CMOS sensor ($599; this figure was quoted by Panasonic execs). What sets this mega-zoom apart from the competition is the fact it has an constant f/2.8 aperture throughout the entire focal range (25-600mm). Previously, if you wanted f/2.8 at 600mm you had to buy a super-expensive DSLR lens. In most other lenses, as you increase the focal length, apertures close down, making it difficult to nicely blur your backgrounds using wider apertures. With the FZ200 you can do that. Unfortunately, the camera was not a full production model, so although we used several samples, quality could not be judged as final. What we did take made us anxious to get our hands on a full production unit. The ability to shoot an extreme telephoto at f/2.8 opens a lot of possibilities for photographers of all levels and is a real standout. Stay tuned.

Along with the f/2.8 lens, the FZ200 captures AVCHD Progressive videos (1920 x 1080/60p), has a top speed of 12 fps, shoots RAW, has OIS, a .2-inch EVF rated 1.3 million dots, a 3-inch 460K-dot LCD screen and 14 filters to add creative touches to your stills.

Panasnoic FZ200

Brighter lenses are among our favorite trends for point-and-shoot cameras — think Canon S100, Olympus XZ-1, Sony RX100, Nikon P310, Samsung EX2F and the long-in-the-tooth Panasonic LX5. It’s really nice seeing manufacturers introduce f/2.0 and wider models. These low-numbered apertures bring in more light so you can shoot faster shutter speeds in really dark scenes. Just as important is the ability to blur backgrounds for top-notch portraits and so on. In Sonoma Panasonic took the wraps off the new DMC-LX7, a compact camera with an f/1.4 lens at the wide-angle setting, f/2.3 at tele. It’s a 3.8x Leica DC Vario-Summilux optical zoom with a range of 24-91.2mm.

The LX7 — guesstimate of $549 — has a 10.1MP 1/1.7-inch CMOS sensor and can grab 5 fps in continuous focus AF. It also takes AVCHD Progressive videos. Although this camera wasn’t great for shots on the track, it’s perfect for everyday photography and places like the dimly-lit wine cellar. It’s light, easy to carry around and we were pleased with the results. We must stress we didn’t have any of these units for our usual weeks-long test periods so these are really first impressions.

Here comes more Wi-Fi

Every camera company is wading into Wi-Fi so they can compete with smartphones for quick sharing of casual shots (good luck with that). We got a chance to see Panasonic’s latest entry in this arena. Due this fall, the DMC-SZ5 14.1-megapixel CCD, point-and-shoot was still in shake-down mode with new apps that weren’t quite ready for prime time. One nice demo showed how you could use your smartphone as a viewfinder and control the SZ5. Obviously, the jury is still out on this 10x 25-250mm edition.

More stuff

Panasonic also announced new Micro Four Thirds lenses along with the G5. The Lumix G Vario f/4.0-5.6 45-150mm zoom (90-300mm equivalent) has built-in Mega Optical Image Stabilization. Also coming later this year are 12-35mm and 35-100mm lenses bringing the total to 17 by the end of 2012. This is far broader than the line-ups of competing CSCs from Sony, Samsung and Nikon.

Additional new cameras announced today include the 16-megapixel CCD Lumix LZ20 with a 21x optical zoom (25-525mm equivalent) and optical image stabilization. It has a 460K-dot 3-inch LCD but only takes 720p videos. Rounding out the new introductions was the DMC-FZ60 with a 24x 25-600mm zoom. The Leica DC Vario-Elmarit lens has a Nano Surface Coating to reduce ghosting and flare. The FZ60 has a 16.1-megapixel CMOS sensor, giving it a maximum burst mode of 10 fps, but this drops to 5 using continuous AF. It also captures AVCHD videos (1080/60i), has a 3-inch 460K LCD screen, a raft of filters and a built-in HDR mode.