DCRP Review: Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ1
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: May 18, 2003
Last Updated: May 19, 2003

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One of the most interesting digital cameras of 2003 comes from a rather unexpected source: Panasonic. After a string of so-so cameras, Panasonic has come up with a camera unlike anything else on the market at this time: the Lumix DMC-FZ1. The FZ1 ($449) has a 12X, F2.8 Leica lens with optical image stabilization. Enthusiasts might be turned off by its 2 Megapixel CCD and lack of manual controls. Even so, there's nothing else out there like it (which is a shame).

Is this the ultimate "big zoom" camera? Find out now in our review!

Note: the model shown here (DMC-FZ1S) has a silver body. Another model (DMC-FZ1K) with a black body is also available.

What's in the Box?

The FZ1 has a very good bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 2.0 (effective) Mpixel Lumix DMC-FZ1 camera
  • 8MB Secure Digital card
  • CGA-S002 li-ion battery
  • AC adapter / battery charger
  • Lens hood
  • Neck strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring ArcSoft Camera Suite and USB drivers
  • 107 page manual (printed)

The FZ1 includes a 8MB card Secure Digital memory card, which is definitely a "starter card". You'll definitely want something larger when you're ready to get serious, so I recommend picking up a 64MB card (or two). The camera can use SD or MultiMedia (MMC) cards, though Panasonic says performance is better with SD cards.

The FZ1 uses a proprietary lithium-ion battery to provide power. The included CGA-S002 battery has a decent amount of power -- 4.9 Wh. Don't expect hours of picture taking, though, as the battery will only last for about 110 minutes in record mode (50/50 LCD/viewfinder use).

Downsides of a proprietary battery include the cost ($78), and the fact that you can't just pop in a set of AAs when you're low on juice.

When it's time to recharge, just put the battery in the included external charger, and wait 90 minutes. You can also use the charger as an AC adapter to power your camera without using batteries.

The camera includes a lens cap and retaining strap to protect your Leica lens. Panasonic also gives you a lens hood for shooting outdoors -- a nice touch.

There aren't a whole lot of accessories available for the FZ1. Choose from a neutral density filter, MC protector (filter), and various SD-related accessories. No add-on lenses or flashes are available.

Panasonic includes a whole bunch of ArcSoft's software with the FZ1. This includes PhotoImpression (for editing photos), PhotoBase (for organizing photos), PanoramaMaker (for creating panoramic images), and PhotoPrinter (for printing photos). All of these programs are Mac OS X native -- and Windows compatible too, of course. In addition to the ArcSoft software, USB drivers for Windows are also included. When connected, the camera mounts on the Mac OS X desktop -- it is also compatible with iPhoto.

The FZ1's manual is much like the one included with your DVD player - detailed, but confusing, with lots of "notes" in small type on each page.

Look and Feel

The DMC-FZ1 is surprisingly compact for a camera with a 12X lens with image stabilization. The body is made of metal and high grade plastic, and is easy to hold and operate.

The dimensions of the camera are just 4.5 x 2.8 x 3.3 inches (W x H x D), with a mass of 318 grams empty. Compare that with the Olympus C-740UZ's numbers of 4.2 x 2.6 x 2.7 and 295 grams, respectively.

Okay, let's begin our tour of the camera now.

If you know one thing about the FZ1, it's about the stunning 12X optical zoom lens. This lens, made by Leica, is fast all the way through the focal range, with a maximum aperture of F2.8. Speaking of the focal range, it is 4.6 - 55.2 mm, which is equivalent to 35 - 420 mm. The lens is not threaded.

It's one thing to have a big lens. But add an optical image stabilizer and it's a totally different animal. This image stabilizer will help reduce camera movement when you're at the telephoto end of the focal range, allowing you to get shots that would normally require a tripod. Do note that it can't work miracles: as the shutter speed gets slower, it becomes less effective. But believe me, it's much better than nothing at all!

Directly above the lens is the FZ1's pop-up flash. The flash has a working range of 0.3 - 2.1 m at wide-angle, and 1.2 - 2.1 m at telephoto -- not great (compare with 0.6 – 5.1 m and 0.6 m – 3.8 m on the C-740UZ). The FZ1 doesn't support an external flash.

The only other items on the front of the camera are found to the upper-right of the lens. They are the microphone and self-timer lamp. There's no AF illuminator on this camera.

Moving on to the back of the camera, we can see the FZ1's 1.5" LCD display. While it's not a very big display, the LCD is bright, images are fluid, and the resolution is high. Viewing it outdoors can be difficult, as is the case with nearly all LCDs.

At the upper-left corner is the camera's electronic viewfinder, or EVF. This is like a little LCD screen that you view in the same way as you would a regular optical viewfinder. You can see the same items on the EVF (menus, settings, etc) that you would find on the LCD.

I must say that the EVF's quality is excellent -- it's high resolution and bright, and one of the best I've seen. However, in low light, the EVF becomes useless -- you can't see a thing. I like how Minolta boosts the "gain" on their EVFs in this situation, and wish everyone did it.

The EVF also has diopter correction knob, for those without perfect vision.

There are several buttons to the right of the EVF. These include:

  • Flash release
  • Display - switches between EVF and LCD, plus the info shown on each
  • Focus - you can use this button to prefocus the camera
  • Power switch

To the right of the LCD are two buttons (menu, delete photo) as well as the four-way controller. In addition to its menu navigation function, the controller also does the following:

  • Up - Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments) + exposure bracketing (3 shots in a row with different EV values [±1/3, ±2/3, ±1EV])
  • Right - Flash (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, forced on, slow sync w/redeye reduction, forced off)
  • Down - Review (jumps to playback mode)
  • Left - Self-timer (2 or 10 sec)

To the right of the four-way controller is the FZ1's speaker.

On the top of the FZ1, you'll find the pop-up flash (closed here), mode dial, zoom controller, shutter release button, and burst mode button. Note also the handy lens cap used to prop up the camera.

There are quite a few strange symbols on the mode dial, so I'll cover them below, beginning with the heart symbol and moving clockwise:

  • Simple mode - totally point-and-shoot, most settings locked up
  • Normal picture - still point-and-shoot, but with all settings unlocked
  • Macro mode - more later
  • Portrait mode
  • Sports mode
  • Night portrait mode
  • Panning mode - used when you follow a fast moving subject with the lens. Sharp subject, blurry background.
  • Movie mode - more later
  • Playback mode - more later

The zoom controller, wrapped around the shutter release button, (very) quietly moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in just over two seconds. The controller is also very precise, so you can get the lens exactly where you want it.

Finally, there's the burst mode button. This button lets you select between two burst modes: high speed and low speed. High speed will take up to 4 shots (at the highest quality setting) at 4 frames/second. Low speed will also take up to 4 shots, but at 2 frames/second.

The only thing to see over here are the FZ1's I/O ports. They are normally kept under a sturdy plastic cover, which I have opened here. The ports include A/V and USB.

On the other side, also under a plastic cover, is the other I/O port: the one for DC-in. By plugging in the included AC adapter, you can power your camera without draining your battery.

The bottom of the camera is where you'll find the tripod mount, battery compartment, and SD/MMC card slot.

The metal tripod mount is neither inline with the lens, nor in the center of the body.

One thing to note: you cannot change the memory card while the camera is on a tripod, for obvious reasons.

Using the Panasonic DMC-FZ1

Record Mode

For having such a large lens, the FZ1 starts up very quickly. It may appear to be ready to go in about two seconds, but in reality it takes four, as the lens has to move to the wide-angle position.

In good lighting, autofocus speeds were excellent, with the camera taking under a second to lock focus. Shutter lag was virtually nonexistent. In dim lighting, things went downhill -- the camera had a lot of trouble focusing. Here's where an AF-assist lamp would've come in handy. If you are able to lock focus, the shutter lag is still minor, thankfully.

Shot-to-shot speed is excellent, with a one second delay between shots (assuming the post-shot review feature is off). You cannot delete a shot as it's being recorded to memory, but you can enter review mode (using the four-way controller) to do so.

Now, here's a look at the image size/quality choices on the FZ1:

Image Size # photos on included 8MB SD Memory card
Fine Quality Standard Quality
1600 x 1200 8 16
1280 x 960 10 20
640 x 480 34 68

There is no TIFF or RAW image format on the FZ1.

The file numbering system on the FZ1 is simple. Files are named P101####.JPG, where #### = 0001 - 9999. The numbering is maintained as you erase and swap memory cards.

The FZ1 has a very basic (in terms of appearance and operation) menu system, which is where you'll find all the camera's settings.

  • White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, halogen, manual)
  • Picture size (see chart)
  • Quality (see chart)
  • Spot mode (on/off) - focus and metering measured on a spot in the center of the frame
  • ISO sensitivity (Auto, 50, 100, 200, 400)
  • Audio recording (on/off) - record a 5 second voice clip with each photo
  • Continuous autofocus (on/off) - when on, camera is always trying to focus
  • AF trigger (Focus, shutter) - define what button locks the focus
  • Digital zoom (on/off) - using this will reduce photo quality
  • Color effect (Off, cool, warm, black & white)
  • Picture adjustment (Natural, standard, vivid) - see below
  • Image stabilizer (on/off)

The only manual control on the FZ1 is white balance. There's no control over shutter speed, aperture, or focus.

The picture adjustment feature is a little confusing. The manual describes it as a sharpness adjustment, while in reality it appears to adjust the color saturation. The examples below should illustrate the three options for you (be sure to view the full size images as well).


Standard
View Full Size Image


Natural - dull colors
View Full Size Image


Vivid - bright colors
View Full Size Image

There is also a setup menu on the FZ1, which is another "tab" in the record and playback mode menus. The setup options are:

  • Monitor/EVF brightness (-3 to +3)
  • Auto review (Off, 1, 3 sec)
  • Beep (Off, low volume, high volume)
  • Power save (Off, 2, 5, 10 min)
  • File number reset (on/off)
  • Reset settings
  • Clock set
  • Language (English, Japanese)
  • Video out (NTSC, PAL)

Okay, enough about menus. Let's take a look at some photo samples now.

With no manual controls, your night shooting abilities are somewhat limited on the FZ1. I was able to get the 8 second exposure above by using the night scene mode, without the flash. The shot above isn't perfect (look at the lights on the bridge), but it's not bad, and the noise levels are quite low.

That weird thing in the sky on the right is one of those planes with a scrolling message on it.

The FZ1 did a fine job with the macro test subject. The colors are very saturated, and the subject (save for maybe the ears) is nice and sharp. In macro mode, you can get as close as 5 cm at wide-angle, and 1.2 m at telephoto.

I was surprised at the amount of redeye in my test shot, especially given the FZ1's pop-up flash that is well away from the lens. You can remove it pretty well using software, of course, but it would be nice to skip that step!

Two other things to note: I enlarged and brightened this shot a bit so you can see the details. Also, the shot was fairly noisy (you can kind of see that here).

I must confess that I was eagerly awaiting the distortion test. It wasn't the barrel distortion that I wanted to see -- it's moderate, as you can tell. What I was really after was the vignetting (dark corners), that I noticed in a few of my test shots. I never used the lens hood, so that's not to blame. One way to get rid of this is to close down the aperture a bit (using a higher F-value), but since the FZ1 doesn't let you control this, you're kind of at the whim of the camera.

Photo quality on the FZ1 was overall a mixed bag. On the positive sides, exposure, sharpness, and color were all very good. The camera was able to capture static and dynamic objects with ease. And kudos to Panasonic for getting rid of the awful overaggressive image processing that the DMC-LC5 had.

Downsides include the aforementioned vignetting (which was infrequent), higher-than-I'd-like noise levels, and some purple fringing. The purple fringing is to be expected with a huge lens like this, and to be honest, it wasn't that horrible.

The ultimate decision about photo quality lies with you, so check out the photo gallery and draw your own conclusions.

Movie Mode

The DMC-FZ1 has an above average movie mode. You can record 320 x 240 video until your memory card is full. In the case of the included 8MB card, that's 35 seconds. But move up to a 64MB card and you can record 350 seconds of continuous video. Sound is recorded as well.

You cannot use the zoom during filming, but you can position it wherever you want before you begin filming.

Movies are saved in QuickTime format, using the M-JPEG codec.

Here's a sample movie for you. It always seems to be windy when I record these. Also, those are hang gliders in the distance.


Click to play movie (2.2MB, QuickTime format)

Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The FZ1 has a nice playback mode as well. Panasonic covers all the basic features, including slide shows, DPOF print marking, thumbnail mode, image protection, and zoom and scroll.

The zoom and scroll feature lets you zoom 2, 4, 8, or 16 times into your photo, and then scroll around. This feature is well-implemented, though I wish you had more zoom choices.

There are a few advanced features as well, including image resizing and trimming (cropping). In both cases, you can choose to save or delete the original photo.

Deleting photos is a snap: just use the button on the back of the camera. You can delete one, multiple, or all photos.

The FZ1 doesn't show a whole lot of information about your photos. The basic stats are there -- just don't expect a histogram. The camera moves through photos quickly, with about 1/2 second between high resolution thumbnails.

How Does it Compare

I was a little skeptical when I heard reports from a few folks in our message boards about how much fun they were having with the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ1. After using it for two weeks, I must agree with them. There's something about a fast, 12X optically stabilized zoom lens that makes photography a little more fun than with a regular camera. The FZ1 is very easy to use, it's responsive, compact (for a big zoom camera), and the photo quality is pretty good.

That's not to say that the FZ1 is perfect though, because it's not. There are no manual controls (besides white balance), the EVF becomes useless in low light, some images suffer from vignetting, noise and purple fringing, and the resolution is only 2 Megapixel. Redeye seems to be a problem as well.

In terms of manual features and photo quality, Olympus' two Ultra Zoom models are superior. But when I was out with both the FZ1 and C-740UZ, I found myself reaching for the Panasonic more often -- probably that fun factor again.

In conclusion, the FZ1 is a nice choice if you don't need a lot of resolution. If you're doing larger prints (8 x 10 or greater), and don't mind missing out on this nice lens, the Olympus models may be a better choice.

What I liked:

  • Ohhh, that lens
  • Responsive performance
  • Nice movie, playback modes
  • Easy and fun to use
  • Nice electronic viewfinder, except in low light
  • Generally good photo quality (though see issues below)
  • Good continuous shooting mode for a point-and-shoot

What I didn't care for:

  • No manual controls, except for white balance
  • Vignetting, noise, purple fringing in some images
  • Poor low light focusing
  • Redeye
  • EVF impossible to see in low light
  • Only 2 Megapixel

There aren't very many "big zoom" cameras out there -- and none have the image stabilizer of the FZ1. Other models to look at include the HP Photosmart 850 (4MP, 8X zoom), Olympus C-740 Ultra Zoom (3MP, 10X), and the Olympus C-750 Ultra Zoom (4MP, 10X)

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the DMC-FZ1 and it's competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

So how does the photo quality stand up? Check out the sample photos in our photo gallery!

Want a second opinion?

Check out the review of the FZ1 at Steve's Digicams!

Feedback

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.

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