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DCRP Review: Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ20
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: October 1, 2004
Last Updated: February 4, 2008
In Summer 2004, Panasonic introduced three more ultra zoom models: the DMC-FZ3, DMC-FZ15, and DMC-FZ20. The FZ15 ($499) and FZ20 ($599) are successors to the FZ10, offering 4 and 5 Megapixel CCDs, respectively, while the FZ3 is a compact model with 3.2 Megapixels. This chart describes the differences between the three new models:
Please note that those street prices were accurate at the time I wrote this and are subject to change. I'll compare the dimensions and weight of these cameras a bit later in the review.
The final thing to mention before we begin is that the camera comes in your choice of black or silver bodies. And with that out of the way, we can start our review of the DMC-FZ20!
What's in the Box?
The DMC-FZ20 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:
Panasonic includes a skimpy 16MB Secure Digital (SD) card with the FZ20, which won't hold very many 5 Megapixel photos. So consider a larger card a required purchase! I would recommend a 256MB card as a good place to start. While there are some great deals on SD cards these days (I just bought a 256MB card for $7 after rebate!), you should know that the FZ20 does take advantage of high speed memory cards. For example, it took 10 seconds to flush the buffer after a burst of 4 shots using a "regular speed" SD card and only 2 seconds using an "ultra high speed" card. While the camera can use MultiMediaCards (MMC), I would recommend avoiding them, as they are slower and lower capacity than SD cards.
The FZ20 uses the same CGA-S002A lithium-ion battery as the FZ10. This battery packs a modest 4.9 Wh of energy into its plastic body, which translates to approximately 240 photos using the new CIPA battery life standard. The FZ15 gets the same number, while the FZ3 does even better, taking 260 photos. As for the two other stabilized cameras out there, I only have CIPA numbers for one of them: the Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z3 can take 320 photos using 2300 mAh rechargeables. (The Canon PowerShot S1 is the other camera in question.)
The usual caveats about proprietary batteries apply here. For one, an extra battery will set you back $50. Secondly, if you're ever in a jam, you can't just pop in some alkaline batteries to get you through the day like you could on an AA-based camera.
When it's time to charge the battery, just snap it into the included charger. The charger plugs right into the wall -- no power cord is needed. It takes about two hours to fully charge the CGA-S002A.
You'll find a big plastic lens cap in the box with the camera, but sadly, there's no retaining strap. So be careful that you don't drop it off a cliff -- believe me, it can happen!
Something else you'll find in the box is a massive lens hood, which comes in handy when you're shooting outdoors. The lens hood is actually comprised of two parts: an adapter and the hood itself. The adapter can also be used for attaching 72 mm filters.
The lens hood, of course, matches the color of your camera -- if you buy the silver body, you get a silver lens hood. Also, it's advised that you don't use the hood with the flash, since you'll have dark shadows in parts of the image.
Wide conversion lens
Tele conversion lens
There are some very nice accessories available for the FZ20, and I put them into this handy chart for you:
Man that teleconverter is pricey! I should add that folks have had good luck using third-party conversion lenses with the FZ10 and I assume they'll work here as well. Try our Panasonic forum for some good advice about that.
Panasonic includes ArcSoft's camera suite with the FZ-series cameras. This includes PhotoImpression 5, PhotoBase, and Panorama Maker for Mac and Windows. PhotoImpression (shown above) lets you view, enhance, and share images. The interface is unique and easy-to-use, and the whole product is well designed. PhotoBase is a less impressive product that you can use for organizing and performing basic edits on your photos. Panorama Maker will stitch together several shots into one big photo.
Panasonic's manuals leave much to be desired. Much like the manual that came with your VCR or DVD player, there's tons of fine print and bullet points, and finding what you're looking for can be difficult.
Look and Feel
If there was ever a poster child for "big cameras", the DMC-FZ20 is it. It's as large as a digital SLR which means that it won't be spending any time in your pocket. It's built of metal and plastic and it feels pretty solid for the most part. It's got a large grip for your right hand and the massive lens barrel has plenty of room for your left. Most of the controls are well positioned, though I would've preferred to have the zoom controller a bit closer to the edge of the camera.
Now, let's take a look how the FZ20 compare in size to other ultra zoom cameras in this class:
As you can see, the FZ20 is much bigger and heavier than anything else on the market. That's not a bad thing, in my opinion, as I like cameras that "feel" like a real camera rather than a plastic toy! And speaking of which, the Panasonic FZ3 is a lot smaller and lighter -- and plastic.
The FZ20 towers over the DiMAGE Z3 and especially the Lumix DMC-FZ3
Enough numbers -- let's start our tour of this camera now!
If there's one feature that defines the FZ20, it's the lens. This is an incredible F2.8 (all the way through the zoom range) 12X optical zoom Leica lens. The focal range is 6 - 72 mm, which is equivalent to 36 - 432 mm. As I mentioned in the previous section, the FZ20 supports both filters and conversion lenses.
While having an F2.8, 12X zoom lens alone is great, Panasonic takes things one step further by having an optical image stabilization system (the same system as the other FZ-series cameras). When you shoot at the telephoto end of the lens, slight movements of the lens can blur your photos, even at fairly fast shutter speeds. Sensors in the camera detect this motion and an element in the lens is shifted to compensate for the shake. This lets you use shutter speeds 3-4 stops slower than what you can use on an unstabilized camera. For example, a 1/30 sec shutter speed will result in a blurry photos for most people (unless you have hands of stone), but with image stabilization you'll most likely get a nice, sharp photo.
For more details on how the OIS system works, see this page. Want to see how well it works? I have two examples for you.
Both photos were taken at 1/4 sec. The shot on the left was without OIS turned on, while the shot on the right was with the OIS set to mode 2 (more on this later). I think the difference is pretty obvious.
For another example, have a look at this movie taken with and without OIS. One side effect of using image stabilization while taking movies can be seen here: while the image isn't as shaky, it does tend to slowly wander in various directions (camcorders do this as well).
Directly above that huge piece of glass is the FZ20's pop-up flash. The working range on this flash is a very impressive 0.3 - 7.0 m. If that's not enough flash power for you, or if you want to bounce the light or eliminate redeye worries, you can attach an external flash to the hot shoe you'll see in a bit.
The only other items of note on the front of the camera are the microphone and AF-assist lamp (which doubles as the self-timer lamp). The AF-assist lamp helps the camera focus in low light situations (the FZ10 didn't have one of these) and it has a range of about 1.5 meters.
On the back of the FZ20 you'll find a larger-than-average 2.0" LCD display. The resolution isn't terribly high, with 130,000 pixels, but images on the screen were plenty sharp. The screen is bright and colorful, and motion is fluid. In low light the LCD doesn't "gain up" automatically like on some other cameras, making it darn near impossible to see your subject. Turning up the LCD brightness doesn't help.
Like all ultra zoom cameras, the FZ20 uses an electronic viewfinder, or EVF. The EVF resolution isn't so hot when compared to some of the latest models out there (with just 114,000 pixels), and you can tell when you use it. Don't get me wrong, it's not horrible, but I've seen better. As was the case with the LCD, the EVF is basically unusable in low light conditions since it doesn't brighten automatically.
The EVF has a diopter correction knob which can be used to focus the image on the screen.
Above the LCD are four buttons plus the power switch. The buttons are for:
To the right of the LCD are the menu and delete photo buttons, as well as the four-way controller. The four-way controller is used for navigating the menus as well as:
I want to talk about those options that appear when you press the "up" button on the four-way controller. Exposure compensation is the usual -2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments like on every camera. Flash exposure compensation lets you adjust the flash strength using the same range. Auto bracketing takes three shots in a row with each shot having a different exposure. You can choose from ±0.3EV, ±0.6EV or ±1.0EV increments. White balance fine-tuning lets you adjust the preset or custom WB that you've selected in the red or blue direction, with a total range of ±10 (in 1-step increments).
The last item to see here is the FZ20's speaker, which is located to the right of the four-way controller.
Once again my trusty Olympus lens cap comes in handy. Some cameras don't like to stand up in this position without a little help!
The first thing to see on the top of the FZ20 is the hot shoe. You can attach Panasonic's DMW-FL28 flash or you can purchase a third party flash. If you use the third party flash you will probably have to use both the camera and flash in manual mode. The FZ20 can sync with flashes as fast as 1/250 sec.
The next item to the right is the mode dial, which has the following options:
Hopefully everything up there is self-explanatory. I should mention that I'm not a huge fan of having macro mode as an item on the mode dial. If you want to shoot close-ups in program or scene mode, you must use manual focus. However, in A/S/M mode, the camera can focus at macro distances without having to resort to manual focus.
To the right of the mode dial is the is the burst mode button. There are three burst modes on the FZ20: high speed, low speed, and infinite. Both high and low speed modes have the same number of photos that can be taken continuously: 4 at the high image quality setting and 7 at low quality. High speed shoots at 3 frames/second while low speed is at 2 frames/second. Infinite mode will keep shooting at about 2 frames/second until the memory card is full. The LCD and EVF don't "black out" between shots (though there's a slight pause), so you should be able to track a moving subject.
The final item on the top of the camera is the zoom controller, which is wrapped around the shutter release button. The zoom controller moves the lens from the wide-angle to telephoto position in about 2.8 seconds. One thing I like about the FZ20 is how precise you can be with the lens: quick presses of the zoom controller make tiny adjustments to the focal length.
There's still plenty left to see on our tour. One of the nice features of the FZ20 is its manual focus ring. This is an electronic ring which tells the camera to adjust the focus (rather than doing it mechanically). The dial has a nice feel to it, and you can make precise adjustments by slowly turning the ring.
To control manual focus you use the switch located right in the center of the frame. Move it into the MF position and you can rotate that ring to your heart's content. Manual focus can be a bit frustrating, as the camera doesn't tell you the current focus distance. It does, however, enlarge the center of the frame so you can ensure that your subject is in focus. If you need a little help focusing, you can press the focus button all the way down and the camera will focus automatically, leaving you to make fine adjustments yourself.
The final thing to see here is the bank of I/O ports on the far right of the photo. These include:
Those ports are covered by a sturdy plastic door.
Nothing to see over here!
The final stop on our tour is the bottom of the FZ20. Here you'll find the battery compartment, memory card slot, and metal tripod mount (not seen in this picture). The battery/memory card slots are covered by a sturdy, reinforced plastic door. I'm not a big fan of having the memory card slot down here because you can't get to it while the camera is on a tripod.
Speaking of which, the metal tripod mount is blocked by the door in the above photo. It's location is neither centered nor inline with the lens.
Using the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ20
If you just turn the FZ20 on and let it go, it'll take about 4.4 seconds before you're ready to shoot. It takes so long to start up because the lens has to move all the way to the wide-angle position. You can press a button to stop the lens from zooming out, which speeds things up, as long as you want to use the lens where you stopped it. I hope that makes sense.
There's a live histogram!
You'll get the best focus speeds by using center-frame AF instead of 9-point AF (which is the default setting). At wide-angle the FZ20 locked focus in about 1/2 a second, with times closer to one second near the telephoto end. Low light focusing was good thanks to the AF-assist lamp. It's too bad that the LCD and EVF were so dark in those situations as to be nearly unusable.
Shutter lag was low, even at slower shutter speeds where it often occurs.
Shot-to-shot speed is excellent, with a delay of a little over a second before you can take another shot, assuming the post-shot review feature is turned off.
There is no easy way to delete a photo immediately after it is taken -- you must use the Review feature first.
Now, here's a look at the resolution and quality choices on the FZ20:
Now you see why I recommend buying a larger memory card!!
As you can see, the FZ20 supports the TIFF image format. This is uncompressed image data that is as close to perfect as you'll get out of the camera (as there's no RAW mode). There was no major delay when shooting in TIFF mode on the FZ20 -- the camera was locked up for about three seconds and then it was ready to take another, though I think my ultra high speed SD card had a lot to do with that.
The camera saves images with a name of PXXXYYYY.JPG, where X = 100-999 and Y = 0001 = 9999. The camera will maintain the file numbering, even as you erase and switch memory cards.
The menu system has gotten a nice facelift since the FZ10, and it's simple and easy-to-navigate. Here are the options in the record menu:
I want to mention two things here. First, the stabilizer options. When the "mode 1" setting is used, the stabilizer is always running, which helps you compose your photo. Mode 2 only activates the stabilizer when the picture is actually taken, which actually does a better job of eliminating camera shake. You can also turn the whole thing off, which is advisable under certain situations, one of which I'll describe in a bit.
The flip animation feature lets you take up to 100 shots in a row and then throw them together into a 320 x 240 movie up to 20 seconds long. You can choose from a frame rate of 5 or 10 frames/second. This feature can be used for making "stop motion" animation.
There's also a setup menu, which is accessed from the record or playback menu. The items here include:
Well I've had it with menus so let's move on to more interesting things now -- photo quality!
The DMC-FZ20 did a fine job with our macro test subject. The image is sharp (and a bit grainy) with accurate color. The easiest way to shoot close-ups is to use the macro item on the mode dial, although that limits you to program mode. In A/S/M mode you can shoot at those distances using autofocus, or you can use manual focus in the other shooting modes. The manual white balance feature made color accuracy with my studio lamps a non-issue.
You can get as close to the subject as 5 cm at wide-angle and a whopping 200 cm at the telephoto end.
Before I discuss the night test shot, let me give you a word of warning. When shooting on a tripod, do not use the "mode 1" stabilization option, as it will result in a blurry picture. Instead, use mode 2, or just turn the whole thing off.
Back to the discussion, now. The FZ20 took a great picture (after a few failed attempts due to the issue I just described) of the San Francisco skyline. There's a bit of noise/grain in the picture, but it's nothing horrible, and the picture is plenty sharp. One thing I don't see here is purple fringing, and that's a good thing.
Using that same shot, let's have a look at the effect of the ISO sensitivity on noise levels.
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As you can see, noise levels are pretty low at ISO 80 and 100. ISO 200 isn't too bad, but noise starts eating away at details by ISO 400. Even then, it's not that bad -- just wait 'til you see what the DiMAGE Z3 looks like at ISO 400!
As was the case with the FZ10, the FZ20 has some redeye, despite having that big pop-up lens. While my test results may not reflect what your experiences will be, there's a good chance that you'll be doing some redeye removal in software with the FZ20.
The distortion test shows moderate barrel distortion at wide-angle and just the slightest hint of vignetting (dark corners). Barrel distortion will be especially noticeable if you take a lot of pictures of buildings -- instead of having straight lines, they'll be curved. While a tiny bit of vignetting showed up in this test, I didn't see it in my real world photos.
Overall the FZ20's image quality was very good, though a bit on the noisy side (especially indoors). Colors and exposure were accurate, and everything was very sharp -- which was probably why things seemed noisy. Turning down the sharpness helped slightly but noise levels remained above average. (Do note that when images are downsized or printed the noise is usually not an issue.)
When compared to the two other stabilized cameras I have at the moment, I found the FZ20's photos to be superior to those from the Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z3 and about equal to those from the Panasonic DMC-FZ3. Here's a quick comparison:
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ20
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Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z3 (firmware v 1.02)
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ3
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I think it's pretty obvious that the FZ20 produced a much sharper and more pleasing image than the Z3. If that shot doesn't convince you, compare the FZ20 and Z3 photo galleries.
One thing Panasonic has done a great job eliminating is purple fringing (chromatic aberrations) -- there is hardly any, which is amazing for a camera with a big zoom lens.
As always, don't let my words be the final say on the photo quality on this camera or the competition. View the gallery, print them if you like, and decide of the FZ20's pictures meet your expectations!
While decent, the FZ20's movie mode isn't really anything to get excited for. You can record video at 320 x 240 at either 10 or 30 frames/second until the memory card is full. Sound is recorded as well.
The included 16MB memory card can hold a whopping 25 seconds of video at the 30 fps setting. By comparison, a 256MB SD card will allow you to take a movie 480 seconds long.
As is usually the case, you cannot use the zoom lens during filming. The image stabilizer functions in movie mode which is certainly a nice feature.
Movies are saved in QuickTime format. A capture of the first frame of the movie is saved as JPEG along with the movie.
Here's a brief sample movie for you:
Click to play movie (5.9 MB, 320 x 240, 30 fps, QuickTime format)
Can't play it? Download QuickTime.
The DMC-FZ20 has a pretty standard playback mode. Basic playback options include slide shows, DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail mode, audio captions (10 seconds), and zoom and scroll. The camera is also PictBridge-enabled for direct printing to a compatible photo printer.
The zoom and scroll feature (my term) allows you to zoom in as much as 16X (in 2X increments) into your photo, and then scroll around. This feature is well-implemented on the FZ20.
You can also rotate, resize, and crop your photos in playback mode.
One other feature that I appreciate is the ability to delete a group of photos, instead of just one or all.
By default, the camera doesn't give you a lot of information about your photos. But press the display button and you'll see plenty of info, including a histogram.
The camera moves between photos very quickly, with roughly a barely-noticeable delay between photos.
How Does it Compare?
While not perfect, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ20 is one of, if not the best, ultra zoom cameras on the market. It takes very good, though slightly noisy photos, with accurate colors and exposure. Unlike most ultra zoom cameras, the FZ20 does not have a problem with purple fringing. Two image quality-related issues (in addition to noise) that you will encounter are above average redeye and barrel distortion. But let's not beat around the bush here, the big thing about the FZ20 is its awesome lens. This F2.8, 12X Leica lens isn't just impressive for its zoom power -- it also features an optical image stabilization system that will help reduce the effect of camera shake for those long telephoto shots, or just you take sharper shots indoors under less-than-adequate lighting. The FZ20 features full manual controls which includes focus and white balance. The ring around the lens works nicely in manual focus mode, though I wish the camera gave you an indication of the current focus distance on the LCD and EVF. The camera is quite responsive as well, especially if you use a high speed SD card. Three other nice features are a hot shoe, support for conversion lenses and a wired remote control, and an AF-assist lamp. Okay maybe that was four nice features.
But everything isn't perfect on the FZ20, and I already mentioned a few of my complaints above. Neither the LCD nor the EVF "gain up" in low light situations, making it very difficult to see what you're shooting in those conditions. In addition, the EVF's resolution pales in comparison to EVF found on other cameras. The FZ20's movie mode isn't terribly modern (though I like the 30 fps frame rate), and I don't like how you can't swap memory cards while the camera is on a tripod. My last issue isn't really a complaint since it doesn't bother me personally, but I'll mention it anyway: the FZ20 is a big, bulky camera.
Despite a few flaws I highly recommend the DMC-FZ20, just as I did the FZ10 before it. If you want the FZ20 in a smaller package and don't mind the lower resolution or plastic body, have a look at the DMC-FZ3. Either way, you've got yourself a great ultra zoom camera.
What I liked:
What I didn't care for:
I'm going to break my list of other cameras to look at into two parts. First, these are the other cameras with image stabilization: Canon PowerShot S1, Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z3 (I'm leaving out the DiMAGE A2/A200 since they're only a 7X zoom), Nikon Coolpix 8800, and the Panasonic DMC-FZ3 and DMC-FZ15. If you're willing to give up the very useful stabilization feature, these cameras are also worth your time: Fuji FinePix S5100, HP Photosmart 945, Kodak EasyShare DX7590, Nikon Coolpix 4800, and the Olympus C-770 Ultra Zoom.
As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera store to try out the DMC-FZ20 and its competitors before you buy!
Want to see how the photo quality turned on? Check out our photo gallery!
Want a second opinion?
Feedback & Discussion
If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.
To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.
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