Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200 Review
Design & Features
The Lumix DMC-FZ200 is a fairly chunky super zoom camera. The body is made of a mixture of metal and plastic, with the latter making the FZ200 feel a bit cheap for a $599 camera. The camera has a large right hand grip -- and there's plenty of room under the lens for your left hand -- making the FZ200 easy to hold. The FZ200 has a ton of buttons, dials, and levers, though they're well-placed, and typically serve just one function. One control that Panasonic can't seem to get right lately is the rear control dial -- it doesn't always turn smoothly.
|Last year's FZ150 (left) versus the new FZ200, fairly close to scale|
The differences between the FZ150 and FZ200 are mostly cosmetic. On the front of the camera you'll notice a slightly different-looking grip, and the fact that the flash doesn't pop-up as far on the FZ200 (hello, redeye). On the top of the cameras you'll see that the microphone has been moved closer to the hot shoe on the FZ200, and that the power switch as been integrated with the mode dial. This allowed Panasonic to add a new customizable Fn3 button next to the burst mode button. Their backsides aren't too different, with just a few buttons moved around.
The FZ200 is quite a handful
Let's take a look at how the DMC-FZ200 compares to its super zoom peers in terms of size and weight:
The DMC-FZ200 is the second largest camera in the group, with only the D-SLR-sized FinePix HS30EXR above it. It's not even close to being a pocket camera, so plan on carrying it over your shoulder or in a camera bag.
Let's tour the FZ200 now, using our tabbed interface:
Without a doubt, the biggest feature on the FZ200 is its constant aperture F2.8, 25 - 600 mm lens. What this means is that, unlike the F2.8-5.2 lens on the FZ150 from last year, the FZ200's lens lets in just as much light at full telephoto as it does at full wide-angle. And that's big news for low light and action photographers. As with the FZ150, this lens features a nano surface coating to reduce flare and ghosting. The lens is threaded for 52 mm filters, and can use the two conversion lenses that I mentioned earlier (with the appropriate adapter).
Naturally, you'll need image stabilization on a big zoom camera like this, and Panasonic uses their Power OIS system on the FZ200. The IS system can be used to reduce the risk of blurry photos, and it can smooth out your videos, as well. An "active mode" helps reduce severe camera shake while recording movies.
While the FZ150 and FZ200's 12.1 Megapixel MOS sensors have the same specs, Panasonic tells me that they are indeed different. Panasonic uses a new "Intelligent NR system" to reduce noise, and we'll see how well it works later in the review.
Directly above the lens is the built-in flash, which is released manually. As the comparison shots illustrated, this flash doesn't pop up as high as the one on the FZ150, which makes me think that redeye will be an issue. The working range of the flash is 0.3 - 13.5 m at wide-angle and 1.0 - 13.5 m at telephoto (at Auto ISO), which is considerably better than the one on its predecessor. If you want more flash power and a reduced likelihood of redeye, then you can attach an external flash that you'll see in a moment.
The only other item of note here is the AF-assist lamp, which is located right under the FZ200 logo. This lamp is also used as a visual countdown for the self-timer.
As with its predecessor, the FZ200 features a flip-out, rotating 3-inch LCD display. Rotating LCDs are great for shooting over crowds, using a tripod (where the camera is below you), or taking self-portraits. The screen flips out 180 degrees to the side, and can then rotate a total of 270 degrees. It can also go in the traditional position (shown on the next tab), or be closed entirely.
Here you can see the LCD in its "traditional" position. The display is unchanged from the one on the FZ150, which means that it's 3 inches in size and packs 460,000 pixels. I was a bit disappointed that Panasonic didn't put a higher resolution display (e.g. 921k pixel) on their flagship super zoom camera. Outdoor visibility was good, and in low light the image on the screen brightens automatically, so you can still see your subject.
Above the LCD is the FZ200's new and improved electronic viewfinder. This 0.21" EVF has an impressive 1.31 million dots, which is up big from the 201,600 dot EVF on the FZ150. As you'd expect from a viewfinder with these specs, everything's pretty sharp. It's not as good as Sony's XGA viewfinder, but it's still pretty darn good. Since this is a field sequential system EVF, you may notice a "rainbow" effect when you blink or quickly pan the camera around.
Something that's surprisingly missing here is an eye sensor, so you'll have to switch between the LCD and EVF manually, using the button just to left of the viewfinder. Speaking of things on the left side of the viewfinder, it's there that you'll find a diopter correction knob which will adjust the focus of the EVF.
To the right of the EVF we find buttons for playback mode and AE/AF lock (or something else, if you'd like), as well as the mushy rear control dial(used for adjusting exposure and replaying photos).
To the right of the LCD we find a new Fn3 customizable button, with the Display button (used for toggling what's shown on the LCD/EVF) to its right. Under that is the four-way controller, used for menu navigation, adjusting exposure, and moving through photos in playback mode. There are also four direct buttons here, for ISO, self-timer, focus mode, and white balance.
The final button on the back of the FZ200 opens the Quick Menu (more on that after the tour), backs out of a menu, and deletes photos in playback mode.
Over at the far left of the photo you can see the release for the pop-up flash. At the center we've got the hot shoe and stereo microphones. The FZ200 works best with the Panasonic flashes I mentioned earlier, which will sync with the camera's metering system. According to Panasonic you can use an external flash at any shutter speed -- that means up to 1/4000 sec.
Moving toward the right half of the photo, we find the mode dial, which now has the power switch underneath it. To the upper-right of the dial are three buttons: one for movie recording, another for selecting a burst mode, and a third that you can customize (yep, that makes three custom buttons on the FZ200).
At the top-right of the photo is the shutter release button, which has the zoom controller wrapped around it. The zoom controller is variable speed: the more you push it, the faster the lens moves. At full speed, the lens travels from wide-angle to telephoto in a lengthy 3 seconds. With over 75 stops in its zoom range, the FZ200 allows you to set the focal length precisely.
On this side of the camera you'll see the FZ200's secondary zoom controller -- a feature which separates it from cheaper models like the FZ60. This extra controller comes in especially handy when recording movies. You can also use this controller to handle manual focusing, if you'd like.
Speaking of focusing, you can see the focus mode selection switch right next to the zoom controller. The AF and AF macro modes are similar, with the latter focusing at shorter distances (note that this will reduce focus speeds). In manual focus mode you use the rear dial to set the focus distance. A portion of the frame is enlarged, and the camera displays a distance guide on the LCD/EVF.
The focus button will let you select a focus point or a target for subject tracking. You can also press it when manually focusing to have the AF system give you a little help.
On the main part of the body you'll find the input for Panasonic's optional external microphone and remote control. Below that is the speaker.
The lens is at the wide-angle position (that's 25 mm) in this photo.
On the right side of the camera are the remainder of the FZ200's I/O ports. They include mini-HDMI and a single port for both USB and A/V output.
Down at the bottom you can see the port through which you feed the cable for the optional AC adapter.
The lens is at the full telephoto (24X / 600 mm) position here.
On the bottom of the FZ200 you'll find the battery / memory card compartment, which is protected by a reinforced plastic door of average quality. The metal tripod mount is right next door (and not in-line with the lens), so you won't be able to gain access to this compartment while the camera is on a tripod.
The included DMW-BLC12 battery can be see at the lower-right.
You'll have access to a live histogram as well as grid lines when composing photos on the FZ200
I want to talk about features now, beginning with those controlled by the various buttons and dials on the FZ200. Let's begin with the mode dial, which has these options:
If you want a point-and-shoot experience, look no further than Panasonic's Intelligent Auto mode, which is the best Auto mode out there, in my opinion. It literally takes care of everything for you. You can also turn on Handheld Nite Shot and HDR (described shortly), both of which combine multiple exposures into a single image. If you want even more control, there's iA+ mode, which gives you sliders that adjust brightness (exposure compensation), background blur (aperture), and color balance (white balance).
There are three scene modes that I want to mention: panorama shot, handheld nite shot, and HDR.
Panorama shot works just like the "sweep panorama" feature that Sony pioneered a couple of years ago. You choose the direct in which you wish to "pan", hit the shutter release, and then "sweep" the camera from one side to the other. The panorama is created on-the-fly, so there's no need to stitch it together on the PC. The FZ200 does a decent job of stitching together the image, though you may see vertical stripes in certain situations (they're barely noticeable here). The image size isn't terribly large, so they're best suited for web viewing and small prints.
Handheld Nite Shot takes a series of exposures (six, I believe) and combines them into a single image that should be relatively sharp, and less noisy than if you just cranked the ISO up all the way. The example above is indeed fairly sharp and low in noise (considering the circumstances), though it's really only suited for small prints or web viewing.
The HDR (high dynamic range) feature also combines several exposures into one image, but instead of reducing noise and blur, its aim is to boost contrast. Three photos are taken: one at the selected exposure, another underexposed, and a third overexposed (you cannot set the interval, though). The three exposures are combined into one, with the resulting photo having better shadow and highlight detail. Here's an example:
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This photo, taken at the site of my weekend volunteer job, has a very strong backlight. Thus, everything else is super dark. Turning on HDR mode really balances things out. The highlights are still pretty blown out, but the foreground is much brighter. My only wish is that the HDR feature wasn't a scene mode, so you can control things like the ISO sensitivity.
The FZ200 lest you fine-tune and bracket for white balance at the same time
Naturally, the FZ200 has a full set of manual exposure controls, too. In addition to aperture and shutter speed, you can also manually focus, customize and fine-tune white balance, and record images using the RAW image format. Bracketing is available for both exposure and white balance. As you hopefully saw in the tour, the FZ200 has three customizable buttons, as well as two spots on the mode dial that can store a total of four sets of camera settings.
Now let's get into the camera's menus. By pressing the Q.Menu button on the back of the camera, you'll open up -- get ready -- the Quick Menu! This shortcut menu lets you quickly adjust the Photo Style, flash setting, movie and image quality, focus/metering mode, and the exposure compensation (-3EV to +3EV).
|Record menu||You can adjust the amount of noise reduction using the Photo Style feature|
All of those items (save for exposure compensation) can be found in the FZ200's main menu. Panasonic's menus are attractive and easy-to-navigate, though there are no help screens to be found. The menu is divided into three tabs, covering still shooting, movie recording, and general setup. Here are the most interesting options from the record and setup tabs:
- Photo Style: a style contains parameters related to contrast, sharpness, saturation, and noise reduction; there are several presets to choose from (standard, vivid, natural, monochrome, scenery, portrait) as well as a custom slot; each of these can be tweaked to your heart's content
- Quality: choose from normal or fine quality JPEGs, plus RAW or RAW+JPEG; a RAW file weighs in at approximately 15.2 MB, while a fine quality JPEG is roughly 5.4 MB
- ISO options: choose the top limit for Auto ISO, the increment between each sensitivity, and whether ISO 6400 is available
- AF mode: choose from face detection, subject tracking, 23-area auto, and 1-area modes; for the last item, you can select both the position and size of the focus point; if you're using face detection, then you can also take advantage of a face recognition feature, which learns who people are, and gives them priority in the scene
- AF style: select from single or continuous AF, or a new "flexible" mode which switches between the two depending on subject motion
- Quick AF: starts focusing when camera shake is reduced (which is supposed to be when you're about to compose a photo), which reduces focus times
- Intelligent Dynamic: attempts to improve overall image contrast by reducing highlight clipping and brightening shadows; from my own tests I've found that it does nothing for highlights and only brightens shadows in certain situations; off by default, except in iA mode
- Multiple exposure: combines up to three exposures into a single photo; auto gain adjustment is available
- Intelligent Resolution: "intelligently" sharpens photos by outlining edges, improving texture detail, and leaving things like the sky alone; off by default, except in iA mode; also includes Intelligent Zoom, which boosts the focal range by 2X with a "minimal deterioration of image quality"; see examples below
- Extended optical zoom: while not actually a menu option, you can get additional zoom power by lowering the resolution; for example, dropping down to 5 Megapixel gives you 37.5X of total zoom power; this can also be combined with Intelligent Zoom, so you'd top out at a whopping 75X if you used both
- Redeye removal: in addition to using pre-flashes to shrink your subject's pupils, the FZ200 can digitally remove redeye after a photo is taken; we'll see if it works later in the review
- Auto Bracket: the camera takes three shots in a row, each with a different exposure; the interval can range from ±1/3 to ±3 EV; there's also a white balance bracketing feature, which is accessible from the fine-tuning screen
- Fn button set: assign functions to the three customizable Fn buttons on the FZ200; there are three pages of available settings to choose from
- Side lever: choose from zoom (the default) or focus (only when MF is active)
- LCD mode: using Auto Power LCD is recommended for best outdoor visibility
- Lens Resume: if you enter playback mode the camera will retract the lens after around 30 seconds; when you return to shooting, the lens position and focus distance have been lost; thus, turning on Zoom Resume and/or Manual Focus Resume is a smart idea if you want to keep those things from changing
There are two features from the menu that I want to demo, with the first being Intelligent Resolution. As I wrote in the list above, the IR feature selectively sharpens an image, applying it to things that need it (like edges) and leaving alone things that don't (like the sky). The feature is off by default, except in Intelligent Auto mode. In the manual modes, you can choose from on or off, unlike on other models that let you choose low, medium, or high. Here's a crop of a larger photo (which you should view as well) that shows the IR feature in action:
|Intelligent Resolution off
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|Intelligent Resolution on
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You'll find the most obvious improvements in sharpness on the various edges in the crop. The sign, the window frames, and the hours on the window are all noticeably sharper with Intelligent Resolution turned on. If you back out and view the full size images, you'll also see improved sharpness on the various trees and plants that surround the building. Sharpness is obviously a subjective matter, but if I was an FZ200 owner, I'd have the Intelligent Resolution feature turned on.
The other part of the Intelligent Resolution system is Intelligent Zoom. This gives you a 2X boost in zoom power with less of a drop in image quality than traditional digital zoom. That means that you now have the reach of a 1200 mm lens. Let's see how it looks:
|Full telephoto (600 mm)
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|Full telephoto + Intelligent Zoom (1200 mm)
View Full Size Image
When you view the downsized images, the Intelligent Zoom feature looks like a winner. However, view the full size images, and you'll see that photo quality goes downhill quite a bit when using this feature. Thus, I only recommend using Intelligent Zoom if you'll be making small prints, or downsizing your photos for web viewing.
The DMC-FZ200's movie mode is essentially unchanged since the FZ150. The camera can record Full HD Progressive video, which is 1920 x 1080 at 60 frames per second for the uninitiated. The bit rate is an impressive 28 MBps at this setting, so you'll want a large (not to mention fast) memory card if you're recording at that quality. Don't need a resolution quite that nice? You can also select from 1080/60i or 720/60p resolutions. For all three of these resolutions, you can record up to 30 minutes of continuous video (thank you, AVCHD codec). Naturally, you get Dolby Digital Stereo sound along with the high res video. The FZ200 has a zoom microphone, so your subjects, even when they're distant. If you want higher quality audio, you can purchase the optional stereo mic that I mentioned way back in the accessory section of the review.
If you want to avoid the AVCHD codec entirely -- which you might, since it's difficult to edit and share -- then you can also use MPEG-4. You can record video at 1920 x 1080, 1280 x 720, and 640 x 480, all at 30 frames/second. The downside of the easy to edit and share MPEG-4 format is that recording ends when the file size hits 4GB, which takes about 24 minutes at the 1080p setting.
Being a "hybrid" camera, it should come as no surprise that you can operate the FZ200's optical zoom lens while you're recording a movie. The side zoom controller makes zooming in and out especially easy. The optical image stabilization system works, as well, with an "active" mode that helps suppress severe camera shake. The camera can focus continuously while recording a movie, to help keep your subjects in focus, wherever they are.
The movie recording menu
Movie recording can be a totally point-and-shoot experience, or you can adjust the exposure manually. To do the latter, just put the camera into Creative Motion Picture mode, where you can adjust the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. A wind cut filter is available for shooting outdoors. Still photos can be taken while recording a movie, though the resolution will be 3.5 Megapixel.
The only new addition to the FZ200 movie movie is the ability to record at high frame rates. You can choose from frame rates of 120 or 240 fps, at resolutions of 1280 x 720 and 640 x 480, respectively. While these movies are recorded at fast frame rates, they are played back at normal speed, giving you a slow motion effect. As you might have guessed, sound is not recorded in high speed movie mode.
I have a pair of sample movies to share with you in this review. Both of these were taken at the 1080/60p resolution and converted into QuickTime format using Final Cut Pro X. I've provided links to the original MTS files in case you'd like to view those, as well. Be warned that all of these files are quite large!
Overall, the quality looks pretty good! If you want an additional sample, check out this video I took of a 777 landing gear demo at a recent United Airlines event.
The DMC-FZ200 has a pretty good playback that should look familiar to anyone who has used a Panasonic cameras in recent years. The notable features here include:
- Filtering play: view only stills, videos, 3D images, favorites, and photos taken with a specific scene mode
- Calendar view: quickly jump to photos taken on a certain date
- Title edit / text stamp: print the date and time, location, names of recognized subjects, and more on your photos
- Resize/cropping: always handy
- Leveling: for people like me who can't get their horizons level
- Auto retouch: a "quick fix" for your photos, though it often cranks things up a little too high for my taste
- Creative retouch: apply many of the camera's Creative Filters to photos that you've taken
- Video divide: pick a spot in your video and split it two
Two things that you won't find in playback mode include redeye removal or RAW editing functions.
The FZ200 doesn't tell you much about your photos by default. However, if you press the Display button, you'll get a bit more including a histogram. The camera moves between photos without delay.