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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ35 Review

How Does it Compare?

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ35 is a very capable super zoom camera/camcorder hybrid. It offers an 18X optical zoom lens with a nice focal range, an enhanced image stabilization system, full manual controls, expandability and, of course, plenty of bells and whistles. It's also pretty good in the movie department: you can record 720p video until your memory card fills up (except in Europe), manual controls are available, and you have full use of the optical zoom and image stabilizer. Of course, no camera is perfect, and the FZ35 does have its flaws (such as shadow noise in photos and a video codec that's frustrating to work with), but despite that, it's easily one of the top super zoom cameras on the market.

The FZ35 is a compact camera by super zoom standards. The body is made mostly of plastic, with some metal thrown in for good measure, and it feels pretty solid. The camera is easy to hold and operate with one hand, but if you choose to use two, make sure you don't block the AF-assist lamp with your left hand. The FZ35's 18X optical zoom Leica lens features an impressive zoom range of 27 - 486 mm, and you can expand that further by lowering the resolution a bit. The camera uses Panasonic's new Power OIS image stabilization system, which is supposed to do a better job at reducing camera shake caused by pressing the shutter release button. I can't vouch for how much better it is than the old system, but it worked quite well during my time with the FZ35. On the back of the camera is a 2.7" LCD display, with 230,000 pixels. Yeah, a larger and sharper screen would've been nice, but the one here is still pretty nice. It's bright, sharp, and easy to see outdoors. The camera also has an electronic viewfinder that's average in most respects. The FZ35 has a ton of accessories available, including conversion lenses and filters. About the only thing it doesn't support is an external flash.

The DMC-FZ35 is loaded with features for still image shooting. If you're a point-and-shoot kind of person, there's no auto mode better than Panasonic's Intelligent Auto mode. It does just about everything you can think of, including auto scene selection, face detection, blur reduction, shadow brightening, and subject tracking. If you want to select a scene mode on your own, there are plenty to choose from. Five of the scene modes even offer a little taste of manual controls, though in a totally non-intimidating manner. The most notable new scene mode is called High Dynamic, and it's supposed to improve the contrast balance of your photos. It does indeed do that, and the "art" mode gives you the over-the-top color of an HDR photo, though a lot of detail in your photos is lost in the process. The FZ35 not only detects faces (which it does very well), it even recognizes them. So, if your favorite niece is registered and shows up in the frame, she'll get focus and exposure priority over everyone else. The DMC-FZ35 also has a full suite of manual controls, which include shutter speed and aperture, white balance (including custom, color temperature, and fine-tuning options), and focus. The RAW image format is also supported, and Panasonic includes powerful but clunky software to work with those files.

The other hat that the FZ35 wears is one of a camcorder. On the surface, everything sounds great. The camera can record 720p video at 60 frames/second with digital stereo sound until your memory card is full. You have full use of both the optical zoom and image stabilizer, the camera can focus continuously, and a wind cut option can make outdoor videos tolerable. And did I mention the full manual controls?. Now, the bad news. If you're using the AVCHD Lite codec, which is great for showing videos on an HDTV, the camera isn't actually outputting 60 frames per second -- it's just saving each frame twice. The video files produced by the camera are hard to find, and even harder to work with in an editor (and Panasonic doesn't include anything to convert these files to more common formats). And, if you live in Europe, you can only record for up to 30 minutes, regardless of how large a memory card you have installed. Thankfully, there is an option for using the good old Motion JPEG codec instead of AVCHD Lite. Motion JPEG movies are much easier to edit and share. The camera still records at 1280 x 720 (this time at a true 30 fps), but the file sizes are larger and recording stops after just eight minutes. The bottom line is to use Motion JPEG if you're going to edit or share videos, and AVCHD Lite if you're going to just plug the camera or memory card into your HDTV.

Camera performance was solid. The FZ35 extends its 18X zoom lens and is ready to shoot in 1.5 seconds, which is good for a super zoom. Panasonic promised faster autofocus speeds on the FZ35, and they delivered -- it's one of the fastest focusing cameras in its class, whether at wide-angle or telephoto. Low light focusing was also fairly responsive, as long as you keep your fingers from blocking the AF-assist lamp. Shutter lag was just barely noticeable at slow shutter speeds, and shot-to-shot delays ranged from 2 seconds for JPEGs to 4 seconds for a RAW + JPEG combo. The DMC-FZ35's burst mode was disappointing. You can take 3 or 5 photos in a row at 2.3 frames/second, and that's it. In addition, burst mode is for JPEGs only -- no RAW images allowed. On a more positive note, the FZ35's battery life is well about the group average.

Photo quality was very good in most respects. The FZ35 takes accurate exposures, though you'll see highlight clipping at times, as you will on most compact cameras. Color was spot-on in most situations -- nice and vivid. Sharpness was right in that sweet spot at lower ISOs, though that drops off as the sensitivity increases. At the base ISO of 80 you will spot a fair amount of noise in shadow areas of your photos -- more than I would've liked to see. You'll also see some noise reduction artifacting at times, though it doesn't really start to smear details away until you get above ISO 400. While redeye made an appearance, it wasn't too bad. Unfortunately, the FZ35 doesn't have a removal tool in playback mode, so if it slipped past the dual removal systems when you took the photo, you'll have to wait until you're on your computer to fix this annoyance. Purple fringing was well controlled, courtesy of the Venus Engine HD image processor.

I've got a pair of issues to mention before I wrap things up. First, you won't be able to access the memory card slot when the camera is on a tripod. Second -- and I hope this isn't the start of a trend -- the FZ35's full manual is only included in digital format on an included CD-ROM. The quality of the manual itself also leaves much to be desired.

Despite some annoyances -- most of which can be worked around -- the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ35 is an impressive super zoom camera. For those of you who want a full-featured super zoom camera with elaborate movie recording features, the FZ35 should be high on your list.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality
  • Packs an 18X, 27 - 486 mm lens into a relatively compact body
  • Optical image stabilization
  • 2.7" LCD display offers very good outdoor visibility
  • Full manual controls, with support for the RAW image format
  • Intelligent Auto mode picks a scene for you, detects (and recognizes) faces, tracks a moving subject, reduces blur, and brightens shadows, all automatically
  • Snappy performance in most areas
  • High dynamic range feature improves contrast, though at the expensive of detail
  • HD movie mode records at 720p with digital stereo sound, and offers use of optical zoom, image stabilizer, manual controls, and more
  • Lots of optional accessories
  • Strong battery life
  • HDMI output

What I didn't care for:

  • More shadow noise than I'd like, even at base ISO 80
  • Some redeye; no removal tool in playback mode
  • Movies created with AVCHD Lite codec are difficult to share and edit; frame rate isn't true 60 fps
  • Unremarkable continuous shooting mode
  • Easy to block AF-assist lamp with fingers
  • Larger and sharper LCD and EVF would be nice
  • Can't access memory card while camera is on a tripod
  • Full manual only on CD-ROM; quality of documentation leaves much to be desired

Some other super zoom cameras to consider include the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS, Casio Exilim EX-FH20, Kodak EasyShare Z980, Nikon Coolpix P90, Olympus SP-590 Ultra Zoom, Pentax X70, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1.

As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera store to try out the Lumix DMC-FZ35 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

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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.