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DCRP Review: Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: November 14, 2006
Last Updated: February 5, 2008

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 ($650) is the upgrade to their popular FZ30 ultra zoom camera. I was a fan of the FZ30, but was disappointed with its high noise levels. That was a shame, since the camera did almost everything else right.

The FZ50 is here and brings with it several new features, including:

There are a few other minor changes that I'll cover in the review. So what hasn't changed since the FZ30? You still get the same 12X optical zoom lens, optical image stabilization, full manual controls, zoom and focus rings around the lens, a rotating LCD display, and RAW image format support.

Will this 10 Megapixel monster be the ultra zoom to beat? Find out now in our review of the DMC-FZ50!

To save time, I will be reusing content from both the FZ30 and LX2 reviews here.

What's in the Box?

The DMC-FZ50 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

Panasonic includes a 32MB Secure Digital memory card with the FZ50, which holds nine photos at the highest JPEG quality. That means that you'll want to buy a memory card right away, and you can choose from SD, MMC, or the new SDHC formats. I would suggest a 1GB card as a good starter size, and it's worth spending the extra bucks for a high speed card, as the camera takes advantage of them.

The FZ50 uses the same CGR-S006 lithium-ion battery as its predecessor. Despite that, Panasonic engineers managed to squeeze nearly 30% more juice out of this battery, which makes the FZ50 much more competitive in this area. Here, have a look:

Camera Battery life, LCD on
(CIPA standard)
Battery used for test
Canon PowerShot S3 IS * 550 shots 4 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Fuji FinePix S6000fd 400 shots 4 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Fuji FinePix S9100 320 shots 4 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Kodak EasyShare P712 * 250 shots KLIC-5001
Kodak EasyShare Z710 225 shots 2 x 2100 mAh NiMH
Nikon Coolpix S10 * 300 shots EN-EL5
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 * 320 shots CGR-S006
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 * 280 shots CGR-S006
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 * 360 shots CGR-S006
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ1 * 250 shots CGA-S007
Samsung Digimax Pro815 450 shots SLB-1974
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H2 * 400 shots 2 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5 * 340 shots 2 x 2500 mAh NiMH

* Has image stabilization

Battery life numbers are provided by the manufacturer

The FZ50's battery life numbers are a little bit above average, which is good news!

The usual caveats about proprietary batteries apply here. First, they're really expensive -- an extra CGA-S006 battery can set you over $50 (though less expensive generic options are out there). 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. As the chart above shows, there are indeed a few ultra zooms out there that use AAs.

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 CGR-S006.

As you'd expect, there's a lens cap (and retaining strap) in the box with the FZ50, so that huge Leica lens can be safe. As you can see, this is a big camera.

Also in the box with the FZ50 is a lens hood, which you may want to use when you're shooting outdoors.

There are quite a few optional accessories for the FZ50, and I've compiled them into this handy chart for you:

Accessory Model # Price Why you want it
Wide-angle lens DMW-LW55 $210 Brings the wide end of the lens down by 0.7X to 24.5 mm
Telephoto lens DMW-LT55 $200 Boosts focal range by 1.7X to a whopping 714 mm; -- wow!
Close-up lens DMW-LC55 $75 Lets you get closer to your subject at the telephoto end of the lens
Neutral density filter DMW-LND55 $30 Reduces the amount of light hitting the lens, allowing the use of larger apertures
MC protector DMW-LMC55 $30 Protect your lens from scratches or worse
External flash DMW-FL360
DMW-FL500
From $300
From $520
Get better flash photos with less redeye
Remote shutter release cable DMW-RSL1 $70 Trigger the shutter release without laying a hand on the camera; I have no idea why these are so expensive
AC adapter DMW-AC7 $45 Power the camera without wasting your batteries
Fake leather case PS-HFZ30 From $30 There's a real leather one too (DMW-CZA30) but I couldn't find much about it

It's worth pointing out that those conversion lenses do not require an optional adapter -- they screw right onto the FZ50's lens. I should also mention that you can use third party external flashes with the camera as well, but more on that later.


Lumix Simple Viewer for Windows

Panasonic includes several software products with the camera, though only two of them are Mac compatible. The first one is Lumix Simple Viewer (Windows only), which does just what it sounds like: it imports and views photos. You can't do any editing -- just rotation, printing, and e-mailing. The version of Simple Viewer that came with my FZ50 could not even display RAW images.


PhotoFunStudio for Windows

For slightly more complex tasks there's PhotoFunStudio, again for Windows only. This can do all the things Simple Viewer can do, plus it can also resize and rename images, and it can also convert RAW images to JPEG format.


SilkyPix Developer Studio for Mac OS X

If you want to manipulate the RAW images produced by the FZ50 then you'll want to use the included SilkyPix Developer Studio software. While this software won't win any awards for its user interface, it does let you edit plenty of RAW properties, including exposure, white balance, sharpness, tone and color, and noise reduction. I found its processing speeds to be quite sluggish on my dual processor Mac Pro.

If you have Adobe Photoshop CS2 then you can also use the latest version of the Camera Raw plug-in to open and edit the FZ50's RAW images.

The RAW format, by the way, is a lossless image format consisting of raw image data from the CCD. Because of this, you can change things like white balance, sharpness, and saturation without lowering the quality of the original image. So if you screwed up the white balance you can fix it -- it's like taking the shot all over again. The catch is that RAW files must be first processed on your computer before you can export them into more common formats such as JPEG. In addition, RAW files are considerably larger than JPEGs -- 20MB a pop!


ArcSoft PhotoImpression 5 for Mac OS X

Also included on the software CD are Arcsoft's PhotoImpression 5 and Panorama Maker. While PhotoImpression has a rather unusual interface, it's chock full of useful features -- and is way better than SimpleViewer or PhotoFunStudio. It has all kinds of editing features (including redeye reduction) plus tools for printing, e-mailing, and various creative projects. PanoramaMaker takes a bunch of photos and combines them into a single panoramic shot.

I'm not a huge fan of Panasonic's camera manuals, whether it's for cameras or DVD players. They're not terribly easy to read, with lots of "notes" on every page. You will get your question answered -- you'll just have to work a bit to find what you're looking for.

Look and Feel

The DMC-FZ50 looks exactly like the FZ30 before it, which isn't too surprising, since nearly all of its changes are internal. That means that it's a full size, SLR-style camera that certainly won't fit in any of your pockets. The camera is made of a mix of metal and plastic, and it feels very solid in your hands. Speaking of which, there's a huge grip for your right hand, which makes the camera very easy to hold. There are manual zoom and focus rings around the lens, giving the camera a real professional feel. While the camera does have more than its share of buttons, it's still pretty easy to just pick up and use.

Images courtesy of Panasonic

Like the FZ30 before it, the DMC-FZ50 comes in two colors: silver and black. You have probably figured out which one I have by now.

Now, here's a look at how the FZ50 compares to other ultra zoom cameras in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot S3 IS 4.6 x 3.1 x 3.0 in. 42.8 cu in. 410 g
Fujifilm FinePix S6000fd 5.2 x 3.8 x 5.0 in. 98.8 cu in. 600 g
Fujifilm FinePix S9100 5.0 x 3.7 x 5.1 in. 94.4 cu in. 650 g
Kodak EasyShare P712 4.3 x 3.3 x 2.8 in. 39.7 cu in. 403 g
Kodak EasyShare Z710 3.8 x 3.1 x 2.9 in. 34.2 cu in. 285 g
Nikon Coolpix S10 4.4 x 2.9 x 1.6 in. 20.4 cu in. 220 g
Olympus SP-510 Ultra Zoom 4.2 x 2.9 x 2.8 in. 34.1 cu in. 325 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 5.5 x 3.4 x 5.4 in. 101 cu in. 674 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 5.5 x 3.4 x 5.6 in. 104.7 cu in. 668 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 4.4 x 2.8 x 3.1 in. 38.2 cu in. 310 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ1 4.4 x 2.3 x 1.6 in. 16.2 cu in. 234 g
Samsung Digimax Pro815 5.2 x 3.4 x 2.1 in. 37.1 cu in. 850 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H2 4.5 x 3.3 x 3.7 in. 54.9 cu in. 389 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5 4.5 x 3.3 x 3.7 in. 54.9 cu in. 406 g

I'm not sure exactly why, but the FZ50 is actually a little bigger than its predecessor. The camera is easily the largest in the ultra zoom group, made more for hanging from your shoulder than hiding away in your pocket.

Okay, let's begin our tour of the FZ50 now!

The FZ50 has the same 12X optical zoom Leica lens as the FZ30 before it. This F2.8-3.7 lens has a focal length of 7.4 - 88.8 mm, which is equivalent to a whopping 35 - 420 mm. Despite that huge range, the lens is self-contained, never protruding out of the camera body (well, more than it already does). The lens is threaded for 55 mm accessories, all of which I covered in the previous section. I'll talk about the manual zoom and focus rings that are around the lens a bit later in the tour.

The DMC-FZ50 has the same optical image stabilization system of all of Panasonic's Lumix cameras. Gyroscopic sensors inside the camera detect the tiny movements of the camera that can blur your photos, especially when you're shooting indoors or at the telephoto end of the lens. The camera then moves an element in the lens to compensate for this motion, giving you a sharper image. What this means in the real world is that you can get sharp photos at shutter speeds that would require a tripod on an unstabilized camera. What OIS can't do is stop a moving subject, or take a sharp 1+ second exposure. But it does help. Want to see some examples? Here you go:


Image stabilization off


Image stabilization on (mode 2)

Both of the shots above were taken at the very slow shutter speed of 1/2.5 sec. As you can see, the OIS system worked as advertised, giving me a pretty sharp photo instead of the blurry mess that you'd get otherwise. If you need to see another example of how the OIS system performed, check out this short sample movie.

Directly above the lens is the FZ50's pop-up flash, which is raised manually. This powerful flash has a working range of 0.3 - 7.4 m at wide-angle and 0.3 - 5.6 m at telephoto, both of which are quite impressive numbers. If you want more flash power then you can attach an external flash to the hot shoe that you'll see in a moment.

Just above the Panasonic logo is the AF-assist lamp, which also serves as the visual countdown for the self-timer. The camera uses the AF-assist lamp as a focusing aid in low light situations. I'll talk about how the FZ50 performs in those conditions later.

The last thing to see on the front of the camera is what Panasonic calls the front dial, which you'll use for adjusting manual controls.

One of the nice features on the FZ50 is its flip-down, rotating LCD display. It can flip down 180 degrees (a bit more than on the FZ30) and can also rotate 270 degrees, so you can shoot over people's heads, or take unique ground-level shots of kids and pets. It can also be in the traditional position (shown below) or closed altogether.

Here's the back of the camera, with the LCD in the "normal" viewing position. The resolution of the screen has actually gone down since the FZ30, with 207,000 pixels instead of 235,000. Despite the drop in resolution, images on the screen are still nice and sharp. I found outdoor visibility to be good with normal LCD brightness, and great with the Power LCD feature turned on. Low light visibility was excellent, as the screen brightens automatically in those situations.

The camera's electronic viewfinder is unchanged from the FZ30. The EVF, which is like an LCD that you view like a viewfinder, has 235,000 pixels (yes, more than the main LCD), so everything is pretty sharp. Of course, no EVF is as good as a real optical viewfinder (not even close), but you won't find one of those on any ultra zoom cameras. The EVF performed just as well as the main LCD in low light situations. There's a diopter correction knob to the left of the EVF which adjusts the focus of the screen.

Just to the right of the EVF is the focus/AE lock button. The focus lock function is new -- the FZ30 only did AE lock.

Looking now to the right of the LCD, we find four buttons, which include:

The function button is new to the FZ50, and it's very much like the one on Canon's camera. Press the button and you'll get a shortcut menu that looks like this:

The options in the function menu are:

I'll describe all of those in detail in the menu section of the review.

To the right of those buttons is the four-way controller, with the speaker above that. You'll use the four-way controller for menu navigation as well as:

I want to talk about the options that appear when you press the "up" button on the four-way controller. Backlight compensation is something you can toggle on and off while in the automatic shooting modes: use this if your subject has a bright light source behind them. 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. If you've got the space on your memory card, this is a good way to insure a proper exposure every time.

The last thing to see on the back of the camera is the rear command dial, which is at the top of the right photo. You'll use this in conjunction with the front command dial to select manual settings.

The first thing to see on top of the DMC-FZ50 is the microphone, which is at the far left of the photo.

Next to that is the camera's hot shoe, which has been improved upon since the FZ30. This hot shoe now supports TTL flash metering, so you should be able to get better results when using a compatible Panasonic flash (the FL360 and FL500 models that I mentioned earlier). If you're not using either of those then you may have to set both the camera and flash settings manually. Panasonic doesn't publish the maximum shutter speed at which the FZ50 can sync with an external flash.

Continuing to the right, we find the FZ50's mode dial, which has these options:

Option Function
Movie mode More on this later
Scene mode You pick the scene and the camera uses the appropriate settings; choose from portrait, soft skin, scenery, sports, night portrait, night scenery, panning, food, party, candlelight, fireworks, starry sky, beach, baby, snow, high sensitivity; more below
Auto mode Point-and-shoot operation with most menu items locked up; slowest shutter speed available is 1/4 second, so this isn't for long exposures
Playback mode More on this later
Program mode Still automatic, but with full menu access; a program shift feature lets you use the command dials to select from various aperture/shutter speed combos
Aperture Priority mode You pick the aperture, the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed; aperture range is F2.8 - F11
Shutter Priority mode You choose the shutter speed and the camera picks the correct aperture. You can choose from a range of 8 - 1/2000 sec; Do note that the fastest shutter speeds are only available at apertures above F4.0.
Full Manual (M) mode You pick the aperture and shutter speed. Shutter speed range expands to 60 - 1/2000 sec; fastest shutter speeds require an aperture above F4.0.
Custom mode You can store up to three sets of camera settings for easy retrieval

While everything up there should be self-explanatory, I do want to talk a little about the scene modes on the camera.

 

Two of the many scene modes A description is available for each of the scene modes

The starry sky scene lets you choose from 15, 30, or 60 second exposure, without having to use the "M" mode. The high sensitivity mode boosts the ISO to 3200, and if you look at this sample photo you'll see why using this mode is probably not a great idea. The panning mode is good for tracking a subject who is moving across the frame, which is handy for sports shooters. Finally, we have the (in)famous baby mode, which lets you input the birth dates of up to two babies into the camera. When you take a picture, the baby's age is stored in the EXIF data of the photo. Then, in the bundled software, you can see how old the baby was when the photo was taken.

The custom spot on the mode dial is new to the FZ50, and it holds three different sets of camera settings. As you can see in the screenshot above right, you can easily check to see what the settings are in each of the custom sets.

Back to the tour now. Just to the right of the mode dial we find the power switch and buttons for image stabilization and continuous shooting. There are two IS modes to choose from on the FZ50. Mode 1 activates the OIS system as soon as you halfway-press the shutter release button, which helps you compose your photo without camera shake. Mode 2 only activates the OIS system when the photo is actually taken, which results in better image stabilization. You can turn the whole thing off, as well, which you'll want to do when the camera is on a tripod.

The FZ50's continuous shooting mode is quite good, though not as fast as on the FZ30 (not surprisingly). There are three modes to choose from here: low speed, high speed, and infinite. In low speed mode, the camera took just three photos in a row at 1.3 frames/second. Moving up to high speed mode gets you a faster frame rate (2.2 fps), but the same number of shots in a row. There's also an infinite mode, which keeps shooting at 1.8 frames/second until the memory card is full. A few notes on the burst mode: a high speed card is strongly recommended for best performance. The RAW image format cannot be used in any of the burst modes. And finally, the EVF/LCD keep up well with the action, so you should be able to track a moving subject.

For comparison's sake, I should mention that the FZ30 could take shots at 2 fps in infinite mode. The PowerShot S3 shoots at around 2.1 fps infinitely, while the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5 turns in more disappointing numbers, taking eight shots in a row at just over 1 frame/second. So, despite the number of pixels the FZ50 is pushing, it still keeps up fairly well.

The last thing of note on the top of the camera is the shutter release button, which is located right where it should be.

Two of the fantastic things about the FZ50 (likes its predecessor) are the manual zoom and focus rings around the lens barrel. You get much better control with rings compared to the buttons found on most cameras -- and I think you'll agree when you try the camera. The zoom controller is mechanical, actually moving lens elements when you rotate it. The focus ring, on the other hand, is electronic, meaning that it tells the camera to move the lens elements for you.


Manual focus mode; the enlarged portion of the image can actually be moved around

To take advantage of the manual focus ring you'll need to flip that focus switch (center of photo) to the MF position. The center of the frame is enlarged on the LCD/EVF, but unfortunately there's no guide showing the current focus distance. You can even move the enlarged area of the frame around using the four-way controller, which is handy for when the camera is on a tripod.

The items on the aforementioned focus mode switch include autofocus, macro mode, and manual focus. Pressing the focus button while in MF mode will temporarily activate the autofocus system -- giving you a little help if you're having trouble setting the focus yourself. When the camera is using either of the one-point AF modes, holding down the focus button will let you manually select one of nine focus areas in the frame.

At the top-center of the photo is the release for the pop-up flash. Down in the lower-right corner you'll find the FZ50's I/O ports, which are protected by a fairly sturdy plastic door. The I/O ports include:

Unfortunately, the FZ50 still only supports the USB 2.0 Full Speed standard, which is marketing-speak for "slow". The one we want is USB 2.0 High Speed, and it's shocking that a camera this expensive doesn't offer that feature.

 

On the other side of the camera you'll find the FZ50's memory card slot, which is protected by a plastic door of decent quality. As I mentioned in the first section of the review, the FZ50 supports SD, SDHC, and MMC memory cards.

On the bottom of the camera you'll find a metal tripod mount (inline with the lens) and the battery compartment. The battery compartment has a sturdy plastic cover with a lock, so that battery isn't going anywhere.

The included CGA-S006 battery is shown at right.

Using the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50

Record Mode

With no lens to extend, it's no surprise that the FZ50 can start up quickly. Expect to wait just over one second before you can start snapping pictures.


A live histogram is shown in record mode

Autofocus times are very good, especially when you use the high speed AF modes. Typically you'll wait for 0.2 - 0.4 seconds for focus lock at wide-angle, and a bit longer if you're at the telephoto end of the lens. If you use the high speed modes you can expect a pretty noticeable speed increase, with wide-angle focus times of around 0.1 - 0.3 seconds. Do note that the LCD/EVF will freeze briefly while the camera locks focus in the high speed modes. Low light focusing was also great, thanks to the FZ50's AF-assist lamp.

I did not find shutter lag to be noticeable, even at the slower shutter speeds where it sometimes pops up.

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. If you're shooting in RAW mode you can expect a wait of about three seconds.

There is no easy way to delete a photo immediately after it is taken -- you must first hit the Review button (down on the four-way controller) to enter playback mode.

Now, here's a look at the various resolution and quality options available on the FZ50:

Resolution Quality # images on 32MB card (included) # images on 1GB SD card (optional)
10M
3648 x 2736
RAW 0 42
Fine 2 195
Standard 5 380
8M
3264 x 2448
Fine 2 240
Standard 6 480
5M
2560 x 1920
Fine 5 390
Standard 10 770
3M
2048 x 1536
Fine 8 600
Standard 16 1180
2M
1600 x 1200
Fine 13 970
Standard 27 1880

I should out that a JPEG image is also saved along with the RAW image when you're shooting in that mode. The FZ50 does not support the TIFF image format, unlike its predecessors.

Full telephoto, no extended optical zoom Full telephoto + full extended optical zoom (3MP resolution)

As with the FZ30, the DMC-FZ50 has an "extended optical zoom" feature. When you use lower resolutions, the camera is able to apply digital zoom without reducing image quality. While you can't take advantage of this at the 10MP setting, if you go down to 5M or 3M, you can get a total zoom power of 17.1X and 21.4X, respectively. You can see how much more zoom power you get out of this in the photos above.

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 FZ50 has the same menu system as its predecessor. It's attractive and easy-to-navigate. Keeping in mind that some of these options may not be available in the automatic modes, here's the complete list of menu items:

The FZ50 has the ability to store two custom white balance settings. Just go to the white balance option and choose the "custom set" option, point the camera at something white, and you're good to go. If that doesn't do the job you can use the WB fine-tuning tool pictured above, which is new to the FZ50. Moving along the X-axis makes the image more orange or blue. If you go up and down the Y-axis the colors lean toward green or red.

The camera has a new "intelligent ISO control" option that is available in Auto and Program mode. When this is used, the camera analyzes the scene to see if the subject is moving. If so, the ISO is boosted automatically, in order to get a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the action. If there's no subject movement, the camera goes for the lowest ISO that will result in a sharp photo. Much more on ISO sensitivity 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:

That's enough for menus, let's move on to our test photos now!

The DMC-FZ50 did an excellent job with our macro test subject. The colors are nice and saturated and noise is minimal, with the subject having a "smooth" look to it. I used the camera's custom white balance mode to get accurate color with my studio lamps.

You can get as close to your subject as 5 cm at wide-angle and 2 m at the telephoto end in macro mode. If you pick up that optional close-up lens, the telephoto distance drops to 40 cm.

The FZ50 did a pretty nice job with a very special night scene. I showed up with a bag full of cameras (like I always do) and found a line of photographers waiting for me. Turns out the moon was setting over the city, so I got an unexpected treat that night. Anyhow, the camera took in plenty of light, thanks to its manual shutter speed controls. THe buildings are tack sharp, though there's some noticeable grain to be found, which isn't terribly surprising given the enormous resolution of the camera. Purple fringing was not an issue, as the camera's Venus Engine III processor removes it automatically.

Now let's use that same night scene to show how the camera performed at its various ISO settings:


ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400


ISO 800


ISO 1600

Noise reduction starts to destroy details as soon as you leave ISO 100. You get even more detail loss at ISO 400, plus a green color cast. Above that all you'll get is a green, staticky mess. I'll show you how the camera performed at high ISOs in normal lighting in a moment.

Again, more on noise below.

There's mild to moderate redeye in our flash test shot. It's not horrible by any means, but it's there. The FZ50 seems slightly worse than its predecessor in this area, though I'm not sure why. Remember, this test is not scientific!

You'll find moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the FZ50's 12X Leica lens. If you want to see what this looks like in the real world, look no further than the building on the right in this photo. I did not find vignetting (dark corners) or blurry edges to be a problem on this camera -- a testament to the quality of the lens.

And now it's time for ISO test number two, which is shot in my "studio". You can compare this test with those in other reviews on this site. While the crops below give you a quick view of the differences at the various ISO sensitivities, it's a good idea to view the full-size images as well.


ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400


ISO 800


ISO 1600

The FZ50 performs very well at ISO 100 and 200. At ISO 400 you don't start seeing noise -- rather, you start seeing the effects of noise reduction. That means mushy details, as well as "pitting" in the darker areas of the photo (look at the black part of the poster to see what I mean). Still, a large size print at ISO 400 is very much possible. The noise reduction effects get stronger at ISO 800, limiting you to smaller print sizes. I would say that ISO 1600 is for desperation only. I did not include the ISO 3200 shot in the above table (since it's only available in the high sensitivity scene mode), but if you want to see it, click here (yuck).

If you're sticking to small prints then there's really no need to mess with any camera settings or do any post-processing. Just try to keep the ISO as low as possible! However, if you want to make large prints (or just enjoy viewing your photos at 100% on your computer monitor) then I have some tips for how to get the most out the FZ50.

The easiest thing to do is to turn the noise reduction setting down to "low". It's not your best option, but it's the easiest:


Standard noise reduction

Low noise reduction

That's our test scene again, this time at ISO 800. There is a very subtle difference here, and you really need to view the full size images to appreciate it. Basically you're exchanging some of that mush for noise.

If you really want to get the most of the FZ50 you'll want to shoot in RAW mode and post-process.


Original JPEG

RAW image opened via Photoshop CS2 shows the image without any noise reduction (download the original RAW file -- 20MB)

Same RAW image after NeatImage

This is again our studio shot at ISO 800. The first shot is a JPEG straight out of the camera, and it's got plenty of fuzzy details. However, after a few minutes of work using Photoshop CS2 and NeatImage (noise reduction software), and I got much better results (again, view the full size images to see what I'm talking about). Before I'd say that making a large print at ISO 800 was out of the question. But I'd say my post-processed image is a much better candidate. Don't you agree? Remember, if you're making small prints, you don't need to do this!

Overall, the DMC-FZ50's image quality is very good, as long as you keep the ISO at the lowest setting. You'll get well-exposed photos, with pleasing, saturated colors and good sharpness. Purple fringing was not a problem thanks to the Venus Engine III image processor. While noise wasn't much of a problem at ISO 100, there are artifacts from noise reduction, though they don't lower the quality too much at this setting. However, once the ISO hits 200, the noise reduction system really starts to reduce image quality, smudging details into a fuzzy mess. This shot is a great example -- look at the water and the cranes to see what I mean. If you're shooting at the higher ISOs then I'd strongly recommend using one of the methods that I just described to get the most out of the camera. I would avoid the highest ISOs (800 and above) if at all possible.

Don't just take my word for all this, though. Have a look at our 20 shot photo gallery, printing the photos as if they were your own. Then you should be able to decide if the FZ50's photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

The movie mode has improved a bit since the FZ30. In addition to being able to record at 640 x 480 (30 fps) with sound, you can now also record in widescreen (16:9). The resolution there is 848 x 480, and the frame rate is also 30 frames/second. Since the included memory card holds between 30 and 40 seconds worth of video, you'll want a larger memory card for longer movies. A 1GB memory card holds about 9.5 minutes of widescreen video and 11 minutes of normal video (recording continues until the card fills up).

For longer movies you can also reduce the resolution (to 320 x 240), the frame rate (to a choppy 10 fps), or both.

Since you operate the zoom manually, it's not surprising that you can zoom in and out to your heart's content while recording video clips. The image stabilization system is active as well.

Movies are saved in QuickTime format using the M-JPEG codec. A capture of the first frame of the movie is saved as JPEG along with the movie.

While I don't have a widescreen sample movie for you (sorry), I do have a nice 640 x 480 clip. The quality isn't all that great, in my opinion -- too much compression, perhaps?


Click to play movie (16.1 MB, 640 x 480, 30 fps, QuickTime format)

Can't play it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The DMC-FZ50 has a pretty standard playback mode. Basic playback options include slideshows, DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail mode (choose from 9, 16, and 25 photos per page), audio captions (10 seconds), and zoom and scroll. This last feature lets you enlarge a photo by as much as 16X, and then move around in the zoomed-in area. It's useful for checking focus, or whether your subject had their eyes open.

You can also rotate, resize, and crop your photos in playback mode. An aspect ratio conversion feature lets you quickly put images into the 3:2 ratio (handy for 4 x 6 inch prints).

The FZ50 also has a calendar view of your photos, so you can jump to the photos you want by date.

I also must say "thanks Panasonic" for letting you delete a group of photos at a time, instead of one or all of them.

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.

Despite its fancy new image processor, the FZ50 isn't exactly fast moving between photos. You'll wait about 1.5 seconds between each one.

How Does it Compare?

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 is a full-featured ultra zoom camera that does almost everything right. The thing it does wrong, unfortunately, relates to photo quality. While the FZ30 had trouble with noise at high ISOs, the FZ50 has trouble with noise reduction, or rather the effects of it. That's too bad, because it's a very well designed camera with a great lens, optical image stabilization, rotating LCD, full manual controls, a hot shoe, and much more. Despite its image quality annoyances, the FZ50 is still a solid (but expensive) camera that is a good choice for those who won't be shooting at high ISOs or making large prints.

Put side-by-side, it's pretty hard to see the difference between the FZ50 and its predecessor, the FZ30. That means that you'll get a large, SLR-style camera with a 12X Leica lens, optical image stabilizer, hot shoe, and a flip-down/rotating 2.0" LCD display. The camera is very well put together, and it fits snugly in your hands, thanks to its large right hand grip and large lens barrel. The lens is entirely self-contained, never extending out of the body. Around that lens you'll find manual zoom and focus rings, which add to the FZ50's appeal. The 2.0" LCD on the back of the camera seems small in the world of 2.5" screens, but it's sharp, visible in both bright and low light, and it rotates too. The camera offers quite a bit in terms of expandability, with support for conversion lenses, filters, and external flashes.

The FZ50 has features for both beginners and hardcore enthusiasts. Those just starting out will like the numerous scene modes, some of which are quite unusual. One scene mode you should probably avoid is the high sensitivity mode, which produces pretty lousy photos, as you saw earlier. The extended optical zoom feature gives you even more zoom power, if you don't mind lowering the resolution a bit. I figure that most people won't mind the tradeoff. If you're into manual controls, you'll love what the camera offers. You've got shutter speed and aperture controls, manual focus, plus advanced white balance tools. There's a custom spot on the mode dial, which holds three sets of your favorite camera settings. Like the FZ30 before it, the FZ50 supports the RAW image format, and finally Panasonic includes some software to work with those files. If you want to get the most out of this camera at high ISOs you'll definitely want to shoot in RAW -- but more on that below. No matter your skill level, you'll be sure to like the FZ50's movie mode, which can record video at both 848 x 480 (widescreen) and 640 x 480 resolutions until you run out of memory. Naturally, the zoom lens and optical image stabilization can be used during filming.

Camera performance is excellent in most areas. The FZ50 starts up in just over a second, focus response times were minimal, and shutter lag was not a problem. The FZ50 focused well in low light situations, as well. Shot-to-shot speeds were very good as well, even when shooting in RAW format. While the low and high speed burst modes are nothing to write home about, the infinite mode (which requires a high speed memory card) keeps up with the competition, despite the resolution of the camera. Just remember that you won't be able to shoot RAW images in any of the burst modes. While not exception, battery life was still above average. The one disappointment in this area: the lack of USB 2.0 High Speed support. Come on Panasonic, this thing's $650!

Photo quality is where the FZ50 starts to fall apart. The camera does take well-exposed photos with accurate colors, pleasing sharpness, and nearly zero purple fringing. While noise is well controlled, in doing so the camera really destroys a lot of fine details in your pictures. When attacking the noise that goes along with a tiny 10 Megapixel sensor, Panasonic could've been conservative, gently chiseling away some (but not all) of the noise. Unfortunately, the FZ50 and it's Venus Engine III image processor take the sledgehammer approach, leaving behind fuzzy details in its wake. Now, if you're making small prints or locking the camera at ISO 100, this won't be an issue. But if you're making large prints and/or shooting at ISO 200 or above, you will certainly notice the loss of detail. If you don't mind shooting in RAW mode and post-processing a bit, you can get better results than what you'd get straight out of the camera, though one shouldn't have to do this, in my opinion. I really hope that Panasonic is listening, and will really work on this issue.

I do want to mention a few other negatives about the FZ50. While I love having that manual focus ring, I don't like how the focus distance is not shown on the EVF or LCD. While not horrible, redeye was a bit of a problem, though your mileage may vary. And finally, the included 32MB memory card is way too small for a camera with this resolution (sorry John).

Do I like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50? Yes, quite a lot. Am I disappointed that Panasonic stuffed a tiny 10 Megapixel sensor into it and then turned the noise reduction to eleven? Very much so. The FZ50 is definitely the best designed ultra zoom out there, and it's a real pleasure to use. It's also the largest and most expensive of the bunch -- in fact, it's even bigger and more expensive than some digital SLRs! If you're a person who doesn't plan on taking a lot of high ISO shots then I can certainly recommend this camera. If you want to shoot at higher sensitivities, be prepared to spend time in Photoshop to get the best results, or perhaps consider a digital SLR (though you'll never get a lens like this on one of those).

What I liked:

What I didn't care for:

Some other ultra zoom cameras worth considering include the Canon PowerShot S3 IS, Fuji FinePix S6000fd and S9100, Kodak EasyShare P712, Nikon Coolpix S10, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 and DMC-TZ1, Samsung Digimax Pro815, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H2 and DSC-H5.

As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera store to try out the DMC-FZ50 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Want to see how the photo quality turned on? Check out our huge photo gallery!

Want a second opinion?

You'll find more reviews of the FZ50 at Digital Photography Review and CNET.com.

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 or technical support.

To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.

 

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