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Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15 Review

Design & Features

The Lumix DMC-ZS15 is a compact ultra zoom which looks more like last year's DMC-ZS10 than its current, curvier sibling, the ZS20. The body is made almost entirely of metal, and feels quite solid, save for the cheap-feeling mode dial and flimsy door over the memory card/battery compartment. The ZS15 is easy to hold and operate with one hand, with the small grip giving you added confidence. The important controls are within each reach of your fingers, though many of the buttons are quite small.


Image courtesy of Panasonic

Unlike its more expensive sibling, the DMC-ZS15 is "only" available in black and silver.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 in the hand
The ZS15 fits nicely in your hand, even with its 16X zoom lens

Now let's take a look at how the DMC-ZS15 compares to other compact ultra zooms in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot SX260 HS 4.2 x 2.4 x 1.3 in. 13.1 cu in. 208 g
Fujifilm FinePix F750EXR 4.1 x 2.4 x 1.4 in. 13.8 cu in. 209 g
Nikon Coolpix S9300 4.3 x 2.5 x 1.3 in. 14 cu in. 215 g
Olympus SZ-31MR iHS 4.2 x 2.7 x 1.6 in. 18.1 cu in. 226 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15 4.1 x 2.3 x 1.3 in. 12.3 cu in. 185 g
Pentax Optio VS20 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.5 in. 15.8 cu in. 213 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX10V 4.1 x 2.4 x 1.4 in. 13.8 cu in. 204 g

As you can see, the DMC-ZS15 the smallest and lightest camera among this group of compact ultra zooms. It'll fit into most of your pockets -- no shoe horn necessary.

Let's take a tour of the Lumix DMC-ZS15 now. Use the tabs to switch between views of the camera.

Front of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15

The DMC-ZS15 has the same F3.3-5.9, 16X optical zoom Leica lens as last year's ZS10. This lens has a focal length of 4.3 - 68.8 mm, which is equivalent to 24 - 384 mm. The lens isn't threaded, so conversion lenses (or filters) are not an option. That said, there are ways to get more zoom power out of the ZS15, which I'll talk about later.

As you'd expect, a big lens like this has an optical image stabilization system attached to it. The ZS15 uses Panasonic's lens-shift Power OIS system, which reduces the risk of blurry photos. There's also an "active" mode, which reduces camera shake even further when you're recording movies.

Just northwest of the lens is the camera's built-in flash. The working range of the flash is 0.6 - 6.4 m at wide-angle and 1.0 - 3.5 m at telephoto (both at Auto ISO), which is pretty good. You cannot add an external flash to the DMC-ZS15.

The only other thing to see on the front of the camera is the AF-assist lamp, which also serves as a visual countdown for the self-timer.

Back of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15

The first thing to see on the back of the ZS15 is its 3-inch LCD display. Despite having the same 460,000 pixel resolution as the one on the ZS20, the images on the screen seem slightly blurry (maybe it's just my camera?). The screen has fairly good outdoor viewing (just make sure Power LCD mode is on), and it brightens up nicely in low light situations, as well. The ZS15 has a unique High Angle LCD mode that you can turn on, which makes viewing the screen when you're holding it above you a lot easier.

At the upper-right of the photo is the switch which toggles between record and playback mode. Do note that 30 seconds (or so) after you switch to playback mode, the lens will retract. If you want it to return to its previous position when you go back to record mode, be sure to turn on the "zoom resume" feature in the setup menu.

Below that we've got a button for adjusting the aperture and/or shutter speed while in manual mode.

Under that button we find the four-way controller, which is used for menu navigation, adjusting settings, and replaying photos. There are also direct buttons for exposure compensation/bracketing, self-timer, flash, and macro mode.

The last two buttons on the back of the ZS15 are for toggling the information shown on the LCD, as well as opening the Quick (shortcut) menu. The Q. Menu button is also used for deleting photos and backing out of menus.

Top of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15

There's plenty more to see on the top of the camera. At the far left, we have the speaker. Further to the right is the camera's monaural microphone (the ZS20's is stereo).

Next to the speaker is the ZS15's mode dial, which is small and feels cheap. As you can see, it's loaded with options, and I'll tell you about them after this tour.

Next to that we have the shutter release/zoom controller combo. The zoom controller works at two speeds, depending on how much pressure you apply to it. At full speed, the lens goes from wide-angle to telephoto in a leisurely 2.9 seconds. I counted around thirty-even steps in the ZS15's 16X zoom range, which allows for precise adjustments to the focal length.

The final things to see on the top of the camera are the dedicated movie recording button and the power switch.

Left side of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15

There's absolutely nothing to see on the left side of the camera. The only thing to mention is that the lens is at the wide-angle position.

Right side of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15

On the opposite side of the camera are the ZS15's I/O ports, which include mini-HDMI, and USB + A/V output. The ports are protected by a plastic door of average quality.

The lens is at its full telephoto position here.

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On the bottom of the camera you'll find a metal tripod mount (hidden in this photo) and the battery/memory card compartment. As is usually the case, the plastic door over the battery/memory compartment is on the flimsy side. You also won't be able to open it while the camera is on a tripod.

The included DMW-BCG10 lithium-ion battery can be seen at right.


A live histogram is available on the ZS15

Let's discuss camera features now, starting with the fully loaded mode dial:

Option Function
Intelligent Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with automatic scene selection, face detection, subject tracking, intelligent sharpening, dynamic range improvement, and more. Many menu items are locked up.
Program mode Automatic, with full menu access. There's no Program Shift feature available.
Aperture Priority mode You set the aperture, and the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed. The aperture range on the ZS15 is F3.3 - F6.3, which is a pretty small range.
Shutter Priority mode You pick the shutter speed, and the camera selects the matching aperture. The shutter speed range is 8 - 1/4000 sec.
Full manual (M) mode You select both the aperture and the shutter speed. The aperture choices remain the same, and the shutter speed range expands to 15 - 1/4000 sec.
Custom mode 1/2 You can save a total of four sets of cameras settings to the two spots on the mode dial.
3D Photo mode Create a 3D photo by panning the sliding the camera from left to right. Image is saved in MPO format.
Scene mode You pick the scene and the camera uses the appropriate settings. Choose from portrait, soft skin, scenery, panorama shot, sports, night portrait, night scenery, handheld night shot, HDR, food, baby, pet, sunset, high sensitivity, through glass, and underwater.
Creative Control mode Similar to Art Filters on Olympus cameras, here you can quickly turn on special effects, which include expressive, retro, high key, low key, sepia, dynamic monochrome, high dynamic, toy effect, miniature effect, and soft focus. These work for both stills and videos.

If you want a total point-and-shoot experience, just set the mode dial to the Intelligent Auto position. I still contend that this is the best automatic mode in the business, as the camera will select a scene mode for you, detect any faces, reduce blur, intelligently sharpen, brighten shadows, and track a moving subject (if you wish). The camera is even smart enough to know when you're using a tripod. You can also allow the camera to use multi-exposure features, such as HDR and Handheld Night Scene, if the camera deems that necessary.

If you want manual controls, you'll find them for shutter speed and aperture, as well as white balance (custom and fine-tuning). The ZS15 can bracket, but only for exposure. If you're looking for RAW support, white balance bracketing, or manual focus, you'll want to look elsewhere, as the ZS15 doesn't support any of those.

Now I want to highlight a few of the more unique items in the scene mode menu:

  • 3D photo mode: pan the camera from left to right and it will create a 3D image, saved in MPO format, which can be played back on a compatible HDTV
  • Panorama Shot: new to 2012 Panasonic cameras, this is basically a clone of Sony's sweep panorama feature. Sweep the camera from side-to-side and the camera will create a huge panoramic image; zoom is locked at full wide-angle
  • Handheld night shot: combines a series of exposures into a single, sharp photo; don't expect miracles, though.
  • HDR (high dynamic range): also new to 2012 Panasonic cameras, this quickly takes three shots in a row -- each with a different exposure -- and combines them into a single photo with improved contrast

Above you can see a panorama that the ZS15 created on a cloudy day here in Oakland, CA. The quality of the image isn't great, though it'll do for web viewing.

Now, here's a look at the high dynamic range feature:

Standard photo
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HDR on
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The original shot, taken in Program mode at default settings, isn't terribly appealing. The sky isn't very blue, and the building is too dark. Flipping the camera into burst mode and letting it take its three-shot burst (and spend a few seconds processing everything) results in a much more pleasing photo. The building has been brightened, and the sky is a more natural blue. Since the ZS15 does all of this so quickly, there's no need for a tripod.

Just about everything else on the mode dial should be self-explanatory. The ZS15 has manual control over the shutter speed and aperture, but not focus. You can also bracket for exposure, by pressing "up" on the four-way controller. Unfortunately, the ZS15 does not support for the RAW image format.

This is what you see when you first press the menu button The record menu, with descriptions of each item at the bottom

The DMC-ZS15 has the same, newly designed menu system as the ZS20, minus the touchscreen functionality. When you first press the menu button, you'll end up at the gateway screen you see above left. From there you can jump into the submenus, like the still shooting options you see above right. The menus look nice and feature descriptions of each item, though they're a little sluggish to navigate. Here are the most interesting options from the menu:

  • Aspect Ratio: the ZS15 can shoot at 4:3, 3:2, 16:9, and 1:1; do note that the focal range will vary depending on which ratio you choose
  • Sensitivity: the camera can boost the ISO based on brightness (normal Auto ISO) or based on subject movement (Intelligent ISO); you can also set it manually, with a range of 100 to 3200
  • White balance: you've got the usual presets (except for fluorescent) plus a custom spot, for which you use a white or gray card; you can also fine-tune white balance in the red or blue direction
  • AF mode: choose from face detection, subject tracking, 23-area auto, 1-area, and spot
  • Quick AF: starts AF when camera shake is minimized, which reduces focus times (at the expense of battery life)
  • Face Recognition: as with prior ZS-series models, the ZS15 can learn to recognize people, either automatically or manually; you can enter the person's name and birthday, and they will be given focus priority whenever they appear in the scene
  • Intelligent Exposure: attempts to improve overall image contrast by reducing highlight clipping and brightening shadows; see examples below
  • Min. shutter speed: choose the lowest shutter speed that you want the camera to use; there's an Auto setting, or you can selected a speed of 1 - 1/250 sec
  • Intelligent Resolution: actually two features in one; when set to "on" it intelligently sharpens your photos; the Intelligent Zoom options gives you a 2X focal length boost with a minimal reduction in image quality; see examples below
  • Redeye removal: in addition to using pre-flashes to shrink your subject's pupils, the ZS15 can digitally remove redeye after a photo is taken; we'll see if it works later in the review
  • Stabilizer: here's where you can turn the OIS system on or off; note that the camera will turn it off automatically in certain situations; the "active" mode, which improves IS performance in movie mode, is turned on automatically
  • Custom setting memory: save up to four sets of your favorite camera settings to the two "C" spots on the mode dial
  • LCD display: adjust the brightness, contrast/saturation, and color of the display
  • LCD mode: choose from Auto Power LCD (the best choice in most situations), Power LCD, high angle, or off (whatever that means)
  • Zoom Resume: returns the zoom to its last position when you turn the camera on, or return to record mode after reviewing photos

It's time for some additional explanation of some of those features. Let's start with Intelligent Dynamic, which is supposed to improve image contrast by reducing highlight clipping and brightening shadows. It's on by default in Intelligent Auto mode, and off in the manual shooting modes. You can choose from low, standard, and high settings, though keep you're setting the maximum amount of enhancement that you'll allow, rather than how much is actually applied. Panasonic is very conservative as to when I.D. is actually used -- I took a LOT of test shots before finally getting it to work. Basically, you need to be metering a bright light source in order for it to kick in. Kind of like this example:

I. Dynamic off
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I. Dynamic low
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I. Dynamic standard
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I. Dynamic high
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As you can see, the hallway gets brighter as the amount of Intelligent Dynamic goes up. It's not turning night into day, but it's still an improvement. While there is a slight improvement in highlight detail, it's nothing to write home about.

Next up is Intelligent Resolution system, which has two components. First is intelligent sharpening, which is a fancy way of saying that the camera selectively sharpens objects that need it (edges, trees), and leaves alone things that don't (skin or the sky). While some previous Panasonic cameras let you select how much I.R. is applied to a photo, it's just on or off on the ZS15. This feature is turned on by default in Intelligent Auto mode, and off in the manual modes. The example below gives you a quick overview of the effectiveness of this feature, but be sure to view the full size images too, as it's a nice view.

Intelligent Resolution off
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Intelligent Resolution on
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Pretty big difference, eh? I really like the improvement, and would probably keep this featured turned on if I owned the ZS15.

The other part of the Intelligent Resolution system is Intelligent Zoom. This gives you a 2X boost (up from 1.3X on previous models) in zoom power with a minimal loss in image quality (unlike traditional digital zoom). Thus, you now have 32X (768 mm) worth of zoom power. The camera also has the Extra Optical Zoom feature, which boosts the focal length when you lower the resolution. The lower the resolution, the more zoom power you get. You can combine these two features, too, so at 5 Megapixel you get 50X total zoom power -- that's 1200 mm! Below is an example of the distances you can cover using these features:

Telephoto (384 mm)
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Intelligent Zoom (768 mm)
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Intelligent + Extra Optical Zoom (5MP / 1200 mm)
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Hope you have a tripod handy, as that's a pretty substantial boost in zoom power! I don't really buy Panasonic's claim that there's no loss in image quality, though it's hard to tell, given the amount of atmospheric distortion going on here. If you're making small prints or downsizing for the web then it's worth using, but don't expect to be making posters using Intelligent Zoom.

Now let's move on to the DMC-ZS15's movie mode, which Panasonic still calls Motion Picture mode. The ZS15 can record Full HD video (1920 x 1080) at 60 interlaced frames per second. The sensor is outputting 30 frames/second, so it's not true 60i. If you want smoother video, you can also record at 720/60p. The AVCHD codec allows you to keep recording until the elapsed time reaches 30 minutes. Monaural sound is recorded along with the video.

The original review stated that you could record video until your memory card fills up (outside of Europe). This is not the case -- the 30 minute restriction is for all regions.

If you want to avoid AVCHD entirely -- which you might, since it's difficult to edit and share -- then you can also use MPEG-4 (a step up from Motion JPEG used on previous models). You can record video at 1920 x 1080, 1280 x 720 and 640 x 480, all at 30 frames/second. Do note that recording stops when the file size reaches 4GB, which takes about 25 minutes at the 1080/30p setting.

As with its predecessor, the ZS15 lets you use the optical zoom while you're recording a movie. The lens moves slowly, so the noise from the motor is not picked up by the microphone. 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, whereever they are.

Video recording is a point-and-shoot experience on the ZS15, with no manual controls (unless a wind filter counts). If you're in Intelligent Auto mode, the camera will pick a movie scene mode for you. The camera's Creative Filters are also available for videos. If you want to take a still image while you're recording you can take up to fifteen still photos of them, albeit at 3.5 Megapixel.

Below is a sample movie recorded at the highest quality setting (1080/60i). I converted it for web viewing with Final Cut Pro X, and I've included a link to the original MTS file if you want to view it your own way.


Click to play converted movie (1920 x 1080, 30 fps, 34.0 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)

Download original AVCHD file (36.7 MB, 1920 x 1080 @ 60i, MTS format)

Not bad at all!

The two playback menus on the ZS15

The ZS15's playback mode has been nicely enhanced over past year's models. Here are some of the most interesting features:

  • Upload Set: photos and videos can be tagged for uploading to Facebook or YouTube when you connect to your PC and use the Lumix Uploader software built into the camera
  • Filtering play: view only still photos, 3D photos, videos, photos taken in a specified area (thank you, GPS), and photos taken in a certain category (portrait, landscape, etc)
  • 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
  • Video divide: pick a spot in your video and split it two

The ZS15 can do more than just rotate, resize, and crop an image. There are also retouching features, which you access by pressing "up" on the four-way controller. There's an Auto Retouch option, plus a Creative Retouch mode that lets you apply many of the camera's Creative Filters to a photo.

By default, the DMC-ZS15 shows you just basic information about a photo you've taken. Press the Display button and you'll get more, including a histogram.

The camera moves between photos instantly.

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