Originally Posted: April 6, 2012
Last Updated: June 27, 2012
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15 ($279) is a compact ultra zoom camera, and the little brother to the ZS20 that earned a mixed review on this site back in February. Normally I don't review a pair of cameras that are this similar, but since there's a lot of interest in the ZS15, I'm doing both.
The DMC-ZS15 is more-or-less the same as the ZS20, but with a 12 Megapixel sensor (borrowed from the FZ150 super zoom), 16X zoom lens (from last year's ZS10), slightly less impressive movie mode, and no GPS functionality.
The chart below compares the two models side-by-side:
While the ZS20 is the clear winner in the specs department, I have a feeling that the ZS15 will one-up it when it comes to image quality. Keep reading to find out if that's the case!
Due to their similarities, portions of the DMC-ZS20 review will be reused here. The DMC-ZS15 is known as the DMC-TZ25 in some countries.
What's in the Box?
Camera bundles have really gone downhill in recent years, as camera manufacturers try to keep their costs down. Here's what you'll find in the box with the ZS15:
- The 12.1 effective Megapixel Lumix DMC-ZS15 digital camera
- DMW-BCG10 lithium-ion battery
- AC-to-USB adapter
- Wrist strap
- USB cable
- CD-ROM featuring PhotoFunStudio 8.0 Advanced Edition and LoiLoScope trial
- 28 page basic manual (printed) + full manual (on CD-ROM)
For whatever reason, the DMC-ZS15 has more built-in memory than the more expensive ZS20. Panasonic has put 70MB of memory into the ZS15, which holds fifteen photos at the highest quality setting. While that's good for emergencies, you'll definitely want to buy an SD, SDHC, or SDXC card right away. Most folks will do just fine with a 2GB or 4GB card, though movie enthusiasts will want an 8GB or larger model. While buying a high speed card (Class 6 or greater) is a good idea, you certainly don't need to go overboard.
The DMC-ZS15 uses the same DMW-BCG10 lithium-ion battery as the ZS20 and other recent models in the series. This battery packs just 3.2 Wh of energy into its plastic shell, but thankfully Panasonic manages to squeeze pretty good battery life out of it, as you can see in this table:
The ZS15's battery life is just a bit above the average for the group. If you do want to pick up a spare battery, a Panasonic-branded one will set you back around $35. Panasonic cameras can be fussy about generic batteries, so consider yourself warned.
Panasonic has changed the way in which batteries are charged on their 2012 models. Batteries are now charged internally via the USB connector, which can be plugged into the wall or your PC. The reason why manufacturers are using this method more and more is pretty obvious to me: it costs a lot less to include a small AC-to-USB adapter than a full external charger. The bad news is that internal charging is a lot slower -- it takes a whopping 260 minutes to fully charge the ZS15's battery. Thankfully, Panasonic still sells the external charger (model DE-A65BA), which can be yours for about $25. It's more convenient than internal charging, allows you to charge a spare, and it's 100 minutes faster, too.
Something else about the included charger: while it's an AC adapter, you cannot use it to power the camera -- it's for charging only. If you want to use the ZS15 on "shore power", then you'll need to buy the hard-to-find AC adapter listed below.
There are just a couple of accessories available for the DMC-ZS15. They include:
Not the most exciting list, but hey, it's a compact camera.
Panasonic includes PhotoFunStudio 8.1 Advanced Edition software with the Lumix DMC-ZS15. This Windows-only software handles basic tasks fairly well, though the whole "wizard" system gets tired quickly. On the main screen you'll see the usual thumbnail view, and you can view photos by folders, date, or by things as specific as scene mode. The software can learn to recognize faces (much like the camera itself), which offers you another way to browse through your pictures. Available editing features give you the ability to crop, rotate, or change the aspect ratio of your photos, as well as adjusting color, brightness, saturation, and more. You can apply special effects to photos, overlay text, or remove redeye. Something else that's nice is that the software maintains a history of the changes you've made to a photo, so you can go back in time if you don't like something you've done.
PhotoFunStudio can also work with the movies produced by the ZS15. You can trim unwanted footage from a clip, overlay titles or "stamps", and convert the video to the easier-to-edit MPEG-4 format. If you want to use something else to edit your videos, most modern Windows video editing suites can work with the AVCHD files produced by the ZS15. On the Mac side, you can use iMovie or Final Cut Pro to work with the AVCHD files. Another option is to record your videos in MPEG-4 (MP4) format, which will be much easier to edit in the software of your choice.
As with other recent Panasonic cameras, the ZS15's manuals are split into two parts. In the box is a leaflet that will get you up and running, but not much further. For more information about the camera, you'll have to load up the full manual, which is in PDF format on the CD-ROM that comes with the camera. The full manual certainly won't win any awards for user-friendliness, but it should answer most questions you'll have about the ZS15. Instructions for using the included software is installed onto your PC.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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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.
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.
Performance & Photo Quality
Like its big brother, the DMC-ZS15 is a great all-around performer. You will do very little waiting with this camera, most importantly when it comes to autofocus and shot-to-shot speeds. The table below summarizes its performance:
The DMC-ZS15 has a wide selection of burst modes, including an automatic mode (for Intelligent Auto only) whose frame rate varies depending on the scene, two modes where the camera refocuses between each shot (at 2 or 5 fps), three fixed-focus modes (10, 40, and 60 fps, though only the first one is at full resolution), and a 5-shot flash burst feature. The following chart summarizes the performance of the four burst modes you'll most likely use (and that I can measure):
While the DMC-ZS15 is perfectly capable of shooting continuously at high speeds, it has very little buffer memory, so the burst ends very quickly (you should be able to get a few extra shots if you lower the image quality to standard). The only exception is the 2 fps AF mode, which allows you to keep shooting until you run out of memory.
Let's look at photo quality now, using our usual test subjects.
Our macro test shot turned out nicely. There's a slight brownish color cast here, most noticeable on the white background. I've had issues with Panasonic cameras and artificial lighting for many years now, so this wasn't a huge surprise. The colors on the figurine itself are nice and saturated. The subject is sharp, with plenty of detail captured. There are miniscule amounts of noise and detail smudging here, though not nearly enough to concern me.
There are two macro modes on the ZS15, though I'd only bother with the standard one. In this mode, the minimum focus distance is 3 cm at wide-angle and 1 m at telephoto. If you're in Intelligent Auto mode, there's no need to turn on macro focusing, as the camera will switch to it automatically when your subject is close. The macro zoom feature locks the lens at full wide-angle and lets you use the digital zoom to get closer. This, of course, will reduce the quality of your photo, so it's best avoided.
The DMC-ZS15's rendition of our night test scene looks pretty good. The main issue here is the yellowish cast that, as I mentioned, often occurs when shooting under artificial light. I shot this in "M" mode, so bringing in enough light wasn't a problem. Those who don't want to tinker with the exposure manually can also take night scenes like this in the Intelligent Auto or Scene modes. There is some highlight clipping here, as well as some unusual "feathering" (for lack of a better word) around overexposed areas. I retook these photos on three separate occasions to rule out weather or other errors, and got the same result every time. As it turns out, the DMC-ZS10 (from which the ZS15 borrows its lens) did the same thing. Noise levels are relatively low here, making the ZS15 competitive with other compact ultra zooms. Purple fringing was not an issue.
Now we're going to use that same night scene to see how the ZS15 performs as its sensitivity increases:
The ISO 100 and 200 shots are more-or-less identical. There's a bit more noise at ISO 400, so this is probably a good stopping point for most folks. At ISO 800 we start to see detail loss, so this one's for desperate circumstances only. The top two sensitivities are best avoided in low light.
We'll do this again in normal lighting in a moment.
The DMC-ZS15 takes a two-pronged approach to reducing redeye. First, it'll fire the flash a few times (before the photo is taken) to shrink your subject's pupils, which tends not to work on compact cameras. If the camera detects any redeye after the photo is taken, it'll remove that digitally. I've found Panasonic's digital removal system to be pretty finicky -- sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. As you can see above, the DMC-ZS15 produced a photo with strong redeye, which isn't surprising, given how close the flash is to the lens. Since there's no way to remove it in playback mode, you'll have to fix this annoyance on your computer.
There's mild to moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the ZS15's lens. You can see this in the real world by looking at how the building on the right side of this photo appears to curve inward. Corner blurring wasn't a problem, and I didn't see any evidence of vignetting (dark corners), either.
Now let's take a look at our studio test scene. Since the lighting is always the same, you can compare these photos with those taken with other cameras I've reviewed over the years. While you couldn't really see it in the macro test photo, there is a slight brownish cast here (mostly on the white wall), which Panasonic cameras tend to exhibit in artificial light. Anyhow, since the crops below only display a very small portion of the total test scene, be sure to view the full size images. And with that, let's go from ISO 100 to 3200:
Everything is nice and clean through ISO 400. There's some noise visible at ISO 800, but it's not that bad, meaning that a small or midsize print is perfectly possible. Detail smudging becomes pretty obvious at ISO 1600, so I'd save this for small prints only. I would pass on ISO 3200. Since the DMC-ZS15 -- like the ZS20 -- lacks RAW support, these JPEGs are as good as you're going to get out of the camera.
A lot of people are interested in how the various travel zoom cameras out there compare in terms of image quality. Therefore, I've put together a comparison of four cameras which you can see below. The cameras include the Panasonic ZS15 and ZS20, as well as the Canon PowerShot SX260 IS and Nikon Coolpix S9300. I downsized the images from the S9300 and ZS20 to match the 12 Megapixel resolution of the SX260 and ZS15. Here's how they compare:
Canon PowerShot SX260 HS
Nikon Coolpix S9300 (downsized)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 (downsized)
You can easily eliminate the Coolpix S9300 from the competition -- it just doesn't measure up, even when downsized. The ZS15 doesn't look much better than the ZS20 when the latter's photo is downsized, but if you compare the two full size images, you'll discover that the ZS15 is a bit better. Overall, I'd say that the ZS15 and the Canon SX260 are very close here at ISO 800. At ISO 1600, I think that the DMC-ZS15 does a little better than the Canon does at that setting.
Overall, I'd say that the Lumix DMC-ZS15 has some of the best image quality in the compact ultra zoom category. Exposures were almost always accurate, so I didn't have to keep fooling around with the exposure compensation. Like most cameras, the ZS15 will clip highlights at time, and you can try using the HDR feature to reduce some of that. Colors were nice and saturated, except for the aforementioned difficulty with white balance in artificial light. Images are what I'd call "lightly sharpened" with Intelligent Resolution off (which is the default in the P/A/S/M modes) and quite pleasing with it turned on (as it is in the auto modes). There is some noise and smudging of fine details at the lowest ISO setting, though it's competitive with the best cameras in this group, such as the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS. As the previous tests illustrated, the camera keeps noise levels down through ISO 400 in low light, and ISO 800 in good light. Purple fringing levels were low.
Now I invite you to have a look at our ZS15 photo gallery. Browse through the photos, maybe printing a few if you can, and then decide if the image quality meets your needs!
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15 is a compact ultra zoom camera that performs better than its more expensive sibling (the ZS20), though you'll miss out on some of that cameras biggest features (zoom, GPS, 1080/60p video). The DMC-ZS15 looks a whole lot like the ZS10 that came before it, and it uses the same 16X, 24 - 384 mm lens. This lens is pretty solid, offering good sharpness across the frame and minimal purple fringing. The camera has the same Power OIS that's been around for a few generation of Panasonic cameras, and it does a fine job of reducing blur in stills and making your movies a less shaky. On the back of the camera is a 3-inch LCD display with 460,000 pixels. The LCD seemed a little blurry on my ZS15, and I'm not sure if that's an issue with all of them or just mine. The screen retains the very good outdoor and low light visibility that Panasonic LCD's are known for. The ZS15 has a built-in flash with a decent amount of power. The only accessory of note is an underwater case.
The Lumix ZS15 is fully loaded with features. For the best point-and-shoot experience out there, just set the mode dial to the Intelligent Auto position. The camera will select a scene mode, reduce blur, detect faces, brighten shadows, and intelligently sharpen your photos, with zero work on your part. The ZS15 has numerous scene modes and creative filters, as well, including those for panoramas (though the quality isn't great), 3D stills, handheld night scenes, miniature effect, and much more. There's also a very handy HDR (high dynamic range) feature, which noticeably improves image contrast. Since the camera shoots so quickly, you won't need to use a tripod to take advantage of this feature. Another useful feature is Intelligent Resolution, which does a nice job of sharpening your photos. Part of Intelligent Resolution is Intelligent Zoom, which boosts your zoom power by a factor of two, though image quality is reduced somewhat. In the manual control department, you can adjust the shutter speed and aperture (though the latter won't go higher than F6.3) and white balance (including fine-tuning). You cannot bracket for white balance or manually focus, nor is the RAW format supported. The ZS15 records videos at 1920 x 1080 at 60 interlaced frames per second (though sensor output is 30p) with monaural sound. When using the AVCHD codec, you can record up to 30 minutes of continuous HD video. The easier-to-edit MPEG-4 codec is also available, though recording times will be shorter. The optical zoom, image stabilizer, and autofocus system can all be used while you're recording a movie. There are no manual controls in movie mode, unless a wind filter counts.
Camera performance is very good. The ZS15 starts up in an average amount of time (1.5 secs) but after that, it's off to the races. The autofocus system is very responsive, which really separates the ZS15 from my other favorite compact ultra zoom, the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS. Shutter lag wasn't an issue, and shot-to-shot delays are brief. The ZS15 can shoot continuously at a number of speeds, with a top speed of ten frames/second at full resolution. Unfortunately, the camera has very little buffer memory, so shooting stops after just four photos, except at the 2 fps setting (which is unlimited). Battery life was a tiny bit above average. That said, the new internal battery charging system is slow and doesn't allow you to charge a spare battery -- so consider buying the external charger along with your ZS15.
Photo quality is right up there with the PowerShot SX260 in the compact ultra zoom group. Photos are well exposed though, like nearly all compact cameras, the ZS15 will clip highlights at times. Colors look good in nearly all situations, except in artificial light, where there's often a yellowish color cast (which most Panasonic cameras suffer from). Sharpness is decent with Intelligent Resolution turned off, and just how I like it when it's turned on. While you will spot some noise and detail smudging at the base ISO of 100, the ZS15's photos still look better than most compact ultra zooms. You can safely increase the sensitivity to ISO 400 in low light and ISO 800 in good light. As I mentioned earlier, purple fringing was minimal. One thing that wasn't minimal is redeye -- it's quite the annoyance, and there's nothing you can do about it on the camera.
While it doesn't have the most Megapixels, zoom power, or features, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15 is still a very good compact ultra zoom camera. It offers a nice zoom lens in a compact body, along with robust performance, very good photo quality, tons of features, and Full HD video recording. And, with an average price in the $260 range, it's also a pretty good bargain. For those who were considering the DMC-ZS20 but were turned off by its image quality, I think the ZS15 is well worth sacrificing the 20X zoom, GPS, and 1080/60p movies for. I've got plenty of samples from recent ultra zoom cameras -- with more to come-- so have a look at those (as well as the performance tables), and I think if you compare the various options, that the ZS15 will come out on top (or darn close).
What I liked:
- Very good photo quality
- Packs a high quality 16X (24 - 384 mm) zoom lens into a small package
- "Power OIS" image stabilization, with "active" mode for movies
- 3-inch LCD offers good outdoor/low light visibility
- Good selection of manual controls
- Intelligent Auto mode does it all for you, including scene selection, face detection, blur reduction, shadow brightening, and smart sharpening
- Robust performance, especially focusing and shot-to-shot speeds
- Tons of scene modes and special effects
- Intelligent Resolution improves sharpness
- New HDR feature noticeably improves contrast, doesn't require a tripod
- Fast burst mode (though see below)
- Records Full HD video at 1080/60i with use of optical zoom and continuous autofocus; choice of AVCHD or MPEG-4 codecs
- Optional underwater case
What I didn't care for:
- Occasional highlight clipping
- Redeye a problem; no removal tool in playback mode
- Photos taken in artificial light tend to have a yellow/brown color cast
- LCD seems a bit blurry (on my camera, at least)
- No RAW, manual focus, or WB bracketing support; smallest available aperture is F6.3
- Buffer fills quickly in burst mode
- Monaural sound recording
- Slow internal battery charging system
- Flimsy door over memory card/battery compartment; can't access memory card while camera is on a tripod
- Full manual on CD-ROM
Some other compact ultra zoom cameras to consider include the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS, Fuji FinePix F750EXR, Nikon Coolpix S9300, Olympus SZ-31MR, Pentax Optio V20, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX10V.
As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera or electronics store to try out the Lumix DMC-ZS15 and its competitors before you buy!
Check out our photo gallery to see how the ZS15's image quality looks!