Originally Posted: February 26, 2012
Last Updated: April 24, 2012
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 ($349) is a compact travel zoom camera with a pretty elaborate GPS setup. Not only does the ZS20 log your location, it also has a database of a million landmarks and maps of ninety countries. The ZS20 also packs a new 20X zoom lens, 14.1 Megapixel MOS sensor (which Panasonic says has less noise than the one on the ZS10), super-fast autofocus, 10 frame/second continuous shooting, a great auto mode, in-camera panorama stitching, and Full HD 1080/60p video recording.
As with all of Panasonic's recent travel zooms, the ZS20 has a little brother known as the DMC-ZS15. The table below shows you the differences between those two cameras, as well as last year's DMC-ZS10:
So there you have it! The ZS15 shares much in common with the ZS20, except for its lens (same as the ZS10), sensor (which is the same as the one on the DMC-FZ150 super zoom), and movie mode. It also lacks the touchscreen LCD and GPS functionality found on both the ZS10 and ZS20.
If you read last year's GPS-equipped Compact Ultra Zoom comparison, you may recall that I was quite disappointed with the DMC-ZS10, mostly due to its image quality. Panasonic says they've taken care of that on the ZS20. Did they? Find out now in our review!
The DMC-ZS20 is known as the DMC-TZ30 in some countries. The DMC-ZS15 is also known as the DMC-TZ25.
What's in the Box?
The DMC-ZS20 has a rather unremarkable bundle. Then again, so do most cameras these days. Inside the box, you'll find:
- The 14.1 effective Megapixel Lumix DMC-ZS20 digital camera
- DMW-BCG10 lithium-ion battery
- AC-to-USB adapter
- Wrist strap
- USB cable
- DVD featuring PhotoFunStudio 8.1 Premium Edition, Map Tool, and LoiLoScope trial
- 34 page basic manual (printed) + full manual (on CD-ROM)
Despite being their flagship travel zoom camera, Panasonic has built just 18MB of memory into the DMC-ZS20. Needless to say, you'll want to buy a memory card right away, unless you have one sitting around already. The ZS20 supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards, and I'd recommend a 4GB card for most folks, and an 8GB or 16GB card for movie enthusiasts. You'll want a card rated Class 6 or faster for best performance, especially when it comes to movies.
The DMC-ZS20 uses the same DMW-BCG10 lithium-ion battery as its predecessor. 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 ZS20's battery life is a bit above the group average. That said, you might want to pick up a spare battery, as that GPS is power-hungry, especially if it's on all the time (more on that later). An extra battery will set you back around $32.
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 ZS20'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 ZS20 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-ZS20. They include:
A pretty short list, yes, but then again, the ZS20 is a compact camera. As I've hinted at several times, Panasonic accessories can be very hard to find -- I don't even have prices for half of the stuff!
Panasonic includes PhotoFunStudio 8.1 Professional Edition software with the Lumix DMC-ZS20. 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.
Another included program is Lumix Map Tool (for Mac and Windows), which lets you choose which maps of the world you want to load onto your memory card. The North/Central America map is 1.88 GB, so maybe getting that 8 GB SDHC card isn't such a bad idea, after all. Another important application, known as GPSASIST, is actually built into the camera itself. When you attach it to your Mac or PC via USB, select "GPS Assist Data" on the camera, and you'll find the software on the virtual disk mounted by the camera. Loading the GPS Assist Data can reduce satellite acquisition times.
PhotoFunStudio can also work with the movies produced by the ZS20. 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 ZS20. However, some of them may not support the AVCHD Progressive format, so check with your software manufacturer first. Mac users are in the same boat. You cannot currently edit AVCHD Progressive videos in either iMovie or Final Cut Pro. However, if you download the free Media Converter software (and its associated rewrap for QuickTime plug-in), you will be able to import them. Movies recorded in MPEG-4 (MP4) format will be much easier to edit in the software of your choice.
As with other recent Panasonic cameras, the ZS20'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 DVD 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 ZS20. Instructions for using the included software is installed onto your PC.
Design & Features
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 is a compact ultra zoom camera that packs a 20X zoom lens (how engineers manage to fit big lenses into small packages always amazes me). The body made almost entirely of metal, and it feels quite solid. As usual, the plastic door over the memory card/battery compartment is on the flimsy side. The mode dial feels cheap, and is too small (as are several other buttons on the camera). The camera is easy to hold and operate with one hand. Despite all of its features, the ZS20 is actually light on buttons. That's because many things are accessed via the touchscreen or the menu system.
Image courtesy of Panasonic
The ZS20 is available in four colors: silver, black, white, and a red that'll really make you stand out.
Despite its big zoom lens, the ZS20 still fits well in your hand
Now let's take a look at how the DMC-ZS20 compares to other compact travel zooms in terms of size and weight:
Well look at that -- the ZS20 is the smallest and lightest compact ultra zoom in the group! It fits pretty well in jeans pockets (mine, at least), and is easy to carry around with just the wrist strap, as well.
Let's take a tour of the ZS20 now. Use the tabs to switch between views of the camera.
The DMC-ZS20 has a brand new 20X optical zoom Leica lens -- up from 16X on last year's ZS10. This F3.3-6.4 lens has a focal range of 4.3 - 86 mm, which is equivalent to 24 - 480 mm. The lens isn't terribly "fast" (in terms of maximum aperture), but then again, neither are lenses found on the ZS20's competitors. The focal range isn't the lens' only new feature -- it also has a nano surface coating, which aims to reduce flare and ghosting.
As you'd expect, this big lens has an optical image stabilization system attached to it. The ZS20 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.
To the upper-left of the lens is the built-in flash, which has a working range of 0.6 - 6.4 m at wide-angle and 1.0 - 3.3 m at telephoto (at Auto ISO). The ZS20 does not support an external flash.
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 main event on the back of the camera is its 3-inch touchscreen LCD, which appears to be the same as the one on the DMC-ZS10. This screen has 460,000 pixels, so everything's nice and sharp. Its outdoor visibility is excellent, and in low light the screen brightens up well, so you can still see your subject.
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 exposure (shutter speed or aperture, depending on the shooting mode) and for viewing the map in playback mode. I'll have more on the GPS and maps later in the review.
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 ZS20 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 a lot to see on the top of the ZS20. Let me first point out the stereo microphones, which have the speaker located just to their right. Under the left mic is an indicator light that shows when the GPS is being used. Since by default the camera will keep checking your location every few minutes, don't be surprised if you set his lamp lit up when the camera is off.
Next to the speaker is the ZS20's mode dial, which is small and cheap-feeling. As you can see, it's packed 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 2.8 seconds. I counted over forty steps in the ZS20's 20X zoom range.
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 ZS20's I/O ports, which include mini-HDMI, USB, and 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.
Let's start our discussion of features by talking about the items found on the ZS20's packed-to-the-gills mode dial:
Time to list some of the highlights from the mode dial:
- Intelligent Auto mode: really is the best auto mode in the business. It performs scene selection, face detection and subject tracking, shadow brightening, and intelligent sharpening -- all automatically
- 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 copy 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 -- image quality isn't great
- 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
- High speed video: records silent movies at 220 fps, which are played back normal speed, giving the impression of slow motion; resolution is lowered to 320 x 240
Above you can see a Panorama Shot that didn't stitch terribly well on the right hand side. To be fair, this is a very difficult image to line up correctly.
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Above you can see the HDR feature in action. In the original photo (which has Intelligent Dynamic off, which is the default in Program mode), you can barely make out the ceiling, and the sky is pretty blown out. The HDR version is much more appealing. The clipping in the sky is reduced, the ceiling in the hallway is now visible, and shadows are noticeably brighter. And, since the camera shoots the photo sequence so quickly, you can use HDR without a tripod (unlike, say, Canon's implementation). The bad news is that since this is a scene mode, most camera settings are locked up.
Just about everything else on the mode dial should be self-explanatory. The ZS20 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 ZS20 does not support for the RAW image format.
As I mentioned back in the tour, the ZS20 had a touchscreen LCD, just like its predecessor. You can do the following with the touchscreen:
- Touch focus: the camera will focus on the area of the frame that you selected
- Touch shutter: same idea as touch focus, but this time a photo is taken, as well
- Touch zoom controller: lets you adjust the focal length via a virtual zoom controller -- the real thing is much easier to use. The only nice thing are buttons that instantly send the lens to the wide-angle or telephoto positions
- Touch playback: swipe to move between photos; double-tap to enlarge a photo and then drag with your finger
As someone who is generally not too fond of touch-based controls, I was a bit disappointed to see that there was no way to disable these features on the ZS20.
I suppose now's as good a time as any to talk about the ZS20's new and improved GPS feature. While the ZS10 had a GPS and database of a million landmarks, the ZS20 takes things a step further by having a map that shows where your photos were taken. All of those info is saved in the metadata of your photos, which can be imported into PhotoFunStudio, iPhoto, or various online photo sharing sites.
The landmark database is pretty solid (at least around here), though there will be times when the camera records the wrong one. This can happen because it hasn't been able to update your location, or because it just picks a landmark in the area that just happens to be incorrect. Thankfully, Panasonic lets you change the selected landmark, or delete it entirely. You can also create up to 50 of your own landmarks -- say, Jeff's House -- though you might want to make sure that the GPS can even locate you before you do that.
|This map view gives an overview of where I took my photos||In this view, selecting a thumbnail will highlight the spot on the map where the photo was taken.|
Panasonic includes maps of ninety countries on the DVD that comes with the camera. In order to load those maps onto the memory card, you'll use the Map Tool software that's will be installed onto your computer. The maps themselves aren't terribly detailed, and it can be hard to figure out exactly what you're looking at when you're zoomed in. Still, for a quick look, it works pretty well. You can also locate yourself on the map, though the maps aren't detailed enough (and the GPS not responsive enough) for this to be terribly useful.
I've highlighted two important GPS-related items on the shooting screen. The satellite with the yellow box below shows acquisition progress. You want three yellow boxes and then three blue boxes.
To the right, the camera shows the number of minutes since it last found your location (it's been a while here).
That brings us to GPS performance. Panasonic has worked to improve satellite acquisition times on the ZS20, though it can be hard to tell sometimes. Something you'll definitely want to do is load "Assist Data" onto the memory card (using the software that comes with the camera), which is supposed to help with all this. If you turn on the camera in a clear area, it should find your location in 20-30 seconds (with Assist Data installed). As with all GPS-based cameras I've tested, don't expect miracles in the Big City -- the ZS20 will struggle to locate your position. You'll know you're locked on when the blinking yellow blocks shown above turn to all blue. Something else you can do to have the camera keep up with your location is leave Airplane Mode turned on. While this will put an extra strain on your battery, the camera will periodically try to locate itself, even when the camera is powered off.
|This is what you see when you first press the menu button||The record menu, with descriptions of each item at the bottom|
The ZS20 has an all new menu system (see above-right), complete with a description of each option. The new menus look really sharp, though they feel a bit sluggish. To get to the menus themselves, you must first pass through the gateway screen, which is pictured above-left. It would be nice if there was an option that let you bypass the gateway screen, as it slows down menu access. While you can use the touchscreen for the gateway menu, you'll be using the four-way controller after that. Here are the most interesting items from the shooting and setup menus:
- 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, and 1-area (large or small)
- 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 ZS20 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
- Extra optical zoom: while this isn't a menu item, you can get additional zoom power by lowering the resolution of your photos; for example, dropping down to 5 Megapixel gives you 33.8X of total zoom power; this can also be combined with Intelligent Zoom, so you'd top out at a whopping 67.5X if you used both at the 5MP resolution; don't forget your tripod!
- Redeye removal: in addition to using pre-flashes to shrink your subject's pupils, the ZS20 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
- Auto Clock Set: uses the GPS to set the time; handy when you're on the road!
- 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
- 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. Here's the Intelligent Dynamic feature in action:
|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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The change here is pretty obvious: the ceiling of the hallway gets noticeably brighter as you increase the amount of Intelligent Dynamic used. One thing that doesn't get better: highlight clipping (use HDR instead). I should also mention that Intelligent Dynamic is a very finicky feature -- it only works in certain situations.
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 ZS20. The example below illustrates the Intelligent Resolution feature very nicely:
|Intelligent Resolution off
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|Intelligent Resolution on
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I don't know about you, but I like the shot taken with I.R. turned on a lot more. If I owned this camera, I'd set it to "on" and leave it there. In Intelligent Auto mode, that's exactly what the camera does.
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 40X (960 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 67.5X total zoom power -- that's 1620 mm! Below is an example of the distances you can cover using these features:
|Telephoto (480 mm)
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|Intelligent Zoom (960 mm)
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|Intelligent + Extra Optical Zoom (5MP / 1620 mm)
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As you can see, the Intelligent and Extra Optical Zoom features give you a ton more telephoto power. In my original test images, there was a noticeable drop in image quality, which I partially attributed to atmospheric conditions. I went back out and took another set of photos (shown above) and it's pretty obvious that image quality is reduced. I'd save this feature for small prints and web viewing only.
|Intelligent Zoom test photos updated on 2/27/12|
Moving on to video recording, the ZS20 has can now record AVCHD Progressive video. What that means is that video is recorded at 1920 x 1080 at true 60p, so there will be no interlacing artifacts in your movies. If you still want interlaced video, that's available at 60i, there's a 720/60p mode, too. For all three of the resolutions I just mentioned, the camera uses the AVCHD codec -- which allows for recording time of up to 30 minutes and easy viewing on your HDTV -- and sound is recorded in Dolby Digital Stereo. You also have the option of having your location tagged in the movie's metadata.
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 23 minutes at the 1080/30p setting.
As with its predecessor, the ZS20 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 ZS20, with no manual controls. You can take up to fifteen still photos while you're recording a movie, albeit at 3.5 Megapixel.
As of 2/27/12, I now have two sample movies for you. Both were recorded at the highest quality setting (1080/60p) and was converted to QuickTime format using Media Converter. If you'd like to view the native MTS files, you can download those as well.
Seems like both were a little overexposed, so keep that in mind if you buy the ZS20.
|The two playback menus on the ZS20|
The ZS20's playback mode has been nicely enhanced over past year's models. Here are some of the most interesting features:
- Map View: I told you about this earlier
- Edit GPS data: don't like what the camera chose as the location? Choose from a list of nearby landmarks, type in your own, or just delete it
- 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
- Auto Retouch: the camera will attempt to enhance a photo automatically
- Creative Retouch: apply special effects (soft, toy camera, retro, etc.) to a photo
- Resize/cropping: always handy
- 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 ZS20 can show you all kinds of information about your photo, including the location, shooting data, and a histogram. You just need to press the Display button to toggle through it all.
The camera moves between photos instantly, and you can do it with your finger or the four-way controller.
Performance & Photo Quality
In general, the DMC-ZS20 performs very well, especially when it comes to autofocus performance. The table below summarizes what you can expect from it:
Except for the startup time, the ZS20 is pretty smokin'!
The DMC-ZS20 has a huge 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):
Not too shabby, eh? The 2 fps AF mode will just keep on shooting, while the 5 fps mode will slow down considerably when the buffer fills up. Both the 10 fps and flash modes will stop after they've completely their burst.
It's time for some photo quality discussion!
The DMC-ZS20 did a nice job with our macro test subject. As is usually the case with Panasonic cameras, there's a slight yellow color cast here, but you mostly notice this on the white background. The subject is nice and sharp, and plenty of detail is captured. While there is some noise reduction artifacting here, you won't notice in the real world.
There are two macro modes on the ZS20, 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. 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 night shot was decent, but there is room for improvement. The camera took in plenty of light, though there's a moderate amount of highlight clipping. The buildings are fairly sharp, but if you look closely you'll see mottled details from noise reduction. Still, you should be able to make a large print at this sensitivity. As far as color goes, the image is a bit more yellow that I'd like, which is a common issue with Panasonic cameras and artificial light. I was surprised to see purple fringing in the photo. While it's not major, Panasonic cameras usually have no problems with it.
Now we're going to use that same night scene to see how the ZS20 performs as its sensitivity increases:
The ISO 200 shot is just a bit noisier than the one at ISO 100, so it's just as usable. Noise and detail loss become a lot more obvious at ISO 400, so this is a good place to stop in low light. At ISO 800 you can observe quite a bit of detail loss, so that setting is for desperation (and small prints) only. Everything about that is too noisy to be usable. And, since the ZS20 lacks a RAW mode, this is as good as you're going to get.
We'll do this again in normal lighting in a moment.
The DMC-ZS20 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. In the ZS20's case, it never got rid of the redeye, in repeated tests. And, since there's no way to remove it in playback mode, you'll have to fix this annoyance on your PC.
There's fairly mild barrel distortion at the wide end of the ZS20's 24 - 480 mm lens. If you look at the building on the right side of this photo, you can see what this distortion does in the real world. There are small amounts of corner blurring at full wide-angle, though you'll only notice when closely inspecting the photos on your PC. Vignetting (dark corners) were not a problem.
Now it's time to see how the ZS20 performed in our studio ISO test. Since these photos are taken under consistent lighting, you can compare the results with those from other cameras I've reviewed over the years. Keep in mind that the crops only show a small portion of the test scene, so view the full size images too. And with that, let's take a journey from ISO 100 to 3200:
Things look pretty clean at ISO 100 and 200, with just a slight increase in noise at ISO 400. Noise is lot more obvious at ISO 800 -- and color saturation drops slightly -- but it's still usable for small and midsize prints. Things start to go downhill at ISO 1600, so I'd save that setting for emergencies only. You're better off avoiding ISO 3200 completely.
Again, there's no RAW on the ZS20, so I can't do any RAW vs. JPEG comparisons. One comparison I can do is between the DMC-ZS10 and the ZS20. Noise was a big problem on the ZS10 (enough for me to not recommend it), and Panasonic promised better results on the ZS20. Let's find out:
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20
I think I can unequivocally say that the ZS20's noise levels are at least 1-2 stops better than the ZS10. Not only is there less noise -- colors look a lot better, too. The ZS20 isn't going to win any awards for its noise levels, but Panasonic has improved things considerably.
Overall, the Lumix DMC-ZS20's photo is good, but not fantastic. Is it better than the ZS10? Absolutely. Is there room for improvement? Quite a bit. Let's start with exposure which, while generally accurate, tends to clip highlights easily. My suggestion is to bracket (or use HDR) in high contrast situations. Colors are nice and saturated -- no complaints there. Photos are a bit on the soft side, but turning on Intelligent Resolution makes them a lot more pleasant to look at. While photos aren't as noisy as on last year's model, the ZS20's pictures still have noise and noise reduction artifacting, even at ISO 100. This gives low contrast areas a fuzzy, mushy, and sometimes mottled appearance. While it'll blend away when you downsize for the web or make small prints, other cameras do better in this area. As the previous tests showed, taking the ISO over 400 in low light or ISO 800 in good light is not recommended. Purple fringing is rarely a problem on Panasonic cameras, and that is the case on the ZS20, as well.
As always, don't just take my word for all this. Have a look at our ZS20 photo gallery and decide if the image quality meets your standards!
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 is a well-designed, easy-to-use travel zoom camera that stuffs a 20X Leica lens into a body just 1.1 inches thick. As with its predecessor (the ZS10), its design, features, and performance are its best attributes, while photo quality could be better (though the ZS20 is considerably better than the ZS10 in that regard). The ZS20 isn't what I'd call an ultra-compact camera, but it travels easily enough in your pocket (even the small ones). Build quality is generally solid, save for the door over the memory/battery compartment and the small/cheap-feeling mode dial. The ZS20's new 20X zoom lens covers a range of 24 - 480 mm, and you can add even more telephoto power by using the Intelligent Zoom or Extended Optical Zoom features. Naturally, the ZS20 has image stabilization (of the Power OIS variety), which includes an "active mode" for extra shake reduction in movie mode. On the back of the camera is the same 3-inch, 460,000 pixel touchscreen LCD that was found on the ZS10. It's a really nice screen, with great sharpness and outdoor visibility. The touch functionality is mainly for focusing, shutter release, and image playback.
Probably the biggest feature on the ZS20, aside from its big lens in a compact body thing, is its built-in GPS. While most GPS-equipped cameras just log your location, Panasonic also offers a built-in database of a million landmarks, plus maps of ninety countries. It can even show you where you are on the map, though they're not nearly detailed enough for navigation. GPS performance is pretty typical for a digital camera: decent if you're in the clear, and pretty lousy in the city. It also puts an extra strain on the battery, especially if you let it keep running while the camera is off.
Other features on ZS20 include its Intelligent Auto mode which, as I always say, is probably the best point-and-shoot mode in the business. If you have no idea how to operate a camera, just set the mode dial to iA mode, and the camera will do the rest. The ZS20 has a decent set of manual exposure controls as well, though it lacks RAW support, white balance bracketing, and manual focus. Some other handy features include Intelligent Resolution (on by default in iA mode), which does a nice job of sharpening your photos, and the new HDR mode, which really improves how high contrast photos turn out. The Intelligent Zoom feature will boost the focal range of the ZS20 by a factor of two, though it's best saved for small prints or web viewing, due to a drop in image quality. There's also an in-camera panorama stitching feature, similar to what's been on Sony cameras for the last several years.
The ZS20 is also capable of recording very high quality Full HD video. While the ZS10 topped out at 1080/60i (with 30p sensor output), the ZS20 records at true 1080/60p. The camera uses the AVCHD codec and Dolby Digital Stereo sound, and can record for up to 30 continuous minutes. You have full use of the optical zoom and image stabilization, and the camera can continuously autofocus, as well. That said, the video recording experience on the ZS20 is point-and-shoot, with only a wind filter available.
Camera performance is very good in most respects, with only two areas in which the camera lags a bit. The first area is startup time which, at 2 seconds, is a bit slower than average. Focusing times, on the other hand, are very responsive, and are among the best you'll find on a compact camera. Shutter lag wasn't an issue, and shot-to-shot delays were minimal, even with the flash. The ZS20 has a number of burst modes, with the two most important being one which takes 12 photos in a row at 4.8 frames/sec with continuous AF, and the other taking 10 photos at 10 frames/sec with the focus locked on the first shot. While the ZS20's battery life is a bit above average, the ZS20's new internal charging system is slow, and doesn't allow you to charge a spare battery.
While the ZS20's photo quality is quite a bit better than on the ZS10 that came before it, there's still a fair amount of room for improvement. Exposures were generally accurate, though since the camera has the tendency to clip highlights, you might want to bracket in high contrast situations. Colors were nice and saturated, though like its fellow Panasonic cameras, the ZS20 tends to lean in the yellow direction under artificial light. Images are a bit soft with Intelligent Resolution turned off, and pleasing with it turned on (hint, hint). Even though the ZS20 is 1-2 stops better than the ZS10 in terms of noise performance, photos are still noisier than I'd like, even at ISO 100. You will also spot some smudged or mottled details in areas of low contrast, most likely due to noise reduction. If you're sticking to smaller prints or downsizing for web viewing, then this shouldn't be an issue. Those of you making larger prints (or just inspecting photos at 100% on your computer) may want to consider a camera with cleaner photos. Another issue the ZS20 has is redeye -- it's pretty strong, and there's no tool in playback mode to remove it. Purple fringing levels were low, as is usually the case with Panasonic cameras.
Overall, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 is a very capable travel zoom camera that I enjoy using. Panasonic has improved the image quality to the point where I can now recommend the ZS20 (which was not the case for its predecessor), though it still needs some work. While I'm yet to try them, I'm pretty sure that Canon and Sony's latest travel zooms will best the ZS20 in the image quality department, as their predecessors did last year. Even with that, if you're mostly making smaller prints or sharing them on social networking sites, then the ZS20 will do just fine. Its powerful lens, generally snappy performance, elaborate GPS setup, nice set of useful features, and Full HD video recording make it worth considering. If you can live without the GPS, touchscreen LCD, 1080/60p movie mode, and don't mind a 16X lens, then the DMC-ZS15 is also worth a look. Since it uses the FZ150's sensor, I have a feeling that image quality will be better than the ZS20's, as well.
What I liked:
- Good photo quality (though see below)
- Packs a 20X Leica lens in a pretty compact package
- "Power OIS" image stabilization, with "active" mode for movies
- 3-inch touchscreen LCD with 460,000 pixels, great outdoor/low light visibility
- Built-in GPS with landmark database and maps
- Good collection 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
- Intelligent Resolution improves sharpness
- Intelligent Zoom gives you double the zoom power (though it's best saved for small prints)
- New HDR feature noticeably improves contrast, doesn't require a tripod
- Fast burst mode can shoot at 4.8 fps with continuous AF and 10 fps without it
- Records Full HD video at 1080/60p with stereo sound and continuous autofocus using AVCHD or MPEG-4 codecs; optical zoom and image stabilizer can be used while recording
- Optional underwater case
What I didn't care for:
- While improved over the ZS10, photos still have too much noise, even at ISO 100
- Tends to clip highlights
- Strong redeye; no removal tool in playback mode
- Images have yellow/brownish cast in artificial light
- No RAW, manual focus, or WB bracketing support; movie mode lacks manual controls
- Slow internal battery charging system
- Flimsy door over memory card/battery compartment; can't access memory card while camera is on a tripod
- Very little built-in memory; full manual on DVD
Some other GPS-equipped travel zoom cameras to consider include the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS, Fuji FinePix F770EXR, Nikon Coolpix S9300, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V. Some non-GPS models worth looking at are the Olympus SZ-31MR iHS, Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15, and the Pentax Optio VS20.
As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera or electronics store to try out the Lumix DMC-ZS20 and its competitors before you buy!
|Conclusion updated on 2/27/12|
Check out our photo gallery to see how the ZS20's image quality looks!