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Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 Review

How Does it Compare?

It's no secret that I really liked last year's Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ5. Its replacement -- the Lumix DMC-ZS3 (also known as the TZ7) -- is even better, in most respects. I love the new lens and its very versatile focal range, and the Intelligent Auto Mode and face detection functions have been nicely enhanced. And that's on top of the amazing 3-inch LCD, easy-to-use interface, and snappy performance that the ZS3 inherited from the TZ5. While I like the ZS3's ability to record longer movies than its predecessor, the new ADCHD Lite codec is a pain to work with. The ZS3 is also in desperate need of some manual controls -- I was really hoping they'd appear on this model, but no luck. Despite these and a few other shortcomings, the DMC-ZS3 remains an excellent travel camera, and one that I can highly recommend.

The Lumix DMC-ZS3 is a compact ultra zoom camera made mostly of metal. Construction is solid in most areas, save for the somewhat flimsy door over the memory card/battery compartment. Controls are well-placed (though it's pretty easy to block the AF-assist lamp), and you don't need to read the manual to get started with the camera (though it certainly wouldn't hurt). The ZS3 is available in silver, black, blue, and red. The lens on the DMC-TZ5 was nice, but the one on the ZS3 is even better. Panasonic and Leica have produced a 12X, 25 - 300 mm lens with excellent sharpness and minimal barrel distortion. Sure, it could be a little faster at the wide-angle end of things, but that's the trade-off for having a big zoom in a small package. Inside the lens is Panasonic's excellent optical image stabilization system, which reduces the risk of blurry photos and smoothes out your video recordings. The LCD on the back of the camera hasn't changed since the TZ5, and I honestly don't know what Panasonic could've done to improve it. The screen is easily the best you'll find on a compact camera, with excellent sharpness (thanks to its 460,000 pixels), stunning outdoor visibility, and automatic brightness adjustment. As with all cameras in its class, the DMC-ZS3 lacks an optical viewfinder.

The DMC-ZS3 is almost entirely point-and-shoot, with just one manual control to be found. If you like your camera to do everything for you, then you'll love the ZS3's Intelligent Auto Mode. It selects a scene mode, detects faces, brightens shadows, tracks movement, and removes redeye -- all without you doing anything. If you want to select your own scene mode, you can do that too (and there are plenty to choose from). The ZS3 has a very slick face detection system, which can find up to 15 faces in a scene. It can do more than that, though: the camera can learn to recognize certain faces, so every time your favorite niece shows up in the scene, the camera will make sure that her face is in focus. If you're using the flash for your people pictures, the camera will digitally remove any redeye that it finds. A lot of people were hoping for manual controls on the DMC-ZS3, but the only one you'll find is for white balance (which can't be used in scene modes, as my night shot illustrated). Maybe one day Panasonic will put out a ZS-series camera with manual controls and RAW support...

The other big selling point on the DMC-ZS3 is its movie mode. Panasonic advertises the ZS3 as a camera/camcorder hybrid, and rightly so. The ZS3 records video in high definition (1280 x 720) with stereo sound, and full access to both the optical zoom and the image stabilizer. It even has a dedicated button for movie recording. The new AVCHD Lite codec allows you to keep recording until your memory card fills up, allowing you to put 30 minutes of continuous HD video onto a 4GB SDHC card. (Do note that European models of this camera are limited to 15 minutes per clip.) The bad news is that AVCHD isn't easy to work with. You can't just open up a movie and expect it to play in Windows Media Player. Instead, you have to use Panasonic's PhotoFunStudio software, which unfortunately cannot export movies to more commonly used formats. Mac users are really left out in the cold; Panasonic doesn't provide anything to view the movies, though I found that VLC can view them, and Toast can convert them to other formats. If you don't want to deal with AVCHD Lite, you can switch back to good old Motion JPEG -- just expect bigger files and shorter recording times (you can still record at 720p, though).

When it comes to performance, the DMC-ZS3 doesn't disappoint. The camera powers on and is ready to take a photo after 1.5 seconds. Focusing speeds are very quick (especially with the high speed AF mode) and range from 0.1 - 0.3 seconds at wide-angle to 0.6 - 1.0 seconds at telephoto. The camera was very good at focusing in low light situations, as long as you're not blocking the AF-assist lamp with your left hand. Shot-to-shot delays were minimal, and I didn't find shutter lag to be a problem, either. The ZS3's regular burst mode is unremarkable, but in "free" mode it can keep firing away at 1.8 frames/second. Despite Panasonic's switch to a less powerful battery, the ZS3 not only has the same battery life numbers as its predecessor -- it's also the best in its class.

Image quality was very good in most respects. The DMC-ZS3 takes well-exposed photos, without a lot of highlight clipping that's common on compact cameras (you'll still encounter it, though). While accurate, sometimes I felt that the ZS3's colors could be a bit more vivid. Photos are sharp as a tack -- no complaints there. Panasonic has done a good job at making noise reduction less intrusive on the ZS3, though instead of smudged details, you'll get a film-like grain in your photos, even at ISO 80. You can use the ZS3 up to ISO 400 in good light and ISO 200 in low light, without worrying about detail loss. Panasonic still has some work to do, though, as low contrast details such as solid areas of color and water appear a bit smudged. Panasonic cameras rarely have any purple fringing problems, as their cameras remove it digitally, and that's the case on the DMC-ZS3, as well. Redeye wasn't a problem on the ZS3, thanks to the automatic redeye removal feature.

A few final things to mention about the ZS3. One, you can't access the memory card slot while the camera is on a tripod. Two, there's no fluorescent white balance option. And finally, the included manual leaves something to be desired in terms of user-friendliness.

I think it's safe to say that Panasonic is going to sell a lot of Lumix DMC-ZS3 cameras. They've done a nice job improving on the TZ5, though I'm not really sold on the AVCHD Lite codec. A lot of people have been comparing the DMC-ZS3 to Canon's PowerShot SX200 IS, and I'd say that the ZS3 is the better of the two cameras. The only place where the SX200 comes out ahead is in terms of manual controls: it has the full suite. If that's not important, then I think you'll be more than happy with the DMC-ZS3.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality
  • Packs a 12X, 25 - 300 mm lens into a small, well-built package
  • Optical image stabilization
  • Very little barrel distortion
  • Stunning 3-inch LCD display with excellent resolution and outdoor / low light visibility
  • Snappy performance
  • Intelligent Auto mode picks a scene for you, detects (and recognizes) faces, tracks a moving subject, and brightens shadows, all automatically
  • Very nice face detection feature, with cool face recognition option
  • Able to record long, high definition movies with stereo sound, and full use of optical zoom and image stabilization
  • Effective auto redeye reduction feature
  • Good collection of features in playback mode, including a photo straightening tool
  • HDMI output
  • Optional underwater case
  • Best-in-class battery life

What I didn't care for:

  • Images have a grainy appearance, even at lowest ISOs; still some smudging of low contrast detail
  • AVCHD Lite codec makes video sharing and editing a chore (though you don't have to use it); no video viewer/editor for Mac OS included
  • Can't adjust white balance in scene modes (understandable, but frustrating); no fluorescent white balance option
  • Needs more manual controls
  • No optical viewfinder
  • Can't access memory card slot while camera is on a tripod; door covering battery/memory card compartment on the flimsy side
  • Documentation could be better

Some other compact ultra zooms worth considering include the Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, Kodak EasyShare Z915, Olympus Stylus 9000, Samsung HZ15W, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H20.

As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera store to try out the Lumix DMC-ZS3 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

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If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.