Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7 Review
How Does it Compare?
With the Lumix DMC-ZS7, Panasonic has tried to improve on a camera that didn't need a whole lot of improving. In most respects, the ZS7 is better than the ZS3 that it replaces, offering manual controls, a built-in GPS, improved image stabilization, faster autofocus, enhanced image sharpening, and more. Some of those features I'd consider "must haves" (manual controls), while others are "nice to have" (GPS). At the same time, I think that the ZS7 has taken a step backwards in terms of image quality. The increase in resolution comes with more noise, and thus, more noise reduction. This noise reduction smudges fine details and areas of low contrast, even at ISO 80. As the ISO goes up, the disparity between the ZS3 and ZS7 becomes more obvious. Some other issues I have with the DMC-ZS7 include its tendency to clip highlights, some problems with redeye, a sluggish continuous shooting mode, and the lack of support for RAW images. I still like the ZS7 -- just not as much as I hoped I would.
The Lumix DMC-ZS7 looks a whole lot like the ZS3 that came before it, with the main differences found on the top of the camera. That makes it a compact camera, made mostly of metal, that comes in four colors (in the U.S., at least). While the frame of the camera feels solid, the doors that cover the memory/battery compartment and I/O ports do not. The ZS7 features a 12X optical zoom Leica lens, with a great focal range of 25 - 300 mm. The camera has a newly enhanced image stabilization system known as Power OIS. While I can't provide evidence to back up Panasonic's "twice as effective" claim, I have no complaints about it. On the back of the camera is an absolutely gorgeous 3-inch LCD, with 460,000 pixels. Everything looks great on the screen, whether you're outside or in a dimly lit room. As with all cameras in this class, you won't find an optical viewfinder on the DMC-ZS7.
The DMC-ZS7 definitely qualifies as a "feature-packed" camera. On the point-and-shoot side you'll find one of the best auto modes in the business, known as Intelligent Auto. This mode does everything: it selects a scene, detects (and recognizes) faces, brightens shadows, sharpens details, reduces blur, and tracks moving subjects. If you want to select a scene mode yourself, there are plenty to choose from. A new addition to the "Intelligent" set of features is called Intelligent Resolution, which works in two ways. When turned on, the camera will sharpen edges and textures, while leaving gradients smooth. While the sharpening mostly looks great, I found that Intelligent Resolution can make the smudged details that are common in the ZS7's photos look even worse. The other half of the Intelligent Resolution feature is known as Intelligent Zoom. This gives you a 1.3X focal length boost with a relatively small drop in image quality (it's definitely lossy, but not as bad as traditional digital zoom). One huge addition to the ZS7 is manual exposure controls, something people have been waiting for since the DMC-TZ1 was introduced many years ago. You can control the shutter speed, aperture, or both, though I was disappointed to see that the aperture can't go any smaller than F6.3. The camera has the usual custom white balance options, including the ability to fine-tune things. Two features that didn't make it: manual focus and support for the RAW image format.
One of the most significant new features on the camera is a built-in GPS. Unless you're in the middle of a big city, you'll be impressed with the speed at which the camera locates itself, and perhaps a bit surprised at how many landmarks it already knows. The whole system works seamlessly, though keep in mind that using the GPS puts an extra strain on your battery. Another big feature, though not new, is the ZS7's HD movie mode. The camera can record video at 1280 x 720 at 60 frames/second (though the sensor only outputs 30 fps) with digital stereo sound, with full use of the optical zoom lens and image stabilizer. You have your choice of two codecs: AVCHD Lite or Motion JPEG. The former has long recording times and looks great on an HDTV, but it's a real pain in the you-know-what to edit and share. The latter is easier to edit, but is somewhat limited by its enormous file sizes and limited recording times. You'll definitely want to think about what you plan on doing with your movies when selecting a codec. To tie this paragraph together, I should mention that you can even add location information to movies that you've recorded.
The Lumix DMC-ZS7 is a very good performer in most respects. The camera powers on in 1.5 seconds with the GPS off, and in just under three seconds with it turned on. Focus speeds have improved on the ZS7, helping to cement the camera as one of the fastest focusing ultra zooms on the market. Low light focusing is good as well, with focus times staying under a second the majority of the time. Shutter lag wasn't a problem, and shot-to-shot speeds ranged from two seconds without the flash to three seconds with it. One area in which the ZS7 did not impress was in the continuous shooting performance, where it took just three photos in a row at 2 frames/second (you can take five photos if you reduce the image quality to "standard"). While battery life is quite good for a compact camera, it's still a bit below average for the compact ultra zoom class.
That brings us to image quality, which was kind of a let-down. If you keep the ISO low, you'll get pretty nice results from the ZS7 -- for the most part. The camera exposes photos accurately, though it tends to clip highlights easily. Colors look good, as does sharpness, especially if you've got Intelligent Resolution turned on. Purple fringing is automatically removed by the camera, and barrel distortion is removed as well. Where the DMC-ZS7 disappoints is with regard to noise and noise reduction. At the base ISO, you won't have to look hard to find smudged details and low contrast areas that appear mottled. This becomes a lot more noticeable once you get above ISO 200, when details really start to disappear. The ZS7 does not hold up well against its predecessor at high ISOs, not to mention the best cameras in its class. The small print crowd will probably not be bothered by any of this, but those of you who want to shoot at high sensitivities (or just make large prints) may be frustrated by the camera's lackluster high ISO performance. I also had problems with redeye, which doesn't make a lot of sense, since the ZS3 had no such problem.
I have just a few other things to mention before I wrap things up. First, you won't be able to access the memory card slot while the camera is on a tripod. Second, the amount of built-in memory is quite small, and is a lot lower than what you got on the DMC-ZS3. Finally, there's no Mac software included, which isn't a big deal for viewing photos, but for movies recorded in AVCHD format, you'll need to download something that can view them.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7 is a compact ultra zoom camera that does most things very well. I like its great zoom lens, beautiful LCD, auto and manual controls, well-implemented GPS, and HD movie mode. I wasn't as impressed with the ZS7's image quality, which felt like a step backwards from the ZS3. Despite that and a couple of other issues, I still like the DMC-ZS7 enough to recommend it, though not as enthusiastically as I would've liked.
What I liked:
- Very good photo quality at low ISOs
- Packs a 12X, 25 - 300 mm lens into a small, well-built package
- Optical image stabilization (new and improved)
- Beautiful 3-inch LCD display with excellent resolution and outdoor / low light visibility
- Manual exposure controls, finally
- Intelligent Auto mode picks a scene for you, detects faces, tracks a moving subject, sharpens edges, brightens shadows, and reduces blur
- Well implemented face detection and recognition system
- Built-in GPS with quick location acquisition time (in most cases), impressive database of landmarks, and auto clock setting
- Records video at 1280 x 720 with digital stereo sound, with use of optical zoom and image stabilizer; two codecs to choose from
- Good collection of features in playback mode, including a photo straightening tool
- HDMI output
- Optional underwater case
What I didn't care for:
- Image quality, especially at higher ISOs, is not as good as its predecessor
- Heavy noise reduction smudges fine details, even at low ISOs, and especially at ISO 400 and above
- Highlight clipping is fairly common
- Redeye a problem, though I'm not sure why (since the ZS3 did so well)
- Smallest aperture in manual modes is F6.3 (would've expected F8.0)
- RAW support, manual focus would be nice
- AVCHD Lite video format is difficult to work with, though Motion JPEG codec is also available
- Unremarkable continuous shooting mode
- 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
- Skimpy amount of built-in memory; no Mac software included
- Documentation could be more user-friendly
The closest competitors to the Lumix DMC-ZS7 are undoubtedly the GPS-equipped Samsung HZ35W and Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX5V. Some other compact ultra zooms worth considering include the Canon PowerShot SX210 IS, Casio Exilim EX-H15, Fuji FinePix F80EXR, Kodak EasyShare Z950, Nikon Coolpix S8000, Olympus Stylus 9000, and the Ricoh CX3. And don't forget about the ZS7's little brother, the Lumix DMC-ZS5!
As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera or electronics store to try out the Lumix DMC-ZS7 and its competitors before you buy!
Check out our extensive photo gallery to see how the DMC-ZS7's photo quality looks!