Originally Posted: March 15, 2010
Last Updated: March 27, 2011
The Lumix DMC-ZS7 ($399) is the follow-up to Panasonic's very popular "travel zoom" DMC-ZS3. The ZS3 (and the TZ5 that came before it) were already very good cameras, and Panasonic still found a way to make the new ZS7 even more appealing. Some of the new features on the DMC-ZS7 include:
- 12.1 Megapixel CCD
- Venus Engine HD II processor
- Improved Power OIS image stabilization
- New Intelligent Resolution feature offers improved sharpening and a nearly lossless digital zoom
- Faster autofocus
- Manual exposure controls
- Built-in GPS, with over half a million known landmarks
Those are in addition to all the features which made the DMC-ZS3 so appealing, namely the 12X, 25 - 300 mm zoom lens, extra-sharp 3-inch LCD display, handy Intelligent Auto mode, and HD movie mode -- just to name a few things.
The chart below compares the ZS7 to both its predecessor, and its "little brother", the DMC-ZS5, which costs $100 less:
Hopefully that table will be helpful for those of you trying to figure out what separates these three models! With that, I think it's time to begin my review of the Lumix DMC-ZS7.
The Lumix DMC-ZS7 is known as the DMC-TZ10 in some countries. Since the ZS7 has a lot in common with its predecessor, portions of the DMC-ZS3 review will be reused here.
What's in the Box?
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:
- The 12.1 effective Megapixel Lumix DMC-ZS7 camera
- DMW-BCG10 lithium-ion rechargeable battery
- Battery charger
- Wrist strap
- USB cable
- A/V cable
- CD-ROM featuring PhotoFunStudio 5.1 HD
- Camera manual (printed)
The DMC-ZS7 has taken a bit of a step backward in the memory department. Where the ZS3 had 40MB of memory built in, the ZS7 has just 15MB, which holds just two photos at the highest quality setting. Anyhow, the ZS7 supports SD, SDHC, and the new, ultra-high capacity SDXC memory cards. If you'll be taking mostly still photos, then starting out with a 2GB card should be just fine. If you'll be recording a lot of HD movies, I'd do 4GB or even 8GB. It's definitely worth spending a little extra for a high speed card, though you don't need to go overboard.
The DMC-ZS7 uses the same DMW-BCG10 lithium-ion battery as its predecessor. Despite having just 3.3 Wh of energy, Panasonic manages to squeeze some pretty impressive battery life numbers out of the camera. Here's how it compares to other cameras in its class:
I don't know how they do it, but somehow Casio always manages to make everyone else look bad in the battery life department. Here, their compact ultra zoom EX-H15 last more than three times as long as the closest competitor. In the group as a whole, the ZS7's battery life runs about 10% below average, which isn't much in the grand scheme of things. I should add that those numbers are derived with the GPS turned off -- they'll be considerably lower if you keep it on full-time. And speaking of which, if the GPS is turned on, it will check your location every 15 minutes, even with the camera powered off. While this will allow the camera to usually know where it is when you turn it on, it does reduce battery life. To turn this feature off, switch the GPS to airplane mode in the menu.
I have to make my usual list of issues that surround proprietary batteries like the one used by the DMC-ZS7, and all the other cameras on the above list. They're on the pricey side, with a spare DMW-BCG10 setting you back at least $30. In addition, should that battery die, you can't use an "off-the-shelf" battery to get you through the day. One ZS7-specific issue regarding batteries is that the camera is designed to only accept genuine Panasonic batteries. I'm not saying that they aren't generics out there, but Panasonic has made an effort in recent years to prevent them from working.
When it's time to charge the battery, just pop it into the included charger. It takes just over two hours to fully charge the battery. This is my favorite kind of charger, plugging directly into the wall, though that may not be true for folks in other countries.
The DMC-ZS7 has a built-in lens cover, so there's no lens cap to deal with. As you can see, it's a pretty small camera, especially when you consider the fact that it packs a 12X zoom lens!
There's just a handful of accessories available for the DMC-ZS7, and I've compiled them all into this table:
A pretty short list, but that's not surprising, given that it's a compact camera.
PhotoFunStudio 5.1 HD
Panasonic includes their PhotoFunStudio 5.1 HD Edition software with the Lumix DMC-ZS7, which is for Windows only. The software is fairly basic, but it gets the job done for basic photo viewing and editing. On the main screen you can view photos by date, folder, or by location (see screenshot). Strangely enough, there's no map shown in the software, nor is there a link to one.
Other things you can do here include recognizing faces, display a slideshow, e-mail or print photos, or copy them to a DVD or memory card.
Editing photos in PhotoFunStudio
Above you can see the still photo editing screen. Here you can adjust things like brightness, contrast, color, and sharpness. Images can be changed to sepia, black and white, or "negative color", and redeye can be removed with the click of your mouse. There's also an auto enhancement feature, for those who want to keep things simple.
As for movie editing, you can remove unwanted footage from your clip, and then burn the results to a DVD or memory card, though the interface is confusing. While you can view the AVCHD Lite videos produced by the camera using PhotoFunStudio, you can't convert them into more commonly used formats. To convert the files into other formats, try Handbrake, CoreAVC, or AVS Video Converter. For editing, Windows users will want to use something like Adobe Premiere, Pinnacle Studio, or Sony Vegas (see the full list here).
Mac users don't get any video viewing/editing software with the camera. If you just want to view the AVCHD Lite movies, try downloading VLC. If you want to convert them to other formats, I've had decent luck with both Handbrake as well as Toast Titanium 10 (which can also burn the movies to DVD or Blu-ray). Editing the AVCHD Lite videos is the biggest pain in the rear, as both iMovie and Final Cut Pro don't actually edit the MTS files themselves -- rather, they're converted to another codec.
If you want to avoid all of this AVCHD stuff, you can use the good old Motion JPEG instead. Your videos will still be HD, but the file sizes will be larger and recording times shorter.
Panasonic includes a detailed, though not terribly user-friendly manual with the Lumix DMC-ZS7. While I'm not 100% sure (since I didn't have a final production box), there will be a basic printed manual to get you started, and a full manual in PDF format on a CD-ROM (boo!). You'll definitely find answers to any question you may have about the camera within the pages of this manual -- just expect to sort through lots of tables and fine print along the way. Documentation for the included software is installed onto your computer.
Look and Feel
The Lumix DMC-ZS7 looks a whole lot like its predecessor (the ZS3), with just a few cosmetic changes. The main differences are the addition of the GPS receiver on the top of the camera, a new "exposure" button on the back, and the location swapping of the mode dial and shutter release button. Thus, if you've used the ZS3, you'll feel right at home here.
Build quality is fairly good. The ZS7 is made mostly of metal, with the only weak spots being the plastic doors that cover the I/O ports and battery/memory card compartment (especially the latter). While the camera is easy to hold and operate with one hand, I found that my right thumb sits right on the exposure and "up" buttons, so you need to be careful.
Images courtesy of Panasonic USA
Gone are the days when a camera came in just silver or black. Now you've gotta have at least three or four colors to be taken seriously, and you can pick up the ZS7 in silver, black, red, and blue (other colors may be available in your country).
Now, let's see how the DMC-ZS7 compares to similar cameras in terms of size and weight. Do note that the standards for measuring the weight of a camera changed in the last few months: it used to be just the body only, and now it's the body plus the battery and memory card. Since not all camera manufacturers are using these standards yet, comparing the weights of the various cameras isn't terribly accurate at the moment.
The DMC-ZS7 is one of the larger cameras in the group. It's the same size as both the ZS3 that came before it, as well as its cheaper sibling, the DMC-ZS5. While not an ultra-thin camera, I found that it's easy to carry around in a pocket.
Alright, let's begin our tour of the DMC-ZS7 now, shall we?
The DMC-ZS7 has the same F3.3-4.9, 12X optical zoom Leica lens as its predecessor (at least in terms of specs -- the lens-shift image stabilization system is new). The focal range of the lens is 4.1 - 49.2 mm, which is equivalent to a extremely versatile 25 - 300 mm. Since the sensor in the ZS7 actually has 14.5 million total pixels, you are able to enjoy the same focal range regardless of the aspect ratio you use. Thus, the wide end of the lens is 25 mm at 4:3, 16:9, or 3:2. The lens is not threaded (not that I'd expect it to be), so conversion lenses are not supported.
The ZS7 uses Panasonic's new "Power OIS" image stabilization system, which they say is twice as effective at reducing the effect of camera shake (especially the type that is caused by pressing the shutter release button) as the "MEGA OIS" system found on the ZS3. The system works in the same way as before: sensors inside the camera detect the tiny movements of your hands that can blur your photos. The ZS7 then shifts one of its lens elements to compensate for this motion, which gives you a much higher chance of obtaining a sharp photo. Keep in mind that image stabilization systems can't work miracles. They can't freeze a moving subject, and you're still not going to be able to take a handheld, 3 second exposure.
Want to see the Power OIS system in action? Have a look at these:
Image stabilization off
Image stabilization on
I took both of the photos above at the very slow shutter speed of 1/4 second. As you can see, the Power OIS system did a great job of producing a sharp photo. While the image stabilization system is available in movie mode, there's no way to turn it off (at least that I can find), so I can't show you a comparison movie like I normally do.
To the upper-left of the lens is the ZS7's built-in flash, which is the unchanged since the ZS3. This flash is quite powerful, with a working range of 0.6 - 5.3 m at wide-angle, and 1.0 - 3.6 m at telephoto, though that's at Auto ISO, which can lead to noisy images if the sensitivity gets high enough. You cannot attach an external flash to the DMC-ZS7.
The last thing to see on the front of the camera is its AF-assist lamp, located at the top-right of the photo. The camera uses the lamp as a focusing aid in low light situations, and it also serves as a visual countdown for the self-timer.
You can't miss the main event on the back of the DSC-ZS7, as its 3-inch LCD display takes up most of the real estate. While the basic specs of this screen are the same as that of the DMC-ZS3, Panasonic has added an anti-reflective coating to improve outdoor visibility (which was already very good). The screen has double the resolution of most LCDs in this class, with 460,000 pixels and, as you'd expect, everything is very sharp. The screen brightness can adjust itself automatically, when comes in very handy when you're outdoors. As I mentioned, outdoor visibility is very good, and the screen "gains up" nicely in low light situations, as well.
Keeping with the tradition of the TZ/ZS series of cameras, the DMC-ZS7 lacks an optical viewfinder. Same goes with the other cameras in this class.
Now let's talk about all those buttons located to the right of the LCD. The one at the top-right is the switch for moving the ZS7 between record and playback mode. Under that you have buttons for exposure and movie recording. In the manual shooting modes, you press the Exposure button to adjust the aperture and/or shutter speed. What drove me a bit nuts about this button is that you can't press the Menu/Set button (center of the four-way controller) to select the value you've chosen -- you have to press Exposure again. The movie button is fairly self-explanatory: press it once to start recording a video, and again to stop. The camera has no dedicated movie mode, so this is always how you'll need to do it.
Under those is the four-way controller, used for menu navigation, reviewing photos, and also:
- Up - Exposure compensation + Auto bracketing + Multi-aspect + White balance fine-tuning
- Down - Macro (Off, AF macro, macro zoom) + AF tracking
- Left - Self-timer (Off, 2 or 10 secs)
- Right - Flash (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, flash on, slow sync w/redeye reduction, flash off)
- Center - Menu + Set
Lots to talk about before the tour continues. Pressing "up" on the four-way controller lets you adjust the exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV), bracket for exposure (the camera takes three shots in a row, each with a different exposure), shoot at different aspect ratios (the camera produces photos at 4:3, 16:9, and 3:2), and fine-tune white balance (more on that later).
I'll get to the macro options later in the review, but I should tell you if you're using the AF tracking focus mode, pressing "down" on the four-way controller will lock onto a subject and follow them as they move around the frame.
Pressing the center button in the controller opens up the main menu system, which I'll cover in detail later in the review.
Underneath the four-way controller are two more buttons. The Display button toggles the information shown on the LCD, while the Quick Menu opens up, well, the Quick Menu (it also deletes photos in playback mode). The Quick Menu gives you easy access to the following options:
- GPS mode
- Burst mode
- AF mode
- White balance
- ISO sensitivity
- Intelligent Exposure
- Picture size
- Video quality
- LCD mode
Since those options are all found in the main menu, I'll talk about those later as well!
Now onto the top of the camera, where the first thing to mention is the speaker located at the left side of the photo. Next to that is the GPS receiver, and I'll be giving you plenty of information about that feature a little later. Continuing to the right, we find the ZS7's stereo microphones, which record audio using the Dolby Digital Stereo Creator system.
Next up is the mode dial, which has moved more toward the center of the camera compared to the DMC-ZS3. The mode dial also has a lot more options than it did on the ZS3, including the manual controls that enthusiasts have been asking for a long time. Here's what you'll find on the mode dial, and what each option does:
The big news here is the addition of manual exposure controls. You can manually set the aperture, shutter speed, or both. A couple of notes, though: the smallest aperture on the ZS7 is F6.3 -- most compact cameras go up to F8.0. There's no Program Shift feature, nor is there a Bulb mode, which allows for very long exposures.
Don't want to bother with manual controls? Then flip into Panasonic's Intelligent Auto mode, which handles virtually everything for you. Here's everything that's now included in Intelligent Auto mode:
- Image stabilization (Power OIS)
- Auto scene selection
- Face detection and recognition
- AF tracking
- Auto ISO control w/motion detection
- Intelligent Exposure (brightens shadows)
- Intelligent Resolution / Zoom - new to the ZS7
I will explain most of those when we reach the menu section of the review in a little bit. I do want to quickly mention the Auto Scene Selection feature in Intelligent Auto mode, though. The camera will automatically select one of the following scenes: portrait, baby, scenery, night portrait, night scenery, macro, and sunset. The camera is even smart enough to detect when the camera is on a tripod, and I believe it disables the image stabilizer in those cases (which is desirable).
|Plenty of scene modes to choose from here, and this is just the first page of them||You can press Display to get a description of each scene mode|
Rather pick a scene mode yourself? There are plenty to choose from, with these being the highlights:
- Transform: Slim or "stretch" your subject, while removing blemishes from their skin (oh my)
- Panorama assist: Helps you line up photos side-by-side for later stitching into a single panoramic image
- Baby/Pet: Records the age of your child or pet along with your photo
- High sensitivity: Lowers the resolution to 3M or less and sets the ISO to between 1600 and 6400 in order to get a blur-free photo in low light
- Hi-speed burst: Allows for continuous shooting at up to 10 frames/second; resolution is lowered to 3M or less; ISO range is 200 - 1600 in speed priority (10 fps) mode and ISO 500 - 800 in image priority (7 fps) mode; a full resolution burst mode (discussed later) is also available
- Flash burst: Camera can take up to 5 flash photos in rapid succession, though (again) resolution is lowered to 3M or less and ISO can be boosted as high as 3200
- Pin hole, film grain: Panasonic's version of Olympus' Art Filters
- High dynamic mode: see below
- Photo frame: add a virtual frame around your photos
- Underwater: for use with the optional waterproof case
Many of those scene modes shoot at both a lower resolution and a high sensitivity. The combination of the two produces images that can be quite low on detail, and not usable for much. My advice is to avoid these modes unless you know that you'll be downsizing the photos for web viewing, or making small prints.
|Program mode, default settings||Program mode, standard Intelligent Exposure||High dynamic mode, standard||High dynamic mode, art|
The high dynamic mode is new to the DMC-ZS7. It attempts to simulate high dynamic range (HDR) photos, though I think it's a digital effect, rather than a series of photos at different exposures combined into a single image. You can select from standard dynamic range enhancement, an "art" mode with exaggerated color, or a black and white mode. As you can see above, the feature does improve dynamic range, though 1) the ISO is fixed at 400, which reduces the amount of detail in the photo and 2) you can accomplish the same thing as the standard mode at a lower ISO by using Intelligent Exposure (as shown above).
Getting back to tour, the next item of note is the shutter release button, which has the zoom controller wrapped around it. The zoom controller has two speeds, and when it's at full speed it moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in under 3 seconds. I counted something like 37 steps in the camera's 12X zoom range -- very nice. I also like how the camera displays the available focus range on the LCD when you're adjusting the zoom.
The last thing to see on the top of the camera is the power switch.
Nothing to see on this side of the DMC-ZS7. The lens is at the wide-angle position here.
On the opposite side, you'll find the camera's I/O ports, which are under a plastic cover of average quality. The port on the top is a mini-HDMI port (cable not included), while the one on the bottom handles both USB and composite video output. If you're wondering where the optional AC adapter goes, you feed the power cable through a hole in the battery compartment door.
The lens is at the full telephoto position in this photo.
On the bottom of the DMC-ZS7 you'll find its metal tripod mount (not visible here) and battery/memory card compartment. The plastic door over this compartment is quite flimsy, though it does have a locking mechanism. As you can probably imagine, you will not be able to access this compartment while the camera is on a tripod.
The included DMW-BCG10 lithium-ion battery can be seen at right.
Using the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7
If the GPS is turned off, it takes about 1.5 seconds for the ZS7 to extend its lens and prepare for shooting. With the GPS on, expect to wait for just under 3 seconds.
A live histogram is available in record mode. Just above that is an indicator showing the last time the GPS location was updated.
Autofocus speeds have been improved on the DMC-ZS7, courtesy of what Panasonic calls "Sonic Speed AF". If you've got the camera in the 1-area high speed mode, you can expect focus lock in 0.2 - 0.4 seconds at wide-angle, and about twice that at the telephoto end of the lens. Even if you're not using the high speed mode, AF speeds are still very quick for this class of camera. Low light focusing performance is also very good, with focus times usually staying under one second (thank you AF-assist lamp).
I didn't find shutter lag to be a problem, even at the slow shutter speeds where it sometimes occurs.
Shot-to-shot delays were about average. You'll wait for two seconds before you can take another with the flash off, and for three seconds with it on.
There is no quick way to delete a photo immediately after it is taken -- you'll have to enter playback mode to do that.
Now let's take a look at the image size and quality options on the ZS7. Since there are three different aspect ratios available, it's a pretty long list.
This chart illustrates quite well why you'll want to buy a large memory card along with the ZS7! While Panasonic was kind enough to add manual controls to the camera, one thing they left out was support for the RAW image format.
As with all recent Panasonic cameras, the DMC-ZS7 has a feature known as extended optical zoom. When you lower the resolution, you get additional zoom power that does not degrade the quality of the image like regular digital zoom. If you lower the resolution down to 3 Megapixel, you can have up to 23.4X of total zoom power. What's more, you can combine this feature with the Intelligent Zoom option that I'm going to describe very shortly, to get even more zoom power. With both Intelligent Zoom and Extended Optical Zoom active (and the resolution set to 3 Megapixel), you now get 30.4X of zoom power, though there may be a slight decline in image quality.
The scaled-down menu in Intelligent Auto mode
The DMC-ZS7's menu is quite similar to that of its predecessor, except that now there's a new tab covering GPS options. If you're in Intelligent Auto mode you'll get an abbreviated version of the menu, but if you're in the P/A/S/M modes, you'll get access to everything. Here's what you'll find in the full menu, which looks great on the camera's high resolution LCD:
Motion Picture Settings
Travel Mode Settings
Needless to say, there's a lot to talk about before we can get to the photo tests.
I'll start with the camera's Intelligent ISO feature. This detects what's going on in the frame, and boosts the ISO accordingly. If there's a moving subject, it's going to boost the ISO higher than if you're taking a photo of a statue, since a faster shutter speed is required to freeze a subject in motion. You can select the maximum ISO the camera will use: 400, 800, or 1600. I recommend keeping this one set to ISO 400, to maximum image quality.
Fine-tuning white balance
The DMC-ZS7 has a number of white balance options at your disposal, though I don't understand why there (still) isn't a fluorescent option available. A custom option is available, which lets you use a white or gray card to get accurate color in mixed or unusual lighting. If that's still not enough, you can fine-tune all of the white balance settings (except for auto) in the red or blue directions.
Now let's talk about the various autofocus modes on the ZS7. You can select from face detection, AF tracking, 11-point, 1-point (regular or high speed), and spot. The difference between the regular and high speed modes (besides the obvious) is that the image on the LCD will freeze briefly during focusing when using the high speed mode. The AF tracking mode lets you lock onto a subject, and have the camera follow it as it moves around the frame.
The camera found five of the six faces here
The ZS7's face detection system is pretty elaborate. Not only can it detect up to 15 faces in the frame, but it can also remember certain people and give them priority. The camera can ask you to identify a person after you've taken five pictures of them, or you can enter them manually using up to three photos (from different angles, for example). Once that's done, the camera will give priority to faces that it "recognizes". The face detection system works quite well, with the ZS7 finding five of the six faces in our test scene with ease.
Two other focus-related options worth a mention can be found in the Pre AF option in the record menu. Quick AF has the camera start focusing as soon as it detects any camera shake -- I guess it's assuming that you're trying to compose a photo at that point. Continuous AF keeps focusing when the shutter release is halfway-pressed, which is great for keeping a moving subject in focus.
|Intelligent Exposure off
View Full SIze Image
|Intelligent Exposure low
View Full Size Image
|Intelligent Exposure standard
View Full Size Image
|Intelligent Exposure high
View Full Size Image
The Intelligent Exposure feature has been enhanced a bit on the DMC-ZS7. Instead of just on or off, you now have three levels to choose from, at least in the P/A/S/M modes (it's always on Intelligent Auto mode). Intelligent Exposure is supposed to brighten up the underexposed areas of your photos, and it does a pretty good job at that task. You can see an overall improvement in contrast as you go from the "off" to "low" settings, though the "standard" level really isn't any difference. The trees get even brighter as you increase the IE setting to high, though noise becomes quite noticeable at this point.
Now it's time to talk about the full resolution burst mode on the DMC-ZS7 (I mentioned the low res ones earlier). There's now just one speed, instead of two like on the ZS3. In burst mode, the camera takes just three photos in a row, at a frame rate of 2 frames/second. Nothing to write home about, that's for sure. The LCD keeps up fairly well with the action, but since the burst is over so quickly, that doesn't matter a whole lot.
Intelligent Resolution is the newest addition to Panasonic's lineup of "Intelligent" features. The ZS7 and its new Venus Engine HD II processor look for three things in a photo: outlines, textures, and soft gradations, and sharpen each differently. This feature also allows you to get a little bit more zoom power (1.3X to be exact) with a minimal degradation in image quality. But I'm getting ahead of myself: let's take a look at two examples of Intelligent Resolution in action first. Oh, and don't just look at the crops -- view the full size images too.
|Intelligent Resolution off
View Full Size Image
|Intelligent Resolution on
View Full Size Image
I don't think there's any question that the photo taken with Intelligent Resolution is a lot sharper and more pleasing to the eye. Here's another example, which illustrates one downside to this feature:
|Intelligent Resolution off
View Full Size Image
|Intelligent Resolution on
View Full Size Image
If you just focus on the buildings, you'll again see the benefits of the Intelligent Resolution feature -- their edges are much sharper. Look at the trees and grass and you may not be so fond of the results (I know I wasn't). As you'll find out, the DMC-ZS7 has an issue with smearing fine details, due to some pretty heavy-handed noise reduction. The camera seems to sharpen these smudged details, which just makes them look worse. For the typical shooter, you might as well leave Intelligent Resolution turned on, as you'll likely appreciate the increase in sharpness, and not notice the loss of the fine detail. Those of you making large prints or viewing the images on your computer screen may want to reconsider.
As I mentioned, the other part of the Intelligent Resolution feature is called Intelligent Zoom. You can use this by itself, or along with the Extended Optical Zoom feature, if you drop the resolution. Panasonic says that you can get an increase in zoom using Intelligent Zoom, without the loss of quality that comes with traditional digital zoom. I set up a little test shot to see for myself:
|Full optical zoom (12X)
View Full Size Image
|Full optical zoom + Intelligent Zoom (16X)
View Full Size Image
|Full optical zoom + digital zoom (17X)
View Full Size Image
While I'm not quite sure that I buy Panasonic's claim that image quality is "maintained" when you use Intelligent Zoom, I do think it's safe to say that it's better than using the regular digital zoom feature.
There are three image stabilization modes to choose from on the ZS7. Mode 1 has the IS system running at all times, which makes it easy to compose your photos without any camera shake. Mode 2 only activates IS when the photo is actually taken, resulting in more effective stabilization. There's also an auto mode which decides between the two modes for you, based "on the recording conditions". You can also turn the system off entirely (though only for stills), which is advisable if you're using a tripod.
You can see the current date and time, number of satellites located, and coordinates via the GPS menu
Now it's finally time to talk about one of the ZS7's biggest new features: the built-in GPS. The ZS7 isn't the first camera to have a GPS, but Panasonic has done a nice job implementing this feature. The first thing I asked Panasonic when I found out about the camera was about GPS signal acquisition times. In most situations, the camera takes 10-20 seconds to locate you (after it gets its initial bearings). And, since the camera checks your location even when powered off (unless you're in airplane mode), it should know where you are when you power it back up. If you're in the middle of a big city or indoors, don't expect spectacular performance. In downtown San Francisco, the camera struggled to find the necessary number of satellites in order to come up with my position, unless I was in a big open space. That's not entirely unexpected, as a fancy portable GPS would probably have the same problem.
The ZS7 knew exactly where this photo was taken
The camera not only saves the coordinates of your photo into the metadata of a photo -- it can even put in the country, state, city, and landmark. That's courtesy of a database of over 500,000 landmarks that's built right into the DMC-ZS7. In most cases, it worked very well -- it knew I was at the art museum at Stanford, or at Jack London Square in Oakland. Other times it thought I was in locations that I'd never heard of before, such as the "Luz Fine Arts Gallery", when I was actually in my parents' house a half-mile away. You can tell the camera to ignore a landmark via the "delete all place names" option in the Travel Mode menu. If the camera is unable to locate the GPS signal, it will use the last known location, which usually is not desirable. You can either wait for the GPS to catch up (which may not be possible in cities), delete the current location before you take the picture, or later on in playback mode.
The GPS can also be used to automatically set the clock on the camera, regardless of where in the world you are. Well, except in China and countries neighboring it, where the GPS function won't work at all.
Well, that does it for menus -- let's move onto our photo tests now, shall we? I should note that I had Intelligent Resolution turned off (which is the default in the P/A/S/M modes) for all of these tests.
The DMC-ZS7 did a pretty good job with our standard macro test subject. Colors look good, and the figurine is nice and sharp. I can easily spot some noise here, though, which is not something I like to see at ISO 80. Obviously, you won't notice this noise unless you're inspecting the photos at 100% on your computer screen (which is sort of my job), or making large prints.
There are two macro modes to choose from on the ZS7, though one is a lot more desirable than the other. In AF macro mode, you can be just 3 cm away from your subject at full wide-angle. As you increase the zoom, the distance rises to 2 meters, but when you get to 10X and above, it drops down to 1 meter. The other option is called macro zoom, which locks the lens at wide-angle and lets you use the digital zoom to get closer. Since this reduces image quality, I would recommend against using it.
The night scene turned out quite well. Now that the ZS7 has manual shutter speed control, you no longer need to rely on scene modes in order to take photos like this. The camera took in a good amount of light, though you will spot moderate amounts of highlight clipping here and there. The buildings are quite sharp -- no complaints there. The image does have some noise, though it's really no worse than other 12 Megapixel cameras at this point. The ZS7 digitally removes purple fringing automatically, which is why you won't spot any in this photo. There is some cyan-colored fringing in a few places, though.
Now, let's use that same scene and see how the DMC-ZS7 performs at higher sensitivities:
There's just a bit more noise when you raise the sensitivity from ISO 80 to 100. At ISO 200 noise is quite visible, though plenty of detail remains. The same can't be said for ISO 400, where the image is noisy and details are disappearing fast. Thus, I'd keep the sensitivity below ISO 400 in these situations, unless you're really desperate. Things really go south at ISO 800, and by the time you hit ISO 1600, the buildings are barely recognizable.
We'll see how the ZS7 fares in good lighting in a moment.
The redeye test photo is a bit of a mystery to me. The flash and lens are in the same places as they were on the ZS3, which did not have a redeye problem. Despite using both a preflash system and digital redeye removal, I still had quite a bit of redeye in my flash photos (despite numerous attempts). While your results may vary, there's a good chance you too will have issues with redeye, and I should point out that there's no redeye removal tool in playback mode, so you'll have to deal with it on your computer.
There's almost no barrel distortion at the wide end of the DMC-ZS3's 25 - 300 mm lens, and that's because the camera's Venus Engine HD II is correcting for it automatically. I did not find vignetting (dark corners) to be an issue, and corner blurring was minimal.
Now let's see how the DMC-ZS7 performs at high ISOs in normal lighting. Since this test is taken under consistent studio lighting, you can compare it between cameras I've reviewed over the years. While the crops below give you a quick idea about the noise levels at each sensitivity, viewing the full size images is highly recommended. And with that, let's take a look:
The first two crops are both very clean. While some grainy noise starts to appear at ISO 200, it's not enough to concern me. The noise becomes more noticeable when you reach ISO 400, reducing your maximum print sizes a bit. Things get a lot worse at ISO 800, with lots of detail loss and a drop in color saturation. Thus, I'd avoid this setting unless you're really desperate. The ISO 1600 setting is definitely missing too much detail to be usable.
I figured I'd use the same test scene to compare the ZS7 against its predecessor, the DMC-ZS3. Do note that I downsized the ZS7 images to 10 Megapixel and adjusted the levels a bit, to make things as equal as possible.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist -- or even a professional camera reviewer -- to see that the old DMC-ZS3 produces better looking images than the ZS7, especially at ISO 800. Even with its images downsized, the 12 Megapixel sensor in the DMC-ZS7 can't compete with the 10MP CCD in the ZS3.
While I do think that the ZS7's image quality isn't as good as that of its predecessor (especially at higher sensitivities), it's still very good for the compact ultra zoom class. Exposure was generally spot on -- I rarely found myself reaching for the exposure compensation button. The ZS7 does tend to clip highlights which, while not entirely surprising, is still a bit annoying. I have no complaints about the color in my photos. Everything was nice and saturated. Images are fairly sharp, and look even better (for the most part) if you have Intelligent Resolution turned on. My biggest beef with the ZS7's image quality has to do with noise reduction. A tiny 12 Megapixel sensor is going to be noisy, and Panasonic uses some pretty aggressive noise reduction to combat it. The result of the heavy noise reduction is the smudging of fine details, with low contrast areas taking on a mottled appearance (check out these three examples). I tried reducing the amount of noise reduction, but didn't see a significant difference. If you're sticking to 4 x 6 or 5 x 7 inch prints, odds are that you won't notice any of this. However, if you're making large prints or viewing the photos on your computer screen, you'll certainly notice the detail loss -- especially if the ISO gets away from its base of 80. One thing that won't be a problem is purple fringing, which (as I mentioned) is removed automatically when you take a picture.
Don't just take my word for all this, though. Load up our DMC-ZS7 photo gallery and use your own eyes to evaluate the photo quality!
With one exception, the movie mode on the Lumix DMC-ZS7 is unchanged compared to its predecessor. You have two codecs to choose from: AVCHD Lite and Motion JPEG. The main benefits of AVCHD Lite are 1) longer recording times, 2) better video and audio quality, and 3) the ability to play the movies on Blu-ray players (PS3 included) and modern Panasonic televisions. The main downside is that viewing and editing the videos is a pain in the butt.
Now you have three choices!
If you're using AVCHD, you can choose from three video quality settings: super high, high, and low. The only thing that's changing here is the bit rate -- the resolution and frame rate remain the same. You can keep recording a clip until your memory card fills up, unless you're in Europe, where recording stops just before you reach 30 minutes. You can fit 30 minutes of super high quality continuous video onto a 4GB memory card (high speed cards are strongly recommended). Sound is recorded using something called Dolby Digital Stereo Creator. I should point out that while the movies play back at 60 frames/second, it's not really 60 fps, since the camera only outputs 30 frames/sec. I think Panasonic is just playing every frame twice so they meet the AVCHD Lite standard of 60i. New to the ZS7 is the ability to save your current location in the movie file, though Panasonic warns that some players may have trouble reading these movies.
As I mentioned earlier, editing and converting AVCHD Lite video isn't easy. If you don't want to deal with that, then you can always use the trusty Motion JPEG codec. You can record at 1280 x 720, 848 x 480, 640 x 480, or 320 x 240, all at 30 frames/second. There's a 2GB file size limit though, and you'll reach that in 8 minutes at the 720p resolution. At 848 x 480 and 640 x 480, the limit arrives after 16 and 19 minutes, respectively. Motion JPEG files are also enormous: my 18 second sample movie takes up nearly 75MB.
One of the nice things about the DMC-ZS7 is that you can use the optical zoom while you're recording videos. The lens moves slowly, to minimize the chances of the motor noise being picked up by the microphone. The image stabilizer is available as well, though you cannot turn it off, which may be an issue if you're using a tripod. A handy "wind cut" feature is available, which can help out when you're recording movies outdoors.
Many of the features in Intelligent Auto mode also work in movie mode. The camera will detect one of four scenes for you (portrait, scenery, low light, and macro), detect any faces, and brighten the shadows.
Alright, now it's time for some samples. First are two movies taken at the super high quality AVCHD Lite setting. I used Toast Titanium 10 to convert them to QuickTime/H.264 files, and the quality is comparable the originals (which you can download as well). After that is a sample taken using the Motion JPEG codec in my backyard. I've provided the gigantic original file, as well as an H.264 version which is a lot quicker to download.
The Lumix DMC-ZS7 has a pretty complete playback mode. Basic features are covered, including slideshows, image protection, DPOF print marking, favorite tagging, thumbnail view, and zoom and scroll (AKA playback zoom).
|Calendar view||You can filter the photos shown on this screen|
Photos can be viewed in a number of ways: one at a time, by thumbnails, or via a calendar. Photos can also be filtered by mode (still, AVCHD video, M-JPEG video), GPS area (country, state, city, landmark), travel date/location, and category (portrait, landscape, food, movie, etc).
|The leveling feature was is perfect for people like me||Deleting the (incorrect) location that the camera thought it was at|
Images can be rotated, resized, and cropped right on the camera. If you want to change the aspect ratio, you can do that too. There's also a handy photo straightening tool, which is perfect for people like me who can't seem to take a level shot. If you want to edit or delete the location recorded by the GPS, you can use the Place-Name Edit option, One thing I couldn't figure out was how to strip out the location data entirely.
The ZS7 has a rather elaborate date stamp feature. You can print the date and time, the age of your baby or pet, and even a title of your choosing onto your photos, either one at a time, or in a big group. Do note that the camera will downsize the image to 3 Megapixels or less when using this feature, which is fine for what most people will be doing with them (printing them at 4 x 6).
As for movie editing, you can select a spot in your clip where you want to divide it into separate clips, and you can also grab a still image, as well.
The ZS7 lets you delete a group of photos, instead of just one or all -- a feature I always appreciate. Lastly, as you'd expect, you can copy images between the internal memory and an optional memory card.
By default, the camera doesn't give you a lot of information about your photos. However, you can press the display button and see a bit more info, including a histogram. The camera will display the location in which the photo was taken (though not the coordinates), and also shows the names of any faces that it recognizes in the scene.
The DMC-ZS7 moves between photos instantly in playback mode.
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!