DCRP

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7 Review

Using the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7

Record Mode

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.

Aspect ratio Resolution Quality # images on 15MB onboard memory # images on 2GB SD card (optional)
4:3 12M
4000 x 3000
Fine 2 380
Standard 3 560
8M
3264 x 2448
Fine 3 520
Standard 5 790
5M
2560 x 1920
Fine 4 650
Standard 7 1130
3M
2048 x 1536
Fine 8 1220
Standard 17 2360
0.3M
640 x 480
Fine 65 8770
Standard 100 12290
3:2 11.5M
4176 x 2784
Fine 2 390
Standard 3 570
7.5M
3392 x 2264
Fine 3 520
Standard 5 800
4.5M
2656 x 1768
Fine 6 930
Standard 11 1610
2.5M
2048 x 1360
Fine 9 1360
Standard 19 2560
0.3M
640 x 424
Fine 70 8770
Standard 100 12290
16:9 10.5
4320 x 2432
Fine 2 400
Standard 3 610
7M
3552 x 2000
Fine 3 520
Standard 5 820
4.5M
2784 x 1568
Fine 6 950
Standard 12 1700
2M
1920 x 1080
Fine 12 1800
Standard 25 3410
0.2M
640 x 360
Fine 83 10240
Standard 115 15360

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:

Photo Settings

  • Picture size (see above chart)
  • Quality (see above chart)
  • Aspect ratio (4:3, 3:2, 16:9)
  • Intelligent ISO (Off, ISO max 400, max 800, max 1600)
  • ISO sensitivity (Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600)
  • White balance (Auto, sunlight, cloudy, shade, incandescent, custom)
  • Face recognition (Off, on, set)
  • AF mode (Face detection, AF tracking, 11-area, 1-area high speed, 1-area, spot)
  • Pre AF (Off, Quick AF, Continuous AF)
  • Metering mode (Multiple, center-weighted, spot)
  • Intelligent Exposure (Off, low, standard, high)
  • Minimum shutter speed (Auto, 1/250 - 1 sec) - slowest shutter speed the camera will use; I'm not really clear on how the Auto setting works
  • Burst (on/off)
  • Intelligent Resolution (Off, on, Intelligent Zoom)
  • Digital zoom (on/off) - since this mode degrades image quality, it's best to avoid it
  • Stabilizer (Auto, mode 1, mode 2, off) - see below
  • Color mode (Standard, happy, black & white, sepia, cool, warm) - these options will vary depending on the shooting mode; "happy mode" is new and is basically high saturation
  • Picture Adjust - this is new to the ZS7
    • Contrast (-2 to +2)
    • Sharpness (-2 to +2)
    • Saturation (-2 to +2)
    • Noise reduction (-2 to +2)
  • Stabilizer (Off, auto, mode 1, mode 2)
  • Audio rec (on/off) - add a 5 second audio clip to each photo
  • AF-assist lamp (on/off)
  • Redeye removal (on/off) - digitally remove redeye from your flash photos
  • Clock set

Motion Picture Settings

  • Rec mode (AVCHD Lite w/GPS, AVCHD Lite, Motion JPEG) - lots more on this later
  • Rec quality
    • AVCHD Lite (Super high, high, low)
    • Motion JPEG (HD, WVGA, VGA, QVGA)
  • Continuous AF (on/off) - whether camera keeps focusing while recording
  • Wind cut (on/off) - reduces wind noise in your movies

Travel Mode Settings

  • GPS setting (Off, on, airplane mode, info)
  • GPS area select
  • Area info set
    • Country/region (on/off)
    • State/province/county (on/off)
    • City/town (on/off)
    • Landmark (on/off)
  • Travel date - stores the destination of your trip (e.g. Europe) and the current day of your trip along with GPS info
    • Travel setup (Off, set) - choose the departure and return dates for your trip
    • Location (Off, set) - type in the name of where you're going
  • Auto clock set (on/off) - uses the GPS system to set the current date and time
  • World time (Auto, destination, home) - let the GPS set the time, or select a home and travel time yourself

Setup

  • Clock set
  • Beep
    • Beep level (Off, low, high)
    • Beep tone (1, 2, 3)
    • Shutter volume (Off, low, high)
    • Shutter tone (1, 2, 3)
  • Volume (0 - 6)
  • Custom setting memory (C1, C2, C3) - store current camera settings for later retrieval via the CUST spot on the mode dial
  • LCD mode (Off, Auto Power LCD, Power LCD) - the last item cranks the screen brightness up all the way, while the "auto" mode does it as needed
  • Display size (Standard, large) - increase the font size in menus
  • Guide line
    • Rec info (on/off) - display recording info when showing guide lines
    • Pattern (Rule of thirds, complex)
  • Histogram (on/off) - whether this is shown in record mode
  • Rec area (on/off) - masks out the area of the frame that will be captured if you start recording a movie
  • Economy
    • Sleep mode (Off, 2, 5, 10 mins)
    • LCD power save (on/off)
  • Auto review (Off, 1, 2 secs, hold) - post-shot review
  • Zoom resume (on/off) - whether the zoom returns to where you left it when the camera was last used
  • File number reset (yes, no)
  • Reset - back to defaults
  • USB mode (Select on connection, PictBridge/PTP, PC)
  • TV aspect (16:9, 4:3)
  • HDMI mode (Auto, 1080i, 720p, 480p)
  • Viera link (on/off) - allows you to use your TV remote when camera is connected to a compatible Panasonic television
  • Version display
  • Format memory
  • Language
  • Demo mode - I guess this is for retail stores

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:


ISO 80


ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

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:


ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400


ISO 800


ISO 1600

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.

ISO 400

DMC-ZS3

DMC-ZS7
 
ISO 800

DMC-ZS3

DMC-ZS7

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!

Movie Mode

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.


Click to download recompressed video (13.1 MB, 1280 x 720, 60 fps, QuickTime/H.264 format)
Click to download original video (19.8 MB, 1280 x 720, 60 fps, MTS format)


Click to download recompressed video (11.4 MB, 1280 x 720, 60 fps, QuickTime/H.264 format)
Click to download original video (18.1 MB, 1280 x 720, 60 fps, MTS format)


Click to download recompressed video (7.4 MB, 1280 x 720, 30 fps, QuickTime/H.264 format)
Click to download original video (74.8 MB, 1280 x 720, 30 fps, QuickTIme/M-JPEG format)

Playback Mode

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.

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