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DCRP Review: Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18  

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: October 14, 2007
Last updated: March 13, 2012

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If the 10X or 12X lens on your typical ultra zoom camera just isn't enough, then the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 ($399) might interest you. Based on the DMC-FZ8, the FZ18 packs a whopping 18X zoom lens into a body that's still relatively compact (by ultra zoom standards). Not only is the zoom powerful, but it has a nice focal range: 28 - 504 mm.

Other features on the FZ18 include an 8.1 Megapixel CCD, optical image stabilization (standard on all Panasonic cameras), full manual controls, a 2.5" LCD display, widescreen movie recording, and more.

Is the FZ18 the right choice for people who want a real ultra zoom? Find out now in our review!

Since the cameras share much in common, I'll be reusing portions of the FZ8 review here.

What's in the Box?

The DMC-FZ18 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 8.1 effective Megapixel Lumix DMC-FZ18 camera
  • CGR-S006 lithium-ion rechargeable battery
  • Battery charger
  • Lens cap w/retaining strap
  • Lens hood w/adapter
  • Shoulder strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Lumix Simple Viewer, PhotoFunStudio, SilkyPix Developer Studio, ArcSoft Photo Suite, and drivers
  • 147 page camera manual (printed)

Like with most cameras these days, Panasonic has built memory into the FZ18 in lieu of including a memory card. The cameras has 27MB of onboard memory, which holds just one RAW or six high quality JPEGs. Thus, you'll want to get a larger memory card right away, if you don't have one already. The FZ18 supports, SD, SDHC, and MMC memory card formats, and I'd suggest a high speed, 1GB card as a good place to start.

The DMC-FZ18 uses the same CGR-S006 lithium-ion battery as the FZ8. This battery packs (no pun intended) 5.1 Wh of energy, which is decent for a camera in this class. Here's how the FZ18's battery life stacks up against the competition:

Camera Battery life, LCD on
(CIPA standard)
Battery used
Canon PowerShot S5 IS * 450 shots 4 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Fuji FinePix S8000fd */** 500 shots 4 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Kodak EasyShare Z812 IS * 275 shots KLIC-8000
Olympus SP-560 Ultra Zoom */** 610 shots 4 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 * 380 shots CGR-S006
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 */** 400 shots CGR-S006
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 * 360 shots CGR-S006
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H7 * 300 shots NP-BG1

* Has optical image stabilization
** Has an 18X zoom lens

Battery life numbers are provided by the manufacturer

The FZ18's numbers are more-or-less average for this group. Of the cameras on the above list, only three have an 18X zoom lens -- including the FZ18.

I have to mention my usual gripes about proprietary batteries before we move on. First, an extra CGR-S006 battery is really expensive -- they start at $40. Secondly, you can't use an off-the-shelf battery to get you through the day if your rechargeable battery dies. If you want to avoid both of these issues, check out one of the cameras above that uses AAs.

When it's time to charge the battery, just place it into the included external charger. It takes about two hours to fully charge the battery. This is my favorite type of charger -- it plugs directly into the wall.

As you'd expect, Panasonic includes a lens cap (with a retaining strap) to protect that big 18X lens.

Another bundled accessory is a lens hood, which can come in really handy when you're shooting in bright outdoor light. Just screw the included adapter onto the lens barrel, attach the lens hood, and you're set to go.

18X zoom not enough? Attach this beast and you'll have 30X!
Image courtesy of Panasonic

There are loads of accessories available for the DMC-FZ18. About the only things missing are an underwater case and external flash. This table lists all of the important accessories:

Accessory Model # Price Description
Telephoto lens DMW-LT55 From $184 Boosts focal range by 1.7X to a whopping 856.8 mm; requires conversion lens adapter
Close-up lens DMW-LC55 From $75 Reduces the minimum focusing distance at the telephoto end of the lens; requires conversion lens adapter
Conversion lens adapter DMW-LA3 ?? Required for conversion lenses; threaded for 55 mm accessories as well
MC protector DMW-LMC46 ?? Protects your lens without affecting color or exposure; screws onto the lens hood adapter
ND filter DMW-LND46 ?? Reduces the amount of light hitting the lens by 3 stops without affecting color; allows for slower shutter speeds; attaches to the lens hood adapter
AC adapter DMW-AC7 From $35 Power the camera without wasting your batteries
Camera cases DMW-CZS7
?? First one's a case, the other a larger bag

The FZ18 becomes quite a powerhouse with that teleconverter. Just don't forget your tripod!

Lumix Simple Viewer for Windows

Panasonic includes several software products with the camera, and the first one is Lumix Simple Viewer, which is for Windows only. This does just what its name implies: it imports photos from the camera and then lets you view, e-mail, or print them. And that's it. It cannot view images recorded in the RAW format.

PhotoFunStudio for Windows - main window

PhotoFunStudio for Windows - edit window

Next up we have PhotoFunStudio, which is again Windows-only. This adds a few basic editing features, including brightness, contrast, color, and sharpness adjustment, plus redeye removal. There's also a one-touch image enhancement option. If you're looking for RAW editing (or even viewing) capability, you won't find it here -- keep reading.

ArcSoft PhotoImpression for Mac

Another photo editing tool included with the camera is ArcSoft PhotoImpression, which is for Mac and Windows. While it has a rather quirky interface, this software can do just about everything. You can edit photos (adjusting color/sharpness/lighting), reduce redeye, design creative projects (making calendars, photo books, etc), and more.

Another piece of the ArcSoft suite is PanoramaMaker, which helps you combine photos that you've taken side-by-side into a single panorama. It's easy to use, and the results can be really impressive. Just a tip for those of you interested in panoramic shooting: bring a tripod.

SilkyPix for Mac

Panasonic provides SilkyPix Developer Studio 2.1 SE for all your RAW editing needs. This full-featured software for Mac and Windows lets you adjust virtually any RAW property, from white balance to noise reduction to color. The interface is archaic (to say the least), but SilkyPix gets the job done. Another option for RAW editing is Adobe Photoshop CS3 (with the latest Camera Raw plug-in), which has a much more sensible interface and superior performance.

The RAW format, by the way, is a lossless image format consisting of raw image data from the CCD. Thanks to this, you can change things like white balance, sharpness, saturation, and noise reduction without lowering the quality of the original image. So if you screwed up the white balance you can fix it -- it's like taking the shot all over again. The catch is that RAW files must be first processed on your computer before you can export them into more common formats such as JPEG. In addition, RAW files are considerably larger than JPEGs -- taking up almost five times the space on your memory card.

Panasonic's manuals have never been very good, whether for televisions or digital cameras. The one included with the FZ18 is detailed, but you can expect a confusing layout and lots of "notes" on each page. You'll get your question answered -- you'll just have to work for it.

Look and Feel

The DMC-FZ18 doesn't look a whole lot different from its little brother, the FZ8. It's a fairly compact ultra zoom, especially considering the powerful lens it contains. The body is made of a mix of plastic and metal, and it feels pretty solid. The camera has a good-sized grip for your right hand, so it's easy to hold. You'll probably want to hold the camera with two hands when you're shooting telephoto, to avoid blurring from camera shake. The FZ18 has a decent number of buttons, but they're logically laid out and easy to reach.

Images courtesy of Panasonic

As with most of Panasonic's cameras, the FZ18 is available in two colors: silver and black.

Now, here's a look at how the FZ18 matches up against the big zoom competition in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot S5 IS 4.6 x 3.2 x 3.1 in. 45.6 cu in. 450 g
Fujifilm FinePix S8000fd 4.4 x 3.1 x 3.1 in. 42.3 cu in. 412 g
Kodak EasyShare Z812 IS 4.3 x 2.9 x 3.0 in. 37.4 cu in. 330 g
Olympus SP-560 Ultra Zoom 4.6 x 3.1 x 3.1 in. 44.2 cu in. 365 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 4.6 x 3.0 x 3.5 in. 48.3 cu in. 360 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 5.5 x 3.4 x 5.6 in. 104.7 cu in. 668 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 4.4 x 2.8 x 3.1 in. 38.2 cu in. 310 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H7 4.3 x 3.3 x 3.4 in. 48.2 cu in. 375 g

As you might imagine, the FZ18 is larger and heavier than the FZ8. Of course, it doesn't compare to the behemoth that is the FZ50, but that's another story. In the group as a whole, the DMC-FZ18 is on the large side of things. It's not a camera that'll be going into your jeans pocket -- it'll be more comfortable in a small camera bag or slung over your shoulder.

Okay, let's start our tour of the camera now, beginning (as always) with the front of the camera.

The DMC-FZ18 uses an all-new F2.8-4.2, 18X optical zoom Leica DC Vario-Elmarit lens. The lens has a focal range of 4.6 - 82.8 mm, which is equivalent to a very nice 28 - 504 mm. The lens is threaded for 46 mm filters, including the MC protector and ND filter that I mentioned in the accessories section. To use the conversion lenses I mentioned before, you'll need the optional conversion lens adapter, whcih also lets you use 55 mm filters.

Deep inside the FZ18's lens is Panasonic's "Mega" optical image stabilization (OIS) system, and you're gonna need it on this mega zoom camera. Sensors inside the camera detect the tiny movements of your hands which can blur your photos, and the camera shifts one of the lens elements to compensate. The OIS system won't work miracles, though. It won't stop a moving subject, nor will it allow for one second handheld exposures, but it will let you use shutter speeds that would result in blurry photos on an unstabilized camera.

Want to see the OIS system in action? Have a look at these:

Image stabilization off

Image stabilization on

Usually I use a fairly close subject to test the effectiveness of an OIS system, but in this case, I took a long telephoto shot. I took the shots above at 1/15 sec and ISO 400, and without the stabilizer the result is totally blurry. However, with the OIS set to mode two, I got a nice sharp photo. If you need another example of how the OIS system works, then have a look at this short video.

Directly above the lens is the FZ18's pop-up flash, which is released manually. The flash is quite powerful at Auto ISO, with a working range of 0.3 - 6.0 m at wide-angle and 1.0 - 4.0 m at telephoto. Photos can have a lot of noise reduction artifacting when the ISO is boosted in low light, so you may want to keep the ISO fixed to something low in order to avoid that. You can't attach an external flash to the FZ18 -- you'll need to step up to the gargantuan FZ50 for that.

To the upper-right of the lens you'll find the AF-assist lamp and the microphone. The AF-assist lamp is used by the camera as a focusing aid in low light situations. It doubles as a sort of visual countdown for the self-timer.

The FZ18 has the same 2.5" LCD display as the FZ8. It features 207,000 pixels, so the images on the screen are quite sharp. Outdoor visibility is good at default settings, and great if you turn on the "Power LCD" function described below. Low light viewing is very good as well, with the screen brightening automatically in those situations.

Like nearly all ultra zoom cameras, the FZ18 uses an electronic viewfinder, or EVF. What's nice about EVFs is that they show you 100% of the frame (no parallax error here), and that they show the same menus and screens as the main LCD. The bad news is that EVFs aren't nearly as bright or as clear as a traditional optical viewfinder. The EVF on the FZ18 has 188,000 pixels, which is fairly typical for a camera in this class. Images are fairly sharp, though they'll look better on the main LCD. The EVF really sticks out from the back of the camera, which helps keep your nose off of the LCD. There's a diopter correction knob on the side of it, which focuses what you're looking at.

Just to the left of the EVF is the release for the pop-up flash. Jumping to the other side we find the speaker, EVF/LCD button (which switches between the two), and the AF/AE lock button.

Selecting an area in the frame on which to focus in multi-area and single-point AF modes

Below the power switch is the same joystick controller that's on the FZ8. You'll use this for adjusting manual settings like shutter speed, aperture, and exposure compensation. You can also use it for selecting the area of the frame on which to focus. As you can see in the examples above, you can select focus areas in both single-point and multi-area AF mode. This comes in handy when you're shooting on a tripod.

Quick setting menu

While you'd never know it by looking at the back of the camera, holding the joystick button down opens up a "quick setting menu", shown above. This menu lets you adjust the OIS mode, focus setting, metering mode, white balance, ISO, resolution, and compression settings. I'll talk more about all of those later in the review.

Below that is the Display button, which toggles what is shown on the LCD and also turns on the three "LCD modes" on the FZ18. These modes include Power LCD, which brightens the screen for outdoor viewing, Auto Power LCD (which turns on Power LCD automatically, when needed), and the High Angle feature, which makes it easier to see the screen when the camera is held above your head. I don't know how the high angle feature works, but it does -- and well.

Next, we find the four-way controller, which is used for menu navigation, and also for:

  • Up - Backlight compensation, exposure compensation, auto bracketing, flash output adjustment -- see below
  • Down - Review (quickly jumps to playback mode)
  • Left - Self-timer (Off, 2 sec, 10 sec, 10 sec / 3 pics) -- this last item takes three photos after a ten second wait
  • Right - Flash setting (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, flash on, slow sync w/redeye reduction, flash off)
  • Center - Menu/Set

I want to talk about those options that appear when you press the "up" button on the four-way controller. Backlight compensation is something you can toggle on and off while in Intelligent Auto Mode -- use it if your subject has a bright light source behind them. Exposure compensation is the usual -2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments like on every camera. Flash output adjustment lets you set the flash power using the same range. Auto bracketing takes three shots in a row with each shot having a different exposure. You can choose have an interval between each exposure of ±0.3EV, ±0.6EV or ±1.0EV.

The last thing to see on the back of the FZ18 is the Burst mode / Delete photo button. The FZ18 has two burst modes available, called normal and unlimited, and they are for JPEG shooting only (no RAW support, sorry). In normal mode, the camera took four photos in a row (at the highest quality setting) at 3 frames/second. If you shift into unlimited mode, the camera will keep taking photos at 2 frames/second until your high speed memory card fills up. The LCD and EVF keep up fairly well with the action, with just a brief blackout between each shot.

The first item of note on the top of the FZ18 is its mode dial. The dial is packed with options, which include:

Option Function
Intelligent Auto mode Point-and-shoot, automatic scene detection mode; more below
Playback mode More on this later
Program mode Point-and-shoot, with full menu access; a Program Shift feature lets you select from various shutter speed/aperture combos by using the joystick
Aperture priority (Av) mode You choose the aperture from a range of F2.8 - F8.0 and the camera uses the appropriate shutter speed
Shutter priority (Tv) mode Just the opposite: you choose the shutter speed from a range of 8 - 1/2000 sec and the camera picks the aperture; do note that the fastest shutter speeds are only available at the smallest aperture settings
Full manual (M) mode You select both the shutter speed and aperture; same aperture range as above; shutter speed range expands to 60 - 1/2000 sec
Custom mode Save up to three sets of camera settings here
Print mode For when you're connected to a Pictbridge-enabled photo printer
Movie mode More on this later
Scene mode You choose the situation and the camera uses the proper settings. Choose from food, party, candle light, sunset, high sensitivity, baby, pet, panning, starry sky, fireworks, beach, snow, aerial photo
Night portrait [advanced] Choose from night portrait, night scenery, illuminations, and creative night scenery
Sports [advanced] Choose from normal sports, outdoor sports, indoor sports, and creative sports
Scenery [advanced] Choose from normal scenery, nature, architecture, and creative scenery
Portrait [advanced] Choose from normal portrait, soft skin, outdoor portrait, indoor portrait, and creative portrait

Lots to talk about before we move on. As you'd expect, the FZ18 has the full set of manual exposure controls. A new addition to the FZ18 (compared to the FZ8) is the custom spot on the mode dial, which can hold up to three sets of camera settings.

The FZ18 has Panasonic's new Intelligent Auto mode, which has several features of note. First, the camera can automatically select a scene mode for you, based on what's in the frame. It can select between portrait, scenery, macro, night portrait, and night scenery, and based on my time with the camera, it works well. To make this happen, several settings are preset, including image stabilization, ISO sensitivity, face detection, and continuous autofocus. The Intelligent ISO sensitivity feature is active, which boosts the ISO as high as needed in order to obtain a sharp photo. You can set the top limit that the camera will use, and it's best to keep this as low as possible to preserve image quality.

Scene Menu Help screen

The camera has plenty of scene modes as well, some of which deserve further discussion. The high sensitivity mode boosts the ISO to anywhere between 1600 and 6400, and to be frank, you don't want to use it, as the resulting images are not usable. The baby and pet modes let you set the birthday of your child or animal, and their current age is recorded along with a photo. Starry sky mode lets you select super long exposures: 15, 30, or 60 seconds. Consider this the FZ18's bulb mode. If you're confused about what any of the scene modes do, you can press the Display button to see a help screen.

Sports advanced scene

The FZ18 has four "advanced" scene modes as well, which remind me of what Nikon has offered for a number of years on their compact cameras. Each of the advanced scenes has several choices available that activate certain features on the camera. For example, the architecture scenery mode puts guide lines on the LCD, while the indoor sports option boosts the shutter speed and the ISO sensitivity. Naturally, you could do all these things yourself, but if you want an easier way, here you go.

Getting back to our tour now: just to the right of the mode dial is the power switch. Above that you'll find three buttons, plus the zoom controller.

Manual focus

The AF/MF button does just as it sounds: it lets you switch between auto and manual focus. In the MF mode you'll use the joystick to set the focus distance yourself. A guide showing this distance is shown on the LCD, and the center of the frame is enlarged, so you can verify proper focus. In addition, you can move this enlarged area around in the frame, which is a very uncommon feature.

The AF macro/focus button toggles the camera between autofocus and macro mode. You can also press this button while in manual focus mode to have the camera focus automatically, giving you a sort of head start on the focusing process.

Now onto the zoom controller, which has the shutter release button inside of it. The lens can move at two speeds, and at full speed it can traverse the entire 18X focal range in just 2.5 seconds. If you want to be more precise, just put less pressure on the zoom controller. I counted over fifty steps in the zoom range -- very nice.

On this side of the FZ18 you'll find its I/O ports, which are kept beneath that plastic cover on the lower-right side of the photo. The ports here include USB+A/V out (one port for both) and DC-in (for the optional AC adapter).

Panasonic seems to have an aversion to supporting the USB 2.0 High Speed protocol on their cameras. The FZ18 uses the USB 2.0 Full Speed standard, which is marketing-speak for "slow".

Nothing to see on the other side of the camera. The lens is at the full telephoto position here -- it's amazing how little it extends out of the body.

We conclude our tour with a look at the bottom of the FZ18. Here you'll find a metal tripod mount, as well as the battery/memory card compartment. This compartment is protected by a sturdy reinforced plastic door. Do note that you won't be able to swap memory cards while the camera is on a tripod.

The included CGR-S006 battery can be found on the right side of the photo.

Using the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18

Record Mode

The DMC-FZ18 takes just under two seconds to extend its lens and prepare for shooting, which is good by ultra zoom standards.

There are two different views available for composing shots on the LCD or EVF. One of them has a live histogram.

Like most Panasonic cameras, the FZ18 is really snappy when it comes to focusing. If you're using one of the "regular speed" AF modes, expect to wait between 0.2 - 0.4 seconds at wide-angle, and closer to a second (and sometimes a bit longer) at the telephoto end. If you use the high speed AF modes then you can expect near instant focus times when there's good lighting. Low light focusing was both responsive and accurate, thanks to the FZ18's AF-assist lamp.

I did not find shutter lag to be an issue on the FZ18, even at the slower shutter speeds where it sometimes crops up.

Shot-to-shot delays were brief, with a one second wait for JPEGs, and just two seconds for RAW. Adding the flash into the mix did not change these times.

There is no easy way to delete a photo immediately after it is taken -- you must use the Review feature first.

Now let's take a look at the image size and quality options on the FZ18. Since there are three different aspect ratios available, it's a pretty lengthy list.

Aspect ratio Resolution Quality # images on 27MB onboard memory # images on 1GB SD card (optional)
4:3 8M
3264 x 2448
RAW 1 56
Fine 6 240
Standard 13 480
2560 X 1920
Fine 10 390
Standard 21 770
2048 X 1536
Fine 16 600
Standard 32 1180
1600 X 1200
Fine 26 970
Standard 52 1880
640 x 480
Fine 130 4640
Standard 210 7550
3:2 7M
3264 x 2176
RAW 1 62
Fine 7 270
Standard 14 530
2560 x 1712
Fine 11 440
Standard 23 860
2048 x 1360
Fine 18 680
Standard 36 1310
16:9 6M
3264 x 1840
RAW 2 73
Fine 8 320
Standard 17 630
2560 x 1440
Fine 14 520
Standard 28 1020
1920 x 1080
Fine 25 910
Standard 48 1720

That's quite an exhaustive list! As I mentioned earlier in the review, the FZ18 supports the RAW image format. You can take a RAW image by itself, or along with a standard quality JPEG.

Extended Optical Zoom Example
Full wide-angle
Full telephoto
Full telephoto + extended optical zoom
(28.7X total, 3M setting)

As with its predecessor, the FZ18 has an "extended optical zoom" feature, which I've illustrated above. By lowering the resolution, you can use digital zoom without reducing the image quality. The lower the resolution goes, the more zoom you can use. For example, if you select the 3 Megapixel setting, you can get an incredible total zoom power of 28.7X. You can see in the example above how much extra zoom you can get out of this feature. Do note that you can do the same thing on your computer by cropping the center of a full resolution photo.

The camera saves images with a name of PXXXYYYY.JPG, where X = 100-999 and Y = 0001 = 9999. The camera will maintain the file numbering, even as you erase and switch memory cards.

The DMC-FZ18 uses the standard Panasonic menu system. It's attractive, fast, and easy-to-navigate. Keeping in mind that not all of these options are available in every shooting mode, here's the full list of record menu items:

  • White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, shade, flash, halogen, white set 1/2) - see below
  • WB adjust - see below
  • Intelligent ISO (Off, max 400, max 800, max 1600) - see below
  • Sensitivity [ISO] (Auto, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1250, 1600)
  • Aspect ratio (4:3, 3:2, 16:9)
  • Picture size (see above chart)
  • Quality (see above chart)
  • Audio recording (on/off) - record a 5 sec audio clip with each picture
  • Metering (Multiple, center-weighted, spot)
  • AF mode (Face detection, multi-area, 3-area high speed, 1-area high speed, 1-area, spot) - see below
  • Stabilizer (Mode 1, mode 2, off) - see below
  • Continuous AF (on/off) - camera is always trying to focus, which reduces AF delays; puts extra strain on batteries
  • AF-assist lamp (on/off)
  • AF/AE Lock (AF, AE, AF/AE) - define what this button does
  • Digital zoom (on/off) - it's best to keep this off
  • Color effect (Off, black & white, sepia, cool, warm)
  • Picture adjustments - lots of useful options in here
    • Contrast (-2 to +2)
    • Sharpness (-2 to +2)
    • Saturation (-2 to +2)
    • Noise reduction (-2 to +2)
  • Flip animation - cool tool for making stop-motion animation
    • Picture capture - take up to 100 photos
    • Create motion picture - turn them into 320 x 240 movie at either 5 or 10 frames/second
    • Delete still pictures - delete the photos you've taken
  • Conversion lens (Off, tele, close-up)
  • Clock set

White balance fine-tuning

As you'd expect on a camera with full manual controls, the FZ18 offers a custom white balance function. Just point the camera at a white or gray object and you're set. The FZ18 lets you store up to two custom WB settings. The camera also lets you manually fine-tune your selected white balance setting (see screenshot). You can move the WB in the amber/blue and green/red directions -- or both.

The Intelligent ISO mode has been moved off of the mode dial and into the record menu on the FZ18. Basically, you can set a maximum ISO that the camera can use, and it will boost it as high as needed in order to get a sharp photo. The camera takes subject motion into account, so it'll boost the sensitivity higher if your subject is moving. If you're going to use this feature, I'd keep it set to a maximum of ISO 400, as photo quality goes downhill markedly above that setting.

The camera detected five faces... ...and locked onto them

Like most cameras these days, the FZ18 supports a face detection autofocus feature. The camera will find up to fifteen faces in the frame, and a "primary" face will be selected. I found Panasonic's implementation of this feature to be one of the best out there -- it found five of the six photos in our test scene with ease. The other focus modes are self-explanatory, but I do want to mention the trade-off that comes along with using those high speed modes. You'll get a slight freeze on the LCD or EVF when the camera is focusing -- there's no delay in the regular speed AF modes.

The camera has the usual pair of image stabilization options. Mode 1 activates the OIS system as soon as you halfway press the shutter release button, which lets you compose the shot without any shake. For more effective image stabilization you'll want to use mode 2, which doesn't activate the OIS until the photo is actually taken. A third mode, panning, can be found in the scene menu. This only prevents up and down shake, so you can track a moving subject from side-to-side. You can also turn image stabilization off entirely, which is a good idea if the camera is on a tripod.

There's also a setup menu, which is accessible via both the record and playback menus. The items here include:
  • Clock set
  • World time (Home, travel)
  • Custom setting memory (C1, C2, C3) - saves the current camera settings to memory, which can later be accessed via the "C" option on the mode dial
  • Monitor/viewfinder brightness (-3 to +3 in 1-step increments) - these can be set separately
  • Guide lines - put a composition grid and more on the LCD
    • Rec info (on/off)
    • Histogram (on/off)
    • Pattern (3 x 3, complex)
  • Travel date (on/off) - when set, records what day of your vacation a photo was taken (e.g. day two)
  • Play on LCD (on/off) - images will always be shown on the LCD in playback mode
  • Auto review (Off, 1 sec, 3 sec, zoom) - the zoom option shows the picture for a second, then enlarges it by a factor of four for a second
  • Power save (Off, 1, 2, 5, 10 mins)
  • Zoom resume (on/off) - whether zoom returns to last position when camera is turned on
  • MF Assist (Off, MF1, MF2) - how much real estate the center-frame enlargement takes up when using manual focus
  • Beep (Off, low, high)
  • AF beep (Off, low, high)
  • Shutter sound (Off, low, high)
  • Volume (0-6)
  • File number reset
  • Reset
  • Video out (NTSC, PAL)
  • TV aspect ratio (16:9, 4:3)
  • MF units (Meters, feet)
  • Scene menu (Off, auto) - if set to auto, scene menu opens automatically when you turn the mode dial to the scene mode position
  • Dial display (on/off) - whether a "virtual" mode dial is shown on the LCD as you rotate the real one
  • Language

All of those should be self-explanatory, so let's move on to our photo tests now, shall we?

The Lumix FZ18 did an excellent job with our standard macro subject (a 3-inch tall figurine). Colors are accurate, and the subject is nice and sharp. There's a tiny bit of noise reduction artifacting here and there, but overall, a solid performance.

The minimum focus distance on the camera is 5 cm at wide-angle, 2 meters between the 1X and the 12X positions, and then down to 1 meter between the 12X and 18X positions. Yes, that's a bit unusual for a digital camera, but it's great for tele macro shots. You can drop the telephoto distances even further by picking up the optional close-up lens that I covered back in the first section of the review.

The night shot turned out equally well. The FZ18 took in plenty of light, which is easy to do, as the camera has full manual control over shutter speed. The buildings are nice and sharp, with plenty of detail captured. You can see hints of noise reduction around the US Bank building (slightly left of center), but that won't keep you from making a large print at this ISO setting. If you're looking for purple fringing... well, there isn't any. That's because the camera's Venus III image processor removes it automatically.

There are two ISO tests in this review, and this first one uses the night scene above to illustrate the FZ18's low light ISO performance. Have a look:

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1250

ISO 1600

Noise reduction picks up as soon as you leave ISO 100, with noticeable detail loss at ISO 200. Still, a midsize (or large, if you shoot in RAW) print isn't out of the question. The buildings are quite muddy at ISO 400, so I'd save this for small prints. The photos taken at ISO 800 and above have lost too much detail to be usable, in my opinion.

We'll see if the FZ18 performs better in normal lighting in a bit.

There's some very slight redeye in our flash test, but overall I'd call this a pretty good performance by the FZ18.

The FZ18 has remarkably little barrel distortion at the wide end of its 28 mm lens. Kudos to Panasonic (and presumably Leica) for minimizing this. Neither corner blurriness nor vignetting (dark corners) were problems, either.

Here's our "normal light" high ISO test. This shot is taken in the studio, and can be compared between cameras. Unfortunately, the only 18X camera I have these photos for are the now out-of-date Olympus SP-550 Ultra Zoom.

While the crops below give you a decent idea as to the noise levels at each settings, viewing the full size images is always a good idea. Ready?

[Update 10/16/07: The shots below were mistakenly taken at the normal quality setting when the review was originally posted. All of the shots involving this test scene have been reshot at the highest quality setting.]

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1250

ISO 1600

The ISO 100 and 200 shots are both pretty clean -- you have to look pretty hard to find anything negative. There's a bit of noise reduction artifacting next to the wine bottle, but that's about it. Huge prints at this settings are no problem. Things change at ISO 400, though, with noise reduction smudging away some of the fine details, and mottling areas of solid color. You can see the different approaches to noise reduction used by Panasonic and Olympus if you compare their respective ISO 400 shots. The FZ18 removes the noise (and detail), while the Olympus SP-550UZ leaves most of the noise untouched, which preserves more detail. Canon's approach on the PowerShot S5 is somewhere in the middle. I'll tell you how you can extract more detail out of the FZ18 in a moment.

At ISO 800, the noise reduction really gets nasty, reducing your print size to small sizes (unless you follow my procedure below). I wouldn't go any higher than that, as the ISO 1250 and 1600 shots have too much detail loss to be usable.

I told you about the virtues of the RAW image format about 4700 words ago when I discussed the software bundle. Here's one more benefit: it lets you extract a lot more detail from your photos than shooting in JPEG mode. That's because there's no noise reduction applied when you shoot in RAW -- and that's a good thing, as the FZ18 applies a whole lot of it to JPEGs.

I created the example below to show how you can get more detail out of your photos on the FZ18. I used the rather extreme ISO 800 setting to illustrate my point. By mousing over the links, you can change what setting was used to take the photo.

Getting the most from the FZ18
Default NR -1 NR -2 NR RAW conversion RAW conversion + NeatImage

If you actually read through the menu section above, then you probably though "gee, why don't you just turn down the noise reduction a bit?". Frankly, that doesn't work -- you really don't get any detail back. To do that, you'll want to shoot in RAW mode. You'll get a noisy photo, but you haven't lost nearly as much detail. I ran the RAW image through NeatImage (my noise reduction software of choice) and the results are significantly better than what you'll get from a JPEG at any setting. Just flip through the -2 NR and RAW+NeatImage links above to see what I mean.

Yes, RAW editing is a pain, and you really shouldn't have to do this to get the best image quality, but it's one of the tradeoffs that you have to accept on this otherwise excellent camera. By the way, if you're downsizing your photos for your website or sticking to 4 x 6 inch prints then you probably don't need to do this. This procedure is really for making large prints or viewing the images full-size on your monitor.

The heavy-handed noise reduction is really the only weak spot in terms of photo quality on the FZ18. Otherwise, it takes well-exposed pictures with accurate (though not terribly vivid) colors. Images are on the soft side, especially the fine details in them, most likely due to noise reduction. You can turn the in-camera sharpening up a notch if you agree. Purple fringing was very rare, with the FZ18 doing an amazing job in our torture test.

I've spent a lot of time blabbing about my opinion of the FZ18's image quality, so now it's your turn. Have a look at our extensive photo gallery, perhaps printing a few of the photos if you can. Then and only then can you decide if the camera's photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

The FZ18's movie mode is essentially unchanged from the one found on the FZ8. You can record movies at either 848 x 480 (16:9) or 640 x 480 (4:3) at 30 frames/second until the file size hits 2GB, which takes a little over twenty minutes at the highest quality settings. Sound is recorded along with the video, as you'd expect. The built-in memory doesn't hold much video (and you can't record at the highest quality settings to it anyway), so you'll want a large, high speed memory card for longer movies. A 1GB card holds about 9 and 11 minutes of 848 x 480 and 640 x 480 video, respectively.

To get longer movies you can lower the resolution to 320 x 240, or cut the frame rate down to a very choppy 10 fps (not recommended), or both (really a bad idea).

As is usually the case, you cannot operate the optical zoom while recording a movie. The image stabilizer is active, however, which helps remove the "shakes" from your video clips.

Movies are saved in QuickTime format using the M-JPEG codec. A capture of the first frame of the movie is saved as JPEG along with the movie.

Here's a brief sample video for you. Pardon the water on the lens, it was raining!

Click to play movie (12.2 MB, 848 x 480, 30 fps, QuickTime format)

Can't play it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The Lumix DMC-FZ18 has a nice playback mode with a few unique features. The basic playback features include slideshows, voice captions, image protection, DPOF print marking, thumbnail view (in many sizes), and zoom and scroll. This last feature lets you enlarge the image by as much as 16X (in 2X increments), and then move around the enlarged area. Images can be rotated, resized, and cropped, as well.

The camera offers a calendar view of your photos, in addition to the usual one-at-a-time and thumbnail views.

Photos that were taken in the scene modes (including the intelligent auto mode) will be automatically put into categories for you. By accessing the category menu item, you can quickly select photos from a specific category.

The FZ18 has a rather unique date printing feature which Panasonic calls "text stamp". You can print the date/time on your photo, the age of your baby or pet (if you used those scene modes, of course), or what day of your vacation you took the photo on. You can also create a text string ("title") to put onto your photo. Do note that the camera will downsize the image to 3 Megapixels or less when using the text stamp feature, which is fine for what most people will be doing with them (printing them at 4 x 6).

If you're viewing a movie, you can grab a single frame, or create a collage consisting of nine frames (you can select the interval between each frame, as well). There's no way to edit movies on the camera, unfortunately.

The camera 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. But press the display button and you'll see a lot more info, including a histogram.

The DMC-FZ18 moves between photos with almost no delay.

How Does it Compare?

If the slew of 10X and 12X ultra zooms on the market just don't give you enough telephoto power, then you'll definitely want to have a look at the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18. It packs a whopping 18X, 28 - 504 mm lens into a body that's not much larger than your typical 12X ultra zoom. Panasonic has stuffed nearly every conceivable feature into the FZ18, and the camera performs quite well. Once again, however, the image quality isn't as good as it should be, with heavy noise reduction reducing detail, even at the lowest ISO settings. Thankfully there's a workaround for those who are bothered by this, and that's shooting in RAW mode. The FZ18 is only the second mega zoom camera I've tested (the other being the Olympus SP-550UZ) and it's definitely the better of the two. That may change when I get my hands on the SP-560UZ or the Fuji FinePix S8000fd, but for now, the DMC-FZ18 is the best camera for those of you who can't get enough zoom.

At first glance, you'd have a hard time differentiating the FZ18 with its little brother, the FZ8. The cameras have a nearly identical design, so if you've used the FZ7 or FZ8 you'll have no problem with the FZ18. The camera is on the large side compared to other ultra zooms, but don't forget that most of those have smaller lenses. The FZ18 is made of a mix of metal and plastic, and it's well put together. The camera is easy to hold, with a large grip for your right hand, and plenty of room for your left under the lens barrel. Speaking of lens barrels, it's there where you'll find two of the FZ18's stand-out features: it's 18X lens and optical image stabilizer. Not only does the lens have incredible telephoto power, but it has a nice, wide-angle starting point of 28 mm, as well. If the 504 mm top end of the focal range doesn't do it for you, then you can expand it to a whopping 856 mm with the optional teleconverter. Inside the lens is the camera's optical image stabilization system, which effectively reduces camera shake from both photos and movies. On the back of the camera you'll find a sharp 2.5" LCD display which can be seen both in bright outdoor light and dimly lit rooms. The LCD also has a unique "high angle" function that lets you hold the camera above you and still see what's on the screen.

The DMC-FZ18 has almost every feature imaginable on it. On the beginner side, you've got regular scene modes, advanced scene modes, and mode that will even pick the scene for you automatically. Photos taken in these scene modes are automatically put into categories for easy filtering later. The camera has an Intelligent ISO mode as well, which will increase the sensitivity as needed (even taking subject motion into account) in order to take a sharp photo. You might want to be careful with that one, though, as photos can have a lot of noise reduction artifacting. If you want manual controls, the FZ18 has plenty of those, too. They include shutter speed and aperture, white balance (including fine-tuning), and focus. The manual focus feature is well implemented, offering the ability to move the frame-enlargement area around. You can also move focus points, whether in multi-area or spot focus mode. The DMC-FZ18 supports the RAW image format, and it's really the way to get the best image quality out of the camera. Panasonic includes very capable RAW editing software (SilkyPix), but the interface looks like something from the 1970's. Whether you're a beginner or a pro, you'll like the FZ18's movie mode, which lets you record widescreen 848 x 480 video at 30 frames/second, for up to 20 minutes per clip.

Camera performance is superb. Considering the beast of a lens inside it, the FZ18's two second startup time is quite good. As with all Panasonic cameras, focusing performance is best-in-class, whether at wide-angle or telephoto. The camera manages to focus quickly and accurately in low light, as well. Shutter lag isn't noticeable, and shot-to-shot delays are minimal, even in RAW mode. The FZ18's burst mode is quite nice, with the ability to keep shooting at 2 frames/second until the memory card is full (a 4 shot/3 fps mode is also available). Do note that the burst mode is unavailable when shooting with the RAW format. The FZ18's battery life numbers are average for the ultra zoom group. The one weak spot in terms of performance is USB transfer speed. For some reason, Panasonic just refuses to support USB 2.0 High Speed on their cameras, so I'm going to keep complaining about it until they do.

Image quality always seems to be the most disappointing part of Panasonic's recent cameras, and that hasn't changed on the FZ18. On the positive side, the camera takes well-exposed photos, with accurate (though somewhat dull) color and almost zero purple fringing. There's not much redeye to speak of, either. Images were soft at times, and if you think so too, then just increase the sharpness setting in the record menu. There's not much noise to be found either, and that's because the camera's image processor is blasting it away like crazy. The problem with this heavy-handed approach to noise reduction is that details get smudged and solid areas of color become mottled, even at ISO 100. Naturally, things get worse as the ISO goes up, to the point of being unusable above ISO 800 (and I won't even start about the high sensitivity mode). While you'd think that turning down the noise reduction would help with this problem, it really doesn't. For best results, you'll want to shoot in RAW mode and handle the noise reduction yourself, either with SilkyPix, Photoshop, or something like NeatImage. As my earlier example hopefully illustrated, you can get dramatically better photo quality if you do this. Yeah, it's a pain in the butt to do this, but if you're making large prints or shooting at high ISOs, I strongly recommend it. I hope Panasonic one day either turns down the noise reduction, or just lets you turn the darn thing off.

I have three final issues to mention before I wrap things up. First, you can't swap memory cards while the camera is on (your typical) tripod, which can be annoying. Next, while it's quite detailed, the camera manual is about as user-unfriendly as you'll find these days. Finally, the 27MB of built-in memory doesn't hold many photos, and you cannot record high resolution movies to it either.

I feel like I've written this last paragraph half a dozen times over the last year. Panasonic has created a really nice ultra zoom camera in the FZ18, though once again, image quality needs improvement. It's clear from shooting in RAW mode that the camera is capable of capturing a lot of detail, but unfortunately the Venus III engine removes a lot of it in the name of noise reduction. If you're a typical point-and-shoot user who will be sticking to smaller-sized prints, then this really isn't an issue, and you'll be very satisfied with the FZ18. If you're making large prints, viewing them at 100% on your computer screen, or shooting at high ISOs, then you can still love the camera, but be prepared to post-process to get the best results. While it's not the ultra zoom image quality champion, the FZ18 has so much to offer that it easily earns my recommendation.

What I liked:

  • Very good image quality when you keep the ISO low and the lighting up
  • Whopping 18X zoom lens with useful 28 - 504 mm focal range and almost no barrel distortion
  • Optical image stabilization
  • Large, sharp 2.5" LCD display; screen visible outdoors and in low light; useful Power LCD and High Angle features
  • Robust performance, especially in terms of focus and shot-to-shot speeds
  • Very good low light focusing
  • Full manual controls, including white balance fine-tuning
  • RAW image format supported, good (but clunky) editing software included
  • Can store up to three sets of camera settings to spot on mode dial
  • Tons of scene modes, including four advanced modes, and an auto scene selection feature
  • Great continuous shooting mode
  • Well implemented manual focus, face detection, and focus point selection features
  • Nice movie mode records in widescreen format (848 x 480)
  • Support for conversion lenses and filters

What I didn't care for:

  • Heavy-handed noise reduction smudges details, even at ISO 100; requires shooting in RAW mode to get best results
  • EVF resolution could be better
  • Useless high sensitivity mode
  • No USB 2.0 High Speed support
  • Can't swap memory cards while camera is on tripod
  • Lousy Lumix SimpleViewer and PhotoFunStudio software; SilkyPix has terrible user interface
  • Manual could be a lot more user friendly

Some other ultra zooms to consider include the Canon PowerShot S5 IS, Fuji FinePix S700 and S6000fd, GE X1, Kodak EasyShare Z712 IS, Nikon Coolpix S10, Olympus SP-550 Ultra Zoom, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 and DMC-TZ3 (the FZ18's big and little brothers), and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H7.

As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera store to try out the DMC-FZ18 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Want to see how the photo quality turned on? Check out our photo gallery!

Feedback & Discussion

To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.

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 or technical support.

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