Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 Review

Design & Features

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 is a compact ultra zoom camera that packs a 20X zoom lens (how engineers manage to fit big lenses into small packages always amazes me). The body made almost entirely of metal, and it feels quite solid. As usual, the plastic door over the memory card/battery compartment is on the flimsy side. The mode dial feels cheap, and is too small (as are several other buttons on the camera). The camera is easy to hold and operate with one hand. Despite all of its features, the ZS20 is actually light on buttons. That's because many things are accessed via the touchscreen or the menu system.

Image courtesy of Panasonic

The ZS20 is available in four colors: silver, black, white, and a red that'll really make you stand out.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 in the hand
Despite its big zoom lens, the ZS20 still fits well in your hand

Now let's take a look at how the DMC-ZS20 compares to other compact travel zooms in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot SX260 HS 4.2 x 2.4 x 1.3 in. 13.1 cu in. 208 g
Fujifilm FinePix F770EXR 4.1 x 2.4 x 1.4 in. 13.8 cu in. 209 g
Nikon Coolpix S9300 4.3 x 2.5 x 1.3 in. 14 cu in. 215 g
Olympus SZ-31MR iHS 4.2 x 2.7 x 1.6 in. 18.1 cu in. 226 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 4.1 x 2.3 x 1.3 in. 12.3 cu in. 185 g
Pentax Optio VS20 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.5 in. 15.8 cu in. 213 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V 4.3 x 2.5 x 1.4 in 15.1 cu in. 221 g

Well look at that -- the ZS20 is the smallest and lightest compact ultra zoom in the group! It fits pretty well in jeans pockets (mine, at least), and is easy to carry around with just the wrist strap, as well.

Let's take a tour of the ZS20 now. Use the tabs to switch between views of the camera.

Front of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20

The DMC-ZS20 has a brand new 20X optical zoom Leica lens -- up from 16X on last year's ZS10. This F3.3-6.4 lens has a focal range of 4.3 - 86 mm, which is equivalent to 24 - 480 mm. The lens isn't terribly "fast" (in terms of maximum aperture), but then again, neither are lenses found on the ZS20's competitors. The focal range isn't the lens' only new feature -- it also has a nano surface coating, which aims to reduce flare and ghosting.

As you'd expect, this big lens has an optical image stabilization system attached to it. The ZS20 uses Panasonic's lens-shift Power OIS system, which reduces the risk of blurry photos. There's also an "active" mode, which reduces camera shake even further when you're recording movies.

To the upper-left of the lens is the built-in flash, which has a working range of 0.6 - 6.4 m at wide-angle and 1.0 - 3.3 m at telephoto (at Auto ISO). The ZS20 does not support an external flash.

The only other thing to see on the front of the camera is the AF-assist lamp, which also serves as a visual countdown for the self-timer.

Back of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20

The main event on the back of the camera is its 3-inch touchscreen LCD, which appears to be the same as the one on the DMC-ZS10. This screen has 460,000 pixels, so everything's nice and sharp. Its outdoor visibility is excellent, and in low light the screen brightens up well, so you can still see your subject.

At the upper-right of the photo is the switch which toggles between record and playback mode. Do note that 30 seconds (or so) after you switch to playback mode, the lens will retract. If you want it to return to its previous position when you go back to record mode, be sure to turn on the "zoom resume" feature in the setup menu.

Below that we've got a button for adjusting the exposure (shutter speed or aperture, depending on the shooting mode) and for viewing the map in playback mode. I'll have more on the GPS and maps later in the review.

Under that button we find the four-way controller, which is used for menu navigation, adjusting settings, and replaying photos. There are also direct buttons for exposure compensation/bracketing, self-timer, flash, and macro mode.

The last two buttons on the back of the ZS20 are for toggling the information shown on the LCD, as well as opening the Quick (shortcut) menu. The Q. Menu button is also used for deleting photos and backing out of menus.

Top of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20

There's a lot to see on the top of the ZS20. Let me first point out the stereo microphones, which have the speaker located just to their right. Under the left mic is an indicator light that shows when the GPS is being used. Since by default the camera will keep checking your location every few minutes, don't be surprised if you set his lamp lit up when the camera is off.

Next to the speaker is the ZS20's mode dial, which is small and cheap-feeling. As you can see, it's packed with options, and I'll tell you about them after this tour.

Next to that we have the shutter release/zoom controller combo. The zoom controller works at two speeds, depending on how much pressure you apply to it. At full speed, the lens goes from wide-angle to telephoto in 2.8 seconds. I counted over forty steps in the ZS20's 20X zoom range.

The final things to see on the top of the camera are the dedicated movie recording button and the power switch.

Left side of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20

There's absolutely nothing to see on the left side of the camera. The only thing to mention is that the lens is at the wide-angle position.

Right side of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20

On the opposite side of the camera are the ZS20's I/O ports, which include mini-HDMI, USB, and A/V output. The ports are protected by a plastic door of average quality.

The lens is at its full telephoto position here.


On the bottom of the camera you'll find a metal tripod mount (hidden in this photo) and the battery/memory card compartment. As is usually the case, the plastic door over the battery/memory compartment is on the flimsy side. You also won't be able to open it while the camera is on a tripod.

The included DMW-BCG10 lithium-ion battery can be seen at right.

Let's start our discussion of features by talking about the items found on the ZS20's packed-to-the-gills mode dial:

Option Function
Intelligent Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with automatic scene selection, face detection, subject tracking, intelligent sharpening, dynamic range improvement, and more. Many menu items are locked up.
Program mode Automatic, with full menu access. There's no Program Shift feature available.
Aperture Priority mode You set the aperture, and the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed. The aperture range on the ZS20 is F3.3 - F8.0.
Shutter Priority mode You pick the shutter speed, and the camera selects the matching aperture. The shutter speed range is 8 - 1/2000 sec.
Full manual (M) mode You select both the aperture and the shutter speed. The aperture choices remain the same, and the shutter speed range opens up to 15 - 1/2000 sec.
Custom mode 1/2 You can save a total of four sets of cameras settings to the two spots on the mode dial.
3D Photo mode Create a 3D photo by panning the sliding the camera from left to right. Image is saved in MPO format.
Scene mode You pick the scene and the camera uses the appropriate settings. Choose from portrait, soft skin, scenery, panorama shot, sports, night portrait, night scenery, handheld night shot, HDR, food, baby 1/2, pet, sunset, high sensitivity, through glass, underwater, and high speed video.
Creative Control mode Similar to Art Filters on Olympus cameras, here you can quickly turn on special shooting effects, which include expressive, retro, high key, low key, sepia, dynamic monochrome, high dynamic, toy effect, miniature effect, and soft focus. These work for both stills and videos.

Time to list some of the highlights from the mode dial:

  • Intelligent Auto mode: really is the best auto mode in the business. It performs scene selection, face detection and subject tracking, shadow brightening, and intelligent sharpening -- all automatically
  • 3D photo mode: pan the camera from left to right and it will create a 3D image, saved in MPO format, which can be played back on a compatible HDTV
  • Panorama Shot: new to 2012 Panasonic cameras, this is basically a copy of Sony's sweep panorama feature. Sweep the camera from side-to-side and the camera will create a huge panoramic image; zoom is locked at full wide-angle
  • Handheld night shot: combines a series of exposures into a single, sharp photo; don't expect miracles, though -- image quality isn't great
  • HDR (high dynamic range): also new to 2012 Panasonic cameras, this quickly takes three shots in a row -- each with a different exposure -- and combines them into a single photo with improved contrast
  • High speed video: records silent movies at 220 fps, which are played back normal speed, giving the impression of slow motion; resolution is lowered to 320 x 240

Above you can see a Panorama Shot that didn't stitch terribly well on the right hand side. To be fair, this is a very difficult image to line up correctly.

Standard photo
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HDR on
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Above you can see the HDR feature in action. In the original photo (which has Intelligent Dynamic off, which is the default in Program mode), you can barely make out the ceiling, and the sky is pretty blown out. The HDR version is much more appealing. The clipping in the sky is reduced, the ceiling in the hallway is now visible, and shadows are noticeably brighter. And, since the camera shoots the photo sequence so quickly, you can use HDR without a tripod (unlike, say, Canon's implementation). The bad news is that since this is a scene mode, most camera settings are locked up.

Just about everything else on the mode dial should be self-explanatory. The ZS20 has manual control over the shutter speed and aperture, but not focus. You can also bracket for exposure, by pressing "up" on the four-way controller. Unfortunately, the ZS20 does not support for the RAW image format.

As I mentioned back in the tour, the ZS20 had a touchscreen LCD, just like its predecessor. You can do the following with the touchscreen:

  • Touch focus: the camera will focus on the area of the frame that you selected
  • Touch shutter: same idea as touch focus, but this time a photo is taken, as well
  • Touch zoom controller: lets you adjust the focal length via a virtual zoom controller -- the real thing is much easier to use. The only nice thing are buttons that instantly send the lens to the wide-angle or telephoto positions
  • Touch playback: swipe to move between photos; double-tap to enlarge a photo and then drag with your finger

As someone who is generally not too fond of touch-based controls, I was a bit disappointed to see that there was no way to disable these features on the ZS20.

I suppose now's as good a time as any to talk about the ZS20's new and improved GPS feature. While the ZS10 had a GPS and database of a million landmarks, the ZS20 takes things a step further by having a map that shows where your photos were taken. All of those info is saved in the metadata of your photos, which can be imported into PhotoFunStudio, iPhoto, or various online photo sharing sites.

The landmark database is pretty solid (at least around here), though there will be times when the camera records the wrong one. This can happen because it hasn't been able to update your location, or because it just picks a landmark in the area that just happens to be incorrect. Thankfully, Panasonic lets you change the selected landmark, or delete it entirely. You can also create up to 50 of your own landmarks -- say, Jeff's House -- though you might want to make sure that the GPS can even locate you before you do that.

This map view gives an overview of where I took my photos In this view, selecting a thumbnail will highlight the spot on the map where the photo was taken.

Panasonic includes maps of ninety countries on the DVD that comes with the camera. In order to load those maps onto the memory card, you'll use the Map Tool software that's will be installed onto your computer. The maps themselves aren't terribly detailed, and it can be hard to figure out exactly what you're looking at when you're zoomed in. Still, for a quick look, it works pretty well. You can also locate yourself on the map, though the maps aren't detailed enough (and the GPS not responsive enough) for this to be terribly useful.

I've highlighted two important GPS-related items on the shooting screen. The satellite with the yellow box below shows acquisition progress. You want three yellow boxes and then three blue boxes.
To the right, the camera shows the number of minutes since it last found your location (it's been a while here).

That brings us to GPS performance. Panasonic has worked to improve satellite acquisition times on the ZS20, though it can be hard to tell sometimes. Something you'll definitely want to do is load "Assist Data" onto the memory card (using the software that comes with the camera), which is supposed to help with all this. If you turn on the camera in a clear area, it should find your location in 20-30 seconds (with Assist Data installed). As with all GPS-based cameras I've tested, don't expect miracles in the Big City -- the ZS20 will struggle to locate your position. You'll know you're locked on when the blinking yellow blocks shown above turn to all blue. Something else you can do to have the camera keep up with your location is leave Airplane Mode turned on. While this will put an extra strain on your battery, the camera will periodically try to locate itself, even when the camera is powered off.

This is what you see when you first press the menu button The record menu, with descriptions of each item at the bottom

The ZS20 has an all new menu system (see above-right), complete with a description of each option. The new menus look really sharp, though they feel a bit sluggish. To get to the menus themselves, you must first pass through the gateway screen, which is pictured above-left. It would be nice if there was an option that let you bypass the gateway screen, as it slows down menu access. While you can use the touchscreen for the gateway menu, you'll be using the four-way controller after that. Here are the most interesting items from the shooting and setup menus:

  • Sensitivity: the camera can boost the ISO based on brightness (normal Auto ISO) or based on subject movement (Intelligent ISO); you can also set it manually, with a range of 100 to 3200
  • White balance: you've got the usual presets (except for fluorescent) plus a custom spot, for which you use a white or gray card; you can also fine-tune white balance in the red or blue direction
  • AF mode: choose from face detection, subject tracking, 23-area auto, and 1-area (large or small)
  • Quick AF: starts AF when camera shake is minimized, which reduces focus times (at the expense of battery life)
  • Face Recognition: as with prior ZS-series models, the ZS20 can learn to recognize people, either automatically or manually; you can enter the person's name and birthday, and they will be given focus priority whenever they appear in the scene
  • Intelligent Exposure: attempts to improve overall image contrast by reducing highlight clipping and brightening shadows; see examples below
  • Min. shutter speed: choose the lowest shutter speed that you want the camera to use; there's an Auto setting, or you can selected a speed of 1 - 1/250 sec
  • Intelligent Resolution: actually two features in one; when set to "on" it intelligently sharpens your photos; the Intelligent Zoom options gives you a 2X focal length boost with a minimal reduction in image quality; see examples below
  • Extra optical zoom: while this isn't a menu item, you can get additional zoom power by lowering the resolution of your photos; for example, dropping down to 5 Megapixel gives you 33.8X of total zoom power; this can also be combined with Intelligent Zoom, so you'd top out at a whopping 67.5X if you used both at the 5MP resolution; don't forget your tripod!
  • Redeye removal: in addition to using pre-flashes to shrink your subject's pupils, the ZS20 can digitally remove redeye after a photo is taken; we'll see if it works later in the review
  • Stabilizer: here's where you can turn the OIS system on or off; note that the camera will turn it off automatically in certain situations; the "active" mode, which improves IS performance in movie mode, is turned on automatically
  • Auto Clock Set: uses the GPS to set the time; handy when you're on the road!
  • Custom setting memory: save up to four sets of your favorite camera settings to the two "C" spots on the mode dial
  • LCD display: adjust the brightness, contrast/saturation, and color of the display
  • Zoom Resume: returns the zoom to its last position when you turn the camera on, or return to record mode after reviewing photos

It's time for some additional explanation of some of those features. Let's start with Intelligent Dynamic, which is supposed to improve image contrast by reducing highlight clipping and brightening shadows. It's on by default in Intelligent Auto mode, and off in the manual shooting modes. You can choose from low, standard, and high settings. Here's the Intelligent Dynamic feature in action:

I. Dynamic off
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I. Dynamic low
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I. Dynamic standard
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I. Dynamic high
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The change here is pretty obvious: the ceiling of the hallway gets noticeably brighter as you increase the amount of Intelligent Dynamic used. One thing that doesn't get better: highlight clipping (use HDR instead). I should also mention that Intelligent Dynamic is a very finicky feature -- it only works in certain situations.

Next up is Intelligent Resolution system, which has two components. First is intelligent sharpening, which is a fancy way of saying that the camera selectively sharpens objects that need it (edges, trees), and leaves alone things that don't (skin or the sky). While some previous Panasonic cameras let you select how much I.R. is applied to a photo, it's just on or off on the ZS20. The example below illustrates the Intelligent Resolution feature very nicely:

Intelligent Resolution off
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Intelligent Resolution on
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I don't know about you, but I like the shot taken with I.R. turned on a lot more. If I owned this camera, I'd set it to "on" and leave it there. In Intelligent Auto mode, that's exactly what the camera does.

The other part of the Intelligent Resolution system is Intelligent Zoom. This gives you a 2X boost (up from 1.3X on previous models) in zoom power with a minimal loss in image quality (unlike traditional digital zoom). Thus, you now have 40X (960 mm) worth of zoom power. The camera also has the Extra Optical Zoom feature, which boosts the focal length when you lower the resolution. The lower the resolution, the more zoom power you get. You can combine these two features, too, so at 5 Megapixel you get 67.5X total zoom power -- that's 1620 mm! Below is an example of the distances you can cover using these features:

Telephoto (480 mm)
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Intelligent Zoom (960 mm)
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Intelligent + Extra Optical Zoom (5MP / 1620 mm)
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As you can see, the Intelligent and Extra Optical Zoom features give you a ton more telephoto power. In my original test images, there was a noticeable drop in image quality, which I partially attributed to atmospheric conditions. I went back out and took another set of photos (shown above) and it's pretty obvious that image quality is reduced. I'd save this feature for small prints and web viewing only.

Intelligent Zoom test photos updated on 2/27/12

Moving on to video recording, the ZS20 has can now record AVCHD Progressive video. What that means is that video is recorded at 1920 x 1080 at true 60p, so there will be no interlacing artifacts in your movies. If you still want interlaced video, that's available at 60i, there's a 720/60p mode, too. For all three of the resolutions I just mentioned, the camera uses the AVCHD codec -- which allows for recording time of up to 30 minutes and easy viewing on your HDTV -- and sound is recorded in Dolby Digital Stereo. You also have the option of having your location tagged in the movie's metadata.

If you want to avoid AVCHD entirely -- which you might, since it's difficult to edit and share -- then you can also use MPEG-4 (a step up from Motion JPEG used on previous models). You can record video at 1920 x 1080, 1280 x 720 and 640 x 480, all at 30 frames/second. Do note that recording stops when the file size reaches 4GB, which takes about 23 minutes at the 1080/30p setting.

As with its predecessor, the ZS20 lets you use the optical zoom while you're recording a movie. The lens moves slowly, so the noise from the motor is not picked up by the microphone. The optical image stabilization system works, as well, with an "active" mode that helps suppress severe camera shake. The camera can focus continuously while recording a movie, to help keep your subjects in focus, whereever they are.

Video recording is a point-and-shoot experience on the ZS20, with no manual controls. You can take up to fifteen still photos while you're recording a movie, albeit at 3.5 Megapixel.

As of 2/27/12, I now have two sample movies for you. Both were recorded at the highest quality setting (1080/60p) and was converted to QuickTime format using Media Converter. If you'd like to view the native MTS files, you can download those as well.

Click to play converted movie (1920 x 1080, 60 fps, 49.7 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)
Download original AVCHD file (49.8 MB, 1920 x 1080, 60 fps, MTS format)

Click to play converted movie (1920 x 1080, 60 fps, 46.1 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)
Download original AVCHD file (46.3 MB, 1920 x 1080, 60 fps, MTS format)

Seems like both were a little overexposed, so keep that in mind if you buy the ZS20.

The two playback menus on the ZS20

The ZS20's playback mode has been nicely enhanced over past year's models. Here are some of the most interesting features:

  • Map View: I told you about this earlier
  • Edit GPS data: don't like what the camera chose as the location? Choose from a list of nearby landmarks, type in your own, or just delete it
  • Upload Set: photos and videos can be tagged for uploading to Facebook or YouTube when you connect to your PC and use the Lumix Uploader software built into the camera
  • Filtering play: view only still photos, 3D photos, videos, photos taken in a specified area (thank you, GPS), and photos taken in a certain category (portrait, landscape, etc)
  • Calendar view: quickly jump to photos taken on a certain date
  • Auto Retouch: the camera will attempt to enhance a photo automatically
  • Creative Retouch: apply special effects (soft, toy camera, retro, etc.) to a photo
  • Resize/cropping: always handy
  • Title edit / text stamp: print the date and time, location, names of recognized subjects, and more on your photos
  • Video divide: pick a spot in your video and split it two

The ZS20 can show you all kinds of information about your photo, including the location, shooting data, and a histogram. You just need to press the Display button to toggle through it all.

The camera moves between photos instantly, and you can do it with your finger or the four-way controller.