Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 Review

Look and Feel

The Lumix DMC-ZS3 looks nearly identical to its predecessor, the TZ5. The grip has changed a bit, the mode dial took the place of the Easy Zoom button, and there is now a stereo microphone and a dedicated movie recording button. Other than that, if you've used the TZ4 or TZ5, you can use the ZS3 without any trouble.

The ZS3 is well built, made almost entirely of metal. The only thing that feels a bit flimsy to me is the door over the memory card / battery compartment. The controls are perfectly place, and Panasonic left plenty of room for your fingers to grasp the camera. Both the zoom controller and mode dial seemed very "loose" on my particular camera, though I think it was out on the show floor at PMA for a week, getting handled by hundreds of people.

Images courtesy of Panasonic USA

You can't just have a camera in one or two colors these days -- you've gotta go big. Panasonic produces the ZS3 in four colors: silver, black, red, and blue (in some countries a brown model may be available, as well).

Now, here's how the ZS3 compares to similar cameras in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot SX200 IS 4.1 x 2.4 x 1.5 in. 14.8 cu in. 220 g
Kodak EasyShare Z915 4.2 x 2.9 x 1.4 in. 17.1 cu in. 220 g
Olympus Stylus 9000 3.8 x 2.4 x 1.2 in. 10.9 cu in. 185 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ5 4.1 x 2.3 x 1.4 in. 13.2 cu in. 214 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 4.1 x 2.4 x 1.3 in. 12.8 cu in. 206 g
Samsung HZ15W 4.1 x 2.4 x 1.5 in. 14.8 cu in. 219 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H20 4.3 x 2.8 x 1.9 in. 22.9 cu in. 250 g

The Lumix DMC-ZS3 is the second smallest camera in the group, with only the Olympus Stylus 9000 ahead of it. The DMC-ZS3 is slightly smaller and lighter than its predecessor, as well.

The DMC-ZS3 (at right) with its biggest competitor, the Canon PowerShot SX200 IS

Okay, enough about that -- let's start our tour of the ZS3 now.

Front of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3

The DMC-ZS3 (and the cheaper ZS1, as well) uses a brand new lens that's both wider and more powerful than the one on the TZ5. The lens shares the same maximum aperture range as the one on the TZ5 (F3.3 - F4.9), which remains a bit "slow" at the wide-angle end. The lens power has gone from 10X to 12X, with a focal range of 4.1 - 49.2 mm, equivalent to an impressive 25 - 300 mm. The lens is not threaded, so conversion lenses and filters are not supported.

Inside the lens is Panasonic's "Mega" optical image stabilization (OIS) system. The OIS system detects the tiny movements of your hands that can blur your photos, especially in low light, or at the telephoto end of the focal range. The camera shifts a lens element to compensate for this motion, which (in theory, at least) will produce a sharp photo. Now, image stabilization won't work miracles -- it can't freeze a moving subject or allow for handheld, 1 second exposures -- but it will allow you to use slower shutter speeds than you could otherwise. Want proof? Have a look at these:

Image stabilization off

Image stabilization on

Both of these photos were taken at a shutter speed of 1/10 second. As you can tell, the image stabilizer did its job admirably. I always like to give an example of image stabilization in movie mode, but since there's no way to turn it off when you're taking movies, I can't!

To the upper-left of the lens is the ZS3's built-in flash. The flash is quite powerful, with a working range of 0.6 - 5.3 m at wide-angle, and 1.0 - 3.6 m at telephoto, though that's at Auto ISO (as usual), which can lead to noisy images. You cannot attach an external flash to the DMC-ZS3.

The last thing to see on the front of the camera is its AF-assist lamp, located at the top-right of the photo. The camera uses the lamp as a focusing aid in low light situations, and it also serves as a visual countdown for the self-timer.

Back of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3

The first thing to see on the back of the DMC-ZS3 is its large 3-inch LCD display. The screen is arguably the best you'll find on a compact camera. Not only is it super high resolution (with 460,000 pixels) and easy to see from a variety of angles, it also offers second-to-none outdoor visibility. I don't know how Panasonic does it, but this LCD is so far ahead of the competition when it comes to outdoor viewing that it's not even funny. The screen is easy to view in low light as well, with the screen brightening automatically so you can still see your subject. I highly recommend using the "Auto Power LCD" feature, which adjusts the screen brightness based on ambient light levels.

By now you probably noticed that there's no optical viewfinder on the ZS3. In fact, none of its competitors have one either. This may bother some folks, while others won't even notice.

Let's talk about the controls on the back of the camera, beginning with the switch at the top-right of the photo. This switch is self-explanatory: it moves the camera between record and playback mode. Underneath that is the dedicated movie recording, which is new to the ZS3. Press it once to begin recording, and again to stop.

Under that is the four-way controller, used for menu navigation, reviewing photos, and also:

  • Up - Exposure compensation + Auto bracketing + Multi-aspect + White balance fine-tuning
  • Down - Macro (Off, AF macro, macro zoom) + AF tracking
  • Left - Self-timer (Off, 2 or 10 secs)
  • Right - Flash (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, flash on, slow sync w/redeye reduction, flash off)
  • Center - Menu + Set

Lots to talk about before the tour continues. Pressing "up" on the four-way controller lets you adjust the exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV), bracket for exposure (camera takes three shots in a row, each with a different exposure), shoot at different aspect ratios (camera produces photos at 4:3, 16:9, and 3:2), and fine-tune white balance (more on that later).

I'll get to the macro options later in the review, but I should tell you if you're using the AF tracking focus mode, pressing down on the four-way controller will lock and track a subject as they move around the frame.

Pressing the center button in the controller opens up the main menu system, which I'll cover in detail after the tour.

Quick Menu

Underneath the four-way controller are two more buttons. The Display button toggles the information shown on the LCD, while the Quick Menu opens up, well, the Quick Menu (it also deletes photos in playback mode). The Quick Menu gives you easy access to the following options:

  • Burst mode
  • AF mode
  • White balance
  • ISO sensitivity
  • Aspect ratio
  • Intelligent Exposure
  • Picture size
  • Video quality
  • LCD mode

I'll cover those later in the review as well.

And that's all for the back of the DMC-ZS3!

Top of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3

The first thing to mention about the top of the camera are all those holes! The four on the left are for the speaker, while the next two sets make up the stereo microphone. The ZS3 uses Dolby's Digital Stereo Creator to record high quality digital sound in stereo (I probably didn't need to even write that).

Continuing to the right, we find the power switch, followed by the shutter release button / zoom controller combo. The zoom controller is two speed, and at "maximum warp" it moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in about 2.6 seconds. I counted nearly forty steps in the camera's 12X zoom range.

On the far right of the photo is the mode dial, which has quite a bit of empty space on it. Mine was pretty loose, but hopefully the one on your camera will be more "notchy". Here are the options you'll find on it:

Option Function
Intelligent Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with tons of automatic features and limited menu access; see below for more
Normal Picture mode Still automatic, but with full menu access
My Scene Mode 1/2 You select the situation, and the camera will use the appropriate settings. All three spots on the mode dial have the same options -- the My Scene modes simply remember your favorite scene, for easy access. Available scenes include portrait, soft skin, transform, self-portrait, scenery, panorama assist, sports, night portrait, night scenery, food, party, candlelight, baby, pet, sunset, high sensitivity, hi-speed burst, flash burst, starry sky, fireworks, beach, snow, aerial photo, pin hole, film grain, underwater.
Scene mode
Movie mode More on this later
Clipboard mode Used for taking low res photos of things you want to easily retrieve later

The Lumix DMC-ZS3 is a point-and-shoot camera with just one manual control, and that's for white balance. The camera has a ton of scene modes, covering every situation you could possibly encounter. Here are the notable scenes:

  • Transform: Slim or "stretch" your subject, while removing blemishes from their skin (oh dear)
  • Panorama assist: Helps you line up photos side-by-side for later stitching into a single panoramic image
  • Baby/Pet: Records the age of your child or pet along with your photo
  • High sensitivity: Lowers the resolution and boosts the ISO as high as 6400 in order to get a blur-free photo in low light; not recommended due to poor image quality
  • Hi-speed burst: Camera can shoot at up to 10 frames/second, though at low resolutions and high sensitivities
  • Flash burst: Camera can take up to 5 flash photos in rapid succession, again at low resolution / high sensitivity
  • Starry sky: for taking long exposures of up to 60 seconds; consider this the ZS3's bulb mode
  • Underwater: for use with the optional waterproof case

Don't want to deal with picking a scene? Then use the Intelligent Auto mode. This will automatically select a scene mode for you, detect any faces, reduce the risk of blurring, and improve image contrast. The ZS3 now has Face Recognition, which gives priority to faces that you've "tagged" on the camera. I'll tell you more about those features when I get to the menu discussion in a bit.

If you want maximum control over the camera's settings, then you'll probably want to use the Normal Picture mode, which gives you full menu access.

Side of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3

Nothing to see on this side of the camera.

Side of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3

On the opposite side, you'll find the camera's I/O ports, which are under a plastic cover of average quality. The port on the top is a mini-HDMI port (cable not included), while the one on the bottom serves multiple purposes. It is here where you can plug in the USB, A/V, or power cable (assuming you have the optional AC adapter). If you want to use, say, the USB and power cable at the same time, you'll need to pick up the "multi conversion adapter" that I mentioned back in the accessory portion of the review.

As you'd expect, the ZS3 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, for fast data transfer to a computer or printer.

The lens is at the full telephoto position here.

Bottom of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3

On the bottom of the DMC-ZS3 you'll find its metal tripod mount (not seen here) and battery/memory card compartment. The plastic door over this compartment is on the flimsy side, so be careful. Do note that you won't be able to access the memory card slot while the camera is on a tripod.

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