Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 Review

Using the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3

Record Mode

It takes roughly 1.5 seconds for the ZS3 to extend its lens and prepare for shooting -- not bad.

A live histogram is available in record mode

Autofocus speeds will depend on a number of factors: what focus mode you're using, and whether you're using the quick AF feature (which keeps the camera focusing continuously, even without touching the shutter release button). If you're using the high speed AF mode, you can expect focus lock in 0.1 - 0.3 seconds at wide-angle, and 0.6 - 1.0 seconds at telephoto (both are very good numbers). Low light focusing was good as well, with focus times staying well under a second in most cases. Do watch your fingers, though, as they can block the AF-assist lamp easily.

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 minimal. Expect to wait about 1.5 seconds before you can take another photo without the flash, and 2 - 2.5 seconds with it.

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 ZS3. Since there are three different aspect ratios available, it's a pretty lengthy list.

Aspect ratio Resolution Quality # images on 40MB onboard memory # images on 2GB SD card (optional)
4:3 10M
3648 x 2736
Fine 7 340
Standard 14 660
3072 x 2304
Fine 9 450
Standard 19 870
2560 x 1920
Fine 13 590
Standard 26 1130
2048 x 1536
Fine 28 1220
Standard 54 2360

1600 x 1200

Fine 45 1910
Standard 84 3610
640 x 480
Fine 200 8770
Standard 320 12290
3:2 9.5M
3776 x 2520
Fine 7 340
Standard 15 680
3168 x 2112
Fine 10 460
Standard 20 890
2656 x 1768
Fine 18 820
Standard 37 1610
2112 x 1408
Fine 29 1270
Standard 57 2450
2048 x 1360
Fine 31 1360
Standard 60 2560
16:9 9M
3968 x 2232
Fine 7 350
Standard 15 690
3328 x 1872
Fine 10 460
Standard 20 900
2784 x 1568
Fine 20 890
Standard 39 1700
2208 x 1248
Fine 32 1390
Standard 62 2670
1920 x 1080
Fine 41 1800
Standard 79 3410

That chart gives you a pretty good idea about why you want to buy a larger memory card along with the camera. I should also point out that the only resolution you can use with the 16:9 ratio while in Intelligent Auto Mode is 2 Megapixel.

Unfortunately, the DMC-ZS3 does not support the RAW image format.

As you lower the resolution, the DMC-ZS3's extended optical zoom feature kicks in. This lets you have additional zoom power, without degrading image quality. For example, lowering the resolution to 3 Megapixels (still enough for a 4 x 6 inch print) will give you an whopping 21.4X worth of zoom.

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 your memory card.

The DMC-ZS3's menu system hasn't changed a whole lot since the TZ5. The main difference is that there's now a tab for video recording options (in addition to still photo and setup options). The menus are easy to navigate, and look fantastic on the ZS3's high resolution screen. Keeping in mind that not all of these options will be available in every shooting mode, here's the full list of menu items in record mode:

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) - see below
  • ISO sensitivity (Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600)
  • White balance (Auto, outdoor, cloudy, shade, halogen, custom) - see below
  • Metering mode (Multiple, center-weighted, spot)
  • Intelligent Exposure (on/off) - see below
  • AF mode (Face detection, AF tracking, 11-area, 1-area high speed, 1-area, spot) - see below
  • Face recognition (Off, on, set) - see below
  • Pre AF (Off, Quick AF, Continuous AF) - see below
  • Burst (Off, burst, free) - you guessed it, see below
  • Digital zoom (on/off) - it's best to keep this off
  • Stabilizer (Auto, mode 1, mode 2, off) - see below
  • Color mode (Standard, natural, vivid, black & white, sepia, cool, warm)
  • Minimum shutter speed (1/250 - 1 sec) - slowest shutter speed the camera will use
  • Audio rec (on/off) - add a 5 second audio clip to each photo
  • AF-assist lamp (on/off)
  • Clock set

Video Settings

  • Rec mode (AVCHD, Motion JPEG) - lots more on this later
  • Rec quality
    • AVCHD (Super high, high, low)
    • Motion JPEG (HD, WVGA, VGA, QVGA)
  • White balance - same options as above
  • Intelligent Exposure - same options as above
  • AF mode (Face detection, 1-area)
  • Continuous AF (on/off) - whether camera keeps focusing while recording
  • Digital zoom (on/off) - same as above
  • Color mode (Standard, black & white, sepia, cool, warm)
  • Wind cut (on/off) - reduces wind noise in your movies


  • Clock set
  • World time (Home, destination)
  • Travel date - saves the destination and number of days into your trip that a photo was taken
    • Travel setup - set departure and return dates for your trip
    • Location - enter the name of your destination
  • Beep
    • Beep level (Off, low, high)
    • Beep tone (1, 2, 3)
    • Shutter volume (Off, low, high)
    • Shutter tone (1, 2, 3)
  • Volume (0 - 6)
  • Monitor brightness (-3 to +3)
  • 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; the camera doesn't have the "high angle" function found on the TZ5
  • 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 not be captured if you start recording a movie
  • Economy
    • Power save (Off, 2, 5, 10 mins)
    • Auto LCD off (Off, 15, 30 secs)
  • Auto review (Off, 1, 2 secs, hold, zoom) - post-shot review; the last option enlarges the image by a factor of four
  • 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
    • Reset rec. settings
    • Reset setup parameters
  • 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

I've been putting off discussing most of the ZS3's features until now, so grab a cup of coffee, this is going to take a while.

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 action shots require a faster shutter speed in order to turn out sharp. 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-ZS3 has a number of white balance options at your disposal, though I don't understand why there 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.

Intelligent Exposure off
View Full SIze Image
Intelligent Exposure on
View Full Size Image

The Intelligent Exposure feature brightens up dark areas of your photos automatically. If you're shooting in Intelligent Auto mode, then this will run without you even knowing it. In the Normal Picture mode, you can turn it on and off. The example above isn't one of my finest works, but it does show you how the camera brightened up the background nicely.

Now let's talk about the various autofocus modes on the ZS3. 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 in our test scene I've taught the camera who my niece is, so when she shows up in the photo, she'll get focus priority

The ZS3'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 ID a person after you've taken five pictures of them, or you can enter them manually. Once that's done, the camera will give priority to faces that it "recognizes". The whole face detection system works very well. It found five of the six faces in our test scene without any trouble, and the face recognition feature worked without a hitch.

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 tracking a moving subject.

There are two burst modes to be found on the DMC-ZS3. You can take a quick burst at a high frame rate, or keep shooting until your memory card is full at a slower pace. In high speed mode, the camera took a measly three photos in a row, at 2.2 frames/second. Pop into "free" burst mode, and you can fill up your memory card at a frame rate of 1.8 fps.

The last thing I want to mention are the image stabilization options. 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.

I've had enough menu talk -- let's get into photo quality now!

The Lumix DMC-ZS3 did a fairly good job with our macro test subject. The subject is sharp as a tack, though I couldn't help but notice some grain-like noise on the figurine. Colors are generally good, though the red cloak could be, well, redder.

There are two macro modes to choose from on the ZS3, 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. Midway through the zoom range, that distance jumps to 2 meters, but as you get closer to full telephoto, it starts to go back down. At the 12X end of the lens, you can be a meter away from your subject.

There's also a macro zoom option, 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.

Since there are no manual exposure controls on the DMC-ZS3, you need to use the camera's night scenery mode to take long exposures. Unfortunately, that also means that things like white balance and ISO sensitivity can not be adjusted. If you first thought "geez, that night shot is awfully yellow" when you saw the above photo, now you know why. Typically, when the image comes out yellow like this, I change the white balance setting to tungsten, which does a much better job. That's not an option on the TZ5. At least the camera kept the ISO at 80, keeping noise at a minimum.

Aside from the white balance issue, the night scene (taken with a shutter speed of 8 seconds) looks pretty good. Noise levels are low (relatively speaking), the buildings are sharp, and there's no purple fringing to be found. Highlight clipping is minimal, as well.

Since I can't control the ISO and shutter speed at the same time, I cannot perform the low light ISO test for this camera. Look for our studio ISO test in a bit.

The DMC-ZS3 uses both a preflash and software to keep redeye out of your photos. As you can see, it worked quite well. The only thing here is tiny reflection of the flash -- but no red! Do note that there's no redeye removal tool in playback mode, so you'll have to use software on your PC to get rid of any leftovers.

There's remarkably little barrel distortion on the ZS3's very wide 25 - 300 mm lens. You can still see a bit of it in the photo I like to use as an example, but really, it's very minor. The lens has good corner-to-corner sharpness, and vignetting wasn't a problem. My hat's off to Panasonic (and Leica, I guess) for producing a quality piece of glass for the ZS3.

Here's that studio ISO test that I promised you. Since it's taken under consistent lighting, you can compare it with other cameras I've reviewed over the years. Now's a great time to open up the PowerShot SX200 review so you can do some side-by-side comparisons. Now, have a look at the crops and full size images to see how the ZS3 performed at high sensitivities:

ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

There's not much of a difference between the test scene at ISO 80 and 100. There's some of the grainy noise in both shots, but it doesn't really affect the level of detail captured. The PowerShot SX200, on the other hand, tends to smudge away this noise instead. Things don't change much at ISO 200, but at ISO 400 you start to see the Lumix's noise reduction system kick in, but the image retains a lot more detail than the SX200 does at this point (never thought I'd write something like that). Things start to go downhill at ISO 800, with a major drop in color saturation and a noticeable increase in noise. I would save this sensitivity for desperation only. The ISO 1600 shot is missing too much detail (and the color looks awful) to be usable, in my opinion.

Overall, the Lumix DMC-ZS3 produced very good photo qualities that, in most respects, outshine those from the PowerShot SX200 IS. The ZS3 takes photos with accurate exposure, though you'll occasionally encounter some highlight clipping (as you will on most compact cameras). Photos are sharp as a tack, much more so than on the SX200. Colors were accurate, though not as saturated as some would like. The Lumix DMC-ZS3 retains a lot more detail in its photos than past Panasonic models, which is a nice change. Instead of noise reduction smudging away detail, you get the film-like grain in your photos, though unfortunately this is visible at ISO 80. The good news is that this tends to blend away when you print your photos, and you won't notice it in most situations. That doesn't mean that the DMC-ZS3 is immune from noise reduction artifacting: it still smudges details in areas of low contrast, such as the water in this photo. The ZS3 performs well through ISO 400 in good light, and ISO 200 in low light (the church interior shot shows that there's quite a bit of detail loss at ISO 400). You won't find much in the line of purple fringing here, as the camera's Venus Engine HD processor removes it automatically.

Enough of my opinion -- now I invite you to take a look at our photo gallery, and decide for yourself how the photos look. If you want to see how the ZS3 compares to the Canon SX200, you can open up that gallery by clicking here.

Movie Mode

I've touched on it a bit already, but here's the full lowdown on the DMC-ZS3's upgraded movie mode. The resolution hasn't changed since the TZ5 -- it's still 1280 x 720, or 720p -- but now you have your choice of two codecs. The new codec is AVCHD Lite, which is based on the AVCHD codec used by many HD camcorders these days. 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.

Decisions, decisions

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, too. You can fit 30 minutes of SHQ 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. In other words, it shows each frame twice per second (thanks Nicholas for pointing this out).

Note: Due to some bizarre tax law, DMC-TZ7 models sold in Europe cannot record movies longer than 15 minutes.

I touched on the downsides of AVCHD Lite in the software section of this review, but here it is again. You can't just stick the camera's memory card in a card reader, double click an AVI or MOV file, and play it. Just finding the movie is difficult: these .MTS files are buried deep inside the Private folder on your memory card. Even if you do find the video clip, you can't view it with most video player software (like Windows Media Player or QuickTime Player). If you own a TV or video game console with a memory card slot, it probably cannot play the movies either, unless it's a Panasonic TV, Blu-ray player, or a Playstation 3. You can, however, view movies on your non-Panasonic HDTV by using the optional HDMI cable with the ZS3.

If you don't want to deal with any of that, then you can always use the "old" 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.

One of the nice things about the DMC-ZS3 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 "wind cut" feature is available, which I used for the boat video you'll see in a moment.

Many of the features in Intelligent Auto mode also apply to 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.

Here are two sample movies for you, taken with the ADVHD Lite codec. Since I can't just link to the raw movie files, I've converted them to MPEG-4/H.264 using Roxio's Toast Titanium 10. Hopefully there's not much of a loss in quality.

Click to play movie (19.9 MB, 1280 x 720, 60 fps, MPEG-4 format)

Can't play it? Download QuickTime.

Click to play movie (13.8 MB, 1280 x 720, 60 fps, MPEG-4 format)

Can't play it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

Playback mode Playback menu

The Lumix DMC-ZS3 has a very nice playback mode. Basic playback features include slideshows (now with music and special effects), image protection, voice captions, DPOF print marking, thumbnail view, 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.

Calendar view Selecting a category of photos to view

Photos can be viewed one at a time, as thumbnails (in numerous sizes), and via a calendar. There's also a category view option that lets you jump directly to photos taken in certain modes (scene or movie).

The leveling tool is just what the doctor ordered

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. Surprisingly, there are no movie editing features on the DMC-ZS3.

The ZS3 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).

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. However, you can press the display button and see more info, including a histogram. If the camera recognizes any people in the photos, it will show their name on the screen.

The DMC-ZS3 moves between photos instantly in playback mode.