by Laurence Chen Additional photography by Gena Morgan
Small image sensors bring long telephoto zoom lenses into the mainstream, and for those willing to carry a little more bulk than the average consumer camera, the 6-megapixel Panasonic DMC-LZ7 brings distant objects (such as the mountain hut below) more than a little bit closer.
Joystick control provides fast access to primary settings
Easy to handle SLR-like design
Usable electronic viewfinder (EVF)
Start-up time about 1 second
Size is relatively small for an SLR-style camera
Burst-shooting mode very fast
Maximum ISO of 400 limits low-light usefulness if not using the flash
Infamous chroma noise at all ISO levels, especially noticeable at ISO 200 and 400
At max zoom, image stabilization "drift" makes it difficult to frame precisely for a tight crop.
Occasional focus hunting
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 Features and Design
Cameras in the super-zoom class must have everything going for them if they're going to be successful: camera usability, quality optics, image processing, image stabilization, and consistent auto focus. The FZ-7 is notable for its overall mix of accomplishments in these areas. It's a very capable camera. But as always, photographers must be aware of their own needs to determine whether the FZ-7 is the right camera choice.
The 6-megapixel sensor produces a file 2112 x 2816 pixels, or 8.8 x 11.7 inches at 240 dpi. For most people, that's plenty for normal printing and sharing, including an occasional enlargement up to 11 x 14 inches.
The FZ-7's physical controls are very similar to the Panasonic DMC-LX1 I reviewed earlier. The main usability feature is the thumb joystick which, when held down a moment, gives you quick access to major photographic controls like white balance or ISO sensitivity. I like how this keeps the back of the camera relatively clean and simple.
Panasonic is good at usability details like how easy and quick it is to change exposure compensation or flash compensation via the "up arrow" button on the keypad. Adjust the compensation to your liking (I generally shoot at -1/3) and return to "shooting-ready" by pressing either the center "SET" button or just pushing the shutter button down halfway.
Focus toggles between auto focus and manual via a button on top. This is a useful button but I would prefer an auto-exposure lock button instead of the standard half-push of the shutter release button. The Panasonic LX-1, which I reviewed recently, has an exposure-lock button as well as a dedicated switch for AF/MF/macro focus. An AE-lock button would be more useful for my shooting style and the MF/AF settings might instead be assigned to the joystick control.
The Panasonic FZ7's coolest focus feature is not the manual focus button, but the depth of focus display. In manual focus mode, depth of focus is represented by a distance scale that changes according to your aperture and zoom ratio. So, you can set your focus for a given range - say 5 feet to infinity - and know that everything in that range will be in focus. And when you shoot like this in manual focus mode, the shutter lag is greatly reduced. Rangefinder camera enthusiasts know all about this technique. (Note that this applies to wide angle zoom settings at f/5.6 through f/8; longer telephoto settings generally cannot achieve deep depth of focus except at infinity.)
Speaking of shutter-lag, another way to avoid it is to use the Panasonic FZ7's burst-shooting mode. The FZ-7 can capture up to seven frames at about 2.5 frames per second, which helps with timing shots like the woman and mirrors, above.
Panasonic FZ7 Record mode with histogram
Panasonic FZ7 Playback mode with image info and histogram
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 main menu
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 MEGA O.I.S. image stabilization menu
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 Party Scene Mode
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 Party Scene Mode description
Camera Performance and Image Quality Since the FZ7 is adorned with a Leica lens, one expects good image quality. And indeed, the FZ-7 delivers strong images with a few caveats.
We should remember that zoom lenses have inherent optical compromises. One trade off is image quality across the entire zoom range, i.e., it's unreasonable to expect tack-sharp images from widest wide to longest telephoto, especially with 32mm to 432mm zoom range(35mm equivalent). Also, every digital camera model has its own processing characteristics, which reflect the engineer's choices about image quality, making lens comparisons a bit less cut-and-dry (not that they ever really were).
The Panasonic's 12x Leica zoom lens, in and of itself, does not disappoint. Images from the FZ-7 show that distant trees and other fine details are largely well-resolved, but for the limitations of the image sensor and some JPEG sharpening/smearing. For a serious evaluation you really must download some sample files and compare how well different cameras reproduce fine details. Although there is some distortion at the wide and telephoto end of the FZ7's lens, it's not overtly noticeable in everyday photographic subjects. There are chromatic aberrations (purple fringing - see "Stanley Park Cairn Forest image", below) in some backlit situations - but again, it's not overtly noticeable. And purple fringing is pretty standard with compact digital cameras.
In my opinion, Panasonic made good image quality choices relative to other digital camera manufacturers in these areas:
JPEG sharpening is not overdone. Images may seem a hair soft but they are definitely not the over-sharpened, blocky digital-looking files that some other cameras produce.
Color is relatively natural and well balanced to my eye, especially the blues and greens.
Auto-exposure tends to protect the highlights, and the gradient from complete whiteout to detailed white has a natural appearance; blown highlights are not just globs of white (assuming reasonable exposure and composition).
On the other hand, there is the infamous Panasonic chroma noise. If you make many large prints you may want to invest in some noise reduction software or your prints might be mistaken for pseudo-impressionistic paintings. For casual web/computer viewing and 4x6 prints most people will not have a problem with the FZ7's image quality. ISO 400 does present distracting noise depending on the subject. For example, you can see the distinctive speckle-clumps of digital-noise in the woman's blue shoulder bag below.
Another online reviewer measured actual ISO sensitivity of a similar Panasonic camera and found that the rated ISO sensitivity is actually less than advertised (ISO 80 is really about ISO 64, ISO 100 is 80, and so on). My experience suggests this is the case with the FZ-7 as well.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 would be outstanding if it produced cleaner files (less noise) and usable ISO sensitivity up to ISO 400 or ISO 800. As it stands, the camera's noise characteristics may be a significant drawback for those wanting to shoot in light levels and situations requiring ISO 400 or higher.
Stanley Park Cairn Forest, Vancouver, Canada
Crop of Cairn Forest shows minor purple fringing around the right side edges of the sculpture.
Camera Experience Overall the FZ-7 lives up to the promise of being an easy and fun super-zoom digital camera. The zoom extends/retracts quickly and the shutter-lag is manageable (better than average). The electronic viewfinder is usable although it would be nice to have more resolution and better image quality in the viewfinder. It would also be nice if the rear LCD display screen also had more pixels as checking focus can be a little coarse onscreen at 8x or 16x magnification. The long telephoto is great for many subjects, as long as there is enough light. Kids playing sports mid-day works fine. Kids playing sports under lights at night is not so good.
Some other quibbles:
While build quality is not necessarily a part of how a camera performs, there is no doubt it affects how we feel about a camera. I think the Panasonic FZ7 has a comparable feel and build quality as other super-zoom digital cameras on the market. Fit and finish, while not micrometer perfect, are very good. I think the black model is more handsome than the silver. But both are plasticky, like other inexpensive consumer electronics. The silver finish on my wife's model has already worn off on the corners to expose the black plastic underneath.
One quirk of using image-stabilized cameras (and lenses) at long focal lengths is the image frame drifts a little as the system compensates for your movement. On the FZ7 this effect is quite pronounced. Photographers who like to precisely frame their images may have to make several frames to get exactly the composition they want. For the late afternoon shot above, I had to make about five frames (zoom at 432mm) to get the white structure and boat in the bottom of the frame lined up properly with the horizon.
Macro-shooters will like the close macro-focusing ability at 35mm. The macro focus distance is around 1 inch. Unfortunately this becomes something like 1.5 feet at 100mm (2x-3x zoom). So filling the frame with your subject is still difficult to do without a macro accessory lens.
For this picture the camera was manually focused about 1 inch from the subject. Since I could not frame as closely as I wanted, this is a 30% crop of the original frame.
Back to the positives:
Panasonic has made a small but useful change in how the user confirms a menu setting - by pressing the center "SET" button rather than by pressing the "right arrow" button as with their LX1 digital camera (see my Panasonic Lumix LX1 review from a few months back). This just makes much more sense to me and is more iPod-like.
Another Panasonic digital camera feature I have really come to appreciate is the multi-delete function. If you like to review your pictures in-camera before downloading them, you can quickly mark whichever ones you want for deletion while in Playback mode. After marking your "deletes," a couple quick button clicks (to confirm your intent) removes all the marked images. I think Panasonic's engineers have struck just the right balance between making it easy to delete multiple pictures quickly and protecting images from accidental deletion.
Conclusion In the good old days you could carry around a gigantic 400mm lens and people thought you were cool. If you tote around such big glass now, you're likely to be considered a low-life paparazzo - plus you'll throw out your back after a day or two. Fortunately for us (and unfortunately for movie stars), we have cameras like Panasonic's Lumix FZ-7.
Other manufacturer's camera models are more attractive. But it's the image quality that sold me. (I bought another super-zoom camera before the FZ-7. It has great fit and finish along with its beautiful design, but it was returned after a couple weeks' use due to its narrow exposure latitude.
The FZ-7 is a strong contender in the current crop of super-zoom, SLR-like digital cameras. It's recommended for anyone who wants a light-weight camera with great photographic usability, good image quality, and an SLR-like form with super-telephoto capabilities.
Who Should Buy The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 Wildlife and sports enthusiasts will find the zoom range perfect for safaris and stadiums. Causal snapshooters and outdoor photographers will appreciate the FZ7's responsive handling and natural color balance. Plus its minimal weight and relatively small size make it easy to carry.
More demanding photographers should consider their needs and carefully weigh the FZ7's noise and limited ISO sensitivity when they make a decision about what to buy. Low-light photographers, fast-action sports shooters, RAW file shooters, or those who often make prints larger than 8x10 should consider other cameras (and probably should be shopping for a entry-level digital SLR instead).
ArcSoft PhotoImpression, ArcSoft Panorama Maker, ArcSoft PhotoBase, USB Driver, Lumix Simple Viewer, and Photo Fun Studio Software
About Laurence Chen Laurence Chen is a freelance editorial, commercial, and wedding photographer based in Seattle, Wash. His clients have included Fortune Magazine, Sunset Magazine, and America 24/7. Visit his portfolio at www.Lchenphoto.com and buy his e-book, "Take Control of Buying a Digital Camera", at http://www.takecontrolbooks.com/buying-digicam.html.
Strengths: 12X zoom
easy menu options
feels good in hands
JPG and TIFF
Weaknesses: Lens cap not attached by string
Too easy to hit buttons on back of camera
Flash is a a little too strong (reduce flash exposure in menu options)
Not very good at 200 or 400 ISO
Optical quality falls off at high zoom settings, but better than nothing
If all you want is a point and shoot, you can't beat this. It's 2008 now, and I'm sure there are newer models and maybe better options out there, but I have been very happy with this camera for several years now. The 12x zoom is pretty awesome, and the 6MP is adequate for most purposes. Some of the buttons on the back are a little too easy to hit by mistake, but that's no big deal.
If you want a no nonsense, easy to use camera that can take some great shots in most conditions, then this will take care of your needs.
If you are into sports photography, especially indoors, I wouldn't get this camera.
Strengths: * very sharp pictures
* fully manual control if you want to, or totally automatic as pleases you
* very lightweight compared to dslr
* very satisfying zoom range
* manual focusing is possible
* lens hood comes with
* can use filters
Weaknesses: * noise maybe but not actually disturbing
* extra conversion lenses to extend the zoom range (which is maybe needed at the wide end) are very expensive (costing half a camera each) and hard to find on the market.
Coming from a pro dslr (which I sold because it was too heavy carying around) I am amazed by the quality pics coming from this 'baby' slr camera. Never would have thought there would be a mini-camera that would satisfy me after being used to pro tools. Pics are very sharp at ISO 80 (not tested higher ISO yet) and OIS does a very good job. The ability of manual focus is a strength on this cam and I use it especially to focus on macro photos. Mostly I shoot Aperture priority but for macro pics I use the 'Macro scene' which gives me a focusing distance of 1 meter at maximum zoom level, bringing insects very close when you can not come close to them. Noise is an issue but as I don't like the noise reduction I put the camera on low noise reduction, so I can do the noise reduction myself using Photoshop. That way I have much more control over the details in my pics. Al settings you need most (which are quite a lot) are only a button away so you don't need to scroll through the hole menu system. The camera comes with a hood and there is the ability to screw filters on it like UV or pol-filter. That all said this camera gives you all the freedom of a dslr in a compact, lightweight and mostly affordable format. No more need to spend lots of money on lenses, no more need to switch lenses and save your back not carrying much weight
Strengths: The best looking digicam on the market, even with mud on it it looks sexy.
Very easy to operate
Good, friendly, design
Great results at ISO 80, 100 (unless there are deep shadows or deep blue sky).
Light - hardly notice it taking it on a day-hike
The big zoom
Effective optical image stabilization
No purple fringing at lower zooms, some CA at high zooms.
Great price for what one gets.
Weaknesses: limitations of the small sensor (noise in deeper shadows and deeper blue sky)
err...err...trying to think of at least one more
(well, I could say the small EVF, but as this camera is not really, IMHO, meant
for wildlife photography - though it could be used in a pitch - then I can't really
take it as a weakness)
I completely switched from film to digital six months ago when I purchased this digicam, with a 2GB SD card (the maximum it takes). Since then I took several hundred pictures.
I was completely amazed to see the quality of the pictures easily beat the 35mm film equipment I had (though I didn't have any high-end lenses), especially sharpness. Though there are limits to this better look, courtesy of the small, 1/2.5, sensor: blue sky comes slightly noisy (the deeper blue it is, the more noisy it gets) and if the picture is more contrasty, the deep shadows appear as black blotches; depending on the light conditions, even lighter shadows can appear noisy (for example, I was taking pictures of sunrises - the orange clouds came up great, but the gray clouds were noisy). All this is at the lowest ISO 80. At ISO 200 more noise appears in shadows, and at ISO 400 it gets very noticeable. Noise at ISO 80 in deeper shadows and blue sky, and ISO 200 in shadows is not a big deal in normal day-to-day size prints - one would have to strain to see it, though it shows up quite noticeably when displayed on the screen at higher magnifications (or cropping). It all depends on the light. I took some pictures at ISO 400 when the lighting wasn't too contrasty and couldn't see any noise at all at normal viewing sizes. Another time I took a test picture of a picknick table in a forest. It was heavy overcast, so the light wasn't great. I could hand-hold it, thanks to the great optical image stabilizer. At ISO 200 the deeper shadows were noticeably noisy and at ISO 400 the pic would be unusable for showing it to other people.
Again, all this is due to the small sensor. I also took several pictures with long exposures, up to 25 seconds. The results were good - on normal, 4x6 print one would have to look very closely to see the slight noise.
The lens is simply amazing, there is nothing else to say about it.
I set my FZ7 to saturated colour, so I get velvian look (or maybe velvia on stereoids?). At normal, default colour settings I find the colours accurate,
pleasing, though I like the extra zing of saturation, though some detail may be
lost. If you would like to see a few sample pics, please visit:
There is no CA (purple fringing) in lower zooms that I can see, even when zooming in on my LCD (computer) screen. Higher zooms show some CA.
Controlling this digicam is a breeze. The command dial spins easily, and everything has a great, good-build quality feel (it's also made in Japan). The menu system is very easy to navigate (for most functions without even looking at the manual) and graphically it looks great.
I mostly shoot in aperture priority, so after setting the dial to "A" I then can use the small joystick on the back to nudge the aperture values up or down. Very easy and I can do it without looking at the camera. So it is with exposure compensation - I can do it blindfolded. Even though ISO and picture quality are adjusted through the menu system (rather than having dedicated buttons), it's easy to do with just a few clicks. No big deal.
The large LCD screen (2.5 in) is OK, though it could use more pixels. In bright daylight I usually switch to the electronic viewfinder. It displays all the info as the big LCD and is OK to use for landscapes and other big objects. However, due to its small size, it's basically unusable for smaller things like animals (unless it's a black dog on snow) and forget about seeing birds through it. One day I was trying to take a picture of a hawk sitting on a branch not too far away. Even with the 12x zoom I had a hard time aiming the camera when using the EVF.
As I take pictures of nature (and trees don't run around too much), I find the responsiveness of the digicam more than sufficient. It turns on pretty fast. If you forget to take the lens cap off when turning it on, it will display on the LCD that you should do so, and doesn't make a big deal out of it (menaing no screetching sounds, no grinding of gears).
The flash pops up with the press of a button and then it takes a couple of secs to charge. It's not very powerful (obviously), but it seems to do a good job. I just tested it a few times. I think my vacuum cleaner liked its portrait very much (it was wagging the hose with pleasure).
Oh, and there is the lens adaptor. It's probably made of aluminum, and it seem like one could chop wood with it. As it has a weird size (I think 55mm), I had to get a step-up ring to 58mm to use my C-P filter on it.
I have my FZ7 set to the highest quality jpeg setting and can take about 650 pics on the 2GB SD card. The camera writes to it quickly. I never tried timing it (for that are measurebator websites), but it never hindered my picture taking. Long exposure pictures take longer to write: 1 second of writing per 1 second of exposure.
For an amateur shooter like I the lithium-ion battery lasts plenty long - the most pictures I took in a day was very close to 100 and the battery gauge went down by a third. The battery fully charges in under two hours in the included charger.
I'm very grateful this digicam has li-ion battery. My previous digicam used Ni-Cd, and I never knew when the juice would run out and the digicam "die".
With this one the battery gauge works well - no surprises.
Both, the battery and the SD card, share the same spring loaded cover on the bottom of the camera. The cover slides sideways, pops up and stays up. The battery has a small, well-designed, latch so it doesn't fall out when you open the cover. The SD card slot is also spring-loaded, so it's easy to take the card out.
Perhaps the last thing to mention is the look of the digicam. Without any doubt this is the most elegant design of all digicams. It has nice, flowing, clean lines, and uncluttered design. It looks like a baby dSLR (really sexy baby dSLR).
I do have one criticism, though it maybe local to my FZ7. At zooms over 6x the contrast goes weird - a gray cast settles over the picture and the colours go wacky. This is most noticeable with distant objects. When zooming in on something closer, it's not visible. I posted a question on a forum regarding this, one photographer replied with posting his super-zoomed picture, that also had some contrast issue, though it was still very usable. Mine are not useable at all.
Panasonic offers one year warranty on FZ7, but after three month the owner has to cover the labour costs. I don't feel like spending perhaps a hundred bucks on a 500 dollar digicam. Fortunately, I take mainly landscape pics, so I stay mostly within 3x zoom and the results are excellent.
I haven't tested the movie feature, yet, but can take up to 22 minutes of good quality (so other reviews elsewhere say) video on the 2GB SD card.
To wrap it up, this digicam is an excellent choice for an amateur that doesn't chase birds and other wildlife too much. Except for the noted limitations due to
the small sensor, this camera does a great job and the quality of the pics is excellent under normal outdoor light.
If you buy this digicam, also get (well, I recommend) the Panasonic tailor-made cover for it. It's well designed and works well protecting the camera even in light rain, and is guess what...yes, also sexy.
Strengths: The zoom is amazing, I'm a zoom freak, I like to stand far away from a subject and bring it close to me. The price is out of this world, you could spend twice as much on a camera, and it wouldn't have the quality of this gem. I try to take a bad picture, and its difficult.
Weaknesses: I've had trouble using this camera at night at sporting events, at a baseball or football game, the lights at the stadium ruin the pictures I try to take of the players. I'm not an expert user, so this could be my fault and not the camera's. The camera is also a tad bulky. But the zoom makes up for it, and you get used to the size after awhile.
My friend owns this camera, and I've used it several times. The zoom is amazing, and for the price it takes excellent pictures. It is a little bulky, but I would still give it a 5 out of 5.