Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 Review
Review Date: June 19th 2006
Ease of Use
When you consider that the Panasonic DMC-FZ7 offers a 12x zoom lens equivalent to a focal length of 36-432mm, it's surprising just how small this camera actually is. The DMC-FZ7 offers a good compromise between portability (think small camera bag) and handling that will instantly appeal to anyone who has used an SLR camera before. Weighing around 350g with the battery and memory card fitted, the DMC-FZ7 has a reassuring feel, helped by the sculpted rubber hand-grip and durable matt-black plastic body. The 12x ultra-zoom, Leica branded lens is obviously the main attraction of this camera, with the giant lens barrel and large 2.5 inch LCD screen dominating the overall design. The huge zoom lens obviously makes this one of the most versatile compacts in terms of focal range, especially as it is coupled with Panasonic's Mega O.I.S system, which helps to ensure that the majority of photos taken in good light are sharp. If you're used to a 3x zoom lens, then the 12x zoom will be like a breath of fresh air and should handle most photographic possibilities, with the exception of wide-angle shots.
There is no true optical viewfinder, but Panasonic have provided an electronic version, which protrudes from the back of the camera like the EVFs found on many camcorders. The EVF on the DMC-FZ7 is very useful when the LCD screen is difficult to see, for example in very bright sunlight, or when you're using the longer focal lengths, as it allows you to keep the camera steady at the telephoto end of the zoom by holding it up to your eye. This is helped by the lens' amazingly quick maximum aperture of f/3.3 at the maximum telephoto focal length of 432mm. There aren't too many weak-points in terms of the DMC-FZ7's design and build-quality - for once the battery compartment and SD card slot are both very well implemented, and even the tripod mount is metal and located in the middle of the camera body. The only aspects of the design that slightly disappoint are the mode dial, which doesn't have a very positive click action and is easily moved to the wrong setting when stored in a bag, and the cover for the AV Out / DC In compartment, which on my review sample didn't quite close properly. In all other respects the DMC-F7 is one of the better-made cameras that I've reviewed.
|Shutter Button / Zoom Lever / Optical Image Stabilisation Button / Focus Mode Button||Mode Dial|
Despite offering a full range of manual exposure settings, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 is not an overly complex camera in terms of the number of external controls that it has. I counted 16 in total. This allows the camera to be relatively compact whilst still offering a 12x zoom lens and large 2.5 inch LCD screen. The majority of them are clearly labeled and common to most cameras. There's a traditional dial on the top of the camera that lets you select the different exposure modes; Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Manual. This dial is a typical feature of SLR cameras, and enables you to quickly change between the various modes. The Focus button lets you choose between normal auto-focusing and manual focusing. The latter option works quite well, although it is a slow process. The centre of the LCD screen shows a magnified view, with a vertical distance scale on the right. You use the joystick to select a certain distance to achieve sharp focus.
If you have never used a digital camera before, or you're upgrading from a more basic model, reading the easy-to-follow 127 page manual before you start is a good idea. Thankfully Panasonic have chosen to supply it in printed format, rather than as a PDF on a CD, so you can also carry it with you. You can use either the large 2.5 inch LCD screen or the electronic viewfinder (complete with dioptre adjustment) to frame your shots. Both have 114,000 pixels and both offer 100% scene coverage. You have to press the EVF/LCD button to switch between them. There's a clever new mode called High Angle, which essentially brightens the LCD screen when the camera is held over your head so that it is perfectly viewable, which is great for shooting over the heads of a crowd. The various icons used to represent the camera settings are clear and legible, although I was annoyed by the "Press LCDMode for 1 sec" message along the bottom of the screen, which is displayed whenever you press the Display button.
The main menu system on the Panasonic Lumix DMC-DMC-FZ7 is straight-forward to use and is accessed by pressing the Menu/Set button in the middle of the navigation pad. There are two main menus, Record and Setup. Most of the camera's main options, such as white balance, image quality, auto-focus mode and ISO speed, are accessed here, so the Record menu has 15 options spread over 3 screens. It would have been good to see the more commonly used options, such as ISO speed, available via the press of a button, rather than having to go into the menu system. Due to the large LCD screen and restricting the number of on-screen choices to five, the various options and icons are clear and legible.
|Joystick||Display/LCD Mode Button / Continuous Mode/Delete Button / Navigation Pad|
There is an innovative feature on the Panasonic Lumix DMC-DMC-FZ7 that aims to make life easier for you. As with current Panasonic models, this camera has an anti-shake system, dubbed Mega O.I.S - turn it on and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-DMC-FZ7 automatically compensates for camera shake, which is a slight blurring of the image that typically occurs at slow shutter speeds. There are two different modes, Mode 1 is on all the time including image composition, and Mode 2 is only on when you press the shutter button. In practice I found that it does make a noticeable difference, as shown in the examples on the Image Quality page. You don't notice that the camera is actually doing anything different when anti-shake is turned on, just that you can use slower shutter speeds than normal and still take sharp photos. However, what Panasonic gives you in the form of an effective anti-shake system, it takes away by only providing a limited effective ISO range of 80-200. This essentially means that you really need to leave the anti-shake system turned on all the time to compensate for the slow shutter speeds, especially as ISO 400 exhibits a high levels of noise (see the Image Quality page), which negates some of the advantages that the anti-shake system offers. Thankfully leaving the anti-shake system on didn't negatively affect the battery-life, with the camera managing over 300 shots using the supplied rechargeable Li-ion battery.
Panasonic have attempted to alleviate the limited ISO range problem by providing a new High Sensitivity Mode. When this scene mode is selected, the camera automatically raises the ISO speed up to a maximum of 1600 and therefore allows for a faster shutter speed. This mode allows you to handhold the camera without using the flash and get more natural results, whilst at the same time freezing subject movement more successfully. There are some obvious drawbacks with this special scene mode, principally a significant reduction in resolution - Panasonic state that "The picture quality is good enough for printing at the ordinary 4" x 6" (10 x 15 cm) size". You also need to select the scene mode and therefore have some idea about when it is applicable to your subject. You can see sample images using the High Sensitivity Mode on the Image Quality page.
|Battery Compartment||Memory Card Slot|
The start-up time from turning the Panasonic Lumix DMC-DMC-FZ7 on to being ready to take a photo is around 3 seconds. Note that if you turn the camera on whilst the lens cap is fitted, an annoying message appears instructing you to remove it and then press the right arrow button on the navigation pad, which then extends the lens to its default position. Zooming from the widest focal length to the longest isn't that quick at around 4 seconds, but this is perhaps understandable given the 12x zoom. Focusing is quick in good light and the camera achieves focus most of the time indoors or in low-light situations, helped by the powerful focus-assist lamp. The camera doesn't have too many problems locking onto the subject in low-light situations, and is particularly quick to find focus if you use the new 1-point high-speed AF option, although it tends to hunt a little at the telephoto end of the zoom range. The visibility and refresh rate of the 2.5 inch LCD screen are perfectly acceptable, although it's a little grainy due to the low number of pixels used (114,000). It takes about 1 second to store an image, allowing you to keep shooting as they are being recorded onto the memory card - there is no LCD blackout between each image. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-DMC-FZ7 has a good Continuous mode which enables you to take 3 frames per second at the highest JPEG image quality, up to a maximum of 13 images (Standard mode) or 7 images (Fine mode). Overall the Panasonic Lumix DMC-DMC-FZ7 is average in terms of operational speed.
Once you have captured a photo, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-DMC-FZ7 has a good range of options when it comes to playing, reviewing and managing your images. You can scroll through the images that you have taken, view thumbnails, zoom in and out up to 16x magnification, view slideshows, delete, protect, trim, resize, copy and rotate an image. You can also select favourite images, add a soundclip, change the aspect ratio, and set the print order. The Display button toggles detailed settings information about each picture on and off, such as the ISO rating and aperture / shutter speed, and there is a small histogram available during both shooting and playback. When taking a photo, pressing the Display button toggles between the detailed information, the histogram and gridlines to aid composition.
In summary the Panasonic Lumix DMC-DMC-FZ7 is a straightforward, SLR-like compact camera with the defining feature of that huge 12x image stabilized Leica lens.
PhotographyBLOG is a member of the DIWA organisation. Our test results for the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 have been submitted to DIWA for comparison with test results for different samples of the same camera model supplied by other DIWA member sites.