Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ45 Review
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The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ45 (also known as the DMC-FZ40) is a new super-zoom camera featuring a wide-angle 24x zoom lens and 14 megapixel CCD image sensor. Successor to the popular FZ38 model, the bridge-style Panasonic FZ45 compact also offers a 3-inch, 230K-pixel LCD screen, 720p HD movie recording in AVCHD format at 30fps, Venus Engine HD II processing engine, Intelligent Resolution technology, and a built-in stereo microphone. The FZ45 retains the Power O.I.S anti-shake system, iA (intelligent auto) mode, manual shooting modes, RAW format support and ISO 1600 mode from its predecessor. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ45 is available in black and retails for £379.99 / $399.99.
Ease of Use
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ45 is virtually identical to the more full-featured and expensive DMC-FZ100 model that we recently reviewed, so a lot of the comments that we made about that camera apply equally to the FZ45.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ45 also shares a lot in common in terms of its external design with its popular predecessor, the FZ38, with a few key improvements that make an already very capable camera even better. The FZ45 looks to all intents and purposes just like a proper DSLR camera, albeit one with a fixed lens and an electronic viewfinder. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ45 is dominated by the non-interchangeable 24x zoom lens that provides an incredibly versatile focal range of 25-600mm. While this isn't quite as big as the class-leading 30x zooms of the Fujifilm Finepix HS10 and Olympus SP-800UZ, in real-world use it provides enough width and enough reach to satisfy most photographer's needs.
Panasonic's effective Power O.I.S (Optical Image Stabilization) is on-board to help combat any unwanted camera shake, although you'll still need to use either a fast shutter speed or a tripod at the telephoto end of that massive zoom. The maximum apertures of F/2.8 at 25mm and F/5.2 at 600mm are pretty good for this class of camera. A stubby barrel with chrome detailing encases and protects the optic when not in use. Note that the lens extends by 6cms when it's fully zoomed and the camera measures almost 15cms in depth, making it quite conspicuous. To help avoid lens flare, a detachable lens hood is supplied in the box, and there's also a clip-on lens cap that you can attach via a thread to one of the available catches for a shoulder strap.
In being dominated by that big lens, the front of the FZ45 is very sparse looking, save for a lamp for the AF assist light/self timer to the right of the lens (if viewed head on). A good-sized hand-grip with tactile, leather-effect detailing houses the battery pack in its base. It's good to see a chunky lithium-ion rechargeable battery fitted as standard when some bridge models seem to think that four standard-quality AAs will suffice to get you going out of the box. Above the lens is a swift access pop up flash with a dedicated activation button sitting just behind it at the rear, but there's no hot shoe as on the FZ100. The flash coverage is also improved from the FZ38, offering a maximum range of 9.5m at wide-angle. On top of the pop-up flash is a very useful built-in stereo microphone which is retained from the FZ38.
While this is not a camera for slipping into a pocket by any means, measuring 120.3 x 79.8 x 91.9 mm (slightly smaller than the FZ100) and being more at home in a small shoulder bag, the all-plastic Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ45 certainly feels like it could withstand the odd knock and scrape of daily life. The camera feels solid and rugged in the palm, while at the same time portably lightweight at just under 500g – a slightly contradictory sounding summation that translates as build quality being 'just as it should be'. It's also pleasing also to find a viewfinder – here electronic (EVF) – which is 0.20" in size, offers 100% field of view and 201K dots, although disappointing that it doesn't improve in any way on the FZ38's viewfinder. There's also a prominent eye relief that juts out clear of the LCD so that you don't automatically smear your nose all over the monitor when you put your eye close to it. A dioptre adjustment wheel is immediately adjacent, enabling the short sighted to use it without clashing spectacles.
Moving to the top of the FZ45, controls start to get a little busier, but not overwhelmingly so. Here you find a comprehensively featured black mode wheel with 14 shooting options. This demonstrates a nice firm action as you twist it around to your chosen setting, and a definite click as you line up each. Ranged around the wheel are the usual suspects of program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual modes, movie mode, scene modes, night scene, sports, landscape, portrait, plus one for attributing your own custom settings, and Panasonic's much talked about and copied Intelligent Auto Mode.
Panasonic have tried to make things as easy as possible for the complete beginner by providing this shooting mode, which allows you to point and shoot the camera without having to worry about choosing the right mode or settings. Intelligent Auto Mode automatically determines a number of key criteria when taking a picture, including selecting the most appropriate scene mode (from 5 commonly used presets) and ISO speed, and turning face detection (up to 15 faces, even sideways on), image stabilization and quick auto-focus on. The Intelligent Auto Mode includes Intelligent Exposure, which increases exposure only in the under-exposed areas of the image, Digital Red-eye, which automatically detects and removes red-eye, and AF Tracking, which continually tracks a moving subject and keeps it in focus, without you having to hold the shutter button halfway down as on most other cameras.
Face Recognition is a fun and genuinely useful new feature which "remembers" up to 6 registered faces and then always prioritizes the focus and exposure for that person in future pictures. Very useful for group shots where you want your loved ones to be the centre of attention. You can specify the age of the registered subject, stamp the age of the subject onto your photos, change the focus icon for a particular person, and playback only the photos that contain a certain face. The camera will even automatically switch to Baby mode if someone registered as less than 3 years old appears in the frame!
New to the FZ45's Intelligent Auto functionality is the Motion Deblur mode, an automatic combination of Intelligent ISO Control and Intelligent Exposure. The former automatically adjusts ISO setting and shutter speed according to the subject’s movement while the latter optimizes the exposure. The camera then sets the appropriate shutter speed to keep the subject sharp, raising the ISO speed if necessary. Three different Colour Effects are available in iA mode, including the rather curious Happy mode, which optimizes color, saturation and brightness to make both photos and movies more vivid. Note that the camera's Intelligent Resolution technology is always activated in the iA mode. This makes a standard image look like a higher resolution one by processing the contour areas, texture areas and smooth areas individually, and it also digitally boosts the zoom magnification from 24x to 32x.
In practice the Intelligent Auto Mode system works very well, with the camera seamlessly choosing the most appropriate combination of settings for the current situation. The 6 available scene modes are Macro, Portrait, Scenery, Night Portrait, Night Scenery and Sunset, so obviously not all situations are covered by Intelligent Auto Mode, but it does work for the majority of the time. It makes it possible for the less experienced photographer to easily take well-exposed, sharp pictures of people, scenery and close-ups by simply pointing and shooting the camera. In addition to Intelligent Auto, also catering for the beginner are a total of 22 scene modes.
Intelligent Resolution is a brand new feature for Panasonic's 2010 range of compacts. It performs two main functions - it either makes a standard image look like a higher resolution one by processing the contour areas, texture areas and smooth areas individually, or it digitally boosts the zoom magnification from 24x to 32x with minimal loss of quality and no reduction in resolution. In both cases, it's easy tell which image was taken with Intelligent Resolution turned on and which ones with it turned off, particularly if viewing onscreen at 100% magnification, as our test shots on the Image Quality page show. The difference isn't quite so apparent on a print up to A3 in size, but I'm not convinced enough to recommend it except when you really need the extra reach - it undoubtedly improves on the digital zoom, but not so much that I'd regularly use it. In addition the Extra Optical Zoom function can be used to extend the zoom range to 50.6x by using the center of the MOS sensor, although with a reduction to 3 megapixel resolution.
Also worthy of mention are the white-balance options. As well as the usual range of presets and Auto options, you can set the camera using two measured white balance settings, providing useful shortcuts if you commonly shoot in mixed lighting conditions not covered by the presets. In addition, the Colour Temperature option allows you to dial-in an exact Kelvin value - you effectively get a white-balance preview via the LCD screen.
The useful Motion Picture button has been relocated from the rear to the top of the FZ45, a more logical position that can be operated with your forefinger. As you'd expect, it allows you to start recording a movie with a single push of a button, and then stop recording by pressing the same button, regardless of which shooting mode is currently selected. This is much quicker and more intuitive than having to select the movie mode then press the shutter button, as on most cameras.
The FZ45 can record 720p HD 1280 x 720 60p (NTSC) / 50p (PAL) movies at 30 frames per second at either 17Mbps, 13Mbps or 9Mbps in the AVCHD (MPEG-4/H.264) format. In addition it can also record Motion JPEG movies at 320 x 240 at 30fps, 640 x 480 at 30fps, 848 x 480 at 30fps and 1280 x 720 at 30fps, useful as this format can currently be shared more easily. AVCHD features almost double the recording time in HD quality compared with Motion JPEG, but software support is currently a bit thin on the ground. Panasonic describe it as the best mode for playing back on a HD TV direct from the camera, and Motion JPEG best for email and playing on a computer.
The Creative Movie shooting mode allows you to set the shutter speed, aperture or both settings manually during recording (a Program option is also available). Changing the shutter speed is especially suitable for shooting fast-moving subjects, whilst the ability to control the aperture is convenient when there are several subjects at different distances. In practice this system works well, allowing some really creative effects, but there are a couple of major drawbacks. Firstly the operating sound of the control dial is very audible in the movie, so you'll need to edit the soundtrack later to remove it. Secondly, you can't set the shutter speed to below 1/30 seconds, instantly ruling out more creative slow shutter-speed effects.
The Panasonic FZ45's Intelligent Auto mode also works in movies as well as for still photos. Simply select iA on the mode dial and press the Motion Picture button. The Intelligent Scene Selector automatically determines the most suitable Scene mode from Normal, Portrait, Macro, Scenery, and Low Light, Face Detection automatically detects a face in the frame and adjusts the focus, exposure, contrast, and skin complexion, Intelligent Exposure continually checks the ambient light level and adjusts the exposure setting as conditions change to prevent blown highlights and blocked shadows, and the POWER O.I.S. (Optical Image Stabilizer) and Motion Deblur mode help prevent blurring from hand-shake when using the zoom lens.
Stereo sound is recorded during video capture via the large internal mic on top of the camera, which is a big improvement on the rather muffled noises recorded by most digital cameras, helped by the wind cut function which blocks out most of the noise from background wind. The HDMI port allows you to connect the FZ45 to a high-def TV set, but only if you purchase the optional HDMI mini-cable. You can simultaneously take still images while recording movies, although only at a reduced resolution of 3.5-megapixels, while the Video Divide function divides the video into two sections to shorten or delete them in-camera.
You can use the zoom lens during recording and really make the most of that versatile 25-600mm focal range, although the zoom speed is unfortunately much slower than for still images and you can hear the zoom mechanism during recording. On the negative side, you'll find that if you choose continuous auto-focus, areas of the video will be blurred before becoming sharp again as the camera tries to refocus. On a more positive note, the the FZ45 is quite fast at re-focusing, and having this system is much better than not being able to auto-focus at all. Hand-holding the FZ45 during movie recording inevitably leads to obvious shake, despite the optical image stabilizer, so for best results you'll need a dedicated video tripod.
Adjacent to the shooting mode wheel is an Off/On slider switch. Flick this to On and the camera powers up in just over 1 second, the rear LCD bursting into life and that zoom extending to maximum wide angle setting, slightly proud of its protective barrel. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ28's auto-focus system is very fast to determine focus and there's no shutter delay to speak of when you take a shot, with full 14 megapixel resolution JPEGs committed to memory in just over a second. Just in front of this is a dedicated Focus button that lets you set the focus point anywhere in the frame – useful should you be shooting for example in anything other than Intelligent Auto mode. Located on the the slope that forms the top of the camera grip is the main shutter button. Springy to the touch, this is encircled by a lever for operating the zoom, the action of which is impressively smooth and mechanically quiet.
The FZ45's CCD image sensor means that continuous shooting speeds are poor compared to the FZ100 with its much faster high-speed MOS sensor. You can only take 1.8 frames per second for up to 5 images (Standard mode) and 3 images (Fine Mode), which compares badly to the FZ100's headline-grabbing 11fps rate and is actually slower than the older FZ38. Faster rates of 5 and 10 fps are available, albeit at reduced resolutions of 3 megapixels and 2 megapixels. Disappointingly these continuous rates don't apply equally to both JPEG and RAW images - there is effectively no burst shooting mode for RAW images, despite being able to turn it on in the menu system.
As with all current Panasonic models, the FZ45 has an anti-shake system, on this model the Power O.I.S. variant. Turn it on via the Stabilizer option in the main menu and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ45 automatically compensates for camera shake, which is a slight blurring of the image that typically occurs at slow shutter speeds when the camera is hand held. There are three different modes, Mode 1 is on all the time including image composition, Mode 2 is only on when you press the shutter button, and there's also an Auto mode. 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. Thankfully leaving the anti-shake system on didn't negatively affect the battery-life, with the camera managing just over 550 shots using the supplied rechargeable Li-ion battery, quite an improvement on the 400-shot life of the FZ100.
The High Sensitivity mode also helps combat the effects of camera shake. When this scene mode is selected, the camera automatically raises the ISO speed from 1600 up to a maximum of 6400 and therefore allows for a faster shutter speed. This mode allows you to handhold the DMC-FZ45 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 to a maximum of 3 megapixels in the 4:3 aspect ratio, and the Quality is also set the the lowest level. The user guide states that "you can take pictures suitable for 4x6 inch printing" using the High Sensitivity mode. You also need to select the right scene mode and therefore have some idea about when it is applicable to your subject.
The Intelligent ISO menu option is the third way in which the DMC-FZ45 attempts to avoid subject blur in low-light conditions. The camera automatically sets the appropriate shutter speed AND ISO speed for the subject that you are taking pictures of. So if you're taking shots of a child indoors, the DMC-FZ45 automatically raises the ISO and in turn the shutter speed to avoid blurring the child's movement. If the subject is still, then the camera chooses a lower sensitivity and slower shutter speed. It's a clever idea that works well in practice, with the camera generally choosing an appropriate combination of shutter and ISO speed. You can also limit the maximum ISO speed that the camera can choose, which I'd strongly advise, as the fastest available setting of ISO 1600 produces very noisy images - ISO 800 is a better choice.
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Moving to the rear of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ45, the left-hand side is dominated by the new 3.0-inch, 230,000-dot fixed LCD screen, an improvement on the FZ38's smaller 2.7 inch LCD. The new screen is bright and clear as a means of composition whether shooting inside or out, and if visibility does suffer in sunlight there's the option to switch to the electronic viewfinder via the dual EVF/LCD button on the camera's rear, though 90% of the time the LCD was my preferred method of composition.
Above the LCD screen and to the right of the viewfinder, just like you'd find on a budget DSLR, is the aforementioned EVF/LCD and a useful AF/AE lock button. Alongside and falling naturally under your right thumb is a very welcome rear control dial for easily changing the aperture and shutter speed, which effectively replaces the FZ38's rather fiddly joystick control. Depending on which shooting mode is currently selected, this dial can also be pressed in to switch to setting the exposure compensation.
Beneath the control dial is the AF/AF Macro/MF button. When MF is selected the focus range can be manually set between 1ft and infinity with the central portion of the frame enlarged so sharpness can be more accurately determined. Underneath that is the Display button. A quick press either activates or deactivates the number of shooting settings displayed on screen, calls up a live histogram alongside them or displays a nine zone compositional grid for those experimenting with the Rule of Thirds. Next to this is a self-explanatory Playback button, and underneath a familiar four-way control pad that you'd expect to find on most digital cameras.
At its heart is a Menu/Set button, for calling up the user-friendly if uninspired looking regular menus on the LCD screen. The menus comprise three separate folders; the first for shooting/playback options – dramatically pared down if you're using Intelligent Auto mode – the second for Motion Picture options and the third for the generic set up menu. A subsequent press when you've located the various options goes on to effect any changes, which are quick and precise. Ranged around this central menu/set button are four pads. Although these are used for tabbing through menu options or captured images, press them when in capture mode (and you haven't summoned up a menu) and, starting from the top, you find an exposure compensation button, one for accessing the ISO speed, a third for the Function option, which can be configured to activate one of seven key settings, while the fourth provides access to the self timer options.
Underneath the four-way control pad is a combined Quick Menu / Delete button. This opens a pull down Quick Menu containing a smattering of useful settings appears on screen to save you having to delve into the main menus for similar. This enables on-the-fly access to an Aladdin's cave of options, including the likes of film mode, flash modes, metering (spot, centre weighted and average), auto focus areas (or opt for face detection mode), white balance, aspect ratio, image resolution and image quality, movie recording quality and LCD mode. Like other Panasonic Lumix compacts you get the choice here to brighten the overall display ('power LCD' mode) or opt for the more useful high-angle setting, which aids screen visibility when you're holding the camera at arm's length for a shot over the heads of a crowd. The same button is also marked with the familiar trashcan icon for deleting unwanted shots quickly.
At the base of the FZ45 we find a metal screw thread for a tripod, alongside which is a sliding compartment that houses both the chunky rechargeable battery – necessarily providing a good long life as there's no optical viewfinder to fall back on as a power saver – and a slot for an optional SD / SDHC card. The right hand side of the camera has a slot for threading through a strap, as does the left, which also houses an AV out / Digital port and an HDMI socket for connecting the FZ45 to a HD television or monitor. Unfortunately, Panasonic have decided to cut costs and not include either a component or HDMI cable as standard in the box, which means that you'll have to purchase one separately to take advantage of this camera's HD connectivity.