Panasonic Lumix DMC-S3 Review
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The Panasonic Lumix DMC-S3 is the first model in a new range of simple, stylish and smart digital compact cameras aimed at beginners. The 14.1 megapixel Panasonic S3 features a 28mm wide-angle 4x optical zoom lens with Optical Image Stabilizer, Intelligent Scene Selector, Venus Engine VI processor, 2.7 inch LCD screen and 720p movie recording. The Panasonic Lumix S3 is available in black, silver, red, blue or purple, priced at £107.99 / $129.95 respectively.
Ease of Use
Despite its budget price-tag, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-S3 is a good-looking camera, with a distinctive pebble shape, rounded corners and an attractively glossy finish to the all-plastic body. Outwardly, the solid feeling, pocket-sized Lumix DMC-S3 has a slim 20.8mm depth and black and silver finish to our review sample. Weighing a mere 100g without the battery or card inserted, it still feels fairly sturdy when gripped in the palm, although the retracted lens does rattle alarmingly when you shake it. The lens has a very audible mechanical "buzz" when it extends and retracts, making the S3 ill-suited to more candid moments.
The S3 has a 4x optical zoom, starting at a respectable wide-angle of 28mm equivalent (in 35mm terms) and peaking at 112mm at the telephoto end. The fairly bright f3.1 lens is pretty good for such a cheap camera, although the slow maximum aperture of f/6.5 at full telephoto betrays its budget price. Its broad-ish focal range (for an entry-level compact) ensures that the S3 has most everyday subjects covered, from landscape and group portraits to candid close ups. if you don't mind a resolution drop to three megapixels then use can be made of the device's Extra Optical Zoom function which utilises the central part of the CCD sensor - effectively a crop - to boost the reach to a 8.4x zoom equivalent.
There's nothing provided on the camera's rounded edges or smooth and shiny front and back surfaces for the user to get a firm grip on when taking photographs without the aid of a tripod, so it's important that the S3's image stabilization proves effective to avoid external wobble translating into blurred images. Thankfully the S3 does have an effective anti-shake system, on this model the MEGA O.I.S. variant. Turn it on via the Stabilizer option in the main menu and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-S3 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. It does make a noticeable difference in practice, as shown in the examples on the Image Quality page. Thankfully leaving the anti-shake system on didn't negatively affect the battery-life, with the camera managing 250 shots using the supplied rechargeable Li-ion battery, more than the S3 model that we recently reviewed.
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-S3 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 to 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-FX70 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-FX70 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.
From the front the DMC-S3 displays a clean, unfussy faceplate, with the retractable lens barrel the most prominent feature, top left of which is a lozenge shaped window for the built-in flash - sufficiently clear of the camera edges to avoid fingers partly obscuring it - and also a small porthole housing the reasonably powerful AF assist lamp/self timer indicator. Underneath the lens are two tiny holes which house the mono built-in microphone.
Moving to the top, set into silver metal panel that runs the length of the S3's top plate is the lozenge shaped shutter release button, the largest control here, to the right of which is the on/off button which powers up the camera in just over a second, with the rear 2.7-inch bursting into life in the absence of any optical viewfinder alternative. The screen has a resolution of 230k dots, which is OK for an LCD panel of this size. A thumb-operated button on the rear of the camera is used for operating the 4x zoom lens. You can move through the complete focal range from wide to tele setting in just over three seconds.
The S3 can record 720p 1280 x 720 movies at 30 frames per second in the Motion JPEG format. In addition it can also record Motion JPEG movies at 320 x 240 and 640 x 480 at 30fps. There is no one-touch movie record button, instead you have to press the Mode button and then select the Motion Picture option. You can choose one of the various colour modes and set the white balance for movies.
You can use the zoom lens during recording and really make the most of the 5x focal range, although the zoom speed is unfortunately much slower than for still images and you can hear the zoom mechanism during recording. Also 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 S3 is quite fast at re-focusing, and having this system is much better than not being able to auto-focus at all.
The back of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-S3 is uncluttered, with the afore-mentioned LCD screen on the left and all of the external controls grouped together on the right. The S3 offers Intelligent Auto, Normal, Scene, and Motion Picture modes. The Intelligent Auto mode automatically chooses the best settings for the user's chosen subject. 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.
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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. If you prefer to have a little more control, the Scene Mode option lets the user select from amongst 16 different options.
The Normal Picture mode provides the greatest level of control over what is predominantly a point-and-shoot camera. Select this option and then press the camera's Menu icon and you're provided access to a wider range of functionality than offered by the pared down previous modes, laid out across three successive screens.
The S3 has a conventional navigation pad with four options ranged around it - exposure compensation, flash, display and self-timer - along with a Menu / Set button that accesses the main system and confirms selection respectively. Underneath are self-explanatory Playback and Delete buttons, with the latter doubling up as a "Go Back" button when required. It's all very conventional and therefore perfect for its target audience.
While the left hand flank of the camera - if viewing the S3 from the rear - is devoid of any features, the right hand side features an indented eyelet for attaching the provided wrist strap, alongside which is a covered port for the combined AV out/USB socket. At the base of the S3 we find a plastic screw thread for a tripod which is inconveniently located in the far-left corner, alongside which is a sliding compartment that houses both the rechargeable battery and a slot for an optional SD / SDHC / SDXC card.
The Pansonic Lumix DMC-S3 is well-suited to its beginner target audience, with a clean and unthreatening interface, just enough key features and an attractive design. Now let's take a look at its image quality.