Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ18 Review
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The Lumix DMC-TZ18 (also known as the DMC-ZS8 in the USA) is Panasonic's latest travel-zoom camera, featuring a 16x 24-384mm lens, 14.1 megapixel CCD sensor, 720p HD movies, and fast continuous shooting at either 10fps or 5.5ps with continuous auto-focus turned on. The Intelligent Resolution function can be used to digitally boost the zoom ratio to 20x with hardly any loss in quality, or to simply make still images and video look better, at least according to Panasonic. The TZ18 also implements A, S and M exposure modes for creative photographers, in addition to Intelligent Auto and a variety of scene modes for beginners. An upgraded Sonic Speed auto-focus system, Venus Engine VI processor, POWER O.I.S. anti-shake system and a 3-inch LCD screen complete the headline specifications. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ18 / ZS10 is available in silver or black for £269.99 / $299.99.
Ease of Use
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ18 is very similar to its big brother, the DMC-TZ20, in terms of its design, with the most notable difference being the lack of a one-touch Movie Record button and the removal of the hump for the TZ20's GPS unit. At first glance the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ18 strikes you as being a little large, elongated and bulky, but it's virtually the same size and weight as the previous TZ8 model. You then have to remind yourself that Panasonic have somehow now fitted in a 16x zoom lens, equivalent to 24-384mm on a 35mm camera, which provides a very versatile focal range that will cover every subject from ultra-wide angle landscapes to close-up action shots. Even when set to 384mm, the lens doesn't extend too far from the front of the TZ18, making it look to all intents and purposes like a "normal" compact camera. This helps to make the DMC-TZ18 great for candid moments, as people assume that you're using just a standard point and shoot with a much more limited range.
The 24mm focal length provides an entirely new wide angle of view that can only increase your creativity. You won't want to go back to a "standard" 35mm zoom, or even a 28mm one, after using the 24mm lens on the DMC-TZ18 - 4mm at the wide-angle end really does make a big difference. The 16x zoom lens makes this one of the most versatile compacts in terms of focal range, especially as it is coupled with Panasonic's excellent POWER O.I.S system, which helps to ensure that the majority of photos taken in good light are sharp. The TZ18's lens isn't particularly fast at either the wide-angle setting, with a maximum aperture of f/3.3, or the telephoto setting, with a maximum aperture of f/5.9, but given the focal range on offer, we feel this is a compromise worth making.
The DMC-TZ18 is a well-built camera with a high quality metal body. The design is dominated by the 16x lens on the front and the large 3 inch LCD screen on the rear. There is no optical viewfinder, which does make the camera a little harder to keep steady at the telephoto end of the zoom than holding it up to your eye. There is only a shiny, smooth handgrip on the front of the TZ18 and a small textured area on the rear, although it does have a slight curve to aid grip. The TZ18 actually has a 14.5 megapixel sensor, but only uses 14.1 megapixels so that it can offer four different aspect ratios - 4:3, 3:2, 16:9 or 1:1 - without having to change the angle of view. The Multi Aspect mode takes an image in all four aspect ratios simultaneously and lets you choose the best one. The DMC-TZ18 is well-made overall, although we don't like cover for the battery compartment and SD card slot, which feels a little insubstantial and is locked using a cheap plastic switch.
Despite the inclusion of a full range of manual shooting modes, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ18 is not overly complex in terms of the number of external controls that it has. The majority of the 14 controls are clearly labeled and common to most cameras, with the Q.Menu and iA shooting mode being specific to Panasonic and requiring a quick read of the user guide. There's a traditional dial on the top of the TZ18 which has a positive action and lets you select the various shooting and scene modes. This dial is a typical feature of SLR cameras, and enables you to quickly change between the various modes. Interestingly there are two Scene modes available, MS1 and MS2, both of which offer exactly the same options, but which can be set independently of each other, allowing a little customization of the camera setup. There's also a CUST option that allows you save up to three camera configurations, which is very handy if you often use the camera for different subjects or situations.
The DMC-TZ18 joins the handful of Panasonic compacts to offer advanced controls over exposure, with full manual (M), aperture-priority (A) and shutter-priority (S) modes on offer, which will instantly appeal to the more experienced photographer. The range of apertures on offer is rather limited by the lens (F3.3 - 6.3 at 24mm and F5.9 - 6.3 at 384mm), but the ability to choose from 60 - 1/2000th second shutter speeds and set both the aperture and shutter speed if you wish opens up a lot of creative potential. Sadly there's still no support for the RAW file format, which would really have been the icing on the cake for serious photographers looking for a backup-pocket camera to their DSLR.
The DMC-TZ18 also features an improved version of Panasonic's now well-established 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 and ISO speed, and turning face detection (up to 15 faces), image stabilization and quick auto-focus on. Intelligent Exposure increases the exposure only in the under-exposed areas of the image, and Digital Red-eye automatically detects and removes red-eye. Intelligent Exposure can also be turned on in the Normal Picture mode (but strangely not Digital Red-eye).
AF tracking 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 - it even shows the name of the person on the LCD. 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.
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 7 available scene modes are Scenery, Portrait, Macro, Night Portrait, Night Scenery, Sunset or Handheld Night Shot, 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're feeling a little down, the Happy Mode boosts the color, saturation and brightness to give you a warm glow inside (but not a terribly accurate picture).
Completing the top of the camera are the Off/On switch, responsive zoom lever, tactile shutter button, two holes for the mono microphone and four for the speaker, and the E.Zoom button. The TZ18 only offers mono sound, not stereo, but used in combination with the Wind Cut menu option makes a real difference to the sound quality in movies. The E.Zoom button replaces the TZ20's one-touch Movie Record button (which is much more useful) and offers the useful ability to quickly zoom to the full 16x optical focal length, and not so usefully then digitally extend it further to 33.8x (810mm), with a drop in resolution to 3 megapixels.
The TZ18 can record 720p video at 1280x720 at 30fps, and also 640x480 or 320x240 at 30fps, all in the Motion JPEG format. The TZ18's various movie options are sensibly stored in an easy to understand Motion Picture menu. Mono sound is recorded during capture, helped by the wind cut function. You can also use the zoom lens during recording and really make the most of that 24-384mm focal range. On the negative side, you'll find that the lens zooms more slowly than when shooting a still image, and if you choose continuous auto-focus, areas of the video will be blurred before becoming sharp again as the camera tries to refocus, although this has been improved when compared to the TZ8. The HDMI port allows you to connect the TZ18 to a high-def TV set, but only if you purchase the optional HDMI mini-cable.
Intelligent Resolution 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 16x to 20x 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.
The Camera / Play button on the rear of the camera enables you to quickly and easily switch from shooting to playback without also changing the shooting mode. Also on the rear of the camera is the Q.Menu button which provides quick access to most of the principal controls, including ISO speed, image size, image quality and white balance (there are 9 settings in total). You can still access all of these options from the main menu system too. In addition the TZ18 also has an Exposure button, which in conjunction with the arrow keys on the navigation pad allows you to change the aperture and/or the shutter speed if you're using the A, S or M shooting modes. This two-button system isn't the most convenient, but it does avoid making the camera too cluttered.
The large 3 inch LCD screen is the only way of framing your shots, so if you have to have an optical viewfinder, look elsewhere now, but I found that the 230K pixel screen coped well with the majority of lighting conditions, even being nice to use in low-light. There's a clever function called High Angle, accessible from the Quick Menu, 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 Intelligent LCD function automatically detects the current lighting conditions and boosts the LCD backlighting by up to 40% when shooting outdoors in bright sunshine, helping to keep the screen visible.
As with all current Panasonic models, the TZ18 has an anti-shake system, on this model the newer POWER O.I.S. variety. Turn it on and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ18 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 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. An Auto setting is also available if you're not sure which one to use. Panasonic claim that the POWER O.I.S. system is twice as effective as the older MEGA O.I.S, and while its difficult to make a direct comparison, 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. The TZ18 has a respectable battery life of 340 shots, much better than the TZ20's 260-shot life.
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Panasonic also provide a High Sensitivity Mode to help combat the effects of camera shake. When this scene mode is selected, the TZ18 automatically raises the ISO speed up to a maximum of 6400 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 increase in noise and blurring - Panasonic state that "Pictures may appear slightly grainy due to high sensitivity". You also need to select the scene mode and therefore have some idea about when it is applicable to your subject.
The Intelligent ISO mode is the third way in which the DMC-TZ18 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-TZ18 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 ISO 1600 produces very noisy images - ISO 800 is a better maximum setting.
The main menu system on the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ18 has been made simpler and clearer than previous versions. Accessed by pressing the Menu/Set button in the middle of the navigation pad. There are two menu options, 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. As mentioned previously, the addition of the Quick Menu button on the rear of the camera speeds up access to some of the more commonly used options. Due to the large LCD screen and restricting the number of on-screen choices to five, the various options and icons are very clear and legible. If you have never used a digital camera before, or you're upgrading from a more basic model, reading the easy-to-follow manual before you start is a good idea, especially as a few of the buttons are specific to Panasonic cameras. 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 for easy reference.
The start-up time from turning the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ18 on to being ready to take a photo is quite quick at around 2 seconds. Zooming from the widest focal length to the longest is very slow at around 5 seconds, but focusing is very quick in good light thanks to the new Sonic Speed AF system, and the camera achieves focus most of the time indoors or in low-light situations, helped by the focus-assist lamp. Note that the camera does struggle to lock onto the subject at the tele-photo end of the lens in low-light situations. It takes about 1 second to store an image, allowing you to keep shooting as they are being recorded onto the memory card, with a delay of 0.3 seconds between images. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ18 has an impressively quick Burst mode which enables you to take 10 frames per second, or at 5.5fps if you turn on continuous auto-focusing, for between 15 and 100 shots, but sadly these are only at 3 megapixel resolution. At full resolution the TZ18 can only manage 1.9fps for 3 shots at the highest quality Fine setting.
Once you have captured a photo, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ18 has a good range of options when it comes to playing, reviewing and managing your images. You can instantly scroll through the images that you have taken, view thumbnails (up to 30 onscreen at the same time and in a special Calendar view), zoom in and out up to 16x magnification, view slideshows, delete, protect, crop, resize and copy an image. You can also select favourite images, sort images into categories, add a text stamp, add a soundclip and set the print order. Face Recognition plays back only the photos that contain a certain face. 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 detailed information plus gridlines to aid composition, and no information at all.