Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT3 Review

March 11, 2011 | Gavin Stoker |


The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT3 (also known as the DMC-TS3) is a new waterproof, shockproof and dustproof digital camera. The FT3 can be used underwater to a depth of up to 12 meters and is drop proof from a height up to 2m, freezeproof to -10 degrees C and dustproof. In addition, the 12 megapixel Panasonic FT3 offers a 28mm wide-angle 4.6x optical zoom lens, 1920 x 1080 full-HD movie recording, 3D photo Mode, GPS functionality, a compass, altimeter and even a barometer. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT3 / TS3 costs £329 / $399.95.

Ease of Use

To distance themselves from camera phones, smart phones, cameras in iPads, PCs and tablets and a whole host of technical ephemera, the humble compact of today has to work harder than ever to provide an incentive to purchase. It's no longer just about the ability to take usable pictures and video. So how about a camera that's nigh indestructible for starters?

With a price around the £300 mark which while not cheap feels like fair value, Panasonic's third generation toughened camera, coming after the Lumix DMC-FT1 and FT2, is naturally the FT3. Two years on from the original rugged model, resolution has (unusually) remained the same at an effective 12.1 megapixels (from a 12.5 megapixel 1/2.33 type CCD sensor), so its manufacturer has clearly been concentrating its efforts towards developing other areas.

Whereas the FT1 offered waterproofing to three metres, the airtight FT3 has quadrupled that to 12 metres. It can now survive a fall from two metres in height rather than 1.5 metres, and, as we accidentally discovered, onto a concrete surface (surely among the most unforgiving) too.

Since the original iteration the series has been additionally dust proofed and so it remains. The latest generation is also freezeproof to -10°C. So whether you want a camera for the ski slopes, the poolside or are like us are just plain clumsy, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT3 would seem to fit the bill. Measuring 103.5x64x26.5mm, so about a third larger than the average business card if you were to upscale one, the camera will fit into a trouser pocket, though a jacket pocket would be more comfortable.

There are a few toughened competitors out there, the Olympus Mju Tough, now just plain 'Tough', series being the closest competition in the FT3's class. It has recently announced the TG-810 model, which throws in a crushproof ability too. But there is another area in which it is nigh identical in terms of spec to the FT3. Both cameras now feature a built-in GPS antenna.

This provides real-time information naming the location at which your shot is being taken. This is displayed ticker-tape fashion along the bottom of the back screen. Panasonic claims the on-board info covers 203 countries, thus encouraging worldwide use, and more than a million landmarks. What's more it appears to work, competently picking out our local National Trust property. We live on a bend in the river, which was enough to fool it, so using the camera back at home we were classified as living across the water. While in daily use GPS might seem a bit of a gimmick - and is a function that can be turned on or off at will, there's some use to be had perhaps if you're abroad and haven't purchased a guidebook to otherwise discover what's what - or want to plot the route of your travels via Google maps or the social media of your choice later. Longitude and latitude coordinates are stored in the particular JPEG image's Exif data.

GPS, coupled with the destruction proofing, earmarks the FT3 as a possible ideal travel companion therefore, even if its optical lens reach doesn't quite edge into the 'travel zoom' category, being a modest by current standards 4.6x - the same as that on the original FT1 - being equivalent to a wide angle 28-128mm in 35mm film terms. Predictably the Leica-branded lens operates a folded mechanism comprised of 10 elements, which means that at no point is it put in harm's way by virtue of protruding from the body. Look to the equally new but non-toughened 16x zoom Lumix DMC-TZ20 if a wide range of framing opportunities is a bigger priority.

Like its competitor the FT3 is a chunky, solid feel beast when gripped in the palm, its appearance almost industrialized thanks to the corner screws incorporated into its brushed metal front and back plates. The weight is 175g without battery or card, though feels more substantial than that when gripped. It might suffer a dent or a scratch if you forcefully dropped or scraped it - and if you purposefully want to smash something, Gadget Show style, you undoubtedly will - but at least it doesn't feel like it could shatter into a thousand pieces. Like its predecessors you can't, for the most part, fault the build quality, which also includes dampening rubber padding, reinforced glass and carbon resin inside the camera. There's not only a sliding catch on the side door protecting the joint battery and SD/SDHC/SDXC card compartment, but also an additional lock to prevent any ingress of undesirables. On-screen prompts and warnings also lessen the prospect of accidents or jumping into the pool without doing the equivalent of battening down the hatches first. There's no a metal lens cover however that flips open upon power - it's protected instead by reinforced glass, which means the lens is open to the elements at all times. In practice this meant that our review sample's glass got covered in fingerprints when fetching out of a pocket, so you'll be constantly wiping it clean. The lens' positioning towards the top right hand corner of the faceplate (viewed front on), means that, as with Sony Cyber-shots and rival 'style cameras', unwanted fingertips can stray into frame when gripping the camera in both hands to take a steadier shot if you're not too careful.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT3 Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT3
Front Rear

What we would also say is that this is a camera that is difficult to handle with wet fingers or gloves on. The FT3's buttons, with the exception of a large and obvious shutter release, are no larger than you'll find on the average pocket compact, so require fingertip position. This was something we grumbled about in our review of the FT1, but a couple of iterations latter and we're still fielding the same criticism. To get around this it might be an idea if it featured the Tap control ability of the Olympus range for example, by which certain functions are adjustable by tapping the camera or tipping it in a certain direction, which might have been useful in some circumstances.

Still photos aside, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT3 also includes the ability to capture Full HD quality video to a maximum 1920x1280 pixels in AVCHD format (better for replaying footage on your telly) or Motion JPEG (fine for the PC and Internet), with a dedicated record button usefully provided, nestling next to the main shutter release button. Video still includes a useful wind cancellation feature. Other boxes ticked include macro shooting up to as close as 5cm from your subject, 2.7-inch, 230k dot resolution LCD in the absence of optical viewfinder, and manually selectable ISO range starting at ISO100 and topping out at a modest ISO1600, though this can be boosted to an equivalent ISO6400 with a resolution drop if selecting the familiar High Sensitivity option from among the scene modes.

In terms of locating such a setting quickly, the shooting mode wheel of the FT1 has been replaced with a simple mode button on the backplate, less obvious perhaps, but leading to an overall more streamlined appearance. Press this and you're presented with an eight-option graphical mode menu overlaying whatever's before the camera lens. As well as the familiar scene and subject-recognising intelligent Auto (iA) setting, we get a 'normal picture' mode which is Program by another name, plus sports (up to 3.7fps continuous capture at full res or 10fps at 3MP), snow and separate beach and snorkeling modes by way of indicating how Panasonic imagines this camera might be used. The next icon provides a gateway to 26 pre-optimised scene modes covering the usual range of portrait and landscape photo biased subjects. The last shooting mode menu icon is the one that grabs the interest - and imagination - however, by virtue of being a 3D mode.

This recalls the Sweep Panorama feature of the latest Sony Cyber-shot and NEX compacts by compositing an image from a sequence of shots taken as you pan with the camera in the direction the on-screen arrow indicates (left to right). The end result, says Panasonic, is here made up from up to 20 individual frames, which is far less than the 100 images utilised by the Sony NEX models. As, like them, the file generated is an MPO file, this isn't actually viewable in all its stereoscopic glory unless you own a 3D TV - although, as when shooting with the specialist 3D lens for Panasonic's GF2 and GH2 for example - a low resolution JPEG is saved alongside the MPO file for easy reference.

Let's take a more detailed tour then of the FT3's features and functions, highlighting use and performance as we go. Starting at the front, and the boxy Robocop-like faceplate of the FT3, like its predecessors, features the regular trio of the aforementioned lens, narrow window for the integral flash, plus self-timer/AF assist light indicator alongside it. The flash is set far enough away from the camera's edge to avoid fingers obscuring it, and there's a raised edge or 'swelling' alongside it by way of a handgrip, even though the surface is quite slippery, and when handling with dry fingers.

On the Panasonic's top plate we have lost the built-in speaker which has now shifted to the back plate to make way for a hump housing the GPS antenna, next to which is a small hole housing the built-in mono microphone.

The on/off button, which is recessed and level with the bodywork to prevent accidental activation, sits just behind the indicator lamp for the GPS, nestling in the 'shadow' of the raised shutter release button, and, as we've previously mentioned, the dedicated camcorder-like red record button for shooting video clips, its function highlighted in case you weren't certain of the fact by the movie camera icon stenciled above it. Over at the far right hand edge - if viewing the FT3 from the back - is a lug for attaching a provided wrist strap: a useful addition if you're skiing down a black run with it.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT3 Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT3
Side Top

Press the FT3's power button and the camera readies itself for activity in just over a second, presenting you on power up with the on-screen offer of a tour of the precautions to bear in mind if using the camera underwater. A half press of the shutter release immediately gets rid of this message if you're on dry land and just want to get on with the business of taking a shot. Press down fully to take a photo and, with no discernable shutter delay (or rather 0.005 seconds as officially tested), a full resolution JPEG is committed to memory in 2-3 seconds, the screen briefly blacking out before displaying a frozen image of the captured shot. Panasonic also claims the FT3's AF, or rather the aptly named 'Sonic Speed AF' is 28% faster than its FT2 predecessor. Whilst we can't vouch that precisely, it's certainly as quick as anyone would want from what at the end of the day is a point and shoot pocket camera.

With two thirds of the camera's backplate taken up by its toughened 2.7-inch, 230k-dot resolution LCD screen - incidentally also the same spec we found back on the FT1 - which self adjusts brightness levels according to ambient light levels at the time, it's to the right that we find the familiar smattering of operational controls. It feels slightly odd that the camera's zoom is operated by a pair of adjacent round buttons, located at the top right hand corner, rather than the familiar rocker switch; because, to move between wideangle and telephoto options, your fingers have to perform a little dance between them, rather than just press harder at one edge to effect an alteration to the framing. With the camera's lens at its widest setting from the off, a press of the right hand (telephoto) button and its travels through the focal range slowly but steadily and moreover nigh silently, in around three seconds. The zoom can also be utilized when recording video clips, but slows down further to avoid mechanical noise being a distraction, taking around five seconds to get from wide to tele setting.

There's nowhere really to place your thumb/s at the back of the camera when shooting handheld. As a result the thumb of the right hand skates across the controls for playback and aforementioned shooting mode button, and comes to rest obscuring the built-in speaker, whilst that of the left hand inevitably finds its way onto the screen itself.

With capture mode inevitably the camera's default setting there's no control button thus named. We get 'playback' for reviewing images and just need a half press of the shutter release button if a photo opportunity should present itself to enable us to jump back into capture mode - a set up we prefer to having to otherwise flick a switch between the two settings anyway.

Beneath these two buttons is a regulation issue four-way control pad/cross key set up with equally familiar menu/set button at its centre for firstly calling up the former on screen, and secondly effecting changes to the offered settings with a subsequent press. At 12 o'clock on the surrounding pad is a means of tweaking exposure compensation (+/- 2EV with an on-screen slide bar provided), then as we move around clockwise we find a means of adjusting flash options (auto, auto with red eye reduction, forced flash on, slow sync flash with red eye reduction and flash off), then selecting macro setting for close ups (as close as 5cm) and/or self timer (an option of two or ten second countdowns).

A press of the menu/set button meanwhile brings up a quartet of icon-distinguished folders on screen including the addition of one for GPS. Otherwise we get the regulars of still image capture, video recording, plus a third option of set up. The contents of the first photo record folder are split across five screens if you have the camera in 'normal' shooting mode and run the gamut of picture quality and size settings along with the ability to adjust aspect ratio from 4:3 to 3:2 to 16:9, and, more unusually on to 1:1.

We also get intelligent ISO among the ISO settings, and the ability here to select incremental stages from ISO100 up to ISO1600 as one would normally, which is a fairly modest range as previously mentioned. White balance can also be adjusted manually, whilst AF mode can be swapped from the default 1-area AF to 23-area, or to spot AF, or by contrast AF tracking, as well as to face detection mode if you're going to be taking portraits in the main. It's here that we also find the colour mode options, which, as back on the original FT1, can be altered from the default of 'standard' to neutral, vivid, B&W, sepia, cool or warm.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT3 Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT3
Battery Compartment Memory Card Slot

Dipping next into the video recording folder we find two screens' worth of options and again the ability to adjust quality dependant on end use and swap between AVCHD and Motion JPEG compression options. It's here you can deploy the wind cutting option when filming video outdoors, as well as activating continuous AF so the shot doesn't go totally out of focus as you gradually adjust framing.

The set up icon/folder meanwhile provides access to six screens' worth of options and it's here that we get to turn a histogram on/off or call up a nine zone compositional grid on screen, as well as set date, time, and format the internal memory or card in use.

The last folder as indicated pertains to the use of the GPS facility. This can be set to be always on (even when the camera is otherwise switched off), turned off entirely, or placed in 'airplane mode', whereby the GPS only kicks in when the camera is switched on. You can also re-position/refresh the GPS settings and change the name of the place it automatically acquires for you if is slightly off course. Furthermore the built-in altimeter can be manually adjusted and the compass calibrated.

The remaining two buttons at the bottom of the camera back are for the self-explanatory display and the less immediately obvious 'Q.Menu'. A press of the latter 'Quick Menu' option brings up a toolbar across the top of the LCD screen, allowing the user to quickly tab through options for adjusting GPS mode, AF mode, white balance, ISO speed, still and video quality as well as adjusting the LED light and monitor brightness. Basically, these are your key settings at a glance, saving the time required to dip into the menu folders mentioned above. Subsequent presses of 'display' meanwhile turn off the otherwise constant onscreen icons and shooting info to provide an image clear of distractions, and/or call up a nine zone compositional grid on screen for those users practicing their rule of thirds, or, more funky still, a graphical interface of GPS coordinates and compass, which flits around impressively as you tilt the camera itself.

On the right hand side of the FT3 meanwhile, under a chunky, lockable cover we find ports for connecting the camera up to an HD TV set via optional mini HDMI cable, plus a dual-purpose slot for regular USB/AV out. These sit either side of the slot for the memory card and provided rechargeable battery. According to CIPA standards, battery life is good for 310 shots from a full charge, down from the FT1's 340, the GPS undoubtedly sucking an extra degree of power.

The base of the camera meanwhile features the familiar screw thread for attaching the camera to a tripod, and that's your lot as regards features and functionality.

So, while this camera may feel built to last and operation is mostly as straightforward as you'd want from a model designed for use at the beach or in inclement weather, does it capture images that you'll want to savour for some time to come as well? Read on to find out…