Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ38 Review

July 27, 2009 | Mark Goldstein |


The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ38 (also known as the DMC-FZ35) is a new super-zoom camera sporting a wide-angle 18x zoom lens. Successor to the popular FZ28 model, the bridge-style Panasonic FZ38 compact camera has the same key features of 27-486mm focal length, maximum aperture of f/2.8 and 2.7 inch LCD screen, but offers a number of upgrades. These include an increase to 12 megapixels, new Power O.I.S anti-shake system, Venus Engine HD5 processing engine, support for AVCHD Lite movies, faster auto-focus speed, longer battery life and updated iA (intelligent auto) mode with Face Recognition. The FZ38 retains the manual shooting modes, RAW format support and ISO 1600 at full image resolution from its predecessor. Retailing for £329.99 / $399.95, find out if the FZ38 can carry on where the FZ28 left off in the World's first review.

Ease of Use

In terms of its external design, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ38 is virtually identical to its predecessor. Available either in black or silver, the more serious-looking former version was supplied for this review, and boasts both a 'DSLR-lite' shape and styling. While resembling a diminutive DSLR, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ38 is dominated by the inclusion of its non-interchangeable 18x zoom lens, which shares exactly the same specification as the FZ28. Panasonic have upgraded the anti-shake system, now dubbed 'Power O.I.S.' (optical image stabilization). We noticed a slight improvement in effectiveness compared to the previous Mega O.I.S. variant, which was already an excellent performer. A stubby barrel encases and protects the optic when not in use and an equally good-sized 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 many bridge models seem to think that four bog-quality AAs will suffice to get you going out of the box.

While this is not a camera for slipping into a pocket by any means, the all-plastic Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ38 feels like it could withstand the odd glancing knock, though I wouldn't like to vouch for dropping it onto concrete. The camera feels solid and rugged in the palm, while at once portably lightweight – a slightly contradictory sounding summation that translates as build quality being 'as it should be'. Pleasing also to find a viewfinder – here electronic (EVF) – which is 0.20" in size, offers 100% field of view and 201K dots. There's also an 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. There's also a dioptre adjustment wheel immediately adjacent, enabling the short sighted to use it without clashing spectacles. To avoid flare, you also get a rather awkward detachable lens hood in the box, and 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 FZ38 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). Above the lens is a swift access pop up flash with a dedicated activation button sitting just behind it at the rear, but no hot shoe for mounting a supplementary flashgun. The flash coverage is the same as on the FZ28, offering a maximum range of 8.5m. On top of the pop-up flash is the new built-in stereo microphone, looking very similar to the one found on the DMC-GH1 Micro Four Thirds camera.

Moving to the top of the camera, 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 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.

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Front Rear

Face Recognition is a new addition to the FZ38's Intelligent Auto mode. This 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!

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 5 available scene modes are Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Night Portrait and Night Scenery, 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.

Also catering for the beginner are a total of 20 scene modes, including Pin Hole and Film Grain modes that add unique, film-camera-like effects to your images (quirky rather than useful). The new High Dynamic Range mode helps to capture a scene with moderate exposure even if it contains both bright and dark area together. Three options are available, Standard, Art, or B/W, each creating a different effect - you can see some examples on the Image Quality page.

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 single new addition to the rear of the FZ38 is the Motion Picture button. 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 a lot more intuitive than having to select the movie mode then press the shutter button, as on most cameras.

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Front Front

The FZ38 can record high-resolution HD 1280 x 720 movies at 30 frames 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 new 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 FZ38'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 five options - Portrait, Scenery, Low Light and Close-up or Normal modes. 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. The Optical Image Stabilizer helps 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 new wind cut function which blocks out most of the noise from background wind. The HDMI port allows you to connect the GH1 to a high-def TV set, but only if you purchase the optional HDMI mini-cable.

You can use the zoom lens during recording and really make the most of that versatile 27-486mm focal range, although the zoom speed is unfortunately much slower than for still images. Focusing is set via the Focus mode dial on the top of the camera. 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 FZ38 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 FZ38 during movie recording inevitably leads to obvious shake, despite the optical image stabilizer, so for best results you'll need a dedicated video tripod.

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Top Side

Adjacent to the mode wheel is an on/off 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 12 megapixel resolution JPEGs committed to memory in just over a second. You can take 2.3 frames per second for up to 5 images (Standard mode) and 3 images (Fine Mode) without causing the camera to freeze up momentarily while the buffer memory is cleared. RAW performance is slower, taking 2 seconds to save a RAW file in single shot mode and 3 seconds for a combined RAW + JPEG. Note that there is effectively no burst shooting mode for RAW images, despite being able to turn it on in the menu system.

Just forward of the on/off slider is a small button marked AF/AF Macro/MF. 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. Just forward of this again 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 – and just in front, at the start of the slope that forms the top of the camera grip, 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.

As with all current Panasonic models, the FZ38 has an anti-shake system, now upgraded to Power O.I.S. Turn it on via the Stabilizer option in the main menu and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ38 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 450 shots using the supplied rechargeable Li-ion battery.

There's also a High Sensitivity mode to help 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-FZ38 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-FZ38 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-FZ38 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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Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

Moving around to the back of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ38, we find the left hand side dominated by a 2.7-inch, 230k pixel LCD monitor, which is bright and clear as a means of composition whether shooting inside or out. If visibility does suffer in sunlight – not something I personally found a problem – 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 the preferred method of composition. The Camera / Play button enables you to quickly and easily switch from shooting to playback without also changing the shooting mode.

Just right of the viewfinder, like you'd find on a budget DSLR, is an AF/AE lock button, below which is an easy-to-overlook joystick, though it's so small and slightly fiddly that it should perhaps be renamed the 'joy-less' stick. Press this down, hold it, and a pull down 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 important likes of image stabilization mode, metering (spot, centre weighted and average), auto focus areas (or opt for face detection mode), white balance, ISO, 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 joystick is also used to set the aperture, shutter speed and expsoure compensation when using the manual shooting modes.

Beneath the stubby joystick 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. Below this control is an identically sized button marked with the familiar trashcan icon for deleting unwanted shots quickly. This button also serves a dual purpose as a short cut to the continuous shooting options mentioned above.

To the right of this we discover the 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 flash settings, a third for the new Function option, which can be configured to activate one of seven key settings (I chose ISO speed), while the fourth provides access to the self timer options.

At the base of the FZ38 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 card (or the higher capacity SDHC format). Apart for a slot for threading through a strap, the right hand side of the camera also houses a Component Out socket for connecting the FZ38 to a HD television or monitor. The left hand side of the unit (if viewed from the back) features a flip open door hiding the combined AV out / DC-in port and the new HDMI socket, again useful for connecting the camera to as HDTV. 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.

In summary the DMC-FZ38 is outwardly very similar to its predecessor, but it does offer a number of significant new features under the hood that add up a more well-rounded package suitable for both still and video use.