Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ7 Review
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ7 Introduction
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ7 (also known as the DMC-ZS3 in the USA) is a brand new ultra-compact super-zoom camera, offering several major improvements on its predecessor, the popular TZ5 model. There's now a 12x, 25-300mm optical zoom lens, both wider and longer than the TZ5's, the megapixel count has increased from 9 to 10, the Venus IV Engine processing engine promises enhanced responsiveness, and the 720p HD video mode is recorded in the new AVCHD Lite format which almost doubles the recording time. Movies have been further enhanced by the addition of a dedicated Record button, stereo microphone, wind cut function to block out background noise, and audio sampling at 48kHz. AF tracking and Face Recognition have been added to the Panasonic TZ7's Intelligent Auto mode, which is also available for the first time during movie recording. The TZ7 retains the same optical image stabilisation system and 3 inch LCD screen with 460K pixels. Priced at £349 / $399 and available in silver, black, brown, blue and red, is the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ7 the best travel camera that money can buy? Carry on reading to find out...
Ease of Use
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ7 is very similar to the previous DMC-TZ5 model in terms of its design. At first glance the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ7 strikes you as being a little large, elongated and bulky, feeling similar in size to Canon's "A" series cameras. It's actually a little lighter than the TZ5 model, and remarkably the depth has has been decreased by a few millimeters too. You have to remind yourself that Panasonic have somehow fitted in a new 12x zoom lens, equivalent to a focal range 25-300mm on a 35mm camera, which provides both a wider angle of view and longer telephoto setting than the TZ5. Even when set to 300mm, the lens doesn't extend too far from the front of the TZ7, looking to all intents and purposes like a "normal" camera. This helps to make the DMC-TZ7 a great candid camera, as people assume that you're using just a standard point and shoot.
The 25mm focal length provides an entirely new wide angle of view that can only increase your creativity. Take it from me, you won't want to go back to a "standard" 35mm zoom after using the 25mm lens on the DMC-TZ7, or to the TZ5's 28mm lens - 3mm makes a surprising amount of difference in the world of wide-angle photography. The 12x zoom lens obviously makes this one of the most versatile compacts in terms of focal range, especially as it is coupled with Panasonic's excellent Mega O.I.S system, which helps to ensure that the majority of photos taken in good light are sharp. The TZ7's lens isn't particularly fast at the wide-angle setting with a maximum apertures of f/3.3, but f/4.9 at the 300mm telephoto setting is respectable enough.
The DMC-TZ7 is a well-built camera with a high quality metal body. The design is dominated by the large 12x lens on the front and the large 3 inch LCD screen on the rear. There is no optical viewfinder, which follows a recent trend in digital cameras, and this does make the camera a little harder to keep steady at the telephoto end of the zoom than holding it up to your eye. The chunky rubberized hand-grip on the TZ5 has unfortunately been replaced by a shiny, smooth one on the TZ7, something of a backwards step in my opinion. The TZ7 actually has a 12 megapixel sensor, but only uses 10 megapixels so that it can offer three different aspect ratios - 4:3, 3:2 or 16:9 - without having to change the angle of view. The Multi Aspect mode takes an image in all three aspect ratios simultaneously and lets you choose the best one.
The DMC-TZ7 is well-made overall, although there are a couple of external controls that don't instill much confidence. The cover for the battery compartment and SD card slot feels a little insubstantial and is locked using a cheap plastic switch. We can live with that, but not with the intensely annoying Shooting Mode dial. Now positioned on the far right of the top of the camera, this dial has an unbelievably loose action, causing it to move out of position virtually every time that you store the TZ7 in a pocket or bag. Trust me, you'll quickly become sick and tired of seeing the message "Mode Dial is not in the proper position" displayed on the LCD screen. On a brighter note, the tripod socket is now made of metal and has been moved to the middle of the bottom of the camera, a big improvement on the TZ5.
As this is purely a point and shoot camera with no manual controls, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ7 is not overly complex in terms of the number of external controls that it has. The majority of the 13 controls are clearly labeled and common to most cameras, with the Q.Menu button and iA mode being specific to Panasonic and requiring a quick read of the user guide. As mentioned above, there's a traditional dial on the top of the camera that 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 (too quickly most of the time!). Interestingly there are two Scene modes available, 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.
Also found on the top of the camera are the Off/On switch, responsive zoom lever, and the shutter button. The TZ7 now offers stereo sound, with the left and right mics found to the left of the On/Off switch. When used in combination with the new Wind Cut menu option, this makes a real difference to the sound quality in movies - check out the sample movie on the Sample Images page. The DMC-TZ5's E.Zoom button, which allowed you to zoom to the full telephoto focal length at a much faster speed than normal, has unfortunately bitten the dust to make way for the repositioned mode dial. Indeed, this feature has been completely removed.
The Extra Optical Zoom function is still available though. This basically works by digitally increasing the zoom from 12x up to a maximum of 21.4x by only using the central part of the image. To achieve that increase, though, a smaller image size has to be selected by the user. Choosing the 3 megapixel mode means that you can zoom up to 21.4x, whilst 5 megapixel provides a 17.1x zoom, and 7 megapixel is 14.3x (all in the 4:3 aspect ratio) . Fairly useful if you don't mind the decrease in resolution, but you do have to set the camera to the right picture size before the extra zoom function works. It would have been a much better system if the camera intelligently increased the zoom and then decreased the size of the image. When activated, EZ is displayed next to the horizontal zooming scale.
The dedicated Movie button on the rear of the camera is a brand new addition, and a very useful one at that. 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 - a lot more intuitive than having to select the movie mode then press the shutter button, as on most compacts. 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. Optical image stabilisation is only accessible through the DMC-TZ7's menu system. This isn't really a problem in practice, as I left it turned on for 99% of the time without negatively affecting the battery life.
The very 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 460K pixel, high-resolution screen coped admirably 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.
The DMC-TZ7 once again features an enhanced version of Intelligent Auto Mode, with AF tracking and Face Recognition added to the mix. 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), 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. 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. Panasonic haven't stopped there - Intelligent Auto Mode is now available for movies as well as still images. It doesn't offer the full range of settings - just the Optical Image Stabilizer, Face Detection, Intelligent Exposure and Intelligent Scene Selector - but it's a welcome addition none-the-less that helps to make movie-making easier for both beginners and the more experienced. 16 different scene modes can also be selected.
The HD video capability of the DMC-TZ7 is one of the major features of this camera, and it's now further enhanced by support for the new AVCHD Lite format and some features more usually found on dedicated camcorders. The TZ7 can record 720p video at 1280x720 pixels at 30 or 15 fps in Motion JPG format, or 25fps in AVCHD Lite. Both are a big improvement on the TZ5's Quicktime .MOV format, which resulted in some massive file sizes that quickly filled up your memory cards. AVCHD Lite 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 dedicated movie button makes it much easier to record a movie, and the various movie options are now sensibly stored in a new, easy to understand Motion Picture menu. Stereo sound is recorded during capture, a big improvement on the rather muffled noises recorded by the TZ5, helped by the wind cut function and audio sampling at 48kHz. You can also use the zoom lens during recording and really make the most of that 25-300mm 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 TZ5. The HDMI port allows you to connect the TZ7 to a high-def TV set, but only if you purchase the optional HDMI mini-cable.
As with all current Panasonic models, this camera has an anti-shake system, dubbed Mega O.I.S. Turn it on and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ7 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. 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 nearly 300 shots using the supplied rechargeable Li-ion battery.
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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 camera 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-TZ7 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-TZ7 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-TZ7 is straight-forward to use and is accessed by pressing the Menu/Set button in the middle of the navigation pad. There are three menu options, Record, Motion Picture and Setup. Most of the camera's main options, such as white balance, image quality, auto-focus mode and ISO speed, are accessed here, so the Record menu has 19 options spread over 4 screens, the Motion Picture menu 9 options over 2 screens, and the Setup menu has 25 options spread over 5 screens. 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-TZ7 on to being ready to take a photo is quick at around 2 seconds. Zooming from the widest focal length to the longest is very slow at around 4 seconds, but focusing is quick in good light 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. The camera is generally very quick to find focus if you use the 1-point high-speed AF option. It takes about 1 second to store an image, allowing you to keep shooting as they are being recorded onto the memory card - there is no LCD blackout between each image. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ7 has a disappointingly slower Burst mode than the DMC-TZ5, which enables you to take 2.3 frames per second at the highest JPEG image quality, up to a maximum of 5 images in Standard mode and just 3 images in Fine mode. There is also a Free Burst mode, which allows you keep shooting until the memory card is full, but only at around 1.8fps.
Once you have captured a photo, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ7 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, trim, resize, copy and rotate an image. You can also select favourite images, sort images into categories, change an image's aspect ratio, add a text stamp, add a soundclip and set the print order. Face Recognition playbacks only the photos that contain a certain face. Dual Play, which allowed you to compare two images onscreen at the same time, has sadly been removed. 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.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ7 carries on where the TZ5 left off - this is an equally simple-to-use, responsive mid-sized point-and-shoot camera with the main benefits of a wider, longer zoom and improved movie mode.