Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ8 Review
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The DMC-TZ8 (also known as the DMC-ZS5 in the USA) is the latest travel-zoom camera from Panasonic, featuring a 12x, 25-300mm lens housed in a compact body that can fit in your pocket. Successor to the TZ6 model, the DMC-TZ8 has a 14.5-megapixel CCD sensor and shoots with up to 12.1-megapixel resolution, reproducing images with the lens set from 25mm to 300mm in any of three aspect ratios - 4:3, 3:2 or 16:9 - while maintaining the same diagonal angle of view. The new Intelligent Resolution function can be used to digitally boost the zoom ratio to 16x without hardly any loss in quality, or to simply make still images and video look better, at least according to Panasonic. The TZ8 also implements a long requested feature for the TZ-series - A, S and M exposure modes for creative photographers, in addition to Intelligent Auto and a variety of scene modes for beginners. 720p HD video recording in the Motion JPEG format, high-speed and high-performance Venus Engine VI processor, POWER O.I.S. anti-shake system and a 2.7-inch LCD screen with 230k dots complete the headline specifications. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ8 is available in silver or black for £299 / $349.
Ease of Use
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ8 is very similar to the previous DMC-TZ6 model in terms of its design, with the most notable differences being two new buttons on the rear and extra modes on the repositioned Shooting Mode dial. At first glance the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ8 strikes you as being a little large, elongated and bulky, but it's actually slightly lighter than the TZ6 model. You then have to remind yourself that Panasonic have somehow fitted in a 12x zoom lens, equivalent to 25-300mm on a 35mm camera, which provides an very versatile focal range that will cover every subject from ultra-wide angle landscapes to close-up action shots. Even when set to 300mm, the lens doesn't extend too far from the front of the TZ8, making it look to all intents and purposes like a "normal" compact camera. This helps to make the DMC-TZ8 great for candid moments, as people assume that you're using just a standard point and shoot with a much more limited range.
The 25mm focal length, now something of a standard feature on Panasonic compacts, 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 after using the 25mm lens on the DMC-TZ8, or even a 28mm one - 3mm at the wide-angle end really does make a big difference. 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 POWER O.I.S system, which helps to ensure that the majority of photos taken in good light are sharp. The TZ8'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-TZ8 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 now standard sized 2.7 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 TZ8 and a small textured area on the rear, something of a backwards step in my opinion from earlier TZ designs. The TZ8 actually has a 14 megapixel sensor, but only uses 12 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-TZ8 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. Thankfully Panasonic have addressed the awful Shooting Mode dial of the TZ6, which on the TX8 has been repositioned to the left of the shutter release button and given a much more positive action that makes it less likely to unexpectedly change position when stored in a pocket or bag. You shouldn't see the annoying message "Mode Dial is not in the proper position" ever again. As testament to the quality of this camera, the tripod socket is made of metal and positioned directly the middle of the bottom of the camera, something that very few compacts get right.
Despite the addition of the new manual shooting modes, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ8 is still 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 E.Zoom buttons and iA shooting 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 TZ8 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. 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. There's also a brand new 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.
Also new is the long-awaited addition of A, S and M exposure modes. The DMC-TZ8 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 25mm and F4.9 - 6.3 at 300mm), 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 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-TZ8 also features 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. 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. If you're feeling a little down, the new Happy Mode has also been added to Intelligent Auto, as the name suggests it 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, and the tactile shutter button. The TZ8 only offers mono sound, with the mic located to the left of the Mode dial. The E.Zoom button/feature from the older DMC-TZ5 camera, which allows you to zoom to the full telephoto focal length at a much faster speed than normal, has made a welcome return on the rear of the TZ8. A single press zooms to the full 12x setting, while a second press activates the 23.4x digital zoom, with a third press returning all the way back to 1x / 25mm. Alongside the E.Zoom button, you can also increase the zoom by selecting a smaller image size. Choosing the 3 megapixel mode means that you can zoom up to 23.4x, whilst 5 megapixel provides a 18.8x zoom, and 8 megapixel is 14.7x (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. When activated, EZ is displayed next to the horizontal zooming scale.
Intelligent Resolution is a brand new feature for Panasonic's 2010 range of compacts. It 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 12x to 16x with minimal loss of quality and no reduction in resolution (unlike the Extra Zoom feature). 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 improves on the E.Zoom digital zoom, but not so much that I'd regularly use it.
Although the TZ8 offer HD movie recording, it doesn't have the dedicated Movie button on the rear of the camera that the ZX3, TZ7 and the new TZ10 have, presumably because the TZ6's movies are recorded in Motion JPEG format rather than AVCHD Lite. This is a shame because it's a lot more intuitive than having to select the movie mode and then press the shutter button. The TZ8 can record 720p video at 1280x720 pixels at 30 or 15 fps in the Motion JPG formats. The Wind Cut function does exactly what its name suggests, Intelligent Exposure, White Balance and Colour Effects can all be set, you can also use the zoom lens during recording and really make the most of that 25-300mm focal range, and the various movie options are sensibly stored in an easy to understand Motion Picture menu. On the negative side, you'll find that the lens zooms more slowly than when shooting a still image, if you choose continuous auto-focus areas of the video will be blurred before becoming sharp again as the camera tries to refocus, and the sound recording is mono not stereo. There's also no HDMI port, Intelligent Auto mode for movies, stereo sound, Video Divide or still image extraction functions as on the ZX3 and TZ10 models.
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 to the E.Zoom button mentioned above, the TZ8 also has a new 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 2.7 inch LCD screen is the only way of framing your shots, so if you have to have an optical viewfinder, look elsewhere now. The 230K pixel screen coped well with the majority of lighting conditions, even being nice to use in low-light, although I'd have liked to see the better 460k dot screen from the TZ7 make its way onto this model. 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 TZ8 has an anti-shake system, on this model the newer POWER O.I.S. variety. Turn it on and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ8 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.
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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 TZ8 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-TZ8 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-TZ8 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-TZ8 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 22 options spread over 5 screens, the Motion Picture menu 5 options over 1 screen, and the Setup menu has 20 options spread over 4 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-TZ8 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 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-TZ8 has a disappointingly slow Burst mode 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.
Once you have captured a photo, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ8 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.