Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZX3 Review
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZX3 Introduction
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZX3 (also known as the DMC-ZR3) is a 14 megapixel compact digital featuring an 8x optically-stabilised zoom lens with a focal range of 25-200mm in a body measuring just 2.6cms thick. The new Intelligent Resolution function can be used to digitally boost the zoom ratio to 10x without hardly any loss in quality or to simply make still images and video look better, at least according to Panasonic. The high performance Venus Engine HD II processor delivers longer 330 shot battery life and video recording has also been greatly improved for the ZX3. 720p footage is now also available in AVHCD Lite format as well as motion JPEG, Intelligent Auto mode can be used, there's a Video Divide function and the option of extracting a 1920x1080 still, plus a dedicated Video Record button and HDMI port. If all that fails to entice you, the new Happy scene mode should put a smile on your face. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZX3 is priced at £299.99 / $299.95 in silver, black, blue or red.
Ease of Use
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZX3 is externally very similar to the previous ZX1 model in terms of its design - side-by-side, you'd be hard pressed to tell them apart. Credit card dimensions and rounded edges ensure it's marginally less boxy than other competitors, and it's easily small and light enough to fit inside a shirt or trouser pocket. Panasonic have somehow squeezed in an 8x zoom lens, equivalent to a focal range of 25-200mm on a 35mm camera, which as with the original ZX1 is quite a feat of engineering. There's also an 'extra' optical zoom function boosting it to an equivalent 15.6x, albeit with an attendant resolution drop to 3 megapixels. Even when set to 200mm, the lens doesn't extend very far from the front of the ZX3, making it look to all intents and purposes like a run-of-the-mill compact camera. This helps to make the DMC-ZX3 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. You won't want to go back to a "standard" 35mm zoom after using the 25mm lens on the DMC-ZX3, or even to a 28mm lens - 3mm makes a surprising amount of difference in the world of wide-angle photography. The 8x zoom lens obviously makes this one of the most versatile ultra-compacts in terms of focal range, especially as it is coupled with the POWER O.I.S system, which helps to ensure that the majority of photos taken in good light are sharp. The ZX3's lens isn't particularly fast at either the wide-angle or telephoto settings, with maximum apertures of f/3.3 and f/5.9, but we can live with that in return for the focal range.
Intelligent Resolution is a brand new feature for Panasonic's 2010 range of compacts, and apart from the enhancements to the video mode, one of the few improvements to the original ZX1 model. 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 8x to 10x with minimal loss of quality and no reduction in resolution (unlike the Extra Optical 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 1005 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 digital zoom, but not so much that I'd regularly use it.
The DMC-ZX3 is a well-built camera with a high quality metal body. There are a few external controls, however, 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 annoying Shooting Mode dial. Positioned on the far right of the top of the camera, this dial has a loose action, causing it to often move out of position when you store the ZX3 in a pocket or bag. You'll quickly become sick and tired of seeing the message "Mode Dial is not in the proper position" displayed on the LCD screen. In addition, the tripod socket is made of metal but is inconveniently positioned in the far-right corner of the camera, which doesn't provide enough stability when mounted on a tripod. All of these faults were present on the ZX1 and should really have been addressed in this new version.
There is no optical viewfinder, which does make it a little harder to keep steady at the telephoto end of the zoom than holding the camera up to your eye. The only method of composition is via the rear LCD screen, which is large enough at 2.7 inches but only has an average resolution of 230K dots. On the upside, the screen has a fairly wide viewing angle and it coped well with the majority of lighting conditions, except very bright direct sunlight. 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 this is purely a point and shoot camera with no manual controls, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZX3 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!). 29 different scene modes can be selected via the SCN mode setting, with the MS option allowing you to quickly access your favourite. The High Dynamic mode is an interesting scene mode which helps to capture a scene with even exposure even if it contains extreme bright and dark areas. There are three options, Standard, Art, or B/W, making your photos look natural or more artistic. In practice this new mode works well. Also found on the top of the camera are the mono sound mic, small Off/On switch, responsive zoom lever, and the shutter button.
The DMC-ZX3 features the Intelligent Auto shooting mode, now standard across the Panasonic range, which makes things as easy as possible for the complete beginner by allowing 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 ZX3 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).
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. The E.Zoom button from the ZX1, which cleverly zoomed to the full telephoto focal length at a much faster speed than normal (and then back to wide-angle with a second push), has sadly been replaced by the new Movie Record button. The Extra Optical Zoom function is still present - it works by digitally increasing the zoom from 8x up to a maximum of 15.6x by only using the central part of the image. To achieve that increase, though, a smaller image size has to be used. Choosing the 3 megapixel mode means that you can zoom up to 15.6x, whilst 5 megapixel provides a 12.5x zoom, and 8 megapixel is 9.8x (all in the 4:3 aspect ratio). Fairly useful if you don't mind the decrease in resolution. When activated, EZ is displayed next to the horizontal zooming scale.
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-ZX3'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, which has now been slightly improved to 330 shots thanks to the new high performance Venus Engine HD II processor.
The ZX3 can record 720p video at 1280x720 pixels at 30 or 15 fps in either the Motion JPG or AVCHD Lite formats. There's now a dedicated video button as on other recent Panasonic compacts, which means that you can start and stop recording with one button press, and the new HDMI port makes it easy to connect the ZX3 directly to your HDTV set. Intelligent Auto is available for movies as well as stills, you can also use the zoom lens during recording and really make the most of that 25-200mm focal range, and the new Wind Cut function does exactly what its name suggests. Panasonic have followed Samsung by introducing a Video Divide function that lets you perform simple in-camera editing, while the option to extract a 1920x1080 still image from your footage is tempered somewhat by the poor quality of the image. 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.
As with all current Panasonic models, the ZX3 has an anti-shake system, on this model the newer POWER O.I.S. variety. Turn it on and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZX3 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.
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, and the resolution is reduced to 3 megapixels.
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The Intelligent ISO mode is the third way in which the DMC-ZX3 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-ZX3 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-ZX3 is straight-forward to use and is accessed by pressing the Menu/Set button in the middle of the navigation pad. Depending on which shooting mode you're using, there are three menu options, Record, the Travel Mode or 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. 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 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-ZX3 on to being ready to take a photo is very quick at around 1 second. Zooming from the widest focal length to the longest is a little slower at around 2.5 seconds, but focusing is very quick in good light. The camera achieves focus most of the time indoors or in low-light situations, helped by the focus-assist lamp. We also didn't have too many problems locking onto the subject at the telephoto end of the lens in low-light situations. The ZX3 is especially 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 ZX3 has a disappointingly slow Burst mode which enables you to take 1.8 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, which is slower than on the ZX1. In the High-speed Burst shooting mode 10 shots per second can be recorded, but only at 3 megapixels. The Flash Burst mode makes it possible to take 5 consecutive shots with continuous emissions of the flash.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZX3 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. 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.
In summary, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZX3 isn't all that different to its predecessor. It's still a responsive and easy-to-use point and shoot camera offering an incredibly versatile focal range, with the main improvements being made to the video recording, while the heavily promoted Intelligent Resolution is less useful than promised.