As their prices converge, it's getting more difficult to decide whether to buy a digital SLR or a sophisticated megazoom camera such as the 8-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30. The successor to the 5-megapixel FZ20, the FZ30 is also equipped with optical image stabilization, a solid feature set, and a 12X zoom Leica DC Vario-Elmarit lens with a 35mm-to-420mm focal range (35mm-camera equivalent). The FZ30 is far less expensive than a dSLR, for which you'd need two or more image-stabilized lenses to gain the same focal range. Though the dSLR would give you better performance, additional features, and better image quality, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 is a viable alternative for photographers who want maximum flexibility for a (relatively) small cash outlay. At 1 pound, 9.5 ounces with an SD/MMC card and the proprietary battery installed, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 is larger and heavier than other megazooms. Its high-profile grip delivers a steady hold, though it might be a little too large for those with smaller hands. An angled shutter button sits atop the grip, as do the mode dial, the power switch, the continuous-shooting control, and the IS button. Small command dials for adjusting aperture and shutter speed are positioned on the front and the rear of the grip, although the latter is located a little too far to the right to reach comfortably with your thumb.
On the back of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30, you'll find a standard control layout with an AE lock, an EVF/LCD switch, and menu and delete buttons. In auto mode, the up arrow on the four-way controller turns on the camera's backlight function. In all other modes, it scrolls through the exposure-compensation, exposure-bracketing, and flash-intensity controls. The right arrow controls the pop-up flash settings; the left arrow accesses the self-timer; and the down arrow puts the camera into playback mode.
A focus switch on the left side of the lens barrel complements the SLR-like manual zoom and focus rings. The top position keeps the camera on autofocus (you always operate the zoom manually); under that you'll find the AF-macro setting, followed by manual focus. Sitting underneath the three-position switch is a focus button that activates a nine-point grid with selectable focus points; it's operable in all but manual-focus mode. However, when using manual focus, you can press the focus button to use AF for just one shot.
Since the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 has some not-so-obvious features (and a few that can be confusing), it's important to study the user guide before attempting more advanced shooting. While the camera provides onboard text descriptions of the scene modes, some of the submenu icons are difficult to decipher.
Optional accessory lenses help expand the camera's already broad focal range, but at around $250 per lens, you'll be stretching your budget into dSLR territory. Additionally, you can attach an external flash to the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30's hotshoe, and the camera has a port for a wired remote control as well. For the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30's well-rounded feature set, you'll find the expected basics, such as manual exposure controls; preset, custom, and adjustable white balance; selectable ISO (from 80 to 400); three exposure metering modes; and individual sharpness, contrast, and saturation adjustments. What you might not anticipate are such features as adjustable noise reduction (in the same submenu as sharpness, contrast, and saturation) and multiple AF modes, such as nine-point selectable, accessed from the menu or the focus button on the side of the lens barrel; three- and single-area high-speed AF; and single-area (normal speed) and spot AF selections.
Although the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 has only two compression options, it features TIFF and raw uncompressed formats as well as five resolution choices and three aspect ratios (4:3, 3:2, and 16:9), so you can match these parameters to fit your picture's final destination. Keep in mind, however, that the bundled software doesn't handle raw files, so you'll need the appropriate third-party raw support in your image editor.
On the easy-to-use side, the FZ30 offers 14 scene modes, including the new Soft Skin (for smooth skin tones and complexion) and a Baby mode that displays the age of the child once you've set the birthday. Panasonic has also added some thoughtful and convenient options to the scene modes. In addition to providing the now almost-standard text description for each mode, the camera lets you quickly scroll through the five pages of modes using the front command dial rather than the down arrow of the four-way controller. Even more convenient, you can access two of your most frequently used scene modes directly from the mode dial. Surprisingly spry, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 outdoes its predecessor when it comes to performance. Since the lens does not have to extend, we were able to start the camera and snap our first shot in less than 2 seconds. Shot-to-shot time was reasonable, at less than 2 seconds, and the flash added mere fractions of a second to that time. Shooting in TIFF and raw format didn't slow the camera down very much, either, producing times of about 6 seconds and 4.5 seconds, respectively.
The autofocus was relatively quick under most conditions, thanks to its multiple AF modes and, in low light, its AF illuminator. Shutter lag was rarely a problem, although we missed a couple spontaneous shots of ducks and geese waddling across a park because the camera didn't respond very quickly when set on default AF.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 has three continuous-shooting modes: High Speed, Low Speed, and Unlimited. At low speed, we managed to capture 5 high-resolution images at 2.5 frames per second, which is quite respectable. The camera also has a high-quality movie mode and an animation feature that shoots multiple images and compiles them into a short movie.
The camera's image-stabilization and manual zoom and focus are its most impressive features. The lens responded quickly and naturally to manual operation. Like most digital cameras, in manual focus mode, the DMC-FZ30 enlarges the center portion of the image on the LCD so that you can fine-tune the focus. Also, as you lower the image resolution, the camera uses the center portion of the CCD to provide extended telephoto reach.
Of course, you'll need to use the camera's optical image stabilization, which works quite well. We found that we could shoot a full two stops slower than usual when we set this feature to Mode 2, in which the OIS kicks in when you depress the shutter. Mode 1 keeps the OIS on continuously but further drains the battery and generally isn't as effective.
Panasonic increased the resolution of the camera's LCD and EVF by 235,000 pixels over the previous model's, so visibility is generally good. But when bright sunlight washes out the LCD, which it does on occasion, you can angle the 2-inch monitor to help eliminate glare.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Wake-up time||Shutter lag (bright)||Shutter lag (dim)|
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Typical shot-to-shot time||Flash shot-to-shot time||Raw shot-to-shot time|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
We also expected more than we got from the lens and focusing options. Although most of our test shots came out sharp, they weren't as crisp as we had hoped. Fine details should have been sharper, too. The lens was also responsible for occasionally severe purple fringing along high-contrast edges, as well as some reddish and blue edging of tree limbs against the sky.
The camera did an especially good job with macro shots; just be sure to turn down the flash, or you'll get blown-out photos. Beware of flash vignetting in the wide-angle macro mode, too--the lens barrel leaves a shadow at the bottom of the frame when shooting in landscape orientation.
Furthermore, while the FZ30 exhibited good dynamic range, it tended to blow out highlights in brighter scenes. Using the backlight feature in auto mode exacerbated clipped highlights because it brightened the overall image.
Finally, the FZ30 delivered far noisier shots at ISO 80 then it should. The manual noise-reduction adjustment helped a bit at ISO 80 and 100, but at higher speeds, the problems were both more visible and less responsive to our attempts at reduction.