With the Lumix DMC-FZ35, Panasonic overhauls the insides of its popular FZ28 megazoom, offering higher resolution, an improved optical image stabilizer, faster AF, and support for the AVCHD Lite movie codec. But while the camera does deliver better performance and photo quality than its predecessor, they're still not great--typical for these megazooms--and only a robust feature set makes it really stand out from the crowd.
On the small and light side for a typical megazoom, the camera feels a little plasticky but comfortable to grip and shoot. Rather than participate in the lens X wars, Panasonic sticks with its tried-and-true 18x zoom lens, a model that goes back several generations and which remains more than adequate a range for the general-purpose shooter.
Panasonic manages to cram a boatload of capabilities into the FZ35. In addition to the typical set of modes--PASM, preset scene program, and an intelligent auto--the FZ35 provides a very robust movie mode with manual controls and the ability to save three groups of custom settings. While that's one more set than the FZ28 has, for this model Panasonic had to stuff them all into a single dial slot to make room for the other features. There are a lot of AF options, including face detection, tracking, 1-area, a narrower spot, as well as an 11-area mode that allows you to clump the areas in a variety of configurations. A programmable Fn button can pull up quick review (a nice alternative to the more limiting switch), ISO sensitivity, white balance, metering, AF mode or intelligent exposure mode.
There's a downside to the FZ35's broad capabilities: no matter you're experience level, you definitely want to read the manual before you start shooting or you'll get some unpleasant surprises. For example, I couldn't figure out why a lot of my JPEG shots looked bad until I realized that the camera drops to standard-quality JPEG when shooting raw+JPEG. The same goes for shots where I mistakenly thought that AF macro zoom was what all other cameras call super macro instead of a macro plus digital zoom mode. The manual isn't always that helpful, however. For instance, it fails to adequately differentiate between 1-area focusing ("The camera focuses on the subject in the AF area on the screen") and high-speed 1-area focusing ("The camera focuses quickly on the subject in the AF area on the screen"). Well, that clears things up. (You can get a complete accounting of the FZ35's features and operation by downloading the PDF manual.)
|Key comparative specs||Olympus SP-590 UZ||Nikon Coolpix P90||Canon PowerShot SX20 IS||Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ35|
|Sensor||12-megapixel, 1/2.33-inch CCD||12-megapixel, 1/2.33-inch CCD||12.1-megapixel 1/2.3-inch CCD||12-megapixel 1/2.33-inch CCD|
|Lens (35mm equivalent)||26x f2.8-5 26-676mm||24x f2.8-5 26-624mm||20x f2.8-5.7 28-560mm||18x f2.8-4.4 27-486mm|
|Closest focus (inches)||0.4||0.4||0.0||0.4|
|Sensitivity range||ISO 64 - ISO 6,400||ISO 64 - ISO 6,400||ISO 80 - ISO 1,600||ISO 80 - ISO 6,400|
|LCD||2.7-inch fixed; 230,000 dots||3-inch tiltable; 230,000 dots||2.5-inch articulated; 230,000 dots||2.7-inch fixed; 230,000 dots|
|Video (max resolution at 30fps)||640x480||640x480||1,280x720 H.264 MOV||1,280x720 (AVCHD Lite or MJPEG MOV)|
|Optical zoom during movie capture||Yes (no audio)||No||Yes||Yes|
|Exposure modes||Auto, PASM, Scene||Auto, PASM, Scene||Auto, PASM, Scene||Auto, PASM, Scene|
|Batteries (CIPA rating)||4 AA-size; 340 shots (alkalines)||Lithium ion; 230 shots||4 AA-size; 340 shots (alkalines), 600 shots (NiMH)||Lithium ion; 470 shots|
|Body dimensions (WHD, inches)||4.3 x 3.5 x 3.6||4.5 x 3.3 x 3.9||4.9 x 3.5 x 3.4||4.6 x 3.0 x 3.5|
|Operating weight (ounces)||18.7||17.2||19.8||14.5|
The FZ35 delivers improved performance over its predecessor, with a couple of notable highlights for its class. It wakes and shoots in 1.6 seconds, which is relatively fast, and it takes a class-leading 0.4 second to focus and shoot in good light but a slowish 0.9 second in dim--and it feels even slower. Panasonic claims that the new AF system is twice as fast at its predecessor, but we peg it as closer to 30 percent, at best. Shot-to-shot time runs 1.7 seconds, good for its class, with decent flash recycling speed that adds only about 0.3 second to shot-to-shot performance. While burst shooting runs at about 2fps, faster than the rest, it's limited to three shots at full quality (five at most). However, the real limitation for burst shooting with these cameras is the electronic viewfinder, anyway, since they black out while you're shooting. The FZ35's EVF, like the FZ28's before it, also suffers from slow refresh in low light (as does the LCD). It's fine under all other circumstances; the LCD remains visible in direct sunlight if you prefer shooting that way.
Ultimately, EVF and performance limitations render the FZ35 a poor choice for shooting kids, pets, and sports. That's too bad, because the Power OIS image stabilizer works very well, producing solid images when I could visibly see in the viewfinder that my hands were shaking--it yielded at least a 3 2/3 stop gain in casual testing.