Superzooms are nothing new, but somewhere along the line, a portion of them have evolved into catch-all SLR substitutes, with long, fast zoom lenses, high megapixel counts, manual exposure controls, and in some cases, even hotshoes and raw image capture. Plus, they record video. For now, that's something you can't get from an SLR. Panasonic's Lumix DMC-FZ50 sports a 12X optical, 35mm-to-420mm, f/2.8-to-f/3.7 zoom lens; and a 10.1-megapixel CCD sensor; and it has a body that's as big and heavy as an SLR. For a really advanced shooter, the blazing speed, better noise performance, and lens selection of an SLR will still trump these high-end superzooms. But, for photographers who crave the artistic control that these cameras offer, don't want to mess with interchangeable lenses, and occasionally want to shoot video clips, a camera such as the DMC-FZ50 might make sense. Wondering how this Panasonic fared in our tests? Read on. Panasonic's DMC-FZ50 is one large camera, but if you can get past that, you can enjoy some of its nicer features. For example, it includes a rotating, flip-out LCD screen to make extreme high- and low-angle shooting easier, as well as a hotshoe so you can use Panasonic's DMW-FL28 accessory flash should the camera's built-in, pop-up flash not be powerful or versatile enough for you. Unfortunately, the LCD screen is only two inches diagonal, but flip-out LCDs tend to be smaller, so it's on a par with the competition.
Its electronic viewfinder (EVF), like most EVFs, is bit coarse to look at, but again, is roughly equivalent with its competitors'. In continuous shooting mode, it doesn't go blank as some EVFs do between shots. Instead, it shows you the last image shot, which doesn't help if you want to recompose or try to follow a subject while shooting a burst of shots. This makes burst shooting something of a crap shoot and much less useful, though this is true of all EVFs. If you haven't ever shot with an EVF camera, we suggest you try one out in a store before you make your final decision.
Since the camera is styled like an SLR, it's no surprise that you'll likely want to use two hands, especially since Panasonic put the focus controls on the left side of the lens barrel. We found this convenient when switching between AF modes, choosing a focus point, or making a quick switch to manual focus. All other buttons find their home on the right side of the camera, and all are in reach of either your thumb or your forefinger. The focus/autoexposure lock button would've been more comfortable to use if it was a bit further to the right, but it wasn't out of reach.
Two dials, one in the front of the grip and one on the back, let you change aperture and shutter-speed settings, respectively, when in the appropriate exposure modes. This made shooting in manual mode faster and more convenient than with cameras that make you hold a button while turning a dial to set either aperture or shutter speed in manual mode. In addition to one ring to control the zoom, Panasonic includes a second ring on the lens barrel for manual focus. When you move the ring, a box pops up in the center of the LCD or EVF with a magnified portion of your subject to make it easier to see if you're in focus. If you press the shutter button halfway, the box disappears, or it won't appear at all if you press the button before touching the ring. You can still change the focus though, so be careful.
A 710mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery powers the camera, is conveniently placed inside the grip, and loads from the bottom. Panasonic says that it's good for approximately 360 pictures in program AE mode, when measured according to the industry standard CIPA guidelines. The FZ50 stores images to SD cards, which load into the right side of the camera. The camera is SDHC compliant, which means that you can use it with SDHC memory cards. These cards allow the SD format to grow to capacities larger than 2GB but aren't compatible with all card readers or cameras. The most attractive feature of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 is its big, fast Leica DC Vario-Elmarit 12X optical, 35mm-to-420mm (35mm equivalent), f/2.8-to-f/3.7 zoom lens. Coupled with Panasonic's Mega OIS optical image stabilization, this lens's long reach becomes even more useful. It would've been better if the lens was wider than 35mm. Since not many superzooms go that wide, it'd be a nice selling point and would help when trying to shoot group portraits. Of course, that'd probably push the price of this camera up even more, and it definitely doesn't need that. If you do feel the need to get wide, Panasonic offers a 0.7X conversion lens, as well as a 1.7X teleconverter for anyone that needs more than the built-in lens's 420mm equivalent.
In addition to the usual run-down of AF and AE modes, Panasonic includes two high-speed focusing modes, as well as 9-zone selectable spot focusing. There aren't many other stand-out features though. One of the niftier ones is the flip animation mode, which lets you shoot as many as 100 320x240-pixel images, then string them together into a video clip that's as long as 20 seconds. Another nice touch is the High Sensitivity scene mode, which brings the camera's sensitivity up to an equivalent of ISO 3,200. In all other shooting modes, the sensitivity tops out at ISO 1,600, which is still impressive. The FZ50 includes 15 scene modes, in addition to the high sensitivity mode, so if you're one of those shooters who doesn't like using manual exposure controls, you don't have to.
Tweakers, take note. The DMC-FZ50 can record raw images, as well as the usual JPEG, so you have more flexibility than some non-SLRs offer when adjusting for things such as exposure or white balance after the fact. Another nice anomaly is this camera's 16:9 video mode, which records at a resolution of 848x480 pixels instead of just chopping down the 640x480 pixels of the 4:3 video mode. Also, there's a white-balance adjustment mode, which lets you shift the various white-balance settings to make them more blue, green, amber, or magenta, or a combination of those as they fall into the x/y grid offered by the control. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 performed well in our tests, especially for a 10.1-megapixel superzoom. It took 1.1 second from start-up to capturing its first image, and thereafter took 1.2 seconds between shots without flash and 1.3 seconds with the flash turned on. Raw shooting slowed the shot-to-shot time to 4.5 seconds. Though it doesn't seem so, that's really impressive for a non-SLR digicam. Shutter lag measured 0.5 second in our high-contrast test, which mimics bright shooting conditions, and rose to 1 second in our low-contrast test, which replicates low-light surroundings. In burst mode, we were able to capture 5 VGA-size JPEGs in 1.69 seconds for an average of 2.96fps, and 3 10.1-megapixel JPEGs in 1.6 seconds for an average of 1.87fps.