Almost identical in body design to last year's DMC-FZ7, Panasonic's new Lumix DMC-FZ8 carries the torch as the smaller of the company's superzooms, not counting the even smaller DMC-TZ3, which doesn't include manual exposure controls and is targeted at a different audience. The FZ8 brings with it a handful of updates over the FZ7. Among these are an increased pixel count of 7.1 megapixels (up from 6 megapixels), the number of autofocus points has been bumped up to 11 (instead of 9), and TIFF capture has been replaced with raw capture, which should please advanced shooters by providing more flexibility when tweaking exposure and white balance.
Like the FZ7, the FZ8's body design is just what you'd want in a superzoom. Surprisingly compact but still big enough to shoot comfortably with two hands, the FZ8 has all the controls on the right hand side, so one-handed operation is possible if needed. Overall, Panasonic did a good job of the control system. The tiny yet responsive joystick lets you quickly select AF points or set exposure compensation. White balance, ISO, AF mode, and image size and quality find their home in the main menu. Other functions, such as bracketing, flash compensation, timer, and flash mode are accessed through the five-way touch pad. We found these buttons a bit small, and there is definitely room for larger ones, but we didn't have much trouble using them in our field tests.
In case you don't want to shoot in one of the manual exposure modes, which include aperture- and shutter-priority, as well as full manual, Panasonic includes 20 preset scene modes. We were a bit miffed to find that the camera's ISO 3,200 setting is available only by selecting the High Sensitivity scene mode. However, it seems Panasonic's motives may be pure, as the manual clearly points out that the aggressive, and in our field tests fairly effective, noise reduction algorithms blur away a lot of the images' effective resolution in this mode. Sometimes manufacturers like to set apart modes such as these that can have an adverse effect on image quality. Panasonic doesn't suggest making prints larger than 4x6 inches with this mode, and we agree, but it might come in handy in particularly dark shooting conditions. We would rather Panasonic had just put the setting with the rest of the ISO options and made the same note in the manual under that heading.
We wish the company were just as straightforward with the naming of its "extended optical zoom" feature. This feature, sort of like digital zoom, lets you extend the camera's effective zoom by cropping down the pixel resolution. The name of the mode is extremely misleading and shows a blatant disregard for their consumers' understanding of cameras. Ultimately, if you don't mind ratcheting the resolution down to 3 megapixels or less, you can let the camera crop down the lens' field of view to approximate what you'd get from an 18x zoom. Since you could just as easily crop after the fact, we see little point in doing this, especially since you never know what photographic gems may lie in the cropped-out portions.
In our tests, the Lumix DMC-FZ8 performed well, though in most cases it was a tad slower than its 5-megapixel predecessor. The FZ8 took 2.71 seconds from start-up to capturing its first JPEG. Subsequent JPEGs took 1.78 seconds between shots with the flash turned off, and 2.08 seconds with the flash enabled. When capturing raw images, the FZ8 took 3.88 seconds between shots. While that may seem like a long time, it's not shabby for a superzoom. The 11-point AF system tends to lock on subjects rather quickly, so it's no surprise that the shutter lag measured 0.6 second in our high-contrast test, which mimics bright shooting conditions, and 1.3 seconds in our low-contrast test, which simulates low-light conditions. In continuous-shooting mode, the DMC-FZ8 churned out 2.12 VGA-size JPEGs per second or 1.47 7.1-megapixel JPEGs per second.