Compared to digital SLRs and some other megazoom cameras, the small, lightweight 6-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 feels almost like a toy. Only after acknowledging its powerful 12X (36mm-to-432mm, 35mm-equivalent) optically stabilized lens, manual controls, extended selection of scene modes, and VGA movie capture do you realize that this camera's capabilities far outstrip its size and weight. Despite some image flaws, this modest upgrade to the 5-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5 will likely be as popular as its predecessor, appealing to a broad range of photographers who want a camera that will allow them to improve--or prove--their photographic skills. Available in black or silver, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7's plastic-and-metal body feels well made despite its light weight--a mere 12.6 ounces with an SD card and the proprietary battery installed. You won't be putting this camera in your pocket, but you'll barely know it's there when it's slung over your shoulder or around your neck.
In the box, you'll find a lens adapter that accommodates the bundled lens hood and optional filters. Unfortunately, the adapter-hood combo causes vignetting at wide angles, with or without the flash. Frankly, using the lens hood was just too much of an ordeal, so I often left it at home when out shooting.
Atop the comfortably sized handgrip, you'll find the zoom lever, a button for activating the two optical image stabilization modes, and an AF/MF button that switches between autofocus and manual focus. Program, aperture- and shutter-priority, manual, macro, movie, scene, and the camera's Simple mode, which allows for no-brainer shooting, are accessed via the camera's small but smoothly ratcheted mode dial.
Even with the new, larger--but still low-resolution--2.5-inch LCD, there's plenty of room for external controls on the back of the camera. There, you'll find buttons to pop up the flash and to switch between the EVF and the LCD, as well as a joystick to adjust manual exposure settings and manual focus, a control button that cycles between display options and controls the display mode, and a dual-purpose control for both continuous shooting or deleting shots. The left, right, and down arrow pads on the four-way controller provide direct access to the self-timer, the flash modes, and review/playback. The up arrow invokes exposure compensation (exposure bracketing in full manual mode), flash compensation, and white-balance fine-tuning (in all but automatic white balance). In Simple mode, the same arrow accesses only the backlight option.
The center button calls up the menu and acts as a set button. All in all, it's a pretty convenient layout, and you rarely have to go into the menu; even when you do, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7's menu system is easy to navigate. Two of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7's main features--its 12X zoom lens and its optical image stabilizer (OIS)--work well together. Like other Panasonic OIS cameras, the DMC-FZ7 has two image stabilization modes: one is always on; the other is activated when you press the shutter halfway. I prefer the latter mode; it's less draining on the battery. Either allowed me to shoot slower shutter speeds than normal (about two stops), decreasing the need to push the ISO higher or use a tripod in low light.
The lens, which covers a 35mm-equivalent focal range of 36mm to 432mm, sports a maximum aperture of ranging from f/2.8 to f/3.3. New for the FZ series is manual focus control via the joystick. There are two MF-assist options; one enlarges just the center of the screen, while the other enlarges the entire screen for more accurate focusing. The camera's multiple AF modes include high-speed AF modes that freeze the screen briefly and, of course, standard AF.
Enthusiasts who crave high-end features will appreciate the DMC-FZ7's manual exposure controls, with shutter speeds ranging from 8 seconds to 1/2,000 second or 60 seconds to 1/2,000 second in full manual mode. Color-bias tweaking is available for all but auto white balance; contrast, sharpness, and saturation adjustments as well as multiple metering modes are also available.
In addition to JPEG and TIFF (raw is unavailable), the DMC-FZ7 offers three different aspect ratios, 4:3, 3:2, and 16:9, which are also available in the camera's movie mode. The 16:9 movies have a resolution of 848x480, rather than a letterboxed VGA. Because each aspect ratio uses different portions of the CCD, file sizes (resolution) and optical zoom range differ for each.
With a bevy of scene modes (including the new Starry Sky with long exposure shutter speeds of 15, 30, and 60 seconds) and a Simple mode with minimal menu options, beginners who want the benefits of a megazoom and OIS should feel comfortable using the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7, too. Slightly more responsive than its already peppy predecessor, the DMC-FZ5, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 generally delivers the goods. Start-up time to first shot takes about 2.8 seconds, with time between shots measuring 1.5 seconds with and without flash for JPEGs and remains a respectable 7.7 seconds when shooting TIFF.
The camera shines in all three of its burst modes (high, low, and unlimited), delivering between 1.3fps and 3.1fps, depending upon the mode. Shutter lag is minimal in bright light, although it's slightly more noticeable in dim light, even with the camera's AF assist lamp.
Still, the DMC-FZ7 does a good job of locking focus in dimly lit conditions, and at the same time, the LCD gains up to deliver a bright view in low light. Although the low-resolution LCD shows some ghosting in low light due to a slow refresh rate, it's bright and clear when shooting indoors and out. It also offers both extrabright and High Angle settings; the latter makes it easier to view the monitor at an angle. The EVF is also low resolution and, while sufficient for composing when necessary, is a less attractive choice for viewing than the LCD.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Typical shot-to-shot time||Time to first shot||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
|Typical continuous-shooting speed|
New for the DMC-FZ7, Panasonic introduces high-sensitivity mode, which adds ISO 800 and ISO 1,600 to the camera's range. Unfortunately, noise is noticeable as low as ISO 80--bad enough to obscure small details--and, not surprisingly, becomes worse at higher sensitivities. Photos are pretty much unusable at ISO 800 and ISO 1,600.