From the company that brought us the Toughbook comes the Lumix FT3, Panasonic’s rugged go-anywhere camera. It’s waterproof to 12m (so long as you remember to lock the battery door) and shock-proof when dropped from 2m. You can even freeze it to −10C. But how does this £329 snapper perform in less demanding situations?
Build quality and handling
Front and back, the FT3 is a slab of tough metal, with plastic detailing top and bottom. The lens, which protrudes from the fattest point by just 1mm, is protected by a window to keep out any damp, yet Panasonic warns that it can still develop condensation when moved from cold to warm environments (think slopes to apres-ski, where you’ll probably want to take bar shots) or if it's used under water shortly after being hot (so, at the beach).
The lens is mounted in the upper-right corner, which is awkward if you’re holding the camera with both hands -- particularly when panning a video shot, where we found our fingers occasionally straying into the frame.
Around the back, there’s a 2.7-inch screen that’s vibrant and easy to view, even in bright sunlight. It can be set to power down after two, five or 10 minutes. We set it to five to stress the battery, and although we never switched off manually, we got back from a full afternoon of shooting with the battery gauge still showing a full charge. It takes a little over two hours to replenish, at which point it’s good for 360 pictures or 180 minutes of video.
A small lump in the top of the case houses an integrated GPS receiver, which was more than a match for our dedicated handheld GPS device. This geotags your photos, and you can opt to have location information displayed on screen in a number of formats, including place names or landmarks.
We chose the latter, which are drawn from a database of a million points of interest -- in our area this included a kids’ playground and even a branch of Matalan. The database was last updated in December 2010 and can’t be revised once it’s in the camera, although you can add a selection of your own landmarks, named however you see fit.
The GPS feature is a smart addition, but it does have a couple of drawbacks. First, it remains active even when the camera is switched off, periodically updating its position and drawing a small charge from the battery. You’ll need to remember to disable it every time you power down to avoid this. Second, and of greater concern for more intrepid travellers, is that it’s illegal to take GPS-enabled devices into some countries, and the signal may be blocked in China and those parts of other countries that run along its borders. Check before you travel.
The FT3 has much to recommend it, but many of its pros are evenly matched by its cons. Start-up takes less than a second -- good news for sports fans -- but the zoom is slow enough to miss whatever you’re after. It has 19MB of built-in memory, but this is enough for just three shots at the highest quality, and while there are separate shutter buttons for stills and video, switching from one to the other invokes a two-second pause. A manual mode switch might have been quicker.
That said, once settled in either mode, it’s responsive. Recovery time between shots in our tests was two seconds when using the internal storage or a regular SD card, and one second using class 4 SDHC storage. If you need anything faster, there’s a Hi-Speed Burst mode that can write up to 100 pictures at a rate of 10 per second, but only if you drop the resolution to three megapixels or lower. If you’re doing this with the flash, the maximum number of stills recorded is five.
There’s a full complement of flash modes, with on, off and auto supplemented by red eye reduction and slow sync, which balances both foreground and background in poorly-lit scenes.
The flash was a particular highlight of the FT3. In our portrait test it retained realistic flesh tones and came close to replicating the results of our studio-lit shot for which the flash was suppressed. As can be seen from our test shot, the ambient lighting conditions in our test environment were particularly poor during our tests, forcing the camera to increase its sensitivity setting to ISO to 400, which resulted in a grainy image.
Sensitivity ranges from ISO 100 to ISO 1,600, and the six pre-set resolutions top out at 4,000 x 3,000 pixels -- 12 megapixels. You’ll have to look hard to find much in the way of chromatic aberration (improperly rendered colours); it’s there, but only in extreme examples where fine branches stretch out across a plain sky. Elsewhere, where black window frames sat on an overcast sky, the FT3 perfectly aligned each colour for a crisp, impressive result.
The Leica lens boasts an impressive range, despite being captive inside the body. Equivalent at its widest to 28mm in a 35mm camera, and zooming to 128mm, it’s a decent all-rounder for those who want to shoot as many landscapes as they do wildlife and family shots. Even the 4x digital zoom is impressively clean. Minimum focal distance is 5cm in macro mode, which isn’t available when using the Intelligent Auto preset, and 30cm in all other situations.
Macro performance is particularly impressive. Exposure is perfectly balanced across the frame, with a shallow depth of field throwing anything but the focal point slightly out for a very pleasing result.