The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150 could be the biggest threat yet to consumer-grade digital SLRs. Panasonic's latest superzoom packs a fold-out screen, HD movie recording and an impressive set of optics, yet its body remains compact and light. The specifications more than justify its £400 price tag and so, it would seem, does its output.
You can't miss the barrel on the front of the case. It's home to a monster 24x zoom that takes the lens from a landscape-loving 25mm to a tight 600mm (35mm equivalent). This is supplemented by a 4x digital zoom, but, with so much optical power at your fingers, it's a shame to invoke it. The lens is bright at its widest setting, too. Here, the aperture stretches to f2.8, narrowing to f8.0 at full zoom.
There are two zoom controls -- a cuff around the shutter release and a rocker on the side of the barrel. This is a neat move on Panasonic's part, as the cuff is most useful when using the rear-mounted LCD, and the rocker when your eye is pressed to the viewfinder. In the latter pose, your hands automatically change their position on the camera's body, gripping the barrel so that your left thumb instinctively falls onto the rocker.
The camera's resolution is fairly conservative. When shooting in a 4:3 aspect ratio, which matches non-wide-screen displays, it tops out at 12 megapixels. Switch to the more traditional, print-friendly 3:2 ratio and it drops to 10 megapixels. Either of these is good for printing at A2 sizes, which will suffice for most users, so it's refreshing to see a manufacturer selling its products on a more meaningful metric than pixels alone.
With a more powerful zoom but lower resolution than the industry average, how does the DMC-FZ150 perform when put to the test?
Shooting on a bright, cloudless day, we started with our regular outdoor scenery shots. The results were vivid, although never extreme. Grass remained a natural, neutral green, and the sky a vibrant blue, fading evenly as it closed in on the horizon. Detail was maintained across the frame, with engravings on gravestones close to the lens and distant architectural detail crisply rendered in the same shot. There was very slight fringing in some parts, where the sharp edge of stonework met the sky, but this was only evident when zoomed in to 100 per cent and, even then, only on close inspection.
So impressed were we by the results of this first test that we set the FZ150 a far more demanding chromatic aberration test, shooting a church gate against a low sun. Again, it passed with flying colours, with minor aberration evident in only one part of the image, to the right, where the roof ran through the light sky. The light spectrum was evenly focused throughout the rest of the image, with even the narrow metal cross on the roof of the gate crisply rendered.
We performed the majority of our tests using the 'intelligent auto' setting, allowing the camera to choose the focal distance, aperture and shutter speed itself. On the whole, this mode worked well, with only the most extreme examples of high contrast foxing it. White plumage on both a swan and a seagull shot against a dark background, in a frame where the background dominated, would sometimes be burned out as the camera metered for the overall tone of the shot.
But, when we allowed the camera to work with the feathers instead, the results were first-class. The detail in the close-up shot below of a swan cleaning its wing clearly shows the lie of its feathers and the individual vanes coming from each quill. Despite having very little colour data to work with, the FZ150 has produced a balanced, engaging and perfectly exposed result.
The camera's macro performance can't be faulted either, allowing us to get within 1cm of our subject to produce an image with a very short area of focus. Individual strands of fine cobwebs were perfectly rendered in our test, along with dust, sand and decaying wood. The quick fall-off in the area of focus helps draw the eye, for a very satisfying result overall.
Even the so-called 'creative' filters serve a genuine purpose. While we feel ourselves unlikely to use the pinhole or film-grain settings -- these effects can be achieved with greater flexibility in post-production -- we put the high-dynamic-range option to good use in shooting scenes where only part of the subject was well exposed.
In the example below, the dark canopy of a covered seating area dominates the shot, drawing the eye away from the scenery that's visible through it. But, after taking the image for a second time using the HDR tool (overlaid on the right-hand side of the image), the canopy has been considerably brightened. The FZ150's light touch pays dividends here, avoiding unsightly haloes around sharp contrasts, and retaining the shadow detail on the red brick wall below.
The HDR setting isn't a tool to be used without consideration, though. Applying the same setting when it wasn't required degraded the result. In the image below, the wall has again been brought out of the shadows, but the trees, which were evenly lit in the original, now appear to have been illuminated by a harsh light that hasn't quite reached the tips of each branch.
The dedicated 1080p movie mode is almost as flexible as its stills equivalent, with options for program AE, aperture and shutter priority, as well as manual exposure. For those who want to grab a few seconds of video in the middle of shooting stills, there's an automated quick movie button mounted behind the shutter release.
Movies are shot in wide-screen and written as an AVCHD stream. This mode changes the zoom's focal length slightly, to 28mm-672mm, 35mm equivalent -- but not its overall range. At its most extreme, you really need to use a tripod or balance the camera on a wall or bench, as can be seen from our handheld results below, for which we enabled the internal image stabiliser.