The Lumix DMC-SZ9 is "every photographer’s friend", according to Panasonic, and you can see why. It’s small enough to take anywhere, easy to use, reliably takes a decent shot and is packed with handy features.
Just shy of £200, it isn’t a bank breaker, either.
By far the most impressive feature is its built-in Wi-Fi, which when connected to your local network lets you send images directly to your PC. Even more impressive is that if you have an Android or iOS device, you can control the camera remotely courtesy of the free Panasonic Image App.
I tested it using an iPhone, and the app offers one of the best wireless shooting experiences yet. You can zoom in and out using an onscreen slider, and tap the preview image to set the metering point. You can even set it so that a second tap fires the shutter. This is particularly impressive since the SZ9’s own screen isn’t touch-sensitive, so you can’t perform this function on the camera itself.
All of the camera’s primary functions are replicated within the app, including macro mode and self timer, and you can also use the phone’s built-in location tools to geocode your images, which means you’ll be able to position them on a map once they’ve been downloaded. Battery level and remaining images are fed back to the phone, all of which makes for a pretty perfect remote control and a far more elegant means of taking self-portraits than setting the shutter delay and running into the shot.
Despite all this wireless trickery, the SZ9 is still extremely small -- shorter than a landscape iPhone 4/4S and easily slipped into a jeans front pocket -- yet Panasonic has somehow squeezed in a very impressive list of specs.
For starters, the lens offers a 10x zoom, which if it were part of a regular 35mm camera would take it from a satisfyingly wide 25mm to an impressive 250mm telephoto. Maximum aperture at the wider end is a respectable f/3.1, while at full zoom it’s a fairly regular f/5.9.
Minimum focusing distance in regular use stands at a flabby 50cm at wide angle and 1.5m when zoomed right in, but switching to macro mode cuts this to a more reasonable 5cm, although this still doesn’t put it to the top of the table, with rivals often boasting 3cm or better.
The macro results are good though, with a shallow depth of field producing a sharp subject and a rapid fall-off both before and aft to draw the eye.
The sensor runs to 16.1 megapixels and produces images up to 4,608x3,456 pixels, depending on your chosen aspect ratio. In a camera of this class there’s naturally no option for raw capture, but the JPEG compression has a light touch and doesn’t leave you with ugly artefacts.
In regular use, sensitivity tops out at ISO 3,200, although there’s a high sensitivity mode that will push it to ISO 6,400 if you need to shoot in very poor light or compensate for the regular four-second maximum shoot time in auto mode, and the one-second time you can select yourself in normal mode. If you need to leave it open for longer than this you’ll have to switch to starry sky mode, which locks it open for 30 seconds.
At its fastest, the SZ9 can expose the sensor for as little as 1/1,600 second, and achieve a burst speed of up to 5fps.
Be mindful that switching to high sensitivity reduces the maximum image size to 3 megapixels.
The SZ9 is a point-and-shoot through and through, so it pays to get familiar with the scene modes if you want to take more creative shots. There are 17 to choose from, taking in the usual range of image types including portrait, sports, scenery and food. They are supplemented by 14 less proscriptive creative modes, which are effectively filters for monochrome, high key, toy camera and so on.
The filters can be applied either at the point of shooting, or retrospectively, with the latter being by far the better choice since it lets you save the result as a separate image while preserving the untouched original. If you apply a filter while shooting you don’t get this option and you’ll only end up with the edited shot, which might not be to your taste.
I tested the SZ9 with quality set to fine and images recorded in their full 16.1-megapixel resolution.
Even when tasked with capturing detail in a narrow palette it put in an excellent performance. The plaque below is a fairly uniform green, yet zooming in reveals that the SZ9 has accurately rendered its uneven surface, with its bobbles and pits easily made out.