You want a long zoom but you'd rather not pack a long lens. You aren't alone. It's a trend that every manufacturer is hoping to satisfy now that the mad scramble for ever-higher resolutions has drawn to a close.
Panasonic's latest play in this particular market is the TZ30, a compact, sturdy superzoom with plenty of extra features built in. It can be bought now for around £330.
At its heart you'll find a 14.1-megapixel sensor. This is a new component for Panasonic, with both high-sensitivity and high-speed data transfer that allows it to snap 10 full-resolution stills per second.
The truly impressive part though is the zoom, the range of which would equate to 24-480mm on a regular 35mm camera. That's a 20x zoom, and an impressive range. The shorter end of the scale is perfect for wide-angle landscape shots, and the longest is well suited to wildlife and sports photography.
These measurements only really make sense when experienced in practice, but it's easy to see what effect that 20x zoom can have on your images. In each instance below I have shot the same scene twice -- first at the lens' widest angle setting, and then at maximum telephoto, focusing on the area indicated by the red box.
The optical image stabiliser comes into play here, and proved its worth throughout these tests, making it easy to frame distant subjects and take sharp, unsmudged pictures at full zoom.
The long zoom should entirely compensate for the conservative resolution -- 14.1 megapixels is perfect for poster printing, but some may be put off buying a camera that's outranked in this respect by many of its competitors. Don't be. Once you get to this level, resolution is less important than the quality of the lens, and here I have no complaints.
Impressively, the maximum aperture at full telephoto stands at f/6.4, so even at this level you shouldn't have any trouble with overly dark shots. Panasonic also claims a maximum focus speed of just 0.1 seconds.
Sadly, minimum focusing distance is less impressive. Even at wide-angle, you can't get any closer than 50cm. The stats at full telephoto are more respectable. You'll still have to stand a minimum of 2 metres from your subject to focus, but if you're snapping portraits, you won't fit in a full face at full zoom from this distance anyway, so it's entirely reasonable.
Macro mode tops out at 3cm. Again, there are plenty of cameras that will take you closer, but few that will produce a sharper image. In this picture of a cat's nose, you can see individual beads of moisture on the surface, and extremely fine detail in the short hairs.
Design and build
You can't fault it where build is concerned. Rather than buttons, Panasonic has once again opted for clicky switches where power and playback/shooting modes are concerned. The zoom control is a little small, and the mode selector slightly further into the body than is comfortable for turning with just your thumb. But it's well balanced and has a comfortable rubber grip at the battery end that helps keep it steady.
Around the back, the 3-inch screen is perfectly integrated with the rest of the body, only slightly recessed to preserve the camera's smooth lines.
It's used for more than just framing subjects and reviewing results. The display is touch-sensitive, so a single tap will set the focus or fire the shutter. Likewise, sliding your finger up and down the right-hand edge of the screen zooms in and out.