The FZ18 offers a full set of manual exposure controls, which you generally adjust via the joystick on the back of the camera. For example, when in manual mode, you directly access shutter speed and aperture via the joystick. Some users might find it a bit small and hard to control, especially in cold weather or with gloved hands, so check it out before buying.
The rest of the control layout is typical for a camera of its class. One note on Review, however: It doesn't seem to do anything in movie-capture mode.
A slew of controls cover the FZ18's body, including several variations for focus that are initially confusing but ultimately useful. For example, one of the two AF buttons toggles between auto and manual focus, while the other toggles between macro and standard focus. Together, they trigger One-Shot AF, which allows you to prefocus for a given distance (rather than subject, which may be moving). Oddly, however, that supposed bump you can see on the AF/MF button, which would be helpful for operating by feel, is solely visual and not tactile.
In addition to providing a single custom preset slow on the mode dial, the FZ18 has an Intelligent Automatic mode, which turns on the image stabilizer, uses Intelligent ISO, face detection, automatic scene mode detection, and continuous AF.
My first take on the FZ18's noise test shots was "Eek!" While the ruler text, graphics' board and currency look okay and sharp on the ISO 100 JPEG shot (right), the book text shows color noise that appears throughout the light areas on the test shots. I opened the raw version of the shot with Adobe Camera Raw (left), and, as you can see, the noise completely disappears with the trade off of just a bit of sharpness. The noise in the JPEG photos is exacerbated by poor white balance--the tungsten preset under tungsten lights, our standard test setup, yielded results that were far yellower than normal--and much of the noise disappears when the white balance is corrected, which you can only do properly in raw.
Given the issues discussed in the previous two slides, I decided to base my noise comparisons on color-corrected raw versions of our test shots, using Adobe Camera Raw to process the shots. This is really what I expected to see from the JPEG shots: a bit soft but usable up to and including ISO 400, but noisy and degraded beyond that.
That said, I really don't think the Panasonic's JPEG processing can be trusted for indoor shots on auto white balance. My experience outdoors, where the auto white balance seems to operate quite well, produced much better results.
Looking at a test grid, the FZ18's lens exhibits what I like to think of as a distortion struggle; rather than an overall barrel distortion at its widest angle, there are small, shifted pockets of the grid (not shown). In practice, such as this shot here, you can see some slight distortion on the right side. (Grid added in Photoshop.) Overall, the FZ18's lens gets good marks for geometry, especially since its 28mm-equivalent wide angle would be expected to show more barrel distortion than it does.
Here you can see a comparison of the blue channel, traditionally the noisiest of the RGB channels for any digitally captured image, for the JPEG and raw versions of the shot. There's almost a complete absence of detail on the book text in the JPEG shot (left), which looks to be the result of over-sharpening and too little noise suppression by the camera's image processor.