Panasonic may not be one of the major names traditionally associated with photography, but a shrewd partnership with Leica and commitment to accessibility has given us a number of excellent cameras. The 10-megapixel, £190 DMC-FS20 is the latest Lumix compact to cross our desk, and on previous form we had high hopes of this point-and-shoot.
The metal body comes in silver and black. Panasonic can be relied on for attention to detail, such as a hinged door to protect the USB socket, and a metal tripod bush. The design is classic rather than inspiring, with a bland-looking silver bar where the right hand grips. It is raised enough to grip solidly, however.
The screen is a large 76mm (3-inch) LCD. A power-boosting feature makes the screen visible even when the camera is held at near right angles to your eye.
Controls include an easy zoom button, which makes the zoom telescope out to its full extent in around 2 seconds. Other controls are accessed via a flat joystick nipple, which we found very easy to use. A quick menu button calls up handy shooting options. Our only gripe with the controls was the switch to transfer between playback and shooting mode, as we prefer a button to toggle between the two.
Panasonic uses Leica technology in its lenses. The FS20 has a wider-than-average 30mm lens. It also sports a 4x zoom, with a 35mm film camera equivalent maximum focal length of 120mm. The extra zoom range is great for taking wider pictures, or zooming in for portraits and close-ups.
Panasonic's mega OIS is one of the better image stabilisation systems around, to combat the blurry effects of camera shake. Other features include the intelligent auto mode, which selects all the shooting options for you.
As accessibility and ease-of-use appears to be Panasonic's watchword here, we were puzzled by the decision to only make slow sync flash mode available in night portrait, party and candlelight scene modes. We'd have preferred the option to use slow sync with the settings of our choice, and didn't even discover slow sync until we'd had a good long play with the camera. This, at least, is a reminder that it always pays to read the manual.
Playback mode features a wealth of options, such as cropping and resizing an image, or viewing thumbnails in a calendar. There isn't a histogram included, but the target market for this accessible point-and-shoot probably won't miss it.
The FS20 has a high-sensitivity mode that takes the camera's ISO speed as high as ISO 6,400. We're not sold on such high ISO speeds in compact cameras with small image sensors. Here the high-sensitivity mode requires a drop in resolution to 3 megapixels. We don't really see the point in taking noisy, low-resolution images, but at least the option is there.
Noise isn't too apparent until ISO 800, which shows the noise-reduction system is taking care of unsightly speckles. Unfortunately it throws the detail baby out with the noise bathwater, smearing fine detail and giving detailed textures like hair an unnatural look. Combined with the relatively laissez-faire sharpening applied by the camera, this leaves some images looking a little soft. Colour is natural and well reproduced, however. Images generally look great, with the intelligent auto mode coping with everyday situations with aplomb.
Low-light focussing is quick, thanks to a brisk focus assist lamp. The flash is rather overzealous, but the mega OIS system does allow for the braver photographer to dispense with the flash in all but the darkest environments.
Burst mode is only a disappointment as this is an otherwise excellent camera, but the ability to take 2.5 frames per second for only 3 frames is actually par for the digital compact course. Start-up is quick at just over 2 seconds, while zooming speed benefits from the easy zoom button.
We struggled to find fault with the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20. We generally lament the lack of manual control, but the automatic mode is so capable and the FS20 so versatile we were happy to let it do all the work.
If manual controls are essential alongside a longer zoom, we'd suggest the Casio Exilim EX-Z100. If the bland styling isn't glamorous enough, there's always the Canon Digital IXUS range. But you'd be hard pressed to find a more competent point-and-shoot than the FS20.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Nick Hide