In early 2003, Panasonic brought out its Lumix DMC-FZ1S, a dSLR-style model with a whopping 12X Leica Vario-Elmarit zoom lens. The camera's successor, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ10PP, uses the same lens and body but pushes the resolution from 2 to 4 megapixels, adds a smattering of advanced functions, incorporates a larger LCD, and ships with a slightly higher-capacity SD card. The new Lumix still receives high marks for design, features, and performance, but in image quality, the FZ10 falls short of some 4-megapixel competitors, such as the Olympus C-750 Ultra Zoom. Like the FZ1, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ10PP has a squared-off look that falls short of ultrachic, but the update's clean, simple styling is appealing enough. Composed of an alloy of carbon fiber and plastic, the body feels solid if not exceptionally sturdy. It weighs a hefty 1 pound, 4 ounces with the battery and the SD card installed, but the camera is reasonably compact for a model with such a big zoom lens. You can get your FZ10 in black or silver.
Overall, we like the FZ10's design and interface a lot. The camera is reasonably well balanced, and all the controls are logically arranged and clearly labeled. You get one-touch access to important features such as exposure compensation, the flash options, and the quick-review mode. Selecting among the aperture-priority, shutter-priority, and manual exposure modes is one of several more-advanced functions that make you drill down into the menus, but those are extremely easy to read and navigate. However, novices will probably have to consult the manual to figure out how to use the various settings.
We do have a few minor complaints about the FZ10's body. It's not a terribly good fit for some people, and positioning our fingers around the right-hand grips was a little awkward. We have another small gripe with the SD card slot: it's at the bottom of the camera in the battery compartment. We'd prefer to have the media on the side, where it would be easier to access, especially during tripod use. If the FZ10 were a ski run, we'd consider it intermediate. Mastering it is easy enough, but a couple of challenging sections keep things interesting. Obviously, this Panasonic's main attraction is its monster 12X Leica zoom lens, which supports an f/2.8 maximum aperture throughout its 35mm-to-420mm focal-length range (the 35mm-camera equivalent). The FZ10 also provides two modes of optical image stabilization, which increases your chances of capturing sharp pictures when you're taking telephoto shots with the camera in your hand.
One of our big gripes with the FZ1 was its skimpy 2-megapixel resolution; the FZ10 gives you 4 megapixels (2,304x1,728), along with various lower resolutions and two compression levels. Unless your SD card is low on space, you should almost always go with the highest quality and the lowest compression.
You can choose automatic operation, but plenty of manual controls give advanced shooters more flexibility. Four scene modes optimize the settings for different situations; for example, a novel preset uses settings that freeze the subject and blur the background. User-definable sensitivity selections span ISO 80 to ISO 400, and shutter speeds cover a useful range of 1/2,000 of a second to 8 seconds. You get both aperture- and shutter-priority options, plus fully manual exposure and focus. When you use the manual focus ring, the focus area is magnified on both the LCD and the electronic viewfinder.
There are some odd gaps among these options, however. For instance, metering choices include pattern and spot but not center-weighted or any other partial-frame scheme. The FZ10 lacks white-balance presets for fluorescent lights, though you get Sunny, Cloudy, Tungsten, Flash, and Manual, plus cooler/warmer compensation. The Flip Animation mode provides 5- and 10-frame-per-second shooting, but a true time-lapse intervalometer would probably come in handier.
You can record short video clips with sound, adjust picture size in-camera, and digitally zoom in on specific image areas during playback. Advanced shooters should note that the FZ10, unlike many models in its class, doesn't capture photos in any uncompressed file format, such as RAW or TIFF. However, the camera displays a live histogram, which helps ensure correct exposure.
The FZ10 has all the standard flash options, including red-eye reduction and a slow-sync mode for night shots. You can also add an external flash via the hotshoe. Panasonic sells both wide-angle (DMW-LWZ10) and telephoto (DMW-LTZ10) conversion lenses, which attach to the lens housing by replacing the included hood. The FZ10's overall performance rates only slightly above average but bests that of similar long-zoom models we've tested. The camera takes a little more than 5 seconds to go from shut to shot. When it comes to shutter lag, the Lumix outpaces competitors such as the Olympus C-750 Zoom, but sensitive people will still find that 1 second a bit slow. Shot-to-shot times for highest-resolution flash photos range from around 2 to 3 seconds, and turning off image stabilization can bring the wait down to 1 second. The camera's willingness to fire without a focus lock can move things along considerably. We typically achieved a continuous-shooting rate of 2.5 frames per second. The FZ10 can snap four to seven pictures per burst, depending on your media's capacity and speed.
The smooth, quiet lens zooms quickly and precisely, and the autofocus performs reasonably well. Unsurprisingly, the mechanism hunted for focus a lot; our testing included low-contrast lighting and crowded scenes at full zoom. As with the FZ1, you'll have better luck if you prefocus, which you do by depressing the shutter button halfway. And we recommend switching to manual focus when you push the zoom to the max.
The FZ10's electronic viewfinder isn't great, but it works better than many others we've used. Although small, it displays 100 percent of the scene; offers a reasonably sharp, smooth view; and doesn't freeze while you're focusing. The 2-inch LCD, which also shows 100 percent of your shot, is sharp and fairly viewable in bright daylight. While not particularly strong, the built-in flash is adequate; its maximum range is about 9 feet at ISO 200 and around 13 feet at ISO 400. Unfortunately, the FZ10's image quality is disappointing. It's generally acceptable but not great. Indoor exposures are OK, but clipping in highlights is really pronounced in outdoor shots; to compensate, we suggest springing for the optional neutral-density filter (DMW-LND72). That should also take care of much of the fringing we saw; overbright edges tend to exacerbate its appearance. The camera's flash works well, however; it evenly illuminated our test scene without blowing out the sidelight.
As with Canon's cameras, the automatic white balance produces a strong yellowish cast under tungsten lights; the relevant preset does a much better job but still generates a slightly yellow tint. Setting white balance manually works best, but we couldn't completely eradicate the warm bias. As a result, colors tend to look a bit oversaturated, though they are pleasing.
At ISO 50, images display relatively little noise, but you'll see some even at settings as low as ISO 100. Our test photos also showed marked demosaicing artifacts, which the camera generates when it fills in missing color information. An unusually narrow dynamic range in the blue-channel output probably contributes to both the noise and the demosaicing errors.