Superzooms are the wannabes of the compact-camera market. They're for folk who don't want the cost, weight, bulk or scary hands-on controls of a digital SLR, but still want a camera that can do everything. But what's the 12.1-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ38 got that all the rest don't? Well, a rather modest price tag of around £270 is a good start.
And the humble price is just the start. The DMC-FZ38's 18x optical zoom might not sound much compared to the 26x zoom on the Olympus SP-590 UZ, say, but you're hardly going to miss it, because the DMC-FZ38 still offers the equivalent of a 486mm zoom at full stretch. And it comes with Panasonic's new Power OIS image stabilisation, which the company reckons is better at reducing low-frequency vibration. The DMC-FZ38 was certainly remarkably steady in our hands, even at full zoom.
The DMC-FZ38's autofocus system is super-fast. We don't know what Panasonic's done to make it so fast, but we wish every other manufacturer would do it too. There's still a short delay at longer zoom settings while the camera locks onto the subject, but nothing like the sluggish indecisiveness that afflicts other cameras of this type.
You can either shoot in the 'intelligent auto' mode, which does everything but tell you when to press the shutter, or switch to one of the program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority or manual modes to take control of the shutter speed and lens aperture yourself.
Those options are pretty standard for a superzoom, but the DMC-FZ38 goes a step further by offering the ability to shoot raw files, as well as JPEGs. You normally only get that on top-flight (that is, expensive) compacts. Using the bundled software, the DMC-FZ38 lets you squeeze just slightly more quality and flexibility out of your pictures.
Last but not least, the DMC-FZ38 is one of Panasonic's new hybrid models, which means that it includes a hi-def movie mode. You get to shoot at 1,280x720 pixels at 30 frames per second, and save your movies either in the AVCHD format (efficient, but you need compatible hardware and software) or Motion JPEG (bigger files but wider compatibility). You can zoom while you're filming (it's surprising how many compacts can't), and you get rather good Dolby stereo sound, thanks to the twin mics on top of the camera.
But it can't all be good, surely? Well, the DMC-FZ38 does feel rather light and plasticky, and the tiny joystick controller can be a pain to use. The macro mode could drive nature fans insane too, since the minimum focus distance keeps changing with the zoom setting. An articulating LCD would help with low-angle shots, and some kind of eye sensor which switched automatically between the LCD and electronic viewfinder displays would make life easier. But these are all pretty minor complaints.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ38 is a first-rate superzoom. What it lacks in ultimate zoom length, it more than makes up for with its responsiveness, raw files and stereo, HD movie capability. Perhaps the best thing, though, is its price, since it's significantly cheaper than its rivals.
Edited by Charles Kloet