Panasonic emphasizes style more than sophistication with the DMC-F7, one of the lower-priced entries in the company's new Lumix line of digital cameras. This ultracompact 2-megapixel model doesn't offer the manual controls that advanced photographers need, but its portability and simple control layout should make it an appealing first digicam for anyone used to a point-and-shoot film camera. Panasonic emphasizes style more than sophistication with the DMC-F7, one of the lower-priced entries in the company's new Lumix line of digital cameras. This ultracompact 2-megapixel model doesn't offer the manual controls that advanced photographers need, but its portability and simple control layout should make it an appealing first digicam for anyone used to a point-and-shoot film camera.
The F7 gave us a surprise right out of the box--it's a marked improvement over Panasonic's earlier forays into the category. Outwardly, the 6.5-ounce (with the battery and the media installed) camera follows the aesthetic trail blazed by Canon's line: ultracompact, boxy, and metallic, with no protrusions to snag fabric when you slide the camera into a shirt pocket. The lens retracts completely behind a manually operated sliding cover. You slide the camera's On switch one click to open the lens cover and a second click to power up the camera.
The F7's minimal physical controls are fairly well thought out. Despite the small size of the camera, its buttons and switches are large enough for adult-sized fingers to manipulate comfortably. However, only the most basic settings--flash, macro and landscape modes, and self-timer--can be changed with the touch of a button. All other functions must be accessed through reasonably well-organized menus on the 1.5-inch LCD. That keeps the body uncluttered, but it also makes taking advantage of the camera's feature set a more arduous process than we'd like to go through.
Covering the basics
Those who don't mind doing a little scrolling will be rewarded with a solid basic feature set, as well as a few more advanced controls. Among the notable options are spot metering, manual white balance, slow-sync flash, and adjustable light sensitivity. There's also an unusual Night Scene white-balance preset. Through the playback menu, you can make black-and-white, sepia, or color-negative copies of your images in-camera.
As with many competing models, there's a continuous-shooting mode, and you can record short video clips at a resolution suitable for e-mailing. Unfortunately, though, there's no microphone to capture audio. One feature that's both an asset and a limitation is the F7's 2X Leica DC Vario-Elmarit zoom lens. While its quality contributes to the leap forward in image quality that Panasonic has made with the Lumix cameras, its zoom range makes the F7 less versatile than the many competing models that offer 3X optical zooms.
The F7 turned in a good--but not outstanding--performance in our tests. Shutter delay was noticeable at slightly more than a second, and shot-to-shot speed was average for this camera's class, at about three seconds when shooting at full resolution and low-compression settings. The included rechargeable battery had a satisfactory life span, as lithium-ion cells generally do. During our tests, it held up for a three-day weekend of moderately frequent use without needing a recharge. Unfortunately, the bundled Secure Digital memory card is less useful, offering only 8MB of storage.
A better image
This camera offers much better image quality than Panasonic's pre-Lumix models. Most notably, color accuracy is greatly improved; gone are the blue-tinged or ashen flesh tones that showed up all too often with the earlier cameras. Image detail and tonal range are also good, although we noticed some clipping in the highlights, which isn't unusual in this class of camera. The F7's autofocus gave us consistently pleasing results in bright to medium light but faltered occasionally when we were taking nighttime flash photos.
The autoexposure, on the other hand, sometimes disappointed us. In outdoor daylight shots, it was often difficult to predict whether we'd get properly exposed foreground subjects, albeit with an unavoidably bleached-out sky, or dark silhouettes. We also noticed a moderate amount of purple fringing along bright edges in our test shots. Barrel distortion was sometimes apparent in images of buildings but generally wasn't objectionable.