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With a Leica lens that lives up to its name and optical image stabilization that dampens the effect of the shakiest hands, this 5-megapixel ultracompact is an alluring camera for the snapshot photographer whose expectations can be summed up by the time-honored words sharp and clear. Yet, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX7 offers more than good picture quality. It features a versatile burst mode among its high-performance features, a useful complement of scene options to simplify picture-taking decisions, and a no-brainer Simple mode that enables even neophytes to take good snapshots. While enthusiasts will miss the almost complete lack of manual controls and should probably look elsewhere, casual photographers will like the quality and convenience, as well as the ultracompact package.
Panasonic has shrunk this 5-megapixel package down to ultracompact size (at 3.7 inches by 2.0 inches by 1 inch and 5.5 ounces) without miniaturizing the components that really matter, including the 2.5-inch, 114,000-pixel LCD that covers two-thirds of the back panel. The buttons and switches on the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX7 are small but serviceable, providing quick access to the few controls that need to be accessed during a typical snapshot session. There's no optical viewfinder on the camera, which most digital snapshooters probably won't mind.
Although one-handed shooting is possible, Panasonic's design just about mandates a two-handed grip, with the left index finger and thumb pinching the top and bottom edges while the right index finger remains poised over the shutter release and concentric zoom lever. At the far right end of the top surface is a tiny key that activates either of two Mega OIS (optical image stabilization) modes or disables the feature entirely. Protruding from the back of the top panel is a junior-size knurled mode dial with six positions for picture review and scene-mode selection, as well as automatic, Simple, macro, and motion picture modes.
On the back panel, the display info button doubles as an LCD brightening key when held down for more than a second. The trash button deletes the current picture being reviewed or, in recording mode, cycles through continuous-shooting options. Each of the five keys in the control pad also does double duty: the up key activates exposure compensation, the down key produces a zoomable review image of the last picture taken, the right button cycles through flash options, and the left key allows you to choose either a 2-second or a 10-second self-timer delay without the need to access a menu.
While the scene modes (Portrait, Sports, Landscape, Night Landscape, Night Portrait, Fireworks, Party, Snow, and Self-Portrait) make it easy to invoke settings for the most common picture-taking situations, the Lumix DMC-FX7's Simple mode, represented by a heart icon on the mode dial, reduces decisions to the bare-bones minimum. Autofocus is locked on the subject in the center of the frame, white balance and ISO is set to Auto, image stabilization are activated, and EV settings are replaced with a Backlighting option. An ultrasimple set of options pop up when the Menu button is pressed, limited to four choices: Clock Set, Beep (soft, loud, or off), Auto Review (on or off), and Pict mode, which replaces resolution options with Enlarge (full resolution/fine compression), 4x6 (1,600x1,200/standard compression), and E-mail (640x480/standard compression).
The most notable feature on the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX7 is its optical image stabilization, a rarity on ultracompact cameras. While optical stabilization is often used to steady long zooms that are prone to producing blurry images caused by camera shake, it can be equally useful in counteracting the lack of steadiness inherent in holding a lightweight camera at arm's length to shoot.
There are two OIS modes on the Lumix DMC-FX7, and they're available for both still shots and video. Mode 1 is active all the time--similar to continuous autofocus--while Mode 2 remains at standby until you press the shutter release, offering, according to Panasonic, a greater degree of stabilization. Both modes make it possible to hand-hold this camera at a shutter speed two or more settings lower than would normally be practical; if you're able to get sharp images at 1/30 second, the OIS feature gives similar steadiness at 1/8 second. Of course, stabilization does nothing to freeze subject motion and adds a bit of shutter lag to the picture-taking process. OIS can be switched off when not needed to improve performance or when the camera is mounted on a tripod.
The Leica DC Vario-Elmarit 3X zoom lens offers a practical 35mm-to-105mm focal-length range (35mm-camera equivalent) and provides dual apertures of f/2.8 and f/5 at the wide-angle setting and f/5 and f/10 when cranked out to telephoto.
The lens focuses down to two inches in macro mode, and you can choose from single-point, three-point, or nine-point autofocus, plus spot focus. You won't find any manual exposure adjustments available beyond EV settings; the multisegment/spot-metering system will select the correct aperture and choose a shutter speed from 8 seconds to 1/2,000 second. There is, however, an autobracketing option to let you try out different exposure combinations automatically.
A limited number of fun features are available, including a flip animation mode that can capture 100 images at 320x240 resolution to create as long as 20 seconds of herky-jerky animation. Unfortunately, video clips are limited to the same resolution at your choice of 10fps or 30fps, with audio. You can add as much as 10 seconds of audio annotation to photos, along with cool, warm, black-and-white, or sepia special effects.
Auto review has a useful zoom feature, which lets you magnify an image 2X, 4X, 8X, or 16X using the zoom lever, and the LCD also displays a little navigator window representing the full image area, with a scrollable outline showing the part of the picture currently enlarged.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX7's performance figures were generally quite good, especially in the shutter-lag arena, where the camera clocked a good 0.6-second timing under high-contrast lighting and a decent 0.9 second under more challenging low-contrast lighting, thanks to the built-in focus-assist lamp.
While this camera's burst mode wasn't among the fastest we've tested, it was certainly versatile. You can choose high-speed and low-speed bursts or an Infinity mode that cuts the capture rate in half but can continue shooting for as long as your memory card has space. We got 3 full-resolution shots in 1.7 seconds using low-speed burst mode and 7 shots in 4 seconds at 640x480 resolution in high-speed mode. The Infinity mode yielded about 19 shots per minute until our index finger tired.
The Lumix was slow to rouse from its slumber, requiring almost 5 seconds to wake up and report for duty. Once powered up, it snapped off photos every 2.4 seconds without flash and every 4.2 seconds with the speed light switched on.
The big LCD viewfinder was easier to use under medium to bright light levels than it was in dim light. The viewer doesn't gain up in low light, making viewing of poorly lit subjects difficult. It did work well outdoors under all conditions except direct sunlight.
The built-in electronic flash fills the frame with anemic but even illumination out to about 13 feet at the wide-angle setting at ISO 400 and only 7.2 feet at telephoto. The slow-sync flash option is particularly useful when combined with image stabilization to brighten the background in flash pictures.
Most photographers will be very pleased with the images that the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX7 camera produces, even when making 8x10 or larger prints. As expected, the Leica lens produced sharp, detail-filled images, with a bit less distortion and fewer chromatic aberrations than we've seen in some other cameras in this class. Image defects, such as they were, seemed to be attributable more to the sensor and processing system than to the lens. For example, while images were generally well exposed and full of detail in both shadows and highlights, a bit of noise was visible even at ISO 100 and became more obvious when we boosted sensitivity to ISO 400. JPEG artifacts also showed up under high magnification.
Colors were generally quite accurate, if a bit muted, with the exception of some greens in grass and foliage, which often were a bit harsh. Flesh tones sometimes were a little yellow. The automatic white-balance controls did a good job indoors and out, but the camera's red-eye-reduction system didn't totally eliminate reddish pupils.