Although we generally like the placement of the controls, the all-important shutter release is about a half-inch too far back, making it moderately uncomfortable to reach. You access most of the camera's features via the Menu button. The menus are easy to understand and quick to navigate with the four-way controller, but there's one bit of control logic that we found annoying: in Aperture- and Shutter-priority modes, you must use the button labeled Exp to switch between modes for setting exposure compensation (the default) and changing the aperture or the shutter speed. It adds an unnecessary button-click to important settings that you should be able to access quickly and directly.
The lens opens up to f/2.8 throughout its zoom range, a truly impressive feat. Equally nice, it has a firm but smooth manual-focus ring and a prominent, lens-mounted switch for selecting between auto or manual focus. The autofocus system offers the choice of four different AF-area modes: 9-area, 3-area, single area, and spot. Finally, the lens accepts an accessory .8X wide-angle (DMW-LWZ10) converter and, for those who think 432mm is wimpy, a 1.5X telephoto (DMW-LTZ10) converter.
The FZ20 covers all the exposure bases. In addition to all four standard exposure modes, you can select from nine scene modes. There are three light-metering modes--Multiple, Center-Weighted, and Spot--and you can set exposure compensation to plus or minus 2EV or use the 3-shot exposure bracketing function. For white balance, your options are auto, manual, or any of four presets. Light-sensitivity settings include ISO 80, ISO 100, ISO 200, and ISO 400.
The FZ20 stores images on SD/MMC cards, and it can capture JPEGs or TIFFs at six different resolutions and two JPEG compression settings. As with many cameras, you can adjust the contrast, the color saturation, and the sharpness of your images, but the FZ20 also gives you three levels of adjustment for the amount of noise reduction processing the camera applies, an unusual and potentially useful feature.
In movie mode, the camera can record 30fps, 320 x 240-pixel M-JPEG video with sound. The length of your video clips is limited only by your card's capacity.Panasonic touts the performance benefits of the FZ20's Venus II image-processing chip, and our performance testing largely bears out the company's claims. The camera's 4.4-second start-up time is a bit long, but its shot-to-shot time is relatively quick: typically 1.2 seconds with decent light and as little as 1.8 seconds with flash. Even TIFF shots were surprisingly zippy: it took just under 4 seconds from one shot to the next. The fastest burst shooting mode snapped 3.6 frames per second, for 4 shots, but if you're willing to slow down to about 2fps, the camera can shoot without pausing until your card fills. Shutter delay with autofocus isn't quite so impressive--0.9 seconds in all light--but we measured it at less than 0.1 second using manual focus.
Though not the best of its kind, the FZ20's electronic viewfinder looks crisper and smoother than the norm. The 2-inch LCD is also fairly sharp and works adequately in all light conditions. Both show approximately 100 percent of the actual scene.
The maximum range of the flash is approximately 12 feet at ISO 100. If you set the ISO for Auto and activate the flash, the camera can set a sensitivity as high as ISO 400, which could easily produce disappointingly noisy results. There is a standard, non-dedicated hotshoe for external flashes.
In our formal battery tests, we obtained 520 shots (50 percent with flash) from a single charge of the camera's 680mAh lithium-ion battery. Our experience in the field, however, indicates that the zoom and image-stabilization operations of the lens can cut battery life substantially.The FZ20 produces very good images--with a caveat or two. Our test photos looked as sharp and detailed as those produced by the best 5-megapixel models. It renders colors quite accurately, and as such, less vividly than many other consumer digicams produce at their default settings. Exposures were generally good.