When friends or family ask me if they should get a point-and-shoot or if their smartphone is good enough, my answer basically comes down to whether they need a camera with a superzoom lens or need one that is rugged. (Picture quality isn't really an issue anymore since the newest smartphones are on par with the average point-and-shoot. If you want better pictures, step up to a large-sensor advanced compact or a dSLR or mirrorless interchangeable lens camera.)
The Panasonic Lumix FZ300 is one of the only cameras available that can turn that "or" into an "and." Typically, if you want a rugged camera, one that can really handle drops and is waterproof, it won't have a very long zoom lens. The opposite is also true: If you want a lot of zoom, you're not going to find one that's extremely rugged. The FZ300, however, has a superb 24x f2.8 25-600mm lens and is also splashproof and dustproof.
The camera, which sells for about $500 in the US, AU$680 in Australia and £440 in the UK (where it's called the FZ330), also has such a full feature set that it's perfect if you want something in between a point-and-shoot and a digital SLR-like experience. Because it uses a 1/2.3-inch type sensor, though, (a size typically found in point-and-shoots and premium smartphones) its photo quality doesn't compare to a digital SLR or a large-sensor advanced compact, including Panasonic's own FZ1000. Losing some image quality is part of the price you pay to get the 35mm equivalent of an f2.8 600mm lens in a relatively compact and affordable package. A dSLR lens with those specs would be huge and cost thousands.
Just to clarify why this lens is so good, the problem with most superzoom cameras is that in order to keep the price and size of the camera small, the lenses have small apertures. Without getting too bogged down in specifics, a small aperture lets in less light, and less light can lead to motion blur and/or soft and noisy photos and movies. And when you zoom, the available maximum aperture gets even smaller letting in even less light.
With the FZ300's capability to stay at f2.8 throughout its zoom range, you don't need to be shooting in full sun or using its higher ISO settings to get a good shot. In fact, during shooting in mixed daylight conditions, the camera rarely went above ISO 400.
That's a good thing, too, because the JPEGs straight from the camera are a little on the soft side, especially if you head above ISO 400. My recommendation would be shoot in raw or raw plus JPEG. Panasonic is a little heavy on the noise reduction at higher ISO settings and by shooting in raw you can control the balance between detail and noise.
The picture above is a good example of what I'm talking about. The JPEG's fine details have been smeared out of existence while the raw image I processed in about a minute with Adobe Camera Raw has much better detail if a little more noise. (You can see and download full-size versions of these photos and more in the gallery below.)
The camera's JPEGs could use some post-sharpening with editing software in general, but are certainly usable at smaller sizes at and above ISO 800, and the FZ300's Wi-Fi allows you to easily connect to an iOS or Android device and use Panasonic's app to transfer pictures and upload them to your choice of social networks for showing off to your followers. The app can also be used to fully control the camera remotely.
Helping you get those great shots to share is the camera's lightning quick autofocus system and rapid fire shooting speeds. The FZ300 uses Panasonic's DFD (depth from defocus) technology, which assists the camera's contrast-detection autofocus system by calculating the distance to a subject at a very high speed so that the focus accurately locks onto a target in approximately 0.09 second.
In my tests, continuous shooting speeds reached Panasonic's claim of 12 pictures per second in both JPEG only and raw plus JPEG with autofocus fixed with the first shot; it dropped to about half that with continuous autofocus turned on. Want to capture even faster? You can switch to the camera's 4K Photo mode that basically gets you 8-megapixel photos shot at 30 pictures per second so you never miss a shot.
The 4K Photo mode is just one of the many, many shooting modes this camera offers. You get a fantastic full Auto mode with extras like HDR to help balance highlights and shadows and a low-light and a handheld night option to reduce noise and blur from handshake. Then you have all the manual and semimanual modes for stills and video. It can capture 4K video (3,840x2,160 at 30 or 24 frames per second) in MP4 format in addition to 1080p at 60 frames per second in AVCHD Progressive or MP4 (MPEG-4/H.264) formats with full-time autofocus.
And the settings, my god, the settings -- they just seem to go on and on, so you can adjust just about every aspect. (If you want to see for yourself, download the full manual.) Panasonic even added another shooting option via a firmware update called Post Focus. It uses the camera's high-speed autofocus system to determine the distance between the camera and the subject, which it uses to capture the best focus for 49 individual areas within each frame.
Once captured, you can then select your focus point by tapping on it on the 3-inch touchscreen and then you can save the photo. The whole process takes some time, so it's best reserved for still subjects shot with the camera on a tripod or other support. The other issue is that it has to manually be turned on and off in the settings menu, so if you inadvertently leave it on you might miss a shot.
Also, if you're someone who likes to have a lot of direct control over various settings, the FZ300 has got you covered. There are four programmable function buttons -- two on top and two on back -- as well as five more soft keys on the touchscreen. There's a thumb dial for fast changes to aperture or shutter speed. There are buttons for ISO, white balance, continuous and 4K Photo settings and autofocus areas and a switch to move between focus modes. Other extras include zoom and manual focus controls on the lens barrel, a hot shoe and a mic jack, but there is no headphone jack.
At the end of the day, if you're looking for a basic point-and-shoot fully automatic experience, this probably isn't the camera for you. You'd be better off with a camera like Nikon's Coolpix L840. Not that the Panasonic Lumix FZ300 can't be used as such, it can, it's just that with all the other stuff it can do, it might be overkill. That said, if you need a camera for a family of photographers -- for simple snapshooters to those who want to really get creative -- this is an excellent choice.