Almost identical in body design to last year's DMC-FZ7, Panasonic's new Lumix DMC-FZ8 carries the torch as the smaller of the company's superzooms, not counting the even smaller DMC-TZ3, which doesn't include manual exposure controls and is targeted at a different audience.
The £250 FZ8 brings with it a handful of updates over the FZ7. Among these are an increased pixel count of 7.1 megapixels (up from 6 megapixels), the number of autofocus points has been bumped up to 11 (instead of 9), and TIFF capture has been replaced with raw capture, which should please advanced shooters by providing more flexibility when tweaking exposure and white balance.
Like the FZ7, the FZ8's body design is just what you'd want in a superzoom. Surprisingly compact, but still big enough to shoot comfortably with two hands, the FZ8 has all the controls on the right-hand side, so one-handed operation is possible if needed. Overall, Panasonic did a good job of the control system. The tiny yet responsive joystick lets you quickly select AF points or set exposure compensation. White balance, ISO, AF mode and image size and quality find their home in the main menu.
Other functions, such as bracketing, flash compensation, timer and flash mode are accessed through the five-way touch pad. We found these buttons rather small, and there is definitely room for larger ones, but we didn't have much trouble using them in our field tests.
In case you don't want to shoot in one of the manual exposure modes, which include aperture- and shutter-priority, as well as full manual, Panasonic includes 20 preset scene modes. We were slightly miffed to find that the camera's ISO 3,200 setting is available only by selecting the High Sensitivity scene mode. However, it seems Panasonic's motives may be pure, as the manual clearly points out that the aggressive, and in our field tests fairly effective, noise-reduction algorithms blur away much of the images' effective resolution in this mode.
Sometimes manufacturers like to set apart modes such as these that can have an adverse effect on image quality. Panasonic doesn't suggest making prints larger than 100x150mm (4x6 inches) with this mode, and we agree, but it might come in handy in particularly dark shooting conditions. We would rather Panasonic had just put the setting with the rest of the ISO options and made the same note in the manual under that heading.
We wish the company were just as straightforward with the naming of its 'extended optical zoom' feature. This feature, similar to digital zoom, lets you extend the camera's effective zoom by cropping down the pixel resolution. The name of the mode is extremely misleading and shows a blatant disregard for their consumers' understanding of cameras. Ultimately, if you don't mind ratcheting the resolution down to 3 megapixels or less, you can let the camera crop down the lens' field of view to approximately what you'd get from an 18x zoom. Since you could just as easily crop after the fact, we see little point in doing this, especially since you never know what photographic gems may lie in the cropped-out portions.
In our tests, the Lumix DMC-FZ8 performed well, though in most cases it was a tad slower than its 5-megapixel predecessor. The FZ8 took 2.71 seconds from start-up to capturing its first JPEG. Subsequent JPEGs took 1.78 seconds between shots with the flash turned off, and 2.08 seconds with the flash enabled. When capturing raw images, the FZ8 took 3.88 seconds between shots. While that may seem like a long time, it's not shabby for a superzoom.
The FZ8's 11-point AF system tends to lock on subjects rather quickly, so it's no surprise the shutter lag measured 0.6 seconds in our high-contrast test, which mimics bright shooting conditions, and 1.3 seconds in our low-contrast test, which simulates low-light conditions. In continuous-shooting mode, the DMC-FZ8 churned out 2.12 VGA-size JPEGs per second or 1.47 7.1-megapixel JPEGs per second.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
| ||Typical shot-to-shot time|| ||Time to first shot|| ||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
The Lumix DMC-FZ8's image quality isn't quite equal to its performance. But while its ISO noise was probably its worst point, it wasn't as bad as we've seen in the past from other Panasonic models. On the other hand, while the lens is fast enough with its f/2.8 maximum aperture at its widest angle, it also showed more distortion than we'd like at that same 35mm-equivalent setting, so some straight lines may appear slightly bent when shooting wide. Of course, some photographers like that effect, so it's not always bad, but it also shouldn't be this pronounced at 35mm, though we were pleased we saw almost no fringing.
As we often see, the FZ8's automatic white balance yielded yellowish results with our tungsten test lights. The tungsten setting gave much more neutral results, and the manual white balance worked the best. The metering and flash systems work well together, providing a very good balance of fill flash when shooting in a room with some, but not enough, ambient lighting.
Even at its lowest sensitivity setting of ISO 100, we saw some noise in our test images, along with other image artefacts, such as the tell-tale jagged lines that often come along with substandard JPEG processing. Colours were well-saturated though, and we saw an adequate, though not spectacular, level of finer detail. At ISO 200, we saw slightly more noise that, while noticeable on monitors, probably won't adversely affect your prints. At ISO 400, noise begins to pick up, softens fine details, and decreases some shadow detail.
At ISO 800, noise becomes very prevalent, lots of finer detail is lost, and shadows take on a mottled look, holding little detail but plenty of blurred, off-colour speckles. ISO 1,250 yields extremely noisy results with almost no fine detail anywhere in the image. We suggest you stick to ISO 400 and below whenever possible with the DMC-FZ8, and don't expect to get decent prints with the camera set to ISO 1,250.
While the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 has problems with noise, in many other ways it's a very good camera. Its controls make it easy to use, and it packs a very impressive feature set. If you're not picky about noise or image quality, it makes a decent camera for beginner and intermediate photographers to learn on. Advanced shooters who want pristine image quality should look elsewhere.
Additional editing by Nick Hide