Panasonic offers this compact camera as an alternative to its diminutive Lumix DMC-FX7, which also specs out at a 5-megapixel resolution. While the Lumix DMC-LZ2 shares many features with its pricier ultracompact sibling, it boasts twice the zoom range; uses two AA batteries instead of a compact lithium-ion cell; sports a coarser, slightly smaller 2-inch LCD; and comes clad in plastic rather than metal. For about $50 less, you can opt for Panasonic's 4-megapixel Lumix DMC-LZ1, which aside from its resolution has virtually identical specs.
The DMC-LZ2's vibration-damping optical image stabilization is especially useful at the telephoto end of this compact's 6X zoom, helping to produce sharper photos at slower shutter speeds. High-performance burst shooting and easy operation increase the DMC-LZ2's appeal for the casual photographer. But its lack of manual controls will disappoint photo enthusiasts, and even snapshot takers may wish there were an optical viewfinder in extra bright or dim lighting conditions. To price this camera at $100 less than the Lumix DMC-FX7, Panasonic bestowed it with a chunkier 4.5-by-2.5-by-1.3-inch, 8.5-ounce body and a 2-inch LCD that has just 85,000 pixels (compared with the 2.5-inch, 114,000-pixel display on the ultracompact). The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ2's larger size makes one-handed shooting easier, although manipulating both the top-mount shutter release and the concentric zoom lever with a single index finger takes some practice.
Panasonic gives you access to a useful selection of settings via physical controls on the DMC-LZ2. The SCN1 and SCN2 positions on the mode dial activate any of eight preprogrammed modes (Portrait, Sports, Scenery, Night Scenery, Night Portrait, Fireworks, Party, and Snow). The four-way cursor pad lacks a convenient central OK/menu button--which is positioned below instead--but when you're not navigating menus, you can use it to select the self-timer (left), flash settings (right), quick review (down) or exposure compensation and bracketing (up). While shooting, you'll need to visit the menus only to set ISO, white balance, focus zones, or image quality.
You can select from Mode 1 OIS, which remains active all the time, or Mode 2, which lies dormant until you press the shutter-release button, potentially offering a greater degree of stabilization. You can also turn OIS off when the camera is mounted on a tripod or to improve shooting speed when stabilization isn't required.
Although there's no manual focus option on the DMC-LZ2, you can set this camera's flexible autofocus system to five-area, three-area, single-area, or spot focus that will bring you as close as 2 inches from your subject in macro mode or 1.64 feet with the zoom cranked all the way out. The exposure system, while equally limited when it comes to enthusiast options such as full manual or priority modes, uses evaluative metering to choose shutter speeds from 8 seconds to 1/2,000 second. If you switch to Simple mode (represented by a heart icon), autofocus locks on the center of the frame, OIS is activated, white balance and ISO are set to auto, and EV adjustments are replaced with a setting for shooting backlit subjects.
With ISO set to Auto, the built-in flash is good out to 13.7 feet in wide-angle mode and 8.5 feet at the telephoto position, with flash options that include fill flash, flash off, red-eye, and slow sync; the last selection works well in conjunction with the OIS and slow shutter speeds to balance ambient light with the flash.
This is no camera for minimovie fans, as clips with audio are limited to 10fps or 30fps at a coarse 320x240-pixel resolution. Although this Lumix, unlike its DMC-LZ1 sibling, does include a microphone, neither model has a speaker for playing back sound. You can record up to 32 minutes of video on a 1GB SD card.
As with other cameras in the Lumix line, review mode includes a useful zoom feature that lets you magnify an image 2X, 4X, 8X, or 16X with 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. It's also easy to display all the images in the camera in slide-show format or switch to an array of nine thumbnails.
You'll get only five full-resolution photos on the camera's built-in 14MB of memory, so an SD card should be high on your accessory list. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ2 uses the company's older Venus image processor rather than the Venus II processor implemented in the company's high-end cameras, so its performance was a mixed bag. It racked up the best scores in continuous shooting, where it was able to grab three shots in about 1.4 seconds at full resolution and five shots at a nearly 3fps clip at VGA resolution. In Megaburst mode it could capture four full-resolution shots very quickly, then slowed down to a roughly 1.5fps rate for as long as we held down the shutter release. Momentary LCD blanking and freezing made this optical-viewfinderless camera less than ideal for sequence shots, however.
We clocked a minimal shutter lag under contrasty illumination, at 0.6 second, and a decent 0.9 second under low-contrast lighting, even though this camera lacks the focus-assist lamp found on its higher-priced stablemates. This Lumix was a bit lethargic in powering up to its first shot, taking 4.5 seconds. After that, we were able to snap off photos every 2.2 seconds, but we had to wait 5.4 seconds between flash shots.
Panasonic's penny-pinching on the LCD took its toll. Although clear and bright in typical indoor lighting, it didn't gain up electronically under low light, making dimly lit scenes difficult to view. We also noticed some ghosting when the camera or subject moved. Outdoors, the LCD was usable under all but direct lighting, as long as we weren't using the power-saving Economy mode. Although the Lumix DC Vario lens doesn't have the cachet of the Leica optics found on the company's more expensive 5-megapixel point-and-shoot model, Panasonic's Lumix DMC-LZ2 produced pleasing pictures. Most images were well exposed, with lots of detail in both highlights and shadows, and significantly sharper than the results from some competing 5-megapixel compacts. Visual noise was low at ISO 80 and still not overpowering when we bumped the sensitivity level up to ISO 400. We did notice a bit of cyan fringing around backlit subjects.
Colors in our test photos looked good but not highly saturated, and we had some white-balance problems indoors, experiencing warm color casts under incandescent lighting whether we set white balance manually or let the autobalancing feature do its thing. Flesh tones tended toward yellow, but the red-eye prevention preflash did a good job of reducing reddish glows in the pupils.