Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZR3
Panasonic continues to excel at putting flexible lenses in compact bodies. The Lumix DMC-ZR3, for example, has a wide-angle 25mm-equivalent lens and an 8x optical zoom in a chassis that's only an inch thick. It's the same lens the company uses on its 2009's ZR1. In fact, the two cameras are nearly the same; the ZR3 has a 2-megapixel resolution bump up to 14 megapixels and can capture video in AVCHD Lite format. Panasonic added a few other features, but these two are the main upgrades and both seem unnecessary. The ZR3 is a nice point-and-shoot camera, though, and, overall, its image quality is very good. However, though it's good in automatic mode, it pays to learn how best to use all that the camera offers.
|Key specs||Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZR3|
The ZR3 is an extremely compact camera considering its lens specifications. The camera looks and feels good, too. Though it's available in black, silver, blue, and red versions, its subtle design won't stand out in a crowd. A nicely rounded right side gives you something to grab onto when shooting one-handed. The ZR3 also features Panasonic's higher-end image stabilization--Power O.I.S.--that doubles the repression power of Panasonic's previous MEGA O.I.S. system. In my tests it worked quite well, even when the zoom lens was in use, and it's available for stills and movies.
The camera's controls are simple and straightforward enough that out-of-the-box use shouldn't be a problem for most people who are familiar with digital cameras. A silver plastic Mode dial on top lets you easily slip among shooting options, so easily that it frequently needed to be reset after taking it in and out of a pocket or case. Plus, you have to reach over it to press the shutter release and use the zoom ring, which might bother some users. Otherwise, the remaining controls on back are relatively large, easy to use, and logically arranged. Switches are used for both the power and changing from capture to playback, so it's easy to do both without looking. There's also a movie record button on back for quickly capturing clips (though it takes a second for it to start recording).
The menu systems are by and large uncomplicated. A Quick Menu button (Q.Menu) on back at the lower right brings up a vertical bar of shooting-mode-sensitive options. A general Menu button sits at the center of the four navigational buttons that double as exposure, flash, macro, and timer controls. The main menu system features four tabs: one for setup, one for photo features, another for movie features, and a Travel mode. The Travel mode lets you program in date, time, and location for a trip so that everything shot between the programmed dates are grouped together. There's also a slideshow playback option so you can go straight to viewing just those photos and videos taken on your trip. If you want to connect to a TV for viewing, a door on the right side of the body hides a Micro-USB/AV port and a Mini-HDMI jack.
Under a locking door on the camera's bottom is the battery and memory card compartment. The battery is rated for an above average 330 shots. However, different shooting modes, including movie capture, will wear down the battery faster. The battery does not charge in camera; a wall adapter is supplied.
|General shooting options||Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZR3|
The ZR3 is primarily a point-and-shoot camera; it has several of Panasonic's Intelligent shooting options for better automatic results, but no controls over aperture or shutter speed. In Normal Picture mode you get the most control over results with settings for focus, light metering, color effects, white balance, ISO, and exposure. You also get access to Panasonic's Intelligent ISO for limiting the sensitivity to a maximum of ISO 400, 800, or 1,600. (Because of the questionable photo results at ISO 1,600, I recommend using the ISO 800 in low-light conditions.) If you like scene modes, the ZR3 has 28 of them. The list includes familiars like Portrait, Landscape, and Night Scenery, and more-unusual artistic options like High Dynamic, Pinhole, and Film Grain. You can also associate two of your favorite scene modes with the MS1 and MS2 markers on the Mode dial. Of course there's a fully automatic mode--Intelligent Auto (iA)--that determines the most suitable Scene mode and helps correct any blurring, focus, and brightness issues. The last spot on the dial goes to a Clipboard mode that stores low-resolution images to the camera's 40MB of internal memory for fast recall. A recommend use would be for taking pictures of bus/train timetables and maps, which is made more useful by the wide-angle lens.
If you like to take close-ups, the ZR3 can focus as close as 1 inch from a subject. Results look a bit oversharpened, but not so much as to ruin photos. There is a Macro Zoom option, too, but it uses a digital zoom to get closer that in turn hurts photo quality.
Speaking of digital zoom, using the camera's Intelligent Resolution feature, Panasonic boosts the zoom range of the ZR3 from 8x to 10x. Panasonic calls this Intelligent Zoom and it's basically an enhanced digital zoom. The results are pretty good as far as getting you a little closer digitally, but the need for doing it is questionable. (There are two other digital zoom options, but frankly they're useless and unnecessary.)
The aforementioned Intelligent Resolution technology targets outlines, detailed texture areas, and soft gradation in photos and improves them for overall clarity. It's automatically applied in iA mode and can be turned on and off in Normal Picture mode. The same goes for Panasonic's Intelligent Exposure option that improves shadow detail. Both of these work well.
Though it's not a speed demon, the ZR3's shooting performance is good for its class. Megazooms are typically slow to start, but the time to first shot on the ZR3 is a decent 1.4 seconds. Shutter lag is at 0.5 second in bright conditions and 0.7 in dim lighting. The camera uses Panasonic's prefocus Quick AF in iA mode that improves this performance slightly, but I found the results can be inconsistent and it eats into battery life. Shot-to-shot performance was a bit slow at 2.1 seconds without flash and 5 seconds with it on. Using its full-resolution burst mode, the camera is capable of 1.6 frames per second. There is a 3-megapixel high-speed burst that'll shoot at up to 10 frames per second for up to 100 shots. The photo quality is on par with a good camera phone; suitable for Web use without any cropping.
Overall photo quality from the ZR3 is very good for a compact camera. At its lower ISO sensitivities, photos are sharp with good fine detail and little if any visible noise. At ISO 400, subjects appear softer and there's a slight shift in color. Some fine detail is preserved, though, so you can still get good 4x6 prints as long as you don't do any heavy cropping or enlarging. Pictures taken at higher sensitivities are OK; they're good enough for Web use, but there is a noticeable increase in noise and softness. The ZR3 has a High Sensitivity mode for shooting in very low light. It can capture up to a 3-megapixel image using ISOs from 1,600 to 6,400. Unfortunately, yellow blotches from noise are quite visible and occur even at lower ISOs in this mode. Basically, it's there for getting a shot without using a flash, but the results aren't good for much.
The ZR3's 25mm-equivalent wide-angle lens show a little asymmetrical barrel distortion on the left side. Likewise, when the lens is fully extended, there's slight pincushion distortion. Neither is bad enough to be concerned about, though, and sharpness is good edge to edge. There is little to no fringing in high-contrast areas of photos.
Color performance is the weakest part of the ZR3's photo quality and in the end is what brought its overall rating down. They tended to look washed out and slightly inaccurate in my test shots. However, that's not to say they aren't pleasing and for many people they'll be fine. Plus, if you like punchier colors there's a Vivid setting that'll get you those. White balance is very good, other than being a little warm indoors when set to Auto. Exposure is also very good, and Panasonic's Intelligent Exposure does a good job of rescuing shadow details without overexposing highlights.
Video quality is good, on par with a pocket minicamcorder. Like those, if you do a lot of panning or you're shooting fast-moving subjects, you'll see a fair amount of judder. You do get use of the zoom lens while recording, and despite being a mono mic, sound quality was very good. There's a windcut filter that helps out some, too. Plus, the Intelligent features and many of the scene modes work for movies including Pin Hole, Film Grain, and High Dynamic. Just select the mode while in photo mode and press record.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZR3 is a very good compact camera thanks to a flexible lens and a healthy feature set. Most of the features are geared for point-and-shoot users, which makes the more-advanced option of recording movies in AVCHD Lite slightly strange. And the value of going up to 14 megapixels is debatable, too. On the other hand, Panasonic's suite of "Intelligent" technologies gives those who want to get the best results right out of the camera a decent chance of doing so.
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