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.)