Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7
Panasonic has proven before that it knows how to make a top-notch compact megazoom. The 2010 Lumix DMC-ZS7 builds on 2009's ZS3 by adding two features: manual and semimanual shooting modes and an integrated GPS receiver. Combine those with good HD video options, a 25mm-equivalent wide-angle lens with a 12x zoom, and a couple new image enhancements and you've got a flexible camera for those who don't always want to lug a digital SLR with them. Though its photos are sometimes less than stellar (particularly those taken above ISO 400), the ZS7 will no doubt make a lot of people happy.
The design of the ZS7 doesn't change much from its predecessor, the ZS3. Its weight and size are approximately the same, remaining remarkably compact for its features and wide-angle lens with 12x zoom. Though it's a tight fit in a pants pocket, the ZS7 easily fits in an average jacket pocket or small handbag. The body--available in black, silver, and red versions--has a nice, solid feel to it with a comfortable grip on the right side. The 3-inch LCD looks good and gets reasonably bright, though it gets reflective in direct sunlight so you may struggle occasionally to see what you're shooting. Lastly, though the sensor is 14 megapixels, the camera only uses 12 megapixels, making it possible to have three aspect ratios--16:9, 3:2, and 4:3--with the same angle of view across the entire zoom range of the lens.
Controls are straightforward despite the appearance that there's a lot going on. On top is the shooting mode dial, shutter release with zoom ring, and power switch. Moving to the back to the right of the LCD is a switch for changing between shooting and playback; an exposure button for accessing changes to shutter speed and aperture; a start/stop record button for movies; four navigation buttons for moving through menus and settings and toggling among the exposure compensation, flash, macro, and self-timer options; a Display button for changing the amount of setting information displayed on screen; and Panasonic's Q.Menu button that brings up a bar of commonly used settings like ISO, photo and movie resolutions, autofocus modes, and white balance. The main menu system is reached by pressing the Menu/Set button at the center of the four navigation buttons.
Menus by and large are easy to get through with individual tabs for still shooting, video, and general camera settings. However, there are a lot of options if you're in a mode other than automatic; it can take some getting used to.
One of the main attractions for the ZS7 is the built-in GPS. Using it is fairly simple, but unless you're really good at figuring out menus and understanding potentially obscure language, you'll want to read up on how to use everything in the full user manual (a PDF file on the bundled software disc) before you head out shooting. The main menu system has a Travel Mode tab with access to all of the GPS features. Once you've turned on the receiver you can have the camera retrieve the information for your current location. In tests this took anywhere from less than a minute to several minutes depending on how much open sky was above me. Once locked, the ZS7 can display country, state, city, and landmark information and continues to update itself every minute. You can then go into the GPS Area Select menus and pick the correct information for your location. For example, if you're standing in the middle of New York, it could quite possibly have a couple pages of landmarks to pick from. Also, you can choose to limit what area information is attached, in case you only want the name of the city for instance. The area information covers 173 countries or regions for all over the world and more than half a million landmarks in 73 countries or regions.
For everyday shooting, attaching GPS information is probably not that exciting. But, if you do a lot of traveling, hiking, or other activity where you might want to remember where you were, then it's a great feature to have. Longitude and latitude is seamlessly added to the EXIF data and, again, you can have the camera include country, city, state, and landmarks. The GPS will automatically update time, too, should you be traveling between different time zones.
There's an option to record AVCHD Lite movies with GPS data as well. However, the manual warns that because location information is being added, playback on an AVCHD compatible device is not possible. The location information can be viewed when videos are played back on a computer using the bundled PhotofunStudio software or directly from the camera. Unless you simply must have the information, you'll probably want to stick with the non-GPS AVCHD Lite format option.
One last thing regarding the GPS: once you've turned it on, the receiver stays on until you turn it off, 2 hours have passed since it's refreshed its position, or after 9 hours of the camera being off. So even if you shut off the camera, it'll continue to update its location every 15 minutes. This is fine if you're shooting for an extended period of time, but it'll eventually run down your battery. If you want the GPS to turn off when you shut the camera off, you must select the travel mode option from the camera's menu. This is all explained in the manual, but battery life is something to keep in mind with features like GPS.
|General shooting options||Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7|
With the ZS3, there seemed to be a lot of outcry for manual shooting controls. Panasonic clears that up with the ZS7 adding manual and semimanual exposure modes. Turn to the one you want, press the Exposure button on back, and change the settings with the directional buttons. Shutter speeds go from 1 minute to 1/2,000 second and aperture ranges are f3.3-6.3 (Wide) and f4.9-6.3 (Tele). You also get Panasonic's Intelligent ISO for limiting the sensitivity to a maximum of ISO 400, 800, or 1,600 as well as the capability to set a minimum shutter speed from 1 second to 1/250. There are controls for sharpness, contrast, saturation, and noise reduction so you can fine-tune results to your liking. If you come up with a group of settings you like, there's a Custom slot on the Mode dial they can be stored under. There's no manual focus option, so you'll have to live with the multiple AF options.
If you like scene modes, the ZS7 has 28 of them as well as a MySCN option letting you associate two you use most often 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 15MB of internal memory for fast recall. Panasonic recommends using it for taking pictures of bus/train timetables and maps, which is made more useful by the wide-angle lens.
Movies can be recorded up to 720p HD resolution in either AVCHD Lite or Motion JPEG. AVCHD Lite has three quality settings to choose from: SH at 17Mbps, H at 13Mbps, and L at 9Mbps. You do get use of the zoom lens and optical image stabilization while recording and there is continuous AF, too. The zoom movement is picked up by the stereo mic on top, but it's fairly quiet. There is a wind-cut filter, too, but its help is negligible. For output to an HDTV there's a Mini-HDMI jack on the right side as well as a proprietary USB/AV port.
Shooting performance is pretty average for its class, though its shutter lag is a bit long. The camera starts up and captures a shot in 2.3 seconds. The shot-to-shot time is 2.1 seconds without the flash. Use the flash and you're waiting an average of 4.5 seconds between shots. The shutter lag in bright conditions--how quickly the camera captures an image after the shutter-release button is pressed--is 0.6 second in bright conditions and 1 second in dim lighting. Those aren't great numbers if you're trying to shoot a moving subject. On the upside, the full-resolution continuous burst mode captures at a quick 1.7 frames per second.
The photo quality from the ZS7 is very good to excellent with the understanding that this is a compact camera--regardless of its features and price. Photos at ISO 80 and 100 are great; they're sharp with nice color and fine detail. Jump to ISO 200 and subjects get slightly softer and less detailed, but photos are still very good. At ISO 400 noise starts creating color issues including yellow blotching, though detail remains good. Going up to ISO 800, photos get pretty bad; they're soft and yellowy with visible noise. Forget about ISO 1,600 unless you're shooting in black and white or simply must capture a photo regardless of the results. In other words, if you're looking for great low-light photo quality or if you typically do a lot of heavy cropping, the ZS7 will disappoint.
The camera's new processing engine--Venus HD II--brings with it an Intelligent Resolution (IR) feature that automatically detects outlines, detailed texture areas, and soft gradation areas and performs "optimum signal processes" to each area. Think of it as smart sharpening that improves textures and makes subjects sharper and clearer. The results were generally very good, though occasionally shots appeared oversharpened and crunchy, especially when used in conjunction with the Intelligent Zoom. The Intelligent Zoom is a digital zoom that extends the range of the optical zoom from 12x to 16x by cropping in on the center of the frame. It then applies IR to improve the shot. The outcome is a better digital zoom, but it's still not great; fine if you really need to get a little closer, but not something you'd want to rely on.
Panasonic keeps both barrel distortion at the camera's wide end and pincushion distortion at the telephoto end under control. There was no purple fringing immediately visible in test shots, either. As long as you're shooting at ISOs below 400, colors are just shy of accurate and overall rich and pleasing. Exposure is also very good, though there is some highlight clipping.
Video quality is good, on par with a pocket minicamcorder. However, with the ZS7 you get that zoom. Plus, 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.
Panasonic makes excellent compact megazooms and the Lumix DMC-ZS7 is certainly one of them. Its manual controls, ample feature set, and 12x zoom, wide-angle lens make it very flexible. The GPS is a nice addition, too, especially for frequent travelers. The biggest issue is the high-ISO photo quality, which will be a deal-breaker for a lot of people. But, if you're doing most of your shooting outside or indoors in good lighting, the ZS7 is capable of turning out some very nice pictures.
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