After some false starts in the digital-camera arena, Panasonic finally seems to be on the right track with the 3-megapixel Lumix DMC-F1, a compact, well-designed product that offers good performance, a solid feature set, and better-than-average image quality. This midrange model, which touts Leica lens optics and looks similar to Minolta's popular F100, may not be way out in front of the competition, but it can go toe-to-toe with most cameras in its class. This Lumix should appeal to point-and-shoot aficionados who value a little bit of manual control. The well-designed DMC-F1 shares the Minolta F100's rectangular shape and retracting, 3X optical zoom lens, which is shielded by a protective cover. In addition to basic silver, the F1 makes its fashion statement in four other colors: red, blue, black, and green.
The camera's ultracompact size and light, 5.6-ounce weight make it pocket-friendly, but we should note that its brushed-aluminum face tends to scratch easily; you'll want to carry this guy in some sort of protective case. We picked up a case that had a belt clip and found that--for men, at least--toting this camera on your waist is the ideal way to carry it. A neckstrap is included for those who want to go with the dangling-pendant approach.
Overall, we really like this Panasonic's feel, as well as the layout of its controls. The on/off switch, the shutter-release button, and the zoom rocker are all intelligently positioned. You can use the camera single-handedly, but it doesn't fit very snugly in your palm, so it's a good idea to wrap the strap around your neck or your wrist while shooting. We saw the F1 slip from one user's hand; while it picked up a nice dent from the nearly four-foot fall to the pavement, it took the licking and kept on ticking.
Panasonic is one the main backers of the postage-stamp-sized Secure Digital media format, and the company bundles a 16MB card with the F1. The slot for the memory lies behind an easily accessible door on the right side of the unit. Behind the same door, you'll find the removable, rechargeable, lithium-ion battery, as well as the power-adapter port for recharging it.
We appreciate the fine details of the F1's interface. For example, it saves settings-- including the last manual white balance--after it powers down. And overall, the camera is fairly easy to learn to use, though novices will most likely have to consult the manual to figure out what the various options mean. Though the F1 is designed to be a point-and-shoot model, a few manual settings provide more-advanced users a degree of flexibility. Like most cameras of this ilk, the Lumix has several automatic settings from which to choose, including four preset modes to optimize exposure and shutter speed for the type of scene that you're shooting. Rank beginners can turn the mode dial to the heart-shaped icon to select from a simplified picture-mode menu, in which you choose a pixel resolution based on intended purpose: the Internet (640x480), as well as 4x6 or enlarged (2,048x1,536) prints.
Those who want a little more control can select the resolution explicitly in a separate setup menu and choose from two compression settings. In this menu, you'll find three picture-adjustment presets--Natural, Standard, and Vivid--that affect how saturated the colors appear in your shots, as well as manual ISO and white-balance settings. The camera also offers spot metering and exposure compensation. By pressing a button in the middle of the dial-wheel, you can cycle the continuous-shooting mode through high compression, low compression, and off. You can also capture short video clips with sound, adjust the size of your pictures in-camera, and digitally zoom in on images during playback. You'll find the typical flash options, such as red-eye reduction and a slow-sync mode for night shots. But look to the F1's competition for more-sophisticated features, such as uncompressed image capture and exposure-control settings. We found this camera to be extremely responsive. It starts up in less than three seconds, and shot-to-shot times fall into the zippy three- to four-second range--even when using the flash and with relatively minimal shutter lag. The camera's autofocus performed fairly well, though it did have some trouble with busy scenes, such as the parade at Universal Studios Japan pictured below. The two continuous-shooting modes snapped up to 5 frames at 1.7 frames per second (fps) using high compression and 1.4fps with low compression.
The F1's 1.5-inch LCD is adequately sharp and bright, and although the optical viewfinder is small and a tad distorted, it provides a clear view. Your composition will benefit from using the LCD when shooting at close range, however; like most cameras of its class, this Lumix has an optical viewfinder that shows only about 80 percent of the full frame.
This model's small flash performed well enough, with a range of about 12 to 15 feet, but it tended to underexpose scenes with sidelit or backlit subjects. Battery life at room temperature exceeded 450 shots, and we took at least 50 pics after the low-battery warning light came on. But, as is common with most cameras, battery life drops in cold weather--in this case, down to about 70 shots. Because the F1 doesn't accept any standard disposable batteries, it's a good idea to venture out with a fully charged cell or a spare from Panasonic. In the past, Panasonic's Lumix models--even with their Leica-branded optics--tended to suffer from so-so image quality. We're happy to report some improvement in this department. The F1 generally delivered pleasing shots that should satisfy most snapshooters.
When shooting with the manual white balance enabled, the F1 delivered properly exposed images with accurate, neutral grays. Compared to shots taken by some of the best 3-megapixel cameras in its class, the F1's pics are a bit noisier and slightly softer but are still better than average. Outdoor shots taken using automatic white balance were similarly good and produced natural flesh tones. The images suffered from a bit of subtle, purple fringing in high-contrast zones but less so than we expected. With the automatic white balance turned on, however, indoor shots had a strong yellow cast. When using the indoor white-balance preset, images appeared a bit pink.