It's a still camera. It's a camcorder. At least that's what Panasonic hopes you'll think when you think about the latest high-profile Lumix to hit the market this year: the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3.
A 10.1 megapixel, 12x zoom update to Panasonic's extremely popular TZ models, the ZS3 (which retains its former badging as the TZ7 in some markets) combines the versatility of a long-zoom compact camera with the option to capture 720p high-def video at a moment's notice, with the push of a single button.
We first got our hands on a pre-production ZS3 several months ago during the camera's official launch event, and a few hours shooting with the new model made it clear that the ZS3 was very much like the TZ5 -- only different. Just how different? Read on to find out...
BUILD AND DESIGN
Panasonic's newest long-zoom compact, the 10.1 megapixel ZS3 will instantly call to mind the venerable TZ-series cameras it replaces. Panasonic is known for rugged construction and bold, industrial-esque design in their flagship Lumix models, and in this sense, the ZS3 breaks no new ground.
From any distance, it would be easy enough to mistake the new model for a TZ5, but size and weight reductions compared to previous Lumix long-zoom models are felt (and appreciated!) as soon as you pick the camera up. Although it retains the TZ5's solid feel and all-metal construction, a lighter and more compact optical design allows Panasonic and their Leica collaborators to squeeze more zoom range into less space.
Overall, the ZS3 claims a 10 percent size reduction when compared to the TZ cameras, and although it's still a formidable model compared to many ultracompacts (and hardly pocket-size besides), the ZS3 still slightly bests the competitive Canon SX200 in compactness.
Ergonomics and Controls
The ZS3's surface area and semi-cylindrical grip provide plenty of real estate for comfortably hanging on to the camera. The camera's typical-for-a-Lumix control arrangement clusters the camera's basic functions -- a four-way controller, a couple of dedicated buttons, and the new video button -- within easy reach of your thumb, and even with the camera's large lens extended, balance was never a problem.
In designing the ZS3 to be a "hybrid" model -- equally at home shooting stills or videos -- the ZS3's design team recognized that many users find video functions on the typical point-and-shoot difficult to access. That's where the ZS3's dedicated video button comes in: one press of this back-panel control (which sits above the four-way controller) and the camera begins capturing video instantly.
Moving the video recording start/stop function onto its own button also has the added benefit of decluttering the camera's mode dial, as a full-time dedicated video control eliminates the need for a separate shooting mode for movie capture.
Menus and Modes
Panasonic was one of the first to get on board with automatic scene recognition, brought to the Lumix line by way of the manufacturer's Intelligent Auto (or iA) shooting mode. A quick and competent auto-detection system, the "Intelligent Scene Selector" portion of Panasonic's five-part iA system automatically picks from six shooting presets (including a pair of night-specific modes) based on scene conditions -- and in general, it does an admirable job of making a smart choice.
Integrating smarter "Intelligent" ISO selection, optical image stabilization, face detection, and Panasonic's Quick AF continuous focus system into the mix as well, iA proved adept in responding to rapidly changing situations during our shooting tests with the ZS3. There were a few notable misses (a couple of times, the camera spent several seconds hunting for focus in the macro range when there was nothing there to focus on), but for casual shooters -- and especially those who take lots of "people snapshots" -- iA's combination of technologies works well enough to allow "set it and forget it" operation.
For those seeking more control, there's also a program auto mode (the somewhat amusingly named "Normal Picture" setting). A scene mode provides access to the ZS3's staggering 27 situation presets, and a pair of My Scene positions allow the user to choose two favorites from among this long list for quick access directly from the mode dial.
As noted previously, there's no separate video shooting mode. Video settings are configured through a separate tab in the main menu (or Panasonic's trademark Quick Menu -- a list of heads-up options that can be called up via the Q.Menu button), though as with stills, you have to be in Normal Picture to tweak settings like white balance and AF mode.
On balance, Panasonic's user interface remains largely unchanged and relatively straightforward. That said, for a camera targeting casual shooters, I continue to feel like the ZS3 offers almost too many options. From six AF modes to page upon page of image settings to countless "intelligent" features (ISO, exposure, etc.), the ZS3's menus offer a lot of whiz-bang for gadget fans, but may also be a lot to sort through for novice users.
Panasonic landed quite the punch when they brought a 3.0 inch, 460,000 dot LCD to the TZ cameras, and while we've had some nits to pick and inconsistencies to sort out with this particular display in the past, the unit on our ZS3 proved flawless in testing. No strange "white out" phenomena like we saw with some of the older TZ models here.
Color is reasonably accurate, as is contrast, although in both cases side-by-side comparisons with our calibrated displays showed the ZS3's screen to be imparting some punchiness and overall vibrancy that isn't there in unprocessed straight-to-print shots. Nonetheless, solid resolution makes focus easier to judge with less zooming.
Like other Lumix models, the ZS3 sports a handful of display power options, allowing you to manually boost screen brightness for outdoor shooting, for instance. With the wide viewing-angle mode enabled, I had no trouble using the screen in everything but direct sunlight.
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