Prosumer digital cameras fall into a gray area somewhere between consumer point & shoot digicams and entry-level dSLR cameras. Typically, prosumer digicams provide shooters with a broader array of exposure options and more input into the picture making process than standard P&S models. Many prosumer digicams provide manual exposure capability, expanded in-camera image adjustment options, high-resolution, super fast AF, near real time shutter fire, and monster zooms. Despite the lack of consensus about just exactly what characterizes a prosumer digital camera they have become increasingly popular over the past few years. Panasonic's recently introduced FZ7 could be the poster child for this class of enhanced usability digital cameras.
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The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 is an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary update of last year's very popular FZ5. Panasonic's product development folks fashioned the FZ7 to include many of the design/performance enhancements requested by users (larger LCD screen, faster response, more powerful flash, improved movie mode, and manual focus capability) while retaining all the best features of the FZ5. Unlike many updated high tech products, the FZ7 actually improves on its illustrious predecessor (and at a lower price).
NUTS & BOLTS
Long zoom digicams are universally equipped with Electronic viewfinders (EVFs) because it is not economically feasible to manufacture a zooming optical viewfinder to match an 8X, 10X, or 12X zoom. Many veteran photographers don't like EVFs, because even the best electronic viewfinders can't compete (in terms of clarity and resolution) with an optical viewfinder. What is great about EVFs is that they provide TTL (through the lens) composition (with no parallax error) just like SLR cameras, plus they show 100% of the image frame (P&S optical finders generally only show about 85 percent) and they provide access to the same info displays and menus as the LCD screen. The FZ7 recycles the coupled (zooming) tunnel style (0.33-inch color LCD monitor with a magnifying eyepiece) EVF originally used on the FZ5. Images are bright, sharp, color correct, and fluid. There's a diopter correction adjustment for those who wear eyeglasses.
The FZ7's large 2.5" (114,000 pixels) LCD screen is a bit grainy (the FZ7's LCD screen actually has lower resolution than the smaller LCD screen of the FZ5), but images are sharp, bright, color correct, and fluid. LCD screen brightness can be adjusted and there's a real-time (live) histogram display (a graphic depiction of the image frame that shows areas of over/under exposure -- sort of like a built in digital light meter) for fine-tuning exposures before tripping the shutter. An AF assist beam helps with focusing in low/dim lighting.
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One of the major selling points for Panasonic's FZ line of digital cameras is their Leica (not Leitz) lenses. Leica has been making legendary cameras and world-class optics for more than eighty years. The FZ7's f2.8-f3.3/6-72mm (36-432mm 35mm equivalent) Leica DC Vario-Elmarit all-glass (11 elements in 8 Groups with 3 Aspherical elements) optical zoom seems very similar to the 12X zoom used on Panasonic's flagship FZ30. This lens is a winner. Corners are noticeably sharper than average (although some corner softness is unavoidable in an optic this complex) and I didn't notice any vignetting (darkened corners) which is absolutely amazing optical performance for a 12X moderate wide-angle to long telephoto zoom. Contrast and color are also very good, but there is some noticeable barrel distortion at the wide-angle end of the zoom and some visible pincushion distortion at the telephoto end of the range. Even more amazing is how well chromatic aberration is controlled. A very slight violet fringing is visible occasionally around the edges of very bright and very dark image elements. Minimum focusing distance (in Macro mode) is just short of two inches (5 cm) at the wide-angle end of the zoom.
Veteran photographers and serious shooters who dislike rocker switch zoom controls will love the added control provided by the FZ7's manual zoom ring, which works just like the manual zoom rings on a 35mm or medium format zoom lens. FZ7 users can mount 52mm filters (with the included lens hood adapter) or 55mm accessories and auxiliary lenses (with the optional conversion lens adapter). Panasonic includes a very nice clip-on lens cap and a very useful (petal style) lens hood.
For those shooters who dislike digital zoom, the FZ7 provides a unique way to gain some extra zoom reach without resorting to the grainy look typical of digital zoom images. Panasonic calls this feature extended optical zoom (EOZ). When EOZ is enabled the FZ7 uses a smaller area of the CCD sensor, creating a narrower angle of view, which makes the FZ7's 12X zoom grow magically to a 17.6X optic (but at lower resolutions). The final result is essentially the same, but the center of the image frame is not magnified (which causes image degradation) so while maximum resolution is reduced, image quality is not.
(view medium image) (view large image) Resolution is very sharp, colors are accurate, and contrast is very good -- note detail in snow
Image Stabilization (IS)
Panasonic (with help from Leica's optical engineers) developed a unique gyro-sensor based optical image stabilization system that works by shifting internal lens elements to compensate for camera shake/movement during exposure. The FZ7's IS system allows users to shoot at shutter speeds up to 3 f-stops slower than would be possible without image stabilization. For example, if a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second is required to avoid the effects of camera shake (without image stabilization) the FZ7 can capture a sharp image of the same subject (everything else being equal) at 1/60th of a second -- that's a great feature for photographers who like to shoot action/sports/wildlife and lowlight subjects.
The FZ7's Image Stabilization has two modes -- In mode 1 (continuous IS) the LCD screen can be used for confirmation during exposure, but this option uses up batteries like the Space Shuttle uses up rocket fuel. IS can be also engaged just prior to exposure (mode 2) which is just as effective and uses much less battery power. Does the FZ7's IS system work? Yes, but image stabilization can't accomplish miracles. Panasonic's Mega OIS system can counteract for minor movement/camera shake, but it won't neutralize sharp or violent camera shifts or reduce blur caused by moving subjects or rapid panning. FZ7 users also have the option to turn IS off. Potential purchasers should keep in mind that using IS dramatically shortens battery life and factor in the cost of a backup battery.
Auto Focus (AF)
The FZ7's contrast-detection auto focus system provides users with numerous focus options - 9 AF point AF, 3 AF point high speed AF, 1 AF point high speed AF, 1 AF point standard AF, and Spot AF. AF is consistently smooth, fast, and precise even in the normal speed modes. AF is effectively real time in the high-speed modes. The LCD screen does black out (briefly) when the shutter is tripped in the high-speed AF modes, but this shouldn't be a problem for most users. AF is quite accurate, but it does tend to occasionally lock on higher contrast objects in the background when shooting low contrast foreground subjects.
Manual Focus (MF)
In manual focus mode the FZ7's joystick is used to adjust focusing distance, a cumbersome and inexact process that actually discourages users from using manual focus. It would have been really nice if Panasonic had included the nifty MF lens ring found on Panasonic's flagship FZ30. In MF mode the center of the image frame is enlarged, to aid focusing.
The FZ7's built-in pop-up flash offers a relatively standard array of flash options, including: Auto, Red-eye reduction, Slow-synch, Fill, and Off. The FZ7 also provides Flash compensation (+/-2 EV in 1/3 EV increments) so flash output can be balanced to ambient light. Panasonic claims the maximum flash range is about 20 feet (6 meters), but (based on my limited use) that claim seems a bit optimistic unless there is lots of light (or a very light colored background).
The FZ7 saves images to SD/MMC memory media (a 16MB "starter" card is included). SD cards are available in capacities up to 2GB.
Image File Formats
The FZ7 supports JPEG and TIFF image formats.
USB 2.0 (not 2.0 high speed), A/V out, and DC in
The FZ7 uses the same CGR-S006A lithium-ion rechargeable battery as Panasonic's top of the line FZ30. Power management is very good, but Panasonic's claim of 320 exposures (full time LCD) is almost certainly based on a test lab scenario. The FZ7's Image Stabilization is very efficient, but IS (especially in continuous mode) consumes prodigious amounts of juice.
In real world terms, the FZ7's battery life is about average. That means a back-up CGR-S006A lithium-ion rechargeable battery is going to be a necessity for most users. Panasonic camera batteries are generally available only in camera stores (that sell Panasonic cameras) or large volume on-line electronics merchants. The included charger needs about 120 minutes to juice the FZ7's battery back up to full power.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 provides the sort of useful range of exposure options one would expect from a prosumer digicam. Auto, Program AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and full Manual modes. In Auto mode the camera sets all exposure parameters. In Program AE mode the FZ7 selects the aperture and shutter speed, but the user is free to choose most other exposure parameters. Users can also select one of the FZ7's 14 Scene modes -- Portrait, Soft Skin, Scenery, Sports, Night Portrait, Night Scenery, Panning, Food, Party, Candle Light, Fireworks, Starry Sky (like bulb mode), Baby 1 & 2, Snow, and High Sensitivity (defaults to the ISO 800 or ISO 1600 sensitivity settings) and the camera automatically optimizes all exposure parameters for the specific type of scene selected. In Aperture Priority mode, shooters select the lens aperture and the FZ7 selects the appropriate shutter speed. In Shutter Priority mode users select the shutter speed and the FZ7 selects the appropriate aperture. In Manual mode users have complete control and select all exposure parameters.
The FZ7's Movie mode captures video at 640X480 (or 848X480) @ 30 fps with mono audio. Movie duration is limited only by the capacity of the installed SD card. Unlike most digicams the FZ7's zoom can be used during filming (the manual zoom ring doesn't generate any motor noise). IS can also be engaged during video capture.
The FZ7's default Intelligent Multiple-Segment light measurement system divides the image frame into segments and then evaluates brightness and contrast in each of those individual segments to determine the optimum exposure. More advanced users select either Spot or Center-Weighted metering modes for more control in tricky lighting. The Spot mode allows users to align the center of the frame with the most important compositional element (like the eyes in a portrait) and bias the exposure on that very small area and then re-compose. Center-Weighted metering is useful for re-creating the retro look of "classic" landscapes and portraits or ensuring that the exposure is biased on subjects in the central part of the frame.
White Balance (WB)
The FZ7's White Balance system provides TTL Auto and pre-sets for daylight, cloudy, halogen, flash, and White Set 1 & 2 (most camera makers call this custom or manual WB mode) which allows shooters to use a white or gray card (or a white ceiling or wall) to set WB. The FZ7's White Balance compensation function permits users to bias hue toward cooler (blue) or warmer (red) colors in +/-10 incremental steps.
The FZ7 provides settings for TTL Auto and user selected ISO (35mm equivalent) values of 80, 100, 200, and 400 (plus ISO 800 and ISO 1600 in the High Sensitivity Scene mode). The FZ7's Sensitivity options are not as broad as a prosumer digicam this complex should provide. The ISO 80 and ISO 100 settings are so close there is no discernible difference between the two (it would have been nice if the FZ7 had provided a low-end setting of ISO 50 or ISO 64 instead of ISO 80).
In-Camera Image Adjustment
In-camera image adjustment options are often overlooked by digicam purchasers, but savvy users know they are a very important tool for overcoming minor exposure problems. The FZ7 provides shooters with a very useful range of exposure tweaks designed to help demanding photographers achieve precisely the look they want.
The FZ7's Exposure Compensation mode allows users to subtly modify exposure parameters. Very light or very dark subjects can trick light metering systems into underexposing or overexposing images. The FZ7's base exposure can be modified over a 4 EV range (+/-2 EV) in 1/3 EV increments to compensate for difficult lighting and subject/background reflectance/non-reflectance problems or to compensate for environmental exposure variables.
Very minor differences in exposure can affect the overall tone and dramatic appeal of an image. FZ7 users can ensure that they'll get very close to perfect exposures with the camera's auto bracketing function. The FZ7 captures 3 exposures in rapid sequence (with one press of the shutter button) varying the exposure between the three images by +/-1EV in 1/3 EV increments.
Other tweaks include -- Saturation (Low, standard, high), Contrast (Low, standard, high), Sharpness (Low, standard, high), and Noise reduction (Low, standard, high). Native color can also be manipulated via the Color Effect mode (Off, cool, warm, black & white, or sepia). FZ7 users can also select the Aspect Ratio (4:3, 3:2, or 16:9).
CONTROLS, DESIGN, ENGINEERING, & ERGONOMICS
The FZ7 has a functional no-nonsense industro-tech look. It handles like a super compact SLR and seems more than durable enough (polycarbonate shell over metal alloy frame) for most non-professional uses. The ergonomic handgrip is comfortable to hold and provides a nice balance point for the heavy zoom. Controls are logically placed and come easily to hand (although mastering the stubby little joystick will take some practice). Menus (the FZ7 provides simple mode and standard menus) are easy to understand and navigate. This camera was clearly designed by photographers, for photographers.
Experienced digital camera users should be able to use the camera right out of the box -- neophytes, technophobes, and digicam first timers will need no more than a short hands on familiarization with the camera and a brief scan of the owner's manual before they can start shooting. The FZ7, unlike some other prosumer digicams, puts very few impediments in the photographer's way
16MB SD card, CGR-S006A lithium-ion rechargeable battery, Battery charger, Lens hood (w/adaptor), Lens cap, shoulder strap, USB & A/V cables, software CD-ROM, printed users manual
Wide-angle, telephoto, and close-up auxiliary lenses, AC-DC adapter, filters, and soft case
The FZ7's image quality is very good, but image noise is slightly above average. Minor noise is visible in shadow areas even at the Auto ISO setting. Noise is well controlled at ISO 80 and 100 (there's no discernible difference between the ISO 80 and ISO 100 settings), but slightly off putting at ISO 200. Noise is unacceptably high at ISO 400. Chroma noise (blotching) is visible in high contrast areas. Images are consistently sharp and contrasty with very good color and decent shadow/highlight detail.
Very minor chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is visible in high contrast color transition areas at the wide end of the Leica zoom, but effectively invisible at the telephoto end of the range. For users who plan to print enlargements up to 8x10 and use only images shot at ISO 80 or ISO 100 (with noise reduction set to "high") prints should be quite good. Enlargements bigger than 8X10 are likely to show image noise (at least in shadow areas) and minor chroma/pattern noise (blotching) in bright/high contrast areas.
(view medium image) (view large image) This retro resale shop was a perfect test of the FZ7's native color (how the FZ7 renders color) -- all colors are bright, bold, hue accurate, and slightly oversaturated.
The FZ7 is very quick, easily one of the fastest prosumer digital cameras around. The FZ7's boot up cycle (about 2 seconds) is noticeably faster than average. Shutter lag is essentially real time and AF lag (with pre-focus) is effectively non-existent. From scratch AF is 0.25-0.50 second. Write to card times are substantially faster than average and shot to shot times (1.0-1.5 seconds for JPEGs and 3.0-4.0 seconds for TIFFs) are noticeably better than average. Overall, the FZ7 is fast enough to compete very nicely with just about everything up to (and including) entry-level dSLRs.
(view medium image) (view large image) This biker, captured in mid leap, shows the FZ7's very fast AF and near "real time" shutter fire. Note chroma noise (blotching) in the high contrast sky area (upper left hand corner) above the biker. Minor chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is also visible
A Few Concerns
My major concern with the FZ7 is the above average noise level, especially at ISO 200 and ISO 400. In addition, there's no direct access method for deleting photos immediately after they're taken.
For many digital camera buyers image quality is the single most important consideration in their purchasing decision. However, exactly what constitutes superior image quality will always be relative and subjective. I have a favorite 11x14 Cibachrome print, made (in 1988) from an Agfachrome RS100 35mm slide. That print is sharp as a tack, all colors are hue accurate and absolutely neutral, there's no image noise, no blotching, no fading (after almost 20 years), and no purple fringing. Some potential purchasers may eliminate the FZ7 from their considerations because of its slightly higher than average noise levels and that's too bad. Most digicam buyers use their images for 4x6 prints, on-line photo albums, an occasional 8x10 enlargement, and for sharing (via e-mail) with friends/relatives. The FZ7 will excel in all those applications. This camera comes tantalizingly close to the mythical ideal prosumer digicam. With very little in the way of genuine competition, the FZ7 may be the best prosumer digicam choice (based on features/capabilities/performance vs price and at this point in time) for serious shutterbugs and advanced amateur shooters. Photography is not just a science - it is also an art, so it is important not to get too hung up on stats and specs. Noise, blotching, and purple fringing are (to a lesser or greater degree) present in all digital images and the only practical way to reliably (and completely) avoid these frustrating electronic anomalies is to shoot film.
Pros: SLR style body, 12X Leica zoom, image stabilization, 2.5" LCD screen, manual controls, excellent image quality
Cons: Noisy images, minor chromatic aberration, LCD screen is grainy