Serious photographers are a demanding lot, but camera manufacturers absolutely love them (because they buy a lot of digital cameras). A near perfect example of this corporate affection is the new Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8; an imaging tool that caters specifically (with a couple of important cautions) to photography enthusiasts. Hybrid digital cameras bridge the divide between simple consumer level P&S (point & shoot) digicams and entry-level digital single lens reflex (dSLR) cameras by providing serious photographers with more picture making options, increased exposure flexibility, and enhanced creative control. Hybrid digital cameras often mimic the look and feel and of a dSLR while retaining the convenience, immediacy, and movie modes of point & shoot digicams. Typically, hybrid digicams provide manual exposure capability, high-resolution, fast AF, and near real time shutter fire.
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Ultra-zooms are currently the most popular genre of hybrid camera. Long zoom digicams were once the sole province of Olympus, but there’s a lot of competition in the monster zoom class right now. The Olympus SP-550 UZ features an 18X zoom, image stabilization, a hot shoe, and supports RAW format, but it is substantially more expensive than the FZ8. The Canon Powershot S5 IS features a 12X zoom and a hot shoe, but lacks RAW capability. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 provides a 12X zoom, but lacks both a hot shoe and RAW capability. The Fujifilm Finepix S6000fd has an 10.7X zoom and RAW capability, but it lacks both a hot shoe and image stabilization.
The super compact FZ8 replaces Panasonic’s very popular FZ7 and provides a full complement of advanced features including: 7.2 megapixel resolution, a 12X Leica DC Vario-Elmarit zoom with MEGA O.I.S. (image stabilization), substantial resolution improvements in both the 2.5-inch LCD and EVF, RAW format capability, and full manual controls.
NUTS & BOLTS
Prosumer digicams virtually always provide either an optical viewfinder or an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Long zoom digicams are generally equipped with electronic viewfinders (EVFs) because it is not economically feasible to manufacture a coupled (zooming) optical viewfinder to match a 10X or 12X zoom. Electronic viewfinders (EVF) are basically a smaller version of the LCD screen found on the rear deck of most digital cameras. EVFs don’t render detail as sharply as optical viewfinders, but they do provide TTL (through the lens) framing and composition, with no parallax error, just like SLRs. The FZ8 features a new and improved coupled (zooming) tunnel style EVF – the new EVF is 1/3 larger than its predecessor and resolution has been increased from 114,000 pixels to 188,000 pixels. EVF images are hue (color) correct and brighter and sharper – I’m guessing the refresh rate has also been increased, since the FZ8’s EVF seems more fluid than its predecessor. There's a diopter correction adjustment for those who wear eyeglasses.
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The FZ7's 2.5" (114,000 pixels) LCD screen was a bit grainy, but that problem has been addressed. The FZ8’s screen is the same size as its predecessor, but resolution has been increased to 207,000 pixels – making it one of the sharpest LCD screens around right now. LCD images are bright, color correct, and more fluid (less jerky) than they were on the FZ7. LCD screen brightness can be adjusted (the Power LCD option brightens the screen for outdoor viewing) and there's a real-time (live) histogram display for fine-tuning compositions pre-exposure.
FZ8 purchasers will be pleased that Panasonic didn’t mess with the very good 12X Leica DC zoom – it appears to be the same optic that graced the FZ5 and FZ7. Ernst Leitz GMBH (which designed the FZ8’s Leica zoom) has been designing and manufacturing exceptional optics for almost a century. The FZ8'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 is a class champ optic.
Very minor chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is visible in high contrast color transition areas at the wide end of the zoom, but essentially undetectable at the telephoto end. Corners are perceptibly sharper than average, although some corner softness is inescapable in an optic this complex. I didn't notice any vignetting (darkened corners) which is very impressive optical performance for a 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 (barely) visible pincushion distortion at the telephoto end of the range.
Serious shooters really dislike digital zoom, but the FZ8 (like its predecessor) provides a unique way to gain some extra 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 FZ8 uses a smaller area of the CCD sensor (creating a narrower angle of view) which makes the 12X zoom grow to an 18X zoom (at 3 megapixels). Maximum resolution drops, but image quality is not compromised.
The FZ8’s minimum focusing distance is about two inches (5 cm) at the wide-angle end of the zoom, so if pollen dusted bees and frame filling flower interiors are important subjects – the Canon Powershot S5 IS does a better job up close. The FZ8 worked better (for me) at the telephoto end of the zoom when shooting close-ups. Users will have to give up a little depth of field, but they’ll gain some valuable stand-off room when shooting skittish little six legged critters.
(view medium image) (view large image) Backlit Giant Tiger Swallowtail on Zinnia (shot at 12X)
Image Stabilization (IS)
Image Stabilization is now an almost ubiquitous feature on long zoom prosumer digicams because IS minimizes the virtually unavoidable camera shake that causes blurry and out of focus images. Panasonic was the first digital camera manufacturer to offer a dependable optical image stabilization system on its fixed lens P&S digicams. Panasonic and Ernst Leitz, GMBH (Leica) developed an optical image stabilization system that works by shifting internal lens elements to compensate for camera shake/movement during exposure. The FZ8'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 1/250th of a second is required to avoid the effects of camera shake (without image stabilization) the FZ8 can capture a relatively sharp image of the same subject (everything else being equal) at 1/30th of a second.
The FZ8's image stabilization system provides two operational modes -- In mode 1 (continuous) IS is engaged full time, but this option dramatically shortens battery life. IS can be also engaged just prior to exposure (mode 2) which is equally effective and uses much less power.
Subject movement can also cause blurred images. The FZ8 provides a new feature called Intelligent ISO Control to counter the blur caused by subject movement during exposure. Intelligent ISO Control works by automatically boosting shutter speed and sensitivity (ISO) when the camera detects subject movement during exposure – faster shutter speeds and higher ISO settings help freeze movement.
Auto Focus (AF)
The FZ8's contrast-detection auto focus system provides users with numerous focus options – Multi (user selectable AF patterns), 3 point high speed AF, 1 point high speed AF, 1 point standard AF, and Spot AF. AF is smooth, quick, and very precise - even in the normal speed modes. AF is close to 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.
Manual Focus (MF)
In manual focus mode the FZ8's joystick is used to incrementally adjust focusing distance - in MF mode the center of the image frame is enlarged, to aid with focusing.
The FZ8's built-in pop-up flash (activated manually by a small button on the rear of the camera) offers a fairly typical array of flash options, including: auto, red-eye reduction, slow-synch, fill flash, and off. The FZ8 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 that claim seems a little optimistic unless there is lots of ambient light on the subject (or a very light colored background). Flash recycle times are noticeably faster than average – about 2 seconds with a fully charged battery. Panasonic’s design team should seriously consider the addition of a hot shoe to FZ8's successor, as the FZ50 has one the could be fairly easily grafted to the FZ8’s successor.
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The FZ8 saves images to SD/SDHC/MMC memory media. No "starter" card is included, but the FZ8 provides 27MB of internal image storage.
Image File Formats
The FZ8 supports JPEG and RAW image formats.
USB 2.0 Hi Speed, A/V out, and DC in
The FZ8 uses the same CGR-S006A lithium-ion rechargeable battery as its predecessor, but the new Venus III processor manages (according to Panasonic) to squeeze out about 20 percent more battery life – 380 exposures as opposed to the FZ7’s 320 exposures. Power management is very good, but Panasonic's claim of 380 exposures (full time LCD use) is almost certainly based on a test lab/best case scenario. The FZ8's LCD/EVF, AF, and flash all need power and the MEGA OIS image stabilization system (especially in continuous mode) also uses lots of juice. I didn’t keep track of exposures, but the FZ8’s battery is more than up to a full day of very heavy shooting without going belly-up – long weekends or short vacations will probably require nightly re-charges. The included wall mount charger needs about 2 hours to juice the FZ8's battery back to full power.
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The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 provides users with a full slate of exposure options, including: 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 FZ8 selects the aperture and shutter speed, but the user is free to choose most other exposure parameters. Users can also select one of the FZ8's Scene modes – Portrait, Soft Skin, Scenery, Sports, Night Portrait, Night Scenery, Panning, Food, Party, Candlelight, Fireworks, Starry Sky, Baby 1, Baby 2, Aerial photo, Snow, High Sensitivity, Beach, Sunset, or Pet 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 FZ8 selects the appropriate shutter speed. In shutter priority mode users select the shutter speed and the FZ8 selects the appropriate aperture. In manual mode users select all exposure parameters.
In all auto modes the FZ8 is a remarkably dependable picture taker – exposure, AF, auto WB, and auto ISO are all dead-on accurate. The FZ8's image quality is consistently very good to excellent outdoors at the ISO 100 setting, but image noise is noticeably above average at higher sensitivities. Picky shooters have the option to shoot in RAW mode and eliminate noise, post exposure.
(view medium image) (view large image) Even in heavy shade the FZ8’s program mode nicely captured this urban Americana grab shot.
The FZ8's QuickTime MJPEG format Movie mode captures video at 640X480 (or 848X480 in 16x9 mode) @ 30 fps with mono audio. Movie duration is limited to 2 GB.
The FZ8's default Intelligent Multiple-Segment (evaluative) light measurement system divides the image frame into individual segments and then measures contrast, subject reflectance, and overall brightness in each of those segments to determine the optimal exposure. More advanced users can select either spot or center-weighted averaging 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 averaging is useful for re-creating the retro look of "classic" landscapes or ensuring that the exposure is biased on subjects in the central part of the frame.
White Balance (WB)
The FZ8's white balance system provides a very good selection of WB options, including: TTL Auto and pre-sets for daylight, cloudy, shade, halogen, flash, and White Set 1 & 2 (most camera makers call these custom or manual WB modes) which allows shooters to use a white card (or a white ceiling/wall) to set WB. Strangely, there is no preset for fluorescent lighting. The FZ8's white balance fine tuning mode is adjustable over a +/- 9 step range.
The FZ8 provides sensitivity (ISO) settings for TTL Auto and user selected sensitivity values of 100, 200, 400, 800, and 1250 ISO (plus ISO 3200 in the High Sensitivity Scene mode). While the FZ8's sensitivity options are not as broad as some of its competition, they are an improvement over the FZ7’s. The FZ8’s new intelligent ISO mode (which automatically boosts sensitivity if motion is detected) is a double-edged sword – higher sensitivity plus IS equals a higher percentage of sharp images when shooting action, but the FZ8’s noise levels rise exponentially as sensitivity increases. The Intelligent ISO mode permits users to pre-set an upper sensitivity limit - I advise setting it no higher than ISO 200.
Noise Reduction (NR)
Noise reduction is a very delicate balancing act - small high pixel count sensor arrays generate lots of noise, but eliminating that noise too aggressively also wipes away image detail. The FZ8’s new Venus III processor utilizes a two stage noise reduction process – it separates the luminance (brightness) from the chroma (color) data in each image and then applies NR very aggressively to the chroma data and less aggressively to the luminance data – this method is supposed to drastically reduce the hated "digital" (color speckles) noise and more subtly reduce the less offensive photo grain (black/white speckles) noise. The problem with this approach is that it produces images with visible detail loss (most visible in hair, fur, grass, etc.) and a smeary "water color" look. Outdoor shooters who stay at ISO 100 or ISO 200, set NR to low, and don’t produce prints larger than 11x14 inches won’t have much of a problem – dim/low light shooters and those who want/need prints larger than 11x14 inches are advised to consider an entry level dSLR with a fast prime lens. FZ8 users should set (and leave) NR at Low - once detail is gone it can’t be restored, but image noise can always be removed post exposure (via a variety of third party software NR applications).
In-Camera Image Adjustment
The FZ8 (like its predecessor) provides shooters with a very useful range of exposure tweaks designed to help demanding photographers achieve precisely the look they want. The exposure compensation mode allows users to quickly and easily make subtle exposure adjustments. Very light or very dark subjects can trick light metering systems into underexposing or overexposing images. The FZ8's base exposure can be modified (lightened or darkened) 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 exposure differences can adversely affect the overall tone and dramatic appeal of an image. FZ8 users can ensure that they'll get very close to perfect exposures with the camera's auto bracketing function. The FZ8 automatically captures 3 exposures (of the same scene) in rapid sequence - with one press of the shutter button, varying the exposure between the three images by +/-1EV in 1/3, 2/3, and 1.0 EV increments
Other tweaks include -- saturation (low, standard, high), contrast (low, standard, high), sharpness (low, standard, high), and noise reduction (low, standard, high). FZ8 users can also select the camera’s Aspect Ratio (4:3, 3:2, or 16:9).
CONTROLS, DESIGN, ENGINEERING, & ERGONOMICS
The FZ8 is a very compact (4.43 inches x 2.84 inches x 3.11 inches) and lightweight (0.68 lb. - minus battery and media card) megazoom digital camera, but unlike many updated digicams (where improvements are mostly cosmetic) the FZ8 actually enhances functionality and usability over its famous predecessor - and at a lower base price. On the surface, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 is almost identical to its predecessor, but there are lots of improvements under the hood. Construction is solid and the ergonomic grip fits the hand (and balances the camera) nicely. All controls are logically placed, easy to access, and quickly become intuitive - although mastering the stubby little joystick will take some practice. Menus are straightforward and easy to understand and navigation is simple and relatively direct.
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The SLR-like FZ8 is targeted toward serious amateur shooters and budding pros - it provides an remarkable level of creative flexibility for more demanding users, but it also features all the bells and whistles casual photographers have come to expect. Experienced digicam users should be able to use the camera right out of the box – neophytes and technophobes should 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.
Auto white balance and auto sensitivity (ISO) are dependably accurate in all auto exposure modes. Pictures are very sharp with slightly hard contrast, hue accurate slightly oversaturated color, and good shadow detail, but there is a slight tendency to clip highlights. Very minor chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is visible in high contrast color transition areas at the wide end of the Leica zoom, but is essentially non-existent at the telephoto end of the big optic’s range.
(view medium image) (view large image) The FZ8 did a very professional job on this new age style product shot – note high chroma/luminance noise levels.
The FZ8's image noise levels are slightly above average. Minor noise is visible in shadow areas even at the ISO 100 setting. Chroma noise (blotching) is visible in high contrast color areas and there is some detail smearing (due to overaggressive noise reduction) in low contrast shots. Outdoors in good light (at ISO 100) the FZ8 produces images that are essentially equal to its competition, noise-wise. ISO 200 is almost as good, but there is some negligible visible noise (especially in shadow areas) and some very minor detail loss. At ISO 400 The FZ8’s images are noticeably better than those from the FZ7, but they are still noisy enough to be objectionable and they show some obvious detail loss. Noise is unacceptably high above ISO 400 - images shot at sensitivities higher than ISO 400 are basically useless for anything beyond 4x6 record shots and e-mail shots.
The FZ8 is very quick, even quicker than its illustrious predecessor (probably due to the new Venus III processor) - easily one of the fastest long zoom digicams currently available. Shutter lag is essentially real time (less than 1/10th of a second) and AF lag (with pre-focus) is effectively non-existent. From scratch, AF (in one of the high speed AF modes) 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 JPEG and 3.0-4.0 seconds for RAW) are better than average. Overall, the FZ8 is quick enough to compete very nicely with just about everything up to (and including) entry-level dSLRs.
A Few Concerns
My major concern with the FZ8 is the above average luminance noise levels, especially at ISO 400 and higher. Even more troubling is the FZ8’s above average chroma noise and the camera’s tendency toward smearing/blotching at higher ISO sensitivities.
I really liked the the super compact and lightweight FZ8. This snappy little digicam provides an SLR-like level of photographic control and creative flexibility, but without the bulky bag of lenses that would be needed to cover the same (36mm – 432mm) focal length range with a dSLR. I used the camera heavily for a month, under a variety of conditions (I even shot some product photos for a friend) and the camera never let me down.
Some potential purchasers may be put off by the FZ8’s slightly above average noise levels and Panasonic’s failure to include a hot shoe. Image noise, blotching/smearing, and purple fringing are (to a lesser or greater degree) present in all digital images and serious outdoor shooters rarely use flash for anything more than fill lighting. Overall, I believe the FZ8 may be the best choice (at this point in time) for those looking to move up to a megazoom digicam.
Pros: SLR style body, fast, improved LCD and EVF, 12X zoom, image stabilization, manual controls, sharp images
Cons: Noisy images, minor chromatic aberration, smearing/blotching at higher ISO sensitivities
CGR-S006A lithium-ion rechargeable battery, Battery charger, tulip petal style Lens hood (w/adaptor), Lens cap, shoulder strap, USB & A/V cables, software CD-ROM, and printed users manual.
Users can mount 52mm filters (with the included lens hood adapter) or 55mm accessories and auxiliary lenses (with the optional conversion lens adapter).
Wide-angle, telephoto, and close-up auxiliary lenses, AC-DC adapter, various filters, and soft case