Despite its diminutive size the ultra-compact Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX30 is a sort of photographic kid brother to the prosumer Panasonic FZ8. Like its big brother, the tiny FX30 features 7 megapixel resolution, image stabilization, a high resolution 2.5 inch LCD screen, Panasonic’s third generation Venus Engine processor, an 640x480 @ 30fps movie mode, an ISO 100 to ISO 1250 sensitivity range, and multiple (4:3, 3:2 or 16:9) aspect ratios. Most ultra-compact digicam zooms start at around 35mm, so the 28mm lens gives the FX30 a slight edge when it comes to shooting groups, cramped indoor venues, and landscapes.
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NUTS & BOLTS
The FX30 doesn’t provide an optical viewfinder so all framing and composition chores fall to the high angle 2.5 inch (6.35 centimeter) polycrystalline TFT (207,000 pixels) LCD screen, which completely dominates the camera's tiny rear deck. LCD images are bright, sharp, and fluid. The LCD’s info display provides all the data the FX30’s target audience is likely to need. The display gains "up" (mixed-pixel readout technology automatically increases the brightness level) in dim lighting - users can also manually boost LCD screen brightness and the Power LCD option punches up screen backlighting by 40 percent in brightly lit outdoor venues.
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On the plus side, unlike most of its competition, the FX30 provides a real-time (live) histogram which makes it possible to check for (and correct) under/over exposure problems pre-exposure. On the negative side, the FX30’s LCD preview images are not exposure accurate (the default preview image is brighter than the actual image captured).
The heart of the FX30 is its f2.8-f5.6/4mm-16mm (equivalent to a 28mm -100mm on a 35mm camera) 3.6X Leica Vario Elmarit zoom. When the camera is powered up, the lens automatically telescopes out of the camera body. When the camera is powered down the lens fully retracts into the camera and a built-in lens cover slides into place to protect the front element. The lens is constructed of 7 elements in 6 groups with 4 aspherical elements - aspherical lens elements make it easier for lens designers to manufacture cheaper, smaller, lighter, and less complex zoom lenses – they also improve optical performance (sharpness, contrast, and color) by reducing internal reflections.
Due to its 28mm (equivalent) start point, the FX30 is able to cram about 25 percent more into the frame (at the wide angle end of the zoom) than most of its competition, but that slight edge is somewhat negated by higher than average noise levels. The FX30’s Leica zoom is very good optically, especially so for an ultra-compact point and shoot (P&S) digicam. Ernst Leitz GMBH, the parent company for camera and optics maker Leica designed the FX30’s zoom. Leitz has been designing and manufacturing first-rate cameras and world-class lenses for almost a century.
The FX30’s Vario Elmarit zoom exhibits minor barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range and very minor pin cushioning (straight lines bow in toward the center) at full telephoto. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is remarkably well controlled - very minor chromatic aberration is visible in high contrast color transition areas at the wide end of the zoom, but essentially undetectable at the telephoto end. Corners show some typical softness, but are perceptibly sharper than average. Minimum focusing distance in macro mode is 2.0 inches (5 centimeters).
(view medium image) (view large image) Backlit Giant Tiger Swallowtail on Zinnia – the FX30 is a good choice for macro/close-up fans
I counted 19 zoom steps from the wide-angle end to the telephoto end of the lens, more steps make precise zooming easier (some 3x zoom P&S digicams have as few as 6 zoom steps). For the times when 3.6X just isn’t enough zoom, the FX30 (like several other Panasonic digicams) provides a nifty method for gaining a little extra reach without resorting to the grainy looking images typical of digital zoom. Panasonic calls this feature Extended Optical Zoom (EOZ). When EOZ is enabled the FX30 uses a smaller area at the center of the CCD sensor (creating a narrower angle of view) which allows the 3.6X zoom to grow to a 5.3X zoom (at 3 megapixels) without de-grading image quality.
Optical Image Stabilization (OIS)
Optical image stabilization gyroscopically counters the involuntary movements of the photographer and minimizes the virtually unavoidable camera shake that causes blurry images by quickly and precisely shifting lens elements in the tiny Leica zoom to compensate for camera movement during exposure. The FX30's MEGA OIS system allows users to shoot at shutter speeds up to 3 f-stops slower than would have been 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 FX30 can capture a reasonably sharp image of the same subject (everything else being equal) at 1/30th of a second.
MEGA OIS helps shooters capture sharp images when shooting with the FX30 handheld outdoors in good light at the telephoto end of the zoom - where even the slightest camera movement is magnified. Image stabilization can also be very useful when shooting indoors, where higher shutter speeds may not be possible or would result in dark images with poor shadow/highlight detail.
The FX30's MEGA OIS Image Stabilization system offers two active modes: Mode 1 (continuous) - IS is engaged full time, but this method noticeably shortens battery life. IS can be also engaged just prior to exposure (mode 2) which is equally effective and uses less power.
Auto Focus (AF)
The FX30's contrast-detection auto focus system provides users with several AF options – 5 point standard AF, 3 point high speed AF, 1 point high speed AF, 1 point standard AF, and Spot AF. AF is smooth, accurate, and very fast - even in the normal speed modes. AF is close to real time in the high-speed modes. Unlike many currently available P&S digicams, the FX30 doesn’t offer Face Detection AF.
Manual Focus (MF)
Like most currently available ultra-compact P&S digicams the FX30 doesn’t permit manual focusing.
The FX30's built-in flash provides a fairly typical selection of lighting options, including: auto, auto with red-eye reduction, fill, slow synch with red-eye reduction, and off. Maximum flash range (according to Panasonic) is 16.5 feet/5 meters but that seems a bit optimistic unless there’s lots of ambient light on the subject (or a very light colored background). Flash recycle times are slightly quicker than average – about 2 seconds with a fully charged battery.
Memory Media, Image File Format(s), and Connectivity
The FX30 saves images to SD/SDHC/MMC memory media. No"starter" card is included, but the camera provides 27MB of internal image storage.
The FX30 supports the JPEG image format.
USB 2.0HS and A/V out
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The FX30 draws its power from a tiny proprietary Panasonic DMW-BCE10E 3.6v/1000mAh Lithium Ion rechargeable battery pack. The new Venus III processor manages power output nicely – the FX30’s battery life is slightly above average (for ultra-compact P&S digicams). I didn’t keep track of exposures (Panasonic claims 280 exposures) but I used the camera through several heavy full-day shooting sessions and I never ran out of juice - long weekends or short vacations will require nightly re-charges.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX30 is an AE (auto exposure) only digital camera. Exposure options include – Auto (in Auto mode the camera sets all exposure parameters), Program AE (in Program AE mode the FX30 selects the aperture and shutter speed, but users are free to choose most other exposure parameters). Users can also select one of the FX30's Scene modes and the camera automatically optimizes all exposure parameters for the specific type of scene selected. Scene mode options include: Portrait, Self-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, and Pet.
The FX30 is a pretty reliable picture maker – image quality is dependably very good to excellent outdoors at ISO 100, but there is a slight tendency toward over exposure (clipped highlights) in bright lighting. Image quality in dim/low light is more troublesome – In lower lighting the FX30 automatically boosts ISO sensitivity to match ambient light and since the FX30’s default noise levels are higher than average, dim/low light and indoor images tend to be conspicuously noisy.
The FX30's QuickTime MJPEG format Movie mode captures video at 640X480 (or 848X480 in 16x9 mode) @ 30 fps (and lower resolution/slower frame rate options) with mono audio. Video clip duration is limited to 2 GB.
Light-metering options won’t be a problem for FX30 users, the camera only provides one; Panasonic’s Intelligent Multiple-Segment (evaluative) light measurement system. IMS divides the image frame into segments and then measures brightness and contrast in each of those segments before averaging the result to determine the base exposure. Like most P&S digicam meters, IMS is calibrated to preserve shadow detail at the expense of highlight detail and that built-in exposure bias sometimes results in clipping (burnt out highlights).
(view medium image) (view large image) The FX30 does a pretty good job in bright outdoor lighting, but there is a tendency to burn out highlights – note areas of over exposure on the subjects left arm and hand.
White Balance (WB)
The FX30's white balance system provides a fairly typical (for ultra-compact P&S cameras) selection of WB options, including: TTL Auto and pre-sets for daylight, cloudy, shade, halogen, flash, and White Set (custom/manual) 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 FX30’s Auto WB is generally accurate, but I did note a consistent color anomaly. Consumers like bold reds, vibrant greens, and bright blues – so most digicam makers program their consumer and entry-level digicams to punch up the color a bit. The FX30’s native color interpolation is bright, a bit warm, and slightly over saturated – just like most of its competition. But, there’s a problem – the FX30’s primary blue seems to be just tad too bright and just a skosh lighter (in hue) than it should be. What this means is nice deep cobalt blue skies, but when blue is mixed with other primary colors it tends to behave strangely – we have loads of President Tyler Morning Glories in our garden this year. President Tyler Morning Glories are an heirloom species known for their deep purple color – the FX30 makes them bluish purple. Caucasian complexions are rendered as ruddier (redder) than they are in real life and cyans (blue-green) are just a bit wrong, too. The errors are subtle, and probably won’t be too apparent or very important to the FX30’s target audience.
(view medium image) (view large image) Accurate color rendition for President Tyler Morning Glory - shot with a Pentax K100D and SMC Pentax f4.0-f5.6/18-35mm FAJ zoom.
(view medium image) (view large image) The FX30’s color rendition for this group of President Tyler Morning Glories – is too blue.
The FX30 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). Subject movement often causes (even with image stabilization) blurred images. The FX30 offers a 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. However, the FX30’s Intelligent ISO mode can be a double-edged sword – higher sensitivity plus image stabilization equals a higher ratio of sharp images, but noise levels rise exponentially as sensitivity increases, so grainy (but sharp) images are a common result.
In-Camera Image Adjustment
The FX30 provides shooters with a useful range of exposure tweaks designed to help even casual photographers capture impressive pictures.
Exposure compensation is the single most important exposure control option on the FX30, in terms of its direct affect on image quality. The FX30 automatically (and without any user input) assesses the scene in front of the camera and selects the aperture and shutter speed (base exposure) calculated to capture the best possible photographic representation of the scene. Unfortunately, very light or very dark subjects can trick light metering systems into underexposing or overexposing images. With auto exposure only digicams (like the FX30) exposure compensation allows users to quickly and easily make subtle exposure adjustments (like correcting over or under exposures or lightening up a dark scene or adding detail and texture to a lighter scene) and view the changes on the LCD screen - a sort of backdoor aperture preferred mode. The FX30’s base exposure can be incrementally adjusted over a 4 EV range (+/-2 EV) in 1/3 EV increments.
Kudos to Panasonic; ultra-compact digicams rarely offer the ability to bracket exposures, but the FX30 does. Very minor exposure differences can negatively affect image quality. FX30 users can virtually guarantee that they'll be able to capture that especially important image with the FX30's auto bracketing function. Enable auto exposure bracketing and press the shutter button and the FX30 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).
DESIGN, BUILD QUALITY, CONTROLS, ENGINEERING, & ERGONOMICS
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Panasonic Lumix DMC FX30 is an ultra-compact (94.9mm/3.75in X 51.9mm/2.06in X 22mm/0.87in), light-weight (132 grams/4.06 oz minus battery and memory card) P&S (point and shoot) AE only digicam. The FX30 is similar to the first (1925) Leica mini-cam. Both have very good quality collapsible lenses that are stored inside the camera body when not in use, both feature a stylishly minimalist look, both are (or were) ultra-compact marvels of miniaturization, and neither the FX30 nor the first 35mm Leica provided an optical viewfinder. Like the early Leicas, the FX30 is robustly constructed and should easily stand up to most of the rigors of modern life. Like the first Leicas, the FX30’s user interface is uncomplicated, user friendly, and quickly becomes intuitive. All the FX30’s controls are logically placed and easily accessed – except for the tiny and partially hidden mode dial which is easily turned when the camera is slipped into a pocket. On a cautionary note, the wrist strap should be used at all times – small smooth contoured cameras are easy to drop.
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The FX30’s image quality is dependably very good to excellent (outdoors in good light) with essentially no effort on the part of the photographer. Images are sharp with somewhat hard contrast. Colors are bold and slightly oversaturated – but they are not always hue accurate. Images shot at ISO 100 (outdoors) show low noise, vibrant color, sharp resolution, decent highlight detail, and good shadow detail. At the ISO 200 setting noise levels begin to rise a bit, but image quality is still good. ISO 400 images are noticeably noisy and some detail is lost. ISO 800 images are soft, colors are flat, and detail loss is evident. ISO 1250 images are so noisy they're actually a bit mushy looking with flat pastel-like colors. Noise is slightly above average at all sensitivities. I didn’t try the High Sensitivity (ISO 3200) Scene Mode.
The FX30’s auto exposure system is generally accurate. Shadow detail is decent, but highlights are sometimes blown out – especially in brightly lit contrasty scenes. Since the FX30’s target audience is likely to go mostly with 4x6 prints and VGA (or lower) resolution web/e-mail images, it is unlikely that the above average noise levels, minor blue color anomaly, and inaccurate LCD preview will cause much heartburn. Overall, the FX30 does a creditable job in the image quality department.
The FX30 is pretty quick, especially for an ultra-compact P&S digicam. The boot-up cycle (between 2 and 3 seconds), shutter lag (less than 1/10th of a second), shot to shot times, and write to card times are all a bit faster than average. AF lag (with pre-focus) is essentially real time and from scratch the AF system needs less than a second to lock focus. Speed-wise the FX30 is quick enough to compete nicely with just about everything in its class.
A Few Concerns
Above average noise levels, minor color anomalies, and inaccurate LCD preview images - not having a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) live LCD preview is a deal breaker for me.
The FX30 is an excellent choice for family photographers, snap-shooters, casual photographers, and first time digital camera buyers who want a digicam that is capable of capturing excellent images, small enough to be dropped in a pocket and taken along just about anywhere, and simple enough to be used easily by just about anyone. Consumers who want the convenience and immediacy of a pocketable ultra-compact P&S digicam, but yearn for the performance and image quality of a more complex camera may find the FX30 an acceptable compromise – especially when potential purchasers consider that the FX30 is significantly lower in price than other 28mm (equivalent) zoom digicams. Serious photographers and those who may occasionally need large prints should look elsewhere.
Pros: 28mm zoom, excellent image quality at ISO 100, Image Stabilization
Cons: Higher than average noise levels, minor color anomalies, and inaccurate live LCD preview
Battery and Charger, Battery Carrying Case, AV Cable, USB Cable, Wrist Strap, Software CD-ROM, and printed user’s manual