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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 Review
by Ben Stafford -  8/27/2007

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 is the latest camera to enter the 18x optical zoom race. The FZ18 can capture 8.1 megapixel resolution and display them in HD. The long zoom Leica lens can do 28mm (equivalent) shots and has optical image stabilization. Another new feature that Panasonic rolled out is the Intelligent Auto mode, which bundles up automatic scene selection, face detection, intelligent ISO control, and continuous auto focus. After seeing the camera in action at a press event, I was anxious to get my hands on a review unit to see how it performed!

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What’s New

The FZ18 is the successor to the FZ8.  The biggest change in the guts of the camera is the more powerful zoom lens.  The FZ8 had a 12x optical zoom and the FZ18 gets an 18x optical zoom.  Besides that, there is a small resolution bump to 8 megapixels from 7.1 megapixels, and the 2.5 inch LCD is of higher resolution on the FZ18.  Software-wise, Panasonic has introduced their Intelligent Auto mode on the FZ18, which essentially bundles face recognition, continuous AF, Intelligent ISO control, and image stabilization on one easy to use auto mode.  I'll talk more about Intelligent Auto later in the review.

NUTS & BOLTS

Viewfinder/LCD

The FZ18 has both an LCD and an electronic viewfinder (EVF).  If you are shooting a lot of long zoom shots, I highly recommend that you use the EVF as it's a more stable way to hold the camera.  Holding the camera up to your face is just inherently more stable than holding it at arm's length.

The 2.5 inch LCD on the FZ18 has approximately 207K pixels and provides a sharp enough preview of your shots.  The refresh rate is good and colors are accurate.  There are a few alternate LCD modes that help out in bright conditions or odd shooting angles.  You can choose from Auto Power LCD, Power LCD, and High Angle.  The Power LCD modes essentially just brighten the screen.  The high angle mode makes it easier to see the LCD while shooting with the camera over your head.

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The EVF has approximately 188K pixels of resolution and displays the same information and same field of view as the LCD (approx. 100% of the frame).  A -4 to +4 diopter adjustment is available to sharpen the EVF display for your eyes, whatever their health.

Lens, Zoom, and Focus

The lens is definitely one of the highlights of the camera.  The Leica lens provides an 18x optical zoom with a 35mm equivalent focal length of 28-504mm.  As with all Panasonic digital cameras, it's also fitted with optical image stabilization, which, at an 18x zoom, is an absolute necessity.  Maximum aperture is f2.8 at wide angle and f4.2 at telephoto.  The highest F number (minimum aperture) is f8.0.

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As is the case with other Panasonic cameras, there are two image stabilization modes that you can choose from (as well as turn it off).  Mode 1 provides continuous stabilization and it can come in handy for composition (but is harder on the battery).  Mode 2 activates stabilization at the time of the shot.  Mode 2 provides a more effective stabilization.

The zoom motor provides fine control over the amount of zoom, with many steps along the focal length spectrum and it moves quickly enough for the needs of most photographers.

Panasonic provides plenty of focus modes: normal, AF macro, manual focus, face recognition, multi-area focusing, 3 area focusing (high speed), 1 area focusing (high speed), 1 area focusing, and spot focusing.

In normal focus mode, at wide angle, you can focus on subjects as close as 0.98 feet.  At telephoto, this distance pushes out to 6.56 feet.  In AF macro, manual focus, or intelligent auto modes, you can focus as close as 1cm at wide angle with the same 6.56 foot range at telephoto.  The FZ18 also gives some excellent information about these focus ranges.  When you operate the zoom, you can see the current focus range on the LCD.  If you try to focus on something out of range, the camera will give you a warning beep and show, in red letters, the current focus range that will work.

Focus performance was very good - quick and accurate.  Of course, there are conditions that will tax the focus system - at telephoto and low-light, you'll have to give the camera some more time, but this is completely normal.  The camera does have a focus assist lamp to help the camera focus in low-light conditions.

Flash

The built-in pop-up flash has a range (at ISO Auto) of 0.98 feet to 19.7 feet at wide angle settings.  You can use the following modes: auto, auto with red-eye reduction, always on, slow sync, and disabled.

The pop-up flash must be deployed manually, even in auto mode.  Personally, I like this better than if it popped up automatically.

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Memory Media

The FZ18 has approximately 27MB of internal memory and can accept SD, SDHC, and MMC media.

Image/Movie File Format(s)

Images can be recorded as JPEGS only at two compression levels, RAW, and RAW+JPEG.  Movies are recorded as Quicktime files.

Connectivity

You can connect to your computer via a USB 2.0 connection.  AV out is provided via the same connector.  You can also get an optional power adapter for the 8.4V DC power jack.

Power

The camera is powered a 710mAh lithium-ion battery pack (CGR-S006A), or the optional power adapter.  Charge time is approximately 2 hours.  Battery life is very good, with Panasonic claiming 400 shots per charge.  Under real world use, I would expect to see about 350 shots.

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EXPOSURE

The FZ18 has a full complement of shooting modes, from fully automatic to fully manual, and everything in between.  The auto mode on the camera is the new Intelligent Auto mode ("iA" on the mode dial).  The iA mode does quite a bit for you.  First, it selects the right scene settings for the conditions.  It can select portrait, scenery, macro, night portrait and night scenery.  It also automatically uses face detection, so if a face is detected in the shot, that face will be focused on and exposed correctly.  The Intelligent ISO piece will vary the ISO of the camera depending on subject movement.  Moving subjects require faster shutter speeds, so the ISO will be increased.  Finally, the iA mode also uses continuous AF, so your shots are always in focus. 

Moving on, there are a few scene modes available directly on the mode dial: portrait, landscape, sports, and night portrait.  For access to the rest of the scene modes, just turn the dial to the SCN position.  There, you can access Panning, Food, Party, Candlelight, Baby 1/Baby 2, Pet, Sunset, High Sensitivity, Starry Sky, Fireworks, Beach, Snow, and Aerial Photo. 

Once you're ready to leave auto mode and experiment more, we get into program auto, which gives you more control over white balance, ISO, metering modes, and focus modes.  Next comes aperture priority mode (A on the dial) where you select the aperture using the mini-joystick and the camera sets the correct shutter speed.  Shutter priority (S on the dial) is the opposite of this, where you use the joystick to choose the shutter speed (between 8 seconds and 1/2000 of a second), while the camera sets the aperture to the right setting.  Finally, manual mode (M on the dial) lets you set the shutter speed and the aperture until you get the shot that you want. 

A "Custom" entry on the mode dial provides access to three slots that allow you to set camera options that you'll want to use later.

In the menu, there is also an option, labeled "flip anim" that lets you capture still images and make them into a movie.

Movie Mode

The movie mode on the FZ18 can capture movies at 640x480, 320x240, and 848x480 at 30fps and 10fps.  The image stabilizer operates during movie capture, but the optical zoom does not.

Metering

For exposure metering, you can choose from multiple area, center-weighted, or spot metering.

White Balance

The automatic white balance did a nice job overall.  If you do notice a color cast, you can try one of the white balance presets (daylight, cloudy, shade, flash, halogen), or there are two slots to save a custom white balance.  Setting the white balance is very easy, just select "set" from the white balance menu, choose which slot to store the settings in, and then the camera directs you to point at a white target to set the white balance.

You can also tweak the white balance settings via the "WB Adjust" item in the menu system.

Sensitivity

The FZ18 can shoot at sensitivities of ISO 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, and 1600.  If you try out the High Sensitivity scene mode, the camera will use a range if ISO between 1600 and 6400.

If you use Intelligent ISO control, you can set the maximum ISO of 400, 800, or 1600.

Depending on the shooting mode, there are different options for setting the ISO.  In P and A modes, you can actually only adjust the sensitivity if you have Intelligent ISO control turned off.  Then, in S and M modes, Intelligent ISO is disabled.

In-Camera Image Adjustment

Beyond the basic photography and exposure settings, you can use color effects during image capture.  You can choose from B&W, sepia, cool, and warm.  You can also tweak the image processing by adjusting contrast, sharpness, saturation and noise reduction.

During image playback, you can rotate images, resize, trim, convert aspect ratio, and copy.  You can also set titles, set text stamps (date, age, travel, title).

CONTROLS, DESIGN, ENGINEERING, & ERGONOMICS

The FZ18 is not a compact camera, measuring 2.96'' x 4.63'' x 3.47''.  It occupies that "bridge" category of cameras sized between compacts and SLRs.  It's a camera that comes with a neck strap instead of a wrist strap.  Now, even though it's larger, it's still very comfortable to hold, with a pronounced hand grip and solid feel.  A textured thumb grip on the upper right of the back of the camera adds another element of stability (which is important with such a long zoom).  Build quality is very good.  The camera is pretty hefty and it feels solid overall.  All of the buttons and doors work well.

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Speaking of buttons, there are actually quite a few on the camera.  On top, you'll find the shutter, zoom control, mode dial, macro/normal focus button, AF/manual focus button, and power switch.  On the back, you'll see the button to deploy the flash, button to toggle between the LCD and EVF, AF/AE lock button, joystick, display/lcd mode button, 5-way control pad, and delete button.  The control layout is very good, with the shutter, zoom control and mode dial easily accessible.  Once you get into more manual modes, you'll start using the joystick more and it's an easy reach for your thumb.

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Included

Along with the camera, you'll find the battery, battery charger (that plugs directly into the wall), USB cable, AV cable, CD-ROM, shoulder strap, lens cap, lens cap string, lens hood, and lens hood adapter.

PERFORMANCE

In general, using the FZ18 was a pleasure.  Camera operation was quick enough all around to allow plenty of opportunities to get the shot.  Having such a powerful zoom can be really fun since you can frame distant subjects very tightly.

While it's nice that Panasonic has bundled together several useful features in the Intelligent Auto mode, in practice, it didn't really work out too well for me.  For example, for the face detection system to work, the camera had to have at least a rough focus.  The problem is that the continuous AF is not fast enough to get close enough that the face detection gets a chance, especially when you're trying to capture a specific moment or slightly fidgety kids.  If you partially press the shutter button before faces are detected, the camera just uses a typical AF (which is quick).  Most of the time, I just avoided the iA mode and stuck in program auto (P) mode, in which you can turn on face detection focus, if so desired.  If your shooting consists of more stationary subjects, then the iA mode will work nicely.

Image Quality

Overall, most casual photographers, and even some enthusiasts, will be very happy with the image quality from the FZ18.  Color reproduction was good, details were sharp across the entire frame, and default exposure was good.  After looking at all the shots that I took, the camera didn't have as good a dynamic range as I would have liked, which is a function of more pixels crammed into a physically small sensor.  I had several shots where the bright areas were over-exposed and the dark areas were under-exposed.  The more familiar you get with the camera, the better you can adjust settings (like exposure compensation and metering method) to get the shots that you want.

Even though the shot below is under pretty harsh lighting conditions, I would have liked to see a greater dynamic range. In this shot, the shadow areas are under-exposed and the lit areas are over-exposed.

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Lens performance was very good, with very little barrel distortion at wide angle and pretty much non-existent pincushion distortion at full telephoto.  Chromatic aberration was visible in wide angle shots, when you really zoom in on high contrast boundary areas.

Noise performance was pretty average.  ISO 100 and 200 are good.  Some details are lost at ISO 400.  Above that (ISO 800 and up), noticeable noise reduction really muddies up any details and color splotchiness is pretty visible.


ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1250

ISO 1600

 


ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1250

ISO 1600

Timing/Shutter Lag

Camera performance was very good.  Start up was respectable, especially on a camera with a big lens.  Shutter lag, if you do a full press, was around 0.45 seconds.  If you do a partial press first to get a focus lock, shutter lag was under 0.1 seconds.  Under good conditions, focus can be achieved under 0.4 seconds, but at telephoto you may need to subject.  I had focus times at telephoto take up to about 2 seconds.  This is pretty typical and nothing to be concerned about.  Shot to shot times were also very good, at less than 2 seconds.  The flash charge time was quick, even with a mostly depleted battery.  The flash was ready to go after 2-3 seconds.

Sample Images

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Conclusion

If you're in the market for an ultra-zoom, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 deserves a place on your short list.  While poor noise performance and a small dynamic range detract from some images, overall image quality is good with nice color reproduction and sharp details.  I was particularly impressed with some portrait-type images that I took at a childrens birthday party.  The very nice Leica 18x optical zoom lens gives you a lot of flexibility and "reach" to get the shot that you want without high levels of lens distortion or chromatic aberration.   The new "soft" feature of the camera, the Intelligent Auto mode, will be helpful to beginning photographers in some situations since it takes some of the leg work out of getting the shot.  However, I don't see any intermediate to advanced shooters relying on this mode during everyday shooting.  If you're really set on an 18x optical zoom, the only other camera on the market is the Olympus SP-550 UZ.  There are more models coming soon (Olympus SP-560 UZ, Fujifilm Finepix S8000fd), but other ultra-zooms worth taking a look at, like the Canon Powershot S5 IS and Sony H-series cameras are a little bit shorter in the zoom category.

Pros

Cons