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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3 Review
by David Rasnake -  3/4/2008

In many ways, the all-new Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3 – a new offering in a completely new series of models from the manufacturer – tries to be the best of both worlds, offering ultracompact style at what nearly qualifies as a budget compact price. In the flood of new high-profile tech from Panasonic, this diminutive camera has largely been cruising under the radar for the past month, but after more than a week of shooting with the FS3, I have a feeling that this may be about to change.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
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Styled to appeal to users looking for a precise, well built camera with lots of class (in addition to our test unit's silver finish, the FS3 comes in understated yet trendy blue and green hues), the FS3 promises a lot of usable tech and minimal gimmickery. The FS3's look is convincing enough, and with performance to match, it seems to me that there might well be a serious camera value waiting to be discovered here.


FEATURES OVERVIEW

One of three new models in an all new line-up marketed as the "sister series" of Panasonic's popular FX ultracompacts, the Lumix FS3, like the functionally similar FS5 and FS20 step-up models, is a stylish, pocket-sized snapshot camera. The 8.1 megapixel FS3 has a fairly conventional specs sheet – 3x (33-100mm) Leica DC Vario-Elmarit optical zoom, 2.5-inch LCD, sensitivity to ISO 1600, and image processing courtesy of Panasonic's current-gen Venus Engine IV.

For a quick run-down of what the FS3 brings to the table, take a look at our video overview from my "First Thoughts" piece if you haven't already:

The FS3's emphasis is clearly on auto-mode shooting, with several new "Intelligent Auto" features promising more consistent shooting performance across a range of conditions. In addition to a "normal" picture mode (essentially a program auto setting), the FS3's Intelligent Auto (iA) shooting mode actively evaluates scene conditions and automatically chooses either to use auto exposure values or to select a more appropriate combination of settings from its list of five iA presets (scenery, macro, portrait, night scenery, and night portrait). Ideal for beginners and the technologically challenged, iA mode is amazingly quick and unobtrusive in transitioning as shooting conditions change. Similarly, iA's backlight compensation setting, which successfully corrected mild backlighting issues in our testing, can be enabled or disabled with one button press. In short, while I preferred the slightly increased control of normal picture mode for most shooting situations, some time using the iA mode has me reasonably convinced that Panasonic has made an improvement over previous attempts at automatic scene detection systems.

Other mode options include two scene preset spots, allowing you to select a different preset from the FS3's 22 options for each spot and toggle quickly between them (useful if you're alternately taking macro and landscape shots, for instance), and a well-speced movie mode that shoots QVGA video with sound. In-camera image editing and other playback options are basic, though the FS3 does cover resizing, cropping, and rotating functions.

For a detailed listing of specs and features, take a look at the specs table found at the bottom of the review.


FORM, FIT, AND FEEL

At its most basic, the FS3 is very similar in look and feel to Panasonic's latest FX models – definitely not a bad thing for a camera at this price point.

Styling and Build Quality

All three new FS cameras are a stylistic evolution of the square, clean-lined modern design ethos that has been Panasonic's trademark for the last several years. The FS3 generally avoids cutesy stylistic touches: it's very sleek, and very serious looking.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
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At just under an inch thick in its thickest measurement, the FS3 isn't "card camera" thin. While thinner, lighter options from Samsung, Sony, and Casio beat it for pocketability, however, the metal clad FS3 feels dense, well built, and well proportioned. Build quality was overwhelmingly first-rate, with our test unit convincingly playing the part of a much more expensive ultracompact. Buttons and switches, though a bit small, have a very nice feel, and the around-the-shutter zoom toggle feels nicer than similar controls on many diminutive cameras.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
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Those who read this site regularly know that I like to complain about cheap feeling battery/memory card doors: for something that most users cycle a lot in changing out memory cards or batteries, it's not unreasonable to expect a solid feeling door in my opinion.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
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Unfortunately, the FS3's thin plastic cover feels like it a light breeze might snap it right off its hinges. With the rest of the FS3's extremely solid metal and plastic work, it's an odd, out-of-place build quality choice, but it shouldn't be a big deal for most users (these doors usually prove more robust in use than they feel).

Similarly, we found that the plastic covering the new Panasonic's LCD was a tad bit soft, quickly showing minor scratches from pocket toting.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
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I would be especially worried that the screen wouldn't stand up well to coming into contact with the miscellany that inhabits a typical purse – given that this is clearly a pocket/purse camera, it seems odd that the screen cover isn't more rugged. In any case, the issue is easily resolved by some protective film.

Moreover, when these are the two most serious build quality issues we can come up with, it seems like Panasonic has done an excellent job in putting together a camera that, in terms of its physical form, not only meets but exceeds expectations.

Ergonomics and Interface

Holding and shooting with the FS3 is about as good, ergonomically, as any ultracompact. The FS3's boxy shape and hard edges do make it less comfortable to hold and the interface less easy to navigate than some larger cameras, but such is the price of compactness. The lack of a clear grip space and small buttons made it hard for me to find a way to hold the camera that allowed access to everything, with the zoom toggle feeling always just out of reach while holding the camera securely.

The FS3 uses a physical switch to move between shooting and playback modes, a move that's becoming less and less common as time goes on. While I like the convenience of a button push to go into playback mode (or a shutter press to jump back into shooting mode), there's something to be said for either approach. As we observed about another camera with a similar arrangement recently, putting the camera in playback mode means the lens will never attempt to extend – and possibly get damaged in the process – while the camera is in your pocket.

In general, the FS3's interface is easy to navigate, though it would have been nice if some of the key adjustments had been positioned higher in the master menu. Most is amended, however, with the FS3's Q.Menu ("Quick Menu") button.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
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Hold the button briefly and a Canon-style icon menu appears at the top of the screen with adjustments for common parameters including image stabilization, white balance, ISO, and AF settings. This feature alone largely redeems the FS3's slightly clunky menu system, making access to the setting you need to change nine times out of ten a snap.

On a related note, I also like the fact that the FS3 displays shutter speed and aperture information when the shutter button is press halfway. The camera's automatically chosen program line isn't directly adjustable, but more advanced users will appreciate the information nonetheless.

Display/Viewfinder

In my mind, at least, Panasonic's compacts have become synonymous with "great screen." Even with its sub-$200 price, the FS3 is no exception here: its 230K-pixel LCD is crisp and fluid, only dropping off a bit in low light. Color reproduction on the screen is good as well, exhibiting little of the optimistic vividness we've seen in some other Panasonics.

The FS3 also has several screen settings and options that work to make up for the absence of an optical viewfinder. Screen brightness boost is either automatic or manually selectable, and there's also a brightness-boosting high view angle mode. Even without this setting enabled, however, the FS3's screen has some pretty impressive view angles: images on the LCD can still be made out without color inversion at nearly 90 degrees, making it easy to frame shots with the FS3 over your head or down low – even without a tilting screen.


PERFORMANCE

While specs are fairly conventional, the FS3 performs well enough to at the very least hold its own in a fairly competitive group of cameras.

Timings and Shutter Lag

Pre-focused, the FS3 grabbed shots in .09 seconds from press to capture – though we've seen faster, the feel is, for all intents and purposes, instantaneous. Without pre-focus, shots were captured in around .8 seconds after press. While this time is a bit below the average for the latest generation of cameras, enable the FS3's Quick AF mode, which keeps the camera focusing continuously, and times drop to around .4 seconds, press to capture.

While performance with Quick AF enabled puts the FS3 in pretty good standing for its price and size, I'll admit that I expected a more instantaneous feel from this system. If you're able to give up the FS3's default multi-point AF system for a single-point setting, however, a center-area high speed AF mode used in combination brings press-to-capture times consistently down into the .2 second range, pulling the FS3 up from good to excellent with the limitations of single-point AF noted. Interestingly, our testing also suggests that the fastest combination of focusing settings involves disabling Quick AF when using the center-area high speed AF mode. Strange, but apparently true.

Continuous shooting on the FS3 is quite respectable for an ultracompact, with our test unit able to capture four full-res images in just over a second before stopping to clear the buffer.

Lens and Zoom

A Leica DC Vario-Elmarit retractable lens with an equivalent range of 33-100mm sits out front on the FS3. Like most recent Panasonics, the FS3's optically stabilized lens is surrounded by a thick chrome bezel, and the plastic barrel is solidly constructed with minimal slop or free play.

In spite of the zoom's limited physical travel from full wide to full tele, zooming and pick-up on the FS3 feel a touch on the slow side. The lag is minor, however, and a dedicated E.Zoom button, situated right next to the zoom toggle, allows the user to jump quickly from full wide to full tele (and out to full tele plus digital zoom, if so enabled) and back again.

Auto Focus

Basic auto focus options include face detection, nine-area, single-area, and high speed single-area AF modes. As noted previously, there's also a separate Quick AF setting, which speeds up the auto focus system in most cases (see "Timings and Shutter Lag," above, for more information) by automatically starting auto focus whenever the camera is held steady.

As the timings suggest, multi-point focus on the FS3 could probably be quicker, though as is often the case, exploring the full range of available options reveals more available power and performance than shows up in an initial analysis. That said, the FS3 did seem to have to go all the way to infinity and back to lock focus regardless of AF mode in several real world shooting situations. If speed isn't always top shelf, focus lock was pleasantly consistent, even in low light (there's an AF assist lamp). While the FS3 seems to take its time at times, I could count on one hand the number of incorrectly focused shots that came out of a week's worth of shooting.

The Lumix's macro mode claim of a 5cm minimum focusing distance is on par with our findings. Macro performance is predictable, with the iA mode doing a nice job of switching into macro focus settings as needed.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
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As an aside, I will say that bokeh (a term referring to the way backgrounds are softened at wider aperture settings, which particularly effects the look macro shots) looks a little artificial to my eye, even for a compact; this is more a lens performance than an auto focus issue, however.

Flash

Flash recycle times at full power came in just under 7 seconds, putting the FS3 at least a step behind class leaders in this regard. The camera's judicious automatic use of its (very usable, as seen below) higher ISO settings to extend flash range, however, makes this slow timing much less intrusive in normal use. An average of flash recycle times for a series of shots covering the entire power range came in at just under 4 seconds.

Overall, the flash, while not stellar, is fast enough in this regard most of the time, and the fact that the camera doesn't completely black out during recycle is a positive.

The FS3 also does a good job of automatically regulating flash power to maximize available light, giving many indoor exposures a pleasing mildly warm look (at the expense of some white balance accuracy), but causing some wash-out with some others. Results, while better than the usual flat/cool flash look, were inconsistent, which may be a frustration for some.

Red eye was also a somewhat pronounced issue: even with auto red-eye reduction enabled, problems showed up more than befits a current camera at any price. While red eye is easy enough to correct, with somewhat poor flash performance in this area, the omission of any kind of in-camera, post-shot red-eye reduction seems like a mistake.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3

Image Stabilization

The FS3 uses Panasonic's Mega O.I.S optical image stabilization system. The system is on by default in Intelligent Auto mode, and user selectable in all other modes. The system's two modes (continuous stabilization and shot-only stabilization that kicks in when the shutter is half-pressed) are, in typical Panasonic fashion, unintuitively labeled "Mode 1" and "Mode 2." Some in-camera explanation – call them "Continuous" and "Single Shot" for instance – would probably eliminate some confusion on this front.

This slight measure of user-unfriendliness aside, the image stabilization system seems to perform as advertised, and provides some features not seen in other setups.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
IS disabled, shutter: 1/4 (view large image)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
IS disabled, shutter 1/8 (view large image)

In addition to minimizing vibration, the FS3's IS technology also limits the minimum shutter speed to 1/8 (CORRECTION: per user reports and the manual, shutter speeds as low as 1/4 are allowed in some modes) when enabled, presumably on the theory that underexposed sharp shots are better than correctly exposed blurry ones. The concept makes a fair amount of sense, in my mind, for the FS3's target market.

Battery Life

Panasonic claims an estimated battery life of 330 shots with the Panasonic. After more than a week of test shooting, including flash shooting and video recording, on a single charge, I'm at just under 250 total shots. The battery, while down to a single dot on the three-segment gauge, is still not completely drained. All of this suggests that Panasonic's numbers are perhaps a little bit optimistic, but with a short turn-around on it our review unit, it's hard to say anything more definitive about anticipated real world battery performance.


IMAGE QUALITY

General Image Quality

Default image capture for the FS3 shows decent sharpness and dynamic range, though in fairness, we've seen better.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
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As suggested below, sharpness suffers a bit compared to other compacts we've tested as the result of an optically weak lens. Because default processing doesn't push the oversharpening envelope, however, a little more detail can be pulled out with careful post-procesing.

Exposure, Processing, and Color

Images from the FS3 tend to have a slightly warmer skew all around than many compacts we've tested. This seems to combat the slightly pale image tone from some previous Panasonics: nothing to complain about there. Saturation at the default "Standard" image tone shows just a touch of saturation bump.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3

Reds, yellows, and blues all trade a bit of depth for a bit of punch, though the saturation increases are controlled enough to make both general consumers and photo enthusiasts happy. On this note, I especially like that the FS3 gives a range of in-camera image color options, with a "Vivid" setting for increased saturation, as well as a "Natural" setting for more even color reproduction than in Standard mode. Hence, if you find the FS3's default color to still be a bit too hot for your liking, toning it down is easy.

Though exposure looks very close in our studio shot, the FS3 exhibited a slight tendency toward underexposure in our test situations. This means that highlights tend to be better preserved than on many cameras, but with dynamic range that appears to be slightly more compressed than some competitive models, shadow details do occasionally fall off the bottom of the scale. That said, I was able to a little bit of shadow detail even in extremely high-contrast images with the right exposure compensation adjustments.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
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White Balance

As noted, the FS3 tends to introduce a touch of warmth to its images, though this seems to be a general processing choice rather than a white balance concern (as we noticed it even when white balance was set manually). White balance was as good as one usually expects from a compact camera, meaning that the auto setting does a poor job under mixed incandescent-heavy lighting. Incandescent cast colors tend to be more red than brown/tan as well. Auto performance is spot-on under fluorescent lighting – a good thing, given that the FS3 does away with fluorescent light white balance presets entirely.

Lens Faults

This lens's primary weaknesses, and perhaps the most notable weakness of this camera, is a bit more optically induced softness than the best compacts exhibit. Panasonic's arrangement with Leica has generally meant good optical quality for there cameras, but testing suggests that there may have been some cost cutting here to bring the FS3 in at its price point.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
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To my eye, sharpness is merely acceptable at the center of the frame, and becomes extremely soft at the corners.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3

I doubt that the issue is going to ruin any snapshots, but optical quality fanatics will come away wanting more.

Otherwise, the FS3's lens faults are surprisingly well controlled. Interestingly, barrel distortion is moderate at worst, and there's just a hint of pincushioning at the long end of the range. I also anticipated color fringing/chromatic aberration to be much worse than it actually appears to be.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3

In my experience with the camera, this seems to be about as pronounced as the problem gets.

In short, while the sharpness (or lack thereof) is disappointing and may be a serious turn-off for some and definitely warrants consideration, optical performance is solid enough everywhere else for most general purpose shooting.

Sensitivity and Noise

As a rule, Panasonic hasn't gotten a lot of love here or elsewhere for the high ISO performance of their compact cameras. Intrusive noise reduction has taken much of the blame, giving the images a painted on appearance that looks blotchy and lacks detail. At Panasonic's PMA press conference, Venus Engine VI processing – which shows up in the FS3 as in most of Panasonic's new models – promised to fix all that.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
ISO 100 (view large image)

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
ISO 200 (view large image)

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
ISO 400 (view large image)

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
ISO 800 (view large image)

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
ISO 1600 (view large image)

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3

ISO 100

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3

ISO 200

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3

ISO 400

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3

ISO 800

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3

ISO 1600


In terms of detail capture, the Panasonic is a bundle of contradictions: low contrast areas (see the numbers on the disk-shaped spark plug tool, front and center in the full-size shot) lack much definition, even at ISO 100, and there's not a lot more that can be extracted by playing with the contrast curve. Some of this is clearly an optical issue, but the way certain mid-tone values "roll" into each other also suggests a capture-side concern.

Interestingly, though, it seems that starting with this handicap, very little detail is lost as the sensitivity is turned up, suggesting the initial impression on this camera's low light performance was largely correct. ISO 800 still shows surprisingly little noise, and ISO 1600 shots, while far from clean (the noise reduction comes on strong here), really hold onto a lot of detail for a compact camera.

As an example, compare the FS3's level of noise and detail at ISO 1600 to what we saw recently from another sub-$200 compact camera, the Canon PowerShot A590 IS.

ISO 1600

Canon PowerShot A590 IS, ISO 1600

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3, ISO 1600

The FS3 wins this one to my eye, which is made all the more impressive by the fact that the A590's performance, if not quite as good as some of the previous Canon A models, still looks rather acceptable for a mid-priced compact. In short, Panasonic seems to have worked out the previous processing kinks where noise reduction is concerned, and we're optimistic that these improvements will show up across the board in other Venus Engine IV cameras like the TZ5.

Additional Sample Images

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
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CONCLUSIONS

These days, the Panasonic FS3 almost qualifies for what we consider a budget point-and-shoot, and in terms of size and styling, it straddles the line between compact and ultracompact. In general, however, the FS3 makes few of the compromises in quality suggested by its price, and few of the compromises in ergonomics suggested by its size. For snapshot shooters looking for a good all-around picture taker, this camera could easily be the one. With high ISO performance that moves beyond expectations for its class, the FS3 seem like an even better deal.

Ultimately, then, the FS3 is an excellent combination of style and value, offering the look and features of a more expensive camera. We're betting this one will have a strong following once the word about the FS series cameras gets out.

Pros:

Cons:

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3 Specifications:

Sensor 8.1 megapixel, 1/2.5" CCD
Lens/Zoom 3x (33-100mm) Leica DC Vario-Elmarit, f/2.8-5.1
LCD/Viewfinder 2.5", 230K-pixel TFT LCD
Sensitivity ISO 100-1600
Shutter Speed 8-1/2000 seconds
Shooting Modes Intelligent Auto, Normal Picture, Scene 1, Scene 2, Motion Picture
Scene Presets Portrait, Soft Skin, Scenery, Sports, Night Portrait, Night Scenery, Food, Party, Candle Light, Baby 1, Baby 2, Pet, Sunset, High Sensitivity, Hi-Speed Burst, Starry Sky, Fireworks, Beach, Snow, Aerial Photo, Underwater
White Balance Settings Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Halogen, User Set
Metering Modes Intelligent Multi
Focus Modes Face, Nine Point, One Point, One Point High Speed
Drive Modes Normal, Burst, High Speed Burst
Flash Modes Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Forced On, Slow Sync, Forced Off
Self Timer Settings
10 seconds, 2 seconds, Off
Memory Formats SD, SDHC, MMC
Internal Memory
50 MB
File Formats JPEG, MPEG
Max. Image Size 3264x2448
Max. Video Size
640x480, 30 fps
Zoom During Video No
Battery Rechargeable 1000 mAh lithium-ion, 330 shots
Connections USB 2.0, AV output, DC input
Additional Features Mega O.I.S., iA Intelligent Auto mode, Intelligent ISO, Venus Engine IV processing