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Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4 Review
by David Rasnake -  4/13/2008

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4, along with its more feature-rich sibling, the TZ5, is the latest incarnation of Panasonic's compact ultrazoom concept to begin making its way to store shelves. As with previous TZ models, the 8.1 megapixel TZ4 offers up a rather considerable 10x zoom range in a camera only slightly larger than a standard compact.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
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If it pushes the limits of what could be termed "pocket sized," the latest Lumix still packs quite a punch for its size where features are concerned. While it generally embraces the performance-focused philosophy that underpins most of Panasonic's current efforts, a few serious blemishes on the TZ4's otherwise spotless performance record made me wonder whether the latest generation of TZ cameras are as good as they could (and perhaps, should) be.


FEATURES OVERVIEW

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4 is an 8.1 megapixel compact digicam with a 10x wide-angle Leica lens. Designed as a feature-rich, all-in-one shooting solution for slightly advanced photographers, the TZ4 is nonetheless a fully auto exposure camera. Panasonic's Intelligent Auto (iA) mode is a combination of settings and features designed to handle a range of shooting situations with a slightly more evaluative approach to exposure settings than a conventional auto setting.

As with several other Panasonic point-and-shoots, the TZ4 has five basic shooting modes:

While it doesn't have the step-up TZ5's HD (1024x720) video capture, the TZ4 records movie clips in a fairly impressive 848x480 widescreen mode at 30 fps. Unlike the majority of compact cameras, use of optical zoom is allowed while shooting videos – though the zoom moves extremely slowly (presumably to limit the camera picking up the sound of the zoom's motion, the common reason for zoom locks in many cameras).

For a detailed listing of specifications and features, please refer to the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.


FORM, FIT, AND FEEL

Physically, the TZ4 is at most a slight refining of the basic concept set out in the TZ3 and extending even further back into the TZ's model history. Honestly, this has been a design – in terms of styling, size, and ergonomics – that has worked well heretofore, striking a nice balance between compact and ultrazoom proportions. With all that's right about the basic TZ form (mostly, that it's pretty basic), never a better application of the old "if it isn't broke, don't fix it" principle than in the decision to continue the same basic look and layout into the TZ4 and TZ5, in my opinion.

Styling and Build Quality

Physically identical to the TZ5 (and nearly a dead ringer for the previous-gen TZ3 as well), the TZ4 is slightly larger and heavier than your average Canon A or Fuji F compact.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
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Like most recent Panasonics we've looked at, the body is well-constructed, rigid, and exhibits little flex when torqued. Doors are satisfyingly solid (one my pet peeves: cheap-feeling battery covers), with a firm locking feel on the battery door. The mode dial snaps into position with minimal slop, and without the irritating "clicky-ness" exhibited by some more plastic-feeling cameras. In terms of build quality, the total package conveys the idea that this is a premium product – something Panasonic has done better and better of late.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
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Likewise, he TZ4's styling choices reflect what has become the signature of the Lumix cams as well: sleek, metallic finishes, clean lines, and minimal visual distractions.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
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What's different from most compacts, of course, is that the TZ4's imposing three-segment retractable lens dominates almost half of the body, giving the camera more of the classic ultrazoom shape with the lens extended.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
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Ergonomics and Interface

In fairness, there aren't many compact cameras that don't feel small in my hands, but Panasonic seems to be pursuing a policy in their new models of seeing just how small they can make the buttons. With a fair amount of unused real estate on the TZ4's back, why not offer a humanely sized five-way controller and shooting/playback switch, at the very least?

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
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If they're a little small, the buttons are otherwise solid and offer acceptable response and decent control. I did occasionally have issues with my presses not registering, especially on the d-pad; blame a slightly heavy button feel. Probably not something that most users need agonize over.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
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Panasonic uses a variant of the same interface seen in other recent Lumix cams for the TZ4, with an overlaid Quick Menu providing fast access to commonly adjusted parameters while shooting. The parameters from this simpler menu, plus several others, are also accessible via a master page menu. The page menus aren't always perfectly sorted, but the layout is plain, accessible, and easy to understand and doesn't leave a lot to be desired beyond some slightly more logical grouping of parameters at times.

Display/Viewfinder

One of the primary separators between the TZ4 and the more expensive and high-featured TZ5 is the display. Unlike the TZ5, which uses a phenomenally high-res (for a compact camera, anyway) 3-inch LCD, the TZ4 wears a slightly more pedestrian 2.5-inch, 230,000 dot TFT display. While it's not the stunner we saw in an initial hands-on with the TZ5, the TZ4's LCD more than holds its own in light of the current standards for these sorts of things, with excellent crispness and good fluidity in all kinds of light.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
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Several display modes allow the user to prioritize extended battery life or a brighter screen as needed. With the TZ4's high power wide-view mode enabled, viewing angles are among the best we've ever tested – the camera goes almost to 90 degrees before colors invert. With enough power to passably handle even direct sunlight on a bright day, I almost didn't notice the lack of an optical viewfinder.


PERFORMANCE

Other than some anomalous focus issues that are admittedly hard to overlook, I found the TZ4 to be quick, capable, and thoroughly pleasant to use. Those hoping for a camera among the new TZs to take on the likes of Ricoh's R8 or provide a long-zoom rival to Canon's venerable G9 will continue to be disappointed by the TZ4's lack of manual controls, but shooters less concerned about artistic control than taking great snapshots in a variety of settings will find the TZ4 offers enough control to take charge if needed in most cases, and an excellent auto mode that does a fine job the rest of the time.

Timings and Shutter Lag

When pre-focused, shutter lag on the TZ4 is imperceptible, timing at around .05 seconds. What I didn't care for, however, is that it's a bit difficult to "hold" pre-focus for any length of time, with the camera seeming to want to refocus before shooting in many cases when going from half to full press. It may be a settings issue, but after trying nearly every possible combination of focusing options with similar results, I'm inclined to think not.

Based on our standard timing tests, it's not always easy to guess which AF mode (the TZ4 has several – perhaps too many) will actually be the fastest. Spot AF was able to lock and fire in right at .5 seconds, the best time from the TZ4. Interestingly, the two high-speed modes (one-area and three-area) were both consistently around .8 in the same test, with the camera's default, non-selectable AF mode in iA shooting mode turning in a slightly quicker time (.7 seconds). Admittedly, these results aren't derived from shooting a scene in motion, in which one of the high-speed modes may well prove faster, but it does appear that the old principle of falling back on single-point AF for maximum focus speed applies here as well.

The TZ4's high-speed continuous mode is able to dash off four full-res frames before stopping to clear the buffer in a rather speedy (for a compact, at least) 1.45 seconds, working out to a shooting speed of around 2.75 fps. If you need bursts longer than four frames, the TZ4's infinite continuous mode is able to hold a rate around 2.35 fps for a good long while – until the card fills up, if you're using a Class 6 SD.

Lens and Zoom

Unquestionably, the TZ4's headline piece of technology is its 28-280mm f/3.3-4.9 Leica zoom lens. It really doesn't get much better than this for a camera this size, with the TZ4 not only sporting the range to match any other camera in this bracket, but showing a true wide-angle focal length (equivalent to 28mm) on the wide end – something no competitor can match at the moment. While the benefits of wide lenses may not always live up to Panasonic's marketing hype, the TZ4's huge zoom range makes it as versatile as a conventional two- or three-lens DSLR setup in the focal length department.

Compared to most moderately priced DSLR lenses covering a telephoto range out to almost 300mm, the TZ4's lens also sports a relatively fast f/4.9 maximum aperture at full tele (which makes slow AF at the long end of the zoom – see the next section – even more inexcusable, if anything).

It doesn't hurt my positive feelings toward the TZ4's lens that the barrel itself feels well built and exhibits minimal free play. Travel is smooth if a little bit slow (it's got a long way to go, which doesn't help), and quiet enough to even permit zooming during video shooting (something most compacts don't do). I'm still a fan of Panasonic's new Easy Zoom concept, which uses a single press of a button position right next to the shutter release to move the zoom from full wide-angle to full telephoto and back.

From a use standpoint, then, if you're approaching the TZ4 exclusively for the flexibility that its lens affords you, you're not likely to be disappointed (excepting the issues with AF performance at telephoto outlined below). More on the unit's optical performance in the Image Quality section.

Auto Focus

As noted, the TZ4 provides six separate auto focus modes: Face Detection AF, Nine-Area AF, Three-Area High-Speed AF, One-Area High-Speed AF, One-Area AF, and Spot AF. Performance was rock solid in spot mode, acceptable when asked to detect faces (though the TZ4 isn't as fluid as some newer face detection systems), and decently consistent in the multi-area modes. The focus drive did seem to want to take the lens to infinity and focus and back before locking at times in the multi-area modes, which slows performance down, though usually it was a minor annoyance at best. As suggested previously, spot mode provided the most consistently quick performance within its limitations.

Perhaps the biggest performance mark against the TZ4, however, was its unpredictably terrible AF performance at the telephoto end of the zoom. When zoomed in beyond the mid-point, especially, the Lumix's screen would often lock up for several seconds while attempting to focus (when pre-focusing, for instance). When it finally "unlocked" – three seconds or more was not uncommon – the TZ4 would then focus and fire reasonably quickly, but the issue made tracking moving subjects at the long end of the zoom nearly impossible.

It should be noted that these focus speed issues at telephoto seem to be isolated to Normal Picture mode: after some extensive testing, I'm reasonably confident that the problem doesn't exist when shooting in iA. The issue is also largely corrected by using Spot AF, but not in any of the High-Speed modes; IS settings, an early presumed culprit, seem to have no bearing on the problem either. Ultimately, it's a potentially serious flaw in the TZ4's focusing system performance that, without the proper combination of settings, makes shooting anything other than static subjects with a good bit of the TZ4's impressive zoom a frustrating experience at the very least.

Flash

The TZ4's flash performance was satisfactory in every respect. Color is good, and exposure was always dead-on in Intelligent Auto mode. In iA, the camera is also seems to make reasonably intelligent decisions about using flash versus boosting ISO, even using flash to balance exposure in a few cases. In terms of modes, the TZ4 covers all the bases, with red-eye reduction and a slow sync mode for night shots joining the standard auto and fill options.

Timings weren't bad at all either. The TZ4 needed 6.5 seconds to recharge from a full-power flash firing, but the screen doesn't "black out" while the flash is recycling. Average recycle times with auto ISO selected were well under 2 seconds.

Image Stabilization

The TZ4 uses Panasonic's Mega O.I.S. (optical image stabilization) technology. Tested performance is on par with other Mega O.I.S. cameras we've looked at before, offering up a couple of stops of speed pretty consistently.

The system's mode – continuous, single-shot, or disabled – is user-selectable in most shooting modes via either the quick menu or the main menu. Whereas some other Lumix cameras we've tested have a preset shutter speed "floor" with image stabilization enabled, the TZ4 is the first one I've tested that has a user adjustable minimum shutter speed (especially convenient given that there are no manual controls on this cameras). The system defaults to 1/8, which seems to be a pretty good match for the image stabilization system's capabilities.

Battery

With its slightly smaller screen, the TZ4 promised more battery life per charge than the TZ5 – hitting 330 shots according to Panasonic's published numbers. As is almost always the case, while I didn't make it to 330, I was pleasantly surprised to find that with judicious flash use, the TZ4 is indeed capable (if only just) of topping 300 shots on a single charge of its impressive lightweight 1000 mAh pack. Not bad at all for a camera that sits on the larger side of compact and has a hefty zoom to move around.


IMAGE QUALITY

The TZ4's default image look is pleasing, with generally well-balanced sharpness and enough subtlety to capture finely graded textures and the like. As a camera targeted at slightly advanced shooters, image quality strikes an acceptable balance, neither requiring too much post-processing nor looking over-processed.

Exposure, Processing, and Color

Compared to previous TZ models, it looks like Panasonic's current-gen Venus Engine IV processing has pushed saturation and overall vibrancy just a bit on the newest models. Colors from the TZ4's default setting still look reasonably natural with a hint of warmth, but do add a bit more punch than we've seen in previous models in this line.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
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Serious shooters who appreciated the TZ3 for its slightly more muted, natural image tone may not be keen on the change, though most everyone else will find the current camera's images slightly more printable without post processing. Of course, the TZ4's several other color modes (including a Natural mode that looks to my eye, at least, much closer to the older TZs' image tone) are also available, and provide a nice range of variations in image tone.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
Vivid
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
Natural
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
Warm
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
Cool
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
Black and White (view large image)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
Sepia (view large image)

Exposure was pretty tightly controlled, handling wide-contrast scenes without much difficulty most of the time. There seems to be some push toward slight underexposure on the TZ4 – definitely not a bad thing, as the camera retains maximum detail and avoids the slightly washed out look of shots from its predecessor.

Among its long list of automated or semi-auto exposure options, the TZ4's Intelligent Exposure option was the one that intrigued me most. Though we've noted this option on other recent Panasonics, the TZ4 was the first chance I've had to really put the system through its paces. According to Panasonic, the Intelligent Exposure system, "increases exposure only in under-exposed areas by detecting the brightness level part-by-part in the picture... This prevents a washed-out dullness common with some cameras, as it brightens the area by only increasing the ISO in that area" (emphasis added).

Panasonic has stated officially on more than one occasion that with Intelligent Exposure engaged, ISO is varied within a single image to balance highlights and shadows. Without more detailed technical information (how, for example, do you selectively increase sensitivity on a sensor, given that gain-up is an analog process?), I'm skeptical as to what's really going on, however. What's even less clear to me is how one would know if multiple ISOs were being used in the same shot anyway; I couldn't find anything to indicate its function in the EXIF data, which just returned conventional single-number ISO values, even in scenes where Intelligent Exposure is theoretically working (i.e. strong backlighting).

Based on my test shooting, it seems more likely that Intelligent Exposure shoots for a compromise ISO value and then adjusts highlight/shadow values selectively. The bottom line for shooters in the real world, then, is that while Intelligent Exposure may offer some modest improve in balancing wide-ranging shots, it's not a magic cure-all for high-contrast exposure issues.

White Balance

The TZ4's automatic white balance proved versatile in a variety of settings, even doing alright (though not perfectly) in tungsten light. Images under cooler light (toward the high end of the spectrum) can look a little blue-green at times, however. Oddly, while the TZ4 sports a custom white set mode, there are no fluorescent presets.

Lens Faults

Given the lens's range, barrel distortion was surprisingly well controlled, avoiding the "bloated" look seen with many wide-angle lenses from compact cameras. Pincushioning at the long end was a bit more pronounced, starting to show up just beyond the middle of the range and getting a little puckered by full telephoto.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
Wide-Angle (view large image)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
Telephoto (view large image)

Aside from a little vignetting at wide-angle, I didn't experience any other issues with the TZ4's Leica lens. Fringing was generally well-controlled, and I found the lens's sharpness to be more than acceptable at all focal lengths.

Sensitivity and Noise

The TZ3 came in for some criticism for what many felt was too much intrusive noise reduction at higher ISOs. While there's still a fair of amount of noise reduction at ISO 800 and beyond, the TZ4's overall look is a little more managed.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
ISO 100
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
ISO 100, 100% Crop

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
ISO 200
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
ISO 200, 100% Crop

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
ISO 400
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
ISO 400, 100% Crop

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
ISO 800
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
ISO 800, 100% Crop

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
ISO 1600
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
ISO 1600, 100% Crop

That said, the level of chroma noise across the board at the higher settings is troubling. Likewise, detail loss, while perhaps improved over previous generations, is still marked at ISO 1600:

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
ISO 100

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
ISO 1600

By ISO 1600 there's really nothing left of what low-contrast detail the TZ4 was able to pick up at lower sensitivities. Needless to say, while the TZ4's high-ISO performance isn't the worst we've seen, the camera's High Sensitivity mode (which boosts the range all the way to ISO 6400) really isn't even worth experimenting with.

Additional Sample Images

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4
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CONCLUSIONS

The TZ4 had some high standards to live up to: I'm still very impressed with this camera, but it's not perfect, and a few of its issues raise serious concerns for certain types of shooting (action shooting at the long end of the zoom, for instance). With some image quality improvements (to my eye at least) over its predecessor, it's a good start in the right direction, but users looking to upgrade will need to put the performance quirks through their paces before making a final decision. While it may still be the best offering in this fairly limited-participation class of cameras, the TZ4 didn't floor me in the way that I hoped it would.

It will also be interesting to see how the TZ4's sales perform compared to the TZ5. While the resolution bump isn't enough to be enticing for most, the combination of a larger (and gorgeous) screen and HD video capture on the TZ5 may be enough to lure customers away from the TZ4 in favor of the step-up model. And for U.S. readers, all of this assumes that the TZ4 will continue to have any real retail presence in the States (the TZ3 doppelganger, the TZ2, never seemed to be widely available or highly promoted in North America).

Ultimately, if you can overlook its one glaring issue – and that's a big "if" – there simply aren't a lot of cameras of this size that can do what the TZ4 does in terms of zoom range.

Pros:

Cons:

 

 

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4 Specifications:

Sensor 8.1 megapixel, 1/2.5" CCD
Lens/Zoom 10x (28-280mm) Leica DC Vario-Elmar, f/3.3-4.9
LCD/Viewfinder 2.5", 230K-dot TFT LCD
Sensitivity ISO 100-1600 (High Sensitivity mode to ISO 6400)
Shutter Speed 60-1/2000 seconds
Shooting Modes Intelligent Auto, Normal Picture, Scene 1, Scene 2, Motion Picture, Clipboard
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
White Balance Settings Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Halogen, User Set
Metering Modes Intelligent Multiple, Center, Spot
Focus Modes Face Detection, Nine-Area, Three-Area High Speed, One-Area, One-Area High Speed, Spot
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
Internal Memory
50 MB
File Formats JPEG, Motion JPEG
Max. Image Size 3264x2448
Max. Video Size
848x480, 30 fps
Zoom During Video Yes
Battery Rechargeable lithium-ion
Connections USB 2.0, AV output, HD output, DC input
Additional Features Mega O.I.S., iA Intelligent Auto mode, Intelligent ISO, Venus Engine IV processing