DigitalCameraReview.com
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500 Review
by David Rasnake -  5/30/2008

When the heavily hyped, touch screen enabled Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500 first appeared, I'll admit that I largely wrote it off as an exercise in novelty an FX35 with a touch screen slapped on and little else to justify its significantly higher price compared to our March Editor's Choice winner.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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Scratch the surface, however, and it becomes apparent that Panasonic, in typical fashion, has slipped several features upgrades into the FX500's sleek casing. Whether these upgrades are significant enough to make the new camera worth its price premium is what we're here to determine, but questions of the final verdict aside, it's clear that the FX500 is something of a different animal from the FX models that have gone before it.


FEATURES OVERVIEW

The 10.1 megapixel Panasonic Lumix FX500 derives its sensor and processor directly from the FX35. Updates over previous FX cameras include a 5x Leica zoom that still sports the FX-signature 25mm wide-angle end, as well as this flagship model's flagship feature a 3-inch touch interface LCD.

The full range of Panasonic's "intelligent" features including the effective and efficient Intelligent Auto automatic scene selection mode, and the somewhat less impressive Intelligent Exposure dynamic range control feature all return for another round with the FX500. Helpful (or irritating, if you've been using the camera for more than a day) on-screen prompts provide one-sentence explanations for functions and features as they're called up; thankfully, these can be easily disabled once you get the hang of how the FX500 works.

Unique among the FX cameras, the FX500 also brings manual exposure control, including aperture and shutter priority modes, to the table. (For a detailed explanation of how exposure parameters are controlled using the touch screen, jump down to the Ergonomics and Interface heading in the next section.) Of course, no compact camera these days is complete without face detection (Panasonic's implementation remains one of the better ones), some high-profile video recording options, and a panoply of scene presets, and the FX500 offers all of these consumer-friendly features and several more.

There are seven basic shooting modes on the FX500:

I was disappointed to discover that unlike some other Panasonic cameras with HD video capabilities, the FX500's optical zoom can't be employed in video mode, and focus is fixed from the outset to boot. With all of these limitations, it's difficult to not feel just a bit like Panasonic has really dragged down the appeal of one of this camera's most potent and unique features for many users.

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

Panasonic has one of the most consistent visual images around with its Lumix line, and the FX500 does little to stray from this basic formula at first glance. However, a further inspection reveals that even beyond its touch screen interface there are a few unexpected twists and turns in the way the FX500 looks and the way it handles.

Styling and Build Quality

Practically every surface on the front side of the FX500 has a faux machined feeling that plays well with the "industrial chic" image of recent Panasonic devices generally.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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The FX500's gunmetal gray finish is particularly nice: it's a bit darker than the ubiquitous silver hue seen on 90 percent of the compact cameras currently on the market, giving the new Lumix a distinctive, handsome look.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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One surprise comes out back, however, where things aren't all brushed metal business as usual. The FX500 uses a black plastic screen bezel and rear panel a surprising contrast to the vast majority of Panasonic's lower-end models that use metal (or at least plastic finished to feel like metal) in this application. Buttons and switches still feel just fine in terms of construction, but it's admittedly a bit of a turn-off for a flagship camera, especially.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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Doors covering the connections and battery/memory card both feel acceptably well made, though I still worry a bit about the hinge on the lower door (which is made from thin plastic and seems like it might be easy to break).

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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To the positive, there's not the slightest hint of flex or creaking when the camera body is torqued, suggesting an extremely solid subframe. The trade-off, of course, is the FX500's weight the camera is somewhat heavy and quite dense feeling for its size.

Ergonomics and Interface

From the beginning, buzz around the FX500 has focused on its touch screen. For a run-down of the things you can do with the FX500's unique interface, take a look at our touch screen demo video if you haven't already:

As the video suggests, the touch screen is primarily used for in-shot exposure and focus control, rather than for interface navigation as on many competitive models. While I don't mind this arrangement in general, I do dislike the fact that the touch screen seems to be employed for this kind of general interface control in a very few instances and for no apparent reason: for instance, although you have to press the Mode hard button to call up the list of shooting modes, once these options are displayed they can be navigated only with the touch screen.

At other times (when scrolling through images in playback, for instance), the touch screen and joystick can be used interchangeably a preferable arrangement for those who think the touch screen business is just a little too gimmicky. (Likewise, when shooting in Intelligent Auto mode, either the touch screen or the up direction on the joystick can be used to enable backlight correction.) Of course, the issue I'm having lies not in the use of the touch screen itself we'll assume for the purposes of this review that if you're seriously considering the FX500, you're at least somewhat open to and interested in its touch screen functionality but in the inconsistency with which its use is applied in the interface.

Speaking of the joystick, the FX500 has a somewhat disappointing one in terms of feel and precision when compared to some of its FX and FS siblings. I often found it difficult to get our test unit to register a center press (used as an "OK" button, to select or confirm), with the FX500 wanting to read what felt for sure like a straight-down press as an up arrow selection about half of the time. Maybe my big fingers aren't nimble enough to get a feel for the Lumix's somewhat small controls, but I often found myself calling up the exposure compensation control when I just wanted to confirm a choice instead.

On the firmware side, the rest of the FX500's interface is very similar to that seen on the FX35: transparent and easy to navigate. In Intelligent Auto mode, a highly limited list of five options in the shooting mode makes life easy for those who choose it to be; the list jumps to four pages in Program mode, but if the parameters could still be a little more logically grouped most users will have no difficulty getting around.

Display/Viewfinder

Display options include two levels showing progressively more information, as well as an optional composition grid overlay. A live histogram can also be toggled on if desired. The display is large enough and wide enough to allow for all that has to take place there, providing ample room for the sidebar touch slider controls in the manual exposure modes. Things can get a bit cluttered at times with all of the possible information called up, but if you rarely head out of auto exposure it's probable that you'll rarely notice.

Fluidity in low light is far from stunning, with the on-screen image turning into a bit of trailed mess when shooting in darker spaces. In a side-by-side comparison, neither brightness nor sharpness are quite as strong as we saw in the FX35, but on this score things are still appreciably better than average. As with other recent Panasonic cams, several screen power modes can adapt the display to just about any shooting situation (including near-direct sunlight) if you remember to use them. High-angle mode remains excellent when viewed from up from the bottom of the screen, but only acceptable from the top down and on the horizontal axis.


PERFORMANCE

As the flagship model of Panasonic's high-end FX compact series, high expectations for the FX500 extend as much to its performance as to its styling. Manual exposure modes should give the new camera appeal with the advanced shooting crowd assuming, of course, that the rest of the performance equation works out as expected.

Timings and Shutter Lag

As with other Panasonic compacts, the FX500 has a plethora of AF modes, making it somewhat difficult to know where to begin in getting representative timing numbers (in part because there's a fair amount of speed difference between the various modes). AF acquire and fire times in the center-area mode averaged just under .7 seconds, making the FX500 feel a bit slower than the best of the competition. Timings in nine-area multi-AF mode were closer to a full second an especially slow time for a flagship camera these days.

All of this changes when you kick the camera over to the three-area high-speed mode, however, with press-to-capture times averaging a much more impressive .3 seconds. In spite of some irritating screen stutter at times in this mode (and the equally quick one-area high-speed mode), the difference in the overall responsiveness of the camera was night and day, convincing me to leave the device in high-speed AF mode at all times.

True shutter lag (with the camera pre-focused) is negligible, coming in right at .05 seconds in testing.

The FX500 sports two continuous shooting modes: Burst and Unlimited Burst. Burst mode is marginally faster, with the FX500 able to shoot three shots in 2.1 seconds (for a rate of 1.4 fps) before stopping to clear the buffer. The infinite continuous mode is slightly slower, with the first three shots coming in at 2.7 seconds (1.1 fps), but as the name implies, the FX500 is able to continue for a good long while at this speed. Neither continuous mode is particularly impressive, though all in all, this level of performance is both acceptable and predictable.

Lens and Zoom

The FX500's lens sports similar specs to the glass seen on the recent FX35, including a 25mm wide-angle end, but range on the FX500 is extended out to the equivalent of 125mm (versus the previous model's 100mm telephoto end). As before, the FX500's wide-angle lens packs a fairly fast f/2.8 maximum aperture (though at f/5.9 on the telephoto end, it's not particularly speedy a fact that can be felt in sluggish telephoto AF performance).

The merits of Panasonic's "slightly wider than everyone else" lens have been discussed at length in this space in our review of the FX35, and there's little reason to do more than briefly restate our collective view here: while it's a nice touch for sure, the FX500's wide-angle lens isn't likely to be life-changing in the way that the Lumix PR materials claim. If anything, the additional 25mm that the FX500 picks up over its sibling are more impressive than the characteristic they share.

Some have complained about the FX500's lens being exceptionally slow in moving from wide to tele and back, but while it's not the most responsive zoom I've used this year, performance wasn't terrible either. It takes the FX500 2.4 seconds to go from full wide-angle to full telephoto, but the motion isn't entirely linear the camera seems to slow in the last third of its zoom range. Zooming out across the full range takes slightly longer (3.3 seconds). Overall, while these numbers are slightly slower than we've seen from some similarly speced zooms on similar cameras, they're not far enough from the class leaders to be called worse than average.

Auto Focus

As noted in the timings section, the FX500 like every other recent Lumix camera comes equipped with more AF modes than anyone could possibly want or need. With the right setting acquisition times are snappy at wide-angle, slower across the board at telephoto, and generally unimpressive in low light. If speed can be hit or miss depending on your settings, one thing that the FX500 (and Panasonic in general of late) doesn't appear to have a problem with is lock consistency. In shooting with the FX500 for two weeks, I honestly believe I can count on one hand the number of out and out missed focuses I experienced.

The fact that focus lock is quite consistent is probably good given that until you learn the "vocabulary" of Panasonic's symbols and color-coding, it's hard to know what exactly the camera's telling you. If you've used other Lumix cams before, this one is much the same in the AF indicator department, but those unfamiliar with the system may have trouble knowing whether focus is locked or not.

The FX500's AF tracking option, accessible via the touch screen, may be more novelty than functionality, but it's still an interesting idea nonetheless. As shown in the touch screen demo video above, in tracking mode, simply touch the desired focus point on the screen and the FX500 will continue to track that point until the camera is moved such that the point is no longer in the frame (or until the user cancels the tracking point). The implementation can be a little jumpy at times, and is easily freaked out by rapid camera motion, but I still feel that the ability to hold a lock on a specific point on an object itself, and not just a specific area of the camera's view frame may prove truly useful for some shooters in some cases.

Macro performance is standard fare at best, with the FX500 able to lock closest focus at around two inches in testing.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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Like some other Panasonic compacts we've had in recently, this one wants to bounce around when focusing distances get close in, making it hard to get a consistent lock under four inches at wide-angle.

Flash

The flash is pretty wimpy, offering little range to work with the farther out you go on the FX500's zoom, especially. I was unable to confirm some user reports floating around out there about serious overexposure problems (I found the FX500's flash and metering combo to be no more prone to overexpose shots than similar systems on similar cameras). More often, I found the camera consistently if slightly underexposed when working at any distance from the subject.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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Like many small-sensor cameras, the FX500 also shows less forgiveness and latitude in its noise control than might be desired: both slightly under- and slightly overexposed shots tended to bring out more noise at a given sensitivity setting than was exhibited when exposure is dead-on, and the solid fields of darker tones common to flash shots taken in dark rooms also tend to emphasizes the FX500's weaknesses where chroma noise is concerned.

The inclusion of a slow-sync mode (with red-eye reduction enabled by default) is a nice touch and provides an effective way to not only bring out backgrounds in dark scenes, but to soften the FX500's slightly harsh flash tone all around.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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Red-eye remains a bit of a problem for the latest generation of Panasonic compacts, with the FX500 tending to have issues requiring retouching even with one of the red-eye reduction flash modes enabled. As we've observed around here before, all of this makes me wish for the inclusion of an in-camera red-eye reduction post-processing tool among the FX500's rather Spartan playback options list.

Image Stabilization

The FX500's IS technology is the same "Mega O.I.S." optical stabilization system that's been around the reviewing block at least half-a-dozen times at DCR. As before, performance was consistently good, I appreciate the reprisal of the "Minimum Shutter Speed" user setting for keeping things within the IS system's working range (the default 1/8 remains a good floor for wide-angle shooting), and I still wish that Panasonic would do away with its "Mode 1" and "Mode 2" nomenclature in favor of something a little more descriptive (what would be wrong with "Single Shot" and Continuous" instead?).

With consistent-looking firmware across the range of Panasonic's recent releases, it doesn't look like I'll be getting much traction on my gripes about the naming this season. I guess two out of three isn't so bad...

Battery Life

The addition of a large screen and a touch screen at that! to the basic FX formula seemed like a source of enough potential trouble in the battery life department to get me waving my arms more frantically than that stupid robot from "Lost in Space" ("Danger, Will Robinson!"). The Sony T cameras, with their large and impressive touch screens, have been known for pretty abysmal battery performance, and the FX35 wasn't such a star in this category to begin with.

With all of that in mind, final numbers were about in keeping with my admittedly low expectations. I was able to squeeze 160 shots, a few minutes of video shooting, and some playback/review time from the last drops of juice left on the battery the last few using the old power-on/shoot/power-off/wait routine. If you like to go out on daylong shooting excursions or want to avail yourself of the FX500's HD video capture capabilities for any length of time, go ahead and factor the cost of a second battery into your final purchase price.


IMAGE QUALITY

From a technological standpoint, the FX500 is nearly indistinguishable from its FX35 stable mate. Hence, what impressed us about the FX35 great resolution and sharpness, vivid and vibrant images impresses in equal measure with the latest camera.

Exposure, Processing, and Color

I like the fine line that the FX500 walks at its default setting between "richly saturated" and "oversaturated." As we've seen in other FX cameras, the FX500 dishes up a lot of punch in its images straight out of the box without going overboard.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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Ditto on the sharpening levels, which are tuned to strike a nice balance with default processing parameters selected.

Compared to the FX35, the FX500 sports a toned down list of color mode presets, lacking both the Vivid and Natural settings seen on the FX35.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
Cool
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
Warm
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
Black and White
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
Sepia
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In their place, however, the new camera brings something even better where advanced shooters are concerned: stepped sharpness, contrast, saturation, and noise reduction adjustments, just like we've seen on Panasonic's other cameras that offer manual exposure control. For detail-oriented photographers, the appeal of being able to dial in a custom preset (each parameter offers five steps of adjustment) based on your preferences and the shooting situation really can't be overstated.

Metering on the FX500 in the default multi-area setting was predictable, with -1/3 to -2/3 EV needed to maximize dynamic range and prevent highlight clipping in high-contrast outdoor scenes.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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Get everything dialed in (the live histogram function is accurate and quite helpful in this regard) and the FX500, while not stunning in its dynamic range, is quite capable of pulling in nearly the full range of detail from tough shots. Natural color reproduction and a bit of sensor grain all around give the shots an almost "vintage film" look at times that works well for some subjects, but may annoy shooters hoping for cleaner, more modern looking images.

White Balance

The FX500 exhibited the characteristically unpredictable auto white balance that has earned some Lumix cameras high marks around here while related models have been much criticized.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light (view large image)

I spent a lot of time analyzing the FX500's white balance performance in a variety of settings, and as best I can tell when working under 3200K incandescent light AWB is essentially a second-position copy of the daylight white balance preset, giving images a fairly nasty warm skew. Go slightly on up the color temperature scale, however, and the system locks in much better. It's odd, to say the least.

Obviously, inconsistent white balance performance is nothing unique to Panasonic, and it's hardly a deal breaker for the FX500. At the same time, unpredictable automatic performance makes working in unusual or mixed lighting a bit of a challenge: novice users would be well advised to study up on manually setting white balance for this very reason, as the FX500 is capable of some extreme (and sometimes unexpected) color skews otherwise.

Lens Faults

We praised the FX35 for what proved to be its generally excellent optics, and on this score the FX500 doesn't disappoint either. In spite of its size, the FX500's 5x Leica lens is more than acceptably sharp throughout the range, with only a bit of sharpness fall-off at its farthest telephoto reaches. Even at full wide-angle and maximum aperture, edge detail remains acceptably crisp.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
Lower left corner, 100% crop

There is some light color fringing evident, which seems to get darker and more pronounced toward the edges of the lens and at wider angles and apertures.

In light of its width and its overall range, the FX500's optics remain largely distortion-free.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
Wide-angle
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
Telephoto
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There is some light-moderate visible barrel distortion at the extreme wide end, but it dissipates quickly into the zoom range. Pincushion distortion is kept in check throughout, with nearly straight lines still rendered as such at full telephoto.

Sensitivity and Noise

With an almost familiar lens and a familiar sensor/processor combo, shooting ISO tests for the FX500 was, in a word, familiar.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
ISO 100
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
ISO 100, 100% crop

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
ISO 200
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
ISO 200, 100% crop

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
ISO 400
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
ISO 400, 100% crop

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
ISO 800
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
ISO 800, 100% crop

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
ISO 1600
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
ISO 1600, 100% crop

Given that the FX500 and the FX35 share a sensor and processor, performance is, as anticipated, almost identical.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
FX500, ISO 1600

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX35
FX35, ISO 1600

Hence, what we said before regarding the FX35 applies: performance is about average for this class, meaning slightly noisy in objective terms. In spite of Panasonic's good work with the Venus Engine IV processor in reducing the visible intrusiveness of noise reduction, there's still too much of it here, and its effects become visible far too low in the sensitivity range (even ISO 100 shows a bit of telltale artifacting, and it's clearly visible by ISO 400).

Of course, for shooting at lower ISOs, especially, the good news is that noise reduction can be dialed back courtesy of the stepped image processing parameters mentioned previous pull noise reduction back to its lowest setting and artifacts and edge softness virtually disappear up to ISO 400. (By ISO 800, actual noise begins to appreciably intrude, negating the benefits of reducing noise reduction.) While the benefit of being able to choose a custom balance of noise and noise reduction is a great feature, it doesn't offset the fact that the sensor used in this application is somewhat noisier than perhaps it should be: any way you slice it, and any way you set it up, even low-ISO images have a graininess to them when viewed at 100 percent.

All of that said, it should also be reiterated that while there are some (slightly) cleaner options out there at this resolution, what the FX500 offers up in this regard is about what one should expect from the bulk of compact cameras these days. Is that good enough for a flagship model with a $400 street price? That's a decision for each potential buyer to make on his or her own.

Additional Sample Images

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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CONCLUSIONS

I'll get this out of the way up front: the combination of manual exposure control, processing fine-tuning options, and a touch screen interface simply don't come together in any other camera currently in Panasonic's line or any other camera on the market, for that matter. The FX500 offers some serious power where exposure and processing control are concerned, and this fact alone largely puts to rest the idea that this camera can be written off as an object of PR hype. If an FX35 with full manual control and DSLR-style JPEG processing options appeals to you, here it is. Even without the touch screen, the FX500 would be breaking new ground.

Beyond these new additions, most of what was good about the FX35 is also good about the FX500. Perhaps the bigger issue lies in the fact that most of what was not so good about the FX35 noise and graininess, some inconsistent white balance performance, and some general low-light performance concerns is still a concern with the FX500, and arguably much less excusable on a camera that sits at the top of the compact camera ladder in terms of price. What seem like irritations or niggles in a $275 camera start looking a bit more serious and less excusable at $400.

All in all, it's hard to say whether the novelty of a touch screen adds to or detracts from the FX500's appeal. Serious shooters who find the FX500's range of user control alluring may also be ambivalent about the slightly strange interface. Equally, gadget fans drawn in by the touch screen may not, on the whole, care much one way or another about exposure and processing options. In spite of all it does well, then, the FX500 seemed a little confused in who it was aiming for, and with its class-leading price tag, it simply didn't win me over the way some previous FX cameras have.

Pros:

Cons:

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500 Specifications:

Sensor 10.1 megapixel, 1/2.33" CCD
Lens/Zoom 5x (25-125mm) Leica DC Vario-Elmarit, f/2.8-5.9
LCD/Viewfinder 3.0", 230K dot TFT touch screen LCD
Sensitivity ISO 100-1600
Shutter Speed 60-1/2000 seconds
Shooting Modes Intelligent Auto, Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, Scene, Motion Picture
Scene Presets Portrait, Soft Skin, Self-Portrait, 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
White Balance Settings Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Halogen, White Set
Metering Modes Intelligent Multiple, Center-Weighted, Spot
Focus Modes Face, One-Point, One-Point High Speed, Three-Point High Speed, Nine-Point, Spot, Touch, Macro
Drive Modes Normal, Burst, Self Timer
Flash Modes Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Forced On, Slow Sync/Red-Eye Reduction, Forced Off
Self Timer Settings
10 seconds, 2 seconds, Off
Memory Formats SD, SDHC
Internal Memory
Yes
File Formats JPEG, Motion JPEG
Max. Image Size 3648x2736
Max. Video Size
1280x720, 30 fps
Zoom During Video No
Battery Rechargeable 1000 mAh lithium-ion, 280 shots
Connections USB 2.0, AV output, HD AV output, DC input
Additional Features Mega OIS Image Stabilization, touch screen interface, Venus Engine IV processor, Intelligent ISO, Intelligent Scene Selector