Following up on yesterday's official announcement of the new 10.1 megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 compact ultrazoom, Panasonic was gracious enough to give us the afternoon to take a pre-production sample of its latest effort – follow-up to the broadly popular TZ series – out for some afternoon shooting.
Since their initial launch several model generations back, the TZ cameras have developed a strong following among a wide range of photographers – everyone from casual shutterbugs who love them for their range and versatility to experienced photographers who, well, love them for their range and versatility. Although other manufacturers have followed suit over the years, it's fair to say that if Panasonic didn't invent the long-zoom pocket camera class, they certainly catapulted it into the spotlight with the TZ models.
On that note, one question that puzzled several of us when the ZS press release hit the wire yesterday was why Panasonic had opted to move away from the successful, logical TZ (which originally stood for "travel zoom" – playing on the TZ cameras' popularity as an all-in-one shooting solution for travelers) branding for the U.S. market models. In Tuesday's press conference, the question was posed to Panasonic marketing manager David Briganti, who pointed us back to the idea that the ZS models – designed as a "hybrid concept" with both high-grade still shooting and HD video functions – are supposed to represent a new chapter in the development of Panasonic's compact ultrazoom series.
And while the ZS3 feels an awful lot like the TZ5 (not that that's an awful thing at all...) to warrant this kind of sweeping rebranding, I did notice some key changes in my day shooting with a nearly production-ready ZS3.
ZS versus TZ: spotting the differences
If finding a lot that's changed from TZ to ZS may take some digging below their very similar looking surfaces, the biggest news is almost certainly the lens on the new ZS cams: a 12x Leica zoom with wide-angle coverage out to a pretty stunning 25mm. It's hardly surprising that the ZS3's glass seems just as uniformly excellent across the range its forerunner's was. The lens's diameter and barrel are roughly the same as before, but Panasonic has managed to preserve what appears at first blush to be all of the TZ5's optical goodness while both adding range and making the lens thinner when retracted by redesigning its lens element groupings.
This smaller, thinner optical construction translates to a camera that is slightly but noticeably smaller, thinner, and lighter than its TZ predecessors. The first thing that struck me on picking up the ZS3, in fact, was just how much lighter it feels than I remember the TZ5 being. Admittedly, I didn't have a TZ camera handy for comparisons, but it certainly feels as though Panasonic has lived up to its claim of ten-percent size reductions all around. If it's still a little too big for most pockets, the ZS is inching closer to being able to apply for ultracompact status.
Build quality remains excellent in spite of the weight reductions. I did find the knurled mode dial on my test unit to feel a little free-wheeling (it was too easy to change the dial position inadvertently when slipping the ZS3 into a bag), but it should also be noted that our test sample was of the pre-production variety.
Not surprisingly, Panasonic continues to pull out all the stops on its Intelligent Auto mode, and although I've been a long-time iA skeptic, I find myself leaving these cameras on that setting more and more as Panasonic has refined the iA experience and made it smarter and less intrusive over time. In fact, save the few samples in our ZS3 gallery that used some of the more exotic color/processing settings or high-speed shooting modes, the overwhelming majority of the shots that follow below were taken without taking the camera on iA – and in a few cases, I even ended up picking the iA version of a shot over one taken in program mode with more carefully selected settings.
For all of this advanced auto-exposure technology, it's interesting to note that one of the few complaints Panasonic has not responded to with the new ZS is the request for manual exposure control. Seems like it would be easy enough to integrate aperture and shutter priority settings at the very least, but the small but vocal group of advanced shooters who have been agitating for these features on the next TZ model have, sadly, not yet been appeased.
Designing a hybrid: 720p video, stereo audio
The ZS3's lens and iA functions may be impressive, but in thinking about what really makes the ZS3 stand out, there's that little video thing to consider as well. With its full optical zoom range at its disposal, the ZS3 shoots 720p HD video at a super-smooth 60 fps (and with stereo audio capture to boot). A dual-core image processor and a new file format – AVCHD Lite – make this kind of performance possible, and after tinkering with both video and still shooting for the better part of yesterday, I see the practical impact of Panasonic's claim that video is better integrated into the overall shooting experience than ever.
The most important piece of this improvement may have been the decision to give the ZS3 a dedicated back-panel video button. There's no video position on the mode dial: instead, video shooting options are controlled within separate tabbed areas of the same menu system that contains still image settings. See a great video opportunity unfolding, press a single button, and you're capturing it immediately without fumbling to change modes on the fly. Those who buy still cameras with an eye toward shooting a lot of video as well (and plan out their video shooting accordingly) may not care one way or the other; "cell phone culture" casual shooters, on the other hand, will probably appreciate the fact that the ZS3 doesn't tie you in to either still or video shooting by default, regardless of your mode setting.
Since the ZS3 we shot with was a pre-production unit, Panasonic has asked us not to publish our full-res video files or make quality evaluations based on what we saw yesterday. At this point, I can say that 60 fps video at this resolution looks pretty darn good – especially up against your typical SD video from a still camera with a lesser lens. The built-in wind cut filter also seemed to make a substantive improvement in outdoor audio quality especially, and the sound from the ZS3's stereo mic was certainly a lot more lively than the flat mono sound we're used to (though its placement on the camera's top panel means you'll have to guard against brushing fingers over the screens).
At this point, the biggest unknown may be support for the ZS3's much heralded AVCHD Lite. Theoretically, since Panasonic's 720p only version of this format is a variant of the standard H.264 compression video technology outlined previously, Panasonic has suggested that anything that supports full AVCHD should in turn handle AVCHD Lite. Without certification from software manufacturers, though, it's impossible to know for sure at this point where your ZS3's video files might or might not be welcomed. I'm excited about the quality and, especially, file-size benefits that Panasonic's decision to go the H.264 route represents, but making sure that you can both shoot and edit your latest YouTube-bound high-def short film footage from the ZS3 is obviously a top priority as well.
First look: ZS3 sample gallery
As with its video performance, Panasonic has asked us not to stringently evaluate the quality of stills based on our first experience with the ZS3, as there may well be processing updates between now and when the camera comes on line at retailers in April. At the most basic level, we continue to be impressed with the vibrancy and contrast that these cameras are capable of capturing with minimal effort and settings tweaking – though as with the TZ models, the ZS3's excellent screen seems to cheat a little bit in imparting some additional warmth and contrast.
Of course, the $64,000 question – how's the ZS3's noise control compared to the TZ5? – will have to go unanswered until we can get our hands on a final-firmware ZS3 for evaluation.
With all of that in mind, I think I'll let the gallery speak for itself when it comes to the ZS3's top-level image considerations and performance potential. As is often the case with pre-production models, we've reduced the following shots to a maximum size of 640x480 to comply with Panasonic's request. While it's impossible to get at the details at this level, in a broad sense we like what we see from the ZS3 to this point.
All in all, I found the ZS3 to be like the TZ cameras that have gone before it: versatile, responsive, and at the end of the day, extremely enjoyable for casual shooting. We'll be back later this spring with an in-depth look at the ZS3 as soon as Panasonic gives the green light on a final-firmware version.