Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 Review
by David Rasnake -  3/27/2009

It's a still camera. It's a camcorder. At least that's what Panasonic hopes you'll think when you think about the latest high-profile Lumix to hit the market this year: the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3

A 10.1 megapixel, 12x zoom update to Panasonic's extremely popular TZ models, the ZS3 (which retains its former badging as the TZ7 in some markets) combines the versatility of a long-zoom compact camera with the option to capture 720p high-def video at a moment's notice, with the push of a single button.

We first got our hands on a pre-production ZS3 several months ago during the camera's official launch event, and a few hours shooting with the new model made it clear that the ZS3 was very much like the TZ5 -- only different. Just how different? Read on to find out...

Panasonic's newest long-zoom compact, the 10.1 megapixel ZS3 will instantly call to mind the venerable TZ-series cameras it replaces. Panasonic is known for rugged construction and bold, industrial-esque design in their flagship Lumix models, and in this sense, the ZS3 breaks no new ground.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3

From any distance, it would be easy enough to mistake the new model for a TZ5, but size and weight reductions compared to previous Lumix long-zoom models are felt (and appreciated!) as soon as you pick the camera up. Although it retains the TZ5's solid feel and all-metal construction, a lighter and more compact optical design allows Panasonic and their Leica collaborators to squeeze more zoom range into less space.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3

Overall, the ZS3 claims a 10 percent size reduction when compared to the TZ cameras, and although it's still a formidable model compared to many ultracompacts (and hardly pocket-size besides), the ZS3 still slightly bests the competitive Canon SX200 in compactness.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3Ergonomics and Controls
The ZS3's surface area and semi-cylindrical grip provide plenty of real estate for comfortably hanging on to the camera. The camera's typical-for-a-Lumix control arrangement clusters the camera's basic functions -- a four-way controller, a couple of dedicated buttons, and the new video button -- within easy reach of your thumb, and even with the camera's large lens extended, balance was never a problem.

In designing the ZS3 to be a "hybrid" model -- equally at home shooting stills or videos -- the ZS3's design team recognized that many users find video functions on the typical point-and-shoot difficult to access. That's where the ZS3's dedicated video button comes in: one press of this back-panel control (which sits above the four-way controller) and the camera begins capturing video instantly.

Moving the video recording start/stop function onto its own button also has the added benefit of decluttering the camera's mode dial, as a full-time dedicated video control eliminates the need for a separate shooting mode for movie capture.

Menus and Modes
Panasonic was one of the first to get on board with automatic scene recognition, brought to the Lumix line by way of the manufacturer's Intelligent Auto (or iA) shooting mode. A quick and competent auto-detection system, the "Intelligent Scene Selector" portion of Panasonic's five-part iA system automatically picks from six shooting presets (including a pair of night-specific modes) based on scene conditions -- and in general, it does an admirable job of making a smart choice.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3

Integrating smarter "Intelligent" ISO selection, optical image stabilization, face detection, and Panasonic's Quick AF continuous focus system into the mix as well, iA proved adept in responding to rapidly changing situations during our shooting tests with the ZS3. There were a few notable misses (a couple of times, the camera spent several seconds hunting for focus in the macro range when there was nothing there to focus on), but for casual shooters -- and especially those who take lots of "people snapshots" -- iA's combination of technologies works well enough to allow "set it and forget it" operation.

For those seeking more control, there's also a program auto mode (the somewhat amusingly named "Normal Picture" setting). A scene mode provides access to the ZS3's staggering 27 situation presets, and a pair of My Scene positions allow the user to choose two favorites from among this long list for quick access directly from the mode dial.

As noted previously, there's no separate video shooting mode. Video settings are configured through a separate tab in the main menu (or Panasonic's trademark Quick Menu -- a list of heads-up options that can be called up via the Q.Menu button), though as with stills, you have to be in Normal Picture to tweak settings like white balance and AF mode.

On balance, Panasonic's user interface remains largely unchanged and relatively straightforward. That said, for a camera targeting casual shooters, I continue to feel like the ZS3 offers almost too many options. From six AF modes to page upon page of image settings to countless "intelligent" features (ISO, exposure, etc.), the ZS3's menus offer a lot of whiz-bang for gadget fans, but may also be a lot to sort through for novice users.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3Display/Viewfinder
Panasonic landed quite the punch when they brought a 3.0 inch, 460,000 dot LCD to the TZ cameras, and while we've had some nits to pick and inconsistencies to sort out with this particular display in the past, the unit on our ZS3 proved flawless in testing. No strange "white out" phenomena like we saw with some of the older TZ models here.

Color is reasonably accurate, as is contrast, although in both cases side-by-side comparisons with our calibrated displays showed the ZS3's screen to be imparting some punchiness and overall vibrancy that isn't there in unprocessed straight-to-print shots. Nonetheless, solid resolution makes focus easier to judge with less zooming.

Like other Lumix models, the ZS3 sports a handful of display power options, allowing you to manually boost screen brightness for outdoor shooting, for instance. With the wide viewing-angle mode enabled, I had no trouble using the screen in everything but direct sunlight.

Combining all of the bells and whistles of an enthusiast compact -- except the manual exposure controls, that is -- with the simplicity of its Intelligent Auto functions, the ZS3 is targeted to appeal to tech-savvy shooters and relative newbies alike. From a design standpoint, this model may be more "general audience" than "enthusiast," but the ZS3's impressive zoom lens and well-rounded set of features will undoubtedly attract a fair amount of attention from serious shooters looking for serious zoom in a compact package.

The twist this time around is that Panasonic has continued to expand the HD video capture capabilities of its compact ultrazoom line. With movie shooting performance that claims to rival that of a camcorder in addition to everything it does as a still camera, Panasonic's looking to make a one-two punch with the "hybrid" ZS3 concept.

Shooting Performance
Our experience with other Lumix models has left us never quite knowing what to expect from a Panasonic compact in our lab testing, but the ZS3 held up at least as well as expected -- with shutter response that's nominally slower than some competitors, but still plenty fast in practice, and auto focus speed that holds its own.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Casio Exilim EX-FH20
Olympus SP-565 UZ
Canon PowerShot SX200 IS 0.03
Fujifilm FinePix S100FS
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 0.05

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Fujifilm FinePix S100FS 0.31
Canon PowerShot SX200 IS 0.48
Casio Exilim EX-FH20
Olympus SP-565 UZ 0.62
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 0.68

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames* Framerate*
Casio Exilim EX-FH20 40 30 fps?
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 3 2.5 fps
Fujifilm FinePix S100FS 3 1.3 fps
Olympus SP-565 UZ 4 1.2 fps
Canon PowerShot SX200 IS
0.9 fps

* Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

? Note: The Casio Exilim FH20 has no continuous shooting capabilities at full resolution (9 megapixels). It is, however, capable of shooting at 30 fps at a slightly reduced 8 megapixels. Given this relatively high resolution, we have included the FH20's continuous shooting numbers in our comparison.

Per usual, we tested the camera with its default AF settings to get the baseline numbers seen above. Some tweaking of the available combinations of AF settings, though (single-area high-speed mode, Quick AF disabled), actually provided response closer to half a second from press to capture under our studio lights.

True to form, Panasonic provides a seemingly infinite number of AF settings combinations: there are five area modes, as well as a (noisy) Quick AF setting which sets the camera to search for focus continuously, eats up battery power, and provides inconsistent results at best when it comes to improving speed. You'll likely find it fit to skip most of these functions, as at least a couple of them serve essentially redundant functions. We'd like to take (yet another) moment, however, to praise Panasonic's AF tracking function: in my experience, at least, its practical applications may be limited, but the system is able to follow whatever moving subject you lock it onto well enough to provide some enjoyment in just watching it work.

Like other Lumix models, the ZS3 features a pair of image stabilization modes, allowing for either shoot-only stabilization (which begins to stabilize when the shutter release is half-pressed), or continuous stabilizer operation. Performance was good to excellent, with the lens-shifting stabilizer providing enough of a speed boost to make the ZS3's telephoto reaches usable in most cases ? assuming you have a decent quantity of light and a steady hand, that is.

The ZS3's flash is powerful for a compact, with a range of roughly 15 feet at wide angle. At the same time, recycle times are snappy enough for back to back flash shooting, assuming you don't need full power for each shot.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3

Flash exposure was dead-on accurate most of the time. Shooting indoors with the flash, you'll find that the lens casts a shadow at full wide angle (as seen in the sample shot above), though this isn't a problem once you move much beyond the full-wide stop.

Battery life with the ZS3's proprietary lithium-ion pack proved to be quite excellent in the field: a little more than two hours on the charger and the battery was ready to go, and surprised us by consistently living up to the nearly 300-shot advertised performance assuming we used the video function sparingly.

Lens Performance
A new 12x, 25-300mm equivalent Leica-branded zoom lens graces the ZS3, replacing the 28-280mm variant that Panasonic used on its last round of compact ultrazooms. Lumix's Leica optics have rarely failed to impress us, and at the large level, the ZS3's glass is no exception. If the ZS3 has one key selling point and distinguishing feature, having outrageous wide-angle to solid telephoto range in a camera this pocketable is it.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
Wide Angle                                                                        Telephoto

And the fact the ZS3's optics are sharp and largely distortion-free throughout the range makes the ZS3's versatility look even better.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
Wide Angle                                                                    Telephoto

Edge-to-edge sharpness is good to very good throughout the range. Likewise, whatever the Leica/Lumix team have done to control color fringing in this eight-group/double-aspherical/double-ED optic seems to have paid off. Thumbing back through my test shots, I wasn't able to dig up any particularly objectionable fringing, even in contrast boundary areas.

At f/3.3-4.9, the ZS3's lens isn't particularly fast at the wide end. But it makes up for whatever perceived speed deficiencies exist with wider maximum apertures at full telephoto than many of its full-size ultrazoom rivals offer. No doubt the lens's considerable physical size compared to what you'll find on many compacts is to thank for that.

Zoom speed is snappy when shooting stills, with comfortable toggle switch providing plenty of fine adjustment for dialing in your shot framing. In the interest of building a competent still/video hybrid with the ZS3, Panasonic also opted to allow for zooming while capturing video -- though it's worth noting that, presumably in the interest of controlling motor noise, the zoom moves very slowly while you're filming.

Video Quality
For most still cameras, video capabilities are generally thought of as a nice add-on, but really little more: if a still camera also happens to take nice video, great, but if it doesn't, most users won't be too concerned. With the new ZS models, Panasonic is looking to turn this paradigm on its head by building a camera that looks, feels, and operates like a traditional digital still model, but brings most of the firepower of an HD camcorder to the table as well.

As noted, the ZS3 captures 720p video, and gives the user two choices for recording formats: the extremely smooth and high-quality AVCHD Lite codec, or a traditional MPEG option. We spent a lot of time playing with both 720p options, and were generally impressed in both cases. If the ZS3's video capture truly disappointed us in any one area, though, it was in the usability of the camera's 60 fps AVCHD files: at the moment, you'll be hard pressed to find a consumer video editing application that knows what to do with the ZS3's variant of this format.

If you just want to view your AVCHD movies, you'll do just fine with an HDMI cable and an HDTV. The direct-playback results are impressive to be sure, and the difference between MPEG and AVCHD files (besides the latter's much more efficient memory consumption) is visually subtle but definitely noticeable. For viewing the files on a PC -- there's no Macintosh support yet -- Panasonic has also included an updated version of its clunky PhotoFunStudio HD software. On our test machine, at least, the software wasn't always so keen on finding AVCHD videos on a memory, and assuming it's able to find your movies, the most you can do in this case is cut the footage down and output it for DVD playback. If you're looking for file conversions or even basic, Windows Movie Maker-style video editing, you won't find it here.

Which brings us back to the camera's 720p MPEG option. The files are cumbersome, and overall video smoothness takes an appreciable hit, but if you want to be able to manipulate your videos after the fact in a consumer-grade video editing application -- or even upload them to YouTube -- you'll likely end up back in this format anyway.

Even without the quality and file-size benefits of AVCHD, the ZS3's MPEG video is arguably as good as what you'll get from a low-cost consumer camcorder, with the added benefit of 720p resolution. Even better, the camera provides a top-mounted stereo mic that largely addressed one of our biggest gripes with the TZ5's video performance: muddy, canned audio. Just make sure to keep your fingers clear of the top deck while shooting and you'll be fine.

Our video samples showed excellent color, strong contrast, and camcorder-grade audio. Having use of the ZS3's full zoom range sweetens the deal further, making the camera an excellent tool for grabbing short videos of kids' sporting events or wildlife. In high-contrast situations (i.e. outdoors on a sunny day) we also noted some mild banding in video captures -- a sort of flare-like phenomenon that we couldn't reproduce when shooting stills.

On balance, no, it's not as comfortable or easy to manage as a dedicated camcorder, and we're keeping our fingers crossed that the current limitations on AVCHD Lite will get sorted out in the near future. Beyond those two concerns, however, the ZS3 largely lives up to its "hybrid device" marketing hype, providing overall video-capture functionality and usability that's strong enough to potentially swing a purchasing decision in Panasonic's favor.

Image Quality
In terms of overall image look, the ZS3's default settings will get you about as close to "neutral" as you'll get from a point-and-shoot these days.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3

Neither vivid nor subdued, contrasty nor washed out, the ZS3's shots have a look that's round and warm without looking overprocessed. Indeed, at times color reproduction was a bit pale ? the camera's actual output being somewhat less saturated than what you'll get on the ZS3's display.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3

Likewise, while the camera's Normal Picture mode gives the user the standard range of control over metering options, I spent more time in the ZS3's Intelligent Auto setting, and found its metering choices in this mode to be surprisingly smart ? again, showing a nice balance and a preference for preserving highlights. Even with all of its advanced processing power, the camera's decision making wasn't perfect: typically tough scenes will still occasionally trip it up, as in the shot below.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3

That said, I found myself leaning hard on the exposure compensation less than is usually the case with a small-sensor camera ? certainly less than with the contrasty-heavy, clip-happy Canon SX200 that is the ZS3's most direct competitor.

For those looking for something beyond the default processing look, the ZS3 offers vivid...

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
Natural well as natural preset options. A pair of generally less-than-useful warm and cool presets are also available. Given the ZS3's likely appeal with enthusiasts, though, I can't help but wish it had the film simulation options from Panasonic's more advanced cameras -- or that it at least made the processing presets, which are buried several pages into the main menu, easier to access.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light

Indoors under incandescent light, the ZS3's auto white balance performs slightly worse than the average for this class. There's also no fluorescent preset, which seems like an odd omission (though we should note that AWB did just fine under a few different shades of fluorescent lighting in our testing).

Noise has been a sore spot for Panasonic's Lumix line, the manufacturer's small-sensor models having developed something of a reputation for showing more noise and smudged out detail than their competitors. Yet again this time around, better processing claims to help the ZS3 make headway against this stigma, but in general, the shots tell a slightly different story.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
ISO 80
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
ISO 80, 100% crop
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
ISO 100
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
ISO 100, 100% crop
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
ISO 200
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
ISO 200, 100% crop
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
ISO 400
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
ISO 400, 100% crop
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
ISO 800
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
ISO 800, 100% crop
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
ISO 1600
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
ISO 1600, 100% crop

What we see is what's become the norm for cameras in this resolution class, with acceptably clean (though, under careful analysis, still rather grainy) shots at ISO 80 and 100, a decided escalation in noise between ISO 200 and 400, and extremely compromised fine detail at ISO 800 and beyond. In fairness, the ZS3's samples don't look any worse than those from its SX200 rival -- though we weren't exactly impressed with the Canon's performance in this regard either. What they do show is slightly less noise reduction, and more actual noise (especially color noise) than we often see these days.

On balance, in spite of all the talk of continued improvements in noise control processing, the ZS3's shots show incremental betterment at best compared to what we saw from the TZ cameras, and pixel peepers making large prints may well find anything shot above modest ISOs with this camera simply unacceptable. That said, we felt that the camera's overall performance in this area was on par with most others we've looked at lately, and shouldn't bother casual shooters so long as they're not routinely shooting at ISO 1600.

Additional Sample Images

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3

The Panasonic TZ models have long been some of our favorite cameras around here, earning high marks from forum members and our staff testers alike for their versatility, simplicity, and solid all-around performance. The ZS3 builds on this strong foundation, starting with a redesigned lens that is, if anything, even sharper than the original TZ lens while adding 25mm wide-angle coverage. The ZS3 still gets Panasonic's superb 3.0 inch high-res LCD as well, and with better-than-ever Intelligent Auto performance, novice shooters aren't left out either.

Whether the ZS3 ultimately achieves the seamless "hybridization" that Panasonic claimed for this new model in its integration of video and still captures is an open question. Video performance is quite possibly the best you'll find on a still camera, though casual shooters may be frustrated by a lack of post-processing options for the camera's highest-quality 720p video files. If you're able to put this, as well as few image quality and usability niggles, behind you, though, the ZS3 looks like another clear advancement in Panasonic's compact ultrazoom line.

The ZS3 is certainly not without its flaws, but for the time being, it looks like Panasonic has yet again come up with the camera to beat in this increasingly crowded niche.

Editors Choice