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Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7 Review
by Jim Keenan -  3/24/2010

It wasn't that long ago that "superzoom" - or "ultrazoom," if you prefer - digital compacts hovered in the vicinity of the 10x optical zoom multiplication factor that defined the starting point for the class. Now that lens envelope has been pushed to 30x for the biggest zooms available, and who knows where it might end. Into this market niche comes the new Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7 with a seemingly modest 12x optical zoom.

Panasonic Lumix ZS7


The ZS7 features a 12.1 megapixel sensor, a Venus Engine HD II processor, face detection technology and the ability to record shooting location data on both still images and video via a built-in GPS receiver. There's stereo sound, a 3.0-inch LCD monitor and the usual bevy of automatic and special scene shooting modes as well as full manual controls. The 12x optical zoom, which spans the 25 to 300mm focal range (35mm film equivalent), is a Leica DC Vario-Elmar lens. The focal range starts nicely wide and progresses through the 85 to 135mm range that makes nice portrait shots before winding up at a moderately long telephoto. Here's what it looks like in the real world:

Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
Wide angle

Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
Telephoto

Every Panasonic digital camera I've reviewed with a Leica DC Vario-Elmar on board has invariably been a strong performer on lens-specific issues, so that bodes well for the ZS7. Nominal ISO sensitivity is 80 to 1600, with a high sensitivity shooting mode in the scene menu that can range from 1600 to 6400 ISO at dramatically reduced resolution (3 megapixels or less). The camera has about 15MB of internal memory and can make use of SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media. Panasonic includes a battery charger, battery pack and case, AV and USB cables, hand strap and CD-ROM software with each camera.

With other companies apparently heading for the large end of the zoom spectrum, does Panasonic know what it's doing by releasing a new camera near the entry level for the class? Read on to find out.


BUILD AND DESIGN
While superzooms that carry 15x lenses and up seem to gravitate to the mini DSLR look, those holding in the 10x to 14x range are pretty much cut from the "large deck of cards" template that characterizes the ZS7. It's slightly larger overall than a typical 5x compact, but still eminently shirt-pocket-portable. The body is metal and seems well-built, with a fit and finish in line with the competition in this class.

Panasonic Lumix ZS7

Panasonic Lumix ZS7

Ergonomics and Controls
The body is rectangular with gently rounded edges and a subtle ridge along the right front in the area of the shutter button and zoom control to help provide better grip. Controls are clearly marked and the layout is simple. The thumb of the shooting hand will overlay some controls on the camera back, but they are either recessed into the body or require such a definite push to activate that inadvertent activations are unlikely.

Panasonic Lumix ZS7

Panasonic Lumix ZS7

Menus and Modes
There are four major menus: record, motion picture, travel mode and setup. As you might imagine, travel mode is concerned with setting GPS and date/time/location information for encoding photos or video with constantly updating information from the GPS. The record menu includes settings for most image quality issues, including the camera's color palette. The "color effect" sub-menu offers five color options that apply to both still and video images: standard, black & white (B&W), sepia, warm and cool. Here are examples of each setting.

Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
Standard

Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
Black and white

Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
Sepia

Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
Warm

Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
Cool

Shooting modes are typical automatic and scene options, along with full manual exposure controls.

Here are the standard and "happy" color schemes available when shooting the Intelligent Auto mode.

Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
iA Standard
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
iA Happy mode

Display/Viewfinder
The 3.0-inch LCD monitor has about 460,000 dot composition and is adjustable for two levels of brightness. The monitor can be difficult to use in bright outdoor conditions. Coverage is about 100%. There is no viewfinder.

Panasonic Lumix ZS7

PERFORMANCE
The ZS7 may have a zoom lens that has a multiplier that lies toward the low end of the superzoom spectrum at "only" 12x, but that's about the only thing low in this camera's performance portfolio.

Shooting Performance
The Lumix ZS7 powers up and presents a focus icon in about 2.25 seconds. I was able to get a first shot off in about 2.75 seconds. Single shot-to-shot times ran about 2 seconds at full resolution and fine image quality. Shutter lag was a very good 0.02 seconds and AF acquisition clocked in at an equally pleasing 0.39 seconds in good conditions. The ZS7 has a focus assist lamp, but Panasonic doesn't publish details on its performance. I was able to acquire focus with the aid of the lamp out to about 5 feet in pitch black conditions, and perhaps 10 feet in moderately dim conditions. While focus times in these environments weren't quite as quick as in good light, even the pitch black conditions usually acquired fairly quickly, given the circumstances.

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Fujifilm FinePix F70EXR 0.01
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 0.01
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7 0.02
Canon PowerShot S90 0.02

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 0.26
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7 0.39
Fujifilm FinePix F70EXR 0.42
Canon PowerShot S90 0.53

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 10 11.4 fps
Fujifilm FinePix F70EXR 3 2.6 fps
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7 3 1.8 fps
Canon PowerShot S90 1.0 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" denote the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

While we're on the subject of focus performance, here's a couple shots of a desert iguana who was hiding a creosote bush. The ZS7 was set to a single center point for focus, and I maneuvered around to try and get a clear AF acquisition on the lizard despite branches, leaves, flowers and light/shadow conditions (which blended well with the iguana's natural coloration). Shooting at 300mm so I could stand off a bit and avoid scaring the iguana into moving, the ZS7 did a good job of getting focus in a tough spot.

Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot

Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot

Continuous (burst) shooting produced three shots at about 1.8 frames per second (fps) in fine quality and five shots at the same speed with normal quality, which is about 0.5 fps less than what Panasonic reports. Write times for the bursts were about 3 seconds and 2.5 seconds, respectively, with a class 6 SD memory card.

The ZS7 features Panasonic's Power O.I.S. (optical image stabilization) system, which moves the lens to compensate for camera shake. There are two modes in addition to an auto mode that selects one or the other: the first mode offers continuous stabilization, while the second mode stabilizes when you push the shutter button.

Panasonic lists a flash range for the ZS7 of about 17.4 feet at wide angle and 11.8 feet at telephoto (with ISO set to auto). Ranges will decrease significantly as the lower ISO sensitivities are selected; at 80 ISO, for example, the distances are down to 4.92 and 3.28 feet, respectively. Recycle times with partial discharges took about 3.25 seconds on average, with full discharges taking up to 4 seconds. Color reproduction with flash was good, as was exposure, both close to the subject (the image below on the left) or 6 to 8 feet away (the image on the right).

Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot

Panasonic rates the ZS7 battery for about 300 shots using CIPA standards that are generally quite accurate.

Lens Performance
I mentioned earlier that Panasonic cameras with Leica DC Vario-Elmar lenses have always turned in strong performances in lens-specific issues, and the ZS7 continues that trend. The lens itself is composed of 10 elements in eight groups, with two ED (Extra Low Dispersion) lenses and two aspherical lenses with three aspherical surfaces. There's some light falloff in the corners and softness as well at wide angle, along with some slight barrel distortion, but these defects are slight and will have minimal impact on images, even to the fussiest viewers. Here are both ends of the zoom:

Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
Wide angle
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
Telephoto

Telephoto has a barely perceptible bit of pincushion distortion, but is consistently sharp across the frame. Chromic aberration is virtually absent at both ends of the zoom, and huge enlargements (300%+) are necessary to spot some instances that would be difficult-to-impossible to see at 100% enlargement. The lens is a little slower than most superzooms at the wide angle end (f/3.3) and a little faster at the telephoto end (f/4.9). The ZS7 can focus as close as 1.2 inches in macro mode at wide angle, and 3.28 feet at telephoto. Here's a caterpillar dining on some desert wildflowers and a hedgehog cactus in bloom.

Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot

Video Quality
Default video on the ZS7 is the proprietary AVCHD Lite format, which can only be viewed on an AVCHD-compatible device and quality looked good in playback on the ZS7 monitor. You can also record in the more universally-compatible motion JPEG. HD image quality in motion JPEG looked good as well.

AVCHD Lite offers about twice the recording time for a particular size file as motion JPEG, but in any event, motion pictures may be recorded for a maximum of 29 minutes and 59 seconds, or 2 GB if recording in motion JPEG. Class 4 memory cards are recommended for AVCHD Lite; class 6 for motion JPEG. The ZS7 will zoom during recording, and while the manual says the camera may take a moment to focus after zooming, focus seemed to stay pretty accurate during my zooms. When in video mode, the ZS7 zooms much slower than during still image capture. The slower zoom looks better in movies and probably contributes to the good AF performance while zooming that I observed.

Video in either mode is a one-button push without pre-focus. There is a brief blackout before the monitor returns and recording begins, but duration is in the half-second range and doesn't prove as annoying as cameras with longer blackouts. With the maximum telephoto at 300mm, the ZS7 is easier to hold steady since the field of view is much wider than the cameras with much larger zooms, but a monopod might help maximize overall movie quality.

Image Quality
Default images from the ZS7 (in Aperture priority) had pleasing and accurate colors. Though I went back and forth on the default sharpness, I found that I prefered a bit more than the default, adding an increase of one step in sharpness for the non-desert shots in the review. Desert shots received an additional step of contrast and saturation as well.

Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot

More and more cameras are equipped with settings designed to expand their apparent dynamic range by bringing more shadow detail while retaining detail in highlights. The "high dynamic" shooting mode in the ZS7 scene menu (with "standard", "art" and B&W options) seemed tailor-made for my customary fountain and mission shot that provides a high contrast test for cameras with this feature. The ZS7 brought out shadow details, but also provided some neon green grass that was just a little too saturated. Here are aperture priority, standard, art and B&W "high dynamic" shots, along with a plain old Intelligent Auto shot.

Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
Aperture priority
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
HDR Standard
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
HDR Art
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
HDR Black and White
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
intelligent Auto

It turns out the ZS7's "high dynamic" mode is meant for backlight or night shooting, and unfortunately, my fountain shot is neither. I'm chalking up the neon green grass to an operator error on my part for selecting the wrong mode for the scene. After all, the best shot of the bunch is the full auto when the camera controls the settings.

The 12 megapixel sensor produces image files large enough to lend themselves to cropping when needed. In the shots that follow, a blooming hedgehog cactus on a steep and cactus-covered slope can only be shot from a distance. Cropping the original shot to 12 x 8 size still produced a 235 pixel per inch file that is going to produce a good quality print.

Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
Original
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
Cropped

Auto white balance worked well and proved accurate for light ranging from bright sun to electronic flash, to cloudy bright and darkness with sodium-vapor lamps. However, the ZS7 shot warm under incandescent light in our studio. There are daylight, cloudy, shade, halogen and custom WB settings available.

Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
Auto White Balance, 3200k incandescent light

Panasonic's intelligent multiple metering (default) was used for the shots in my review and did a good job across a range of lighting conditions. The camera would sometimes lose highlights in high contrast shots, but these occasions were relatively few, and the ZS7 did better than most compacts in this regard based on my experience. There are center-weighted and spot options as well.

Noise performance is typical for the class; 80 and 100 ISO are clean and hard to tell apart. ISO 200 shows some slight noise if you critically evaluate an enlargement, but for all practical purposes, it would be nearly impossible to tell from 80 or 100 in only the largest of prints.

Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
ISO 80
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
ISO 80, 100% crop
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
ISO 100
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
ISO 100, 100% crop
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
ISO 200
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
ISO 200, 100% crop
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
ISO 400
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
ISO 400, 100% crop
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
ISO 800
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
ISO 800, 100% crop
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
ISO 1600
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
ISO 1600, 100% crop

ISO 400 shows some slight but definite deterioration over 200, and 800 is clearly worse than 400. ISO 1600 is worse than 800, but not dramatically. The higher speeds (800 and 1600) are usable, particularly if image size remains small.

Additional Sample Images

Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot
Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot Panasonic ZS7 Test Shot

CONCLUSION
At the top of my review, we asked if Panasonic knew what it was doing by introducing a "superzoom" with a 12x lens when so many other companies are pushing toward the 30x range. With an apology to a certain car insurance commercial, does Charlie Daniels play a mean fiddle?

The ZS7 is a great little camera, due in part to the "little" factor. You can pack around a 25 to 300mm zoom in your shirt pocket and hardly anyone will notice. Remove it from your pocket and it will focus quickly, shoot when you press the shutter button and return very good image quality and color in the process. The lens is a good performer, exhibiting only small faults that have minimal impact on images. There are auto and scene shooting modes to satisfy folks who want to just point and shoot, and full manual controls for the rest of us. Video fans get a camera that produces nice movies and has a fairly seamless one-button interface to initiate video capture from nearly any shooting mode. With a built-in GPS, you can geo-tag still or video images to help find locations on that array of images you took on vacation. ISO performance is typical for the class.


There's little to dislike about the ZS7. The AVCHD Lite video mode requires format-compatible devices to view, but you can always fall back on motion JPEG. If the camera has an Achilles heel, it might be the $400 MSRP (as of this writing). That price point pits the ZS7 squarely against at least one 26x competitor, and is $50 more than at least one 30x model. Folks looking to maximize zoom for their buck or for whom size doesn't matter, may be tempted to look elsewhere. But if you need an easy-carrying digital camera that cranks out solid images and gives you a versatile lens shooting range, the ZS7 is hard to beat. If Panasonic had only fit a viewfinder into this thing, it would be just about perfect.

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