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Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10 Review
by Howard Creech -  3/31/2011

The new Panasonic Lumix ZS10 is the successor to last year's very popular ZS7. Though the ZS7 was a best seller, it had a few shortcomings that consumers took notice of and spoke up about what they thought it needed improvement-wise. Panasonic listened and evidently tailored the ZS10 to meet those expectations. How does the ZS10 differ from its illustrious predecessor? The ZS7 was a 12 megapixel digicam, while the ZS10 boasts 15 megapixel maximum resolution. The ZS7 featured a 12x (25mm-300mm equivalent) Leica zoom, while the ZS10 features a 16x (24-384mm equivalent) Leica zoom.

Panasonic Lumix ZS10


The ZS10 captures images and video via a new MOS image sensor (the ZS7 utilized a CCD image sensor) and the ZS7's slower-than-the-competition continuous shooting mode has been noticeably improved. The GPS landmark database and lookup features have also been substantially expanded and the ZS10 captures 1080i HD video (the ZS7 captured video at a maximum resolution of 720p). Other new features include slow motion video, composite noise reduction and a 3D capture mode for those who want to view their stuff on a 3D TV.

BUILD AND DESIGN
The ZS10 is one of Panasonic's "Travel Zoom" models - relatively compact digicams with GPS and very long zooms. The ZS10 is an attractively understated and (in black - like the one I used) fairly inconspicuous P&S digicam available in silver, blue, gold, red, and brown.

Panasonic Lumix ZS10

The Panasonic ZS10 is a well designed, precision-built and robustly constructed imaging tool that is designed for serious shooters. The ZS10 will function nicely as an auto-everything point and shoot digicam, but it is really aimed at photo enthusiasts. The ZS10 is an attractively understated (in black with silver trim - like the one I used) and fairly inconspicuous P&S digicam. The ZS10's metal alloy body seems tough enough for just about anything; it's clearly built to withstand the rigors of heavy use and busy modern lifestyles. Fit & finish are first rate and the weather/moisture/dust seals appear to be more than adequate.

Though it is small enough to slip into a pocket, the Panasonic ZS10 is a solidly built digicam. When you walk around with this camera in your shirt pocket you (and everyone else) will know you are carrying something fairly substantial. This 14 megapixel digital camera has a 1/2.33-inch (6.12 x 4.51mm) sensor giving it higher resolution, but from a smaller sensor than many of today's entry level DSLRs. Continually crowding more pixels onto tiny sensors results in a hefty increase in image degrading noise - more on this later in the review. Like its predecessor, the ZS10 includes a built-in GPS receiver, allowing for automatic geo-tagging of images with the longitude and latitude where they were shot.

Ergonomics and Controls
The ZS10's user interface is logical and uncomplicated - all buttons and controls are a bit small, but they are all clearly marked, sensibly placed and easily accessed by right handed shooters with the exception of the one touch video capture button.

Most digicams with a one touch video capture button place this control in the upper right corner of the camera's rear deck - since that placement allows the camera user to simply push the video start/finish button with their right thumb. The ZS10's tiny one touch video capture button is on the camera's top deck, right where the shutter button is traditionally located. In my opinion, this is counterintuitive, but that minor design flaw is somewhat ameliorated by the ZS10's vestigial handgrip.Panasonic Lumix ZS10

The wrist strap should be used at all times - small cameras are easily dropped. The ZS10's shutter button is fairly large and surrounded by a standard back-and-forth zoom tab. While the zoom tab is small, zooming from wide-angle to telephoto and back is smooth, easy, and fairly precise. The ZS10, unlike the auto exposure only point-and-shoots currently dominating the imaging marketplace, permits full manual control of exposure.

Menus and Modes
The ZS10 features a user-friendly, icon-driven four tab (record mode, playback mode, GPS mode, and setup mode) menu system. It's accessed via a dedicated button below the compass switch that is logical and simple to navigate.
Menu navigation is accomplished using the touchscreen LCD monitor or by using the more traditional compass switch route. Using the touchscreen - menu icons are displayed around the edges of the screen with submenus displayed in the center. Menu navigation is fairly straightforward, but some of the icons are a bit cryptic.

The ZS10 provides a comprehensive selection of shooting modes including:

Display/Viewfinder
The ZS10 (like most currently available point-and-shoots) doesn't provide an optical viewfinder, which obliges shooters to utilize the LCD screen for all framing/composition, captured image review, touchscreen command pad, and menu navigation chores. The ZS10's wide viewing angle 3.0-inch LCD (460,000 pixels) dominates the camera's rear deck. The default (full screen) aspect ratio is 4:3, but 3:2, 16:9, and 1:1 (square - like 6x6 medium format) aspect ratios are also available.

Panasonic Lumix ZS10

The ZS10's TFT LCD screen is bright, hue accurate, fluid, automatically boosts gain (brightens) in dim/low light, and displays almost 100 percent of the image frame. The ZS10's LCD screen performs as expected for framing and composition, captured image review, and menu navigation, but its performance as a touchscreen command pad is only adequate. In touchscreen mode, users will notice that the controls are not as responsive as expected on a camera designed for photo enthusiasts.

I love digital cameras, but I'm still waiting for the first touchscreen digital camera that interacts seamlessly with the user. The ZS10's touchscreen is slow and imprecise in use, often requiring multiple taps or strokes to the screen to activate the desired function. If you own a smartphone or an iPad, then you'll probably like the ZS10, but if you don't generally like touchscreen devices - you probably won't like this one either.

For what it's worth, I do like the ZS10's touchscreen more than I liked the touchscreen on the Canon SD3500 I tested recently. The great thing about the ZS10's touchscreen is that you can easily ignore it in favor of the redundant traditional controls.

What I did find pretty neat is the ZS10's approach to the whole idea of touchscreen command pads. Users can tap the screen where they want the camera to focus, then tap the screen again to zoom in (or out), and then in again to capture the image. This requires some practice, but it does work as advertised. Users can also do the frame/focus/zoom/capture operation with one touch - but this doesn't work as well in practice as it does in theory.

Those with large hands must be careful not to rest their right thumb on the edge of the screen or the focus point will be shifted to the top right hand corner of the frame. ZS10 users can tap the AF icon to turn off touch-focusing, but a single inadvertent tap anywhere on the LCD screen will re-enable this feature.

The ZS7's tiny QWERTY keypad has been replaced by a cell phone style screen keypad, but the new keypad is NOT touch sensitive. Instead, shooters must use the compass switch to select and enter text, which seems a bit strange - given that the ZS10 is a touch driven device.

The DCR test lab measures LCD peak brightness and contrast ratios to assist our readers in making more informed buying decisions. A decent LCD contrast ratio should fall somewhere between 500:1 and 800:1. That would be bright enough to use the LCD for framing and composition in outdoor lighting, and it would provide a better sense of color and contrast.

The ZS10 weighs in on the very high end of that scale at 900:1 - for comparison purposes a couple of Canon's entry level point-and-shoot models score in the mid 400's. Peak brightness for the ZS10 (the panel's output of an all-white screen at full brightness) is 360 nits and on the dark side the measurement is 0.40 nits. For reference purposes, anything above 500 nits will remain very bright even in sunny outdoor lighting.

The default info display provides all the data this camera's target audience is likely to want or need, in fact this is probably the best information display I've seen to date. The ZS10 provides three info display options: Clear screen (no data), grid line display for compositional assistance, and the full info display - just tap the info button until the screen you want appears.

PERFORMANCE
The Panasonic ZS10 is a competent general purpose P&S digicam that is capable of producing excellent images not only for photography enthusiasts, but also for travelers and straight-shooters. Performance was consistently good, and startup time is about 1 second. Shot-to-shot times measured between 2 and 3 seconds and using the flash slowed things down only marginally.

Shooting Performance
Timing is one of the two most important considerations when assessing digital camera performance - the other major criteria is image quality. The ZS10's DCR lab measured times are at the top of its class in shutter lag (0.01 seconds) and AF acquisition (0.18), and continuous (5.5 fps) shooting mode.

Auto exposure in Intelligent Auto, Program, and Scene modes is dependably accurate and fairly quick. The ZS10 reliably selects the appropriate shutter speed in aperture priority mode and the appropriate aperture in shutter speed priority mode. In manual mode, exposure accuracy is dependent on the skill and experience of the shooter.

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

Digital Camera Time (seconds)
Fujifilm FinePix Z800EXR 0.01
Olympus X-Z1 0.01
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10 0.01
Canon PowerShot SX230 0.02

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10 0.18
Fujifilm FinePix Z800EXR 0.19
Canon PowerShot SX230 0.38
Olympus X-Z1 0.45

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10 14 5.5 fps
Canon PowerShot SX230 2.3 fps
Olympus X-Z1 2.0 fps
Fujifilm FinePix Z800EXR 4 1.6 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.

The ZS10 features a TTL Contrast Detection AF system with Center AF (1 AF point), Multi AF (23 AF points), Face AF, Tracking AF, Spot AF and Touch Area AF modes. The ZS10 can remember specific faces in Face Recognition AF mode and in playback, users can choose to display only photos of their favorite subject using the Category Playback.

The ZS10's AF system analyzes the scene in front of the lens then calculates camera-to-subject distance to determine which AF point (in multi AF mode) is closest to the primary subject and then locks focus on that AF point. The ZS10's AF system is consistently quick to acquire the subject and lock focus with dependable accuracy - in most shooting situations.

The ZS10 features Panasonic's new Quick AF mode. With conventional AF systems, auto focus is initiated when the shutter button is pressed half-way. With Quick AF, auto focus is initiated as soon as the camera is pointed toward your subject which could cut up to a second off the frame/compose/lock focus/capture sequence. Quick AF is automatically activated in the iA Mode and can be turned on or off in the P/A/S/M Modes.

The ZS10 utilizes an optical image stabilization system; built-in gyro-sensors detect camera shake and an element in the zoom lens is rapidly and precisely shifted to compensate for that minor camera movement. According to Panasonic, the ZS10's new POWER O.I.S. system nearly doubles the anti-shake correction power of their conventional MEGA O.I.S system.

According to Panasonic the ZS10 is good for about 260 exposures on a fully charged SLB-07A rechargeable lithium-ion battery, but based on my experiences with the camera, that claim is a bit optimistic. I used the camera for two weeks and had to charge the battery three times.

Panasonic Lumix ZS10

My ZS10 image file contains about forty photos and three short video clips. Even factoring in my seventy-five to eighty percent deletion rate, I didn't shoot anywhere near (any combination of) 700 images or three hours of video. The battery is charged via a flip plug wall unit and requires somewhere between two and three hours to fully charge a depleted SLB-07A battery.

The ZS10 provides 18MB of on-board image storage and saves images to SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media.

I often complain about digicam user's manuals because today's cameras are the most feature rich in the history of photography, but most of those features are never used by camera purchasers. Why don't consumers utilize all of these nifty cutting edge features to make their pictures better? Simply put, because most of them aren't explained in sufficient detail to allow the camera's target audience to understand how to use them. On top of that, many user's manuals don't do a very good job of describing how to use even the most basic features; case in point - the Panasonic ZS10.

I wanted to check out the ZS10's new HD movie mode. I shot a couple of test videos but couldn't figure out how to make the camera play them back for me. The manual describes how to view captured video, but the directions (even when followed to the letter) don't work. Finally, in frustration I called Panasonic Technical Support and explained my problem. The technician was very apologetic as he explained the proper process for viewing video and he apologized repeatedly that the user's manual was wrong. He thanked me for informing them of this mistake and assured me that he would forward the error I had discovered to his supervisor - hopefully to be corrected in future issues of this user's manual.

Lens Performance
The ZS10 is built around a fairly fast f/3.3-5.9 4.3-68.8mm (24-384mm equivalent) DC VARIO-ELMAR zoom lens from famed German lens/camera maker Leica. When the ZS10 is powered up, the zoom extends from the camera body automatically. When the camera is powered down, the lens retracts into the camera body and a built-in guillotine style lens cover closes to protect the front element. Zooming is smooth, fairly precise, and relatively quiet. The ZS10 needs about 3.0 seconds to move the zoom lens from the wide angle end of the range to full telephoto.

Panasonic ZS10 Sample Image Panasonic ZS10 Sample Image

The ZS10's Leica zoom is very good even though it displays some minor corner softness, but it is not as sharp as I expected it to be. As lenses get smaller and more complex, optical faults and aberrations are magnified exponentially. Miniaturization and optical complexity are obviously the twin culprits here. There's no vignetting (dark corners) at the wide angle end of the zoom, but barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center of the frame) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range is above average. Pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center of the frame) is present, but fairly well controlled at the telephoto end of the zoom.

Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is noticeably above average. Check out the 100% crops of the ISO/Sensitivity examples and you'll notice a faint purplish fringe along the black inner border of the playing card - even at ISO 100.

Video Quality
The ZS10 captures HD video at 1920 x 1080i at 30/24 fps, VGA video (640x480 at 30 fps) or QVGA video (320x240 at 30 fps). The ZS10 uses either AVCHD or QuickTime Motion JPEG compression for high-def movies and Motion JPEG for standard-def movies. Zoom and focus can be adjusted during video capture, but video clips are limited to 2GB. The video clip that accompanies this review was shot in the early afternoon. When the Circus Train arrived it was raining, about 35 degrees, and heavily overcast. Contrast is flat and the colors are dull in the sample video, but I feel like the ZS10 did an exemplary job in the video capture department, given the conditions.

Download Sample Video Clip

Image Quality
The ZS10's 14 megapixel 1/2.33-inch CMOS sensor drives Panasonic's Venus Engine FHD processor to produce reliably first rate images. The ZS10's image files are clearly optimized for bold bright colors and slightly flat contrast. Images display decent resolution (sharpness), but default color interpolation is typical of modern consumer oriented digicams.

Most current digicams boost color saturation - reds are a bit too warm, blues are noticeably brighter than they are in real life and greens/yellows are overly vibrant. Veteran shooters call this "consumer color" because casual shooters (the demographic that buys the most digicams) like bright bold colors. The ZS10's images are closer to the enhanced colors and flat contrast images generated by consumer favorite Canon A3300 IS than they are to the accurate real world colors and slightly hard contrast of the prosumer Samsung TL500.

The ZS10's default evaluative (Panasonic calls this metering mode Intelligent Multiple Metering) light measurement system is dependably accurate in most lighting - so casual shooters shouldn't have to worry about metering. More experienced photographers can opt for either Spot metering or Center-weighted Averaging metering for more demanding/creative compositions. Like all ultra-compact digicams, the ZS10 has some dynamic range (from deep shadows to bright highlights) shortcomings because the diminutive1/2.3-inch CCD sensor can't capture the full tonal range. The ZS10's default metering system is calibrated to preserve shadow detail at the expense of highlight detail and that built-in exposure bias results in occasional clipping (burnt out highlights).

The ZS10 provides users with a very good selection of White Balance options, including Auto WB, Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Incandescent, and White Set. The ZS10's auto WB system does a pretty good job across the board, even under incandescent (tungsten) and fluorescent lighting.

Panasonic ZS10 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

GPS
Tourists rejoice, the Panasonic ZS10 is pre-loaded with sightseeing spots around the globe. When in the vicinity of one of these World class photo ops, the ZS10 will automatically alert shooters. Geo-tagging is growing in popularity with shutterbugs, as they seek unique new ways to share their images on web social sites like YouTube. The ZS10 displays the name of the Country/Region, State/Prov./County, County/Township, City/Town/Village and Landmarks using the camera's internal database to provide real-time information. The ZS10's GPS system displays not just latitudes and longitudes, but also provides area information on 203 countries and landmark information on over 1,000,000 locations in 82 countries or regions - to include several in my provincial little hometown.

The megapixel wars have arrived at the point of diminishing returns - crowding more pixels onto tiny sensors dependably results in higher levels of image degrading noise, fuzzy details and lower contrast. Point-and-shoots with 14 or 16 megapixel resolution don't really produce better pictures than digicams with 10 megapixel resolution - they just generate larger and noisier image files. The ZS10's 14 megapixel images all show noise, even those shot at ISO 100.

The ZS10 provides a very impressive range of sensitivity options, including auto, intelligent ISO and user-set options for ISO 100 to 1600. ISO 100 and ISO 200 images are essentially indistinguishable. Both settings show over-saturated colors, slightly flat native contrast and very little noise. ISO 400 images were also very good, but with a tiny bit less pop.

Panasonic ZS10 Sample Image
ISO 100
Panasonic ZS10 Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Panasonic ZS10 Sample Image
ISO 200
Panasonic ZS10 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Panasonic ZS10 Sample Image
ISO 400
Panasonic ZS10 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Panasonic ZS10 Sample Image
ISO 800
Panasonic ZS10 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Panasonic ZS10 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Panasonic ZS10 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop

At the ISO 800 setting, noise levels are noticeably higher and there's a perceptible loss of fine detail. ISO 1600 images show flat under-saturated colors, reduced contrast, no fine detail and visible noise.

Additional Sample Images
Panasonic ZS10 Sample Image Panasonic ZS10 Sample Image
Panasonic ZS10 Sample Image Panasonic ZS10 Sample Image

CONCLUSIONS
Lots of photo enthusiasts don't want to haul a bulky DSLR, a full sized tripod, and a heavy bag of lenses everywhere they go. They want small, quick, inconspicuous, responsive, high performance cameras designed by photographers for photographers.

Most point-and-shoots don't allow much user input into the image capture process. That lack of personal input often limits a camera's potential usefulness for more skilled shooters. The ZS10 was designed for serious photographers, but the imprecision of its touchscreen controls will cause some advanced shooters heartburn.


The solution, of course, is to rely on the traditional control array when getting the picture right is very important, but that course of action calls into question whether the ZS10 (given its $400 price tag) is actually the best tool for the job. ZS10 users should be able to capture the decisive moment in most lighting, but if they use touchscreen controls - that very basic and absolutely essential task will be harder for them than it should be.

I liked the ZS10, and it performed nicely for me, but I have almost forty years experience using cameras. If I was looking to buy a camera of this type, the ZS10 would probably make my short list. If you want to see the two top cameras on that short list check out DCR's reviews of the Samsung TL500 and the Canon S95.

Pros:

Cons: