When the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FH7 arrived at my doorstep I was genuinely impressed with the camera's tiny footprint. The FH7 is a slightly updated version of the Lumix FH5, the only major difference being a marginally larger LCD screen that now includes a touch screen overlay, allowing the LCD to be used as an input device. Though it is actually a tiny bit larger than its predecessor, the FH7 is still a super thin, easily point-and-shoot.
I carried the svelte little FH7 to the Kentucky State Fair, I took it twice to shoot late summer flowers, I brought it with me to an outdoor concert, I held it in my hand - ready to shoot from the hip - on a "street" shooting expedition in the colorful Highlands neighborhood and I took it to Louisville's annual WorldFest on the Ohio River waterfront to shoot subjects in exotic national costumes. The FH7 is an outstanding general purpose P&S digicam - especially useful for shooting informal portraits, capturing family gatherings, documenting trips and recording special events.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The FH7 is a thoughtfully designed and robustly constructed imaging device that is elegant looking and rather stylish, in an understated way. This little Lumix is an auto exposure only 16 megapixel camera that's about the size of a small smartphone, but thinner. The FH7 provides instant gratification for the always connected crowd via the Lumix Image Uploader, which can instantly (when connected to an internet ready device) share just captured images or video clips via Facebook and YouTube. The FH7 is available in black, silver, and pink.
Ergonomics and Controls
The Lumix FH7 is small, the body surface is smooth, and the corners are rounded. In other words, it handles like a typical ultra-compact P&S digicam. Users should attach and consistently utilize the included wrist strap - tiny cameras like the FH7 are easily dropped. After a short familiarization period, the FH7's user interface is logical and uncomplicated, since the camera only provides three dedicated external controls - the on/off switch, the shutter button, and the zoom tab - everything else is managed via the touch screen. The FH7's few dedicated controls are clearly marked and easily accessed by right handed shooters, but the on/off toggle switch sticks up just enough to be occasionally turned on (or off) by accident.
What controls the FH7 is its touch screen LCD. The Panasonic GF3, which I recently tested has the best touch screen I've used to date; the FH7's touch screen LCD is very similar, but not quite as comprehensive. I got used to the GF3's touch screen fairly quickly and it actually works OK - especially for things like scrolling though saved images, but I never developed any real affection for it.
Menus and Modes
The FH7's menu system is a bit frustrating. Panasonic's designers evidently meant for it to be simple and direct, but the best laid plans sometimes fail. Initially the FH7's menu system looks impressively simple - tap the menu on the touch screen and you are presented with two options - record and set-up. What appears when you tap either option is a string of mostly incomprehensible icons, which the user will have to select in order to identify their function. What should have been simple and direct becomes excruciatingly slow and very frustrating.
Auto everything digicams are capable of producing awesome images, but on-board AE systems sometimes can't overcome prevailing conditions. One of the most important options on any auto everything P&S digicam is the exposure compensation mode. The exposure compensation function allows users to incrementally lighten or darken images to overcome ambient lighting problems. The FH7's menu system isn't intuitive and it isn't particularly logical either - if you want to access the exposure compensation mode you'll find that option buried deep in the menu system - clearly not a photographer-friendly arrangement.
Here's a breakdown of the FH7's shooting modes:
Like most point-and-shoots the FH7 doesn't feature an optical viewfinder. In the early years of the digital imaging revolution essentially all digital compacts provided both an optical viewfinder and an LCD viewfinder. LCD screens kept getting larger and optical viewfinders started to disappear. Digicam users these days usually have only the LCD screen for framing/composition, captured image review and menu navigation chores. Most modern shooters rarely use optical viewfinders anyway and in many shooting scenarios (macro shooting and portraits, for example), it is often quicker and easier to watch the decisive moment come together on the LCD screen.
The FH7 features a 3.0-inch (230,000 pixel) Smart Touch LCD Screen that permits users to control camera operation by simply touching the LCD screen. Lumix FH7 users have the following touch screen options. Touch AF allows you to frame your subject on the LCD, touch the image where you'd like the camera to focus and the FH7 will focus on the precise point where your finger touched the screen. Be careful when using Touch AF because it's easy to touch the screen accidentally and change the focus point. Touch Shutter functions like Touch AF and takes the extra step to activate the camera's shutter when the user touches the screen. In review mode shooters can utilize Touch Playback - simply slide your finger across the LCD in review mode to move from photo-to-photo or double-tap to zoom in on an individual photo.
Like all LCD screens, the FH7's display is subject to fading and glare in bright outdoor lighting. The DCR test lab objectively measures LCD contrast ratios and peak brightness to assist our readers in making more informed digital camera purchasing decisions. Peak brightness for the FH7's LCD screen (the panel's output of an all-white screen at full brightness) is 328 nits and on the dark side (black luminance) the measurement is 0.33 nits. The FH7's LCD provides a very impressive contrast ratio of 993:1. The FH7's default LCD info display provides all the data this camera's target audience is likely to want or need.
The FH7 was designed to be used in auto mode and Panasonic's iAuto mode is the very best smart Auto exposure mode I've used to date. Put the FH7 in iA mode and the camera will select the appropriate scene mode for the subject, detect and lock on any faces in the frame, balance contrast, sharpen the image, and reduce blur automatically. If you are a casual photographer and plan to use the FH7 in iAuto mode or movie mode full time this little camera will deliver consistently superior images and first rate HD video with essentially no effort on the part of the shooter.
In use the FH7 is a very quick little camera with no discernible (0.02 seconds) shutter lag and AF Acquisition times that are essentially (0.22 seconds) real time in good light.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Sony Cyber-shot WX9||0.01|
|Nikon Coolpix S9100||0.01|
|Panasonic Lumix FH7||0.02|
|Canon PowerShot ELPH 500 HS||0.02|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Nikon Coolpix S9100||0.18|
|Panasonic Lumix FH7||0.22|
|Sony Cyber-shot WX9||0.25|
|Canon PowerShot ELPH 500 HS||0.36|
Nikon Coolpix S9100
Sony Cyber-shot WX9
Canon PowerShot ELPH 500 HS
Panasonic Lumix FH7
*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 FH7's zoom includes Panasonic's Mega Optical Image Stabilization to help deliver sharply focused images, even at slower shutter speeds and in dim light, a feature not always found on cameras with 4x zooms. The FH7 incorporates the new "Sonic Speed AF" system (first seen on the upscale GF3) which Panasonic claims is up to 45% faster than previous Panasonic AF systems.
The FH7 features an eleven-point multi-area AF system and also includes a single-point focusing mode. The almost ubiquitous face detection function is present, but Panasonic ups the ante a bit by using the face detection AF information to simultaneously adjust both focus and exposure to properly capture subjects' faces.
According to Panasonic the FH7 is good for about 240 exposures on a fully charged NCA-YN101G 3.6V, 660mAh, 2.4wh Lithium-ion rechargeable 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. My FH7 image file contains about 80 photos and two short video clips. Even factoring in my seventy-five to eighty per cent deletion rate I didn't shoot anywhere near 750 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 the battery. The FH7 provides 84MB of on-board image storage and saves images to SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media.
In my camera reviews I often complain about digicam user's manuals. Today's cameras are the most feature rich in the history of photography, but some of those features are rarely or never used by the camera owners because most of them aren't explained in sufficient detail in the cursory "getting started" guides that accompany most new digital cameras to allow the camera's target audience to understand how to use them. Here's a piece of advice to the folks who write camera user's manuals - tailor the user's manual to the camera's target audience. If your target audience is beginners or casual photographers write the manual in user friendly non-technical terms and don't assume that everyone knows the basics.
The FH7's built-in multi mode flash provides an acceptable selection of artificial lighting options, including Auto, Auto/Red-eye Reduction, Slow Sync/Red-eye Reduction, Forced On, and Forced Off. Flash recycle time (with a fully charged battery) is between 4 and 5 seconds. Maximum flash range is 3.3 meters at the wide angle end of the zoom range and 1.6 meters at the telephoto end of the zoom range.
Camera manufacturers love to affix the name of an iconic German lens maker like Zeiss, Schneider, or Leica to their point-and-shoot zooms. Generally, these tiny super complex digicam zooms would score very poorly in direct competition with lenses actually manufactured by Zeiss, Schneider, or Leitz. The FH7's Lumix DC Vario-Elmar f/3.1-6.5 28-112mm (equivalent) Leica badged zoom (the lens is manufactured by Panasonic under license from Leitz) is surprisingly good - much closer to being worthy of the exalted optical heritage implied by the fancy name than most similarly endowed compacts.
When the camera is turned on the zoom extends automatically from the camera body. When the FH7 is powered down, the zoom retracts completely into the camera body. The f/3.1 maximum aperture is a bit slower than the f/2.8 maximum aperture typically found on cameras of this type. The FH7's f/3.1 maximum aperture is just barely fast enough for shooting indoors, but it is more than quick enough for outdoor shooting - at least in decent light. The FH7's 4x zoom runs from f/3.1 to f/9.0 at the wide angle end of the zoom range and from a rather dim f/6.5 to a truly dim f/20.0 at the telephoto end of the zoom range.
Center sharpness is pretty good overall, but at the wide-angle end of the zoom corners are slightly soft. I didn't notice any vignetting (dark corners) and both barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center) and pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center) seem very well corrected. Contrast is balanced (but a little flat) and colors are hue accurate. Chromatic aberration is remarkably well-controlled, but some very minor color fringing is present, especially in the color transition areas between dark foreground objects and bright backgrounds. Zooming is smooth, fairly quick, and relatively quiet, but the 4x zoom can't be used during video capture.
The videos below that illustrate the FH7's movie mode capabilities were shot in an old Woodlawn Avenue Coffee shop with only window light for illumination. I expected the videos to be dark and at least a bit grainy with some visible noise. In fact the HD video from the FH7 is surprisingly good - smooth and fluid with very good detail capture, accurate colors, and very little noise. My thanks to Kenny, our neighborhood latte artiste, for his kind assistance in the production of this video sample.
I expected the FH7's tiny 16 megapixel CCD sensor to produce either very noisy images (noise rises exponentially as more pixels are crowded on to tiny sensors) or smooth, flat, over-corrected images with little or no fine detail from the noise reduction system. When I reviewed the first batch of images I'd shot with the FH7 on my monitor I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the FH7's images were relatively noise-free and filled with the sort of fine detail that an over enthusiastic noise reduction system would have eliminated. Indoors the FH7's images are noticeably better than most of its competition - due primarily to the FH7's amazing noise management capabilities.
The FH7's JPEG image files are clearly optimized for bold bright colors and slightly flat contrast. Images display very good resolution (sharpness), but default color interpolation is typical of modern consumer digicams. Most P&S 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 FH7's image quality is noticeably better than most of the competing digicams in its price class.
The FH7 provides users with a decent selection of White Balance options, including Auto WB, Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Incandescent, and White Set, but no fluorescent lighting option. The FH7's Auto WB setting does a fine job across the board. The FH7's Auto WB setting gets colors right even in dim indoor lighting. I didn't try the camera under fluorescent lighting, so I can't address how well the FH7 will manage the inherent greenish (cool white) or pinkish (warm white) color casts produced when shooting under fluorescent lighting.
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light
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. Many manufacturers are turning down the heat and offering P&S digicams with resolution in the 10-12 megapixel range, but not Panasonic.
The FH7 provides a very impressive range of sensitivity options, including auto, intelligent ISO, and user-set options for ISO 100 to ISO 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.
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
At the ISO 800 setting, noise levels are noticeably higher and there's a perceptible loss of fine detail. I didn't shoot any ISO 1600 images, but I'm guessing they would be pretty noisy, totally lacking in fine detail, and very flat contrast. The FH7 features a high sensitivity Scene Mode which allows users to extend the sensitivity range from ISO 1600 to ISO 6400 - although I'm not sure why anyone would want to do that.
Additional Sample Images
The FH7 was designed for beginners, casual photographers, and snap-shooters who want an easily pocketable point-and-shoot that is capable of consistently capturing excellent images with little or no effort on the part of the shooter. The FH7 almost perfectly meets the needs of that demographic - it is small enough to carry it with you all the time, Panasonic's iAuto mode is absolutely the best auto exposure system in the business, the FH7 is unobtrusive and not intimidating to subjects, noise management is substantially better than average and the FH7's AF system is faster than most of its competition.
The FH7 clearly wasn't designed for photographers who want/need/demand some level of personal input into the exposure process, so if you fall into this group (and want an ultra-compact digicam with a 4x zoom) you may find the Canon S95 more to your liking. The FH7's diminutive footprint makes this camera almost ideal for travelers and casual shooters. Here's the bottom line on the FH7: for a hundred and eighty bucks ($150-$160 by the holidays) you'll be hard pressed to do any better than this little point-and-shoot.