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Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 Review: Travel Light
by Jim Keenan -  2/16/2012

Panasonic's new Lumix ZS20 compact ultrazoom offers a 20x optical zoom lens spanning the 24 to 480mm focal range in 35mm equivalents. Despite that generous focal range, the ZS20 is readily shirt pocket portable (Panasonic describes it as the world's slimmest digital camera with a 20x zoom).

The camera also features a newly developed 14.1 megapixel high sensitivity CMOS sensor teamed up with an advanced Venus Engine image processor which, according to Panasonic, produces high-speed and high sensitivity image recording. High-speed burst shooting at 10 frames per second (fps) with full resolution is possible; burst shooting with continuous autofocus is a still-credible 5 fps.

Panasonic Lumix ZS20


Elsewhere, the ZS20 includes a built-in GPS functionality, full HD video in either AVCHD or MP4 formats along with automatic, scene and creative control shooting effect options for still images. Full manual controls are also on board, but for folks content to let the camera do the heavy lifting, intelligent auto mode can utilize a range of technologies to enhance photos - such as AF tracking, intelligent ISO control, face recognition, intelligent scene selector, intelligent handheld night shot and motion deblur.

There's a 3.0-inch LCD monitor that offers touch autofocus, zoom or shutter during recording and various playback functions, while battery charging in camera may be accomplished via USB or conventional AC adapter methods. The camera accepts SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media and there is approximately 12MB of built-in memory. Panasonic includes a battery pack and AC adapter, USB connection cable, hand strap, basic printed owner's manual and CD-ROM with each camera. The CD-ROM contains a full owner's manual and the camera is slated to sell for $350.

Along with the ZS20, Panasonic also announced the ZS15, a lower resolution/ less fully featured model that, along with the ZS20, will supersede the ZS10 and ZS8, respectively. Back in April of 2010, I reviewed the ZS7 for this website and found it to be a delightful compact digital. In fact, I found it so good that when an acquaintance asked for a suggestion on a compact digital to take on her world travels I immediately suggested the ZS7. That camera has since been all over the western United States, on safari in Africa, and just returned from a month-long junket to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates with its owner continuing to rave about image quality. I didn't have the chance to get hands-on with the ZS8 or 10, but if the ZS20 compares favorably to the ZS7, it will be in pretty good company. Let's find out. But before we do, here's a quick look at both ends of that 20x zoom:

Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
Wide Angle

Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
Telephoto

BUILD AND DESIGN
The ZS20 fits the classic mold for a compact digital camera, rectangular and sized about like a deck of cards or pack of cigarettes. Powered off, dimensions are about 4.125 x 2.375 x 1.25 inches with a shooting weight (battery, memory card, wrist strap) of about 7.4 ounces, making the ZS20 a snap to lug around in a shirt pocket.

Panasonic Lumix ZS20

But while the camera might look like a standard zoom compact digital without the juice flowing, once powered up, that 1.25 inch depth becomes almost 2.5 inches at wide-angle and a bit over 3.0-inches at telephoto. Bye-bye shirt pocket transport. Still, the ability to pull a light and compact digital out of your pocket, power it up and zoom out to 480mm is pretty cool. The ZS20 body is built of metal, appears well put together and will be available in black, silver, red or white variants.

Ergonomics and Controls
The Panasonic ZS20 departs a bit from the mainstream compact digital recipe and has a slightly built-up handgrip at the right front portion of the body. This feature is covered with a rubberlike material that would be a bit more effective were it tackier in feel, but the middle finger of the shooting hand falls naturally along its ridge which provides some welcome support. Elsewhere, the forefinger falls naturally to the shutter button and the thumb to its resting point on the camera back, designated by nine small bumps to help with the grip.

Panasonic Lumix ZS20

Overall the camera has a fairly secure one-handed feel despite the presence of fairly slick matte black paint and subdued chrome over the rest of the body. One thing to watch for when shooting is to not allow the end of the middle finger to ride up on the camera body as it will obscure the built-in flash.

Panasonic Lumix ZS20

Controls on the ZS20 are fairly typical for a compact digital - an embedded GPS antenna, stereo microphone, speaker mode dial, shutter button/zoom lever, on/off switch and dedicated motion picture capture button are arrayed across the top of the body. The 3.0-inch LCD monitor takes up most of the rear, with the right margin reserved for a record/play switch, exposure/map button, a round cursor button surrounding a menu/set button and separate display and quick menu buttons. I found the control location to be fairly pleasant to use and not prone to causing inadvertent activations when shooting the camera.

Panasonic Lumix ZS20

As mentioned earlier, the ZS20 offers a touchscreen control interface that can perform certain camera functions. By activating the touchscreen interface the user can fire the camera shutter by touching the screen - this feature does not work along the edges of the screen and remains enabled if the camera is powered off. Focus and exposure adjustment (touch AF/AE) as well as lens zooming may also be accomplished by the touchscreen. As with the touch shutter, focus and exposure adjustment will not work along the edges of the screen, and may not work if the subject being touched is too small or the scene being captured is too dim.

Menus and Modes
My first gripe with the ZS20 comes in the menu and basic owner's manual departments. Even with advanced features like full manual exposure controls, the compact size of the camera is apt to appeal to a fairly broad audience of first-time or novice users who are looking for an easily portable point-and-shoot, but the basic user's manual makes no mention of formatting memory cards.

The basic manual does discuss deleting images from memory, but the preferred method to clear memory media of images once they have been saved elsewhere is through formatting (unless, of course, you have need to delete a small number of images in order to create space to continue shooting while retaining the balance of the images already captured). If you have the camera set in the intelligent auto shooting mode, the "format" command is not displayed in the limited record and setup menus accessible from this mode. Set the camera to any shooting mode other than intelligent auto, and the format command appears in a much expanded setup menu. If I were Panasonic, I'd add a short paragraph to the basic manual about formatting - there is some mention of it in the complete manual found on the CD-ROM.

Otherwise, the ZS20 menus are fairly simple, intuitive and straightforward. With the camera set to record, the basic menus consist of record, motion picture, GPS and setup menus. Switching to creative control, scene, or 3D shooting modes typically adds an additional menu with options specific to that particular shooting mode. Record and setup menus are Spartan in the intelligent auto shooting mode - only two menu pages each. These menus run five and seven pages respectively in most other shooting modes, but there may be some individual items in the menus that are applicable to some modes but not others.

The ZS20 has a quick menu button that, depending on the shooting mode selected, offers quick access to some shooting settings. For example, in intelligent auto, the quick menu button allows you to access GPS, image size, burst shooting, image color mode and video recording quality. In the manual shooting mode, the quick menu allows access to GPS, image size, ISO, white balance, AF mode, burst shooting, video recording quality, and LCD mode (an automatic LCD brightness adjustment). Here's a complete rundown on the shooting options available in the ZS20:

Display
The 3.0-inch LCD monitor is fixed, has a 460,000 dot composition and is manually adjustable for seven levels of brightness. Additionally, there is a "power LCD" mode that boosts monitor brightness even higher for outdoor use, then returns to the automatic setting if there is no operation for 30 seconds while recording. A half push of the shutter button returns the camera to power LCD mode and the 30 second window begins again. Area of coverage is not specified but appears to be 100%.

The monitor registered a 225 nit peak brightness and 252:1 contrast ratio in our studio measurements - the lowest of any camera I've reviewed and well below the 500 nit/500:1 contrast ratio figures that generally delineate better outdoor performance. The monitor proved difficult to use in some bright outdoor conditions, even with the power LCD enabled, and the touchscreen feature can exacerbate this problem by adding fingerprints to the monitor screen.

PERFORMANCE
The Panasonic Lumix ZS20 has that big zoom lens packed into a slim, easily portable compact digital body, but what other performance goodies has Panasonic managed to squeeze in there as well? We're going to Disneyland to find out.

Shooting Performance
It takes just under 2 seconds for the ZS20 to present a shooting screen at power up and I was able to get off a first shot in about 2.5 seconds - single shot-to- shot times ran about 2 seconds. The camera can zip off 10 full resolution images in about a second with a burst mode that applies focus and exposure from the first shot to all subsequent shots in the series - there's also a 5 fps shooting rate that provides for continuous autofocus and can manage approximately 15 shots before the buffer slows the rate. The write time for the 10 shot burst approached 7 seconds. These figures were obtained with a class 10 (30 mb/sec) 16GB SDHC memory card. Switching to an SDHC UHS-1 16gb card (95 mb/sec) did not impact single or burst shooting or write times.

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
Camera Time (seconds)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 0.16
Nikon Coolpix P500 0.30
Fujifilm FinePix HS20 EXR 0.33
Canon PowerShot SX150 0.53

Continuous Shooting
Camera Frames Framerate*
Nikon Coolpix P500 5 10.0 fps
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 10 9.2 fps
Fujifilm FinePix HS20 EXR 8 4.1 fps
Canon PowerShot SX150 0.7 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.

Shutter lag performance is good, coming in at the 0.01 second figure that characterizes the better performers in the compact digital camera field. Autofocus acquisition time is likewise speedy, coming in at 0.16 seconds in our studio measurements. The camera is similarly quick in the field and although AF acquisition time predictably slowed a bit in dim light the ZS20 proved to be a nicely responsive compact digital in these areas. There is an autofocus assist lamp for dim conditions.

The ZS20 features optical image stabilization, to be specific what Panasonic terms "power optical image stabilization," or "power O.I.S." for short. One major concern with any camera shooting longer telephoto focal lengths is that camera shake can impact image quality and the longer the lens, the more difficult it is to keep from introducing camera shake since the relatively narrow area of view of the longer lenses is much less forgiving of the slightest movement. With its zoom lens reaching out to the 480mm telephoto plateau, the ZS20 would seem a prime candidate for supplemental support in the form of tripod, monopod or some other device.

The traditional rule of thumb for shooting handheld in the era before stabilized cameras or lenses was that your shutter speed should be at least the reciprocal of the focal length you're shooting at - in the case of the ZS20 at 480mm you'd like to have shutter speed of 1/500th of a second.

If additional camera support is a viable option for your shooting by all means employ it. But I found the power O.I.S. system on the ZS20 did an admirable job of helping with camera shake towards the telephoto end of the zoom lens. If you're shooting handheld you need to lock in the firmest possible hold and make smooth full pushes on the shutter, but this combined with power O.I.S. can give you very good prospects of minimizing camera shake, at least under better lighting conditions that allow for higher shutter speeds.

Panasonic rates the flash on the ZS20 as having a range of 2 to 16 feet at wide-angle and 3.3 to 8.5 feet at telephoto with ISO set to auto. Flash recycle times ran about 5.25 seconds at telephoto with what appeared to be a full discharge shot (aperture priority, ISO 100) and about 3 seconds under brighter conditions using intelligent auto.

The ZS20 features a built-in GPS function that goes a bit beyond the simple latitude - longitude tagging of images:
"Map data can be installed onto the LUMIX ZS20 via a bundled DVD, giving the camera detailed worldwide maps of major regions on a scale of 1/25,000 or more precise. A user can copy the map data of a designated city to an SDXC/SDHC/SD Memory Card and get quick geographic information to know their location and if any landmarks are located nearby. More than one million landmarks and 82 countries/regions are covered in the bundled DVD map.

Geo-tagged images are automatically sorted and can be played back along a map so that users can literally trace their photographic journey. Many GPS cameras show only the latitude and longitude of where a photo is taken, but the LUMIX ZS20 shows the name of the Country/Region, State/Prov./County, County/Township, City/Town/Village and Landmark - all of which is saved in the EXIF data."

Panasonic goes on to mention that the GPS function may not work in China or in the border areas of countries surrounding China.

The ZS20 battery is rated for approximately 260 shots, so one or two backups for all-day shooting sessions would be a prudent investment. A search of the Panasonic USA accessories bin didn't turn up any remote battery chargers that appeared to accommodate the ZS20 battery, which must be charged in the camera. The camera must also be switched off to the charge the battery, so there's no opportunity to post process images or do other work with the camera if you need to charge the battery.

Lens Performance
The Leica DC Vario-Elmar lens on the ZS20 has a good pedigree, but is a bit on the slow side with maximum apertures of f/3.3 and f/6.4 at wide-angle and telephoto, respectively - f/8 is the minimum at both ends of the zoom. At wide-angle the lens shows fairly uniform sharpness across the frame, with edges and corners being just a bit softer. Telephoto is likewise better in the center and looks a bit softer than wide-angle on the edges and corners as well.

Panasonic Lumix ZS20

There's just a hint of barrel distortion at the wide-angle end and an equally slight bit of pincushion distortion at telephoto. Chromic aberration (purple fringing) is present at both ends of the lens, but less so at telephoto. Enlargements of 200% or more are generally required for the defect to become easily noticeable throughout the focal range.

Video Quality
Video quality is good in the ZS20 and may be captured in 1920 x 1080 AVCHD progressive mode with or without GPS information attached; you can also capture in AVCHD mode at 1920 x 1080 with and without GPS information and in AVCHD Lite at 1280 x 720 with GPS info. MP4 may be captured at 1920 x 1080, 1280 x 720, or 640 x 480 size. The camera features continuous auto focus and an automatic wind cut feature for video capture as defaults, but both of these features may be disabled.

Download Sample Video

With a CMOS sensor on board rolling shutter effect is a consideration when shooting video with the ZS20. This effect is quite well controlled in the camera, offering some slight skewing of vertical straight lines with exaggeratedly fast pans. Zooming of the lens is available during video capture. There is a bit of hesitation after engaging the motion picture capture button before the camera actually begins to record and the same is true when shutting down - push to video capture commencement is not as rapid as some other digitals I've reviewed.

Image Quality
With its compact size the Lumix ZS20 is likely to appeal to folks looking for nothing more than a compact point-and-shoot that they can set on auto and fire away. Admittedly, inclusion of manual exposure options on the ZS20 will certainly broaden its potential audience for those who want to be more involved in image capture process, but what kind of results can the "I just wanna point and shoot it" crowd expect? Here's a small gallery of auto ISO images out of the ZS20 with default settings.

Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image

I found default images out of the ZS20 to be pleasant and fairly accurate as to color rendition - a bit oversaturated in reds - and appropriately sharp. That's the good news. The not-so-good news is the ZS20 outputs images at 180 dpi - well above the 72 dpi level that maximizes efficiency for e-mail transfers and well below the 300 dpi level we would like to achieve for best quality photo printing. Expect to resize if you want the best quality prints or most efficient e-mail transmission of photos. Images in this review were sized to 300 dpi and uniformly sharpened.

The color mode palette for the ZS20 consists of standard, happy, black and white, and sepia if the camera is set for intelligent auto. Switch to any other still mode and "happy" becomes "vivid." Happy is described as recording pictures with vivid coloring. Vivid is described as being sharper. Here's the intelligent auto palette:

Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
Standard
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
Happy
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
Black & White
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
Sepia

And here are the expressive, retro, sepia, toy and mini shooting options found in the creative control mode:

Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
Expressive
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
Retro
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
Sepia
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
Toy
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
Mini

It seems like everyone is adding "HDR" features to their cameras these days in order to expand the apparent dynamic range of the instrument and Panasonic is no different. The ZS20 offers a couple of HDR shooting options - there is a "high dynamic" setting in the creative control mode that provides a picture with a "well-balanced brightness from light to dark areas." In scene mode there is an HDR option that combines a burst of pictures into a single image that has less over and under exposure.

The drawback to the HDR option is the fact that a burst of images are required and holding the camera steady becomes more problematic. There is also additional processing time following the image capture as the camera combines images into the single photo. Here's a look at Mission San Luis Rey's main church in both intelligent auto and the high dynamic setting from the creative control mode.

Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
intelligent Auto

Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
High Dynamic

Auto white balance was used for all the images captured for this review and did a good job with a range of light varying from bright sunlight to cloudy/overcast, flash and heavy shade. The camera seemed to shoot just a bit warm with incandescent lighting. In addition to automatic there are daylight, cloudy, shade and incandescent presets along with a custom setting.

Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

Multi metering is the default setting for the ZS20 and was used for all the images in this review. This mode is recommended for average lit scenes and does a pretty good job overall. However, it can clip highlights in high contrast situations, a not uncommon performance for compact digital. Center weighted and spot metering options are also available in most modes except intelligent auto.

When I looked closely at the specifications for the ZS20 and ZS15 I thought perhaps there was a misprint - the ZS20 was listed as carrying a slightly smaller physically size sensor than the ZS15 (1/2.33-inch versus 1/2.3) despite having 2 megapixels more resolution. All things being equal, a larger sensor with lower resolution will generally have better high ISO noise performance than the smaller sensor with higher resolution. The purpose of this review is not a direct comparison of ISO performance of these two stablemates, but the disparity in sensor size resolution was enough to raise some concerns in my mind as to just how good the ZS20 might be.

ISO 100 and 200 are very similar and difficult to tell apart, however a really detailed study shows a few areas where even at 200 some fine details are not as crisp as at 100. When I brought up 400 ISO my immediate reaction was that noise was more apparent than at 200. Most striking was that the background behind the box was clearly grainier in appearance and this was apparent with only the most cursory of inspections. Closer inspection showed that fine details across the frame were a bit fuzzier than at 200.

ISO 800 showed a less dramatic increase in grain and deterioration of fine details than the 200 - 400 ISO jump, but was noticeably worse than 400.

Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
ISO 100
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
ISO 200
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
ISO 400
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
ISO 800
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
ISO 3200
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop

ISO 1600 displayed deterioration on a par with the 200 - 400 ISO jump, with background grain becoming mottled and fine details across the frame taking a fairly serious hit compared to 800. ISO 3200 is another fairly dramatic decrease in quality versus 1600 - background mottling is even more pronounced with some slight evidence of pale yellow blotches sprinkled throughout and fine details across the frame becoming fuzzy and smudged.

ISO 100 through 400 are usable for prints although of course 100 would be the sensitivity of choice for large print work; 800 would be usable for smaller print work if lower sensitivities were unavailable with 1600 and 3200 best left for transmission of small e-mail images..

Additional Sample Images
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image
Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image Panasonic ZS20 Sample Image

CONCLUSIONS
Panasonic's ZS20 is a very attractive compact digital for a variety of reasons, first of which is that big zoom lens that can telescope all the way from 24mm up to 480mm yet travel around in a shirt pocket (power off, of course). Add in good still image and video quality, manual exposure controls, a responsive shutter, quick autofocus acquisition time and a capable stabilization system for shooting at long focal lengths and it's pretty clear the ZS20 oozes versatility.

The LCD monitor can be a bit difficult to use in outdoor light, and while this may truly be said of almost any monitor, the ZS20 might be a little bit worse than average. Having to charge batteries in the camera (and the camera being unavailable for any other function such as post processing images during battery charging periods) is not optimal for a camera whose 260 shot battery life will require multiple batteries for all day shoots - unless, of course, you think waking every two or three hours through the night so you can have a fresh set of batteries in the morning is the way to go. And while we're at it, Panasonic, please give us a formatting command in the intelligent auto menu.


ISO performance is average for the compact digital class, but don't construe this as damning with faint praise but rather as a precursor to what could be. Take a ZS20, add a physically larger sensor like the Canon G1X while holding resolution at the present 14 megapixels, toss in a RAW shooting capability and Panasonic would not be able to make them fast enough. Until then, the ZS20 is just around the corner and if you're in the market for compact digital that can go wide and long take a good look at this one.

Pros:

Cons: