Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX3 Overview
by Dan Havlik
Review Date: 11/07/2006
The budget model in Panasonic's stylish and very portable Lumix line, the DMC-FX3 has a basic set of features, but enough added functionality courtesy of Panasonic's exclusive imaging technology to warrant a second look -- especially at its reasonable price point. Being offered for as low as $230 at some online retailers, the Panasonic FX3 is based around a 6 megapixel sensor and Leica-branded 3x optical zoom lens with effective focal lengths of 35mm to 105mm. Exclusive to Panasonic -- though some competing manufacturers offer similar technology -- the FX3 boasts MEGA O.I.S. image stabilization, which helps correct for hand-shake by actually shifting the lens to keep the axis straight against the CCD when you snap a shot. If you've never tried MEGA O.I.S. before, you'll be in for a pleasant surprise --- and you likely won't want to turn it off!
The Panasonic FX3 has a generous 2.5-inch LCD display but with a fairly average resolution of 115,000 pixels and, like a lot of digital cameras these days, no optical viewfinder. For those who like to shoot in low light without a flash, ISO light sensitivity is selectable only between 100 and 400 on the Panasonic FX3. However in its special High Sensitivity scene mode, the camera will automatically boost the ISO up to a maximum of 1,600, which is great for shooting in low light. On the downside, the camera captures images at reduced resolution in this mode to compensate for high sensitivity processing.
Speaking of scene modes, the Panasonic FX3 has 17 of them including the unique "Baby" modes that allow you to program a date of birth in each, and then have your images tagged with your children's current ages at the time the photo is taken. Other nice perks include available shutter speeds from 1/2,000 to 60 which is quite a bit longer than is common on most digicams. The Panasonic FX3 also offers a higher-than-average movie resolution of 848 x 480 pixels, as well as the ability to shoot clips in 16:9 wide angle which is great for playing back on widescreen TVs. So while the Panasonic FX3 might look like a budget model on paper, it's certainly no stripped down, bargain-basement camera. Read on to find out more.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX3 User Report
Solidly Compact. Made of a brushed metallic polycarbonate with stainless steel accents, the Panasonic FX3 is available in silver or black. With a very portable design, the FX3 measures just 3.7 x 2.0 x 1.0 inches (94 x 51 x 24mm) and weighs in at 5.4 ounces (153 grams) with the battery and SD card installed. Despite its diminutive size, the FX3 has a fairly robust build that's helped by a metal band across the top of the camera which give this entry-level model a touch of class. I had no problems holding the FX3. It has a basic "deck-of-cards" design but with some nice rounded corners and smooth curves so it doesn't feel boxy. Like a lot of compact models in its class, the buttons on the Panasonic FX3 are going to feel too small to anyone but those with the daintiest of fingers. In particular, I found the tiny four-direction multi-controller on the back to be too small for my taste, as was the itsy-bitsy mode dial. Scrolling through the menus and modes on this camera via its buttons and dials takes some getting used to, though the shutter button and zoom rocker were adequately sized and fairly responsive.
The rear of the camera is dominated by large 2.5-inch LCD, which -- as on a lot of cameras these days -- leaves no room for an optical viewfinder. Since this is a budget model, resolution on the LCD is only 115,000 pixels, so live preview and playback are not going to be as crisp as on some higher-end models. In a couple of shots of the George Washington Bridge, the bridge's steel suspension cables had an odd rainbow effect in Playback mode, which was not evident in the images when I viewed them later on a computer.
Though it doesn't have an optical viewfinder, Panasonic has made a good effort in providing the FX3's screen with two modes for better outdoor viewing. With the camera in record mode, press and hold the Display button on the back for a second to bring up two options: the Power LCD and the High Angle mode. In Power LCD, the screen becomes brighter to make it easier to view outdoors. Brightness increases further in High Angle so you can see the picture on the LCD when holding the camera above your head -- such as when shooting over a crowd. While these two modes don't totally solve the problem of screen glare in bright light, it's nice to see a manufacturer making a serious effort.
Fairly Fast. Though the FX3 doesn't use Panasonic's new Venus Engine III processor, as do some of the top-of-the-line models, the camera was quite responsive, and far quicker than many similarly priced competitors. Instead of Venus Engine III, the Panasonic FX3 employs Venus Engine Plus, which did a good job in controlling shutter lag; though was a bit slow on the draw while reviewing images in playback. According to our tests, the camera fires up, extends its lens and is ready for first shot in 2.4 seconds. Shutter lag at the full autofocus wide setting was a fairly decent 0.47 second. Even better, when the Panasonic FX3 was pre-focused, lag dissipated even further with the camera taking just 0.018 second to capture a picture.
Shot-to-shot, the Panasonic FX3 didn't do bad either, taking 2.34 seconds per shot in Single Shot mode with image file size set to Large Fine JPEG. (In our tests, time per shot is averaged over 20 shots.) In burst mode, the camera can capture up to three frames per second at full resolution. The FX3 also allows unlimited consecutive shooting up to the capacity of your memory card.
On the down side, there is an "early shutter penalty" which locks up the camera if you release and press the shutter too quickly in Single Shot mode. The camera's flash was fairly quick to rev up, taking just three seconds to recycle. Overall, I never felt like the Panasonic FX3 couldn't keep up with my snapshooting needs, especially if I prefocused. After quite a few years of digital photography, I'm pretty much trained to prefocus. In playback, though, scrolling through images was noticeably slow. If you have a lot of shots to review, the best way to quickly pick and choose images is to tap the zoom rocker on the wide side while in playback, which will let you review nine thumbnails at a time. Hit the wide setting on the zoom rocker a second time and you'll be able to see 25 thumbnails at a time.
Crisp Color, Excellent Macro. The Panasonic FX3 produced consistently good results in images shot in adequate lighting conditions with crisp -- though not oversaturated -- color, accurate skin tones, and excellent sharpness. The camera's Leica-branded lens was able to capture a lot of subtle detail. I've always had good luck with the Macro mode on Panasonic's cameras, and the FX3 was no exception. When capturing close-ups of flowers, the camera had no problem finding focus. I was also able to capture nice detail in the hands of a bronze statue. The FX3 can take pictures from as close as 5cm in Macro mode.
Low light shooting without a flash was bit spotty on the Panasonic FX3, with noise levels noticeably increasing in images shot at ISO 400. In the camera's High Sensitivity mode, which is one of 17 scene modes on the FX3, ISO can go as high as 1,600. Though I've seen clean images produced by compact cameras that shoot at ISO 1,600, results from the FX3 were rough, but usable if you print at a maximum of 4x6. Things improved when the camera selected lower ISOs -- such as 800 and 1,000 -- but shadow areas still showed lots of chroma noise. The other down side to shooting in the High Sensitivity mode is that images are captured at a lower resolution because of the higher sensitivity processing. While it does open up more options for low-light shooting, getting usable results is tricky in High Sensitivity mode and I only recommend it if you don't mind a lot of trial and error.
Panasonic Extras. Along with having the handsome stylings of a more expensive camera, Panasonic includes some extra functionality to the FX3 that should appeal to a range of shooters. For starters, there's Panasonic's tried-and-true MEGA O.I.S. image stabilization technology. Across Panasonic's line, MEGA O.I.S. has pretty much become a standard feature and one which I rarely, if ever, turn off. On the Panasonic FX3, the MEGA O.I.S. system did a good job stabilizing shots in low light and decreasing image blur. In general I keep it set on MEGA O.I.S Mode 2, which only turns on when you half-press the shutter. In Mode 1, the MEGA O.I.S. is on at all times which helps in image composition, but significantly decreases the battery life.
Panasonic's also had good success with its Leica-branded lenses, and the 3x (35 - 105mm in 35mm format), f/2.8 - f/5.6 Leica DC Vario-Elmarit lens on the FX3 gave me good sharpness all the way to the corners. The focusing system, which employs a selectable a 1, 3, or 5-point autofocus function with AF assist lamp, was very responsive; and unlike some competing models, it was whisper silent when it locked in on a target. The zoom ratio can be extended up to 4.1x by the camera's Extended Optical Zoom (EZ) function, but this is only if you reset the image size down to the 3 megapixel EZ setting, which uses just the center of the CCD to increase zoom.
Along with the 17 scene modes, exposure variables are determined using an intelligent multiple metering system, and users can tweak exposure with +/-2.0EV of exposure compensation in 1/3EV steps if you want more control. Similarly, shutter speeds on the FX3 range from 1/2,000 to 60 seconds, which is a lot longer than most digicams offer. More advanced users who like to tweak their own white balance will be pleased with the camera's automatic and manual white balance control, with four presets and a custom white balance mode letting you save white balance settings for recurrent shooting conditions.
I also really liked the FX3's above average movie options, including resolution at a better-than-expected 848 x 480 pixels, and the ability to shoot in 16:9 widescreen format for feature film-like playback.
Practical Perks. So you won't run out of juice at that crucial moment, the FX3 has excellent battery life with the ability to shoot 320 pictures on a single charge, according to CIPA standards. The camera records to Secure Digital or MultiMedia cards, and comes with 13.5MB of internal memory. While it will help you out in a pinch, that small amount of memory won't get you too far if you want to shoot more than a handful of pictures, so prepare to buy a card with this camera. In addition, the FX3 supports the new SDHC (Secure Digital High Capacity) standard which extends the maximum capacity to a theoretical 32GB (4GB cards being the largest at the time of this writing), with sustained transfer rates of up to six megabytes per second.
There's also USB computer connectivity -- though not the fast USB 2.0 High Speed protocol that's becoming more common on digital cameras -- and an NTSC/PAL switchable video output to show your images and/or wide-screen video clips a TV, with the necessary cables included.
The Bottom Line. Though it won't blow you away in any one area, this budget model from Panasonic certainly offers you a lot of bang for your buck. If you're looking for a sleek, compact camera that takes fine pictures, but you don't have a lot of money to spend, the Panasonic FX3 is a solid choice. Important pluses include Panasonic's excellent MEGA O.I.S. optical image stabilizer, helpful automatic functionality via a variety of scene modes, and excellent battery life, all of which make this economically-priced compact camera feel like a luxury model.
- 6-megapixel (effective) CCD captures images as high as 2816 x 2112 pixels
- 2.5-inch color TFT widescreen LCD with 115,000 pixels of resolution
- 3x zoom lens (equivalent to a 35mm-105mm lens on a 35mm camera)
- Maximum 4x digital zoom
- Automatic and manual exposure control
- Shutter speeds from 1/2000 to 60 seconds
- Aperture range of f/2.8 to f/5.6, depending on lens zoom position
- Built-in flash with five modes
- SD/MMC memory card slot for storage (13.5MB of built-in memory)
- Power supplied by one proprietary, rechargeable lithium-ion battery
- Arcsoft software suite on CD Rom
- MEGA O.I.S. optical image stabilization with two modes
- ISO available up to 1,600 in High Sensitivity mode but at reduced resolution
- 16:9 Movie mode with sound at 848x 480 resolution, up to 30 frames/second
- Adjustable ISO settings of 100, 200, 400, (ISO 800-1,600 only available in High Sensitivity scene mode)
- 1, 3, or 5-point autofocus function with AF assist lamp.
- Autofocus Macro (close-up) setting allows focusing up to 5cm
- Unlimited Continuous Shooting mode
- Two- or 10-second Self-Timer for delayed shutter release
- Audio Dub option for recording captions
- White balance (color) adjustment with five modes and two presets, including a Custom setting
- Color Effects including Cool, Warm, Black and White, and Sepia
- DPOF (Digital Print Order Format) and PictBridge compatibility
- USB cable for connection to a computer (driver software included)
- A/V cable for connection to a television set
In the Box
The retail package contains the following items:
- Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX3 digital camera
- Panasonic CGA-S005A rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack
- Battery charger
- Battery carrying case
- USB cable
- AV cable
- Wrist strap
- Software CD ROM
- Basic operating manual and registration card
- Large capacity SD/MMC memory card. These days, a 256MB or 512MB card is a good tradeoff between cost and capacity.
- Soft camera case
- Additional battery pack
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX3 is an excellent value with the sort of features and functionality offered in cameras that are at least $100 more expensive. Along with a good quality 6-megapixel CCD, the Panasonic FX3 gives you tried-and-true Panasonic technology including the MEGA O.I.S. optical image stabilizer, which helps reduce blur in shaky shots by automatically shifting the camera's lens to keep the axis straight against the CCD when you snap a shot. With a compact, solid, and stylish design, the Panasonic FX3 looks like a more expensive camera as well. My only gripe is I wish they were able to make the buttons, dials and switches, a little bigger in these compact models. Operating the petite controls on the FX3 took some getting used to.
Otherwise, the camera performed like a charm thanks to a very good image processor -- the Venus Plus Engine -- which is not even Panasonic's top-of-the-line chip, but was quite speedy nonetheless. Panasonic's relationship with Leica has resulted in good quality lenses on its digital cameras. In the case of the FX3, this 3x (35 - 105mm in 35mm format), f/2.8 - f/5.6 Leica DC Vario-Elmarit lens gave me good sharpness all the way to the corners. The focusing system, which employs a selectable a 1, 3, or 5-point autofocus function with AF assist lamp, was very responsive and unlike some competing models, whisper silent when it locks in on a target. The camera's Macro mode -- which can focus as close as 5cm -- was also superb and allowed me to get vivid close-ups of flowers and exquisite detail on the hand of a bronze sculpture I photographed.
On the downside, the camera's High Sensitivity mode -- which can record ISOs of up to 1,600 -- produces images of lower resolution than in the standard mode to allow for additional high sensitivity processing. Though its low-light capabilities don't rival more expensive models, if you're looking for a stylish compact camera but don't want to kill your entire week's paycheck, the Panasonic FX3 is an excellent choice and qualifies as a Dave's pick.