Panasonic DMC-FX500 Overview
Review by Mike Pasini and Stephanie Boozer
Review Posted: 09/16/08
The Panasonic FX500 breaks new ground for the company, being the first Lumix-series digital camera to include a touch-screen LCD display. This not only helps keep the number of external control buttons on the Panasonic FX500 to a minimum, but also helps to free up space for a larger-than-most 3-inch LCD panel with 230,000 pixels of resolution.
The Panasonic FX500 touch-screen has some pretty nifty tricks up its sleeve, too. For example, in Record mode you can tap the picture anywhere (a stylus is included for accuracy) and the autofocus and autoexposure systems will focus on the specific portion of the image you selected. You can also adjust the aperture and shutter speeds in the relevant modes by dragging the Panasonic FX500's on-screen sliders. In Playback mode, you can even add titles to your images with an on-screen keyboard!
Touch-screens aren't perfect, though -- they can sometimes make it a bit tedious to quickly scroll through page after page of menus, for example. To avoid this problem, the Panasonic FX500 design also includes a joystick within convenient reach of your right thumb. There's no optical viewfinder in the Panasonic DMC-FX500, but if you can live with that (and most folks these days are content to do so) then there's plenty else to capture your attention.
For one thing, there's the Panasonic FX500's lens. The Japanese consumer electronics giant opted for a Leica DC Vario Elmarit branded 5x optical zoom that provides an impressive 25mm wide-angle, far wider than the 35mm wide-angle on the vast majority of compact digicams. And you still get a fairly respectable 35mm equivalent focal length of 125mm at the telephoto end, surpassing the usual 105mm limit. As you'd expect of a Panasonic Lumix camera, the DMC-FX500 includes true optical image stabilization in its design.
The Panasonic FX500 features a 4:3 aspect ratio CCD image sensor with 10.1 effective megapixel resolution that should give plenty of room for cropping while still leaving enough resolution for a good-sized print. The Panasonic DMC-FX500's ISO sensitivity ordinarily ranges between 100 and 1,600, with the ability to boost this to ISO 1,600 to 6,400 in a special High Sensitivity scene mode. Burst shooting is possible at 2.5 frames per second for up to three frames (full resolution, JPEG fine mode), and at reduced resolutions (2.5 megapixels for 3:2 shooting, and 2 megapixels at other aspect ratios) it is possible to boost this to 6 fps.
Another interesting feature seen on some of the company's other recent models has made it into the Panasonic FX500: an Intelligent Auto scene mode that automatically determines the type of scene you're shooting -- either Scenery, Portrait, Macro, Night Portrait or Night Scenery -- and then optimizes the camera settings accordingly. The autofocus system in Panasonic's DMC-FX500 is also improved over past models, with subject tracking now possible. The Panasonic FX500 also offers autofocus- and autoexposure-linked face detection capable of detecting 15 faces in a scene, as well as intelligent exposure and ISO features that tweak variables to correct common exposure problems and prevent subject blur, respectively.
The Panasonic Lumix FX500 draws power from a proprietary lithium-ion battery pack rated as good for 280 photos on a charge, and stores images in 50MB of built-in memory or on SD/SDHC/MMC cards. Connectivity options include USB 2.0 Hi-Speed for data transfer to computers and the like, as well as both NTSC/PAL standard definition and component high definition video output.
Panasonic FX500 Pricing and Availability
The Panasonic FX500 will ship in the USA from May 2008, priced at U.S.$399.95.
Panasonic FX500 User Report
by Mike Pasini
Panasonic apparently hopes to capture your imagination with the FX500's 3.0 inch touchscreen and its Intelligent Auto mode. But what really captures your imagination is the 5x optical zoom Leica lens that gets as wide as 25mm. And, like other Panasonic's I've tested, the FX500 captures it well.
In fact, the features of the Panasonic FX500 that stick with me after using it for a couple of weeks are its compact size, 5x zoom, responsive shutter, and image quality.
That other stuff is certainly part of the story, but not much of a factor, it turns out.
Build Quality. The Panasonic FX500 has a very familiar digicam form factor: the simple box with a protruding lens. It seems as if half the cameras I test all use that basic design these days. No grip to speak of, the front of the camera reserved for the lens and the flash (not to mention the AF assist light), the top panel holding the Shutter button and the Zoom ring with the Power control not far away.
But there's something different about Panasonic digicams despite the familiar design. Build quality. There's no thought to making things inexpensive, using inferior components, putting a rubber flap where a hinged metal door could be. In fact, the Power control is not a button but a switch, making it easy to find by feel and simple to successfully operate. If you've used a button to turn on a digicam, you've probably wondered if your press actually did the trick. You won't wonder with the Panasonic FX500's switch.
The port cover is another example of the Panasonic FX500's build quality. It's a metal door on a hinge that snaps open and shut. The hinge rotates on a small metal rod. Nothing dainty about that.
Touch Screen. So it should come as no surprise that when Panasonic put a touch screen on the back of the FX500 they also put a joystick. I got a lot more use out of the joystick than the touch screen, so I'm very appreciative of that decision.
The trouble with the Panasonic FX500's touch screen is the iPhone. Play with an iPhone or an iPod touch for a few minutes and you expect your ATM to respond to gestures. You can certainly be forgiven to expect the Panasonic FX500's screen to respond to a swipe in Playback mode. Or a two-finger stretch. But it won't, regardless of your expectations.
Playback mode is the only mode where a touch screen really makes sense, though. When you are shooting, a touch screen makes the camera a two-handed tool. One hand holds the camera and the other touches the screen.
Yes, the Panasonic FX500 can focus on a point you touch on the screen. After you've touched the screen button to enable that and then found the spot on the screen you want (probably after waiting for the help message to time out). Who locks focus that way? The way we lock focus, Panasonic, is by pointing the center spot to our subject, half pressing the Shutter button and then recomposing. It can be done with one hand in no time at all.
I have pretty much the same complaint about the Panasonic FX500's sliders for aperture and shutter speed in Manual mode. The first time I saw them I thought they were, well, darling. But using them was awkward because they aren't immediately responsive. A dial is a much better solution than a touch screen for this.
Responsiveness is an issue in any touch screen. The so-called stylus (a plastic oval with a point off one end, like a cartoon bubble) makes for smear-proof touching that's a bit more responsive than my finger tip (although my finger nail does fine).
There's one operation that requires the use of the touch screen: changing Record modes. You press the Panasonic FX500's Mode button, the screen displays squares with legends for each mode (I really can't call them buttons) that you have to tap to select a mode.
What's particularly galling about the Panasonic FX500's touch screen is the cost is adds to the camera. It adds no useful functionality, but does bump up the price.
Controls. Okay, so you already know the one touch-required operation. But it might be helpful to review all the controls available on the back of the Panasonic FX500.
They are all along the right side of the LCD, starting with the Mode switch, which selects between Playback and Record modes. Below that is the Mode button, which brings up the Panasonic FX500's touch screen mode selection. And just below that is the Display button, which cycles through the LCD display modes, offering more or less information along with the image.
But then you get to the real controls. The Panasonic FX500's joystick responds to upward, downward, left and right movements (there are no arrow keys) as well as a center push. And below that is the Quick Menu button. These work together to give you a hierarchy of menus during Record that is restricted by the mode you're shooting in.
In Program Auto, for example, the Panasonic FX500's Quick Menu displays a toolbar along the top of the screen (that is not touch sensitive) for the following options: Stabilizer, Burst Shooting, Autofocus Mode, White Balance, Intelligent ISO, Intelligent Exposure, Picture Size, and LCD Mode. Those are things you might want to change while shooting.
For more options that you might want to change for a particular scene, you press the Panasonic FX500's joystick in for the Record Menu. Those options bring up the four screens of the LCD menu with Picture Size, Quality, Aspect Ratio, Intelligent ISO, Sensitivity, White Balance, Metering Mode, Autofocus Mode, Quick Autofocus, Bust Mode, Intelligent Exposure, Digital Zoom, Color Effect, Picture Adjust, Stabilizer, Minimum Shutter Speed, Audio Recording, Autofocus Assist Lamp, and Clock Set. In addition, there's another tab that takes you to the five screens of the Setup menu. Among the more interesting of those options are the Guide Lines, Histogram display, Economy (power saving), Touch Guide (for helpful hints on using the touch screen), and Calibration (so you get what you press).
That hierarchy works pretty well, although it would be just wonderful if you could add a command or two to the Panasonic FX500's Quick Menu, which seems pretty arbitrary.
Intelligent Auto. I have to have a little talk with myself whenever a new camera arrives. I tell myself that after I shoot my basic shots in Programmed Auto, I have to try the other modes, even some Scene modes. I promise and I do make the effort, but the truth is that almost all digicams have a Programmed Auto that lets you make a few adjustments (unlike green Auto, which lets you make almost none) so that lets me give the camera a fighting chance with the fire hydrant shot, for example.
But this year we're starting to see a number of cameras that feature what they call "intelligent" Auto modes. You can't change anything here either, but you're not supposed to want to, either.
Intelligent Auto is whatever the company decides it is. Most of them are smart enough to pick a Scene mode and set White Balance. Along with that, some include face detection (which Auto would do anyway) and ISO control to prevent blurring (which, again, Auto would do). Kodak takes intelligent Auto a step further by running the image through their Kodak Perfect Touch in real time. But, essentially, it ain't intelligent if it can't pick a Scene mode.
The trouble with this is that no camera is quick to pick a Scene mode. They aren't cycling through the 33 or so Scene modes available on the camera, either. They're just analyzing the image to see if it's a landscape, portrait, or macro, and maybe the night versions of the first two. So essentially the only Scene detection going on is Macro or not. Everything else happens in Auto.
Still, the Panasonic FX500 labors to detect the scene. Usually an icon is displayed when the camera has figured it out. This takes so long that in practice it's useless. Talk about shutter lag.
How long it takes to identify the scene depends primarily, we are told, on the image processor. But the faster processors are more expensive, so don't expect to see functional intelligent scene detection on inexpensive digicams.
So, yes, I resorted to Programmed Auto whenever I really wanted to capture something.
Zoom. Now that we've dispelled some marketing illusions, we have to come to terms with Panasonic's peculiar approach to digital zoom.
First of all, let me applaud Panasonic for delivering 1) a 5x zoom to begin with, 2) a zoom that starts at 25mm, and 3) optical image stabilization. Wide angle is a lost art with small sensors and achieving a 25mm 35mm equivalent is worth your consideration if for no other reason than how rare it is. Do you shoot indoors a lot? Then you want something under the 35mm most digicam zooms provide.
That 5x range is a blessing, too. Too many digicams offer nothing more than a 3x zoom. That's 3 x 35 for 105mm at best. Compare that to the Panasonic FX500's 25 x 5 for 125mm. Not only do you get the whole room at 25mm, but you get closer to the landmarks with 125mm.
In the pioneering days of digital photography, we'd often disparage digital zoom. The problem was that, with 3-megapixel sensors, the camera would take a 1-megapixel crop and enlarge it to the full image size of 3-megapixel only to completely degrade the image. As camera sensors acquired more resolution, however, digital zoom improved. The 6-megapixel sensor enlarging a 3-megapixel crop wasn't degrading the image as much. And you didn't have to degrade it at all if you were satisfied with the 3-megapixel crop.
The Panasonic FX500 has a 10-megapixel sensor. But I prefer to think of it as having no digital zoom. It has, instead, crops. I took a series of all of them from Twin Peaks. Images 393 to 397 cover the range. At 10-megapixels, you get only as close as what you see in 393. But if you're willing to accept a 640x480 crop, you can get as close as what you see in 397.
Technically, Panasonic is just being honest. No enlargement, just crops. But, frankly, they are also being peculiar.
Even at 5x optical zoom, I'm not sure you need optical image stabilization. But it is a real virtue in less than brilliant light. We have to applaud Panasonic for including it on the FX500 (see our under 1/60 second shots in the gallery to see why).
ISO. ISO continues to be a difficult subject to evaluate with some companies claiming ISO 10,000 capabilities and others limiting their offerings to ISO 1,600. Frankly, only a few of them do well above ISO 400, which is easily discernible from ISO 200. ISO 1,600 is probably the practical limit of small-sensor digicams. Everything else can be considered magic tricks. You decided how useful they are to you from our test shots.
High ISO is one of the Panasonic FX500's weak points, however; even low ISO is fairly noisy. See the ISO & Noise Performance section under the Exposure tab.
Modes. While I briefly touched on modes above, the Panasonic FX500 does offer quite an assortment, and that deserves a little explication.
The actual Scene modes include Portrait, Soft Skin, Scenery, Sports, Night Portrait, Night Scenery, Self-Portrait, Food, Party, Candle Light, Fireworks, Starry Sky, Beach, Aerial Photo, Snow, High Sensitivity, Baby 1&2, Sunset, Pet, and Hi-Speed Burst.
In addition to those special purpose modes, the Panasonic FX500 offers P (Program AE) Mode, A (Aperture Priority AE) Mode, S (Shutter Priority AE) Mode, M (Manual Exposure) Mode, Motion Picture, and Intelligent Auto.
Very few digicams bother offering a full PASM (Program AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual). Often it isn't a problem because, if you study the specs, you'll see there are not many f-stops or shutter speeds to pick from.
But the Panasonic FX500's shutter speeds range from 60 seconds to 1/2,000 second. Although its aperture jumps from f/2.8 to f/8 in two steps from wide angle and from f/5.9 to f/8 in two steps from telephoto. Still, having manual control of your options is worth applauding.
Movie mode on the Panasonic FX500 is hampered by the lack of any zoom during recording. Chalk that up to Panasonic's aversion to digital zoom, which would noiselessly allow some framing during recording.
But you can also inadvertently disable audio recording if you hold the Shutter button down too long when you start recording. So use a light touch.
You may be inclined to press a little too insistently to stop recording because it isn't immediately obvious that the Panasonic FX500 has responded to you. But we were able to record even the highest quality movies with a slow Eye-Fi card, so it's just taking a while to write. Panasonic does recommend a high-speed SD card ("with '10MB/s' or greater displayed on the package") for 30fps captures. You can't record movies on MMC cards.
The Panasonic FX500's Movie image sizes are determined by the aspect ratio. If you select 16:9 from the LCD menu, you can record at 1,280 x 720 or 848 x 480 pixels. If you select 4:3, your options are 640 x 480 or 320 x 240. No matter which image size use, you have the option to shoot at 30 frames per second or 10 fps. But only the smallest image size can be recorded to built-in memory.
You can record continuously up to 2GB. At the highest quality 16:9, that's about 8 minutes, 20 seconds. At 4:3, it gets you 22 minutes 30 seconds. A timer appears on the Panasonic FX500's screen.
With the optional DMW-HDC2 component cable you can connect the Panasonic FX500 directly to an HDTV's component inputs (three video RCA connectors and two audio RCA connectors) for playback of the 1,280 x 720 or 848 x 480 options. The included standard AV cable is sufficient for playback of the other image sizes.
Storage and Battery. As I mentioned above, Panasonic recommends a fast SD card to capture its highest quality movies, which can not be recorded to either built-in memory or an MMC card. But I was able to shoot movies on an Eye-Fi card, which is rarely the case because that card is not built for speed.
Panasonic calculates that your can fit 195 10-megapixel 4:3 high quality images on a 1GB card. That same card will hold 11 minutes of VGA, 30 fps movies or 4 minutes of 16:9, 30 fps HD movies.
The FX500 uses a 3.6 volt, 1,000 mAh lithium-ion battery that, according to Panasonic, delivers up to 280 shots using the CIPA Standard. CIPA requires quite a few flash shots and I avoid them, so my mileage was very good on this battery.
When you do need to charge the battery, you slip it into a very compact charger with folding prongs that itself plugs into the wall. No need to carry another cable with you.
Performance. Now that we've discussed the features, we can look at how well the Panasonic FX500 performs. And it does indeed perform well, scoring average or above average marks in almost every category.
The one significant category it scored merely average, though, was startup time. At 2.7 seconds, it's a bit long. My actual experience was a bit different from the lab tests, though. Turning the camera on and off, I didn't detect a difference between startup and shutdown times. The lab measured shutdown at 1.3 second, which is above average and seemed about right.
In any case, the solution to a slow startup time is to leave the camera on and let it go to sleep after 30 seconds. You can wake it up quickly just by half pressing the Shutter button. You won't miss any shots that way -- but as I said, I didn't feel that the Panasonic FX500 was so slow to startup that I missed any shots.
Combined autofocus lag was above average at 0.626 seconds and prefocus lag was also above average at 0.008 second, a number that seems to be the new high performance benchmark in digicams. Burst mode cycle time was about average at 0.55 second.
Flash cycling time was above average at 5.6 seconds, which immediately makes us suspicious of the flash's power. Our test shots at ISO 100 show that to be the case, but Panasonic's specs call for ISO 400 and that does a good deal better.
The Panasonic FX500's Download speed was above average at 3,174.9 Kb/s using USB 2.0 Hi-Speed ports at both ends of the cable.
LCD size at 3.0 inches was above average with really nothing larger available. Optical zoom was average at 5x, but really stands out from the crowd of 3x zooms out there.
Finally, weight was average at 6.21 ounces, which is right where we like to see it. Not so light that a press of the Shutter button moves the Panasonic FX500, and not too heavy for a shirt pocket.
Shooting. Shooting with the Panasonic FX500 (hey, I was afraid I'd never get to this section), was a delight. Some digicams are just sweet. They fit the hand, they fit the pocket, they're ready for action, they get the shot. And when you come home to examine them more carefully on the computer, well, you're delighted.
The Panasonic FX500 is one of those sweet digicams.
One thing that made the Panasonic FX500 fun to shoot with was the 25mm wide angle end of the zoom combined with the 16:9 aspect ratio capture. We got the back of an 1880s Victorian with that as well as the evil chef haunting its kitchen. But our favorite gallery shots with that combo were at Fort Mason where we captured the breadth of the marina and the gap between the docks in a way other cameras just can't match.
We had sunlight problems from wildfires burning up and down the state so our outdoor pictures suffer from a slight amber glow. That may have helped the Panasonic FX500 capture our fire hydrant. Even so, it's remarkable for how it retains the highlights and its lack of any purple fringing around the white hydrant. Most cameras blow out the highlights and show some fringing. In fact, I'd say only the very best digicams do as well as the Panasonic FX500.
Our red fire alarm, shot into direct sunlight, captured the color accurately. And there's plenty of detail. You can actually read the Braille on the alarm.
Our outdoor shots were all at ISO 100 with various apertures. Indoors the ISO went up. The Panasonic FX500 has a very much appreciated Auto ISO function that allows you to set the maximum ISO to 400, 800, or 1,600. That, in effect, lets you determine how much noise you'll suffer. In some cases, you may be happy to have the picture regardless of the noise. In others, you may want the camera to work a little less with ISO. The Panasonic FX500 gives you some options to work with ISO that are so useful they should be on every camera.
The only glitch in our delight shooting with the Panasonic FX500 was shooting telephoto. We've grown accustomed to getting a bit closer with a little digital zoom. But with the Panasonic FX500, to get closer, you have to pop into the Quick Menu and change the image size. We did that with our SNOB shot to frame the new Wine Bar's placard, but it was a good thing it wasn't moving or we would have missed the shot.
Image Quality. Even in our ISO 100 Still Life test shot you can see quite a bit of stippling in the flat areas (the wall and color chart especially), apparently from noise reduction. There's still a good deal of detail, though. Note particularly the lines in the "Pure Brewed" type on the Samuel Smith label. Note also how well contained the highlights are. No blooming. And, at the same time, good detail in the shadows where the mosaic pattern on the Hellas label is clearly defined.
The Multi Target test shot shows no chromatic aberration in the corners, a notable achievement with only slight blurring that is very well contained (things sharpen up very quickly as you move toward the center of the image). Both horizontal and vertical resolution clears the 1,700 lines mark and is hardly extinguished at 2,000 lines. Very impressive.
That resolution led us to expect to see plenty of detail and we weren't disappointed, as you might guess from our smile at seeing Braille on the fire alarm.
We did get blown highlights on one image taken at a nursery. The shot was in the shade with some sunlight but all the white flowers are just about gone. ISO was correctly set at 100 but the aperture was wide open at f/2.8 and shutter speed a lazy 1/100 second. Unlike the fire hydrant shot, these highlights were not central to the image.
There is artifacting if not a lot of noise at ISO 400 (see the espresso cup). And at ISO 800 there's plenty of noise suppression which also, unfortunately, suppresses detail (see the doll).
Noise reduction is not something you can set on the Panasonic FX500. It's one option we miss, though. We'd have liked to see the naked image, especially at ISO 100 shots. There's really no explaining the stippling on something like our green water shot with the piling.
Appraisal. A fun camera with a few overkill features, the Panasonic FX500 captures very good color and detail marred only by a tendency to over-optimize flat color, and a tendency for noise even at the lowest ISO setting. You'll use the touch screen only when you have to, I think, but you'll appreciate the build quality and 5x zoom whenever you use the Panasonic FX500.
Panasonic FX500 Basic Features
- 10.1 megapixel sensor
- 5x optical zoom (25-125mm eq.) with 7 elements in 6 groups
- 4x digital zoom
- 3-inch, touch screen LCD with 230K pixels
- ISO sensitivity from 100 to 6,400
- Shutter speeds from 60 to 1/2,000 seconds
- Aperture from f/2.8 at wide angle and f/5.9 at telephoto to f/8 in two steps
- Support for SDHC/SD and MMC memory cards
- Custom 3.6V, 1000 mAh lithium-ion battery CIPA-rated for 280 shots
Panasonic FX500 Special Features
- Intelligent Auto mode with scene recognition
- MEGA optical image stabilization
- Face detection technology
- Autofocus tracking mode
- Touch autofocus mode
- Touch autoexposure mode
- 4:3, 3:2, 16:9 still aspect ratios with 4:3 and 16:9 movie aspect ratios
- Burst shooting at 2.5 fps for up to 7 images in Standard mode or 4 images in Fine Mode
- High-speed Burst mode of 6 fps at smaller image sizes
- 10 second audio dubbing
- HD output
- 50MB built-in memory
In the Box
The FX500 ships with the following items in the box:
- Battery charger
- Battery pack
- Battery carrying case
- AV cable
- USB cable
- Software CD-ROM
- Large capacity SD/SDHC memory card. These days, 2 to 4GB is a good trade-off between cost and capacity.
- Small camera case for outdoor and in-bag protection like the $16.95 DMW-CHTZ3 nylon case from Panasonic.
- DMW-HDC2 component cable for HD playback
- DMW-SDP1 HDTV Photo Player with remote control
Panasonic FX500 Conclusion
The Panasonic FX500 has a very nice build, a good control system, and some very interesting features. It also has some features that are just simply unnecessary, especially the touch screen.
The touch screen is only required to make a Record mode choice, fortunately, because most of the time you can use it there's also a simple, traditional point-and-shoot technique that's far more efficient.
Don't buy the Panasonic FX500 for its intelligent Auto mode, either. It's really too limited to be useful in live situations where plain old Program Auto serves nearly just as well.
With its above-average performance, including a very responsive shutter, the Panasonic FX500 is still fun to use and has a reasonably good shutter response. We also liked its 25-125mm equivalent lens, which delivers reasonably sharp images. Image quality is hampered by the overprocessing of flat areas that is easily absorbed by any screen when printing, and luminance noise softens the image at all ISO settings, making its maximum print size 11x14-inches at ISO 100. ISOs higher than that are better at 8x10 and 5x7. While most shooters won't print larger than that, other cameras are serving up higher print qualities at the 10-megapixel image size, so take that into consideration.