Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 Overview
by Theano Nikitas
with Shawn Barnett
Review Date: 12/07/07
Update: 12/10/07 Revised continuous mode timing on Performance page.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 has body styling reminiscent of a single-lens reflex digital camera, and offers a 1/2.5-inch CCD image sensor with an effective eight megapixels. Dominating the front of the Panasonic FZ18 is a Leica-branded 18x optical zoom lens -- the longest range yet offered on a Lumix digicam, with previous models reaching a maximum of only 12x. The Panasonic FZ18's lens has a wide angle of 28mm, and reaches all the way out to 504mm at full telephoto -- exactly the same range as we've seen previously on Olympus' SP-550 UltraZoom. The FZ18's lens is a little brighter at the telephoto end than that on the Olympus though, with the maximum aperture varying from f/2.8 at wide angle to f/4.5 at telephoto. Of course for a lens this powerful, image stabilization is a must-have -- and Panasonic has its Intelligent Image Stabilization system in the whole of its 2007 digital camera lineup, which includes both mechanical image stabilization (known as Mega Optical Image Stabilization) plus Intelligent ISO Control (which analyzes subject motion and then boosts ISO sensitivity where possible to select a suitable shutter speed to prevent blur).
The Panasonic DMC-FZ18 is one of the first three Panasonic digital cameras to introduce a couple of new technologies to the Lumix line, the other two cameras being the DMC-FX33 and DMC-FX55 models announced simultaneously. That must-have feature in the digicam market for 2007 -- face detection -- makes its debut with Panasonic's incarnation able to detect up to 15 faces in a scene and then use this information to set focus and exposure appropriately. Face detection is enabled automatically in portrait or baby scene modes, and can cope with moving subjects. A second new feature is what's being called "Intelligent Auto" mode, which analyzes the scene and then automatically selects the scene mode (Portrait, Scenery, Macro, Night Scenery or Night Portrait), and activates the Panasonic FZ18's optical image stabilization, intelligent ISO, face detection and continuous autofocus functions as necessary.
Other features of the Panasonic Lumix FZ18 include a 2.5-inch LCD display with 207,000 pixel resolution, ISO sensitivity to 1,600 (or 6,400 max. in high sensitivity mode), a range of creativity-friendly options including both aperture- and shutter-priority plus a full manual mode, and no less than fourteen scene modes to keep things approachable for the less experienced photographer. Panasonic FZ18 images are stored in 27MB of built-in memory or on SD / MMC / SDHC cards in either JPEG or raw file formats (with a raw+JPEG option available), and power comes from a proprietary lithium-ion battery which is included in the product bundle. The Panasonic FZ18's connectivity options are NTSC / PAL video and USB, and bundled software includes Lumix Simple Viewer, PhotofunStudio viewer, SILKYPIX Developer Studio 2.1SE, ArcSoft MediaImpression, and ArcSoft PanoramaMaker.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 went on sale in September 2007, priced at about $400. Be sure to use our Check prices link to see what it is today.
Panasonic DMC-FZ18 User Report
by Theano Nikitas
with Shawn Barnett
Intro. One of a new breed of super-megazoom cameras--including the Fuji FinePix S8000fd and the Olympus SP-560UZ--the 8.1-megapixel Panasonic DMC-FZ18 is equipped with an 18x Leica-branded optical zoom lens, which starts at a very wide 28mm and extends all the way to 504mm (35mm-equivalents). The Panasonic FZ18's megazoom lens is made even more useful thanks to Panasonic's highly-effective MEGA O.I.S. (optical image stabilization). As an added bonus, the lens is capable of focusing down to 1cm in macro mode. Although the Fuji S8000fd and Olympus SP-560UZ offer a slightly wider focal range starting at 27mm, the Panasonic FZ18 provides plenty of coverage at both wide and telephoto ends.
While the 18x zoom lens is the star feature, it's what's inside the Panasonic FZ18 that makes it such a well-rounded, highly capable camera, one that is as versatile as its lens. At its core, the Panasonic FZ18--like its FZ8 sibling--offers a sophisticated feature set complete with a full range of manual exposure controls as well as fine-tuning options for parameters such as white balance, contrast, sharpness, saturation, and user-controlled noise reduction. The Panasonic FZ18's simpler side is equipped with an assortment of no-brainer controls including several new additions including Advanced Scene modes, Intelligent Auto mode and Face Detection. Also new is increased light sensitivity: the ISO can be set manually up to 1,600 and a special high sensitivity option pushes it up to ISO 6,400. Panasonic does a good job of integrating technology so that it's as accessible for amateurs who use Scene modes as it is for advanced users who take advantage of the FZ18's manual modes.
Look and Feel. Like other megazoom cameras, the Panasonic FZ18--available in black or silver-grey--has a digital SLR look and feel with its pronounced grip and lens. The elongated on-board flash extends out over the lens, giving the camera a modern sleek appearance; although one glance will tell you that this is a serious camera and not just an oversized point-and-shoot model.
Slightly larger and heavier than the FZ8, the FZ18 measures 2.96 x 4.63 x 3.47 inches. At 0.79 pounds, the camera is surprisingly light, almost to a fault; but you come to appreciate it quickly. In fact, one of the first things that struck me when I shot with the Panasonic FZ18 is that I'd have to put a minimum of 3 lenses plus a 1.4x teleconverter in my camera bag to get the same focal range out of one of my digital SLRs and I'd probably end up with a sore shoulder from lugging all that gear around.
Handling the camera was a pleasure. The grip is fully rubberized with the textured surface wrapping around the side of the camera all the way up to the lens barrel. The FZ18 felt comfortable in my smaller hands, especially because of the finger indentations, which allow you to properly position your handhold and keep a firm grip on the camera. The black rubberized grip also provides a nice visual accent to the battleship grey body, but unfortunately there's not much space between the grip and the lens barrel, so those of you with larger hands may feel a little cramped.
A logical and easy-access control layout adds to the FZ18's usability. With the exception of the button to manually open the on-board flash (which is just to the left of the electronic viewfinder), all controls are positioned on the right side of the camera so everything's within reach. I especially liked that the shutter button is set below the edge of the zoom lever that encircles it so you can quickly find the shutter button by feel. The 4-way Controller keys and the center Set/Menu button are raised above the surface and are also easy to identify by feel. The joystick is small but responsive and the only buttons that gave me trouble were the LCD/Display mode and the Burst mode/Delete controls since they're placed close to the edge of the LCD panel.
Like all megazoom cameras, the Panasonic FZ18 is equipped with both an electronic viewfinder and an LCD. Its 2.5-inch, 207,000 pixel LCD performs decently under most conditions and gains up nicely in low light, but the 188,000 pixel EVF can save the day in extreme sunlight. Without my reading glasses, I had to max out the EVF's diopter but the viewfinder--albeit not the best or the brightest--was my option of choice for extra stability when shooting at full telephoto. Our lab tests show about 101% coverage at wide angle and about 99% at telephoto for both EVF and LCD, giving the Panasonic FZ18 an excellent score when it comes to viewing.
The Panasonic FZ18's 18x optical zoom lens is quite good, moving smoothly through its 28-504mm (35mm equivalent) focal range. Two speeds are available and controlled by how far the zoom lever is moved. I preferred the slower speed for positioning the lens at mid-range but appreciated the faster speed when I wanted to quickly capture a distant subject. The Extended Optical Zoom does a very good job of furthering the lens' focal range, albeit at the expense of image noise and resolution. On the other hand, the lens can focus as close as 1cm. But I had a hard time locking in focus and as our lab tests indicate, exposures at this close range were uneven.
Surprisingly little distortion mars the FZ18's lens. You're unlikely to notice any bending of straight edges at wide angle, and there's very little pincushioning at the telephoto end. There's also little softening in the corners in the lab tests, especially at the telephoto end. Quite a good performance for any lens, let alone such a long one.
At f/2.8 at wide angle and f/4.5 at telephoto, the lens is respectably fast. But when the maximum aperture doesn't let in enough light to gain a sufficiently fast shutter speed, Panasonic's highly effective Optical Image Stabilization system allows you to handhold the camera at couple of stops slower than normal and still deliver an in-focus picture. The Panasonic FZ18's Intelligent Auto Mode goes a step further by incorporating Optical Image Stabilization and Intelligent ISO (the camera chooses the ISO to increase shutter speed). Intelligent Auto Mode also activates the camera's Face Detection and Scene Detection technology to make shooting even easier.
One word of caution: Be careful when using the bundled petal-shaped lens hood when shooting at wide angle or with the flash since it can cause vignetting or shadows. If you position the petals at a different angle you may be able to avoid the interference under some circumstances.
Interface. A camera with so many features can easily become confusing to use. Not so with the Panasonic FZ18 and its logical and intuitive control layout. Everything is clearly identified--from the large icons on the mode dial to the multiple external controls. All of the buttons and keys have a high enough profile that they're easy to find and the joystick conveniently calls up a quick menu for changing often-used settings such as Image stabilization, focus (including Face Detection), Metering mode, White Balance, ISO, file size and compression/file type (including RAW and RAW + JPEG).
The Panasonic FZ18's menu system is extremely well-organized and easy navigate. Even the uninitiated will zip through the menus with few problems thanks to the menu's sensible organization and the large, legible text. Granted, newcomers to higher end digital cameras and/or the Panasonic brand will want to review the User's Guide to familiarize themselves with the camera's bells and whistles but the Panasonic FZ18 is more intuitive and user-friendly than many digital cameras in its class.
My only gripe about the menu is that because it is an overlay, the text is visible when testing out how the different White Balance presets and color effects affect the preview image. It's not a big deal but it is distracting.
Multiple LCD display options means that no matter what your settings, all it takes is a quick glance at the Panasonic FZ18's LCD to see where you are. In addition to full shooting information, options such as two grid displays and a live histogram are available. If you want to have shooting data available on the monitor but find that it's too crowded, you can opt to have the information displayed along two sides of the LCD instead.
Modes. A variety of shooting modes and special features makes the Panasonic FZ18 suitable for both advanced photographers as well as snapshooters who want the power of a long lens. It's also a great camera for photographers who want to step up their photographic skills.
On the advanced side, the Panasonic FZ18 offers Aperture-Priority (f/2.8-8.0), Shutter-Priority (8-1/2,000 sec) and full Manual mode. The latter offers shutter speeds as long as 60 seconds for night shots or, alternatively, you can use the Starry Sky mode with shutter speeds of 15, 30, and 60 seconds. The ability to save and access three sets of custom settings will also please more advanced users.
Auto and Program AE are also available, for no-brainer shooting. As is common among digital cameras, Auto minimizes the number of parameters you can set manually while Program AE takes care of the basics, but allows you some flexibility in choosing certain settings like ISO, etc.
For easier shooting, Panasonic FZ18 owners--regardless of skill level--will appreciate the camera's Intelligent Auto Mode. As mentioned earlier, this mode incorporates Optical Image Stabilization, Intelligent ISO (a maximum ISO can be set to avoid unwanted levels of image noise and noise reduction), Face Detection, and Scene Detection. The latter analyzes the scene and then chooses the best mode according to the subject. These options work surprisingly well and are a real time saver if you don't want to set each individually.
Naturally, the Panasonic FZ18 offers all the standard Scene modes such as Portrait, Scenery, Beach, Snow, and Sports. More interesting, however, are the Advanced Scene Modes, which provide sub-options such as Normal, Soft Skin, Outdoor, Indoor, and Creative for Portrait mode. Similar options are also available for Scenery, Sports, and Night Portrait Advanced Scene Modes. It's not quite as specific as, for example, Picture Styles on Canon digital SLRs (although you can adjust the Contrast, Sharpness, Saturation and Noise Reduction elsewhere on the FZ18) but it does add extra control for even better results.
Storage and Battery. Like most non-SLR digital cameras, the Panasonic FZ18 uses SH/SDHC/MMC media cards. The camera comes with 27MB of internal memory, which gets you a single RAW file or a half-dozen high quality (low compression) 8-megapixel images. If you plan to shoot RAW or RAW + JPEG, a 4GB or higher card should be on your shopping list. A 4GB card will net 220 RAW files, 200 RAW + JPEG, and 970 8-megapixel JPEG images at the lowest compression (highest quality).
Powered by a proprietary lithium-ion battery, the Panasonic FZ18's CIPA rating is 400 shots per charge--using the electronic viewfinder. Even with heavy use of the LCD, however, I found that the battery lasted through more than a couple of days of casual shooting. If you want an AC adapter, you'll have to pick that up separately (which does not charge the battery).
Beyond the AC adapter, there are a number of optional accessories for the Panasonic FZ18 including a Tele Conversion Lens, Close-up Lens, and a Neutral Density filter. But you'll be good to go with the camera bundle which includes the battery and charger, USB/AV cables, a lens cap and string to attach it to the included neckstrap, as well as an adapter and lens hood.
Shooting. One of the great things about shooting with the Panasonic FZ18 is its versatility in feature set and zoom range. Wandering around NYC I was able to take some quick snapshots on Auto or Program AE, and then, when I had time and the inclination, I was able to fine-tune my picture taking by using manual exposure modes and custom setting the white balance. Because so many options are available on the Mode dial and I could quickly access most critical settings (ISO, White Balance, Metering, etc.) by simply pressing the joystick, it was quick and easy to switch from point-and-shoot to more advanced controls.
While in the city, I didn't have too many opportunities to use the Panasonic FZ18's full telephoto power, but the wide angle end of the zoom came in very handy as I wandered around past tall buildings and through the city's parks. On the other hand, the beautiful changing colors of fall reflected in a lake allowed me to make full use of the lens's range. I shot broad landscapes, and, somewhat out of curiosity, managed to home in on some fishermen on the far side of the lake. Zooming in with the Panasonic FZ18 turned what looked like three small dots at the water's edge into three distinct figures. I was, however, a little disappointed when I noticed that one fisherman's white sweatshirt was overexposed; and although he only took up a small part of the shot, I was able to see some purple fringing along the edge of his shirt.
Overall, the camera is fairly responsive when it comes to start-up and shot-to-shot time without the flash. Expect to wait a few seconds for the flash to recharge. Autofocus worked well, even in low-light conditions. The camera's continuous burst shooting mode was above average at 3 frames per second for 4 large/fine images, though this slowed to 1.25 frames per second at ISO 400.
Image Quality. Here's where we have to give and take a little with the Panasonic FZ18. Surprisingly, it's not the 18x optics that give us pause. It's the sensor and its high ISO performance that is a little limiting. The good news is that the optics really carry the day, as they would even if this were a 10 or 12x zoom.
As great as it is to have a 28mm lens, the detail overall is somewhat soft, limiting our printed test shots to 11x14 inches, whereas I'd be willing to bet the optics are capable of delivering more. The problem is the FZ18's image sensor, which exhibits chroma noise even at ISO 100. That tells me that they're doing a lot of noise processing even at this setting. It's been an ongoing problem with Panasonic point and shoots, and the chief reason more of them don't get the highest honors more often in our reviews.
Color saturation is well controlled, and though its less saturated than the competition, we don't notice that it makes images less appealing. Exposure tends to jump around a bit, but it's not bad. High ISO performance is a little weak, especially in tungsten lighting. It's long zooms where high ISO is so important, so this problem is unfortunate.
Auto white balance does fairly well indoors, with a slight hint of red in the images. In this case, if you want your images to look more yellow like tungsten light tends to be, set it to Tungsten, and you get a more yellow effect. Most cameras behave differently, turning the yellowish light white.
Outdoors, contrast is high, and though the Panasonic FZ18 doesn't blow the highlights by default, shadow detail is heavily processed, with detail smooshing out with an almost textile appearance. Photographers might avoid some of this by shooting RAW. For more on image quality, click on the Exposure tab.
Optics. If Panasonic matches their prowess in the lens department with an excellent sensor, Canon and Sony will need to watch out. As I mentioned, for an 18x lens to outperform many 10x lenses on the market is really something. The sharpness in the Panasonic FZ18's corners is nothing short of amazing. It's disappointing that there's so much chromatic aberration at telephoto, but not at all surprising. It's an 18x lens! What is surprising is the excellent control they maintained over chromatic aberration at wide angle. If you look closely, there's actually a wide bit of CA at 28mm, but it's so faint, it doesn't matter even with our stark black and white target.
Also remarkable is the near-perfect distortion score that the Panasonic FZ18's Leica-branded optic achieves. What that means for you is that buildings will remain almost straight across the zoom range, rather than bending in or out. For more on optics, click on the Optics tab.
Appraisal. The Panasonic FZ18 is a pleasure to use. It doesn't break barriers in terms of ISO, but most shooters will do well enough sticking to ISO 400 and leaning on the Panasonic FZ18's excellent optical image stabilization to get their low-light shots. An 18x zoom is extremely handy, and the fact that it starts at a 28mm equivalent makes it more appealing than most other long zooms, which usually start at 35mm. The Panasonic FZ18 is a photographer's camera: it's the long zoom you bring along when you don't want to carry the SLR. We wish it had better high ISO performance, but if you keep ISO low, you'll be able to get good 11x14-inch prints out of the Panasonic FZ18 with ease. FZ8 owners might want to take a close look at the Panasonic FZ18, because image quality is a little better with this 8.1-megapixel sensor.
- 8.1-megapixel CCD
- 18x optical zoom lens (equivalent to a 28-504mm lens on a 35mm camera)
- 4x digital zoom.
- 2.5-inch color LCD monitor
- Electronic Viewfinder
- Program Automatic Exposure
- Aperture- and shutter-priority modes
- Full Manual exposure mode
- Built-in pop-up flash with red-eye reduction
- SD/SDHC card compatibility
- 27MB internal memory
- USB full speed connection
- Rechargeable lithium-ion battery and charger included
- Software for Mac and PC
- RAW and RAW + JPEG options
- Extended Optical Zoom
- ISO from 100-1,600; High Sensitivity Mode from 1,600-6,400
- Intelligent Auto Mode (combines Optical Image Stabilization, Intelligent ISO, Face Detection and Scene Detection)
- Intelligent ISO mode
- MEGA OIS (Optical Image Stabilization)
- Shutter Speeds from 60 sec to 1/2,000 sec (Manual mode)
- Multiple continuous shooting modes
- Contrast/Sharpness/Saturation/Noise Reduction adjustments
- Multiple White Balance settings, including Manual
- White Balance fine tuning adjustments
- 4:3; 3:2; 16:9 Aspect Ratio options
- LCD brightness adjustment
- Exposure Bracketing
- Adjustable Flash Intensity
- Multiple Metering and AF modes
- Continuous AF
- Selectable AF points
- Warm, Cool, B/W, Sepia Color Effects
- Live Histogram and Pattern/Grid Overlay
- Slideshow and Favorites in Playback
- Resize and Trimming functions
- Advanced Scene Modes
- DPOF (Digital Print Order Format), PictBridge printing compatibility
- Movie recording with sound
- Audio Dubbing
- Travel Date setting
- World Time available
- Wide angle and telephoto accessory lenses and filters available
In the Box
The retail package contains the following items:
- Panasonic DMC-FZ18 digital camera
- Shoulder strap
- Lens cap and attachment string
- Lens hood/adapter
- Rechargeable lithium-ion battery and charger
- USB cable
- AV cable
- Printed manual
- Software CD with Lumix Simple Viewer, PHOTOfunSTUDIO, USB Driver (Windows); ArcSoft Panorama Maker, ArcSoft MediaImpression, and SILKYPIX Developer Studio 2.1 SE (Windows & Mac)
- Large capacity SD/SDHC card (4GB is recommended especially for shooting RAW, RAW + JPEG and video)
- Extra battery pack for extended outings
With Panasonic's no-nonsense approach to long zoom digital camera design, the Panasonic Lumix FZ18 shines most for its excellent 18x zoom lens. If the sensor were better, the Panasonic FZ18 would be our top pick overall in long zoom digicams. As it is, the FZ18's sensor is good, but not as good as we've seen from many competitors with smaller zooms. It brings to mind the performance we saw about two years ago from Panasonic and others. Still, resolution is up, and that means you can now make good quality 11x14-inch prints from the Panasonic FZ18's lower-ISO images, ranging from ISO 100 to 400. If you can stick to that, you'll benefit from the FZ18's excellent corner-to-corner sharpness and reasonable chromatic aberration control from wide to mid-range telephoto. The Panasonic FZ18 is light enough to bring along just about anywhere, and the lens stays in closer than competing 18x designs, a design feature that will likely minimize damage over the life of this fine digital camera. If the lens is the big story with the Panasonic FZ18, the rest is just gravy. Face detect autofocus, multiple aspect ratios, optical image stabilization, white balance fine-tuning, adjustable flash intensity, and live histogram are all good to have with this excellent optic. The Panasonic FZ18 is a clear Dave's Pick thanks to its excellent quality where it counts: the lens.