Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 Overview
by Dan Havlik
Review Date: 01/23/07
Panasonic's all-in-one superzoom cameras have garnered very positive reviews from critics and consumers alike over the years, and with good reason. The winning combination of the Lumix line's Leica-branded optical zoom lenses of up to 12x, and Panasonic's rock-steady MEGA O.I.S. (Optical Image Stabilizer), have produced cameras that can get incredibly close to the subject while maintaining solid sharpness. Panasonic's latest ultrazoomer, the 10.1 megapixel, 12x optical, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 replaces the popular FZ30; and in that regard, it has some big shoes to fill.
The Panasonic FZ50 is more evolutionary than groundbreaking, which is actually good. Looking virtually identical to the FZ30, the Panasonic FZ50 has the same 12x optical (35mm to 420mm in 35mm format) lens as its predecessor but an uptick in resolution (of course), to bring it to the now de rigueur 10 megapixels. Also new on the FZ50 is the Venus Engine III LSI image processor which moves basic camera functions along at a fairly good clip while ostensibly reducing image noise when shooting at the camera's maximum ISO 3,200 light sensitivity rating. The Panasonic FZ50 also features Panasonic's new Intelligent ISO Control (IIC) which harnesses the power of the Venus Engine III to automatically detect subject movement and adjust ISO and shutter speed to suit the action and lighting conditions.
Other additions are more minor, including a helpful Function Button which lets you quickly change image size, ISO, white balance and other frequently used settings. A new custom function remembers a user's frequently chosen settings so they can be summoned instantly at the turn of the mode dial. One other slight change on the Panasonic FZ50 is the initial price which at $650, is about $50 less than what the FZ30 debuted at. But with digital SLRs like the Nikon D40 selling for $600 with a lens, the big question is whether a $650 superzoom all-in-one is still a good choice. Read on to find out.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 User Report
by Dan Havlik
Built like a tank. All-in-one superzoom cameras generally come in two varieties: those that try to look like digital SLRs, and those that don't. The Panasonic Lumix FZ50 is definitely in the former category though what surprised me about the design of this model is that it actually looks and feels bulkier and more substantial than most entry level digital SLRs. The market for this camera is quite clearly the male prosumer who takes photography seriously. The Panasonic FZ50 is built like a tank and picking up and aiming with it is a lot like looking down the barrel of a gun. Okay, maybe I'm overdoing it with the weapons allusions here, but there's no denying that this model is designed with the macho photographer in mind. At 26.53 ounces -- over a pound and a half with the proprietary rechargeable battery and an SD card loaded -- the Panasonic FZ50 is the heaviest camera I've tested recently. If you're looking for something you can discreetly slide into a coat pocket and sneak into a football game, you might want to look elsewhere. On the other hand, if you want something that suggests heavy firepower, the Panasonic Lumix FZ50 with its long 12x zoom would be a nice addition your arsenal. (Okay, that really was my last military reference.)
Despite being such a serious looking customer, the Panasonic FZ50 is comfortable to hold and handles nicely. There are lots of welcome rubberized accents. You'll find them on the hand-grip, on back where you put your thumb, and on the barrel of the lens around the manual zoom and manual focus rings. For being such a bulky camera I was a little surprised that the grip was a bit short. I was able to get a firm grasp with the first three fingers of my hand, but my pinky had no where to go on the grip and was left dangling in the wind. Not a big deal, but considering how long the lens barrel is, I was expecting the grip to be equally substantial.
Other than that, the camera is logically laid out with all the buttons clearly marked. Unfortunately, the buttons are a little too small. Anyone familiar with Panasonic's Lumix models, particularly the Lumix FZ30, will know the layout and iconography on the Panasonic FZ50. As on the FZ30, the Panasonic FZ50's manual zoom ring is a very welcome "old school" feature. Like the recent Fuji Finepix S6000fd -- which also uses a manual zoom ring rather than a clumsy electronic zoom rocker -- zooming in on a subject is a smooth, silent process. Just twist the rubberized zoom ring on the barrel. Like the Fuji S6000fd, the Panasonic FZ50 also has rubberized manual focus ring on the barrel. One big plus about the manual zoom ring is that zooming during movie mode is completely silent so you won't hear an annoying electronic whine during playback. My one minor quibble with the FZ50's lens rings is that's it's easy to get the two confused when shooting.
Swivel this. I generally enjoy digital cameras with LCDs that swivel, and the FZ50's LCD handles most angles quite well. You can set the screen to be viewed from above or below, and from left and right. Of course, from left and right, the view is sideways. The most difficult part is that when you face the LCD toward the front of the camera, it peeks underneath, and the screen image is upside down. You can use it to frame self-portraits in vertical format, but in horizontal format it's harder to do. Using it as any kind of framing monitor while taking group shots won't work with most tripods, because the body of the tripod will be in the way. That's not a big issue, though, since you can't see such a small screen from "group" distance as it is. Bottom line, LCD screens that swivel from the side offer a few more usable viewing angles. Also, while not long ago a 2-inch LCD was the bee's knees, after playing with quite a few recent prosumer cameras that have 2.5-inch and larger screens, this one seemed on the small side.
With 207,000 pixels of resolution though, images in live preview and during playback on the Panasonic FZ50's LCD were crisp and clear, which was useful for helping compose pictures and to check sharpness after capture. (It's worth noting that the FZ50's predecessor had the same size screen but actually more resolution at 235,000 pixels.) Playing back images on the Lumix FZ50 was extremely slow, taking more than a full second to go through each shot. With a card full of images, you're definitely going to want to use multi-frame playback on this camera, which is available via the front dial on the top of the hand grip.
Though there's no optical viewfinder on the Panasonic FZ50, it does have an 0.44" color electronic viewfinder with 235,000 pixels of resolution. Certainly not as enjoyable as a true optical viewfinder, but good for long zooming when holding the camera to your eye helps steady shots.
Serious speed with some bumps. In the superzoom category, the Panasonic FZ50 was one of the fastest models we've tested recently. It powers on and is ready for first shot in a blazing fast 1.4 seconds, according to our tests. Shutter lag was very minor, at just 0.44 second when the camera was set to the full autofocus wide setting, and 0.52 second at the full autofocus tele setting. When you pre-focus by half-pressing the shutter, picture-taking was instantaneous, with our tests showing just 0.024 second of lag. Shot to shot, the camera's Venus Engine III LSI processor really took over, cranking out a shot every 1.25 seconds in Single Shot mode at Large Fine JPEG file size. This shot-to-shot speed comes with one major caveat, however. As pointed out by our lab tester, cycle times slowed down drastically on the Panasonic FZ50 when shooting above ISO 200, which was odd, not to mention frustrating.
The Panasonic Lumix FZ50 also slowed down quite a bit when in Single Shot RAW mode, averaging about five seconds per shot, not unusual for a camera in this class. (If you want faster RAW capture in your camera you should definitely be looking at a digital SLR.)
The biggest speed bump for the Panasonic FZ50 was what we call "Early Shutter Penalty." In this situation, a camera will get "jammed" and refuse to snap another shot if you release and press the shutter too quickly in Single Shot mode. Pocket-sized, entry-level models often suffer from Early Shutter Penalty, but it's less common in prosumer cameras, especially one as advanced as the Lumix FZ50. A disappointment, for sure, especially if you're someone like me who is rather quick on the trigger when taking pictures.
Sharp shooter. Though I've said it before, Panasonic's combination of Leica-branded zoom lenses with its own MEGA O.I.S. (Optical Image Stabilizer) in its cameras can produce some very sharp close-up shots, and the Panasonic FZ50 is no exception. Across Panasonic's line, MEGA O.I.S. is a standard feature, one that I rarely, if ever, turn off. On the Panasonic FZ50, the MEGA O.I.S. system did a good job of stabilizing zoomed shots to decrease image blur even at the full 12x. In general I keep MEGA O.I.S set on Mode 2, which only engages when you half-press the shutter. In Mode 1, MEGA O.I.S. is on at all times. This helps image composition, but significantly decreases the battery life; it can also reduce the image stabilizer's effectiveness when it counts most: during exposure. MEGA O.I.S. can be accessed and adjusted on the Lumix FZ50 via the shaky hand button on top of the camera.
When you think about it, a camera with optical image stabilization and a 12x zoom -- from 35mm to 420mm, in 35mm equivalent -- for under $700 is extraordinary. This is the main reason you would consider the Panasonic FZ50 versus an entry-level digital SLR. Though digital SLRs such as the Nikon D40 come with interchangeable "kit" lenses, their focal ranges can't compete with what a camera like the Lumix FZ50 offers with its built-in zoom. Since it's a reasonably fast lens with apertures ranging from f/2.8 to f/3.7, the FZ50 did well when shooting in low light. The camera uses a 1, 3, or 9-point autofocus system with AF assist, which I found to be reliable, if a bit slow when locking in on a subject.
One of the great things about using any camera with such a long zoom is checking out the details of what you captured when you transfer images to a computer. In a shot I took of the Queensboro Bridge here in New York City, I could clearly see the flaking rust of the bridge's upper girders along with a tiny orange school bus making its way across the East River span.
Image Quality Kudos, Noise Complaints. I was very happy with the overall quality of images captured with the Panasonic FZ50, though pictures I took at ISO 800 light sensitivity and above suffered from splotchy chroma noise. Let's start with the positives. Images captured with the FZ50 at lower ISOs had very little traces of gray noise -- aka luminance noise -- which had been a problem for some Panasonic models in the past. Pictures I took with the camera at ISO 100 were generally clean even in several scenes featuring high contrast.
A series of late afternoon shots of apartment buildings in Baltimore captured with half the buildings' exteriors in soft sunlight and the other half in shadows had low noise, with the camera showing ability to deal with a wide dynamic range. Color from the Panasonic FZ50 had pop without being oversaturated. While some professional photographers might scoff at the bright reds and blues the Lumix FZ50 produces -- lots of Christmas scenes here in New York City exploded with color -- this did not carry over to portraits, thankfully, which had good skin tones.
ISO sensitivity on the Lumix FZ50 ranges from 100 to 1,600, with the option to extend this to ISO 3,200 in high sensitivity mode -- surprisingly higher than the FZ30's ISO 400 sensitivity given that the pixel size on the Lumix FZ50 has come down to fit 25% more pixels into the same sensor dimension. Thanks to the new LSI Venus Engine III image processor, noise was noticeably down from the FZ30 in lower ISO shots. However, perhaps because of this smaller pixel size, noise at ISO 800 on the Lumix FZ50 was very noticeable and distracting, while pictures shot at ISO 1,600 and 3,200 were practically unusable because of serious chroma noise.
The Panasonic FZ50's Intelligent ISO Control (IIC), which detects a subject's movement (not camera movement) and adjusts ISO and shutter speed, helped a bit but not substantially. I suggest making your light sensitivity adjustments manually. The downside though, which I learned while working on a review of the Panasonic LX2 earlier this year, is that the Lumix FZ50 kills a lot of subtle (and even not-so-subtle) subject detail in the quest for lower image noise. Shots at ISO 400 look okay, but are distinctly soft printed at 8x10, and shots at ISO 800 really can't be printed larger than 5x7; although they do look just fine at that size.
Superb Functionality. Another major selling point of the Lumix FZ50 is its array of options. Some of the recent enhancements to this model over its predecessor, while minor, are quite helpful. For one, I really appreciated the Function Button on the back of the camera which lets you quickly change image size, ISO, white balance and other frequently used settings. The Panasonic FZ50 also introduces a new custom setting function which remembers the settings you use often so you can quickly access them simply by turning the mode dial to Custom.
Along with Auto and Program AE modes, you can easily access Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual Exposure on the Panasonic FZ50 with a quick turn of the mode dial. Additional exposure settings include 17 scene modes, such as Panasonic's unusual "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 a photo is taken.
Exposure variables in the Panasonic Lumix FZ50 are determined using an intelligent multiple, center-weighted, or spot metering system, and users can tweak the exposure with +/-2.0EV of exposure compensation, in 1/3EV steps. Shutter speeds range from 1/2,000 to 60 seconds, quite a bit longer than is common on many digicams. However, as pointed out by our lab tester, because the Lumix FZ50 can't shoot at a high shutter speed and a fast aperture at the same time, shutter speeds above 1/1,000 are available only in the Shutter Priority but not the Manual mode.
The Panasonic FZ50 offers automatic or manual white balance control with five presets, and two custom white balance modes -- letting you save often-used white balance measurements for later recall. The Panasonic FZ50 also includes a built-in five-mode flash, with a range of up to seven meters at wide angle or 5.3 meters at telephoto, plus a hot shoe for external flash strobes.
The Panasonic FZ50 offers a higher-than-average movie resolution of 848 x 480 pixels as seen on some of Panasonic's other recent cameras, as well as lower-resolution 640 x 480 and 320 x 240 pixel options -- all of which use the QuickTime MotionJPEG format common on most digicams. If you like widescreen movies, the Lumix FZ50 can capture clips at either 4:3 or 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio.
A unique feature to the Panasonic FZ50 is its fly-by-wire manual focus ring which was also available on the FZ30. The ring only changes the focus if you turn on the option via a switch on the lens barrel. It's the only manual focus system I've seen in years that actually seems to work well enough that you can see when it's focused; and that's without a wonky magnification mode; the image just snaps into focus. To activate this mode, press the manual focus button, then turn the MF ring until the object you want to emphasize is in focus.
The Panasonic FZ50's long battery life will please power users with the camera able to capture 360 images on a single charge, according to CIPA standards.
The Bottom Line. While digital SLRs continue to come down in price, all-in-one ultra zoom cameras like the 10.1 megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 are there to answer the call with incredibly long, high-quality zoom lenses. In the Lumix FZ50's case, it's the manually controlled 12x Leica-branded lens that makes the camera compelling. Other helpful features on the Panasonic FZ50 include MEGA O.I.S., the speedy Venus Engine III LSI image processor, and top-flight functionality including a very good movie mode, a new Intelligent ISO Control option, and a new Function button for easily switching commonly used settings such as ISO and White Balance. Despite some chroma noise when shooting at ISO 800 and above, and a couple of speed bumps in the camera's general operations, the Panasonic FZ50 provides a very attractive alternative to entry-level digital SLRs.
- 10.1-megapixel CCD (effective) delivering image resolution as high as high as 3,648 x 2,736 pixels
- 12x optical zoom lens, equivalent to a 35-420mm lens on a 35mm camera
- Maximum 4x digital zoom
- 2.0-inch swiveling color LCD monitor with 207,000 pixels and brightness adjustment
- Electronic Viewfinder with 235,000 pixels
- Shutter speeds from 1/2,000 to 60 seconds
- Auto, Program AE, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual exposure modes, plus 16 scene modes
- Built-in pop-up flash with five modes and flash compensation adjustment.
- Aperture range from f/2.8 to f/11, depending on lens zoom position
- Images stored on SD/MMC card (32MB SD card included)
- Hot shoe for connecting an external flash unit
- Power supplied by one proprietary, rechargeable lithium-ion battery
- Panasonic Lumix software package includes Lumix viewers, Arcsoft suite, and SILKYPIX Developer Studio 2.0 SE
- MEGA O.I.S (optical image stabilization) with two settings
- RAW and JPEG file formats
- Scene mode with 16 presets
- Custom exposure mode for saving user settings
- Function button for quick access to commonly-used settings
- Adjustable ISO settings of 100, 200, 400, 800, 1,600, and 3,200 (ISO 3200 only available in High Sensitivity scene mode)
- Intelligent ISO Control (I. ISO) mode which automatically selects shutter speed and ISO based on conditions
- 1, 3, or 9-point autofocus area with AF assist lamp and Continuous AF mode
- Manual zoom control ring
- "Fly-by-wire" manual focus ring
- Focus/AE Lock button
- Autofocus Macro (close-up) setting allows focusing up to five centimeters
- Three Continuous Shooting modes, plus Auto Exposure Bracketing mode
- Two- or 10-second Self-Timer for delayed shutter release
- Selectable aspect ratio for still images -- 4:3, 3:2, or 16:9
- 30fps, VGA (640x480) Movie mode with sound and two aspect ratios (4:3 or 16:9)
- Adjustable white balance control with eight settings, including two custom modes and an adjustment tool
- Intelligent Multiple, Center-weighted, or Spot metering modes
- Color effects including cool, warm, B&W, or sepia
- Adjustable image contrast, sharpening, saturation, and noise reduction
- 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-FZ50 camera
- Neck strap and lens cap
- Lens hood
- Panasonic Li-Ion rechargeable battery and charger
- 32MB SD memory card
- USB cable
- Audio/Video cable
- CD Rom with software
- Instruction manuals and registration information
- Large capacity SD/MMC memory card. (These days, 512MB to 1GB is a good tradeoff between cost and capacity.)
- Second rechargeable battery
- Soft carrying case
- External flash for hot-shoe
Despite some nagging issues, it's hard not to like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50. Any camera that pairs a high quality Leica-branded 12x optical zoom lens with Panasonic's excellent MEGA O.I.S. is a great value and offers a myriad of uses. But with digital SLRs sinking so dramatically in price, is there still a viable argument for buying an all-in-one ultrazoom camera? With the Lumix FZ50, I would argue "yes." In addition to its great lens and optical image stabilizer, the camera offers an impressive 10 megapixels, solid sharpness, bright, punchy, colorful images, and a range of helpful top-flight features. Best of all, this camera is fun to use and makes taking sharp, zoomed-in images a snap for photographers of most skill levels. While some previous Panasonic models suffered from excessive luminance noise even at low ISOs, the Lumix FZ50 with its Venus Engine III LSI image processor seems to have solved those problems.
On the downside, the Panasonic FZ50 really struggles when shooting at higher ISO levels, producing images that are marred by excessive chroma noise. While this would seem to be a serious problem for people who like to shoot in low light without a flash, the Lumix FZ50 offsets these issues with its MEGA O.I.S. and the camera's very fast (f/2.8- f/3.7) lens. Also a tradeoff is the camera's design. While its bulky, tough-looking exterior will appeal to macho shooters, others might just find the camera imposing and be turned off by the fact that it's bigger and heavier than most entry-level digital SLRs. Other issues are less forgivable including the early shutter penalty problem that jams up the camera if you press the shutter button too quickly after taking a picture. Very annoying.
Having said all that, the Panasonic Lumix FZ50 has too much going for it to be ignored. Of all the recent "chunky" all-in-one ultrazoom cameras I've tried lately -- and there are many out there -- the Panasonic Lumix FZ50 is among my favorites. It's an easy Dave's Pick.