Panasonic DMC-FZ7 Overview
by Dan Havlik
Review Date: 4/21/06
Not too long ago digital cameras with advanced features and SLR-mimmicking long zoom lenses were considered "chunky" or bulky. But with the public's increasing demand for smaller and smaller cameras with longer and longer zooms--and with manufacturers' ability to put more power into petite packages, those chunky cameras have been on a diet lately. The new 6.0-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 is just such a camera. Its remarkably trim body houses a Leica 12x optical zoom and Panasonic's MEGA Optical Image Stabilization (O.I.S.).
Despite a bevy of features including a 2.5-inch LCD screen, a new widescreen VGA movie mode, and a joystick for controlling manual focus and manual exposure, the Panasonic FZ7 weighs in at just over half a pound and is small enough to stick in a backpack when traveling. Plus, the reasonable $350 price tag won't break your travel budget.
Panasonic DMC-FZ7 User Report
The new Panasonic Lumix FZ7 is the third generation of a super zoom model that began with the FZ3 in 2004, continued with last year's FZ5, and now improves upon the light, long-range zoom camera concept without reinventing the wheel too much. Most importantly, the new model continues to use Panasonic's well-received MEGA Optical Image Stabilizer (O.I.S.) which is designed to compensate for hand-shake when capturing images. Image stabilization is essential in cameras with optical zooms of any longer than 4x because shooting with high-zoom without a tripod can be tricky business. Unless you have the hands of a surgeon, and I don't, you will definitely be taking blurry shots at 12x on all but the brightest days.
Where the Panasonic FZ7 improves on the FZ5 is in megapixels - it has a 6MP CCD versus a 5MP chip in the FZ5. Panasonic has also boosted the LCD size in the FZ7 to 2.5 inches compared to 1.8 inches on the FZ5. Panasonic has made a misstep though, I think, in not raising the screen's resolution from 114,000 pixels, which may be fine for a 1.8-inch screen but is mediocre at best on 2.5-inch screen. Digital cameras with jumbo-sized but under-pixeled LCD screens are a big bugaboo of mine. Why bother to put a huge screen on a digital camera if you're not going to give it adequate resolution? While consumers might be impressed with LCD size alone, once they take a camera with a lower-resolution screen home and begin shooting with it, they will soon realize it tells them very little about the quality of the images they are capturing. This is especially true for a camera like the Panasonic FZ7, which is aimed at an advanced amateur audience. With quite a few shots I took with this camera, I had no idea if the images were good or bad until I had a chance to transfer them to my computer. Some shots that looked spot-on in playback were actually quite blurry. Others, though, that seemed to have a problem or two were fine once I could view them at full resolution.
Overall, shooting with the Panasonic FZ7 is a slightly odd but not entirely unpleasant experience. The camera suffers from what I would call "in-between-ness." With the old chunky cameras, the size and heft of the models obviously limited you from sliding it in your pocket. But they were small and light enough to bring with you just about everywhere, with serious features to make you feel like a pro. With the FZ7, it's hard to tell exactly how to hold or carry it. There's a nice rubberized handgrip on the right side, but for an average-sized male hand like mine, I felt like I was smothering it. Also, since it's hard to keep a light camera like this steady, even with the O.I.S. engaged, I was continually switching between using the LCD on the back and the tiny electronic viewfinder in an effort to stabilize the camera. Because it's small, you do feel like you should be able to put the Panasonic FZ7 in your pocket. If you're wearing an overcoat like I often do, it is possible to slip it inside. However, you'll have to take off the flanged lens hood first which adds about four-inches in length to the barrel. Once I got used to holding and carrying the camera I began to admire the FZ7's lightweight construction; though I was in constant fear of dropping it. The camera body, which is made of lightweight polycarbonate, would likely not withstand much of a fall.
The Panasonic FZ7's lens is the camera's strongest selling point. A 12x optical (equivalent to 36mm to 432mm in 35mm format) LEICA DC lens with a variable aperture of f/2.8-3.3, the FZ7 has the same lens as its predecessor. It does not, however, have the manual focus ring and manual zoom ring of its big brother, the FZ30. Instead, the camera has a unique, though somewhat confusing, manual focus system that uses a new joystick on the back. In the manual focus setting, which is engaged via a combination of a button and menu option, there are two choices, MF1 which enlarges the center of the screen for focusing with the joystick; and MF2 which enlarges the whole screen for wide joystick focusing. Sound difficult? It is, and while I admired the fact they included it on the Panasonic FZ7, I failed to see the practical applications.
A new feature I did see the practical applications for is a preset scene mode called "High Sensitivity." The mode boosts the ISO to either 800 or 1,600 to reduce blur when shooting fast moving subjects indoors--such as children and pets--or to increase brightness when shooting outdoors under low light. I wish Panasonic had come up with a better name for this setting though. "High Sensitivity" doesn't mean much to consumers not familiar with ISOs and I actually overlooked this mode when shooting a three-year-old's birthday party--the ideal setting for it--because I was thrown off by the name. A competitor of Panasonic uses the title "Children and Pets" for a similar setting, which is a far better description. While I loved having the option of shooting in 800 or 1,600 (you can select either speed in High Sensitivity mode or let the camera decide), in a camera like this, the results were only so-so. Images shot in 1,600 were excessively noisy to the point of being unusable. At 800, things were a bit better but the colors had a splotchy painted-on look to them that was disappointing.
Shooting in daylight is where the 12x zoom and O.I.S. on the Panasonic FZ7 really shine. While photographing Baltimore's Inner Harbor from Federal Hill on an overcast day, I was able to get very sharp images of the docked U.S.S. Constellation as well as capture clear lettering on various barges and ships further away from the shore. I was a bit flummoxed by the two mode options on the O.I.S. In Mode 1, the stabilizer "operates continuously and can assist during photo composition," according to the manual. In Mode 2, "the jitter is compensated for when the shutter button is pressed." Sounds confusing, but what this means is that in Mode 1, you acutally see the results of the stabilization onscreen when you press the shutter button. In Mode two, the camera doesn't begin compensating for shake until the shutter button is pressed. The latter mode is actually the preferred mode, because the camera is left with more "elbow room" to correct for shake errors, while it can drift too far in one direction or another while compensating in Mode 1. Shooting indoors at the three-year-old's birthday party produced less successful results with the O.I.S. Unless my subject wasn't moving too much--and anyone who knows three-year-olds knows that's a virtual impossibility--images captured in both Mode 1 and Mode 2 were pretty blurry. The Panasonic FZ7 did have a decent start-up speed and a near non-existent shutter lag if you pre-focused. Panasonic's image processor--the seductively named LSI Venus Engine II--also helped run a quicker continuous shooting mode on the FZ7 compared to the FZ5 that let me shoot approximately three frames per second at full resolution.
Complaints about the FZ5's lackluster movie mode also seem to have been addressed on the Panasonic FZ7 which has a cool new Wide VGA (848x480) mode at 30fps for viewing on wide-screen (16:9) TVs in addition to a normal VGA (640x480) at 30fps. I love that consumer digital cameras are following the lead of their camcorder counterparts which have been offering a 16:9 mode for the last year or so. The Wide screen VGA on the FZ7 produced excellent results, making me feel a little like Stanley Kubrick, even though I was only doing a handheld tracking shot in my apartment.
Though the Panasonic FZ7's O.I.S. misfires a bit when shooting fast-moving objects indoors and the noise in its High Sensitivity mode may render some images unusable, there's a lot to like in this camera, especially if your goal is photographing long-range nature outdoors under variable daylight conditions. You definitely don't want to drop this fragile little device on any rocks when you're hiking though; and you probably shouldn't stow it in your checked luggage when flying, but for recreational nature and travel photography, the Panasonic FZ7 can be quite a heavyweight.
- 6.0 megapixel CCD delivering images with resolution as large as 2,816 x 2,112 pixels
- Leica DC Vario-Elmart lens with adjustable aperture of F2.8 to F3.3
- 12x optical zoom, 6-72mm, equivalent to 36mm to 432mm in 35mm format
- 4x digital zoom
- Mega O.I.S. Optical Image Stabilizer with two modes
- 2.5-inch color TFT LCD screen, 114,000 pixels of resolution
- Electronic viewfinder
- Playback of 1, 9, or 25 images on multi-split screen
- LSI Venus Engine II image processor
- Records in JPEG, TIFF, and MOV file formats
- SD Memory card slot
- Adjustable manual exposure at 1/3-step increments
- Auto bracketing
- Built-in flash with five modes and adjustable intensity
- ISO sensitivity at 80, 100, 200 and 400; special High Sensitivity Scene mode allows ISO 800 and 1,600
- 16 scene modes including High Sensitivity which boosts ISO to either 800 or 1600; Baby mode records the baby's age down to the month and day according to the preset birthday; and Starry Sky which uses slow shutter speeds to capture the night sky.
- Joystick controlled Manual Focus and Manual Exposure
- Continuous shooting modes at 3 and 2 frames per second for a max of 13 images in JPEG standard, 7 images in JPEG fine
- Wide-screen VGA (848x480) movie mode for recording at 30fps in 16:9; normal VGA (640x480) movie mode
- 710 mAh battery rated at 320 pictures on one charge
- Option to add conversion lenses via adaptor
- Five adjustable white balance presets and white balance fine tuning at 150 K increments
In the Box
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 kit includes the following items:
- Lumix DMC-FZ7
- 16MB SD Memory Card
- Lithium ion battery (7.2V, 710 mAh)
- Battery charger
- USB connection cable
- CD ROM with Lumix Digital Camera 2.4, Lumix Simple Viewer 1.1E, PHOTOfunSTUDIO viewer 1.1E, USB Driver 1.0 for Windows, ArcSoft Software Suite, QuickTime
- Lens cap
- Lens cap string
- Shoulder strap
- Lens hood
- Lens hood adaptor
- Operating manual
- Larger capacity SD Card, 256 or 512MB
- DMW-LW55 Wide Conversion Lens
- Padded case
- Spare battery
The Panasonic FZ7 is the latest in what's become a long line of long-zoom, optically-stabilized digital cameras from Panasonic. Like other recent members of the line, the FZ7 combines good image quality, responsive handling, and very effective optical image stabilization in a very attractively-priced digital camera. Its range of exposure control and image adjustments will be appealing to experienced users, while its ease of use in Program and its various Scene modes make it approachable for even rank beginners. The FZ series of Panasonic long-zoom digital cameras have been very popular, witth good reason, as they've offered great value and image quality for the money. With the FZ7, Panasonic made a number of improvements over previous models, including better viewfinder visibility in dim lighting, greater flash range, a larger LCD display, and a much-improved movie mode. The biggest weaknesses we found were high noise levels at ISO 400 and high chromatic aberration in the corners of the frame at telephoto focal lengths. (While noise is high though, it's worth noting that ISO 400 shots from the FZ7 look just fine at print sizes as large as 5x7.) All things considered, while we'd like to see lower levels of image noise, the Panasonic FZ7 delivers a lot of performance and image quality for the money, clearly deserving of recognition as a Dave's Pick. If you're looking for a good deal on a long-zoom camera with image stabilization, the Panasonic FZ7 deserves your serious consideration.