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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 Overview

by Theano Nikitas
Review Date: 8/16/2007

Following in the footsteps of the FZ7, the updated 7.2 megapixel Panasonic DMC-FZ8 is equipped with a 12x optical zoom lens that delivers a 36mm-432mm equivalent focal length. Unlike many Panasonic cameras, the FZ8's lens starts at 36mm, which about average for long zoom digital cameras. The FZ8 is equipped with Panasonic's signature MEGA O.I.S. (Optical Image Stabilization) to help balance the lens's superzoom capabilities. While the FZ8 isn't a major step-up from its predecessor, the new model has several welcome additions including the ability to shoot Raw files, which helps compensate for the camera's meager two compression options for JPEG files. At 207,000 and 88,000 pixels, respectively, both the 2.5-inch LCD and the now larger EVF (Electronic Viewfinder) sport higher resolutions than the FZ7, which is a much needed improvement. A few new Scene modes have also been added, including a Pet mode that can track and record the subject's age with each picture.

You'll still find a sophisticated feature set with a wide variety of manual controls, including the full range of manual exposure modes, along with a number of advanced options such as white balance tweaking, Contrast, Sharpness, Saturation and Noise Reduction -- pretty much all the features that a photo enthusiast or advanced amateur wants in a superzoom camera. At the same time, Panasonic's Simple mode and well-rounded Scene mode selection makes it easy for less experienced digital photographers take advantage of the FZ8's superzoom powers.

Where the FZ8 falls a little short is in image noise and its aggressive noise reduction. But those shortcomings can generally be overcome with lots of light, and sticking to low ISO settings.

 

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 User Report

by Theano Nikitas

Intro. I was first introduced to the Panasonic DMC-FZ8 at a press event in Paris. While it wasn't love at first sight (this was a pre-production model, after all), the FZ8 was close enough to its final version that I could easily see it was going to be a strong contender in the superzoom category. Even with the decline in digital SLR prices, there's still a market for these steroidal lens cameras since it would take two or more SLR lenses to deliver the same zoom range, adding extra cost and weight to match the FZ8's lens capabilities. And some people are still intimidated by even the thought of a digital SLR, imagining it would be more difficult to use than a superzoom like the FZ8.

Although the FZ8's 12x optical zoom and effective MEGA O.I.S. play a major role in its litany of attributes, the camera's real strength lies in the sum of its parts. Compact, easy to handle, and easy to use, the Panasonic FZ8 has a feature set that not only puts amateur and inexperienced photographers at ease, but also gives enthusiasts and advanced amateurs plenty of imaging tools to keep them happy. Given the camera's extensive controls, the latter group is more likely to gravitate toward the FZ8 than snapshooters. Still, newcomers to digital imaging can take advantage of the long zoom without hassling with manual features. And anyone who wants to hone their photographic skills can easily use the FZ8 as a learning tool.

Design. When cameras like the FZ8 offer the option of matte black or silver bodies, I usually prefer the matte black. I'm probably not alone in this but a matte black camera tends to look like it's better constructed and more like a professional camera than those constructed of silver plastic. And, maybe it's simply perception but black plastic also feels sturdier than silver plastic. Still, if you like silver, it's there for you.

Like most superzoom cameras, the FZ8 compresses the look and feel of a digital SLR into a compact and lightweight body that's easy to carry around. Despite the fact that it's too large to stow in any but the roomiest of pockets, the FZ8 is quite portable, and carrying it over your shoulder or around your neck for a full day won't send you to the chiropractor in the morning. In fact, I walked around Paris for hours at a time with the camera on my shoulder and barely knew it was there. Of course, a small camera bag or pack is a better option since you can carry accessories, including the lens hood and adapter that comes with the camera, along with any of the optional accessory lenses and filters you choose to add to your gear box. Unfortunately, there's no hot shoe, so an external flash isn't an option. That's too bad, because the lens hood can get in the way of the built-in flash and cast a shadow.

Controls. It's all right here on the right of the FZ8, yet there's still ample room for your thumb to rest comfortably.

The Panasonic FZ8 feels sturdy for a plastic camera, though be sure not to drop it (it's not that sturdy). Beyond build, the camera has a substantial and high profile grip, well-placed with useful external controls, and easy to read menu, all of which enhance this camera's usability. There's even a handy joystick that calls up an onscreen menu for quick changes to the most-used settings such as ISO and white balance; other onscreen menu changes, like aperture and shutter speed, can be adjusted via the joystick; though you'll need to read the manual to figure out some of the finer points of the FZ8's operation. All in all, though, it's a well-designed camera that is comfortable to use.

Display/Viewfinder. While the FZ8's LCD is the same 2.5-inch size as its predecessor, the resolution has, thankfully, been bumped up to 207,000 pixels, which makes a world of difference when composing and reviewing images. The EVF is a little bigger than that of the FZ7 and has also been boosted to 188,000 pixels. Both viewing options offer approximately 100% field of view, so unlike point-and-shoot cameras where the optical viewfinder shows only a portion of what the camera is actually capturing, you'll pretty much see the entire scene in both the EVF and on the LCD.

The LCD is bright and clear under most conditions and offers a couple of different options including Power LCD, which brightens the screen, and a High Angle LCD mode, which really pumps up the brightness so it can be viewed from different angles. I found little need for either option, although the Power LCD can come in handy when shooting a backlit scene. In low light conditions, the LCD brightens sufficiently without the Power mode, so I rarely used it when shooting indoors. The High Angle mode was useful when shooting overhead, since you can hold the camera up, tilt it down and still have a clear view of the subject on the monitor. When you return the camera to eye-level, though, you won't be able to see a thing because of the excessive brightening. While it doesn't take long to hold the LCD mode button and scroll to the Off selection in the short menu to turn it off, it's still a bit of a hassle.

In bright light, the LCD generally worked well, although there were times that the sun washed out the monitor and it was difficult -- if not impossible -- to compose and view the onscreen shooting information. A quick push on the EVF/LCD button turns on the EVF, which also displays the shooting information, so there was little time lost when switching from one to the other. I tend to gravitate toward using the Electronic Viewfinder when shooting with superzoom cameras anyway, and found the EVF bright, clear, and accurate. It's also easier to steady the camera when holding it to your eye than away from your body when using the LCD and even though the FZ8's Optical Image Stabilization works well, it's important to keep the camera as still as possible when using the telephoto end of the zoom. And, when I'm zooming in on a subject, I find it much easier to compose with the EVF.

Those of you who have less than 20/20 vision will be happy to know that the diopter can be adjusted up or down +/- 4. I was able to tweak the EVF enough to have a clear view, even without my reading glasses.

Performance. The FZ8 is surprisingly peppy for a camera in its class. Given that the zoom has to extend at start-up, getting the camera up and running was surprisingly quick. There was little shutter lag and shot-to-shot was quite good. Even when shooting in Raw, I only had to wait a short few seconds for the camera to write the data to the media card. Adding a flash to the mix didn't slow the camera down very much, which is a bonus when you want to take a series of indoor or fill-flash images. The flash's intensity can be adjusted up or down from -2 EV to +2 EV, which I always find helpful when using fill flash or shooting macro.

Having high speed options for autofocus and burst mode gives the FZ8 versatility that you don't often find elsewhere. While the normal autofocus mode usually worked quickly, the high speed option was helpful when trying to capture butterflies flitting from one flower bud to another. And the high speed burst mode was effective when photographing fast-moving subjects like a dog playing frisbee. Under optimum conditions, the camera can crank out almost 3 frames per second, which is pretty impressive. And although you're limited to maybe 4-5 high res JPEGs in most cases, you can easily capture action shots with the FZ8. There is an unlimited mode, but it doesn't sustain the same capture rate throughout.

The lens is responsive, and though it may seem a little slow compared to some other cameras we've tested, I'd rather not have a zoom that's so fast it's difficult to control. With the FZ8 you get enough speed to zoom quickly and accurately.

Stable. Catching this butterfly at full zoom while handholding the FZ8 was helped by image stabilization. Zoom in and you'll see the softness from noise suppression and rough demosaicing, but it really doesn't show up when printed at 8x10.

As always, Panasonic's MEGA O.I.S. works quite well. I was generally able to handhold the camera at about 2 stops slower than normal without getting blurred images, as long as the lens wasn't zoomed out to the max. I usually feel more comfortable using a tripod or monopod when shooting at 12x unless there's tons of light so I can use a high shutter speed. Others may have steadier hands than mine, and I certainly don't have a problem handholding a 400mm lens on a digital SLR since I can better balance the camera by resting the lens in my left hand. With superzoom cameras, there's not quite enough lens barrel to get as solid a grip as with DSLRs. Still, Panasonic FZ8 users will make good use of the camera's image stabilization.

Good battery life is another one of the FZ8's strong points, with a CIPA rating of about 380 shots on a single charge. I shot in Paris for two days with the pre-production model and never needed a battery charge. I took the production model with me to a three-day family get-together and let's just say that I wasted space in my carry-on by bringing the charger to that event. It wasn't a great sacrifice though, since the FZ8's charger is compact, plugs directly in the wall, and takes up a negligible amount of space.

I was pleased with many of my test shots. The camera delivered sharp, generally well-exposed images. Colors were well-saturated and looked rich but not unnatural. I noticed no purple fringing or other artifacts when photographing trees against a bright sky. But the FZ8 (along with other Panasonic models) has an Achilles heel: image noise and overly aggressive noise reduction. The best images I shot were taken at ISO 100, the lowest light sensitivity setting available. Even then, some image noise was visible in shadows upon close inspection. Image quality started taking a dive each time I took the ISO up a notch, and images quickly degenerated into pictures that rivaled an Impressionist painting. Noise reduction levels can be set manually, but I found that even the lowest noise reduction setting was not minimal enough to rescue images shot at higher ISOs. Other than my high ISO test shots, all of my images were shot at ISO 100.

Shooting. I made good use of the zoom in Paris, homing in on the Eiffel Tower from a distance and zooming in to capture architectural details on some of Paris' amazing structures. Overcast skies kept the contrast low, which was good, since the FZ8 occasionally blows out highlights. But colors were accurate and without a lot of bright sunlight to boost shutter speeds, the Panasonic FZ8's O.I.S. came in very handy. Because it was a pre-production model, we've decided not to include those images along with the other sample shots.

Fast. Mr. Gecko wasn't so elusive that the FZ8 couldn't capture him.

More recently, we ventured off to a mini-family reunion. Nothing fancy, just hanging out on the back porch, looking at a well-maintained yard and garden and occasionally indulging in a game of frisbee with the family dog. Given the high temperatures and humidity, and the camera's 12x optical zoom, I often sat in a rocker and shot from there. The appearance of a tiny lizard was intriguing enough to oust me from my chair, though, and it hung around long enough to get some fun pictures. The FZ8 did a good job with exposure and white balance, especially since the lizard was clinging to a white wall. Exposures and white balance were also consistently accurate even though the skies alternated between bright sun and grey clouds. Regardless of the lighting conditions, vibrantly colored flowers, green foliage and even the less vivid elements of the garden were equally well-rendered. Digital cameras often have problems reproducing reds and some of the garden's red flowers looked a little funky, giving off a slight glow, but it didn't really distract from the image.

The FZ8's Burst Mode was up to the challenge of capturing images of the family dog playing frisbee. She was running so fast and has an all-black coat, so it was a little difficult to track her using the FZ8's full zoom capabilities. I opted for a wider angle of view and captured a series of shots with ease.

At home, I kept the FZ8 on the kitchen table for quick trips outdoors since I never know when a few butterflies or bees will show up to enjoy the flowers. I alternated focal lengths according to how close I could get to the insects without scaring them away. The camera's Shutter Priority helped me avoid blurry butterflies and a quick switch to Aperture Priority provided the tools to soften the background and surrounding foliage to focus on the butterfly or bee. Using fill flash and lowering the flash's output was the perfect solution when the butterfly bushes were in shade and I was able to avoid the camera's tendency to overexpose some of the bush's lightly colored leaves in sunlight.

I really enjoyed shooting with the Panasonic FZ8. It's easy to use, though I spent some time with my nose in the manual to learn about some of its operations and features. Other than the image noise and noise reduction problems, I was really happy with the photographs it produced.

Summary. There's a lot to like about the Panasonic DMC-FZ8, and with few exceptions it won't disappoint. Its advanced feature set, ease of use, good performance and 12x image-stabilized optical zoom make for a nice photographic package. Designed to be usable by novices, yet equipped with sophisticated manual features for experienced photographers, the FZ8 offers enough to please a range of consumers. The biggest drawback is its propensity for image noise and an overly aggressive noise reduction system than can turn high ISO shots from a sharply focused picture to a soft and fuzzy painterly image. That's an issue onscreen, but even our large prints looked pretty good, and really good at 11x14.

 

Basic Features

 

Special Features

 

In the Box

The retail package contains the following items:

 

Recommended Accessories

 

Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Compact and lightweight
  • Easy to use for beginners
  • Advanced feature set for enthusiasts
  • 12x image-stabilized optical zoom lens
  • RAW mode
  • White Balance can be fine-tuned
  • Good speed
  • Selectable AF points
  • Exposure bracketing
  • Live Histogram and pattern/grid overlay
  • Adjustable Flash Intensity
  • Good color and detail reproduction
  • Ability to limit maximum ISO
  • Great print quality
  • Sharp corners at wide angle
  • Good LCD and EVF coverage
  • Auto White Balance handles indoor shots reasonably well
  • Very good resolution for a 7-megapixel sensor
  • Good battery life
  • Noise and noise suppression visible even at low ISO
  • High ISO image noise and noise reduction degrades image quality
  • Significant chromatic aberration at telephoto
  • Digital zoom is soft due to noise suppression
  • Moderate barrel distortion at wide angle
  • Greens are undersaturated
  • Color saturation diminishes as ISO goes up
  • Default contrast is too high to handle both shadow and highlight detail in harsh sunlight
  • Indoor images above ISO 400 are very soft (especially under incandescent light)

 

The Panasonic DMC-FZ8 is one of those cameras that looks good on paper and, for the most part, delivers on its promises -- especially on paper, in terms of printed output. Its image stabilized zoom is the Panasonic FZ8's big attraction, but that shouldn't overshadow its long list of features that surprisingly cater to both advanced users and less experienced snapshooters. The FZ8's versatility and sophistication, combined with its ease of use and handling pushes some of the image noise and noise reduction issues to the back burner. It's the printed output up to ISO 800 that really seals the deal: it's really good, with ISO 800 producing good 8x10 images. If you're a frequent low light shooter, you can do better than the FZ8; but most folks will find their indoor images are quite usable at small sizes. However, if you like to shoot outdoors (which is where the camera's long lens is best used anyway) and don't mind keeping the ISO as low as it goes, and can handle turning down the contrast and noise suppression, then the FZ8 is an excellent choice. As one of the smallest 12x zooms on the market, the Panasonic FZ8 is a Dave's Pick.