Panasonic DMC-LZ3 Overview
by Aimee Baldridge
& Dave Etchells
Review posted: 08/12/2006
Note: The Panasonic LZ3 is so similar to the previously reviewed LZ5, we've only changed the relevant details. If you've already read that review, please feel free to skip to the conclusion below, and test results sections under the Optics, Exposure, and Performance tabs.
The Panasonic LZ3 is in most ways a typical compact snapshot camera, providing a good selection of automatic features and not much in the way of manual control. But it stands out from the crowd by providing a 6x optical zoom range of 6.1-36.6mm (equivalent to a 37-222mm range on a 35mm camera), and by implementing the optical image stabilization that has become standard in newer Lumix cameras. There are two stabilization modes, and while the first produces only a minor difference while stabilizing the LCD preview somewhat, the second mode captures a much more noticeably sharp image than what you'll get without the OIS at slower shutter speeds. Image stabilization is really a very worthwhile feature on a camera, it makes it a lot easier to get sharp photos when shooting under limited lighting. The Panasonic LZ3 rejoins the compact-camera herd by forgoing an optical viewfinder in favor of making room for a large LCD, a choice that has mixed results.
The Panasonic DMC-LZ3 also implements its zoom function a little different from most cameras: At all resolutions lower than the 5.0-megapixel maximum (or 4.5 megapixels at the 3:2 aspect ratio setting, or 3.5 megapixels at the 16:9 aspect ratio), the camera mixes in small amounts of what other manufacturers sometimes call "digital zoom," cropping the image slightly as you zoom to telephoto focal lengths. Since the image is already cropped due to your resolution choice, there's no degradation of the image quality from this, the net result being an overall zoom range of 7.5x, rather than the nominal 6x the Panasonic LZ3's lens alone produces. If you're shooting at a lower resolution anyway, this is handy, a very legitimate use of digital zoom that's transparent to the user.
Available in both black and silver finishes, this Lumix has an understated look. Its lightweight plastic body is peppered with a moderate number of physical controls and a single silver and gray accent that extends from one side of the lens and curls around the shallow grip. Although it has some rounded edges, the Panasonic LZ3 is a fairly boxy camera that doesn't conform as closely to the hand as some other compact cameras with more ergonomically fashioned grips. However, even though it was not as one with my hand, the Panasonic LZ3 wasn't uncomfortable to hold.
Neither ultracompact nor too bulky, the Panasonic LZ3 measures 3.9 x 2.4 x 1.7 inches (100 x 62 x 43 millimeters, measured to include the lens barrel) and weighs 8.22 ounces (233 grams) with batteries and a memory card installed. The Lumix DC Vario lens retracts into a base that extends about half an inch from the body, and its surface is protected by a built-in cover when you're not shooting. That makes the camera compact enough to carry in the pocket of your jacket or cargo pants, although probably not your shirt. It comes with a handstrap as well.
The Panasonic Lumix LZ3's forte is taking pictures of people. It gives you plenty of options to choose from: There's a plain Portrait mode that warms up skin tones and lowers contrast a bit, as well as a Soft Skin mode that adds a bit of blur to skin tones. While a few of the pictures I took with this mode were a little too blurry for my taste, many of them had a nicely soft effect and toned down the harsh highlights of the flash. The red-eye-reduction flash mode often works well, although it fails to prevent red eyes occasionally, and there's a slow-sync mode with red-eye reduction too. If you're taking candid pictures late into the night and prefer to be unobtrusive, you can turn off the Panasonic LZ3's flash and use the High Sensitivity mode to boost the ISO and apply noise reduction. This degrades the image quality quite noticeably, but I was able to take some High Sensitivity shots lit only by a computer monitor that made decent-looking small prints.
For photographing groups, you can use the Panasonic LZ3's Party mode, and when you want to get in the shot, you can set the self-timer in continuous-shooting mode. After a delay of two or 10 seconds, the camera will snap off three shots, giving you a better chance at capturing a photo with everyone with their eyes open and looking good. If you want to hand your camera off to photographically challenged friends, you can throw it into the Simple mode denoted by a heart on the mode dial for total automation. There are also Night Portrait and Candle modes that can improve photos of people in those settings, and there's a Baby mode too. You can even set up the Panasonic LZ3 to note the current age of two separate babies each time you take a photo of one of them in his or her dedicated Baby mode. If that's not enough information, you can record a voice annotation with a photograph in most shooting and playback modes.
The Panasonic LZ3 is an average camera when it comes to photographing scenery. It provides automated Scenery, Night Scenery, Starry Sky, Fireworks, and Snow modes, along with a macro mode for close-ups. Some of these modes can use shutter speeds as slow as eight seconds, which can help both at night and when trying to get the right effect with subjects such as waterfalls and seasides. However, there isn't a panorama mode or any other special feature for photographing scenery. The 2,560 x 1,440-pixel 16.9 aspect ratio mode lends itself to the aesthetics of landscape photography, but it doesn't actually broaden your view (it simply crops the sensor's image top and bottom), and the Panasonic LZ3's widest angle of 37mm (35mm camera equivalent) doesn't help with expansive vistas either.
Like all compact, inexpensive cameras, the Panasonic LZ3 makes some important compromises, many of which have to do with the camera's 2.0-inch LCD. Its large size is an advantage, and its viewing angle is wide enough that you can take pictures easily when holding the camera off to one side. There's also a useful High Angle mode that you can activate by pressing and holding the Display button. This alters the display to give you a good view when you're holding the camera above eye level. The LCD doesn't offer very high resolution, though, and while it gains-up to give you an adequate preview in even very low light, it's hard to use as a viewfinder in bright light. Adjusting the screen brightness didn't solve this problem, so I took a lot of outdoor photographs with one hand shading the LCD, and ended up just pushing the button and hoping for the best in many cases. Fortunately, the Panasonic LZ3's design lends itself to one-handed shooting, so using your left hand to shade the LCD isn't a problem, merely an inconvenience. The screen's relatively low resolution turned out to be much less of an issue, since there's no manual focus available and the LZ3's numerous autofocus options generally worked quickly and accurately.
Another thing that the LCD affects is action photography. The Panasonic Lumix LZ3's three continuous-shooting modes allow you to hold the shutter release down and keep shooting at a nice clip; with the infinity mode the burst will last until your memory card fills. But the LCD preview can't refresh itself fast enough to keep up with a subject that's moving at even a modest pace. That means it's virtually impossible to use the Panasonic LZ3's continuous shooting mode with a tightly framed subject. To get the best results, you'll need to leave a good amount of space around your subject to keep it in the frame, and improve your photos' composition later by cropping them with image-editing software.
The Panasonic LZ3's Sports mode tends to err on the side of preserving image quality by keeping the ISO setting at 200 or lower. That means it pushes shutter speeds down too, and most of our Sports mode shots had a lot of motion blur, even when taken in afternoon sunlight. An alternative for capturing action is the LZ3's video mode, which captures smooth VGA-resolution clips at 30 frames per seconds up to the capacity of your memory card. The image quality can't touch a camcorder's and there's no sound recording, but it's good enough for casual video mementos.
One thing I liked about the Panasonic LZ3's LCD was its display options: You can activate a grid for composing by the Rule of Thirds, display a live histogram, or view current settings. (I only wished that I could use both the grid and the histogram at the same time.) When you depress the LZ3's shutter-release button halfway to lock focus and exposure, the f-stop and shutter speed are also displayed. That's largely a tease, though, since you can't set either parameter manually, aside from setting a lower limit of 1/8 second to one second for the shutter speed. If the shutter speed or aperture combination that the camera has selected isn't to your liking, you can use exposure compensation or autobracketing to get the camera to select another combination. The one exposure parameter that you do have control over is the ISO setting. You can select ISO values of 80, 100, 200, and 400, or set the camera to select the ISO automatically. There are no selectable metering modes on the Panasonic LZ3---an unusual omission these days even for a compact snapshot camera---but I generally got good exposures with the multizone metering that this camera uses.
Panasonic helpfully provides an Economy mode on the LZ3. To save power, it reduces the LCD brightness, turns the LCD off quickly after you're done shooting, and puts the whole camera into sleep mode if you don't operate its controls for two minutes. If you prefer to keep your camera on and ready to shoot, you can use the Power Save function instead and set it to enter sleep mode as long as 10 minutes after you use the controls. In either case, the Lumix LZ3 wakes up from sleep mode and extends its lens very quickly when you press the shutter release button halfway. Panasonic doesn't put an AC adapter in the box with this camera, but you can avoid draining the batteries while downloading pictures by using a separate card reader instead of transferring shots directly from the camera. (Here again, a set of high-capacity NiMH cells and a good-quality charger make a lot of sense.)
- 5.0-megapixel CCD
- 2.0-inch color TFT LCD monitor
- 6x, 6.1-36.6mm lens, equivalent to a 37-222mm lens on a 35mm
- Maximum 4x digital zoom
- Automatic exposure control
- Shutter speeds from 1/2,000 to 8 seconds (To 60 seconds in "Starry Sky" scene mode)
- Maximum aperture of f/2.8 to f/4.5, depending on lens zoom position
- Built-in flash with four modes
- AF assist lamp
- 5 selectable autofocus modes
- 3 selectable aspect ratios
- 5 selectable resolution settings
- 2 selectable JPEG compression levels
- SD memory card slot for storage
- 14MB internal memory
- Power supplied by two AA batteries, or optional AC adapter kit
- Software CD included for both Windows and Mac platforms
- Optical image stabilization with two modes
- 14 programmed automatic scene modes
- Movie mode (without sound; see LZ5 for sound recording)
- Economy mode for conserving battery life
- Simple mode for full automation
- Macro mode
- Three Continuous Shooting modes
- Two- or 10-second Self-Timer for delayed shutter release
- Burst option in Self-Timer mode
- White balance (color) adjustment with five modes, including a Custom setting
- Color Effects including Cool, Warm, Black and White, and Sepia
- Adjustable image sharpening
- Adjustable ISO settingm 80, 100, 200, 400, plus High Sensitivity mode: 800-1,600
- Selectable shutter speeds with slow-sync flash
- 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
- Lumix DMC-LZ3
- 2 AA oxyride batteries
- USB cable
- Video cable
- Software CD-ROM
- Wrist strap
- Large capacity SD/MMC memory card. (These days, 256 MB is a good trade-off between cost and capacity.)
- High-capacity rechargeable NiMH batteries and a good-quality charger.
- USB SD card reader or PC Card adapter
- AC adapter kit
- Small camera case
The Panasonic Lumix LZ3 is a nice little camera at a very affordable price, particularly considering that it sports a 6x, optically stabilized zoom lens. Panasonic is very justifiably proud that they've managed to bring optical image stabilization to their entire product line, from top to bottom. The Panasonic LZ3 did quite well overall in our testing, delivering good bright color, good resolution, and only moderate lens distortion. The large 2.0-inch LCD screen is great for sharing your photos with friends, and makes the menus easier to see, but the difficulty of seeing the screen clearly under bright lighting often left us wishing for an optical viewfinder as well. Shutter response was also on the slow side of what passes for average these days, and high-ISO shots were only usable up to a print size of 5x7 inches. Finally, lack of sound in Movie mode makes the mode all but useless. All that said though, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ3 delivers really excellent value and good picture quality at a surprisingly low price. (Especially so in light of its image stabilization, remarkable at this price point.) While not a first choice for sports or other fast-paced action, the Panasonic LZ3 is a great little "all-around" camera with a nice long zoom lens, all in a compact, inexpensive package.