Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ15By: Dave Etchells
Panasonic introduces a four-megapixel digicam with the high quality optics of a 12x Leica lens.
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Page 2:Executive OverviewReview First Posted: 10/30/2004
In most of my reviews, this section is called the "Executive Overview," where I present all the camera's features and functions in a concise fashion. Given that all this info is available elsewhere in the review for those who want to dig for it, I'm moving toward using this space to relate more of my personal impressions of each camera. This approach is frankly more time-consuming, but my hope is that it'll be more useful to readers than the prior format. (Due to time constraints, most of my reviews will continue in the previous format, but I felt that the Panasonic FZ15 deserved the benefit of this new treatment. Here, then, are some of the features and issues that stood out to me as I worked with the FZ15:
Fit, Feel, and Finish
The Panasonic DMC-FZ15 impressed me straight out of the box. It's solid black body and large lens just says "high end camera," its fit and finish further contribute to that impression, and it feels very good in the hand. The large lens makes it a little side-heavy, but not nearly to the extent that I'd expected it to. The handgrip is relatively small, but has a fairly tight curve to its front, so it's easy to grasp for both large and small hands as well. Overall, a very solid "real camera" feel.
Lens Quality and Focus Operation
The lens is really the standout on this camera, and I'm happy to report that its optical quality very much lives up to its Leica heritage. In particular, corner to corner sharpness is very good, and chromatic aberration is very low, although barrel distortion is somewhat high at maximum wide angle. (Read my comments in the Test Results section at the end of this review for more details on this.)
The FZ15 has an unusual "one shot" autofocus option that's kind of neat. This is for times when you want to focus manually, but would like the camera to get you in the ballpark to begin with. Pressing the AF/MF switch on the side of the lens barrel all the way down forces an autofocus operation, but then leaves you in manual focus mode to tweak the focus by hand. I'm sure I've seen a feature like this on one or two other cameras in the past (some Minolta models, for instance), but the implementation on the Panasonic FZ15 is very nice.
On a less positive note, the FZ15's smoothly-operating manual focus ring on the front of the lens is one of the annoying "fly by wire" types. It isn't directly coupled to the lens' optical elements, but rather just tells the camera in which direction to adjust the focus. The result is very "loose" coupling between adjustments of the focus ring and actual changes in the focal point. Given how their lenses and focus systems work, this sort of arrangement seems to be a necessary evil in consumer digicams, but it never fails to annoy me.
Optical Image Stabilization
It's hard to overstate the value of an image-stabilization on a long-zoom digicam like the Panasonic FZ15. A 12x zoom is all but unusable in anything other than bright daylight without it. I don't have any way to measure the effectiveness of anti-shake mechanisms, but the FZ15's seems to be be about average in its performance. I did do a pretty careful comparison between the FZ15's OIS and other systems that of the Konica Minolta Z3. The results of that comparison seemed to give a slight edge to the FZ15, but the difference wasn't dramatic. These are pretty fine distinctions though - Any long-zoom camera with an image stabilization system that I've used has been a radical improvement over similar models without image stabilization.
Shutter Response and Shooting Speed
My initial reaction here was very negative, because the camera arrived with its AF system set to the 9-area mode. In that mode, shutter response is leisurely, to put it politely, with lag times ranging from 1.33 to 1.57 seconds. Switching to any of its other AF modes cuts lag times to 0.52 - 0.99 second, as the lens is zoomed from wide angle to telephoto. The long end of this range is still slow, but isn't out of line with the performance of other long-zoom digicams that I've tested. If you need to capture fast-moving action, you'll be happiest if you can use manual focus (0.30 second shutter lag) or better yet prefocus by half-pressing and holding down the shutter button before the shot itself (a blazing 0.039 second shutter lag).
In contrast, the FZ15's shot to shot speed was pure pleasure. This is one camera that makes very good use of fast memory cards: With a 32x Lexar SD card in it, I could snap an image in single-shot mode about every half-second, and it can shoot continuously at 2.5 frames/second until the card is filled. For sports use, the FZ15 is hampered a bit by its 0.99 second shutter lag at telephoto focal lengths, but if you can make do with manual focus or can rely on its continuous shooting speed, the FZ15 could be an excellent "action" camera.
Viewfinder - Eyeglass Friendly
With 20/180 vision, this is a topic that's near and dear to my heart. A lot of digicams require you to get your eyeball very close to the viewfinder in order to see the full frame, and many more offer no dioptric adjustment to accommodate those of us with failing vision. The FZ15 does well on both counts, with a moderately high eyepoint, and one of the widest dioptric adjustment ranges I've yet seen in a digicam.
Control and Menu Ergonomics
Another mixed bag here, I'm afraid. On the one hand, I love the FZ15's menu system. I actually didn't find it anything special when I first looked at it, but once I started operating the camera, I found myself just flying through the menu system. I don't know what makes it so fast, perhaps just the subtle timing of how the menus respond to the buttons on the multi-controller, but whatever the cause, I ended up liking the FZ15's menu system better than those of most digicams I test.
On the downside, I really disliked the action of the Exposure button on the camera's external controls. You use this button to switch the multi-controller from its normal functions to controlling the shutter speed and/or aperture settings, and I found it just terribly awkward to have to press the Exposure button before being able to use the multi-controller to change the exposure variables. What would work a lot better would be a multi-controller with a central button, of the sort used by many digicams these days, letting the central button take the place of the current Exposure button.
Noise Reduction Adjustment
This was a feature I was initially very happy to see, but ended up being a little disappointed in. The idea is to let the user trade off between higher image noise but improved subject detail, or lower noise and reduced detail. The control worked reasonably well, but didn't affect midtones and highlight areas nearly as much as it did shadows. - I'd like the option to pull back the noise processing to improve detail in things like hair and foliage at low ISOs, rather than being mainly restricted to shadow-noise adjustments. (This control did have a much broader effect at high ISOs, but I'd like to see it broader at low ISOs as well.)
I liked the Panasonic FZ15 quite a lot, well enough to make it a "Dave's Pick," in fact. Its very slow autofocus performance in its 9-area AF mode initially gave me pause, but further investigation prompted by the alert Panasonic fans among our readers (thanks guys!) showed that its shutter response in all other AF modes is right in line with the rest of the long-zoom digicam market. All in all, a fine digicam. (Read on for all the fascinating details.)
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