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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ15

By: Dave Etchells

Panasonic introduces a four-megapixel digicam with the high quality optics of a 12x Leica lens.

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Page 6:Exposure & Flash

Review First Posted: 10/30/2004

Exposure

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The Lumix DMC-FZ15 offers excellent exposure control, with Program AE (P), Shutter Speed Priority AE (S), Aperture Priority AE (A), Manual (M) exposure modes, and a handful of special settings for specific shooting situations. The Program AE mode controls shutter speed and aperture settings, but also provides access to other exposure controls including Exposure Compensation, Flash Exposure Compensation, Spot Metering, ISO adjustment, AE lock, Auto Exposure Bracketing, White Balance, Contrast, Sharpness, and Saturation, among others. Halfway pressing the Shutter button displays the selected aperture and shutter speed settings. You can shift the exposure by pressing the Exposure button, then using the left and right arrow keys to cycle through equivalent exposure combinations, biasing the exposure toward more or less depth of field.

Shutter Priority mode puts you in control of the shutter speed setting (from 1/2,000 to eight seconds ), while the camera chooses a corresponding lens aperture. As with the Program AE mode, you maintain control over all other exposure options. Aperture Priority works along similar lines, except that you control the aperture (f/2.8 to f/8.0) and the camera chooses the best corresponding shutter speed. Both the shutter speed and aperture values are displayed on the LCD monitor. If the camera can't find an aperture or shutter speed to produce the correct exposure with the shutter speed or aperture you've selected, the LCD indicators will turn red, letting you know that you need to change the setting you selected.

Full Manual exposure mode lets you control both shutter speed and lens aperture independently. Pressing the Exposure button switches the four-way rocker control arrow keys from their normal functions to control aperture (the up/down arrows) and shutter speed (the left/right arrows). A nice touch is that tapping the shutter button calls up an exposure-meter display on the LCD screen, showing the currently selected exposure level, across a range of +/- 2 EV. The exposure-meter display disappears after a few seconds of inactivity, or you can use the Display button to select a display mode without the on-screen information overlay.

A number of preset "scene" exposure modes are also available for shooting under special conditions, and include Portrait, Sports, Scenery, Night Scenery, Night Portrait, Panning, Fireworks, Party, and Snow modes. These modes preset a variety of camera options, helping novice photographers capture good-looking pictures in challenging situations without requiring a full knowledge of the camera. Two positions on the Mode dial access the scene modes, "SCN1" and "SCN2." Through the Setup menu, you can set the camera to automatically display the Scene menu in either mode, or set it so that the previously selected scene is enabled whenever switching to the modes. With the latter option, you can have two different scenes ready to go, and accessible at a moment's notice. For example, you can switch from Scenery to Party modes when photographing at a wedding, easily moving indoors and out without a lot of camera setup. Portrait mode uses a large aperture setting to reduce depth of field, resulting in blurred backgrounds and strong focal emphasis on the primary subject. Sports mode instead utilizes fast shutter speeds and wider apertures, in effect "freezing" fast-paced action. Scenery mode is for capturing wide landscapes, and places focus on a distant subject.

Night Scenery mode uses a slow shutter speed to capture the color and detail of evening settings without using the flash. Because of the slow exposure, a tripod is recommended. Night Portrait mode works in the same manner, but utilizes the flash to illuminate the primary subject in the foreground. By using a slow shutter speed and the flash together, the overall scene is more evenly exposed. (The flash mode is fixed at Slow-Sync with Red-Eye Reduction. Portrait subjects should be warned to stay still after the flash, until the shutter is closed.)

Panning mode is useful for following a moving subject, such as a person on a bicycle or in a slow-moving vehicle, so that the subject stays in focus while the background becomes a blur. When shooting in Panning mode, hold down the Shutter button while moving the camera to follow the subject. (Just make sure that the subject is moving at a speed you can easily follow without blurring.) Fireworks mode preserves the color and pattern of fireworks by using a slow shutter speed to capture the full effect (a tripod is recommended). Party mode is best for taking pictures under dim indoor lighting with a flash. You can select between Forced Red-Eye Reduction and Slow-Sync Red-Eye Reduction modes, and a tripod is recommended. Finally, Snow mode captures good exposures in bright, snowy conditions, and adjusts the white balance and exposure to enhance the white color and detail of the snow.

Exposure compensation can be adjusted from –2 to +2 exposure values (EV), in one-third-step increments. The camera's metering system offers three operating modes, which include Multiple, Center-Weighted, and Spot, selectable through the Record menu. Multiple metering measures brightness throughout the entire frame, and determines the best overall exposure. Center-weighted averaging is based on an averaged light reading of the overall scene, but places more emphasis on the center of the viewfinder or LCD monitor. Spot metering reads only a specific point in the viewfinder. You can lock the exposure (and focus) by halfway pressing and holding the Shutter button, and then reframing the subject.

The DMC-FZ15 offers six White Balance modes, including Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Halogen, Flash, and White Set. The White Set mode allows you to manually set the white balance by holding a white card in front of the camera to set the value in the setup mode. You can fine-tune the white balance by adding more red or blue to the color balance in all of the modes except Auto, using the WB Adjust feature (accessed by pressing the up arrow of the Multicontroller until WB Adjust appears on the LCD monitor).

ISO film speed equivalents on the DMC-FZ15 are set in the Record menu, with choices of Auto, 64, 100, 200, and 400. The higher the ISO setting, the more you can extend the camera's exposure range in low-light situations. Just keep in mind that higher ISO values have progressively lower quality levels, with increased image noise. On that note, the DMC-FZ15 does feature long-exposure Noise Reduction, which uses dark frame subtraction to reduce the amount of image noise in longer exposures. What this means is that after the initial exposure, the camera takes a second exposure with the shutter closed, and compares the two images to subtract the noise pixels from the main image.

In perhaps its most unusual feature, the FZ15 offers a noise-reduction adjustment through its Record menu, with options of High, Normal, or Low Noise Reduction settings. This setting adjusts how aggressive the camera is about trading away subtle subject detail for reduced image noise. Digicam anti-noise systems basically look for regions of the image where there's relatively little local contrast between adjacent pixels, assuming that wherever the local contrast is lower than a certain threshold, whatever's left there must be noise. When that condition occurs, the camera "flattens" the contrast further, suppressing the noise. This is fine if you're dealing with a part of the subject that has little or no detail of its own (a blank wall or the sky for example), but if the detail in the subject has only subtle contrast (hair is an excellent example), the camera can mistakenly flatten-out the subject detail along with the image noise.

On the FZ15, you can control the contrast threshold and amount of detail flattening somewhat via the Noise Reduction menu option, but I found its operation to be pretty subtle. I could see its effects in deep shadows at low ISOs, and more broadly at higher ISOs, but it for the most part had a fairly minor effect. Overall, a good feature that I'd like to see more manufacturers adopt, but it didn't have nearly as much impact as I'd would have expected or like to have seen.

The DMC-FZ15 also offers a Color Effect setting with Cool, Warm, Black and White, and Sepia color options. A Picture Adjustment menu option features additional adjustment tools, including Contrast, Sharpness, Saturation, and the above-mentioned Noise Reduction options. I found the Contrast, Sharpness, and Saturation controls to all work very well, offering a good range of adjustment, and working as you'd expect them to. In particular, the Contrast adjustment seemed to affect highlight and shadow areas about equally, leaving the overall exposure more or less untouched as the contrast was varied. The Saturation control offered a good range of adjustment, but I really would have liked to have seen more steps (perhaps five?) covering the same range.

Auto Exposure Bracketing
The Auto Exposure Bracketing mode is accessed by pressing the up arrow of the Multicontroller until "Auto Bracket" appears on the LCD monitor. It automatically captures a series of three images, each at a different exposure setting. You can manually set the exposure variation between shots in one-third-step increments, up to as much as +/- 1 EV. The camera makes all three exposures in rapid succession with just one press of the Shutter button. Unfortunately, this function cannot be used with flash photography. If the flash fires, only one image will be recorded. (The likely reason for this is that the onboard flash recharges too slowly to be usable in a multiple-exposure application like this.)

Burst Shooting
The DMC-FZ15 has three Burst shooting modes, which are accessed by pressing the Burst button on the top panel. Low Speed mode captures a maximum of 10 consecutive frames at a bit over two frames per second, while High Speed mode captures a maximum of 10 images at bit under four frames per second, as long as you hold down the shutter release. (Burst length will depend on the subject you're shooting, and how well the resulting images compress. In my testing, using a standard noise pattern for worst-case compressibility, I found a maximum burst length of five frames.) There's also an Infinity mode, which limits the number of images only by memory card capacity, and shoots at approximately two frames per second. (Interestingly, I found that the frame rate in "infinity" mode was actually a little higher than in "Hi" mode.) The number of images and actual shot-to-shot speed depend on several factors, including the amount of memory remaining on the flash card and the size/quality of the images being acquired. It's also important to note that the FZ15 is a camera that's able to make good use of fast memory cards. Pauses between bursts were much shorter using a fast 32x Lexar SD card vs a slower non-speed-rated one, and the "INF" mode was only truly "Infinite" when shooting with the 32x card.

Movie Mode
The DMC-FZ15 also offers a Movie mode, which is accessed by turning the Mode dial on top of the camera to the miniature film frame symbol. The Motion JPEG files are recorded at 320 x 240 pixels, at either 30 or 10 frames per second. Recording times are limited by frame rate and memory card capacity. Recording stops and starts with a full press of the shutter button, and the amount of available recording time appears in the upper right corner of the LCD monitor. While the lens can be zoomed before and after movie recording, it cannot be activated during the recording process itself, and the camera's exposure is also set and fixed at the beginning of the recording interval. Movies are recorded without sound. Unlike its "INF" continuous shooting mode, the FZ15's Movie mode appears capable of recording movies continuously to the limit of card capacity, even on slower memory cards. (At least it worked fine with a non-speed-rated Lexar SD card.)

Flip Animation Mode
This mode, enabled through the Record menu, lets you connect a string of images together to make a 20-second movie that resembles a flip animation. You can record as many as 100 consecutive images to create the animation. To capture the series, select "Image Capture" under the Flip Animation menu option, then snap away. Once you've captured all of the files you need, select "Create Motion Image" and select the frame rate (either five or ten frames per second) to string the images together into a motion file. Once the animation has been created, you can opt to delete the still images to save memory space. (This can be a fun mode. Sony had a Flip Animation option on their cameras a couple of years back, but that feature was limited to a much shorter sequence of images.)

Self-Timer Mode
The Self-Timer is set by pressing the left arrow key on the Multicontroller, and offers a choice between a two- or 10-second countdown. When set to Self-Timer, the camera displays the standard self-timer icon (a clock counting down) in the LCD display, and depressing the Shutter button activates the countdown, during which a lamp on the camera's front panel blinks. The two-second option is very handy when you're shooting long exposures with the camera on a tripod, and want to avoid jiggling the camera and blurring the shot when you press the Shutter button with your finger. The two-second countdown is enough time for any vibrations to die down before the shutter opens, but not so long as to seriously slow your shooting. - I also find myself using a short self-timer for shots in low light or macro situations, where I just prop the camera on a convenient rock, fence post, or water glass (at a restaurant, for example) to avoid hand-held jiggles. Very convenient, when you don't happen to have a tripod along.

 

Flash

The DMC-FZ15's built-in, pop-up flash operates in one of six modes: Auto, Red-Eye Reduction (Auto), Forced, Red-Eye Reduction (Forced), Slow-Sync (with Red-Eye Reduction), and Flash Off. The Auto mode tells the camera to determine when flash is necessary, based on existing exposure conditions. Forced means that the flash fires with every exposure, regardless of lighting conditions, and Flash Off completely disables the flash. The three Red-Eye Reduction modes fire a small pre-flash one second before the full flash, to reduce the redeye effect in portraits. Slow-Sync mode combines the flash with a slower shutter speed, letting more of the ambient light fall on the camera's sensor, brightening background objects.

The flash exposure can be adjusted from -2 to +2 EV in one-third-step increments by pressing the up arrow of the Multicontroller until the Flash Exposure Compensation adjustment appears. Panasonic rates the DMC-FZ15's flash as effective from 0.98 to 23 feet (30 centimeters to 7 meters) depending on the zoom setting and ISO. In my own tests, the camera's flash easily reached out to the 14-foot limit of my test setup, even at ISO 64, and with the lens towards the telephoto end of its range. - Very impressive.

Given the extent of its other "enthusiast" features, I was a little surprised to not see a sync connector on the FZ15, for use with an external flash unit. - For that capability, you'll have to go to the higher-end (and higher resolution) FZ20 model, which sports a hot shoe.

 

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