Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30By: Dave Etchells
Panasonic's latest in the Lumix lineup, with an eight-megapixel sensor and high quality long-zoom Leica optics.
<<Comparison with Earlier Panasonic DMC-FZ Models :(Previous) | (Next): Design>>
Page 3:User ReportReview First Posted: 01/18/2006
by Shawn Barnett
Panasonic's Lumix FZ-series digital cameras have a long list of fans, and for good reason. They're not only fun to shoot, the images are satisfying. Every time I go out with a Lumix FZ I get great shots, and find myself turning the camera around to remind myself just what I'm shooting with. With a nod, I resume shooting, satisfied that I am probably getting shots as good as they seem on the LCD.
Last year's FZ15 and FZ20 were hot sellers, strong contenders for the also popular Canon S1 IS and S2 IS. With the advent of the Panasonic FZ30, I'd say the S2 IS is still a contender, but the FZ30 does have some important advantages that might sway me. Of course, they come at a higher price, so that must also be considered.
Others will tell you its the SLR look, the build, and the resolution that will draw most buyers to the Lumix FZ30. That may be. But the reason I think they should be interested is the FZ30's manual zoom ring. When you want to compose your shot with speed and accuracy, you don't want to wait for a motorized zoom to catch up to your vision. Furthermore, you don't want to wait even longer while it stupidly lumbers past your desired zoom setting and then wait again while you try to force it back into your will. A motorized zoom is fine if you have time to compose a shot on a tripod; but honestly, if you're shooting the kids, or a sporting event, or just trying to get a good portrait, you want a responsive lens like the FZ30's Leica Vario Elmarit 35-420mm f/2.8-3.7.
I enjoyed shooting family and events with the Panasonic FZ30 primarily because it covered such a wide range of focal lengths in one lens, something impossible to achieve with an SLR with any quality. It was great for spanning a room in a hurry, and responded quickly so I missed fewer shots. I also can't believe how powerful it is to have a manual zoom when shooting video. There's no noise that makes it into the video; so long as you hold the camera with one hand on the zoom ring you can pull focus very naturally. With the help of the FZ30's Mega OIS (Optical Image Stabilization), and a little care, you can make some decent quality video.
The Panasonic FZ30 also has a fly-by-wire manual focus ring. It only changes the focus if you turn the option on. It's the only manual focus system I've seen in years that actually seems to work well enough that you can see when it's focused; and that's without a wonky magnification mode: The image just pops. To get into the ballpark in this mode, you press the manual focus button, then turn the MF ring until the object you want to emphasize is in focus.
Fit and balance
One aspect of the FZ15 and FZ20 that I wasn't crazy about was its smallish grip and the camera's small size when compared to its very large lens. Though it was light, it was lens-heavy. The Panasonic FZ30 is better balanced, with a grip large enough to counter the big lens.
Controls are thoughtfully arrayed, allowing easy adjustment without moving my hands from the shooting position. Most digital SLRs today have an array of buttons on the left of the LCD as well as the right. Activating them requires you to remove your left hand from the lens. It's not a huge nuisance, but the Panasonic FZ30's design is easier to use. With your left hand's fingertips on the zoom and focus ring, your thumb can move back to activate the sliding flash release or snick the focus switch.
Some aspects of the right hand's controls could have been refined a bit. I do like the shutter release. It has a very clear first and second stage switch that give excellent tactile feedback. But the location and function of the power switch is uninspired, requiring you to let go the grip to turn the camera on. I'm also disappointed that the Panasonic FZ30 is not a shooting-priority camera. The mode dial has a position for Playback mode, which requires you to switch out of that mode and into a shooting mode to take pictures. A helpful workaround is to use the camera's Quick Review function, accessed by pressing the down-arrow of the multi-controller while in record mode. This gives you a fair range of playback-mode options, but immediately switches back to record mode when the shutter button is pressed. You don't quite get the full set of playback mode functions, but it's a useful compromise.
The rest of the buttons and controls are just fine, easily accessible, and they even seem durable. The SD slot cover is sturdy, and the Panasonic FZ30's big battery is protected by both a switch-locked door and a spring-loaded latch.
I also enjoy digital cameras with a swivel LCD, but the FZ30's design is odd, and its motion somewhat limited. The 2.0 inch LCD can flip to face out and down, to the left, or up. Since most often it will be used to shoot over crowds, it's good that it first faces down. Other designs allow for self-portraits and easy family portrait composition when swiveled to face the subject, but that's not possible with the FZ30's design. Not a great loss, but good to know.
The FZ30's nine-point AF is excellent and fast. Shutter lag performance is also very good, making for fewer missed shots of kids and pets. I was particularly impressed by how well the flash handled zoomed shots even from twenty feet across a room. The camera has to raise the ISO in such shots, but the result isn't bad (see our Test Results section for more).
You'll want to buy a fast card for this 8-megapixel super zoom camera, because images don't display quickly at all with garden variety 1x cards. It takes six to eight seconds to move between images with a "normal" SD card, and only two seconds with a SanDisk Ultra II 256MB. This is a camera where investing in a high speed card is wise.
The Panasonic Lumix FZ30 enters a market where SLRs are emerging as a viable and affordable category. It's well equipped to compete in terms of looks and build, as well as optics. In addition, it offers a huge zoom range--all of which is image stabilized--fast autofocus, and a live digital LCD view that many prefer. It's easily a medium camera bag's worth of photographic equipment in one piece. Its price, however approaches many low-end, high quality SLRs, like the Konica Minolta 5D or the Nikon D50.
These latter cameras, however, have greater image quality at higher ISO settings due to their larger overall pixels, as our test prints bear out (again, see the Test Results section). Bottom line, if you're only shooting family pictures to enlarge to 8x10, you'll be very happy and well-served by the Panasonic FZ30. Compared to many others in this category, its image quality stands up as excellent. Add the refined image stabilization, manual zoom, solid build, and easy controls, and the FZ30 fairly shines. It will remain high on my list of recommended cameras, often taking the top spot (depending on individual need). I sure enjoyed shooting with it.