Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5By: Dave Etchells
Panasonic updates its 12x optically stabilized Leica lens digicam to five megapixels.
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Page 3:User's ReportReview First Posted: 05/09/2005
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 FZ5 deserved the benefit of this new treatment. Because I'd reviewed Panasonic's DMC-FZ3 (on which this model is based) fairly recently, many of my comments here will contrast the FZ5 to its older sibling. Here, then, are some of the features and issues that stood out to me as I worked with the FZ5:
Fit, Feel, and Finish
Much like the FZ3, the Panasonic FZ5's all-plastic body felt a little lightweight and cheap in the hand, although my impression of the FZ5 in this respect is a bit more favorable. The lighter weight does mean that the camera would lend itself well to travel, though I'm perhaps a little concerned about the camera's durability if it is knocked or dropped. Thanks to a reprofiled hand-grip and the camera's being so light, it was quite comfortable to hold in one hand. The handgrip is still fairly small though, leaving my rather large hands feeling a little cramped holding it. - The FZ5 was a reasonably comfortable camera to hold, but since comfort is a fairly subjective issue, if you have large hands you may want to try it out at the store before buying.
Lens Quality and Focus Operation
The lens is again the standout on this camera, and I'm happy to report that its optical quality lives up to its Leica heritage. In particular, corner to corner sharpness is noticeably better than average, and chromatic aberration is very low, although barrel distortion is just average at maximum wide angle. (Read my comments in the Test Results section at the end of this review for more details on this.)
The Panasonic Lumix FZ5 still lacks a couple of key "enthusiast" features in the lens department, relative to its more sophisticated siblings. There's no manual focus adjustment option, and while there are filter threads on the included lens hood adapter, there's no provision in the camera's menu system to adapt its focusing for use with external accessory lenses.
Optical Image Stabilization
It's hard to overstate the value of image-stabilization on a long-zoom digicam like the Panasonic FZ5. 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 FZ5's seems to be a bit better than average in its performance. - For a comparison between Panasonic's and Konica Minolta's anti-shake technology, see the "Optics" page of my original FZ3 review. There, I said that the FZ3's anti-shake performed slightly better than that of the Konica Minolta Z3. The distinction between competing anti-shake systems are pretty fine though - Any of the named cameras is a radical improvement over a similar model without an image stabilization system.
Shutter Response and Shooting Speed
Focusing speed on the Panasonic FZ5 is somewhat improved as compared to the older FZ3 model (particularly when the lens is towards the telephoto end of its range, with two new "high-speed" AF modes. The new modes work by prioritizing the focusing system rather than the LCD / viewfinder display, which meant that the display could freeze momentarily during focusing. Honestly, this seems like a good trade-off though, and in the high-speed AF modes, focusing speed felt quite good, and tested even better, with typical full-autofocus shutter lag numbers in the range of 0.32 - 0.35 second, among the very fastest consumer cameras on the market. It's too bad that a high-speed AF equivalent isn't available for the camera's nine-area focusing mode, which honestly still feels rather sluggish. (Although perhaps only by comparison to the high-speed AF modes, as the 9-area AF option gave shutter lag times in the 0.51 - 0.56 second range.) If you can "prefocus" the camera by half-pressing and holding down the shutter button before the shot itself, shutter lag is reduced to 0.135 second (a quick shutter response, albeit not quite as blazingly so as that of the FZ3).
Another difference relative to the FZ3 came in the cycle time department. While the FZ3 could only snap shots every 1.56 seconds until the card was full (at least, with a 32x Lexar SD card), the Panasonic FZ5 managed to capture at the faster rate of a shot every 1.23 seconds, despite the fact that the FZ5 is handling much more image data. In high-speed continuous mode, it can fire off up to four large/fine shots at a rate of 3.0 frames/second, a good rate of speed for a consumer digicam. (Continuous mode is where its reduced image data lets the FZ3 hold an edge, capturing up to 7 images at 3.66 frames/second.) Thanks to its good continuous mode speed, and most particularly to its faster than average autofocus speed, the FZ5 should prove reasonably well suited for shooting sports or other fast-paced action, so long as you don't need to use one of the non-"high speed" AF modes.
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 Panasonic FZ5 does well on both counts, with a moderately high eyepoint (I could just about see the entire frame without touching my eyeglass lenses to the eyepiece), and one of the widest dioptric adjustment ranges I've yet seen in a digicam. The newly enlarged rear-panel LCD, with slightly higher resolution than on the FZ3, seems to have a fairly large range of viewing angles. Sunlight unfortunately hasn't really been much of an option here for the time I've had the camera, but based on the closest we've had to sunlight, it seems like the display is a little better than average visibility-wise.
Control and Menu Ergonomics
Another mixed bag here, I'm afraid. On the one hand, as was the case with the FZ3, I love the Panasonic FZ5'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 FZ5's menu system better than those of most digicams I test. Likewise, the new button for the Optical Image Stabilization saved me having to delve into the menu to enable or disable the feature, and was greatly appreciated.
On the other hand, 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. Likewise, I was very disappointed to see that the Program Shift function has been removed. This was a nice feature that let users bias the camera towards a fast shutter speed / wide aperture, or a slow shutter speed / small aperture, without really needing to understand what the values meant and set them directly in the Shutter / Aperture priority modes. Why it was removed is beyond me.
Thanks to the significantly improved shutter lag times (with the provisos mentioned above), I found myself a lot happier with the Panasonic FZ5 than I'd been with the FZ3. (And the FZ3 was quite a nice camera in its own right.) The larger LCD was a welcome change, and the added resolution will allow for larger prints or more cropping of images - definitely a bonus compared to the FZ3's rather limited resolution. The new orientation sensor may also make your life easier, if your workflow recognizes the corresponding EXIF tag. All in all, the Panasonic FZ5 was a camera I grew to find myself really rather liking, albeit still with a couple of small quirks. (Read on for all the fascinating details.)