Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 Review

 
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Basic Specifications
Full model name: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
Resolution: 10.10 Megapixels
Sensor size: 1/2.33"
Lens: 12.00x zoom
(25-300mm eq.)
Viewfinder: LCD
ISO: 80-6400
Shutter: 60-1/2000
Max Aperture: 3.3
Dimensions: 4.1 x 2.3 x 1.3 in.
(103 x 60 x 33 mm)
Weight: 7.7 oz (219 g)
includes batteries
MSRP: $400
Availability: 04/2009
Manufacturer: Panasonic
10.10
Megapixels
12.00x zoom
1/2.33"
size sensor
image of Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
Front side of Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 digital camera Back side of Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 digital camera Top side of Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 digital camera Left side of Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 digital camera Right side of Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 digital camera

Imaging Resource rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
Overview

by Shawn Barnett
Review Date: 04/21/09

Panasonic has long been making small pocket zooms with long lenses, and the latest model, the Lumix ZS3, is perhaps the most impressive. They've been so successful with the format, dating back to the Lumix TZ1, that even Canon has joined the fray with the SX100 and SX200 series, two new lines that appear to take on Panasonic's line head-on. We will look at the SX200 IS soon, but the real winners are digital camera shoppers, who have several very interesting cameras to choose from.

Panasonic ZS3 Features

The Panasonic DMC-ZS3 (also called the DMC-TZ7 in some markets) has a 10.1-megapixel sensor, a 3-inch LCD, and a 12x zoom that flattens out into a 1.29-inch-thick pocket camera. The Panasonic ZS3 has a surprisingly simple interface, yet offers some depth for those wanting to explore Scene modes and movie making.

Its 10.1-megapixel sensor is a bit of a curiosity in itself, as it's actually a 12.7-megapixel sensor that the Panasonic ZS3 crops from to get its 4:3, 3:2, and 16:9 aspect ratios from. That sounds complicated, but the result is that the corners of each aspect ratio are not exposed to the usual lens softness and chromatic aberration to the same degree that they normally would be.

Ranging from 25-300mm equivalent, the Panasonic ZS3's 12x zoom is a Leica-branded optical zoom lens with optical image stabilization.

The Panasonic ZS3 has no optical viewfinder, but does have a large 3-inch LCD with 460,000 dots of resolution, which is a little more than usual, making for a sharper image.

An 11-point multi-area autofocus system is the default focusing method, but the user can choose from six different modes, including Face Detection and Face Recognition, where the camera can actually identify individuals that it sees. The Panasonic ZS3 also includes autofocus tracking as a part of the face-detection system.

The Lumix ZS3 has no manual or semi-automatic modes, instead using only Program, Intelligent Auto, and 28 Scene modes.

Movie mode on the Panasonic ZS3 can capture HD video at 1,280 x 720 pixels (720p) at 60 frames per second when you use the AVCHD Lite capture mode. Motion JPEG is also available, but is limited to HD at 30 frames per second. The Panasonic ZS3 stores images on SD/SDHC cards and includes about 45MB of internal memory. Connectivity includes USB 2.0, Standard-definition video output (via the same proprietary jack; separate cables included), and Mini-HDMI out port (no cable included).

Power comes from a lithium-ion battery, good for 300 shots according to CIPA standards.

Panasonic ZS3 Pricing and Availability

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 will ship sometime in April 2009, with expected price of $399 or less.

 

Panasonic ZS3 User Report

by Shawn Barnett

Though the name has been changed, perhaps to get a few more digits for future models, the ZS3 is a continuation of a well-loved and respected line of pocket-long-zoom digital cameras from Panasonic, that includes the original TZ1 from 2006 (oh, so long ago in digital camera years). Though we had to ding the first model for some lens flare issues, we couldn't deny its blend of fun and utility. Gone is the lens flare, though, and the Panasonic ZS3 delivers all the fun with a little more simplicity than we thought possible.

Look and feel. Some might not call it a pocketable camera, but I had no problem slipping the Panasonic ZS3 into my back pocket and shirt pocket when I headed out to shoot. At only 1.29 inches (33mm) thick, it's really not much bigger than most pocket cameras, and you certainly get a whole lot more zoom power than most of those offer.

The Panasonic ZS3 is available in four colors, Silver, Black, Blue, and Red. Each of them has a handsome silver bezel around each lens piece and a silver top deck. When looking at the picture above, to the upper left of the lens is the flash, and to the upper right you'll find the AF assist lamp. A small bulge forms the Panasonic ZS3's grip.

On the top you see a series of holes. From the left are holes for the speaker, then the two clusters to the right are for the two microphones. I have to wonder just how effective the stereo mics will be when they're this close together. To the right of that is the power switch, then the shutter button with the zoom control surrounding it. Finally we come to the very simple Mode dial. This looks and works well, but it may be the only major weak point to the Panasonic ZS3's design. It turns too easily (it's downright loose), so I accidentally changed modes quite often. If you turn it to the open area accidentally, the LCD says, "Mode dial is not in the proper position." Seems to me that preventing the mode dial from turning to the improper position in the first place would have been easier than wiring the system to detect this condition and post this message.

Controls. Most of the controls are on the back of the Panasonic ZS3, to the right of the LCD. Nine bumps serve as a thumbgrip, just left of the Record/Playback switch. Though it works fine, I really prefer to have a button activate Playback mode, as most SLRs do, and only some pocket cameras. Then when a photo opportunity strikes while you're in Playback mode, a press of the shutter button returns you to Record mode. But as I say, this switch works well enough, and is easy to understand.

Just below that switch is the Panasonic ZS3's instant-on Motion-picture button, which starts recording video with whatever settings you've preselected. I found it a little difficult to press this button without shaking the camera, and would prefer it up closer to the top right corner of the screen. Below this is the navigation cluster, which serves to move around in the menus and also to adjust the various items embossed into the metal: Self-timer, EV, Flash, and Macro. The Menu/Set button brings up the Panasonic ZS3's Main menu, and the left and right arrows move in and out of menu levels.

The Display button switches among the various display options, and the Q.Menu button brings up a Quick Menu in Record mode, and serves as the Delete button in Playback mode.

Overall, pretty straightforward. If you've used just about any other digital camera on the market, you'll easily acquaint yourself with the Panasonic ZS3.

Lens. Ranging from 25-300mm equivalent, the Panasonic ZS3's lens is capable of a very wide-angle view and a pretty long telephoto, and it bears repeating that this 12x range fits into a pocket! Past pocket zooms have either neglected the wide-angle end to get a longer telephoto, or skimped on the telephoto to get a decent wide-angle, usually only as wide as 28mm. But the Panasonic ZS3's lens goes from a room-grabbing 25mm to 300mm, the same focal length you see the pros using at sporting events.

Image quality, as you'll see below, is pretty good overall, with some chromatic aberration and corner softness, but that's to be expected, and is kept controlled well enough that we can't complain.

The Panasonic ZS3's lens has the company's Mega Optical Image Stabilization, which works remarkably well. It's one of the most rock-solid in the business.

Modes. As I mentioned, the one major flaw to the Panasonic ZS3 is its loose mode dial. I really like how they've simplified the selections, with Intelligent Auto, Normal Picture, MyScene 1, MyScene 2, Scene, and Clipboard mode. Most users should just leave the Panasonic ZS3 in Intelligent Auto mode and let the camera choose the most appropriate Scene mode. It switches quickly into Macro mode when needed, and recognizes faces automatically. Everyone with little experience in photography should just solve the loose dial problem by taping the mode dial into Intelligent Auto and just shoot, because it's gotten remarkably reliable.

The two MyScene modes are useful if you have more than one favorite Scene mode and want to keep them set and at-hand. Clipboard mode allows you to photograph important documents and maps to keep on your device for quick recall later. Image size is limited to 2 megapixels maximum, and images are stored in the Panasonic ZS3's internal memory. It's a great way to just grab a shot of the subway map as you start traveling in a new city, and the Panasonic ZS3's relatively high-res screen brings up enough detail to make it useful.


Face recognition: Watch a short video demonstrating the Panasonic TS1's new face recognition feature. The ZS3 offers the same technology. Click here for a larger version.

Face detect vs recognition. The terms used to be interchangeable, but the Panasonic ZS3 includes actual Face Recognition in addition to detection, where you can teach the camera which faces to watch for and quite literally focus on. It's intended both to prioritize which face is usually in focus, but also to help you find pictures of your family members as you look through your photographs later on your computer. I did a quick test to verify that it works as well as the Panasonic TS1, and decided I could reuse the video at left to demonstrate the feature. Results were mixed at best, but remember that this isn't exactly a real-world test, and some of the faces were captured in low light. I'm unsure how much the camera will learn as it goes along, but I don't think I'd rely on it to organize a set of photos at this point. It's still interesting technology.

Menus. The Panasonic ZS3's menu is big and clear; and in Intelligent Auto mode, it gets even bigger, taking up only four lines instead of five. The Quick Menu is handy, but doesn't seem much faster than the regular menu for changing most items, thanks to the sheer number of jumps needed to get from option to option. Still, it's nice to have a choice which menu you use for commonly set functions, and all of the available options do appear onscreen at once with the Quick Menu. This menu drops down from the top of the screen and allows you to change more common settings, including Stabilizer, Metering, AF mode, White Balance, Intelligent ISO, ISO, Intelligent Exposure, Picture size, and LCD mode.

The screen is informative, giving you information about both the still resolution settings and movie mode settings, since both options are available at once. Pressing the Display button cycles through the available settings. The first and second screens are nearly identical: the first shows how many still shots you can capture with the available memory, and the second shows how much video time you can capture. For some reason the second screen also omits the time and date from the bottom of the screen. The third screen omits all but the AF points, and the third adds a grid. You can also choose to display an optional histogram on all but the blank screen, a handy tool to verify proper exposure.

Storage and battery. The Panasonic ZS3 stores images on SD and SDHC cards, whose maximum capacity is 32GB. That'll be sufficient for most needs with this camera, and indeed a 4 to 8GB card should be sufficient unless you plan to shoot a lot of video. The camera also comes with 45MB of built-in memory.

The Panasonic ZS3's battery is a 895mAh, 3.6 volt lithium-ion design, model number DMW-BCG10PP. Battery life is around 300 shots, according to CIPA standards, though if you're going to shoot a lot of video, I recommend picking up at least one spare, as the battery depleted quite rapidly when I shot video.

Shooting. I'm a big fan of small cameras with big imaginations. Whether that means they can shoot wide-angle views with ease, or reach out and grab far off scenes, or shoot video with some grace, I start to think of them as companions rather than just cameras. Well, the Panasonic ZS3 does all three of those items quite well, so let's just say I've become a fan.



Range. This is what 25-300mm looks like.

Zooming with the Panasonic ZS3 is fairly fluid, though it tends to jump in large blocks, making fine framing somewhat difficult. I found that flicking the zoom control allowed me to move in fairly fine steps, which was a reasonable workaround.

Zooming while shooting video is enhanced, since it starts slowly and gradually speeds up, which I found better than the Panasonic TS1's "on or off" fast-all-the-time zoom. I zoomed in all the way and started to zoom back while shooting video, and though I held the zoom all the way to the right, zoom started extremely slowly then gradually increased, slowing as it neared the end. You'll have to learn just how the camera will respond at different focal lengths before you can reliably use the Panasonic ZS3, because it seems to zoom more slowly at full telephoto than in the middle focal lengths.

As I mentioned earlier, the Motion picture button is more difficult to press while holding the camera than it should be, especially if you plan to start zooming. So despite the excellent image stabilization in the Panasonic ZS3, the start to this particular video is a bit shaky. Consider also the 300mm focal length.

In my TS1 review, I also mentioned that it was a little odd that there was no mask to tell me just what I'd be recording if I decided to press the red Motion picture button. You see, the default aspect ratio for stills on the Panasonic ZS3 is 4:3, and if you're shooting an HD video, which is 16:9, you won't know how much of the top or bottom of the frame will be cropped until you press the Motion picture button. Well, it turns out there is a menu item for just such a mask: It's on screen three of the Setup menu, called REC AREA. Set it to on and it will overlay a light mask top and bottom, one that's easy enough to see through that I didn't mind having it active all the time.

Ports. The top port is mini-HDMI, while the bottom is a proprietary connector for A/V out, USB and DC-in.

Unlike most digital cameras, the Panasonic ZS3 also has a wind filter for its videos, which does help cut the wind noise when shooting movies outdoors. It's not completely removed, but reduced, which is how it is with most wind filters I've used.

Because one of the main differences between the Panasonic ZS3 and the ZS1 (available for $100 less) is its AVCHD Lite movie recording and HDMI-out option, I went through some trouble trying to get a Mini-HDMI to HDMI cable so I could plug the ZS3 into my HDTV. I went to Walmart, Target, Staples, and even Radio Shack, finding nothing, not even a step-down adapter. After my long search, I came back to the office to find that we already have one; but be warned that though it's a major feature on the ZS3, finding a cable to explore it will require that you venture online or to the nearest mail-order catalog. You may find one at BestBuy or another video specialty store, just not the general stores that tend to dabble in electronics.


Motion JPEG. Here's a very brief sample of the MJPEG video uploaded to YouTube. For the full 24MB .MOV file, click here.

Cable in hand, I went to explore the wonders of HD video from the camera. Perhaps it was my TV's settings, or maybe just my TV, but it wasn't playing back like I expected. I thought I'd see smooth video with pixel-to-pixel crispness on my Samsung TV, but it just didn't happen. Video looked fine from a distance, but wasn't as crisp as DVDs look on my television. I wasn't able to spend a lot of time tweaking settings, so that's all I can say. Dave, however, went and plugged it into one of his Samsung TVs and said it looked fine and crisp, so be aware that like anything to do with HDTV, you're entering a more complicated realm than you might be prepared for. The Panasonic ZS3 is primed for use on Panasonic HDTVs, using their enhanced Viera Link technology, which allows you to control the camera from the TV's remote control if you like. Because Viera Link is a superset of the HDMI CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) interface, Dave was able to control the camera's Playback menu via his Samsung TV's remote as well, but Panasonic does not guarantee that will work with all brands or models of HDTVs.

When recording AVCHD, it's important to remember to buy a Class 4 or 6 card, as it requires quite a bit more speed than the average card can deliver. I'm still happier shooting Motion JPEG for playback and editing on my computer.

Summary. I found the Panasonic ZS3 very capable at getting still images that I'd be proud to print and frame. I love the long zoom range, both the very wide angle for indoor shots and the telephoto for getting in close. Its excellent optical image stabilization makes the steadying the long zoom seem like child's play, and the big, sharp LCD gives you just a little better look at your images. If you're looking for a versatile, easy-to-use digital camera that you can slip into a larger pocket, the Panasonic ZS3 is a great choice.

 

Panasonic Lumix ZS3 Lens Quality


Wide:
Sharp at
center
Wide:
Quite soft, lower left
Tele:
Fairly sharp in center
Tele:
Slightly soft, lower left corner

Sharpness: The Panasonic Lumix ZS3's wide-angle zoom setting produced very strong blurring in the lower corners of the frame, with only moderate blurring in the top corners. At telephoto, softening in the corners isn't as strong compared to center.


Wide: Slight barrel distortion (0.4%); minimally noticeable
Tele: Average amount of pincushion distortion (0.2%), not overly distinctive

Geometric Distortion: Barrel distortion at wide-angle is only moderate on the Panasonic Lumix ZS3, at about 0.4%, which is only slightly noticeable and much better than average. At telephoto, the 0.2% pincushion is about average, and only slightly noticeable as well.


Wide:
Moderate
Tele:
Slightly bright

Chromatic Aberration: Chromatic aberration at wide-angle is moderate, with a few red pixels visible along target lines. At telephoto, the effect appears stronger, with brighter blue pixels visible.


Macro:
Sharp detail
Macro with Flash:
Very uneven

Macro: The Panasonic Lumix ZS3's Macro mode captures a sharp image with minimal blurring in the corners and along the edges of the frame. Details are quite sharp on the coins and brooch. Minimum capture area was 2.54 x 1.91 inches, or 65 x 48 millimeters. The position of the camera's flash results in a shadow from the lens in the lower left corner, and a strong overexposure on the brooch. External lighting will be best at this range.


 

Panasonic Lumix ZS3 Image Quality


Color: Color is somewhat muted in some respects, especially yellows, some of which have a slight green tint. Blues are pumped more than reds, but color looks mostly accurate, rather than the usual tendency toward oversaturation that most companies employ to appeal to consumers. Hue is also a little off for colors like yellow and cyan. Dark skintones are a little more saturated, but lighter tones are pretty spot on.


80
200
400
800
1,600

ISO: Noise and Detail: Detail is quite good at ISO 100 and 200, with some softening and visible luminance noise beginning at ISO 400. Chroma (color) noise is pretty well controlled at all ISOs. Things start to fall apart around ISO 800, with stronger blurring, and ISO 1,600 is quite messy. See Printed results below for more about how this relates to printed images.


Wide:
Dim (ISO 200)
Tele:
Slightly dim (ISO 640)
Flash: The Panasonic Lumix ZS3's flash is already slightly dim at ISO 100 at the wide-angle setting as early as six feet, decreasing in brightness from there. Performance is about the same when zoomed to telephoto.

Our manufacturer-specified testing shows the wide-angle setting to expose a little dark at the rated distance of 17.4 feet or 5.3 meters, and the camera increased ISO to 200. It's possible that the flash metering responded to the white walls and ceiling in this shot. The telephoto test at 11.8 feet or 3.6 meters came out a little dim, despite the camera raising the ISO to 640. Thus, the Lumix ZS3's flash isn't really that powerful, but should work fine in closer, more intimate settings.


Auto WB:
Close, slightly warm
Incandescent WB:
Too warm
Manual WB:
About right

Incandescent: The Panasonic Lumix ZS3's Auto and Manual white balance modes handle our tungsten lighting test pretty well, though Auto mode results in a slight warm tint. Incandescent mode produced too strong of a warm cast.


Printed: ISO 80, 100, and 200 look good printed at 13x19 inches, with good color and detail. Any larger and luminance noise is noticeable ISO 400 also looks good at 11x14, which is just about right for a 10-megapixel digital camera. ISO 800 shots are usable at 8x10, and better at 5x7. ISO 1,600 shots are still surprisingly usable at 5x7, but better at 4x6. Though chromatic aberration looks somewhat high in the analysis above, when printed at 8x10, it's not noticeable at all. The telephoto CA becomes noticeable on high-contrast objects at about 11x14. Overall, a good performance for a pocket long zoom digital camera.


 

Panasonic Lumix ZS3 Performance


Shutter Lag: Full autofocus shutter lag is good, at 0.668 second at wide angle and 0.792 second at full telephoto. It's not as fast as the average 3x zoom, but that's one of the prices you pay for a long zoom. (Note that those figures were obtained using the default 11-point autofocus mode. The Panasonic ZS3 offers a number of AF modes, including Face Detection, AF tracking, 1-point High-Speed and Spot AF.) Prefocus shutter lag is 0.127 second, not the fastest, but still quick.


Cycle Time: Cycle time is also relatively fast, capturing a frame every 1.8 seconds in single-shot mode. Continuous Burst mode at full resolution captured a frame every 0.57 second or 1.77 frames per second, for a burst of 3 frames. Unlimited Burst mode is a bit slower at 0.69 second or 1.45 frames per second, but the camera seems to be able to capture frames indefinately at that rate. The high-speed (3-megapixel only) option is very fast, at about 10.05 frames per second (0.10-second intervals).


Flash Recycle: The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3's flash recycles in 5.8 seconds after a full-power discharge, about average.


 

Panasonic Lumix ZS3 Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • 12x zoom includes unusually wide angle and long telephoto ends
  • Optical image stabilization works very well
  • Good battery life
  • Good control over chroma noise
  • Good Auto white balance performance
  • Big, high-resolution LCD screen
  • Minimal barrel distortion
  • Very good Macro mode
  • HD movie mode
  • HDMI output
  • Camera zooms optically while recording video
  • Intelligent Auto mode selects Scene modes for you
  • 10 fps high-speed mode (only 3-megapixels though)
  • Face Detection works well
  • Excellent printed results
  • Mode dial is very loose
  • Record/Playback switch means that you can't quickly enter record mode with a press on the shutter button
  • Face Recognition is hit-and-miss
  • Moderate chromatic aberration is visible at larger print sizes
  • Luminance noise, even at low ISOs
  • Low-power flash
  • No manual or semi-automatic exposure modes

 

Conclusion. Covering a range from 25-300mm, the Panasonic Lumix ZS3 is a great companion, whether you're going out for a walk or on a long trip. Panasonic took a few simple steps to make the ZS3's interface easier to use, and the results will appeal to most users. What I liked most was having a zoom lens that was long enough to encompass my vision: allowing me to shoot both very wide angle and reach out a little further than normal with a 300mm-equivalent zoom. Though image quality is a little soft in the corners at wide-angle, distortion is low at both zoom settings, and overall image quality is excellent. Luminance noise is a little high for our taste at low ISOs, but chroma (color) noise is quite low, and neither is a major factor in printed output until you get to 13x19-inches or higher, at least up to ISO 200. Movies are also quite good, and I appreciate the light gray mask that shows which video aspect ratio you have selected. As we saw with the TS1's Face Recognition mode, it was good but not great, so enjoy the face detection instead, which is indeed great. Overall, the Panasonic Lumix ZS3 offers a lot of photographic power, covering wide and telephoto with better quality than many larger cameras, and slipping quietly into a pocket or bag. It's just the type of camera that photographers would keep with them when they don't want to carry an SLR, and would be a great backpack or biking camera, when weight, size, and versatility are important. It's a sure and simple Dave's Pick, and a clear signal to competitors that Panasonic is a serious force in digital photography.

 

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