Panasonic FZ1000 Review

 
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Panasonic FZ1000 Camera Walkaround

Initial thoughts on the company's first large-sensor bridge camera

by Dave Etchells | Posted: 06/12/2014

I've always been a fan of so-called "bridge" cameras, those long-zoom models with higher-end capabilities that substitute for an SLR for many people. At some point, though, their low-light/high-ISO limitations frustrated me. For a while I carried a DSLR everywhere; more recently it's been a compact mirrorless model of one sort or the other. Both solutions were pretty limited in terms of focal length, unless I wanted to lug some heavy glass with me. The mirrorless cameras were better in this regard, but I still missed the all-in-one efficiency of a good bridge camera.

Panasonic FZ1000 Review -- top view

In the fall of 2013, though, Sony shook up the camera world with the release of their RX10. Finally, here was a camera with a reasonably large sensor (a "1.0-inch type"), and a wide-ratio f/2.8 zoom lens on the front! And it shot really great HD video, too! I first got hands-on with it at a Sony press event where we were also shooting with their full-frame mirrorless models, the A7 and A7R.

As amazing as the full-frame cameras were, I found myself gravitating towards the RX10; it was just so much fun to shoot with. It wasn't by any means a compact, but was definitely smaller than a typical SLR, and it gave me a zoom range from 28-200mm equivalent. For an extended vacation, I might still pack a DSLR or Micro Four Thirds camera alongside the RX10, but chances are that I'd end up using the latter almost exclusively.

The biggest drawback with the RX10 is its price; at US$1,300, it's a serious investment.

Now comes the Panasonic FZ1000 to send another shockwave through the camera world -- including Sony. Compared to the RX10, the Panasonic FZ000 zooms 2x longer (all the way out to 400mm equivalent), while keeping nearly the same wide-angle focal length (25mm vs 24mm eq.) and shoots 4K video (also allowing "4K Photo" use -- more on this later).

And it shoots up to 12fps at full resolution, or at 50fps at a five-megapixel image size, vs the Sony's 10fps, with both cameras having focus locked from the first frame. The FZ1000 also has a full tilt-swivel LCD screen, vs the tilt-only one on the Sony. About the only significant shortcoming on the spec sheet is that the Panasonic FZ1000's maximum aperture goes from f/2.8 to f/4.0, while the RX10's is a constant f/2.8. All this for US$900 or thereabouts, a whopping $400 less than the RZ10.

We'll see how the Panasonic FZ1000 holds up in our testing, but for now, let's take a bit of an extended walkaround of the camera.

Panasonic FZ1000 Review -- RX10 vs FZ1000, top view

In the hand. My first impression of the Panasonic FZ1000 is that it's big, easily as bulky as a mid-sized consumer SLR. Interestingly, though, while it looks a lot bigger than the RX10, it's actually within a third-inch or so in width and height, the main difference being in its length. The FZ1000's eyepiece projects further back, and the lens a little further forwards, making it about 1.2 inches deeper. (The FZ1000 has a depth of 5.2 inches, versus 4.0 inches for the RX10.)

But while it's a fair bit bigger overall, the FZ1000 is almost indistinguishable from its competitor in terms of weight, at 831 grams (1.8 pounds) versus 813 grams, loaded and ready to go. So, while it looks a good bit bigger, the difference is such that it wouldn't affect my decision on which to carry.

Panasonic FZ1000 Review -- front right side view

Nice grip! What you do get from the Panasonic FZ1000 in exchange for its size (beyond the longer lens, of course), is a considerably more comfortable grip. The FZ1000 feels great in the hand. I actually quite liked the grip on the RX10, but I guess this is a case of not knowing what you're missing 'til you've tried it.

The FZ1000's grip is a whole lot more comfortable, and the camera as a whole is better-balanced than the Sony. It's really hard to say enough about this; it's just an entirely different experience holding the FZ1000. Go to a brick-and-mortar store and hold one in your hand -- once they're available, of course -- and you'll see what I'm talking about. Or just take my word for it, and get your preorder in now. ;-)

One place where the RX10 does win, though, is in how solid it feels. Being both smaller and yet almost as heavy as the FZ1000, it just feels solid. Some of the difference in feel is down to materials choices made on the FZ1000. Both cameras have a textured, rubbery coating covering their grip areas, but more plastic is left exposed in various places on the FZ1000's body. Its rubber coating stops short of the camera's base, doesn't extend quite as close to the lens on the left side, and doesn't cover the connector port door and surrounding area on the camera's right.

None of this has any impact on the FZ1000's "grip-ability", but it does mean that your fingernails are more likely to come in contact with the plastic body shell. When that happens, you get the usual higher-pitched, plasticky resonance, which makes the camera seem less solid than it probably is.

When it comes to shooting with the FZ1000, I find that the larger grip and slightly wider body make a noticeable difference in ease of operation. With the RX10, I'd complained about having to pull my index finger back so sharply to hit the shutter button. On the FZ1000, the shutter button is positioned further away from the right edge of the camera, and that combined with the thicker grip makes it much more comfortable to trip the shutter. My fingers aren't as scrunched on the grip, so the FZ1000 feels much more balanced and pleasant to shoot with.

The other top-panel controls are also much easier to operate, and I really like having the movie button on the top deck, versus the rear panel as in the RX10. Positioned as it is, the FZ1000's movie-record button is just a quick slide back from the shutter button, and impossible to miss. It might be a personal preference thing, but I really like the way the designers positioned the FZ1000's shutter and movie buttons.

Panasonic FZ1000 Review -- left view

Zoom and focus control. The FZ1000's aperture is electronically controlled, unlike the mechanically-coupled one on the RX10, so there's only one control ring on the FZ1000's lens barrel. A switch on the side of the lens lets you choose to control either focus or zoom with it. The only other control on the lens is the IS on/off selector.

Focus and zoom via the control ring are typical for fly-by-wire systems -- that is, not nearly as responsive as purely mechanical couplings. I have the same complaint about the FZ1000 here as I did about the RX10: Why not make the control ring velocity-sensitive, so it would make large adjustments when turned quickly, and smaller ones when rotated slowly.

I guess it's possible that the zoom motor just can't rack the lens any faster than it does currently, but I'd sure like the ability to zoom a little quicker, and with less movement of the ring to accomplish it when I'm making large changes.

Panasonic FZ1000 Review -- left view

Manual focusing. When focusing manually, you can choose to have either a magnified display or focus peaking enabled, or to have both at once. Initially, I was a little disappointed with the enlarged view, as I found it only zoomed up to 6x; not enough for precise focus adjustment, at least not in my book. Checking the manual, though, I discovered that pressing in on the control wheel at the top of the camera's rear panel toggled between a picture-in-picture magnified display, and one covering the entire screen.

In full-screen mode, the MF-assist zoom goes all the way to 10x, a much more useful level of magnification. (I have to wonder, though, why not allow it to zoom that much in the partial-frame display? If it's too hard to hold the camera on the subject, users could always just drop back to a lower magnification factor.)

Panasonic FZ1000 Review -- rear view with LCD swung out

EVF and LCD. The Panasonic FZ1000's image displays are just amazingly sharp and crisp. I suspect that the rear-panel LCD is the same 921K-dot one that everybody else seems to be using these days, but it seemed unusually sharp to my eye. Because it's a WhiteMagic RGBW panel, the RX10's display has more dots (1,229K), but both FZ1000 and RX10 have the same number of actual pixels (307K).

Despite the extra white dots on the RX10's panel, which are intended to increase brightness or reduce power consumption, details on the FZ1000 seemed sharper, at least to my eyes. I think that subtle gradations on the FZ1000's LCD were also rendered more smoothly. But having said that, the RX10's screen was noticeably brighter outdoors. I've not had a chance to try both cameras side-by-side under full noon sunlight, but at least in late afternoon sun, the difference between both was very clear.

Be that as it may, though, the Panasonic FZ1000 has a gorgeous screen -- and its electronic viewfinder is even more of a treat. I'd say that it's the best-looking EVF I've seen to date, except that I've also seen the EVF in the Panasonic GH4, and the same OLED screen and optics are used in both.

It has a fairly wide field of view, but the downside to that is that eyeglass wearers like me do need to press their lenses tight against the viewfinder bezel to be able to see everything. Once you manage to look through it, though, the view is unbelievably smooth and sharp. (Well, OK, maybe it's believably smooth and sharp, but it is pretty amazing.) I'm not generally one for counting either dots or megapixels, but the OLED screen in the FZ1000 has 2,359K dots, to the Sony's 1,440K. The difference isn't subtle at all: It's immediately and pretty dramatically visible when looking through first one, then the other.

Panasonic FZ1000 Review -- front view, flash deployed

While not directly related to the EVF or LCD, this seems like as good a place as any to mention the FZ1000's HDMI output capability. Of course, it supports standard 1080 output (both progressive and interlaced), but it can also output still images at 4K resolution if you're lucky enough to have a HDMI 1.4a-compliant TV or monitor capable of displaying that. We have a 28" 4K monitor here at IRHQ, and I have to admit that there's maybe something to this 4K thing after all, unlike the 3D TV fiasco. Looking at high-res still images on a 4K monitor is really an entirely different experience than viewing at standard 1,920 x 1,080.

User interface. The Panasonic FZ1000's user interface is a pretty rich one, given all the configurable buttons, and there's a fair bit of depth to it. I can usually pick up a camera and find my way around pretty easily, but it's been a while since I've really exercised the user interface on a Panasonic camera, so it took me a little bit to sort out the FZ1000's UI. It's not that there's anything particularly obtuse about it, it's just that there's a lot there, and there's always the question of initially figuring out where to look for everything.

One of the things I really liked about the RX10 (and a number of other high-end cameras from Sony) was the extent to which the UI is configurable. There are a number of buttons or controls you can assign functions to, and a very broad range of functions that you can assign.

Panasonic FZ1000 Review -- rear view

I think the two cameras come out pretty close to even in this regard, although the FZ1000 ends up with more available buttons: There are five separate Fn buttons, plus separate, dedicated buttons for AF/AE lock, focus mode, display options, ISO, white balance, Macro AF, and Focus Area Mode. Four of the Fn buttons (1, 2, 3, and 5) can also have different function assignments in Playback vs Record mode. Both cameras have 12 settings available in their Quick Menu displays. The functions of the rear 5-way control pad are predefined and fixed on the FZ1000, while on the Sony, all but the up-arrow (which is dedicated to display mode cycling) are configurable. I found this oddly liberating with the RX10 and other similarly-configured Sony cameras, in that the lack of labeling on the 5-way controller encouraged me to assign my own functions to them. (And out of the box, several of the configurable buttons have no function assigned to them at all.)

While the RX10 wins in the number of configurable buttons (seven vs five on the FZ1000), the fact many of the predefined buttons have functions I'd want to assign to configurable ones (ISO, white balance, and AF area mode in particular) means that I ultimately end up with more control on the FZ1000. One positive point in Sony's favor, though, is the presence of a dedicated exposure-compensation dial, a function I use a lot, and that I suspect is very frequently used by other photographers as well. It occupies space that could be used for another function button, but I'd always have one button somewhere assigned to exposure compensation, so the fact that it takes up a potential button position is moot, and I really like the fact that exposure compensation is always available, without having to call it up on the display screen.

Overall, the Panasonic FZ1000 has a highly configurable and very powerful user interface, but also one that could be a little confusing to the neophyte. On the other hand, this isn't a camera aimed at the neophyte, and the RX10 forces you to configure a number of the controls for them to have any utility at all. As much as I like the RX10's UI, and despite what I perceive as a steeper learning curve with the FZ1000, I think I have to give Panasonic the nod when it comes to user interface.

Panasonic FZ1000 Review -- controls

Scene modes. Just a very brief mention here, but the Panasonic FZ1000 has quite a rich collection of scene modes, including a couple of my personal favorites that were first introduced by Sony, namely Handheld Night Shot and Panorama (called Sweep Panorama by Sony). Handheld Night Shot captures a rapid sequence of shorter exposures, then micro-aligns them and combines them into a single image. This cuts blur from camera motion, but also gives much cleaner images than simply using a higher ISO would. Panorama mode lets you pan the camera in front of you, while holding down the shutter button. The camera will capture a large number of shots, then align and splice them together into a panorama. Various camera companies have emulated these modes with varying degrees of success, but Sony's always had the best implementations. I'll reserve final judgment until we can test these modes in a production model, but in my little bit of playing with them, they seemed to work pretty well. In Handheld Night Shot mode, the camera is pretty much in full auto mode so you in particular have very limited control over white balance. You can make the two-axis adjustments you can do in any white balance mode, but settings like incandescent or Kelvin white balance aren't available. Why, oh why is this? It seems like this would be a very easy option to add, and would make these modes much more appealing to enthusiast users.

Overall, there are no fewer than 25 different scene modes. I personally rarely use a scene mode, but looking over the assortment the FZ1000 offers, I could see myself getting into playing with them a little.

Video. The Panasonic FZ1000 and the Sony RX10 are both designed to be video machines, as much as they're excellent still cameras. The RX10's video quality is unusually high, thanks to full sensor-width readout and firmware downsampling for its Full HD video. At its maximum 4K resolution, the FZ1000 records using pixels from an eight-megapixel area at the center of the sensor, increasing the focal length crop by 1.48x, for a rather tight 35mm-equivalent focal range of 37-592mm -- good news if you shoot at telephoto, but not if you're a fan of wide-angle video. At Full HD resolution, however, the FZ1000 uses the full sensor width and then bins pixels on-sensor, potentially achieving a similar result to that of the RX10. Stay tuned for our eventual video tests to see which camera wins, but it's nice to see cameras doing something other than simple line-skipping, which can introduce a lot of aliasing and moiré artifacts.

Panasonic FZ1000 Review -- 4K video

A standout feature of the FZ1000 is its ability to shoot 4K video completely in-camera, providing that capability of the GH4, but at a much lower price point. We suspect few of our readers will care a whole lot about shooting 4K video in and of itself, but there's perhaps a different way to think about it for still shooters. Consider this: Each frame of a 4K video clip is an 8 megapixel image. Rather than thinking in terms of recording and playing back video, consider the prospect of an 8-megapixel camera with a 30fps continuous shooting mode and no buffer limits. Panasonic calls this use case "4K Photo", and we think they may actually be onto something.

The FZ1000 makes it relatively easy to shoot 4K video and then extract 8 megapixel images from it. Just play back the video, pause it where you want to grab a frame, and press the center button of the 5-way controller. The current interface isn't perfect, as you'd ideally like to be able to step through the video frame by frame to choose your shot, but when we were briefed on the camera, Panasonic told us that they'll have an improved interface for this coming via a firmware update in the near future.

This could really be a game-changer, and it feels to me like a stronger justification for 4K video than any of the video things you can do with it. (Like using the 4K to sample down for super high-quality FHD, or being able to pan an FHD window around within the scene in post production.) It's not video, it's a super-duper motor drive! I'm sure that a lot of video buffs will be all over 4K, purely for its video-related advantages, but I really think it could open a whole new world for still shooters as well. And not just sports shooters, but also ordinary Moms and Dads. What a great way to shoot the kids, especially the babies and toddlers. You can shoot video, and keep that for posterity, but at the same time, you'll be able to pick exactly the right moment for that perfect expression or pose. People tend to think of continuous-mode shooting only in the context of sports, but it can be every bit as important for family photos, too. By combining video and adequate-resolution still images, 4K could really open a whole new realm of capability for everyday still shooters. (Eight megapixels is more than enough to make a sharp 8x10 print with.)

The FZ1000 sample we have now is on firmware version 0.3. While Panasonic tells us that image quality is fine for sharing with our readers, we're reluctant to dive in too deep with it, in the event that things could be different in the final production versions. Accordingly, we may shoot a little 4K video with it, but aren't treating it as a high priority, given all the other things on our collective platter. On the other hand, our readers are our customers: Let us know if you feel it would be important to see some video from even the currently rather beta version of the FZ1000. (Let us know in the comments at the bottom of this review.)

Panasonic FZ1000 Review -- front left with hood

Hands-on summary. I've spent only a little time with the FZ1000 so far, but have come away very impressed. I did encounter a few bobbles here and there that I haven't talked about, simply because it wouldn't be fair or appropriate to call out issues in a firmware version 0.3. We'll obviously report fully and fairly on the final production version, but I can't imagine most of what I encountered not being worked out in the final firmware. Minor bobbles aside, the rest of the camera's operation, features, and image quality were mighty impressive. I've often said that Panasonic's cameras are among the best-kept secrets in the camera industry, as I don't think they've generally gotten the attention their capabilities and quality have deserved. Hopefully the FZ1000 will be able to break through that (as the GH4 apparently already has). If what we've seen so far pans out in the production models and the word gets out on this camera, I think Panasonic is going to sell a lot of them.



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Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.

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