Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ3By: Dave Etchells
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Page 2:Executive OverviewReview First Posted: 11/03/2004
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 FZ3 deserved the benefit of this new treatment. Because I'd reviewed Panasonic's DMC-FZ15 just before it (the body and lens of which are more or less identical to those of the FZ20 as well), many of my comments here will contrast the FZ3 with its higher-end brothers, the FZ15 and FZ20. Here, then, are some of the features and issues that stood out to me as I worked with the FZ3:
Fit, Feel, and Finish
Where the Panasonic DMC-FZ15 impressed me straight out of the box with its solid black body and "high-end camera" feel, the FZ3's all-plastic body felt a little lightweight and cheap in the hand. The lighter weight did mean though, that it wasn't as side-heavy as the FZ15 was, and so it was a bit more comfortable to hold in one hand. Its handgrip is smaller than that on the FZ15, leaving my rather large hands feeling a little cramped holding it, but the lighter weight of the camera largely offset this. - The FZ3 was a comfortable enough camera to hold, and should fit even very small hands quite well.
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 very good, and chromatic aberration is very low, although barrel distortion is somewhat high at maximum wide angle. (Read my comments in the Test Results section at the end of this review for more details on this.)
The FZ3 lacks a couple of key "enthusiast" features in the lens department, relative to its more sophisticated siblings. There's no manual focus adjustment option, but the ability to separate the AF operation from the shutter button largely makes up for this lack. On other fronts, 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 an image-stabilization on a long-zoom digicam like the Panasonic FZ3. 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 FZ3's seems to be about average in its performance. (Based on my purely subjective experience with various cameras, I'd say that the FZ3's anti-shake system works about as well as that in the Canon S1IS, but not quite as well as the one in the Minolta DiMAGE Z3.) These are pretty fine distinctions though - Any of the named cameras is a radical improvement over a similar model without an image stabilization system.
Shutter Response and Shooting Speed
Like it's higher-end sibling the FZ15, the FZ3 for the most part does pretty well in the speed department, provided that you avoid its 9-area autofocus mode. When operating in its 9-area AF mode, the FZ3's shutter lag is positively sluggish, ranging from 1.47 - 1.62 seconds. (Slow even when compared to other long-zoom digicam models.) In any other AF mode though, the shutter lag ranges from 0.53 - 1.0 second as the zoom is varied from wide angle to telephoto. The lag for wide angle focal lengths is quite short, while that for telephoto focal lengths is on the long side of average, but still not bad for a long-zoom digicam. The FZ3 lacks the FZ15's manual focus option, but does have a mode that lets you decouple its AF operation from the shutter button, instead focusing only when the "Focus" button on the camera's rear panel is pressed. This greatly reduces shutter lag. In this mode, the camera seemed to alternate between very fast and slightly slower shutter response, the fast times ranging from 0.07-0.09 second, and the slower ones ranging from 0.13 - 0.14 second. Even the slower times are very fast though, making this mode potentially useful for capturing fast-breaking action. Like the FZ15, the FZ3 is also extremely fast when prefocused, with a lag time in that mode of only 0.037 second.
The FZ3's cycle times are also really fast. With the focus preset in single-shot mode with a sufficiently fast card (we tested with a Lexar 32x SD card), it can capture large/fine JPEG files to the memory card nonstop, at less than a half-second per shot(!) With slower cards, it'll make you wait a little every 3-4 shots, but it's still very fast. If you use the camera with its full 9-area autofocus option set though, cycle time drops to an unimpressive 1.47 seconds/shot. In continuous mode, the continuous "High" option can capture up to 13 shots at 3.75 frames/second, a surprising rate for a consumer digicam. So... If you avoid its 9-area AF mode (which is really best suited to landscapes or still life shots), the FZ3 is a reasonably responsive camera, with excellent cycle times and buffer capacity. And, if you can live with presetting the focus point prior to your shots, the FZ3 would be great for fast-paced action.
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 FZ3 does well on both counts, with a moderately high eyepoint (although not quite as high as that of the FZ15/20), and one of the widest dioptric adjustment ranges I've yet seen in a digicam.
Control and Menu Ergonomics
Another mixed bag here, I'm afraid. On the one hand, I love the FZ3'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 FZ3's menu system better than those of most digicams I test.
On the downside, 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.
I liked the Panasonic FZ3 quite a lot, enough that I ended up making it a "Dave's Pick." Lacking only a few features that its big brothers the FZ15 and FZ20 have, it offers unusual value in a long-zoom digicam, with a good-quality lens and optical image stabilization, all for a surprisingly low price. Read on for all the juicy details...
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