Panasonic FZ1000 Field Test Part I

Panasonic's mighty megazoom takes on the Tomato Festival!

By Michael Tomkins | Posted: 08/07/2014

The Panasonic FZ1000 is a camera that interests me greatly. Last year, I reviewed the Sony RX10, and this is about as clear and direct a competitor to that camera as one could ask for. And both cameras speak to me, because now that I have a five year old son, I'm finding that when traveling I seldom have space to bring my DSLR kit.

Whenever I'm headed on an overseas trip, there are just too many little essentials, toys, and whatnot that need to be packed in my carry-on. Something invariably has to give, and it's usually my DSLR and lenses that have to make way, swapped for a more compact camera. Mirrorless certainly saves some heft with the body, but quality lenses generally aren't radically smaller than their DSLR counterparts. And while a compact camera like my Sony RX100 is undeniably portable, I sacrifice a lot in terms of versatility for its pocket-friendly nature.

The Sony RX10 appealed to me a lot, because while not pocket-friendly, it's still much smaller than an interchangeable-lens camera outfit with similar coverage. The same is true of the Panasonic FZ1000, and while it's a little bigger, it offers almost double the zoom range. I've yet to see both cameras side by side -- I expect to do so before my second shooter's report -- but the FZ1000 is of similar size to my Pentax K-5 DSLR with 18-55mm kit lens mounted, even if you count the FZ1000's deeply-protruding viewfinder.

Ignore the EVF protrusion, and the FZ1000 is actually a fair bit smaller than that combination, despite having more than five times the zoom range, and a brighter lens to boot. Of course, the tradeoff is there, and it's the fact that the Panasonic FZ1000 has a much smaller sensor than my APS-C DSLR. But then, that was true of the RX10 and my Sony RX100, and I'm actually pretty happy with the image quality of both in all but relative low-light conditions, when I find myself reaching for the SLR.

But I'll come back to that thought in a little bit. The first thing I wanted to get a feel for when I took the Panasonic FZ1000 out of the box was its build quality and construction. I'd heard that build -- while pretty solid and creak-free -- didn't feel quite as nice as that of the RX10, and I have to agree.

The Panasonic's body panels do feel quite plasticky, an impression that's reinforced by the hard, rubber trim inserts and the covers over the various connectors. The cover for the USB / HDMI / AV Out / Remote compartment, in particular, is fiddly to open and close, and I'm not a fan of it at all.

But by the liberal use of plastic, Panasonic's designers managed to keep weight down to almost exactly the same as the RX10, loaded and ready to go -- despite the much greater zoom range on offer. And while it doesn't exude quality in quite the same way as that camera, the FZ1000 nevertheless feels comfortable and reassuring in-hand.

Most controls are well-located and give reasonable feedback in use, as well, although I do wish the four-way controller was a little larger. The Fn2 button is also a little tricky to locate by touch, but that's probably by design, given that its default function is to enable Wi-Fi -- not something you want to do by accident.

As I mentioned when I uploaded my Panasonic FZ1000 gallery recently, my first shooting experience with the camera came at the Grainger County Tomato Festival in rural Rutledge, Tennessee. It was a baking-hot Sunday afternoon with thunderstorms and tornadoes in the forecast, but we were lucky to get a good couple of hours at this delightfully colorful festival before the threat of severe weather sent us on our way back home.

It didn't take long at all to find the first quirk of the FZ1000's design, however. Literally the first time I brought the viewfinder to my eye, there was no image. I checked, and the Power light was illuminated, but on returning to the viewfinder, again there was nothing visible. And then I realized -- with it being so bright and sunny, I was wearing polarizing sunglasses. Rotate the camera to portrait orientation and the viewfinder became visible. Turn it back to landscape, and the viewfinder vanished again. Shoot without my sunglasses, and all was fine.

This isn't something I've gone out of my way to check on past cameras, but it's not that unusual for me to shoot through my sunglasses, as my eyes are quite sensitive to bright light. I can't recall a viewfinder that was set up in this manner before -- typically it's the other way around. (Portrait invisible through glasses, and landscape fine.) It's not really an issue that the FZ1000 operates in the opposite manner, per se, just something that takes a little getting used to.

Given how bright and sunny it was at the festival -- and even on the way home, since we left before the storms arrived -- I didn't get an opportunity to shoot at higher sensitivities on this first shoot. I'll be doing so before my next shooter's report, but at or near base sensitivity I'm very impressed with the FZ1000's image quality. Photos from this camera are packed with detail and rich in color.

At default settings, colors are perhaps just a little oversaturated, but that's part of what helps them pop. (And truth be told, many consumers like this.) If you prefer a more natural look, that's easily achieved through the handsome and responsive menu system, and specifically the Photo Style option. Seven styles are available, and each can be adjusted for various settings such as contrast, sharpness, noise reduction and saturation -- or you can just shoot in raw format for maximum control, which is what I'd do myself.

I found shooting with the FZ1000 to be very freeing, with its lens providing as much reach as it does between a generous wide-angle and a very powerful telephoto. Shooting with a DSLR or mirrorless camera, I'd have continuously been switching between lenses, fumbling for lens caps, and the camera bag I'd have needed to carry all the gear would've been weighing me down. Yet it would likely still have been more limiting. For my Pentax K-5, the most versatile lens I own is a 7.5x zoom, my 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6; I don't own a lens beyond 300mm-equivalent.

Here, I felt like I was carrying just a DSLR with kit lens, yet I had so many more possibilities for framing. And on balance, image quality was better than that 18-135mm kit zoom for my DSLR. In good light, I really didn't feel that I was giving anything significant up in terms of image quality. And autofocus was swift and confident -- it felt much like that of my DSLR, in other words.

That's not to say that everything was perfect, however. I stumbled across something which I found frustrating compared to shooting with my DSLR. Apparently, this also applies to the Sony RX10, although I don't remember noticing when I had access to that camera. (I don't have the RX10 in-hand at the moment, but had one of my colleagues check, and its behavior is the same.)

The problem cropped up when I was trying to shoot some kids and adults throwing overripe tomatoes at each other. Because my subjects were running around, ducking and dodging as they threw tomatoes at each other, I wanted to shoot with continuous autofocus.

This functions only while the shutter button is at least half-pressed. However, I also wanted to adjust zoom during the burst of shots, because with my subjects moving around so much, my framing options were continuously changing.

The trouble I had was that the Panasonic FZ1000 (much like the RX10) won't allow you to adjust the zoom position while the shutter button is being pressed. That's likely because the lens isn't parfocal -- that is, when the zoom position is adjusted, focus can change at the same time.

Still, with a fixed lens it strikes me that this isn't really an issue -- you know how much focus will change for any given adjustment, after all, so the camera could correct for this on the fly. (My very first digicam, a Sony Cyber-shot DSC-D770, did just this if I remember correctly.)

And even with a varifocal lens, the camera could be trying to correct focus while zoom was adjusted, if it were just possible to make that adjustment during focus operation. But sadly, that's not the case -- my only option was to release the shutter button before adjusting the zoom, whether I was using the zoom rocker or lens ring. Then after adjusting zoom, I'd half-press the shutter button and focusing would start all over again.

That meant my delay in reacting and releasing / pressing the shutter button before and after zooming was added to the time needed to refocus, greatly increasing the time between shots. Did I miss shots because of this? Definitely. And speaking of the zoom ring, even for more static subjects, I mostly avoided it and used the zoom rocker simply because adjusting focal length with the fly-by-wire ring was so slow, and made it hard to keep the camera steady.

Between these two issues, I longed for a mechanical zoom linkage like that on my DSLR, rather than this fly-by-wire design. Still, my DSLR wouldn't have offered me the same zoom reach that this lens does, nor its relatively less bulky, more lightweight nature.

And truth be told, having to release the shutter button to adjust zoom isn't anywhere near as irksome as having to change lenses. So while this certainly was frustrating, it's not a showstopper by any means.

For my next shooter's report, I'm expecting things to get rather interesting. For one thing, I'll hopefully be shooting the Panasonic FZ1000 side-by-side with its arch-rival, the Sony RX10. For another, I'm planning to do some low-light shooting, and here I'd expect my DSLR to show a larger advantage.

I also want to take a look at stabilization, macro shooting, 4K video, and the FZ1000's built-in Wi-Fi connectivity. (And perhaps some reader requests, if you have anything in particular you'd like me to look into, or any particular aspects of the FZ1000's operation that you'd like to see me discuss.)

Watch this space for part II of my Field Test, and if you have any questions or requests, please be sure to leave them in the comments below. And if you've not already done so, check my Panasonic FZ1000 gallery for even more images from this mighty megazoom camera!

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