Panasonic ZS70 Field Test Part I

All the zoom that will fit in your pocket, and now it's selfie-friendly too!

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47mm-equivalent, 1/200 sec. @ f/4.0, ISO 80

The compact camera market may have been decimated by the reign of the camera-equipped smartphone, but while it is nowadays a shadow of its former self, there are a couple of market segments which remain reasonably healthy, largely because they focus on offering features which smartphones predominantly lack due to their slim form factor. If you want to sell a compact, point-and-shoot camera these days, the way to do so is either to make it rugged and life-proof, or to gift it with an extremely powerful zoom lens.

Panasonic has plenty of experience in the pocket-friendly, long-zoom market

Panasonic knows more than a little about the latter, as the company has been offering pocket-friendly long-zoom cameras for more than a decade now, ever since the launch of the Lumix TZ1 all the way back in early 2006. Along the way, the company redubbed the TZ-series as the Lumix ZS-series in the US market, although closely-related models still remain available in overseas markets under the earlier Lumix TZ badge.

And now, the same is true of the 12th-generation Panasonic ZS70, which is alternately known as the TZ90, TZ91, TZ92 or TZ93 in different markets around the world, with only minor regional differences, as far as I'm aware. Closely related to last year's ZS60, the Panasonic ZS70 sports a new flip-up LCD monitor which, like that of its predecessor, also doubles as an input device courtesy of a touch-screen overlay. There are also several new selfie modes to make the best of the newly-articulated display. And resolution has increased just ever so slightly to bring the ZS70 above the psychologically-important 20-megapixel threshold, although this has been achieved at the expense of the earlier camera's ultra-high speed capture mode with electronic shutter.

Spectacular zoom range: At left is the 24mm-equivalent wide angle, and at right the 720mm-equivalent telephoto.
A small-sensor camera, yet it's aimed at more experienced photographers

Like its predecessor, the Panasonic ZS70 is aimed at enthusiast photographers, even though it is based around a 1/2.3-inch image sensor which is only a little bigger than those used in many smartphone cameras these days. That might seem counterintuitive -- after all, the relationship between sensor size and noise levels is well known -- but that's the price you have to pay to get this much zoom reach in such a small package.

And let's make no bones about it, the Panasonic ZS70 offers an impressively powerful zoom lens, for a camera which you can easily slip into the smallest purse or even a pants pocket -- unless you're a fan of skinny jeans, that is. And other than that tradeoff on sensor size, you'll get many of the other features an experience photographer would hope for, including program, aperture- or shutter-priority and manual exposure modes, a custom mode to store settings for quick recall, a built-in viewfinder, focus peaking and zebra striping, an available raw file format, 4K video capture, exposure and white balance bracketing, loads of configurability, and even in-camera tools for HDR, time-lapse and stop-motion photography.

200mm-equivalent, 1/125 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 80

The most significant thing missing is support for an external flash strobe, but for a camera aimed at portability, this too makes sense. If you're worried about camera size and weight, you probably don't want to be lugging around a bulky, external flash strobe either. I was a little surprised that the tiny, built-in flash strobe defaults to being automatically enabled on a camera aimed at enthusiasts, but that's quick enough to disable once you realize it's firing when you don't want it to do so.

The Panasonic ZS70's compact body sports an abundance of dedicated controls

As I mentioned just now, the Panasonic ZS70 is actually just about small enough to fit into your pants pocket or a small purse. By way of comparison, it's about the same size as the body of the Micro Four Thirds-format Yi M1 camera I just reviewed, without a lens of any kind attached. Yet the ZS70 manages to pack in a far-reaching zoom lens, albeit with a retracting design which means you have to wait 2-3 seconds for the camera to power up before it's usable. (And likewise, you'll have to wait a moment for it to power back down and retract before you can slip it back in your pocket.)

47mm-equivalent, 1/640 sec. @ f/4.0, ISO 80

The ZS70's relatively compact body is impressive enough just bearing in mind its far-reaching zoom lens. It's even more so when one considers that it also manages to fit in no less than 17 dedicated controls, a viewfinder with dioptric adjustment, and a flip-up, touch-screen LCD monitor. Not surprisingly, the majority of the controls are packed in fairly close to the right-hand side of the camera body, predominantly on its rear panel. The shutter button was nicely located and had good feel, and the rest of the controls also provided a reassuringly obvious click when pressed, although they were on the small side and tightly clustered together.

40mm-equivalent, 1/125 sec. @ f/4.5, ISO 80

I did find the zoom control to be a bit on the jumpy side, making it hard to precisely adjust the focal length. And the video button was also a bit uncomfortable for my larger-than-average hands, as it was simply too close to the edge of the camera body to reach comfortably without a two-handed grip. But otherwise, I was fairly happy with the controls.

And while the quite angular design of the Panasonic ZS70's body wasn't the most comfortable to hold for extended periods, the chunky rubber grips on the camera's front and back panels meant that I never felt like I was at risk of accidentally dropping it. The shape of the front grip also helped ensure my fingers didn't block the tiny flash strobe.

Noise and NR artifacts are the price you have to pay for such pocketability

Shooting at or near its base sensitivity of ISO 80-equivalent, the Panasonic ZS70 can yield some very attractive images, especially if you're not a pixel peeper. Where many small-sensor cameras aim for a consumer-friendly, punchy feel with the saturation cranked up to 11, Panasonic has recognized its enthusiast customers will favor a more natural, lifelike feel out of the box. (You can, of course, choose from a variety of different photo styles or tweak individual variables like saturation and contrast to your own tastes, if you desire.)

But even at its lower-than-average base sensitivity, it's apparent with some subjects that dealing with noise is the price you have to pay to achieve such a compact, long-zoom camera. The Panasonic ZS70's small sensor design and a lens that's not the brightest in town together mean that noise and the effects of noise reduction can be noticeable even at or near base sensitivity, if you're pixel peeping. Viewed 1:1 onscreen, subjects with lots of fine detail like feathers, foliage, grass etc. can look unnaturally flat, with much of the finer detail lost to noise-reduction algorithms.

200mm-equivalent, 1/80 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 250

And especially at the telephoto end of the range, you do have to watch out for slight blur from camera shake, even despite the presence of a five-axis image stabilization system. This happened to me a few times because the Panasonic ZS70 resists raising the sensitivity automatically, probably in something of a tacit acknowledgement of its noise levels.

The five-axis stabilization system has its work cut out for it in the quest for reduced noise

Especially when shooting towards sunset, I did notice a tendency for the Panasonic ZS70 to choose a shutter speed that I found just slightly too slow to hand-hold, even though there was plenty of scope to increase the sensitivity, which was under automatic control. Note, for example, the shot of the wild turkey in the gallery, which is just slightly blurred when viewed 1:1. The camera selected a shutter speed of 1/125 second for this shot, despite an effective focal length of 231mm and a sensitivity of just ISO 80-equivalent.

322mm-equivalent, 1/320 sec. @ f/5.9, ISO 80

If you're not a pixel peeper, you likely won't notice the noise reduction until you crank up the sensitivity a bit. The occasionally inability to render a tack-sharp shot at default settings seems more likely to catch people out, although I never saw more than just slight blurring due to this.

57mm-equivalent, 1/160 sec. @ f/4.2, ISO 80

Of course, thus far, I've predominantly shot in the daytime and in good light, so watch this space for my second field test to see how things look once the sun heads beneath the horizon.

The LCD suffers from glare in direct sunlight, but the tiny viewfinder helps

Speaking of sunlight, I did occasionally struggle with daylight visibility for the Panasonic ZS70's LCD monitor. There's a three-step manual brightness adjustment for the display, as well as an automatic brightness adjustment which is enabled by default. But even at maximum brightness, in direct sunlight it can be difficult to frame your subject accurately on the LCD because it suffers from glare, reflecting your own face back at you.

On the plus side, though, given its touch-sensitive design which means you'll be sticking your fingers all over it, the screen does resist smudges from fingerprints or (if you're left-eye dominant and like to use the viewfinder) your nose better than most. And that viewfinder, while rather small and tunnel-like, is a great tool for when glare is just too much of a challenge on the main LCD. There's no eyecup surrounding the viewfinder window, but I found that I could always see through it well enough to frame my subject, if necessary shielding the sunlight with my spare hand.

Just don't expect to use the viewfinder for accurate manual focusing, because its small size means it isn't terribly conducive for that. Think of it as a tool for overall framing, rather than one for analyzing (or reviewing) the finer details of your subject. And if you're having trouble with glare when shooting selfies, remember that there are new face and buddy shutter functions which will trip the shutter for you, once your subject(s) are towards the center of the image. (Buddy shutter is essentially the same as face shutter, except that it waits to see two faces side-by-side before beeping and starting a three-second countdown to image capture.) These functions became available, controlled through the touch-screen itself, once you flip the display up for selfie viewing.

160mm-equivalent, 1/125 sec. @ f/6.3, ISO 80
Good performance in daylight for a pocket-friendly compact camera

Performance-wise, the Panasonic ZS70 didn't disappoint under good ambient lighting conditions. In burst mode, I found it to be capable of shooting at around 8-9 frames per second for several seconds at a time in high-quality JPEG mode. Even with raw+high quality JPEG capture enabled, the ZS70 could still rattle off a good ten frames at the same 8-9 fps speed before the buffer filled and capture slowed.

And in regular use, shooting three-shot bracketed exposures in raw+JPEG mode as I tend to do when capturing gallery shots for my reviews, I seldom composed and framed a second series of shots in time to hit the buffer limit. Autofocus performance, too, strikes me as pretty good thus far, although again I should note that I've barely begun to shoot in low-light conditions.

115mm-equivalent, 1/200 sec. @ f/5.1, ISO 80

One thing which I'll be watching for a recurrence of, though, is that I did find one image among those I shot which was corrupted straight out of the camera. This isn't something I see often, and it's possible that it was an issue caused by the flash card -- a SanDisk 32GB Extreme Pro card that's not new, but not terribly old either -- or it could have been the camera. I'll switch to a different, almost-new Sony 64GB card for my second field test, and will report back if there's a recurrence. In the meantime, I mention it for completeness.

Watch this space for more on low-light shooting and video capture in my second and final Panasonic ZS70 field test, coming soon! I'm also planning on taking a look at the ZS70's 4K Photo features, including 4K selfies, post-focus and focus stacking. If you have any other features you'd like to see tested, sound off in the comments below!

74mm-equivalent, 1/80 sec. @ f/4.6, ISO 250

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