Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18

    leadpic_DMC-FZ18

    Photo Review 8.5
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    Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18

      In summary

      A lightweight digicam with an optically-stabilised 18x optical zoom lens, RAW+JPEG support and a full range of adjustments.Successor to the successful FZ8 model, Panasonic's latest long-zoom digicam, the DMC-FZ18 sports an 8-megapixel imager and a massive 18x Leica DC Vario-Elmarit lens that covers an equivalent focal length range from 28mm to 504mm. Otherwise the two models are superficially quite similar, although the FZ18's image stabiliser is accessed via the menu instead of through a dedicated button. Internally some sigificant changes have been made in the newer model. . . [more]

      Full review

      leadpic_DMC-FZ18

      Successor to the successful FZ8 model, Panasonic's latest long-zoom digicam, the DMC-FZ18 sports an 8-megapixel imager and a massive 18x Leica DC Vario-Elmarit lens that covers an equivalent focal length range from 28mm to 504mm. Otherwise the two models are superficially quite similar, although the FZ18's image stabiliser is accessed via the menu instead of through a dedicated button. Internally some sigificant changes have been made in the newer model.

      Most significant is the new Intelligent Auto mode, which combines automatic scene selection, face detection, intelligent ISO control and continuous auto focus. This setting may be fine for snapshooters but serious photographers expect more control over their picture-taking. Fortunately, the FZ18 provides most of the functions they want, offering a choice between JPEG, RAW and RAW+JPEG picture quality and P, A, S and M shooting modes plus Program Shift. Note: the RAW+JPEG setting can only record the JPEG at Standard quality with relatively high compression.

      Physically, the FZ18 is slightly larger and heavier than its predecessor but it remains a relatively light camera for its functionality. Its body, although plastic, feels reasonably solid and there are a couple of nice refinements, notably the use of a flip-up plastic cover for the USB/AV and power terminals and a textured rear thumbgrip. However, the viewfinder surround is hard plastic – and quite uncomfortable – and the card slot is in the battery compartment, which is less convenient than having a separate card bay.

      DMC-FZ18-Front-Flash

      The handgrip is slightly larger than the FZ8's and has a notch for the second finger but users with large hands or long fingers may find it a tad small. However, the camera is comfortably balanced for one-handed shooting, although the shutter button is not well placed. Image stabilisation (O.I.S.) is the same as in other Panasonic cameras, with two selectable modes (continuous and shot-only) and an off position.

      The zoom lever is a ring surrounding the shutter button. It has a very short thrust and can extend the lens through approximately 1.5 cm in around three seconds, speeding up as you near full 18x tele extension. There are roughly 40 steps between wide and tele positions and, if Zoom Resume is set to on in the Setup menu, the zoom position is stored in the camera and the lens returns to it automatically each time the unit is turned on. (Focus position is not stored.)

      FZ18_top

      Located behind the shutter release are two buttons, one for selecting between macro and normal focusing and the other for switching between auto and manual focus. Six AF modes are selectable through the shooting menu: face recognition, multi-area, centre AF and spot focusing plus two 'high-speed' modes, one using three areas and the other one area. An AF illuminator is provided for low-light shooting.

      FZ18_back

      Many features of the earlier model are retained, among them the menu design, mini-joystick control and Intelligent ISO function. The new model also has the same Venus Engine III image processor. Like many other Panasonic digicams, the FZ18 supports three image aspect ratios: 4:3, 3:2 and 16:9, the last two achieved by cropping the 4:3 image. Adjustments for contrast, sharpness and saturation and colour effects include B&W, sepia, cool and warm tones.

      menu1
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      Menu design is similar to other Panasonic digicams and many common functions are supported.

      The pop-up flash must be raised manually before use, even in full auto mode. The 2.5-inch LCD and the electronic viewfinder are also unchanged. The EVF on the test camera was a cut above the average in brightness, sharpness and responsiveness. But it wasn't colour accurate and tended to be contrasty in bright conditions.

      monitor_display

      The monitor and EVF can display a full array of camera settings.

      Monitor brightness can be adjusted through +/- three steps to match viewing conditions and the FZ18 has the standard Panasonic menu system, which is easy to read and use. A comprehensive display of camera settings can be overlaid on the screen to aid photographers during shooting or playback. Scene mode settings are illustrated with mini animations and users can display a brief text help message to clarify when each scene mode does.

      scene_modes

      Scene modes are illustrated with mini animations.

      custom

      The Custom memory banks contain a comprehensive suite of camera settings.

      Video clips are recorded with sound, with three frame sizes - 848 x 480 or 640 x 480 or 320 x 240 pixels – and a choice of 30 fps or 10 fps frame rates. You can record to full card capacity (up to 2GB) but can't use the optical zoom while you're shooting. However, the optical zoom can be pre-set before the recording starts. You can record just over 30 minutes of VGA video at 30 fps on a 2GB card.

      Performance
      One of the most noticeable features of the test camera was how fast its AF system was when shooting with the P, A or S modes, especially in the two high-speed modes. Focusing was also very accurate and we were surprised at how little the lens hunted. Even in dim situations at full optical zoom, hunting was much less than we expected. Intelligent Auto mode shooting tended to delay focusing, especially when face detection was used as the camera had to identify faces before sorting out which one to lock onto. Moving subjects made this especially difficult.

      Shots taken with the test camera were generally sharp and colourful but overall dynamic range was limited – as you would expect from such a small sensor. Backlit situations were handled with a minimum of flare and ghosting and we found no coloured fringing in any shots.

      Image noise was low up to ISO 400 but began to affect picture quality from there on, visibly softening images at ISO 800. At ISO 1250, both pattern and colour noise were very obvious and pictures looked quite blotchy. ISO 1600 shots were covered with yellow-green blotches. JPEG compression levels were modest, as shown by the table below, which also shows Raw file sizes. The high levels of noise are related to the very small size of the image sensor. It's a pity Panasonic didn't fit a larger-area CCD chip in this camera because excessive noise at moderate ISO levels reduced its score for image quality.

      Aspect ratio

      Resolution

      Fine

      Standard

      4:3

      8M

      3264 x 2448

      3.8MB

      1.98MB

      5M

      2560 x 1920

      2.7MB

      1.2MB

      3M

      2048 x 1536

      1.6MB

      0.8MB

      2M

      1600 x 1200

      1.0.MB

      0.5MB

      0.3M

      640 x 480

      0.2MB

      0.12MB

      RAW

      3264 x 2448

      13MB

      -

      3:2

      7M

      3264 x 2176

      3.8MB

      2.6MB

      4.5M

      2560 x1712

      3.2MB

      2.4MB

      2.5M

      2048 x 1360

      1.8MB

      1.5MB

      RAW

      3264 x 2176

      13MB

      -

      16:9

      6M

      3264 x 1840

      3.3MB

      2.4MB

      3.5M

      2560 x 1440

      1.8MB

      1.5MB

      2M

      1920 x 1080

      1.08MB

      0.5MB

      RAW

      3264 x 1840

      13MB

      -

      Imatest showed the test camera to be capable of very high resolution, particularly at mid-to wide apertures and moderate focal length settings. It also confirmed that lateral chromatic aberration was negligible and edge-to-edge sharpness was very good. Colour accuracy was also excellent, with only slight drifts in cyan, red and olive green. Saturation was well controlled.

      The test camera had the usual white balance problems with incandescent lighting and the manual halogen pre-set was unable to deliver a full colour correction although the custom measurement produced accurate colours. Under fluorescent lighting correction was closer to neutral colour rendition. Fortunately, the camera provides plenty of white balance fine-tuning so these problems are easily averted.

      The test camera powered up in less than three seconds and shut down within two, which is fast for its zoom range. We measured an average capture lag of 0.63 seconds, which reduced to less than 0.1 seconds with pre-focusing. Shot-to-shot times averaged 1.75 seconds without flash and just over three seconds with. In continuous shooting mode, the test camera recorded three high-resolution JPEGs at 3 fps in high-speed mode. In 'unlimited mode' shots were recorded at 0.5 second intervals for four frames before the camera slowed to 2.4 second intervals.

      File processing was relatively fast. JPEGs are stored in less than a second, while Raw files take roughly three seconds and RAW+JPEG files approximately four seconds.

      Conclusion
      Of the three 18x optical zoom digicams currently available, the Lumix DMC-FZ18 is the best overall performer and, as long as your shooting doesn't involve a lot of available light pictures in dim lighting, it's a great little camera and ideal for travellers. Compact, lightweight and versatile, it provides a full range of user-adjustable controls. The Leica lens is outstanding and provides plenty of focal length flexibility as well as covering wide angles of view and the O.I.S. stabilisation works a treat. The camera is also relatively fast and efficient to operate.

      However, we would advise purchasers to stay well clear of high ISO settings and any of the automated functions (scene modes and Intelligent Auto, particularly) that might boost the sensor's sensitivity. The bundled software includes ArcSoft's PhotoImpression and Panorama Maker editors, Silkypix Developer Studio Raw file converter, Lumix Simple Viewer 1.3E and Photofun Studio Viewer 1.4E. Although the viewing and editing applications are fairly basic, the Silkypix converter is effective and frequently updated, making it well worthwhile for photographers who don't want to pay extra for a third-party Raw converter.

      Note: A comparison of key specifications for the Panasonic FZ18, the Fujifilm FinePix S8000fd and the Olympus SP-560 UZ can be found at the end of the FinePix S8000fd review.

      Footnote (19/3/2008): We neglected to mention that users can set an upper ISO limit for the Intelligent Auto function to minimise the risk of image noise in shots. It's particularly worthwhile when shooting in below-average light levels, where you can fix the top ISO at 400. We were reminded of our admission by Ruud de Graaf of The Netherlands, who emailed us to say: "I shot about 100 pictures of a theatre show with very low light and 35 of them were perfectly sharp and with (for a compact) very low noise. Some of them were zoomed in to the max. of 18x!"

      Thanks, Ruud.

       

       

      IMATEST GRAPHS

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      SAMPLE IMAGES

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      ISO 1600

       

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      Close-up

       

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      Specifications

      leadpic_DMC-FZ18

      Image sensor: 5.76 x 4.29 mm CCD with 8.31 million photosites (8-megapixles effective)
      Lens: Leica DC Vario-Elmarit 4.6 - 82.8 mm f/2.8-4.2 (28-504mm in 35mm format)
      Zoom ratio: 18x optical, 4x digital
      Image formats: Stills – JPEG (Fine/Standard), RAW, RAW+JPEG; Movies – QuickTime motion JPEG
      Image Sizes: Stills - 4:3 Ratio: 3264 x 2448, 2560 x 1920, 2048 x 1536, 1600 x 1200, 640 x 480: 3:2 Ratio: 3264 x 2176, 2560 x 1712, 2048 x 1360; 16:9 Ratio: 3264 x 1840, 2560 x 1440, 1920 x 1080. Movies – 848 x 480, 640 x 480, 320 x 240 at 30 or 10 fps
      Shutter speed range: 60-1/2000 sec (15, 30, 60 sec in Starry Sky Mode)
      Image Stabilisation: MEGA O.I.S. (Mode1/Mode2)
      Exposure Compensation:. +/- 2EV in 1/3 EV steps
      Focus system/range: TTL AF with switchable Macro On/Off, AF/MF On/Off, One Shot AF, Continuous AF On/Off; range 30 cm to infinity; macro to 1 cm
      Exposure metering/control: Multiple, Centre-weighted and Spot metering; P, A, S, M (with Program shift) plus 30 scene pre-sets
      ISO range: Auto, ISO 00, 200, 400, 800, 1250, 1600, (High Sensitivity Auto: 1600-6400)
      White balance: Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Halogen, White Set 1/2, Flash
      Flash modes/range (ISO auto): Auto, Auto/Red-eye Reduction, Slow Sync./Red-eye Reduction, Forced On/Off, Forced On/Red-eye Reduction, Flash Output Adjustment: -2 - +2EV in 1/3 EV steps; range 0.3-6.0 metres
      Sequence shooting: Full-Resolution Image, 3 frames/sec Max. 7 images (Standard mode), Max 4 images (Fine Mode), High-speed Burst Mode: approx. 7 frames/sec (recorded in 2M for 4:3, 2.5M for 3:2, 2M for 16:9)
      Storage Media: 27 MB internal memory plus SD/SDHC/MMC card slot
      Viewfinder: 0.44-inch EVF with 188,000 pixels
      LCD monitor: 2.5-inch low-temperature polycrystalline LCD with 207,000 pixels
      Power supply: Lithium-ion battery pack (7.2V, 710mAh), CIPA rating 400 shots with EVF
      Dimensions (wxhxd): 117.6 x 75.3 x 88.2 mm
      Weight: 360 grams (without battery and card)

       

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      Rating

       

      RRP: $879

      Rating (out of 10):

      • Build: 8.5
      • Ease of use: 8.5
      • Image quality: 8.5
      • OVERALL: 8.5

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