The 8 Mpx Panasonic Lumix DMC FZ30K (where K means black).

I bought this camera in August 2006 to replace a Nikon Coolpix 4300 I'd been using, The Nikon gave good colours but autofocus often meant little more than outofocus, especially on close-up subjects.

This pic gives no idea how long the barrel of the lens is -- in fact it sticks out 3.5 inches (9 cm) from the body of the camera. The camera back is approx 5" wide and the depth of lens + back is also 5". It doesn't go in a pocket!

A preliminary verdict written soon after purchase (3 days' shooting, about 200 pics)

The FZ30 is a very nice camera to use if you're looking for an SLR-like camera that gives you extensive control of a range of settings. Most of the important adjustments can be made quickly without digging deep into menus -- I was able to set exposure compensation on the fly while taking dragonflies (see pics section below). The autofocus is good provided the subject has defined features, but I found that mid-distant foliage (pics in the woods) gave it a tough time and some pics can be quite poorly focused. There I'll just have to stop down or use manual focus I suppose. The 235,000 pixel LCD display is superb, and the magnified area that appears during manual focusing is a great aid though not foolproof. (On the other hand I always found it a little difficult to focus film SLRs!). I didn't find myself using the electronic viewfinder, mainly because the bright LCD is good outdoors and it can be folded out and swivelled in various directions, including flat against the back. The zoom is just wonderful, though even at 15.3x it's not enough for small birds and one would have to resort to a spotting scope. (The FZ30 is not suitable for attaching to scopes -- the front end of the lens is too big.) The camera is fast: it starts up very quickly, and shutter lag and time between shots are minimal.

The downside: yes, as so many others have said, noise is an issue -- it's very visible in darker areas. And to my eye the Leica lens seems to be on the soft side -- i.e. less sharp than one would wish -- though there is very little fall off in acuity from centre to edges and between normal and zoom settings. I haven't seen any obtrusive purple fringing yet -- apparently this is removed by the processing engine in the camera. Some may find the camera a little heavy: certainly it isn't something you can stuff in a pocket, but I didn't find it overheavy and if I'm taking this piece out I'm expecting to do some serious pic-taking and would probably have it on a tripod. You just have to go into a different mode. Anyway, I knew the extent of the noise before choosing the camera and as far as I'm concerned the tradeoff between noise and the superb feel and handling is more than acceptable. (Another minus point: the camera's computer connection is USB 2 but it's not fast USB 2, so download speed is the same as with USB 1.1 -- in the region of half a megabyte per second.)

Back to the nice things. The camera looks and handles like a serious piece of equipment. For example the lens, which is fixed in length, extends much further than you'd think from the photo above. People who see it tend to ask "Is that a digital camera?" Unlike my Coolpix 4300 it inspires one to read the handbook to find out and learn all the different ways you can control it. I'm expecting to lose far fewer pics to the trash (50% and more with the Coolpix, due mainly to misfocus and its agonising slowness). For the price -- I paid 360 for the basic camera without accessories -- it's very good value indeed.

Oh, and it makes a gorgeous shutter noise!


And the new FZ50?

There's a new model in the FZ range coming out about now (August 2006; it seems there was no FZ40). This has some new features, including savable user settings and a 10 Mpx sensor. I don't like the way Panasonic has dealt with the noise problem in this model, but other users may not find this so objectionable. To me it looks as though an algorithm has been added to the new version of the Venus processing engine that seeks out areas of flattish colour and absence of detail and simply blurs them to remove the noise. This has the unwelcome effect of leaving areas of more or less untouched detail separated by others where the texture is smoothed out, giving a plasticy or posterized appearance. On an 8x10 print of a whole pic this may be acceptable if the noise-smoothed areas are small, but I often want to use parts of a pic -- sometimes quite small parts -- and it's here that I find the results very visible, and unacceptably so. The results on flesh or other large areas of uniform colour like clothes can be quite perceptible even when a pic is viewed at reduced size. As others have reported good results with noise reduction software like NeatImage (Mac page), I decided to go with the FZ30 and use that if necessary. If you hunt around you can find samples of images taken with preproduction FZ50s, including some on Panasonic Japan's site. A set of images that shows these artifacts well is available here: Digital Photography Now FZ50 review sample pages. The review itself starts here.

An extended review of the FZ30 versus a $5,400 digital SLR setup (Canon EOS-20D + accessories) with lots of samples taken in Hawaii starts on this page at Firing Squad.

The FZ30 nine months later

Since writing this I've taken several thousand photos with the camera, most to do with making an inventory of the objects in a house, but many outdoors as well. So how has the FZ30 made out in practice?

The answer is I continue to like it very much. Lots of plus points. Battery life is very good, much better than my previous Nikon Coolpix 4300, meaning you can go on shooting for hours. With a backup battery you've enough for a day. The range of the lens is a truly useful feature -- if as I do you need macro to long telephoto the camera's worth it for this alone. The telephoto allows you to fill the frame with objects that aren't so far away as well as get striking long-distance shots. Start-up is almost instantaneous and shutter delay is pretty minimal, so action shots are less likely to be missed. I find the picture review facility excellent, with magnifications that allow a quick check on whether a photo is in focus etc. I like the easily reached exposure compensation settings -- I often find myself using this feature if the camera is not exposing an object the way I want. In most operations, then, the camera is pleasant and convenient to use. It feels like a capable and powerful photograph-taking tool with lots of flexibility.

So what are the negative points? One grouse continues to be with the soft focus of the lens. Nothing is ever quite pin-sharp. Whether that's the Leica lens or the auto-focus I don't know. Careful manual focusing in increments doesn't produce better results. I can't say I really notice this in most photographs, but it does affect macro photos of, for example, small insects where you notice that tiny hairs and other details aren't quite fully resolved. This of course is in the focused parts, and even applies to pics taken on a tripod with high f-stops to maximise depth of field.

Another grouse is the noisy ccd. This is only really an issue in certain types of pic under certain conditions. The murkier or darker the colour the worse the noise. The ccd also has problems with colours in the muddy red to brown range, especially if flash is used. With flash this range of colours oversaturates badly and can become quite false. And the on-board flash is poor -- basically just too weak. If you want to use flash a lot, a separate powered unit would be essential.

I find myself wishing that the exposure and focusing area settings (multi-area, single area and spot) were easier to reach. As it is you have to dig through a menu for these. It would be better if they could be reached instantly, like the exposure compensation settings, from a dial or button on the camera body. A final grouse is the USB 1.1 transfer rate -- downloading 800 photos from a large flash card (2 Gb) takes a long time.


Would I get another model in the same line?

Hmm! A difficult question. I really do like the phenomenal flexibility of the lens and the easy operation. I don't like the softness of the lens and the second-rate ccd. If these two points were fixed, the answer would be yes. Otherwise I shall probably be looking elsewhere when I next buy.

Sample photos

SOUTHEAST KENT on 12 August 2006 was a wet, gloomy corner of England. Thunderstorms, pelting rain, that sort of thing. Corinne was out with her friend Liz practising for a walking holiday in the Pyrenees (!). I was going to meet them in Rye for tea. At 2.30 or so in the afternoon, just as I was driving down, I received a distress call. Could I rescue them? They were soaked. Luckily I found them in a tiny lane leading to Peasmarsh. With the heating turned up full blast they were happy to sit it out at Rye Harbour so I could take some test photos.

As the weather was so gloomy I concentrated on the zoom. The camera was set on ISO 80 to minimise noise, and the noise filter was set to low. All pics were taken at the 5 Mb size to allow the 15.3x zoom. Fine jpeg compression was used. The camera was on a tripod -- I forget whether I used a shutter delay with these pics to avoid shake. The lens stabliser was on. In all cases centre-weighted metering was used.

Photos of a warehouse. Left: on maximum wide angle setting. The red rectangle shows the area of the next pic, which was taken at max zoom (420 mm equivalent, 15.3x mag). Middle: the whole of the original zoom photo resized to 1,000 px across. Right: a large crop from the middle pic at original size (i.e. no size reduction). Odd about the red plastic fencing -- focused in places on the right but a fuzz elsewhere. I've lightened up the pic on the left considerably, but the zoom samples are as they came out of the camera.(Left: 1/100, f5,6; middle and right: 1/100 s, f4.5)

Wide/full zoom comparison no. 2. Left: whole area of wide angle shot, resized to 1,000 px across. The pub sign is about in the middle. Right: a crop from the full zoom at original size. Only the sides have been cropped -- the sample shows the complete vertical extent of the original. The autofocus likes strong orthogonal (!) lines and so seems to have got an excellent fix. It's quite impressive. I've lightened up both pics quite a bit (minimising loss of stuff at the white end) but done no colour correction. No sharpening in the big pic either. (Both photos: 1/100 s, f5,0)

Another wide and full zoom comparison. This time I did some levels adjustment as the originals were rather dull (but no sharpening -- none of these Rye Harbour pics has been unsharp-masked). These pics show the whole area of the originals but resized to1,200 px across. (Left: 1/100 s, f4; right: 1/80 s, f4)

Some other pics . . .

Nature photos. This creature (Common Darter, Sympetrum striolatum) was about 15 feet away. The pic on the left shows the whole area of the original pic, reduced here to 1,000 px across. The one on the right is a crop to show the detail in a slightly downsized pic (~20%). No sharpening applied, though colours have been deepened a little in the detail pic. (1/160 s, f5.6, ISO 80, pattern metering (nine-area), exposure compensation -0.3, spot autofocus)

Landscape. Left: Full wide-angle shot of Tenterden across woods and fields (some levels enhancement done). Where's Tenterden? Somewhere on the skyline in about the centre of the pic. Right: Selection from full-zoom pic shown above but here at actual size. No enhancement -- exactly as it came out of the camera. Zoom magnification is 15.3x. It's a bit like having a telescope on your camera!

Noise: noise may be an issue in areas of uniform colour (left) or where colours are dark (right). In the dragonfly pic the murky background has been lightened a little.

Other reviews

There's a long and excellent review of the FZ30 by Patrick Singleton on Digital Camera Info. I find myself agreeing with almost every point he makes -- especially the indifferent quality of the lens (for the Leica name) and the noise in the images. He finds it a bit slow. For my uses, which don't include action shots, I don't. !8 months on I'm still very happy with this camera except for the on-board flash, which I find abysmal.

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