Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX150 digital camera review

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX150 looks, at first glance, just like many other digital compacts on the market. It has a surprisingly uninspiring squared off design but with all metal build that enhances the camera’s appeal.

So, the unassuming FX150 is actually a bit of wolf in sheep’s clothing as it features a comprehensive set of controls and shooting options that include manual control although disappointingly, you only get “proper” shutter priority control with just a minimal nod to aperture control as we’ll see later.

But the first headline feature must be the camera’s 14.7-megapixel CCD sensor that captures the light from the rather excellent 28mm wide-angle zoom lens with a zoom ratio of 3.6x and runs to a long zoom focal length of 100mm, a useful range indeed. Accompanying the lens and aiding sharp detail capture is Panasonic’s effective MEGA OIS (optical image Stabilisation) that uses a CCD-shift mechanism to counteract camera shake at lower shutter speeds. You get about two stops of extra hand held control so it’s very useful indeed.

However, I’m not convinced by the wisdom of cramming that many pixels onto the sensor since excessive image noise is almost always the result, and we shall see later how the FX150 fares in that department. But there are other neat tricks the FX150 sports that make it a little more mouth-watering than the "usual" digital snapper.

First, there’s a clever E-Zoom button adjacent to the shutter release with its encompassing lens zoom lever. A press of E-Zoom zooms the lens from its wide end to full zoom in around 1.5-seconds, another press activates the "Extra Optical Zoom" (actually it’s 7.7x digital zoom) a rather misleading misnomer in my view.

Press E-Zoom again however and the lens zips quickly back to the optical zoom’s 100mm setting while a final press zips the lens back to 28mm. The camera has Panasonic’s Venus Engine IV image processing chip that helps provide responsiveness to the package and deals with colour and noise too.

With speediness in mind you’ll not be disappointed by the FX150. There’s a burst mode of 2fps for up to eight images, there’s an unlimited (to the capacity of the SD card, the camera’s external storage of choice) burst mode at 1.5fps as well. Switch to the Hi-speed Burst mode and then you can shoot up to 100 images at 7.5fps, though the image size is reduced to 3-megapixels in order to achieve that rather respectable shooting rate.

Nevertheless, shutter lag is evident - although to be fair, it’s no worse than similar cameras from rival makers - however the focusing is unfortunately nowhere near as fleet of foot as it should be. Even in bright daylight it can take over a second for the AF to bite, even using the "Quick AF" setting, and it’s a particular disappointment given the abilities brought to the camera elsewhere.

On the upside, there are abundant AF modes including tracking AF, which works very well once it has locked on to a target. Face Detection AF is in there too and while faces in profile are a challenge, it gets things right most times.

The multi area AF provides 11-zones that you can select depending on the subject, so when shooting macro on a tripod, say, you can move the AF point without changing the camera’s position. It’s a shame the camera does not auto select the AF zone in this or any other mode, but here the ethos seems to be around user control instead. Also the AF zone chosen can only be selected in the AF menus, so not very user friendly although on the up side, it does allow you to select groups of AF zones (up to five at a time) in various configurations.

Area High Speed focusing offers a (supposedly) speedier single zone AF solution, but it appeared no quicker than the "normal" settings. "1-Area" and Spot AF modes are included too so while the overall AF response times leave something to be desired, you cannot fault the focus flexibility afforded by the FX150.

Another of Panasonic’s recent innovations is iA (intelligent Auto) that when selected using the camera’s small, partially recessed top plate mode dial, activates this rather clever point and shoot mode. iA allows the camera to "choose" the correct shooting mode depending on the scene in front of it; if shooting a scenic image of rolling hills, it picks Landscape mode, fill the frame with a person and portrait mode is selected and so on.

This system works well, but perhaps unsurprisingly; a downside is you cannot use some of the other advanced controls this camera offers, such as simultaneously shooting RAW and JPEG images. What's more, you loose control of the otherwise excellent intelligent ISO mode (ISO changes to keep the selected exposure value the same) and the intelligent exposure system. One of my favourite modes that also drop off in iA mode is a neat colour bracketing setting. Here you can shoot one image in a range of colours (or looks): colour, black and white and sepia for example.

It’s a fast and funky way to get three versions of the same image (with the camera automatically processing the same exposure up to the three possible ways), making it ideal if you judge a shot might look good in a different guise, but achievable without having to shoot three separate images in separate modes and without having to spend time on an image editing package later on.

Other key features of the FX150 include dynamic HD 1920 x 720p movie capture at 24fps and as well as an USB/AV out there’s a new component socket so that you can plug the camera directly into a HD TV and watch your captured HD content directly from the camera. A frustrating niggle here though is the component cable does not come as standard, you have to buy it separately.

In terms of handling overall, the camera is actually rather good to use, with the shutter release and zoom lever well placed for easy reach. The aforementioned E-Zoom button is straightforward to use while the four-way jog buttons on the back, provide scrolling and entry into various settings: manual control, auto bracketing, colour bracketing, exposure compensation and flash compensation. Each mode appears with successive presses of the topmost jog button.

The Q Menu (for Quick Menu) button is useful and is reminiscent of Canon’s "FUNC" menu control as here it launches a drop down menu hosting all the key image controls allowing fast access and changing of chosen parameters without having to dig into the camera’s deeper menu systems.

The FX150 therefore sports as comprehensive a set of control options with the caveat on the aperture control. This drastically limits your control over depth of field but you can control shutter speeds through the entire 8-seconds to 1/2000th-sec range.

The self timer, flash modes and macro setting are dealt with by the other jog buttons while a central Menu/Set button activates menus and selects choices made within them. A playback or capture switch sits above this and all these controls are sat to the right side of the large 2.7-inch wide-view display.

There are the usual arrays of scene modes (24 in all) that include an odd Pin Hole mode and a Film Grain setting. There s a fun Transform mode that allows you to preview the stretch or squash effects prior to shooting and a new "shinning" making the effect even more "extreme" or as I feel, pointless! However, an Image Levelling mode is more useful as it automatically straightens wonky horizons though it means it crops the image accordingly as well, so beware.

In terms of image quality, the FX150 ain’t bad. The ISO range provides good scope from ISO 100 to 6400 (a high sensitivity scene mode) with noise appearing above ISO 400 but very subtly. Over ISO 800, it’s more noticeable but overall noise is very well controlled indeed. The ISO 6400 setting is a step to far though. Highlight detail is good while shadow detail goes AWOL too quickly.

Image sharpness is quite low by default but you can of course change it in settings and the noise processing thankfully does not scrub all the detail away at higher ISOs.

Colour is natural by default and while it too has plenty of customisation on offer, the camera provides a very realistic rendering out of the box. Overall therefore the 14.7-megapixel sensor is a sensor that’s been well tamed by the camera’s Venus Engine IV and provides just about the best performance of a camera of this ilk currently available.

Verdict

The Lumix FX150 provides a neat balance between point’n’shooter and enthusiast snapper although it sometimes fails to fulfil the latter in some areas. Build is superb and handling is okay despite the blocky design. The good metering and WB control aid image capture at lower ISOs and detail is superb so while this is not without it flaws, the FX150 is certainly a camera worthy of closer inspection.