Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ28 digital camera

This new 10.1-megapixel and 18x bezoomed FZ28 ultra-zoom replaces its predecessor, the similarly designed FZ18, an 8.1-megapixel camera also with an 18x optical zoom lens, one of the best ultra-zooms available at the time of launch over a year ago.

Today’s market for such cameras is different in that competition in this sector is very stiff with Fujifilm and its 18x zoom, the FinePix S8100fd, Olympus and it’s amazing 20x optical zoom SP570 UZ model and Nikon’s CoolPix P80, also an 18x zoom model, a few cameras of note, all competing for space with the FZ28.

The FZ28 is a surprisingly compact camera and thanks to a predominantly plastic build, it is lightweight but none the less, quite sturdy in the hand; there are no creaks or groans from poorly fitting body parts here. Naturally enough, the superbly sharp Leica 27-486mm zoom lens dominates the design that tips more than a nod to DSLR design; it has a deeply recessed handgrip to the right and a relatively capacious top plate on which sit the key camera controls.

This so called “bridge” design offers good handling; the shutter release sits recessed with the lens’ zoom lever; the release provides the normal dual pressures to activate metering and focus with the first, the second firing the shutter, but the pressure between them is too slight. It’s too easy to accidentally trip the shutter, however, this is only one of the few demerits on the camera.

The large top plate mode dial is a joy and allows control of the camera systems with distinctly denoted click stops for each mode. Modes include the full array of manual settings (P, S, A, and M) as well as subject program modes including portrait, landscape, sports and the like.

Here you also access Panasonic’s clever iA (intelligent Auto) mode, which chooses the “correct” camera setting for you dependent on what’s presented to the lens. This works unerringly well but does mean choice manual control treats, such as combined JPEG and RAW capture are not available, which remain the preserve of the manual control modes.

iA combines the meat of the camera’s new settings (compared with the FZ18) and includes Intelligent Exposure, which helps to iron out differences between high and shadow zones in a shot. You also have Intelligent ISO Control that adjusts the ISO according to the scene to retain the shutter and aperture combination selected: powerful stuff indeed. However, the auto ISO can mean a too high ISO is selected, in terms of image noise that can become a problem at the higher sensitivities available to the camera, up to ISO 6400 in fact.

None of the new features are unique to this camera however since most manufacturers now have similar settings and controls on their cameras, but it’s good to see them appearing here and in such a neat, one stop shop such as the iA mode, something not available in other makers’ cameras, they’re usually slit off across various modes.

The FZ28 therefore offers a two phased approach to camera control allowing the novice user to quickly get up and running and means more advanced users and enthusiast photographers can also have complete control at their photographic fingertips.

Other new kit shows how the market is moving, including a component video connector port on the side enabling direct connection to a HD TV, something that makes the most of another key feature, the camera’s 720p HD movie capture (at 30fps) capability.

In fact and just like the movie capture mode, although the changes within the FZ28 are quite small, their cumulative effect makes a significant improvement over the FZ18.

Kit such as the Face Detection AF, which can now track up to 15 faces in a scene, an impressive feat indeed, works really well as you watch it in action. And while the camera’s 2.7-inch LCD is a modest upgrade, boosted as it is from the FZ18’s 2.5-inch screen, it’s a good screen, bright colours and good detail (it’s a 230,000-dot resolution), even in brighter conditions, but there is one drawback - flaring when shooting into a bright light source.

Backing up the LCD (but disappointingly still affected by flare) is an electronic viewfinder. Although it has a rather harsh plastic surround, it provides an easier method of composition if bright conditions make using the LCD more problematic.

Aiding these bits of kit is the camera’s responsiveness. Switch on and it comes to life in under a second, focusing is fast and there’s a minimal shutter delay, which makes a nice change. However, low contrast scenes prove problematic for the AF where the camera can start hunting, particularly at the longer focal lengths, which can become very frustrating.

There is a manual focus option but the combination of using the small back plate joystick (more on this in moment) and the screen’s magnified section that helps you get things sharp, is a tad cumbersome and takes getting used to.

Metering is good, with hardly a miss-step in terms of exposure problems as is the white balance (WB) control where mixed lighting did not cause many issues for the auto setup, use of the dedicated presets (sunlight, fluorescent and the like) provides improved quality, as you’d expect.

The lens is sharp and provides plenty of resolution for the underlying 10.1-megapixel sensor making the camera more than capable of producing stunning shots easily printable at A3 and above at lower ISOs.

Higher ISOs do present noise problems over ISO 800 (as you might expect) but they are not intrusive until you get to ISO 3200 and above. Thankfully there is an ISO limit setting so you can stop the camera going to “high” in the auto ISO mode.

Such items have controls within the camera’s menu system, but it would have been nice to have “hard” buttons on the body for ISO and WB for example. You can however assign an “Fn” or function button on the back with various shortcuts to oft used features. The neat “Q” or Quick Menu activated by pressing the joystick does provide faster access to principal shooting options such as metering, stabilisation, AF setup and ISO for example but it’s simply not as fast as a “hard” button setup.

Other controls include the ubiquitous four-way jog buttons for scrolling images and menus while the joystick can also be used for shutter speeds and aperture adjustment, as well as adjusting manual focusing.

All menus are however clear, you get 11-pages in all in both camera setup and settings sat within “tabs” for each department. This way, control of shooting options and internal camera settings (date and time for example) are split making them easy to use. Overall, the FZ28 is a superb bit of kit, rather like a good woman in fact; she’s lightweight, responsive, feature rich, easy to handle and provides bags of satisfaction.

Verdict

And so, overall, what have we got in the FZ28? Well, despite slight barrel distortion, the good 27mm wide end to the massive zoom lens and good detail capture means landscapes are a cinch. The focal range, the F2.8 fastest aperture and Face AF allow great portraits with nicely defocused backgrounds and one of the best, unlimited burst modes for a camera such as this, plus responsive focus and handling make the FZ28 great for sports shooting.

The remarkable lens keeps on giving, even with its long zoom capability there’s a great 1cm macro mode – at the wide end of the lens – for, say, frame-filling macro and while the higher ISOs suffer noise issues; the new Venus Engine IV processor mitigates some of the problems for smoother, film-like grain, rather than a jumble of coloured speckles.

In other words, this is a superb, easy to use and well-specified camera able to produce stunning shots; overall, a good balance between features, control and image quality provide an excellent all-round, surprisingly compact package.