Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ10

Panasonic’s Lumix TZ10 provides a compact camera environment for an otherwise long lens, richly featured snapping experience combining a 12-megapixel sensor and a 12x optical zoom with full manual control.

This test and the Leica V-Lux 20 partner share much of the same information but the cameras are almost identical but for some key elements; the Leica comes with Adobe’s Photoshop Elements 8 and a neat leather case and costs almost £240 more.

The remarkably small all-metal body and minimalist styling, particularly given the 12x zoom has some brash, silvered highlights and looks great. But what do you get for your around £255?

Well, there’s a 12.1-effective megapixel CCD beating at the camera’s heart and a superbly crisp Leica DC-Vario-Elmar zoom lens marshalling light onto it and something that ensures this Panasonic does well out of their partnership with Leica as the glass is very crisp indeed.

While the F/3.3 to F/4.9 aperture lens also provides a very versatile focal range indeed with a wide end of 25mm - great for broader vistas - and the 300mm telephoto focal length (both focal lengths in 35mm format terms) gives a great zoom, getting you in close to more distant subjects is not without problems.

For example, on the Leica we noticed at longer focal lengths, there’s slight bluish pixel fringing around the high contrast areas of a scene. On the TZ10 the same problem exists and while astute use of programs such as Adobe Lightroom or similar editing software, you can remove it easily enough, it can lower the apparent sharpness of your shots.

The slight milkiness of the V-Lux 20 images, similar to a soft focus filter on some shots, is also still here on this camera and while we believe it to be a contrast issue, evident when shooting directly into the light, a lens hood would remedy this to a degree but the camera doesn't come supplied with one.

One of the TZ10’s standout features is GPS image tagging, which means you can tag images with the geographic coordinates of where the images where shot, great for using your images on internet sites such as Google Maps or Google Earth for example, where you can show your snaps online.

In itself this is not a unique feature on the market today, but here it works very well, able to automatically add the GPS coordinates, local time and the time it was shot into each image’s EXIF data. However we found the time it takes to connect to the GPS network and get the image tags is overly long and required you to ideally be outdoors or by a window.

The camera can also display nearby places of interest, very helpful if you’re looking for more good shooting locations near to where you are already snapping and it is able to provide information on 500,000 such locations across 73 countries too, so you’ll have plenty of scope to shoot on your travels.

Organising images is faster thanks to the GPS tagging as well, for instance, using the latest version of iPhoto on the Mac (version 9.0), images tagged with the GPS data can all be automatically organised by location within the Places section within iPhoto.

Another feature that is something more and more cameras have today is the capability to shoot HD movies. As with many modern digital cameras it’s possible to record movies at 720p resolution in the AVCHD Lite format. Like the V-Lux 20, one format that the camera cannot shoot is RAW and while the lack of RAW shooting might not be a problem for the more general snapper the TZ10 is aimed at it raised our eyebrows on the more "enthusiast" priced Leica.

The TZ10 can shoot in three image aspect ratios, the camera has a 14.5-megapixel sensor of which there are 12.1 million effective pixels, those extra pixels allow room to produce 4:3, 3:2 and 16:9 aspect ratio images each selectable at a range of resolutions from within the menus. The Lumix menus are clean and crisp and use clear white text on a white background (the Leica has the opposite arrangement) but are otherwise identical. The tabbed menu sections range down the left side navigated by the four-way controller on the camera’s back. Selections of further choices appear depending on the menu you select or need to adjust.

The GPS data is the least easy to play with and uses a series of unfamiliar messages that can confuse. One word of warning is the GPS power drain. When within the flight mode, the GPS is turned off fully along with the camera but in the "normal" GPS mode it is not, so it continues to use the GPS system and can drain the battery. The odd menu messages mentioned in the V-Lux 20 test remain also.

Handling, like the Leica version is rather good, even with such a long zoom lens on such a compact camera. The top plate though much jazzier with its silver strip and brighter logos (than the Leica) houses a neat mode dial, adjacent to the shutter release and its surrounding lens zoom control. The on/off switch is a small tab-like affair off to the top plate’s right side.

The mode dial provides access to the manual shooting options, a fully automatic or iAuto unerringly selects the best shooting mode for the scene, detecting faces or landscapes say, and setting the camera accordingly. 28 scene modes provide quick and dirty settings for most subjects from babies and children, to pets, food or aerial photos shot from a plane.

Two customisable My Scene positions allow you to tailor settings for two oft-used shooting styles or subjects, so you can get at them quickly for each and is helpfully backed up by three dedicated custom settings as well. In short, you can tailor the snapping set up in two ways on the My Scene modes or set-up the entire camera for, say, manual shutter or aperture priority shooting with very specific settings available from each of the camera’s features. This makes the camera very versatile and very quick to get up and running for a given subject assuming you set up these options first of course.

The camera's back plate houses a large, 3-inch colour screen that has a nice anti-reflective coating that works well in almost any condition even near direct sunlight. This is great because there is no optical viewfinder so some traditionalists might find that a problem. Nevertheless there are ways to customise the LCD power settings and brightness controls to boost the brightness or reduce the power consumption depending on conditions, such as the Eco mode for the latter for example.

To the right of the LCD fall the rest of the main controls: a four-way jog button layout provides scrolling and navigation features fro menus or images in playback. A central OK/Menu button either confirms selections in menus or activates the menus. The four-way jog controllers are used for exposure compensation, flash, drive modes and macro photography in shooting mode.

A switch at the top of the back plate toggles between shooting and playback while just below it are two controls. One is a direct movie recording button, which makes movie shooting a dead easy to get going, and we really like the fact all the auto settings and features available to still shooting can be used in movie recording too including colour filters and the like.

Below the four-way jog control sits the display toggle button and a "Q Menu" button, this last item activates a neat and certainly quick-to-use menu that allows you to adjust all main camera-shooting settings direct from the LCD, without having to dip into the main camera menus.

Movies and images are stored on either the very modest 15MB of internal storage or SD, SDHC or SDXC memory cards, which sit under a flap alongside the Li-ion battery pack, which is capable of shooting around 300-images on a full charge. We found the battery usage to be actually very frugal in most shooting conditions but the use GPS has a major impact, as will brighter LCD brightness settings needed for shooting in bright lighting.

Focusing and metering performed as well as the Leica V-Luz 20 variant and the face AF set up that can recognise up to 15-faces in a shot ensures focus and metering is optimised for the faces rather than a bright background for example. The small built-in flash performed well but is just able to cope with subjects up to 5m away in ISO auto mode so is limited in scope but okay for a fill-in.

And speaking of ISO, the camera’s sensitivity settings run from ISO 80 to 1600, which is a little limiting but for a reason, noise at higher ISO’s is an issue and noise processing can affect detail retention, more so than on the V-Lux 20. Shots taken at ISO 1600 seem both blurred and sapped of colour and full of noise. However, the noise is not worse than can be seen on many similar cameras. Like the Leica, another disappointment is images shot at lower ISOs, though very clean and crisp, at ISO 200 or above and viewed at 100% in a photo editor, the shadows are very blotchy which makes the images appear soft in shadow areas. 

To help snapping at longer focal lengths, low sensitivity settings in low light Panasonic’s accomplished MEGA O.I.S image stabilisation system steps in to lend a more stable hand. It works very well and although it does not prevent subject blur at lower shutter speeds it can certainly help control camera shake.

The metering provides centre-weighted, spot and multiple-zone evaluative, combined with the face AF set up and tracking AF the metering can produce some excellent results, with the best overall mode, as with the V-Lux 20, appearing to be centre-weighted, which produced the best balance between subject and background and helped to retain sky detail in some shots without compromising foreground brightness.

The TZ10, while as much a mixed bag as the V-Lux 20 in some regards, does not suffer from the problem as being as pricey as a consumer DSLR and as such it is much better value and provides a superb set of features. Point and shoot or manual control, both are to hand in a camera package that can cover almost any subject quite well.

We wrote in the Leica review "For Leica enthusiasts, with a the budget to match, perhaps the V-Lux 20 makes sense, but for everyone else, we feel the Panasonic TZ10 may be the weapon of choice" and so it stands.

A leather case and £70 worth of software aside, there’s nothing the average snapper will gain for the additional cost of the Leica version of this camera and particularly in terms of image quality, which is nothing (or a very thin fag paper’s width) better in all areas apart perhaps from noise processing.

Verdict

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ10 provides a superb general snapping tool in terms of the subjects its lens focal length can encompass. Image quality is on a par with similar cameras and the features list is particularly impressive at the price too making the TZ10 great value for money and certainly a snapper that need s close attention if you want to buy a compact, longer zoom lens camera that’s easy to use but able to offer advanced shooting options as the user grows in confidence.