Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT3

How many of us who take photographs on a regular basis can deny that, at one point or another, our camera hasn’t inadvertently taken a tumble from our grasp or camera bag? To avoid that heart-in-mouth moment, and for added peace of mind, there’s the toughened Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT3, naturally upgrading the FT2 and FT1 before it.

It’s not the first of its kind aimed at active sports enthusiasts and the plain clumsy, nor will it be the last, obvious competitors including Olympus’ newly announced TG-810 from its own long-standing Tough range, with which the FT3 shares several key features including built-in GPS antenna. In tandem, both the geo tagging ability and rugged exterior earmark the FT3 as (potentially) an ideal travel accessory.

Whilst not exactly armour plated, the 12.1-megapixel Panasonic and its ilk are the closest the commercial digicam gets to that, the FT3 being waterproofed to depths of 12 metres (its FT1 predecessor offered just 3 metres), shock proofed against drops from 2 metres in height (tested when we inadvertently dropped the camera from waist height onto concrete paving), freezeproof to -10°C and dustproof into the bargain.

The rival TG-810 additionally offers “crushproof”, but the Panasonic credentials will satisfy most of us for now, particularly as it further squares up to its rival with a built-in compass, altimeter and barometer.

Because of its outer and inner resin and rubber padding to dampen down eternal shocks, the FT3 is inevitably broader and bulkier than your non-strengthened typical snapper. That said, measuring 103.5 x 64 x 26.5mm, so about a third larger than a business card if one was up-scaled, the camera will fit into a trouser pocket with a squeeze. Weight is 175g, body only, which is fairly light. That said, the camera feels as robust when gripped as one would expect, even if there’s not much in the way of any actual handgrip.

There’s one trick that Panasonic appears to have missed however, and that’s with the exception of the large and obvious shutter release button, the other controls on the camera are too small and fiddly (and moreover slippery) to be used when either wearing gloves or with wet fingers.

Diminutive controls like those on a standard snapshot make for a more stylish looking camera overall, but not for practicality if you really are a James Bond wannabe and/or are considering the FT3 for snorkelling, skiing or snowboarding.

To protect the Leica branded lens from damage, not only does it possess a reinforced glass cover (but not a metal lens cover, so fingerprints do get onto the glass), like its forebears it is also folded within the body, so at no time does it protrude and potentially get into harm’s way. This also helps maintain compact dimensions. There are inevitable caveats though: the quality from the small folded lens is inevitably not as good as that from a physically larger one, so there’s a slight softness to the images in general if we’re being picky.

The FT3’s focal range is a respectable 28-128mm in 35mm terms, which equates to a modest but still useful 4.6x optical zoom. This is operated by alternating thumb presses between two rounded buttons on the camera back, rather than the usual rocker switch or controlling the zoom via a lever encircling the shutter release button. This different configuration takes some getting used to - and by the end of our test period we still hadn’t “bonded” with it - and makes arriving at the exact framing you want a matter of a bit of back and forth. The zoom however does move steadily and nigh silently through the entirety of its optical range, which is impressive, getting from maximum wideangle to extreme telephoto in 3 seconds.

Other timings are faster, the camera powering up from cold to take the first shot in just over a second for example. Plus, once you’ve arrived at the required framing, a half press of the shutter release button and focus and exposure is determined near instantly, green AF point highlighted accompanied by a beep of confirmation. As with the power up timings, we couldn't realistically expect any quicker of this class of camera; Panasonic itself says that the FT3 is up to 28% faster than the FT2.

Operation is pretty much “auto everything” with little in the way of manual control here. The FT3 has Panasonic’s intelligent Auto (iA) function prominently among its shooting modes to allow for pure point and shoot operation and consistent results, and furthering ease of use video capture (Full HD saved in AVCHD compression format) gets its own one-touch camcorder-style record button on the top plate.

The button we found ourselves pressing the most often however was for the Q.Menu (Quick Menu), located in the bottom right hand corner of the backplate. Dependent on which mode you have selected at the time, this gives access to each of the key shooting settings, displayed as a toolbar along the top of the screen. Alight on a particular option, press the relevant cross key, and tab through the drop-down choices. More intuitive than it might sound from that description, here we get access to two GPS modes as well as the ability to deactivate it entirely if you’d rather conserve battery life. The other more workaday options include image resolution settings, AF modes, white balance, ISO, and the ilk.

The GPS facility provides real-time information as you line up the shot via the FT3’s 2.7-inch, 230k-dot resolution LCD, with a ticker-tape style display at the bottom of frame. Such on-board info is claimed by its maker to cover some 230 countries and store more than a million landmarks, which is comprehensive by any standards. At any rate, it managed to “recognise” our local National Trust property. A bit of a gimmick perhaps, but potentially of use in an unfamiliar place when you’ve left the guidebook back at the hotel, and don’t have a smartphone with a similar function. For when you’re back at base and want to plot the route of where you’ve just been, longitude and latitude coordinates are stored in the EXIF data of the relevant JPEG.

Keeping the cutting edge technology coming the camera also features a 3D mode - its first appearance on a Panasonic pocket camera (in tandem with the TZ20 and FX77 models for 2011). This to an extent apes the Sweep Panorama feature of the Sony Cyber-shot and NEX compacts by compositing a single final image from a sequence of shots. It’s therefore software based; we’re not talking twin lenses nor twin sensors here to produce a stereoscopic effect.

In Panasonic’s case its 3D file is put together from a sequence of up to 20 individual frames; far less than the 100 images utilised by the range topping Sony's. Like its rival manufacturer, with 3D mode selected, the user simply pans with the camera in the direction of the arrow provided on screen - Panasonic recommending moving the camera a modest distance of 10cm - a process accompanied by a machine-gun like sample of the shutter firing. The resultant image is automatically generated by the camera and saved as an MPO file, so will of course require a 3D TV to view in all its stereoscopic glory; you don’t get the effect via the camera’s own screen; it’s not lenticular, like say the “true 3D” Fujifilm W3.

Like most Panasonic Lumix models, in regular 2D modes it’s easy to get good results from the FT3 with the minimum of fuss, with even exposures and colours which stray toward the warm end of the spectrum by default. Like most snapshot models, stick below ISO 800 if you’re attempting lower light photography without flash, yet want to avoid the appearance of image noise.

Verdict

You might want a compact camera with a longer lens reach for your holidays - the so-called “travel zoom” of which Panasonic’s new Lumix DMC-TZ20 is a good alternative example - but the added toughened qualities of the FT3 are sure to be a draw for those who want to venture beyond your run-of-the-mill holiday snap.

It may not take all you can throw at it and if you want to break the FT3 you undoubtedly will. But the advantage of being able to concentrate your efforts on getting a great shot rather than mollycoddling your equipment is a distinct advantage.

Throw in latest must haves such as a GPS antenna, 3D shooting, plus HD video, and the FT3 looks like the toughest alternative yet to Olympus’ own Tough compact camera family. Let battle commence.

Product shots by Stuart Miles.