Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150 review

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150 is the new flagship model in Panasonic’s FZ range of superzoom bridge cameras. It replaces the FZ100 and comes hot on the heels of the cheaper, but very similarly specified, FZ48.

For £120 more than the latter we find a camera with a vari-angle (adjustable) LCD screen, a definite advantage for those low or high angle shots when you can’t easily otherwise get an eye level. It uses a 460k dot, 3-inch screen but there's also a lower resolution 201k dot electronic viewfinder (EVF), located just above the screen.

Though enthusiasts will enjoy at least having the choice of using an EVF, unfortunately it didn’t quite jut out far enough to prevent our nose rubbing up against the screen below when pressing an eye level with the viewfinder. Incidentally, although a button is provided for switching between using the EVF or LCD to compose or review images, a more fluid transition still would have been provided by a built-in eye sensor. Admittedly this may have added to the cost/bulk.

Design

A flick of the small and stiff on/off switch, and the Panasonic powers up ready for the first still or video clip in a couple of seconds. Like most bridge cameras, so called because they offer a link in terms of approachability and performance between a compact camera and a digital SLR, the black-finished Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150 signifies its increased sophistication over your average compact. It even has a hint of SLR styling about it, which might appeal to some.

Overall dimensions of the plastic, but solidly build camera are 124.3x81.7x95.2mm, and weight is a reassuringly hefty 528g. You'll see around 410-shots per charge with the lithium ion battery.

We did manage to squeeze the camera into the pocket of a winter coat, but generally this one to be worn about your neck or slung over a shoulder, rather than secreted away. Svelte, the Lumix DMC-FZ150 is not.

Bulky and zoomy

Its inevitable bulk, including a comfortably large handgrip, shutter release and zoom lever(s), is of course largely down to that much broader than average focal range offered by its retracting and extending 24x optical zoom. That’s the equivalent of 25mm to 600mm in 35mm film terms, with the camera automatically barrelling from one extreme to the other in as little as three seconds.

While not quite as big as the 36x optical zoom offered by the class leader in Nikon’s Coolpix P500 (also 12.1MP), we found the FZ150 offered plenty of extra poke for general subject matter, and its range can be further extended to a 32x equivalent if taking advantage of its ‘intelligent zoom’, which merely runs on from the end of the core optical range if you keep a finger on the zoom lever.

Unusually, there are two zoom levers; one encircling the shutter release button and a second on the lens housing, so in practical terms there’s a choice of zooming with right hand or left.

Still and video flexibility

And of course the breadth of framing options offered by such a range – from candid close ups to pulling the faraway that much nearer, paparazzi style - is unlikely to leave you frustrated by the fact that, unlike a DSLR, the lens on the front of the FZ150 cannot be swapped. For action shooters trying to get closer to sporting events, there is the ability to not only make use of that magnificent zoom but also capture up to 12 frames per second at full resolution, while a 220fps video option provides slow motion replay, at a greatly reduced image quality.

All told, the FZ150 comes across as a jack-of-all-trades device for amateurs who don’t want the perceived fuss of a DSLR, yet comes complete with top plate hotshoe for accessory flash, lens shield to minimise glare, and stereo microphones to make the most of the Full HD 1920x1080 pixels, 25fps video.

Thankfully, for moving images, the full optical extent of the lens can be used, though pickier pundits may be disappointed by sensor size. Instead of usual 16MP pixel count, the headline resolution of the Panasonic is a relatively modest 12.1 effective megapixels from a 12.8MP, 1/2.3-inch CCD. Presumably a decision taken to limit the appearance of noise at higher ISO settings - which can be pushed up to ISO3200. We appreciated being able to fast-track our selection of ISO speeds via a dedicated control, provided on the cross keys style command pad on the rear of the camera.

The camera commendably responds instantly to each inquisitive button press and option selection. This means that once you’ve found the settings you want, you can get on with the business of picture taking without really giving them more than a second thought. Give a half squeeze of the shutter release button and the FZ150 is as swift to lock onto target as its latest G series Lumix interchangeable lens Compact System Cameras, with an official timing given of 0.1 seconds. Not bad at all, given that this is neither officially a CSC nor DSLR.

We can’t claim that image quality is a sharp as that from a DSLR with physically larger sensor and better glass, but then such a zoom range on a DSLR would not only be prohibitively bulky but also prohibitively expensive to most. If you do want extra illumination in low light a spring-loaded pop up flash is provided above the lens and encircling the microphones, with a button sitting alongside the EVF requiring a press to raise it.

Modes and handling

For general handling of the camera we were able to comfortably snake three fingers of our right hand around the handgrip. Our forefinger hovered above the shutter release button and thumb came to rest on the slightly raised leather effect pad, with DSLR-style command dial at the back. This dial enabled us to scroll faster through black text on white background menu options than alternatively tabbing from one to the next using the cross keys at the back.

Newcomers may be daunted by the fact that the ten pence piece sized shooting mode dial on the top plate features a busy 14 choices. These include the usual creative quartet of program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual options plus various scene modes and custom settings. That said, highlighted in red the most obvious choice is intelligent Auto (iA), the Panasonic’s point and shoot setting whereby it can be left up to the camera to ‘recognise’ common scenes and subjects and select the most appropriate one. We’ve always found this a good fall back for when we’d rather be concentrating on following a subject than swapping settings on the fly. The dial has a reassuringly stiff feel to it (reassuring in that it’s tricky to accidentally jog it from one setting to another when fetching it in or out of a bag), and lines up with each setting with a definite click.

If the camera’s default colour settings aren’t doing it for you, then this, being a Lumix camera, has a creative control option on the dial, here indicated by a graphic of an artist’s palette. ‘Expressive’ is always our favourite option by way of providing a short cut to boosting the colour intensity of a subject, without making it appear unnatural in an alternative pop art mode sort of way. The other creative settings accessed here include the increasingly ubiquitous miniature effect, film grain, corner shading pin-hole, high dynamic range, retro and high key.

In addition to these, should the user be shooting in an alternative mode, such as program, with a press of the menu button we still get access to Panasonic’s ‘photo style’ settings, which again offer the ability for the user to tweak the look of pictures in camera. The choice in this setting is between vivid, natural, monochrome, scenery, portrait, custom or standard settings. Within each option there is the chance to individually tweak contrast, sharpness, colour saturation and noise reduction via plus or minus on-screen sliders, so those who love getting hands-on can do just that.

Image quality

As we noted at the outset, the FZ150 chiefly differs from the FZ48 in that its rear LCD can be flipped out from its storage position with screen facing the body, and rotated so that the screen is alongside it and facing the user, in the fashion of a camcorder. In this position the monitor can be tilted up or tilted down, allowing for the camera to be positioned low to the ground and the photographer still be able to see the shot they’re getting from a standing or crouching position, or raised high at arm’s length and for them to be able to do the same. Should you be interested in self-portraits, the screen can also be rotated so that it is facing the front of the camera.

In terms of image quality we were pleased that we were able to achieve reasonably sharp results when shooting handheld at maximum zoom. This isn’t always the case with more ambitiously specified super zooms, plus the camera avoids the tell-tale barrel distortion and obvious corner softness when shooting at maximum wide angle.

So this is indeed a versatile tool. In lower light it’s best to stick to ISO800 if you want to avoid image degradation all together, though higher options remain usable, and in brighter conditions we did notice some purple fringing when zooming in on high contrast portions of a shot. But, ‘twas ever thus, and this is only if you are really searching out such imperfection. Mostly the FZ150 is a reliable addition to the super zoom throng, even if it is one that plays it safe.

Verdict

Ultimately the thing that sticks in the throat with regard to the FZ150 is the price, which is expensive for a fixed lens camera, and could alternatively buy you a starter digital SLR and standard zoom lens. OK, so that won’t offer anywhere near the focal range out of the box that the FZ150 offers, but it will provide slightly more versatility in years to come.

Having said that, street pricing will be cheaper and if it’s just the one camera and the one lens you’re after, then there is certainly a place for this Lumix and its super zoom ilk, even in the age of the Compact System Camera. And incidentally, for those on a budget who don’t need a tilt and rotate screen, both resolution and optical zoom spec are matched by the less pricey Panasonic FZ48 at a suggested price around £350.

To end on a positive, if you don’t want the perceived ‘hassle’ of a DSLR and swapping lenses and a big zoom is really top of your priority list, then the FZ150 handles well, takes good quality stills and video and offers the flexibility that a pocket compact doesn’t. It’s one camera capable of handling many jobs and is such is a good all rounder if you can shop around to find a more competitive price.