The latest Lumix superzoom, the FZ48 or FZ47 if you’re based outside of the UK, adds to the stack of long-zoom compacts that have hit the shelves in recent months.
With a 24x optical zoom lens that ranges from a wide 25mm to a substantial 600mm the FZ48 is a straight continuation from the previous FZ45 model. In fact it looks very much the same from the outside, though there are a couple of significant changes beneath the exterior that see it as a step forward.
New sensor and HD video
First up the FZ48’s new 12.1MP CCD sensor is capable of higher transfer processing speeds than before which means a 1080i HD movie mode with a 17Mbps compression rate is possible. Both AVCHD capture and an MP4 file format straight from camera are possible and you can use the zoom while recording which makes for a well-rounded mode.
The faster sensor also pairs up with a faster autofocus system dubbed ‘Sonic Speed AF’ by Panasonic. While these marketing names can sometimes talk up even the subtlest of changes, the FZ48’s autofocus is a definite improvement that, when at the wide-angle settings, will see off even the sharpest of the competition. The caveat to that is when zooming in - the mid-tele stretch of the zoom isn’t nearly as fast to focus as at the wide end, though speed is still impressive overall.
Anyone familiar with the previous FZ45 model will note that it had a 14.1MP sensor, one that’s been ‘cut back’ for the latest FZ48 release in a bid to improve image quality overall. Put too many millions of pixels into a small space each of those sensor nodes will be fighting for good quality light, so balancing up a sensible resolution against decent quality is the goal here. Or so the theory goes.
Not a huge improvement
What may come as a surprise are the final results at full resolution - we were expecting big improvements but the results aren’t too different from the previous FZ45 model. Look for the finer details and the amount of processing causes edge distortion and a dwindling of detail.
Softness increases as the ISO setting goes up, but from ISO 400 and above there’s a notable drop off in sharpness that becomes very soft and blurred by the top-end ISO 1600 setting.
Although ISO 3200-6400 settings are available, these are reserved for specific modes only, and the final quality isn’t too good at all. While a raw mode was available in the FZ45 model it has been removed in the FZ48. Although the images are good enough due to good colour and exposure, they don’t outdo the competition and that’ll leave those seeking higher detail levels to seek an alternative -think Fuji HS20 with its Raw shooting and better processing.
The strengths of the superzoom
Without exception superzoom cameras compromise final image quality in order to deliver on the promise of a large lens in a respectively small body, so with that in mind there are many positives to be had from the FZ48.
The latest 3in, 460K-dot LCD screen sees a vast improvement over previous generations. Easy to view from a variety of steep angles, the level of detail is a step-up and images look very good indeed. To complement this is a 0.2in, 200K-dot electronic viewfinder that can be activated by hitting the ‘EVF/LCD’ button.
Although the viewfinder is small it’s still an essential tool for composing when bright sunlight gets to be too much, or when the added pressure of resting the camera against your eye gives additional stability for those long-zoom shots.
To further assist in keeping shots all the sharper is Panasonic’s ‘POWER OIS’ (optical image stabilisation) system that can counter shake by shifting an internal floating lens element by microscopic amounts. It’s a highly effective system and its benefits can be seen when composing images on screen in real time.
The FZ48’s layout is top notch too. Whether a newbie or more seasoned shooter the positions of dials and quick menus make it easy to jump between options. Full auto (intelligent auto/iA) features alongside the usual manual modes, plus there’s an in-camera 3D mode that outputs MPO files.
A macro mode that can function as close as 1cm to subject is another fantastic feature - though any focal length beyond the widest 25mm setting will increase this distance (it becomes 1m from subject by the 600mm setting).
Some behind the scenes work has also seen Panasonic squeeze more power out of its rechargeable battery. Now able to tot up some 400 shots per charge – that’s a pretty good standing for a camera such as this.
The FZ48 has its positives: we’re fond of the fast autofocus system that, at the wide-angle settings at least, will see off much of the competition.
But it’s not all rosy: the 24x optical zoom, while more than sufficient for most users, doesn’t have the sort of reach that the Fuji HS20 or Canon SX30 IS can provide. Add to this that the FZ48’s latest 12.1MP sensor can’t step up image quality to a class-leading position - plus the Raw mode’s been culled, something available in the previous model - and it’s very much down to the fast autofocus and decent movie mode to deliver the sell.
Good though the FZ48 is, and worthy of a solid score for being a decent all-rounder, it can’t help but look a tiny bit tired in a highly competitive superzoom market.