Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT4

Upgrading 2011’s toughened Lumix DMC-FT3 from Panasonic comes the inevitable FT4 incarnation, boasting reinforced glass and rubber padding. Once again the headline stills resolution is 12.1 megapixels and GPS geotagging of images features, thereby broadening its appeal to include travelling types as much as the adrenaline junkies and the plain-old cack-handed.

Also very familiar is the claim that Lumix DMC-FT4 is waterproof to a depth of 12 metres, which is more than twice the capability of most rivals. Plus it’s shock-proofed against drops from two metres high, freeze-proof to -10°C and dustproof too. The built-in compass, altimeter and barometer remain from the previous model also. Hey, if it’s (nigh) unbreakable, don’t fix it, right?

Some of the predecessors problems remain

Unfortunately Panasonic doesn’t seem to have taken any notice of our grumbles about the FT3 either. So, with the exception of the large shutter release button, the rest of the controls on the camera have stayed too small and fiddly to be easily operated with wet fingers or while wearing ski gloves. A roughened surface to controls might have solved the former problem, while larger buttons than the standard-sized ones at the rear would have helped with the latter issue.

The zoom lens provided is, again, of the internally stacked variety, meaning that at no point does it protrude from the body, so avoiding it getting in harm’s way. Indeed it’s protected by reinforced glass to make doubly sure. It’s déja vu in terms of the FT4’s focal range too. Like the FT3 we’re offered a respectable 28-128mm in 35mm terms, which equates to a modest but still useful 4.6x optical zoom.

Instead of operating the zoom via a rocker switch or a lever encircling the shutter release – both of which would again be awkward with wet or gloved fingers - Panasonic has come up with two thumb-operated parallel buttons that the user hops between: one to zoom wide, the other to zoom closer. Not a completely satisfactory arrangement, but at least the zoom is swift to respond.

Gets going quickly

The camera is quick to power up too, in around two seconds, as long as the text prompt regarding the camera’s waterproofing abilities is ignored.

Still photographs and full HD video in a choice of AVCHD or MP4 formats are composed via the 2.7-inch LCD, which has the same lowly 230k-dot resolution as the FT3 predecessor. Fair enough, it’s adequate and mostly does the job, though you’ll still be cupping a hand around it in bright sunlight and if using it by the pool, where you’ll need to contend with reflections too.

The camera finds focus and exposure nigh on instantly: barely a blink passing between a half press of the shutter release button and an AF point being illuminated in green with a beep of conformation.

Great design

The mostly metal camera looks and feels the part though, resembling a toolbox with a lens, an impression enhanced by the visible screws at the four corners of the faceplate. Despite the extra bulk over a conventional compact due to the GPS antenna and extra padding, the FT4 remains on of the more stylish rough 'n’ tumble models around.

The camera’s proportions are a pocket-friendly 103.5x64x26.5mm, which is good news. It weighs a reassuring yet not uncomfortable 197g with rechargeable lithium ion battery and optional SD/SDHC/SDXC card loaded. Otherwise it’s a meagre 20MB internal memory to fall back on.

Shockproof, but potentially at the cost of waterproof

A curio is that, although the camera is supposed to be shockproof, Panasonic’s blurb mentions the fact that dropping the camera may affect the waterproofing, and if you have done so the camera should be checked over professionally before you take it for a dip – which rather undoes its usefulness.

On the whole and as largely expected from the brand, the Panasonic does seem more reliable than rivals however, including last year’s Fuji XP30, to give one example, which failed to pick up a GPS signal when indoors and died completely when we took it for a dip in the local pond.

By contrast, with more than a million landmark names stored, the Panasonic’s GPS was revealing our location via on-screen text indoors and out, and pinpointing it to our local district rather than just borough. It also survived being dunked in our local pond at arm’s length, though while the camera still worked we were slightly concerned to find a few small droplets of moisture visible beneath the lockable card/battery cover afterwards.

And video too

As mentioned, video also features here, with a dedicated one-touch record button located adjacent to the shutter release on the top plate, a press of which commences recording no matter what alternative stills mode has been selected.

Incidentally there’s no regular backplate mode dial, rather a dedicated button. A press of this and we’re offered a choice of feature limited "intelligent auto" (iA) for pure point and shoot operation, more expansive program and manual options, along with dedicated sports, snow, beach and snorkelling modes. There is also a miniature digital effect mode, 14 further scene modes covering the usual daylight and nigh time portrait and landscape scenarios, plus a software-based 3D photo mode which produces a widescreen ratio shot if the user pans left to right when shooting.

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 properly - you don’t get the effect via the camera’s own scree as it’s not lenticular, like say the "true 3D" Fujifilm W3. You do however get a low-resolution (1MB or thereabouts) video grab-like JPEG file generated by the FT4 alongside for reference, so you can at least see whether the framing is to your liking and try again if necessary.

A full resolution JPEG is committed to camera memory within the usual 3-4 seconds. This process is elongated if using one of the effects, with the miniature mode effect taking around 10 seconds to apply at the point of capture. As with competing cameras that offer such a feature, the portion of the image in sharp focus is narrowed to a central band, while top and bottom of frame are blurred so the impression given is that full-size buildings appear as toy town-like models.

Modes and menus

For tabbing through mode and menu settings a familiar four-way control dial is provided on the backplate, situated where it intuitively falls under the thumb. Set at points north, east, south and west are: exposure compensation options, flash settings, macro mode (down to an impressive 1cm from your subject), plus selftimer (two or ten seconds countdown).

Another intrinsic feature of the backplate is a dedicated delete button, located bottom right, that doubles as Panasonic’s short cut "Q.Menu" (Quick menu) control in capture mode. This presents a toolbar of key shooting options across the top of the LCD display, so users don’t have to scroll through multiple menu screens to change the likes of ISO. Speaking of which, this camera has a quite modest user selectable ISO100 to ISO1600.

Via this same toolbar we can turn GPS on or off, adjust pixel count, white balance, focus mode - switch on face detection or AF tracking - activate the burst mode, up to an impressive 14fps at 3 megapixels rather than the FT3’s 10fps - the LCD mode, or turn the LED focus assist lamp nestled alongside the built-in flash at the front on/off. It’s all very useful (and familiar) but again your fingers will be slipping about if hands or camera are wet.

Picture quality

In terms of picture quality the FT4 gives no better a performance than a non-toughened Lumix snapshot costing half its price. There are familiar bugbears such as loss of focus towards the corners of the frame at maximum wide angle and soft results shooting handheld at maximum zoom, so if you really don’t need the extra reliability suggested here, there is money to be saved.

However, more positively users may be tempted to try photography and videos in places and conditions that they wouldn’t even consider taking a regular compact - even if it’s just out in the rain and the snow - so there’s the opportunity for more images and greater experimentation, which is always very welcome.

Verdict

Rarely has an upgrade seemed as if merely the model number has changed while everything else has stayed the same, so owners of the FT3 needn’t feel a need to rush for this “upgrade”. But where does it sit in the current market? Well, recent rivals to Panasonic’s FT4 include the Nikon’s AW100 and Coolpix S30, plus the Olympus TG-320, Canon D20, and Fujifilm XP50, to name a mere handful.

While the FT4’s feature set puts it at the top end of those, the asking price of around £355, at the time of writing, is similarly high. However while this was the figure showing on Amazon, Panasonic UK told us the price was still being finalised. As the older, largely identical FT3 is still listed on Panasonic’s own e-shop at £329, we’d hazard a guess it’s probably not far from the truth.

In summary, despite the FT4’s rugged claims, this is a camera more for taking out in all weathers with a reasonable amount of confidence rather than throwing at rocks or going scuba diving with – in other words intentional punishment. Still, there is the potential here for a bit of fun if you can justify the expense – plus it is still one of the coolest-looking tough cameras out there.