Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ40

The Panasonic Lumix TZ40 - or Lumix ZS30 as it's known to our friends across the Atlantic - is one of those enabling cameras. It's got a 20x optical zoom with optical image stabilisation squeezed into a small and pocketable design which means wide-angle group shots or picking off those far-away subjects is possible all from the one camera.

This all-in-one compact also loads up on the shooting modes: whether point-and-shoot intelligent Auto, scene modes or creative control "arty" filters are more your thing or you want full manual controls - it's all available in the TZ40. There's also Wi-Fi functionality and NFC (near field communication) capabilities - a first for the TZ-series - which mean shots can not only be pushed out to other devices as well as the web directly from camera, but also shared via a single touch with compatible NFC devices.

Despite these obvious positives on paper, the Lumix TZ40 has opted for a curious rise in megapixel count compared to its TZ30 predecessor - 18-megapixels compared to 14-megapixels, both on the same small 1/1.23-inch sensor size - which does raise the ongoing image quality question. Has Panasonic pushed the latest Lumix a step too far in its play of the numbers game?

We've had the TZ40 in tow for a couple of weeks where it's joined us for intimate gigs, out in the snows of the UK's alleged Spring and everywhere in-between. Is it the ultimate all-in-one travel zoom camera or is there little new to get truly excited about?

Big zoom, small body

In the smartphone age if there's one thing that a consumer compact camera needs then that's zoom. And the TZ40 has plenty of it. The 24-480mm equivalent from the 20x optical zoom lens is nothing new though: it's the same lens as found in the TZ30 that came before it, which means the same f/3.3-6.4 maximum aperture range too.

For those unfamiliar with the jargon: the maximum aperture is the widest possible the lens opening can be at a given focal length, and in the TZ40's case that means less light can enter as the zoom extends. The more light that goes in, ie, the wider the aperture (smaller the number), not only means a shallower depth of field - that blurred background effect - but also that the camera won't need to process the sensor's signal as harshly, which in turn should result in a cleaner, sharper image.

But wider maximum apertures equate to physical size and increased expense. And so the TZ40's tactic of sandwiching itself somewhere in the middle comes clear: it's a small-bodied design that, while it doesn't have the very widest or creative maximum aperture control out there, will still cater for most situations without too many issues. It avoids excessive size and therefore excessive cost implications too - as its £329 price tag attests. If you want that bit more then you'll need to investigate those more premium compacts which, in turn, will mean investigating the depths of your pockets too.

For the cash the TZ40's zoom range is still vast and capable. That's partly because the lens comes with an optical image stabilisation system that works on a five axis system. In English that means that the lens elements can move by microscopic amounts in multiple directions to counteract handshake and not only provide a steady preview image but a potentially sharper final shot too. It's an essential at the 480mm equivalent zoom setting, otherwise holding that shot steady and well-framed is tricky.

We have nothing but praise to sing for this latest Panasonic stabilisation system - it almost cradles the image and keeps those zoomed-in shots dead still so long as you've got a decent hold of the camera. It's up there with the best in class, if not the best of the bunch compared to its competitors - although we're still waiting to see some of the forthcoming competitor models such as the Sony WX300, so it will be interesting to see how far the bar could yet be raised.

Speedy autofocus

All of that zoom lushness wouldn't be much use if the accompanying autofocus system wasn't up to scratch. Here's an area where we have little qualms; Panasonic's been on top when it comes to autofocus speed for a while now and the TZ40 sure doesn't disappoint.

Previously names such as "light speed autofocus" and similar such marketing terms were banded about. The TZ40 seems to have brushed such terminology aside, leaving it to show off for what it is: a bloomin' speedy system as divided into a variety of focus area types - spot, face detection, tracking, 23-area and 1-area.

There's an option to suit almost any given situation and the ability to utilise the camera's touchscreen functionality makes 1-area focus, for example, all the more relevant and easy to use. Simply press onto the screen to make physical adjustments with the touch of a finger, something that's even more accurate with the smaller Spot focus point. Lovely stuff.

Autofocus at the wider angle settings is almost instant, and while less speedy as the zoom extends we're still generally impressed with how fast the camera can lock on to a subject. Even the AF Tracking option which, with a down press of the rear d-pad, locks onto its target subject and does a grand job of recognising and following it around the screen.

Fiddling around with this tracking feature just using our own hands showed that the TZ40's quite a capable machine. The tracking icon continued to follow from a five finger open hand through to fist or any number of contorted digit combinations - all at a very reasonable speed. However the focus itself couldn't keep up as rapidly as the tracking area followed and so, despite some promise, we found it tricky to get super-sharp shots of subjects in motion.

Another top focus feature is the close-up macro option. Hit down on the rear d-pad and AF Macro can be selected where the camera's zoom is still usable, otherwise there's the Macro Zoom option which fixes the lens to its widest-angle setting and uses digital zoom - ie, an image size crop which is then upscaled for output - to give results an even more magnified appearance. We're not so keen on the second option of the two as clarity is lost. In the AF Macro mode it's possible to get extremely close up to subjects and still achieve focus. It's a mini marvel, even if - as per any camera with a zoom lens - the close-focus distance is limited as the zoom increases.

From autofocus to burst speed and the bar remains high: the TZ40 can snap away at 10 frames per second and put away six consecutive images, or at five frames per second with autofocus enabled for up to 100 consecutive shots. None too bad, just don't expect the world from continuous autofocus.

Tech explosion

The TZ40's main swathe of newness comes in the form of sharing. We've got on-board Wi-Fi as well as one-touch NFC.

There's also another layer of techie goodness in the form of GPS (global positioning satellite) that can geotag an image's location as well as built-in map data - ours came on a separate SD card for the case of this test - which TZ40 models will have built in.

The thing with all this tech is that if it's not easy to use then it becomes a pain. GPS is easily switched on or off via the camera's quick menu and has a three bar measure to show signal strength, so that's all fine and dandy.

The Wi-Fi system is a bit better than some we've come to use, such as Canon's setup, but we did find that we hit a number of hiccups along the way when testing it out.

There are plenty of ways to use the TZ40's Wi-Fi system: download an app to your Android or iOS device and it's possible to control the camera via your smart device; there's a playback on TV option; and images can be sent in real time or post-shooting - deep breath for this list - to smartphone, PC, cloud (Lumix Club account only), web service or AV device.

We've had plenty of fun using an iPhone as a remote control for the TZ40. It's possible to zoom in and out, adjust exposure settings, focus point and snap a photo all from the comfort of your smartphone. You can even look at shots that are on the SD card. Of course you'll need an app to do this and the Wi-Fi network has to be synched direct to the camera itself along with an encrypted password.

Passwords will soon become your enemy though. Even if using the same router and, therefore, Wi-Fi network, the system will want the WPS pin for each form of connection type. Share an image to a smartphone, for example, and then in the same room attempt to share the same image with your networked PC and it'll require the whole password hoop on each occasion.

After a successful connection it's saved into the history and, should you wish, can be moved into Favorites which both bypass the need to re-enter a password - certainly useful, it's just a case of getting over that first password-tapping hurdle.

The other options aren't also entirely camera-centric, given that you'll need browser access on a computer to set up the likes of Lumix Club - Panasonic's own cloud-based server. We were hoping for Dropbox, Google Drive and other services access, but none is available to access from what we can see, and access to our office Mac's public folder - where the Dropbox folder is also present - didn't show up any folder option on the TZ40.

The long and the short of it is that the TZ40 comes loaded with plenty of sharing options that have the potential to be great, despite some fiddling required and various hurdles such as connection time-outs and repetitive password entries. Sending files can also be a slow process depending on your connection - it took 1-minute to send a single still image file to a PC which seems like rather a long time for a 7MB file. Upload speeds are rarely as good as download speeds of course.

Simplification is key, which is where the app-based NFC sharing comes into play - that's what the raised panel to the side of the camera in the image below represents.

However, as it stands we'd find it quicker to pop the SD card into the side of a computer, offload the images and drag them into whichever service we wanted them to arrive. That being the case all the connectivity cleverness definitely has its limitations, but for that special image and sticky situation it could well be the Wi-Fi sharing option that comes to the rescue at the least expected of moments. We're glad it's available and look forward to its simplification and evolution over proceeding TZ-series models.

It's also worth pointing out that there's an impact on battery life when using the sharing-based tech, but that switching off such modes will get you up to in excess of 300 shots per charge. That's better than previous TZ-models and gets a thumbs up from us.

New sensor: new pixel count

As much brand, spanking, new tech as gets crammed on board, a camera is principally a camera - it’s all about the pictures.

As we alluded to at the beginning of this review, the TZ40 squeezes in an extra 4-megapixels of resolution compared to its TZ30 predecessor but as the sensor size is no larger that befroe it means each pixel is smaller and, therefore, there's some impact to image quality. Not much, but it is there.

This is a two-fold thing really: while we wouldn't deem the TZ40's images "better" than the TZ30's due to some presence of colour noise in shadow areas from low-middling ISO sensitivities, it's not particularly disruptive. So while we ultra-geeky photo fans might shed a tear at the presence of some image noise, the key target user of this camera is unlikely to really notice it nor care too much.

And that's because the TZ40 takes great images. As we're previously alluded to this camera is an enabler: it packs in a massive zoom range, great macro mode, speedy autofocus system and we've managed to snap some great shots in real-world situations. That's what counts the most.

A close-up shot of Rita Ora (above) at an intimate acoustic gig, the crisp image of a heron paused waiting for a fish - or perhaps just bread - at London's Regent's Park: it's all easily achievable using the TZ40.

Indeed right into the four-figure ISO settings shots are more than usable, and even at that 18-megapixel resolution. And let's not forget: that resolution is more resolute than eight 1080p HD televisions arranged side by side. So when such scale is viewed at a smaller presentation size - whether a printout, on a website, social media site, laptop screen or the like - a lot of those finer imaging blemishes are essentially "hidden" away somewhat.

If we're hyper-critical then there's some slight chromatic aberration in the form of purple fringing towards some subject edges, and image processing will produce slightly mottled, artefact-laden edges in fine detail areas, but that's all part and parcel of how a camera works and expected from a compact. Take a look below at the 100 per cent crop of the heron shot shown above - given that it's shot at ISO 1000 it's a fine example of what can be achieved from this camera.

Higher up the ISO scale - which maxes out at ISO 3200 in its standard mode - and shots do yet softer and there's more image noise, but no more so than nearby competitors in our view. The TZ40's Venus engine does a grand job of processing shots while retaining detail.

There's also a batch of creative options accessible from the main mode dial: impressive art, high dynamic, cross process, toy effect and more can have their uses, although some seem to push images to excess in our view. Not quite as refined as Olympus's Art Filter selection perhaps. Fun enough to play with, but once they're applied there's no going back as there's no raw file backup with the TZ40.

Overall the Lumix TZ40 might not match up to larger-sensor, pricier competitors, but then that's not what it's pretending to be. This is a one-size-fits-all travel zoom that, from what we've seen in our time with it - despite the increase in resolution compared to its predecessor that we'd rather have gone without - will keep its near competitors at bay. It's a li'l cracker.

Verdict

We've always had a soft spot for the TZ-series, and the TZ40 has just made that a little bit softer. We don't feel that the push to an 18-megapixel resolution was necessary, but that doesn't stop the TZ40's combination of 20x optical zoom, excellent image stabilisation system and Venus processing engine from opening up a world of image potential. We've snapped close-up, from afar, in all manner of conditions and, despite some quibbles when viewed at absolute scale, the overall sense is that pictures are great.

Add accurate and super-fast autofocus which is handily controlled via the touchscreen, improved battery life and all manner of other tech and we're left scratching our heads as to which other travel zoom competitor could take on this Lumix and win.

We may have our moans about using some of the Wi-Fi options and how slow they can be, but suspect that they'll come in handy at the least expected of moments. Better to have them there rather than not, and a definite nod to where the whole compact camera world is headed. It's not as fluid as the Samsung Galaxy camera by any means, but the TZ40 wins on ease of use, pocketable size and picture sharpness by comparison.

The Lumix TZ40 doesn't offer those approaching-pro features such as a wider aperture range or larger sensor size that some may want, but then that's not what this camera is about at all. Within its class it's an absolute gem; a real enabler that, in the increasing presence of smartphone photography, quickly proves its worth and shows how relevant compact cameras still are.

All this for £329 is rather reasonable too. It's not a budget camera, but considering what's on board we think the TZ40 is worth every penny.