(Pocket-lint) - Bigger isn't always better, but if you want a premium superzoom camera then physical size is an inevitable part of the package. In the case of the Panasonic Lumix FZ1000 it also means a jumbo feature set, including a 25-400mm f/2.8-4.0 equivalent zoom lens paired with large 1-inch sensor.
If a small-sensor superzoom doesn't cut it for your needs and you want premier image quality and control then your options are relatively limited. The FZ1000 slips into the new premium superzoom camera category alongside the already established Sony Cyber-shot RX10, but boasts twice the maximum focal length at the top-end of its zoom and there's 4K video capture too.
It's also a chunk of cash less than the Sony, but does that make the Panasonic a heap better by default? We've been shooting with the Panasonic Lumix FZ1000 around London town to see if its varied feature set makes it best in class and whether it's a camera that will appeal to the masses or not.
Big size, big features
Straight out of the box and it's hard to ignore the Lumix FZ1000's physical size. Measuring 137 x 131 x 99mm it's larger than even the top-of-the-line Lumix GH4 model by a notable margin - but unlike that compact system camera, the FZ1000 doesn't have an interchangeable lens system. Still, if that scale is out of the question then it's not the camera to suit.
But the physical size is for good reason: with a 20.1-megapixel 1-inch sensor on board - much like that in the Sony RX10, more on that later - paired with that wide aperture lens the laws of physics dictate the scale to some degree. The design of the camera doesn't make the size an issue in use, though, as during the last four days of our use we've found it naturally sits in a two-handed grip position no problems.
Scattered around the ample body are loads of physical controls too. Indeed, the FZ1000 takes a lot of its features and design cues from the aforementioned GH4. There are five function buttons for dedicated (but customisable) control of Wi-Fi, viewfinder/LCD view, quick menu and other settings for ease of use, while an autofocus switch makes toggling between single and continuous autofocus or manual focus options a breeze.
A sizeable main mode dial sits atop the camera and there's a drive mode dial to the opposite side of the viewfinder for jumping between burst modes and bracketing options. And given the maximum 12 frames per second burst mode and maximum 1/16,000th sec electronic shutter (there's a 1/4000th mechanical one too) it's something you'll probably use aplenty.
As a result of the layout we've found ourselves using the camera a lot like an enlarged GH4 in many regards, with the automated eye-level sensor making switching between the 0.39-inch 2.36m-dot electronic viewfinder and 3-inch, vari-angle LCD easy and practical. If you find the viewfinder's brief delay in activation irksome then a press of the Fn5 button will cycle between always-on viewfinder or LCD-only options. These selections also bypass the eye-level sensor activation, so no accidental screen cut-out should the finder get too close to your body, for example.
Lens peaks and pitfalls
Unlike the Sony, Panasonic hasn't opted for a click-step aperture ring around the FZ1000's main lens, which is a shame. Instead the camera has a single rotational ring that can be used for zoom or focus control, adjusted via the flick of a switch to the side of the lens barrel. There's a second switch to activate optical image stabilisation, an essential feature on this camera - and an excellent one that's particularly useful when shooting at those longer focal lengths.
A step-zoom system to quickly extend through the range wouldn't have gone amiss; as the lens is electronically driven through its zoom range there's not the twist-to-extend feature as many interchangeable lens cameras offer. It's also not essential to use the lens ring for zoom control; typically we used the zoom toggle control around the shutter button instead as this just felt like a more natural fit.
When put to work we found the optical image stabilisation - known as Power OIS in Panasonic's case - was great. It can be almost felt in use, with subtle physical movements all but "ignored" in the preview. Although we sometimes hit the stabilisation's on/off switch by accident, you'll know when shooting at the 400mm equivalent whether it's active of not - when it isn't you don't get that "helping hand" steady assist sensation when in preview.
Having that 400mm equivalent available is great, but the FZ1000's maximum aperture dips to f/4.0 in this instance. That's understandable, but it concedes to this maximum f/4.0 aperture from a 175mm equivalent and above. The Sony RX10, by comparison, can deliver 24-200mm with an f/2.8 maximum throughout. We would like a comparable performance from the Panasonic, but it's not to be: given the Sony has a full stop of light to its advantage, an aperture ring and better build quality, it feels the more pro-spec model overall. But - and there's always a but - where the Panasonic will win users is with its considerably longer lens: it offers twice the maximum zoom of the Sony.
Throughout that zoom range the autofocus performance is also very good, with the 49-area autofocus system borrowing many of the GH4's features once again. That includes full-area AF across the entire screen, the DFD (depth from defocus) system which is able to snap subjects into focus at pace, and the cross-hair pinpoint autofocus option. The new system even operates to -4EV which makes the FZ1000 apparently more sensitive in low-light than any other camera we've tested - it made light work of shooting in a dimly lit bar at night, that's for sure.
We found single and continuous autofocus to be among the most impressive that we've seen from a non-system camera, but there are some caveats. The pinpoint autofocus mode, for example, often struggled to obtain focus as quickly as we've seen it do so on the company's G-series compact system cameras. We would also question its accuracy in some situations, with long-zoom shots sometimes appearing less sharp than the wider angles. Now while that's typical of many zoom lenses, we wouldn't call the FZ1000's 400mm maximum soft - we've managed more often to capture sharper frames when using the single area and auto-area autofocus options.
In among the other autofocus options there's face/eye detection, tracking, and custom multi which offers multiple user-selected points to be activated. It's the last of these that's interesting as, by default, the vertical or horizontal line selection is designed for panning while shooting a moving subject. Or select your own focus points and save the selection template as you choose - although without the touchscreen interface of the GH4, it's more fiddly on the FZ1000.
It's good to see Panasonic taking continuous autofocus a bit more seriously in a camera of this type, and while it's not going to outsmart something like a top-of-the-line Nikon D4S, it still delivers solid results. We were shooting a flag waving around in the wind and focus remained on point.
Another fast aspect of the performance is the 12fps burst mode. Using a Class 10 UHS-I SD card we were able to capture 12 raw & JPEG Fine frames, increasing to 48 consecutive frames for just JPEG Fine shots alone. There's no built-in neutral density filter, which might be a bother when using the mechanical shutter, but we often sided with the electronic shutter because it's completely silent when shooting and the maximum 1/16,000th sec speed is ideal when shooting in bright conditions with the aperture wide open.
Macro mode also works a treat. At 25mm the FZ1000 can focus on a subject just 3cms from the lens' front element, dropping to 1m from 200mm and upwards. The closes focus remains fairly strong at the lower end of the zoom spectrum, with 10cms possible from around 50mm, 15cms from 75mm, 30cms from 100mm, and 50cm at 135mm.
One of the real reasons to consider buying the FZ1000 is its larger-than-average sensor size. The 1-inch scale is the same as found in its Sony RX10 competitor, albeit it's not the very same sensor: it's the same chip as found in the Sony RX100 III compact camera, which puts the Panasonic a step ahead of its nearest Sony competitor.
A sensor of this size gives immediate benefit to maximum depth of field, as demonstrated by shots of flowers and butterflies in the early afternoon sun. The blurred background is amplified further thanks to the longer focal length achievable from the camera too, an aesthetic that would be less pronounced from a smaller sensor model.
Just as we found with the Sony RX10 the Panasonic FZ1000 delivers an even stronger set of results than we had anticipated. Having worked in a temporary London venue all week we've been confident enough to shoot Pocket-lint product images of phones, even portraits, all without the need to lug our Nikon D600 around as an additional option. Good colour balance, exposure, detail and depth of field all attribute to decent image quality and the close-up macro mode has been particularly useful.
The inherent quality of the images is largely free from interfering image noise too. The lowest ISO 125 setting can be extended down to ISO 80 or 100 if required, but at these settings the dynamic range is less. Shoot at the base level ISO 125 and the results are rich with detail. Further up the ISO scale - take an ISO 1600 shot with a mid-grey background for example - and there's not a significant prominence of either colour or image noise throughout shots. Sure there's some grain, but it adds definition that's appealing if anything.
In short the FZ1000 is a big step beyond a smaller sensor equivalent, but there are still some JPEG processing artefacts that are a little harsh when it comes to finer detail areas. This becomes more prominent as sensitivity rises, but even ISO 6400 isn't a write-off by any means.
Overall, and despite the more limited maximum aperture, the FZ1000 is a camera on par with the Sony RX10. So if image quality is your primary concern then there's only a whisker of difference between the two cameras overall and, if anything, the Panasonic's "cleaner" optics meant we didn't spot any chromatic aberration towards image edges, even in high contrast backlit examples.
A prominent feature of the FZ1000 is its ability to capture up to 4K video, the Ultra HD standard 3840 x 2160 resolution at 25 or 30fps (it's 25fps in PAL, 30fps in NTSC - both are available). Interestingly as each one of those 25 or 30 frames captured each second is 8-megapixels in size, it's possible to extract stills from capture. Simply record a 4K MP4, then play it back after using the d-pad to nudge through frame by frame and then hit the Menu/Set button to confirm a separate still image save.
Results are 16:9 wide-angle, but the quality is usable enough because compression is 100Mbps as standard for 4K capture. Initially we were worried that would mean a 500kb cap per frame, but it doesn't: we've been outputting shots around 1.8MB a piece at 8MP.
All you'll really need to watch for stills capture in this way is that your captured footage is good enough. Too much camera movement will cause blur, for example, but if the 12fps burst mode isn't good enough for your needs then 30fps for minutes at a time is a good way to ensure you get a usable shot.
There's plenty of control in video capture too. Select from manual shooting modes, zoom during capture, and all bar the pinpoint autofocus modes are available. During capture if you want to cease the automated focus, simply switch the focus into MF on using the switch on the rear of the camera - the only problem being the clunky movement and audible as a result of this. It's not going to outsmart the Lumix GH4 for compression or faster frame rates, but in terms of compact cameras there's a lot to marvel at in the FZ1000's video capture.
However, such capture it will impact battery life. We snapped around 250 shots in raw & JPEG Fine in among various amounts of menu fiddling and plenty of video capture. The official CIPA battery rating is 360 shots per charge, which ought to be achievable but still offers around 17 per cent less than the Sony RX10. Our advice: carry a spare battery, it's always worth it.
Although the Lumix FZ1000's physical size and price tag will be a barrier for more casual users, those it will appeal to will find lots of value for money in its jumbo feature set. From 4K video, to silent operation, fast 12fps burst mode, through to the vari-angle LCD and built-in electronic viewfinder combination, decent autofocus and stacks of physical controls.
The Panasonic is less premium in appearance than its nearest competitor, the Sony RX10, but it's also more affordable and has a considerably more versatile zoom lens and a more up-to-date sensor on board. It's the lenses that see the two products sit in different sections of this niche market, as closely aligned as they otherwise seem. It's just a shame there's no physical aperture ring on board the Panasonic.
When a normal superzoom won't cut it, the FZ1000 really does shine on the image quality front too. We've been using it as an out-and-out replacement for our usual DSLR over the course of this week, including for taking work-related shots, and haven't found ourselves pining for our more familiar camera. So if you're looking for a DSLR alternative with a long lens then, all things considered, the FZ1000 is an affordable and viable solution.