When I first prized the FZ18 from its box, two things, the small size, and the rather uninspiring plastic build struck me. Even turning the thing on, which is a fleet affair, takes less than a second and the enormous zoom range on offer does not make itself apparent at first. This is because the impressive lens only protrudes an inch at the full 504mm end of the zoom; at the wide end, the lens protrudes less than a quarter of an inch.
That lens also has a respectable maximum aperture range providing an F/2.8 to F/4.2 at the extremes of the zoom. This becomes important because you need as much light as you can get into the thing, as those zoom ratios increase, helping prevent camera shake (hand wobble) problems. But Panasonic has dealt with that too.
The FZ18 has OIS or Optical Image Stabilisation in two modes (and an off setting) that provide continuous stabilisation (mode 1) and stabilisation only when the shutter release is pressed (mode 2), which is actually the more effective of the two.
In short, the FZ18 is a camera that will be as at home among bird watchers and wildlife photographers as it will among family snappers or those who prefer shooting wider vistas.
Zooming is responsive and speeds up (there are two speeds) the harder you press the zoom lever, plus the zoom motion is smooth throughout the range. Interestingly, the image size can be adjusted too, which can have the effect of increasing the zoom ratio to a maximum 28.8x magnification without loss of quality
But it’s not all lens. The camera also features a set of features and handling capabilities akin to the growing band of consumer DSLRs. The bridge-style design means the prominent hand grip offers reassuring one handed control (though even with OIS, you not want to shoot one handed at full zoom) and allows easy reach for your fingers across all the top late controls, the zoom lever and the overly recessed shutter button and is the one control that seemed to have an unattractive handling foible.
Having said that, the large top plate mode dial is great to use, even wearing gloves, it is deeply knurled for “gripiness”. Here you can get at the main shooting modes that include a set of subject program modes (including portrait and landscape modes) and the key manual options of program, manual, aperture and shutter priority.
Add to this an intelligent auto mode that picks the most appropriate subject program mode (portrait MODE for a portrait, for example), ideal for novice users, or those wanting to get snapping as quickly as possible.
Add to this custom setting options, where you can quickly call upon up to three previously saved setup options, a VGA, 30fps movie mode and get access to a further 14-subject programs including party, fireworks and a high sensitivity setting. The latter has a downside however, as it cuts the resolution available to a maximum of 3-megapixels in the 4:3-ratio shooting option.
And speaking of image format ratios, the camera can be adjusted to shoot at the 4:3 ratio as above but also at 3:2 and 16:9 widescreen ratios, these modes crop part of the sensor (with a commensurate drop in resolution) but they offer further flexibility.
As you can already tell, the FZ18 is packed full of kit, but further features of note include user-defined intelligent ISO settings which can be capped to use any ISO setting up to ISO 400, ISO 800 or ISO 1600, depending on how far you want the camera to switch under given lighting.
Manual focus control is included and a superb macro setting can get you as close as 1cm from the subject, so almost touching the lens. The 2.5-inch screen is nice to use and includes display information from framing guides to an active histogram and an animated display for mode selection, reflecting the operation of the top plate mode dial.
A small rather fiddly joystick control on the camera’s back, just above a four-way controller allows you to adjust and scroll around settings such as aperture changes, manual focusing and exposure compensation adjustment. If feels superfluous to me (why not use the four-way jog for all such controls?) but does offer a familiar control interface.
The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is actually rather good, as EVFs go, with an 188,000-pixel resolution and 100% field of view mirroring perfectly the larger screen.
Other advanced controls includes an AF/AE lock and the AF provides face detection AF, multi-area focusing with 11 selectable focus zones, you get two high speed focus modes that restrict the AF to one large central AF zone or three smaller ones across the frame or you can fix the AF to a single, small AF zone. Auto bracketing is in there too as is, in playback mode, a clever image group mode, by date for example and there’s a neat calendar view.
And so to image quality and performance. Images are very nice overall with images a little too vibrant out of the box; of course, you can adjust such things to your own liking. Images are detailed and both metering and focusing is actually rather good.
The camera’s small 1/2.5-inch sized sensor means noise rears its head at ISOs above 400 but it is never terrible and thanks to the ability to cap the top ISO setting, you can combine maximum apertures and OIS to help get the shot you want in lower lighting without resorting to the highest sensitivities.
The small sensor can capture most of the detail the lens is capable of producing, noise processing can affect detail (see comments on higher ISOs above) but not overly, which means Panasonic has done a darn good job working around the compromises of sensitivity, noise and image degradation because of both issues.
Add to this mix RAW capture and although it’s one of the more expensive superzoom models on the market, it offers a superior package to any of them.
This camera is a combination of high end features, nice handling and good image quality with an astonishing 18 zoom lens crowbarred in to a compact body making the Panasonic DMC-FZ18 a real contender for those looking to buy a camera that can be (almost) all things to all photographers.
Compact, easy to use, and stuffed full of great features and whopping lens, the FX18 is a very good and very clever camera indeed.