Offering the photographer both the extra length and the proportionally wider girth, it seems like every manufacturer's range demands a big zoom camera right now. All the major brands are wheeling one out. Fujifilm and Olympus are current leaders of the pack for lens power with their respective 30x optical zoom HS10 and SP-800UZ models. Against these, Panasonic's flagship big zoom "bridge" offering in the Lumix DMC-FZ100, updating the FZ38, fields a more modest 24x. That's an equivalent 28-600mm in 35mm film terms; still enough to impress more than the ladies.
Likely to dampen any flushing of the cheeks, however, is the price. At a manufacturer's suggested £450 it's more expensive than an entry-level digital SLR, and £50-£100 more than its close rivals. So what gives?
Like the mighty Fujifilm, the 14.1-megapixel FZ100 takes its design cue from a digital SLR, and also in that respect closely resembles Panasonic's G2 and G10 hybrid models, complete with one-touch video record button in addition to main shutter release. Unlike those two G-series siblings the lens on the front cannot be changed. Not that, arguably, you'd want to do that. It offers a flexible choice of shooting extreme wideangle landscapes, candid close ups, plus everything in between. In that respect it's a very handy all-in-one option, so convenience would seemingly command a premium.
The FZ100 weighs 539g with SD/SDHC/SDXC card and rechargeable battery inserted into the base of the comfortably proportioned handgrip. It offers manageable yet pocket unfriendly dimensions of 124 x 81.2 x 95.2mm. The Panasonic feels chunky and well built enough to withstand the odd knock, though it was disconcerting to hear the retracted lens rattling around in its housing when the camera was being transported anywhere.
Powering up for action in 2 seconds, pictures are composed and reviewed via pokey electronic viewfinder or preferably, if lighting conditions allow, via 3-inch, 460k dot resolution LCD beneath. A dedicated button alongside the eye relief allows the user to quickly swap between these two options. We missed the eye sensors on the Fujifilm HS10 that automatically do the same. However, here we also get a pop-up flash and hot shoe alternative for adding accessory flash - or even external DMW model microphone.
The LCD further has its uses in that it can be tilted up and down, flipped out at right angles to the body, or folded face in against it for added screen protection. It's a feature that steals the jump over the HS10 or Nikon P100, which also feature tilting screens, yet possess more limited adjustment options. With the Panasonic, those otherwise awkward high or low angle shots - where you can't otherwise get your eye level with the viewfinder or LCD - are surmounted. As the screen can be flipped to face the subject in front of the lens, it's an added bonus for group portraits when the photographer themselves wants to squeeze into frame.
As indicated at the outset, a press of the top mounted video record button commences the committal of full 1920 x 1080 pixels high-def movie clips to memory card or 40MB internal memory. Stereo sound is also offered via microphone located just forward of the FZ100's vacant hotshoe and just behind the integral pop-up flash. Here the Panasonic records in AVCHD Lite format. Though the dedicated record button proves useful, we can't help feeling that it would have been better incorporated onto the backplate, where, for example, it would have been accessible by the thumb, camcorder-like. As it is, it's squeezed between shutter release button and continuous shooting mode (up to 11fps offered) on the top plate: the fact that it's also recessed into it adding unnecessary awkwardness.
Easier to get to grips with is the large, ridged top plate shooting mode dial, crammed full of 14 capture choices, stretching from subject-recognising intelligent Auto (iA) mode via program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual settings, to a user customisable option. The action of this dial is just stiff enough to avoid accidentally jogging the camera from one setting to another when fetching it out of a bag. Also large and obvious is the shutter release button, surrounded by a lever for operating the main feature of that whopper of a zoom. Said lens travels near silently from one extremity of its broad focal range to another in 3 seconds. This quiet operation ensures that, unlike some of its rivals, the optical zoom can be utilised for recording video as well as stills.
Though we were impressed with the FZ100's performance across a wide range of subject matter and its warm and flattering colours, we did occasionally struggle to get definitively sharp results at maximum telephoto when shooting handheld, which the camera lends itself to. It is possible with perseverance though. While there's also barrel distortion (curvature of the edges of the frame) visible when shooting at maximum wideangle, it's only really noticeable when attempting to shoot man-made structures with plenty of (otherwise) straight lines. Yet the area in which the Panasonic particularly disappointed us was low light photography without flash. Choose an ISO setting above say ISO 400 and noise (grain) begins to noticeably intrude. Which for a £450 camera is below average.
The Lumix range has consistently impressed us, and, if we hadn't recently tested a truck load of alternative big zoom cameras - the Fujifilm HS10, Pentax X90, Kodak Z981, Olympus SP-800UZ et al - our feelings for Panasonic's DMC-FZ100 might have been a little kinder. Its closest competitor is probably Nikon's P100. But it's more expensive than all the above models and lacks the manual focus ring and zoom ring of the Fujifilm, which we really liked, plus it also can't quite compete with its more solid-feel build. So while we can't recommend it to you as the best big zoom option for the money, there are other positives.
Namely this is a camera anyone should be able to quickly get to grips with, indicating that while it may not offer everything the photo enthusiast might desire, the FZ100 will hold appeal for families who don't just concentrate on one sort of subject - but who will want a device that does everything and anything. In that respect the FZ100 is a competent, reliable performer. And though you'll have to pay, in our humble opinion, a too expensive premium for the privilege, competition from the above is bound to see this Lumix drop to a more sensible asking price - and might even have done by the time you read this!