(Pocket-lint) - Looking for a reliable pocket camera for the holidays? Along with the Lumix DMC-FS35, the Panasonic FS37 we have here upgrades last year’s FS33, upping the stills resolution from 14 to 16 megapixels, spread across a 1/2.33-inch CCD sensor. Though the FS35 fields the same headline resolution, the FS37 boasts a larger 3-inch touchscreen taking up the entire backplate, against its sibling’s standard 2.7-inch LCD. In that respect it does battle against the likes of Sony’s Cyber-shot TX10, though the Panasonic is considerably cheaper. Design wise it’s a chip off the old block, being boxy and conventional in its outward appearance - at least from the front.
What's on offer?
To enable both expansive landscapes and groups of goat herders into be shoehorned into shot, we also get an optically stabilised 8x zoom with a maximum lens aperture of F/3.3, reaching 224mm at the telephoto end and starting out at a wide-angle 28mm equivalent. This is folded within the body when the camera’s switched off, which has lead to marginally wider proportions than a compact with a less broad focal range. Overall proportions for the FS37 are 99.2 x 56.5 x 27.7mm, and it weighs 159g with rechargeable battery and optional SD/SDHC/SDXC card inserted into the base. Feeling solid when gripped in the palm and more metal than plastic - if lacking much in the way of an actual grip - asking price is around £200, with current street/online deals shaving around £30 off.
It seems there’s now no escaping the touchscreen - both on our phones and our cameras - but at least the FS37’s is one of the better implementations we’ve played with, while its functionality is spot-on. It’s what Panasonic calls an “intelligent LCD”, notably featuring Touch AF (autofocus), so users can direct the camera’s focus to a particular subject anywhere in the frame, plus Touch Zoom and Touch Shutter functionality. So, while there is both a physical zoom lever and shutter release button set into the chrome strip on the top plate, framing can additionally be altered plus an image taken by swiping or jabbing at the screen. With the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS37, operation is point and shoot in the very literal sense.
Furthering the operational convenience factor, also located on the top plate is a “E.Zoom” (Easy Zoom) button, a press of which will immediately paddle through the zoom range to arrive at maximum optical zoom setting - without otherwise having to keep a thumb pressed against the physical lever or swipe a finger over its virtual equivalent. A subsequent press of the same button and the FS37 boosts the zoom power to an equivalent 18x, courtesy of what its maker terms its Extra Optical Zoom function. A note of caution though: do this and resolution plummets to 3 megapixels as only the central part of the sensor is being utilised, as in effect the camera is performing a crop.
For photographers opting to shoot in low light without flash, a modest manually selectable top setting of ISO 1600 is provided. This can be boosted to ISO 6400 equivalent if the camera is placed in High Sensitivity scene mode (one of a comprehensive 28 pre-optimised options) - and therefore only if the camera itself opts for it.
Back to basics
As we’ve noted, the draw of the touchscreen and better than average focal range aside, the FS37 is at its core very much a snapshot model, pure and simple. Though a dedicated iA (intelligent Auto) button isn’t provided on the top plate or back like some of its Lumix siblings, it is here in virtual form, now incorporating AF tracking and intelligent exposure, to not only reliably choose the appropriate settings for any given scene or subject, but also keep the compact locked on target. Basically there’s little chance of getting a blurred or duff shot.
Also omitted here but present on other models in the Lumix range is a camcorder-style video record button. Filming instead begins and commences with a press and subsequent press of the main shutter release button. Video is of the 1280 x 720 pixels variety, with 24fps transition rate and mono sound.
While missing out on Full HD is fair enough given the affordable price tag, we also lose HDMI connectivity and the ability to use the optical zoom when recording clips, which is less forgivable. Disappointingly the lens refuses to budge from the framing position determined before filming commenced.
Still, the FS37 is otherwise relatively swift to respond. Give the old-fashioned on/off switch on the top strip a flick and it’s ready for the first photo op in a couple of seconds. The lens extends to maximum wide angle setting with a low buzzing noise akin to a trapped fly, rear LCD simultaneously blinking into life.
Press the shutter release button down halfway to determine focus/exposure and in the vast majority of cases the camera determines its target nigh instantly. Follow through with a full press and, with a blink and you’ll miss it shutter lag (officially 0.005 seconds according to its maker), a maximum resolution JPEG file is committed to card or 70MB internal memory in approximately 3 seconds.
In terms of how the rear screen affects and enables operation, the key touch sensitive controls are placed around the outer edges of the screen along with standard shooting info, leaving the central portion clear to provide a decent view of subject matter. Keeping things simple and recognisable is a red camera icon indicating our shooting modes, with a green “play” triangle for reviewing shots located directly below.
Just underneath these are controls for activating the virtual shutter release button - firing off a shot by prodding the screen in other words - and the zoom control. The latter is adjusted by intuitively swiping finger or thumb up or down over a semi circular shape that appears at the right hand edge of the screen, the zoom responding more or less in real time. It’s funky, for sure, but feels a little unnecessary when you have both a physical lever and E.Zoom button to achieve the same end result.
Rather than being presented with a long list of menu options spread over several screens, on the FS37 options are instead broken up into a toolbar with left and right directional arrows that runs along the bottom of the screen. As well as being able to swap ISO and white balance here, you’ll also find a selection of adjustable colour modes, with the ability to switch from the default of “Standard” to “Vivid” to give a little saturation boost. Further choices include natural, black and white, sepia, cool and warm. So there’s all the functionality present that you’d otherwise expect to find on a non-touchscreen Lumix pocket model.
We got to test the DMC-FS37 under seemingly ideal conditions: clear blue skies, with the vivid mode on hand to lift any digital flatness and provide punchy colour that often proved a better/closer fit for the subject matter than the results provided when leaving the camera on its default “Standard” setting. Such conditions did however also give rise to the familiar bugbear of burnt out highlight detail, as well as pixel fringing between areas of high contrast, such as where dark tree branches met a clear blue sky. The FS37 is, as expected (given the size of the chip and the number of pixels), no star performer in low light however, with noise/grain intruding into shots as low as ISO 400, with edge detail noticeably softened and a gritty appearance across the entire frame at ISO 1600. This top setting is usable at a push, but the FS37 cannot be said to be the best we’ve seen for low light work.
With broader than average focal range allowing for candid portraits and wide angle vistas to be captured mere seconds apart, the FS37 suggests itself as a perfect holiday camera, turning on its charm to the fullest when conditions are ideal, and being less impressive when light levels are falling.
Having said that in general terms image quality is more than good enough, and there is also a night scenery mode to fall back on instead of deploying the flash in really low light, which did for us achieve cleaner results with the aid of a steadying flat surface to rest the camera on. In summary, although the FS37 is almost completely devoid of manual features it largely feels worth the asking price for those who really do just want to point and shoot and get consistently covetable results in return.