(Pocket-lint) - Superzoom cameras have been stretching zoom capacities for years, but it looks as though Panasonic’s latest Lumix FZ200 has taken a different approach: it’s opted to maintain its predecessor’s 24-600mm equivalent zoom, but now offers an f/2.8 aperture throughout the whole range. Yep, you read that right: f/2.8 across the entire zoom. Yoiks, could the Lumix FZ200 be what the superzoom fold has been missing?
Super aperture, super zoom
There have been all kinds of approaches to superzoom products lately. The Fujifilm X-S1 went in for a larger sensor size, while the Nikon Coolpix P510 opted for a 1000mm equivalent zoom. Both had their own problems for different reasons: sensor issues with direct light sources causing "orbs" in many night scenes and a relatively low aperture at the fullest zoom respectively.
Panasonic has laid out its stall in a different way: the FZ200 uses a standard compact-camera-sized 1/2.3-inch sensor, but matches it with a zoom that doesn’t dip below the f/2.8 wide aperture (unless you want it to, f/8.0 is the smallest aperture setting). It’s an obvious move, but one that no manufacturer has been bold enough to deliver until now.
If you’re new to cameras then all this talk of "size this" and "aperture that" may only serve to confuse. But it needn't: generally speaking the larger the sensor the better the image quality, and the wider the aperture - ie, the smaller the number, such as f/2.8 in this example, the more light that can enter the lens to make an exposure. The latter is helpful to produce a blurred background effect, but moreover to allow for fast shutter speeds to freeze subjects in action and avoid handshake that’s inevitable at longer focal lengths used to capture far-away subjects, such as the 600mm equivalent that the FZ200 offers.
Whichever way you look at it, there has to be a balance in the design. If Panasonic used a 2/3-inch sensor - the same size as that in the Fujifilm X-S1 - and opted for a 24-600mm f/2.8 lens then physics would dictate that the camera would be a huge, unwieldy beast. It would be bigger than a pro DSLR, not user friendly and, of course, impossibly expensive.
The FZ200’s aperture increase does mean a body size increase, and this is the one compromise that has to be paid for such a lens. Superzooms aren’t small by nature, but then the FZ200 is among the largest out there. In fact it’s noticeably larger than the Panasonic Lumix G5 compact system camera.
So if you’re in the market for a small camera, then look elsewhere. But if you’re hunting down a fair-sized body with an extensive zoom range and a wide aperture then, frankly, we can’t think of much else out there that can offer all that.
Big size, big price
Let’s get this hurdle out the way before going any further: the Panasonic FZ200 will cost more than £500 at launch. Now that’s a lot of cash, but you do get a lot for the money.
The FZ200 feels like an "all in one" camera solution. There’s a vari-angle screen, built-in electronic viewfinder, full manual controls, 1080p HD movie capture, as well as all the usual auto and scene mode mod cons. If you’ve thought about a DSLR but don’t like the idea of changing lenses, then a superzoom such as this introduces convenience without necessarily scrimping on the features. Image quality may not be comparible - we’ll get to that later - but then a 600mm equivalent on a DSLR is exceedingly expensive. Like Mr Kipling, but in a bad way.
In terms of features there’s not a lot missing from our wants list. The 3-inch, vari-angle touchscreen comes with a 460k-dot resolution, while the 0.21-inch, 1.312k-dot electronic viewfinder is far higher resolution than its predecessors.
However it’s these two elements that raise some small moans: the LCD ought to be a higher resolution and a touch-sensitive one, as per the Panasonic Lumix G5, which would work a treat. Alas, it’s not to be in the FZ200.
The viewfinder may achieve on the resolution front, and it’s bright and a reasonable size to the eye but the refresh rate feels a little stuttery to our eyes. It’s this lag issue that’s often cited as a problem with electronic versions and one that’s not been overcome here. Saying that, this is a far better finder than in the likes of the Lumix FZ150.
Despite the body’s large size it’s well laid out, with a chunky grip and controls accessible throughout. There’s a mode dial on top for flicking between the main modes, as well as the first of three function (Fn) buttons among one-touch movie and burst mode buttons. The Fn1 button does require a little Twister-esque finger movement to get to easily though.
On the rear there’s a lone thumbwheel for adjusting the likes of aperture and shutter speed, a standard d-pad, the other two function buttons, and a few more basic buttons that includes the EVF/LCD to switch between screen and viewfinder. There’s no eye-sensor to auto-activate the EVF which is a bit of a shame though.
Outside of the norm are the controls on the lens barrel itself - there’s a tele-wide zoom toggle which acts as an alternative option to the toggle around the shutter button - as well as an AF/AF macro/MF switch and focus button to adjust the focus point. Unfortunately the focus switch doesn’t display the type of focus selected on the rear screen, so the camera has to be turned in the hand to double check. AF and AF macro aren’t obviously different from a user point of view, for example, until it sinks-in that the "standard" distance shots are taking longer to focus than they ought to.
In use the FZ200 does well for the most part. The focus system has been adapted from the G-series, which Panasonic calls "light speed autofocus" because of its speed. Any marketing name is likely to oversell something, but the FZ200 is really quick to grab hold of a subject; you’ll barely notice any waiting time.
Focusing does slow as the focal length increases however, so at 600mm the camera will often need to "scan" through a greater range before bringing the subject into focus. This is subject-dependent, however, as at other times the camera is far faster at making a decision, but still not quite as quick as when shooting at the wide-angle setting.
Focusing areas fall into four categories: face detection, AF tracking, 23-area and 1-area options. There’s no "pinpoint" option as per the Lumix G5 and, as mentioned, the screen isn’t a touchscreen either. In the 1-Area mode it’s possible to adjust the focus point size and reposition it around the majority of the screen via the focus button on the lens, and using the d-pad on the rear of the camera.
The macro mode slows focusing, but is useful for closer focus. However at even around the 6x optical zoom point it’s not possible to focus on a subject within a metre from the lens. Not uncommon for a superzoom, but something to watch out for - this isn’t going to be a replacement for a mid-long DSLR macro lens, for example.
The lens benefits from Panasonic’s optical image stabilisation - dubbed "power OIS" in shouty capitals - which is a major plus for shooting at longer focal lengths. A superzoom without lens-based stabilisation isn’t really worth buying as far as we’re concerned, so that’s success at the first check point. In use the stabilisation system can be "felt" working to counter hand movement, and it’s great at assisting steady framing and capturing a sharper image. There is the occasional "jump" in the frame from time to time if moving the camera unreasonably though, and at the very distant focal lengths you'll need to ensure a faster shutter speed is used to acquire steady shots.
The other thing that struck us was just how long the battery in the FZ200 lasted. We’d been using it for days and it still hadn’t died, which is more than can be said for many other compact and even compact system cameras out there today. A scan of the specs reveals this superzoom has a quoted figure of 540 shots per charge. Sure, we’ve seen better in pro cameras, but that’s still a decent number that’s more than a few hundred more than many compacts out there.
Speed isn’t just restricted to the focus, however, as the 5.5 frames per second burst mode with continuous autofocus makes clear. There’s also a 12fps mode as well as 40fps (at 5MP) and 60fps (at 2.5MP) electronic shutter options too. This isn’t any faster than the previous FZ150 model, but it’s still pretty quick.
In addition to single autofocus there are continuous (AFC) and flexible (AFF) options too. It's here that the FZ200's abilities hit a bit of a wall. Continuous has a tendency to "pulse" in and out of focus when it should be fixed in focus, which is a pain to the eyes, while at longer focal lengths it can too easily continue to drift in and out of focus for far too long. Furthermore the continuous autofocus can "miss" focus of even slow moving subjects, which can return some soft images even in reasonable conditions. Compact cameras aren't renowned for having great continuous focus systems, and in many respects the FZ200 is faster and better than many competitors. But at this price point and this assumed level, there's some disappointment.
As well as JPEG shots the FZ200 also offers raw capture, a feature that’s rare among superzoom cameras. It looks as though Panasonic is aiming high with this model, though given the 1/2.3-inch size of the sensor don’t expect the world from the higher ISO settings, this is just a (large) compact camera after all.
Panasonic has used a 12-megapixel count to avoid too many issues at higher ISO sensitivities, as used in low-light conditions.
At its base ISO of 100 images are at their best, colour is punchy and there’s enough detail in compact camera terms, though that’s not to say that they’re 100 per cent "clean" or noise-free. Edges have some texture to them as a result of image processing, and if you're cropping in to a shot then this processing may be too much for the highly image conscious.
ISO 400-800 still retain enough detail, but smooth areas will show some extended presence of "grain".
Above this ISO 1600 has a steeper fall off into softer territory that also presents some essence of colour noise, while the top-end setting of ISO 3200 magnifies these image processing results yet further. Both of these are best avoided for critical work, but they’re fine enough for casual frames.
However, as the lens can sustain f/2.8 this gives you, or the camera’s auto ISO, greater scope to use the lower ISO settings. Think about it: f/2.8 offers a whole two stops more light than f/5.6, for example, so the FZ200 has the potential to come two steps down the ISO ladder compared to most of its competitors. Now that’s big news; it doesn’t change what the higher ISO results are like from a quality point of view, but it should give greater grounds to avoid them and, therefore, comparable images will be taken in more favourable settings.
Don’t lose sight that the FZ200 is a compact camera (just a big one!) and the results are pretty good -certainly better than some more resolute sensors in the same category. It's not going to match a larger sensor, however, but then that ought to be a given.
There's also a favourable movie mode: the 1080p option can capture at 50 progressive frames per second. That’ll mean smooth slow motion movie if you fancy making speed adjustments in editing software. Should you opt for MP4 files straight from camera, however, then this halves the frame rate to 25p instead but avoids the nuisance of decoding files (note: American NTSC version is 60/30fps, PAL is 50/25fps). MP4 movies can be played directly from the camera or a computer with no fiddling around required.
The optical image stabilisation and ability to use the viewfinder is useful, as can be seen in the hand-held example below. There are even full manual aperture and shutter controls should you want to set a specific exposure, though the camera can also automatically update exposure and focus.
A 1-area focus point can be positioned on the rear screen prior to recording and referenced by pressing the Focus button, though not moved. Otherwise there’s Face Detection autofocus to let the camera take care of things.
Quality is decent (and we're not surprised, given the 28Mbps AVCHD mode, reduced to 17Mbps for MP4 files) and the autofocus will smoothly slide into a focused position for the most part. However, one issue is the camera's inability to maintain focus when zooming at the longer focal lengths, as can also be seen in the example above. Fast panning can also result in a skewed image, but this won't be a problem unless really whipping the around at pace; maintain a gentle hand or use a tripod at the longer focal lengths and to avoid such issues.
As the zoom is quiet it doesn't create a significant issue during capture, but more advanced users may wish to add an external microphone via the 2.5mm mic jack. It's a shame it's not a 3.5mm jack, but then Panasonic makes its own hotshoe-mounted, sock-covered microphones with 2.5mm fittings, other mics can be used via an adaptor that ought to only cost a few quid from your local electrics store.
The FZ200 has its f/2.8 aperture trump card to play, which will beat any other superzoom competitor out there, even the larger-sensor versions. Now that’s quite a statement, but this is quite a camera.
It’s a shame there’s no touchscreen, the viewfinder suffers lag and continuous focus is short of the mark, but otherwise the FZ200’s performance is well on the money in this camera class.
Image quality is easily on par with its competitors, though it isn’t going to outperform a large-sensor camera. Given that there are larger-sensor interchangeable cameras out there for less or a similar amount of money that may be something for the highly image conscious to consider, but then they won't have a lens to match - and that's where teh FZ200 comes into its own.
Despite the expense the FZ200 gives what other kit doesn't: a 600mm equivalent lens at f/2.8 throughout paired with optical image stabilisation. Now that’s what makes this Lumix a real winner.
King of the superzooms despite its hefty price tag? We reckon so. Top stuff.