Although it seems as if DSLR cameras rule today’s digital arena, we
should not forget that – apart from compacts – there is another category of
cameras that deserves our attention. These are the high performance ultra-zoom
or so called bridge cameras, who offer almost the same level of performance and
sophistication as DSLRs but do not have interchangeable lenses. They usually
feature a large optical zoom range as well as a whole series of advanced
options to satisfy creative photographers.
One interesting key-player in the super-zoom field for some time
already, has been Panasonic with its Lumix series. Starting with their FZ1 in
2002, they have now released the DMC FZ18 which comes with a cracking 18x Leica
zoom lens with a f/2.8 maximum opening and optical image stabilisation,
covering a range from 28 to 500mm. Apart from an 8,1 effective megapixel sensor
it has intelligent auto scene selection, face detection and RAW image capture.
Impressive specifications for any camera but especially so for a bridge
Using the camera
The Panasonic Lumix FZ18 is available in silver or in black. Our
preference definitely would be the black version as it looks so much more
professional and business-like.
The camera is quite light for its size, obviously due to the elaborate
use of plastics in its construction. It has got a large rubberised handgrip
that makes it possible to use the camera single-handedly in certain image
situations. For sports or action photography or when using a longer zoom range,
this is clearly not recommended if you want to prevent camera shake. The camera
is ready for use in under 2 seconds which, although not especially quick, was
never felt to be a problem in daily use.
The back of the camera has an impressive 2.5-inch LCD screen with
230.000 pixels, the familiar 4-way dial plus a small joy stick. This tiny
switch is an extremely fast and intuitive way of adjusting exposure
compensation (+/-2EV) or certain image parameters, such as AF area or shutter
and aperture settings in various programme or manual modes. In playback it
serves as a handy means of quickly reviewing your images.
The electronic viewfinder with 188.000 pixels features dioptre control
for people with less than perfect eyesight. A tiny button next to it switches
between LCD screen and EVF. There are small switches for LCD display options,
deleting images and AE/AF lock. The flash does not pop up automatically but is
raised by pressing a small button to the left of the viewfinder. Options here
include Auto, with or without red-eye reduction, forced flash and slow sync
with red-eye reduction. There is no option to use slow sync without red-eye
reduction though. Flash output compensation together with exposure compensation
can both be found under the top button of the 4-way switch and can be set over
+/- 2 stops in 1/3EV increments.
The top plate of the Lumix houses a tiny on/off button, a large
selection dial with automatic exposure options as well as several intelligent
scene modes, the usual manual options (M, S, A) plus a custom mode to select
one of three custom settings. These can be adapted to your own preferences in
the camera menu. The zoom lever is conveniently located around the shutter
button with two smaller switches for normal or macro AF and Auto or Manual
Focusing just behind it. The latter should be held for one second before the
function engages, a thoughtful approach which prevents accidental switch to
manual focusing. Another user-friendly feature, is the way the shutter button
is slightly recessed to prevent accidental release. Its pressure point feels
Most digital cameras nowadays offer a wide selection of scene modes, but
the ones on the Lumix offer just that little bit extra. On the selection dial
we find four intelligent scene modes, which can each be adapted to specific
photo situations within a scene. In Portrait mode for example you have the
choice between normal or soft skin, outdoor, indoor or creative portraits.
Scenery lets you choose between nature or architecture or a creative setting
where shutter speeds can be changed to express the flow of motion such as water
cascading. In Sports mode there is an outdoor or indoor setting, in which the
latter sets a higher ISO and faster shutter speed to minimize blurry images
under low light. In Night Portrait mode you can opt for a standard night
portrait or choose night scenery; illuminations or a creative setting where
apertures can be changed to choose how the starry twinkling of lights will be
recorded. The SCN setting on the dial houses 14 other preset programmes as
diverse as baby, pet, aerial photo or starry sky, although food, party, snow or
beach scenes are catered for as well. A short Help function to explain what
each scene mode does can be called up by pressing the display button just below
the joystick. Of course all these scene modes are a combination of camera
settings that can also be set manually if you know what you are doing. The
bright LCD display offers ample information to assist you with this, including
a live histogram and full info about all exposure and camera settings.
The frontal view of the Panasonic FZ18 is dominated by the aspherical
Leica Vario Elmarit lens with a whopping 18x zoom range (504mm eq.) and a
maximum opening of f/2.8. The outer casing of the lens has a 55mm thread to
attach wide angle or tele conversion lenses should you desire so. The inner
lens barrel has a convenient 46mm thread for polarizers or conventional UV or
skylight filters to protect your lens. A metal tripod socket is located in the
bottom of the camera.
We had the pleasure of using the camera for two weeks and we have to say
that this Lumix FZ18 really grows on you. It is light enough to carry anywhere
and it rests naturally in the palm of your hand. Autofocus is fast and precise,
although at longer focal lengths it is a bit slower as is to be expected.
Exposure is spot on most of the time with a slight tendency to underexposure if
bright areas dominate the scene. This is quite normal in most cameras and can
be easily solved by pointing the camera down a bit to set exposure by half
pressing the shutter and then recomposing the scene before you take the
picture. The zoom lever with 41 intermediate steps works very smoothly and it
only takes 3 seconds to go from wide angle to tele. If you toggle the zoom
lever carefully though, slow and smooth transitions are possible to allow for
very precise framing especially at wide angle.
In the box
Among the standard accessories you get with your Panasonic Lumix FZ18 are
the familiar AV/USB cables, a comfortable wide neck strap, lens cap and a
useful lens hood with adaptor, to protect your images from stray light hitting
the front of the lens. Besides these you get the DE-A44A charger with the
proprietary CGR-S006E 7.2V 710mAh li-ion battery. A full charge takes two hours
and will deliver about 400 shots according to CIPA standards. The battery
housing has a comfortable safety latch to prevent the battery from falling out
when opening the camera. All opening compartments on the camera incidentally
have hinged plastic doors that stay open at 90 degrees when released to make it
easier to replace the battery and SD-card or connect the necessary interface
A concise 30-page booklet informs you about the basic camera functions
to get you started. The full manual that explains all features in great detail
is included on the CD in PDF format, with a clear table of contents to help you
find what you need quickly. As there are so many functions and features on this
camera, we would advise you to take some time to familiarize yourself with all
the features, to make it easier to achieve what you are trying to accomplish.
Software comprises Simple Viewer 1.3E, an image browser for Windows or
Mac; PHOTOfunSTUDIO; Arcsoft Panoramamaker to stitch together panorama photos
and MediaImpression to edit your movies. SilkyPix Developer Studio 2.1SE is
included for processing RAW images with the usual functions such as Exposure,
White Balance, Sharpness, Tone, Colour and Noise Reduction. As optional
accessories a 1.7x teleconverter and close-up lens are available which attach
to the outer casing of the standard lens by means of the DMW-LA3 lens adaptor
which is available separately.
The FZ18 is equipped with a fixed f/2.8-4.2 - 4.6-82.8mm Aspherical DC
Vario-Elmarit Leica lens with an equivalent coverage of 28 to 504mm. An
impressive range which should cover all eventualities. The built-in image
stabilisation system is almost a necessity with such an extreme tele and we are
pleased to say that it works impeccably, making it possible to capture tele
images at quite low shutter speeds. We have not been able to determine exactly
how many stops you gain by using IS but we can safely state that it is the best
we have seen so far and its gain would certainly be more than two stops. This
would mean that at 500mm, instead of using 1/500s, sharp images can be captured
at 1/125s. Of course this is determined by how steady your hand is as much as
by the way you hold your camera. We found it helped to use the electronic
viewfinder at long focal lengths since bracing the camera against your face
provides a stronger hold than holding it at arms lengths in front of you.
Image quality is excellent with virtually no distortion at any focal length.
Even at wide angle, parallels were perfectly straight in all our test shots.
Chromatic aberration or purple fringing is practically non-existent and there
is no sign of vignetting in the extreme corners of the image. Colours are
natural without being overly saturated and should you prefer more punch, this
is easily set in the camera menu by dialling in more saturation, sharpness or
contrast, as can be seen from the images below. Although exposure is spot on
most of the time, dynamic range is good rather than excellent, as there is a
slight tendency to burn out highlights under certain lighting conditions. One
way to counter this would be to expose for the highlights to get more detail in
blue skies for instance and lighten shadows in post processing afterwards.
Remember that it is quite easy to lighten up shadows later but burnt out
highlights can never be retrieved and are lost forever. Another trick which
some owners seem to use, would be to lower contrast and saturation at the
capturing stage, effectively giving a noticeable gain in dynamic range and beef
up contrast levels again later in post processing.
The camera has an effective ISO range of 100 to 1600 which can be set in
all programme modes except fully automatic, where the camera decides what is
best for your image. There is an intelligent ISO setting in which the user can
determine what maximum ISO should be set (400, 800 or 1600). The lower ISO
values deliver excellent image quality with hardly any noise at all. At higher
values some loss of image detail becomes visible and these settings should only
be used in low light situations where the use of a tripod is not allowed or not
practical, or for small prints. White balance under natural light is excellent,
but its performance under household lighting was less impressive. However, five
pre-programmed WB settings should take care of most lighting situations and
there are two further customs settings to be set by using a white or grey card
under available lighting conditions.
As already mentioned earlier, the Lumix FZ 18 is a camera that really
grows on you. Over time you become familiar with all the features on offer as
you slowly start to discover the many creative options. Although it is aimed at
the beginner, the serious enthusiast will be pleased to see that there are
ample options to assist you in the creative process of capturing perfect
images. The live histogram together with advanced image options such as face
detection of up to 15 faces and image stabilisation are all very useful and
make this camera real value for money.
Attention to detail has always been a strong Panasonic selling point,
and on the FZ18 there are many small but useful features to make life with the
camera just that little bit easier. There is that handy joystick, the recessed
shutter button, the stepped zoom for precise framing, the fact that all latches
stay open when released, plus several intelligent and practical functions to
assist your photography. Other strong points are its long focal length, robust
built and comfortable handling. Coupled to a well-designed and relatively
compact camera body, these all make the Panasonic Lumix FZ18 a strong contender
in the super-zoom field and one you should certainly put on your shortlist if
you are in the market for this kind of camera.