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Panasonic FZ18 review

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.

front of Panasonic Lumix FZ18 rear of Panasonic Lumix FZ18

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 compact.

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 exactly right.

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 cables.

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.

available light flash still life action

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.

Image Quality

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.

normal colours saturation+2 sat+2 contrast+2 sat+2 cntr+2 sharpness +2 sat,cntr,shrp all-2
iso 100 iso 200 iso 400 iso 800 iso 1600

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.

Conclusion

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.


Additional information: Panasonic FZ18 product details and other reviews
October 24, 2007

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