Massive zoom range
Review Panasonic's DMC-FZ30 is an eight-megapixel all-in-one 'bridge' camera with a powerful 12x optical zoom lens and SLR-like styling. Like other long-zoom bridge cameras, Panasonic's aiming the FZ30 at buyers of budget digital SLRs, with key advantages including LCD-based composition using a flip-out screen, movie mode and of course a lens with a considerably longer focal range than the typical 3x kit SLR lenses...
And by considerable, we're not kidding: the FZ30's 12x lens has an optical range equivalent to 35-420mm on a 35mm camera. This takes you from a reasonably wide angle to an incredible telephoto - and better still, unlike its predecessor, the FZ30's lens doesn't extend.
Of course, it's hard to hold any lens with this kind of magnification in your hand, so to combat any camera-shake the FZ30's equipped with Panasonic's Optical Image Stabiliser (OIS) facility - this should allow you to hand-hold shots at much slower shutter speeds than normal.
It's an impressive specification for a low price, but the FZ30 has tough competition from other long-zoom call-in-one cameras, including Fujifilm's FinePix S9500/S9000. Sony's Cybershot DSC-R1, while not having as long a zoom, is also a key rival.
Then there are the budget digital SLRs. The Panasonic may have an stabilised long zoom lens, flippable live screen and a lower price, but in their favour, budget digital SLRs should boast lower noise levels, superior manual focusing and of course the ability to swap lenses.
Like most long-zoom all-in-ones, the FZ30 greatly resembles a traditional digital SLR in design and operation, although of course lacks the ability to swap lenses. Measuring 14.1 x 8.6 x 13.8cm, it's slightly wider but also slightly shorter than typical small digital SLRs like the Canon EOS-350D.
This additional width - which becomes obvious when viewed from the front - has allowed Panasonic to implement a generous, deep grip with plenty of room between your right fingers and the lens barrel. It's comfortable in use and the build quality, not to mention overall design, feels of a higher standard than most all-in-ones including the Fujifilm S9500/S9000 - it's a very smart-looking camera.
Unlike some cameras which are liberally sprinkled with buttons and dials on every surface, the bulk of the FZ30's controls are limited to the upper right surface and to the right of the screen at the back. The upper surface houses a small power switch, buttons to select the Image Stabilisation and continuous shooting modes, along with the main mode dial.
The mode dial offers the usual Automatic, Program, Manual, Shutter and Aperture Priority modes along with selecting playback, a movie mode, or two user-defined Scene options. Shutter speeds range from 1/2000 to 30s, along with a programmable bulb option up to three minutes. Exposure compensation is offered from +/-2EV in third stop increments.
Four joypad-style buttons on the rear allow you to open the self-timer, exposure compensation and flash options, along with reviewing the last image taken, but in order to change ISO and white balance settings, you'll need to enter the main menu system; they are at least the first two options presented there though. A pair of dials positioned for your thumb and index finger work with various shooting modes to scroll through options.
There's a pop-up flash above the lens and a standard hotshoe located behind it. Slow-synchro and red-eye reduction modes are offered, along with flash compensation of +/-2EV. The camera's powered by a compact 710mAh Lithium-Ion battery and is supplied with a recharger. Panasonic claims each charge should be good for 280 shots under CIPA standard; certainly a single charge lasted for our entire testing period, including many longer exposures during cold night conditions.
Composition and screen
Like other all-in-one cameras with long zooms, the FZ30 offers the choice of composition using either a colour LCD screen or electronic viewfinder (EVF). The EVF is larger and more detailed than its predecessor and many rivals, measuring 0.44in and sporting 235,000 pixels. The main 2in display is also very detailed for its size, boasting 230,000 pixels.
The EVF is automatically activated if the display is flipped into the body, face-inwards for protection. With the display facing outwards though, you can manually switch between it and the EVF using a button.
The main display itself is a flip-out and twist design, with the hinge at the bottom of the camera. While this allows a more sensible waist-level shooting configuration without the screen poking out to one side, it does mean the screen can in some instances fold out below the body. It's still preferred to the limited tilting (and smaller) screen of Fujifilm's S9500 / S9000 though.
In use the FZ30's screen is bright and detailed, and pressing the display button cycles between five options: no information, shooting information, shooting information with live histogram, a slightly reduced view with information in the right and bottom edge, and a three by three grid pattern to aid composition.
The FZ30 is equipped with a long 12x optical zoom with an equivalent range of 35-420mm and an optically fast focal ratio of f2.8~3.7; the actual focal length is 7.4-88.8mm. Following a welcome trend in high-end all-in-ones, the zoom is operated by a tactile mechanically-linked ring, although unlike most of its rivals, the lens barrel doesn't physically extend. The FZ30 may be set to wide-angle, but the barrel does not extend when zoomed-in. A lens hood is supplied and the front lens element doesn't rotate during focussing, allowing the easy use of polarising filters.
The FZ30's 12x optical range is truly impressive in practice, with the telephoto end really pulling in distant detail, or throwing backgrounds out of focus on portraits. The wide-angle end is usable at 35mm, although many may prefer sacrificing the extreme long end for something wider, such as the 28mm option on the Fujifilm S9500/S9000 or the impressive 24mm of Sony's R1.
To illustrate the FZ30's coverage, we took the same photo from the same position on a tripod using it and Fujifilm's FinePix S9500/S9000 which offers a 10.7x optical range equivalent to 28-300mm. The photos below were taken moments apart.
Zoomed-out to wide-angle, the Fujifilm S9500 captures a visibly wider field than the 35mm equivalent focal length of the Panasonic DMC-FZ30, although not as wide as the 24mm equivalent of Sony's Cyber-shot DSC-R1.
Panasonic DMC-FZ30 - 7.4-88.8mm at 7.4mm, f8 (35mm equivalent)
Fujifilm FinePix S9500 Zoom - 6.2-66.7mm at 6.2mm, f8 (28mm equivalent)
Below are examples of both cameras zoomed all the way in, again taken from exactly the same position and moments apart. Here the massive 300 and 420mm equivalent focal lengths of each camera demonstrate their impressive reach over both the Sony R1's 120mm equivalent, and the relatively paltry capabilities of a typical 3x lens bundled with a digital SLR.
The Panasonic unsurprisingly wins in this respect, although whether it's offers a greater benefit than the wider angle of the Fujifilm S9500 is entirely down to personal preference and your style of photography.
Panasonic DMC-FZ30 - 7.4-88.8mm at 88.8mm, f8 (420mm equivalent)
Fujifilm FinePix S9500 Zoom - 6.2-66.7mm at 66.7mm, f8 (300mm equivalent)
To counteract any potential camera shake, the FZ30 employs Panasonic's Mega Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) technology. A button on the top surface of the camera allows you to choose between two modes or to disable it altogether. In use, OIS certainly worked effectively, allowing us to handhold sharp exposures at 420mm using shutter speeds as slow as 1/15 of a second. It's not just useful for long focal lengths either. With the lens at it's widest position, OIS allowed us to handhold a 1/3 second exposure at f8 in order to achieve a large depth-of-field at a market stall.
While OIS prevents the need to increase the ISO to prevent camera-shake at slower shutter speeds, it should be noted no amount of Image Stabilisation will freeze subjects which are in motion. As seen in the examples below, OIS allowed static subjects like the flag and background to remain sharp with a 420mm 1/15 exposure, but the people walking by became blurred. This may or may not be the effect you were after.
In contrast, Fujifilm has opted for a simpler electronic solution for its S9500/S9000: simply increase the ISO to allow faster shutter speeds. So where most all-in-ones peak between 400 and 640 ISO, the S9500 offers sensitivity from 80 right up to 1600 ISO. This will certainly let you achieve the kind of shutter speeds required to avoid camera shake under most conditions. Of course by increasing sensitivity though, you also suffer from higher noise levels.
To illustrate the different approaches to combatting camera shake we took handheld photos of the same subject with both the FZ30 and Fujifilm S9500 / S9000 zoomed-in to their maximum focal lengths; the photos were taken within moments of each other. We've taken 1410x1060 pixel crops from each image to show similar areas, then reduced them by five times for 20% reproduction below. Each crop represents approximately 2/5 of the original image coverage. The FZ30 shows a smaller area because its focal length was longer and the resolution slightly lower. Despite slightly different resolutions, the reproduction of both crops from the original images is roughly equivalent and adequate to illustrate this example.
Panasonic DMC-FZ30 - 7.4-88.8mm at 88.8mm, f8 (420mm equivalent)
80 ISO, 1/13th
Fujifilm FinePix S9500 Zoom - 6.2-66.7mm at 66.7mm, f8 (300mm equivalent)
1600 ISO, 1/350th
Set to 80 ISO, the FZ30 required a shutter speed of 1/13th of a second, but amazingly its optical image stabilisation allowed us to hand-hold the shot without any camera shake - and this was at a longer equivalent focal length of 420mm. At 80 ISO, the Fujifilm S9500 / S9000 also required a shutter speed of 1/13th, which for a focal length equivalent to 300mm was far too slow to handhold without considerable camera shake. Fujifilm's answer is of course to increase the sensitivity, and once we'd set the camera to 1600 ISO, the exposure had shortened to 1/350th, allowing a sharp handheld result.
As explained earlier though, both approaches have their pros and cons. The high sensitivity demanded by the S9500 may have resulted in high noise levels and also some smearing of detail, but any motion has been frozen. In contrast, the stabilisation of the Panasonic may have allowed us to handhold at 80 ISO and enjoy a noise-free image, but the long zoom and slow shutter speed have resulted in blurring of motion. Which is better depends on your style of photography. If you shoot moving subjects, the S9500's higher sensitivity has the edge. Conversely if you shoot mostly static subjects the FZ30 will be more suitable. Either way, you can't help but be impressed by the stabilisation of the Panasonic FZ30.
The FZ30's autofocus system also feels quick and rarely do you find it searching for something to lock onto. Like other all-in-ones with long zooms, the FZ30 is manually focussed by an electrically-assisted ring. As you turn this ring, the central portion of the composition is magnified to allow easier focusing.
Again like other all-in-ones, manual focusing systems like these are simply not as accurate nor lend the same confidence as manually focussing on a true optical SLR. That said, the high resolution display on the FZ30 coupled with the magnified central portion allows you to manually focus about as accurately as you're going to get with this kind of camera.
Sensor and files
The FZ30 employs an eight megapixel CCD sensor measuring 1/1.8in and delivering 4:3 aspect ratio images with a maximum of 3264x2448 pixels. A total of ten different resolutions are offered: five in the 4:3 aspect ratio, three in a wider 3:2 aspect ratio and two at 16:9. Images can be recorded in RAW, TIFF or JPEG formats, and there's two compression levels for the latter; best quality JPEGs measure around 3.5MB each.
The FZ30 is equipped with an SD memory slot and our UK package was supplied with a 32MB card, although the particular bundle may vary depending on your region and the supplier's offer.
The FZ30 can shoot VGA 640 x 480 pixel video with mono sound at 10 or 30 fps, or QVGA 320 x 240 pixel video, again at 10 or 30fps. All modes allow the use of zoom during recording. The 30fps VGA mode was very smooth and detailed, consuming just over 1MB per second of recording.
The FZ30 starts up and is ready for action in about three quarters of a second, and while this is fractionally slower than most digital SLRs, it's certainly nothing to be overly concerned about for general use. There's a brief pause of about two seconds when you switch into Play mode before the first image appears, but subsequent images can be accessed and viewed after around one second. Nine image thumbnails are also available in around two seconds, while the 12 thumbnail option takes around three.
There are three continuous shooting modes, with a highest quoted speed of 3fps. We tested the FZ30 using a SanDisk Ultra II 1GB SD card at a shutter speed of 1/250 and found the FZ30 in its fastest mode could take up to five best quality JPEGs in 2.3 seconds, delivering an actual fps closer to 2.2fps. After taking five pictures, the camera pauses for a couple of seconds. You then have to let go of the shutter before pressing it again to take another burst, although unless you're manually focussing, the camera will pause briefly to refocus at this time.
If you'd like more than five images in a sequence, you can switch to a different continuous mode which keeps shooting while you've got memory remaining - albeit at a slower rate. In this mode we shot 21 best quality JPEGs in ten seconds, delivering a rate of around 2fps.
To compare real-life performance we shot the same scene with all three cameras within a few minutes of each other using their best quality JPEG settings and an aperture of f8 in Aperture Priority mode. The crops are taken from the far left portion of the originals and presented here at 100 per cent.
The main image was taken with the Panasonic FZ30 at 11mm f8 (52mm equivalent); the original JPEG measured 3.32MB. Viewed at 100 per cent, all three models show similar levels of detail, although the Canon 350D's result has lost some highlight detail due to its metering selecting the same exposure as the FZ30, despite a slightly higher sensitivity of 100 ISO.
Panasonic DMC-FZ30 - 1/320, f8, 80 ISO
Fujifilm FinePix S9500 Zoom - 1/250, f8, 80 ISO
Canon EOS-350D with 18-55mm EF-S - 1/320, f8, 100 ISO
For further, in-depth tests covering the test camera's resolution, CCD noise levels, chromatic aberration, purple fringing, corner sharpness, wideangle and telephoto geometry, wideangle and telephoto uniformity, and macro performance, visit Camera Labs here.
The following images were taken with the Panasonic DMC-FZ30. The recording mode was set to 8M Fine mode, thereby using the full eight-megapixel resolution and the least-compressed JPEG setting; unless otherwise stated, the pictures were taken in Program mode with the default settings. The individual file sizes, shutter speeds, aperture, ISO and lens focal length are listed for each image.
The crops are taken from the original files, reproduced at 100 per cent and saved in Adobe Photoshop CS2 as JPEGs with the default Very High quality preset, while the resized images were made in Photoshop CS2 and saved with the default High quality preset. The three crops are typically taken from far left, central and far right portions of each image.
Macro: 3.93MB, Program, 1/320, f5.6, ISO 80, 7.4-88.8mm at 13mm (equivalent to 61mm)
This close-up shot of a leaf demonstrates the FZ30's Macro facilities. It may not focus as close as Fujifilm's S9500, but in practice can still deliver very good results. The crops show a high level of detail and low noise as you'd expect at 80 ISO.
City: 3.45MB, Program, 1/200, f8, ISO 80, 7.4-88.8mm at 74mm (equivalent to 350mm)
This shot of the City of London was taken from the opposite side of the River Thames using the FZ30 zoomed-into an equivalent of 350mm. With a maximum equivalent of 420mm at its disposal, it's possible to zoom-in even further.
Once again the image stabilisation ensured camera shake at this high magnification wasn't an issue. As shown here, the stabilisation is one of the most impressive aspects of the FZ30, and is preferred to the high ISO solution provided by Fujifilm.
For many more sample images, visit Camera Labs here.
The Panasonic DMC-FZ30 is without a doubt a very classy all-in-one camera. Its massive zoom range simply beats rivals into submission, while the optical stabilisation really works a treat. Despite its low price, the FZ30's build quality is also of a higher standard than the competition.
So how does it compare against specific models such as its closest rival, the Fujifilm S9500 / S9000 which costs virtually the same price. In its favour, the FZ30 has a more powerful telephoto, optical stabilisation, better build quality and a larger screen which flips and twists in every direction. On the other hand the Fujifilm has a wider angle lens and much higher sensitivity.
So the choice between them is tough, and mostly boils down to the lens range and the kind of photography you're into. Most obviously if you're into wide angle shots, the Fujifilm's 28mm is much better than the Panasonic's 35mm. Conversely if you're into zooming-in as close as possible, the Panasonic's 420mm is much longer than the Fujifilm's 300mm. Note if you're really into wide angles, the 24mm of Sony's R1 could trump them all.
Going further are each manufacturer's approach to camera shake. At first glance the optical stabilisation of the FZ30 seems superior, eliminating camera-shake without compromising image quality. On the other hand though, the higher sensitivity of the S9500/S9000 allows it to both counteract wobbles and freeze any motion which could otherwise appear blurred on the Panasonic - albeit at the cost of higher noise levels.
If we had to make a choice between them though, the optical stabilisation, larger fully-flippable screen and superior build of the FZ30 gives it the edge over the S9500/S9000, although as discussed, the Fujifilm's wider angle and higher sensitivity could make it a better choice depending on your style of photography.
As for the FZ30 versus a budget digital SLR, there's quite a price difference between it and even the cheapest model. But if you're considering the next step-up, a digital SLR should deliver lower noise levels, faster handling, better manual focusing and of course the ability to swap lenses. The downside to a dDigital SLR compared to the FZ30 is a much shorter zoom range as part of a standard bundle, no movie mode nor the ability to compose using a flip-out screen, and the risk of dust getting on the sensor when you change lenses. Only you can weigh these pros and cons up for yourself.
If you decide and all-in-one camera is better for you than a digital SLR, the Panasonic DMC-FZ30 is a great choice. It boasts a massive optically-stabilised zoom, fully-flippable screen, great build quality and decent images.
That said, anyone considering the FZ30 should closely compare it with Fujifilm's S9500 / S9000 and also Sony's R1. Each has unique pros and cons which could sway your ultimate decision. Should you decide on the FZ30 though you won't be disappointed. It's an excellent camera and comes highly recommended.