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So, you like a bit of landscape, maybe group portraits, you want to get everything in the shot. A 28mm wide angle is a must have feature. But what about getting close to the action without ever leaving the house? Welcome to the zooming world of the FZ-18, where one minute your 8Mp is aimed at a wide angle vista, the next it's in through the neighbour's window with the 18x optical zoom.
Panasonic DMC-FZ18 Specifications
- Sensor: CCD, 8.1Mp
- Image size: 3264x2448 pixels
- Lens: Leica DC Vario-Elmarit 28-504mm f/2.8-f4.2 (18x zoom)
- Focus: Face, one point, one point high speed, 3 point high speed, multi-point, spot.
- ISO range: ISO100-1600
- Shutter speed: 60-1/1000sec (M), 8-1/2000sec (SP), 8-1/1000sec (AP)
- Macro mode: 5cm
- Exposure: PASM, iA, Scene modes
- Metering: Intelligent multiple, centre-weighted, spot
- Monitor: 2.5in. LCD (230k pixels), 0.44in. EVF (188k pixels)
- Movie mode: Yes
- Storage: SD/SDHC, 27Mb internal memory
- Battery: Panasonic CGR-S006E Li-ion 710mAh
- AC Adaptor: Optional
- Video output: Yes
- Size/Weight: 117.6x75.3x88.2mm - 360g
- Transfer: USB 2.0
The Panasonic DMC-Z18 has rather an eye-catching combination of features and has a street price of around £260-£270 There's the Canon PowerShot S5 IS which has the same res, a12x optical zoom but no wide angle and costs £349; the Fuji FinePix S8000fd which sports a 27mm wide angle and an 18x zoom for £289; and the Olympus SP-560 UZ which offers a 27mm wide angle, 18x zoom and costs a mere £285.
Panasonic DMC-FZ18 Modes and features
The headline features of the FZ-18 are that it sports a pleasing wide angle view of 28mm and ties that in with a distance-groping, 18x optical zoom. That's the equivalent of 504mm in old money. The good news is that at the wide angle end it offers a widest aperture of f/2.8 and right out at the telephoto end, this has only narrowed to f/4.2 which means it's still quite a quick lens for light gathering. Consider how much a 500mm f/4 DSLR lens would cost.
Styling and feature set then, are for the giddy enthusiast who knows what the photographic features do and wants to have a go at using them. There's a button to switch from normal to macro focus, and a separate one to toggle between auto-focus and manual focus. Next to this, a little slider turns the camera on and off, with a warning trill, like a surprised canary, if the lens cap has been left on.
The big, manly mode dial offers program modes such as P, AP, SP and M, plus an intelligent Auto mode, Portrait, Landscape, Sport, Night portrait, video and then regular scene modes. Yes, the Z18 follows in the trend of pulling the most common scene modes out and placing them on the dial. Select the Scene mode option on the dial, and the actual scene needs to be selected from the menu. Here there's 14 different modes - the common ones not being duplicated - with interesting selections like starry skies and panning shots. As the mode dial is rotated, a graphic display rotates on the LCD screen as well which means that the mode dial can be used without having to look at it.
Around the back of the camera is a button to switch between the Electronic View Finder and the LCD screen. The EVF contains all the info on the LCD and means the camera can easily be used in bright sunlight. Both screens are a little jerky when panning from side to side, but otherwise provide a clear and quickly updated display. It would have been nice to have an auto-switching facility as well. Anyway, next to this button is the AF/AE lock which can be set up to just lock the focus when focussing off-centre, or, and even more usefully, locking the exposure. I found myself using this a lot, when contrasting scenes would affect the metering - it was much faster to just focus and lock with a slightly different composition in order to pull in the right exposure reading, than to manually adjust the exposure compensation and recompose. Of course you do need to ensure that you're focussing the same kind of distance away when doing this - it was most useful for landscapes.
There's a button for changing the detail level of information on the screen which includes displaying a live histogram, and a pack of functions around the joypad configuration. The menu button sits in the middle of there and combines with a Set function that confirm any selections. The up arrow activated exposure compensation, left brings up the timer options, right goes through flash while down brings up a fast playback mode without having to fumble for the setting on the control dial.
As this is a camera with plenty of user-control, just the joypad would make things awkward, so make thee hence to the stubby joystick. This is used to select from the functions on the LCD screen like aperture and shutter speed, exposure compensation (yes, again) and the focus point. Initially this is slightly confusing, but it's easy enough to get to grips with, moving along sideways between the functions and then using up/down movements to select the settings.
In the menu system itself are all the rest of the funky features like the ISO control, metering modes, focus point system, white balance options and interestingly, the white balance adjustment. This brings up a four way display that can be used to tinker the balance between magenta and green and yellow and blue. There's options for quality, and file type, so that the FZ18 can do JPEGs, RAW or JPEG and RAW. There are two modes of optical stabiliser which is handy for such a massive zoom, and an intelligent ISO mode, which sticks the ISO range in auto, but limits the sensitivity to a specific setting.
Panasonic DMC-FZ18 Build and handling
Apart from a metal nose ring round the end of the lens, it's all plastic, with a drab silvery colour and splash of gun-metal grey on the top. You can also get the camera in black, which has got to be a better choice than this. In terms of styling, the lens dominates proceedings, putting the camera more into the brooding menace, Al Pacino, rather than pretty boy, Leonardo diCaprio territory. The zoom rocker and on/off slider are solid and the control dial has the feel that it was designed by someone involved with heavy engineering rather than cameras. Everything else button wise is small and plastic. You might be getting more zoom zoom than a Mazda car showroom but you pay for it in plastic.
Having said that, the handling is very good. The handgrip allows firm control, the dials and controls are all easy to access and use. Even the menu, where a few of the useful functions are stashed, are easy to get to and can rapidly be changed. The stubby joystick works well and allows changes to the critical shooting parameters, while the AE lock function works a treat. The camera has good photographic features and accessing them is completely straightforward. It would have been nice to have had a couple more functions on buttons -there's completely empty space to the left of the flash, but this is still a compact so compromise needs to made somewhere.
Panasonic DMC-FZ18 flash options
There are options for Auto, Auto with red-eye reduction, forced on, slow sync with red-eye reduction and forced off. The flash is activated by pressing a stubby button then up it pops.
Panasonic DMC-FZ18 Performance
The time taken to turn on and take a shot is around 2secs which isn't bad for a compact, especially one that features an extending lens. Running a new test for shutter lag - the time taken between pressing the fire button and the image actually being recorded showed that it was approximately 0.08secs which isn't a great deal, though can be telling if the subject is actually moving quickly.
There's a standard burst mode and a high speed burst mode. We are discounting the latter because it reduces the resolution of the camera right down to 2Mp. The standard burst mode then offers just four shots in around a second each before the camera collapses to the track, gasping weakly like a fat man on his first jog. It didn't record any more during the 10sec test, either with a standard SD card, or the SDHC card. Sadly, that test result of just four images recorded is the kind of thing expected from some flabby, no-hoper compact designed for the point and shoot market. For people who will be expecting the control and optical performance this camera offers, it's a poor result.
There are some interesting results from the test images, not least the landscape ones. In standard AP mode, the images are okay, though there's a certain amount of image artefacts present. When using the Landscape scene mode, without any exposure compensation, the ground is bright with the sky getting paler, but significantly, it's much sharper. Despite using a more open aperture there is more apparent depth-of-field as well. In actual fact it's more that the firmware processing for the Landscape mode includes significant sharpening of the image.
This processing-frenzy is carried through to other modes as well so that portrait images have noticeable artefacts using standard AP mode, but switch to Portrait scene mode and while the hair is still sharp and has detail, the skin tones are lighter and noticeably smoother and softer.
What's good is that the zoom, rocketing along to the 18x telephoto end, retains a very good amount of detail. The image stabilisation will help keep it sharp, but really, if the subject is moving, then as fast a shutter speed as possible would be required. And this is the area of performance that the Z18 has, like the Olympus SP-550UZ which was reviewed in August, a slight drawback. In AP or M mode the faster shutter speed is only 1/1000sec which is not fast enough for wide apertures in very bright sunlight. Unlike the Olympus camera which has the same kind of spec, there's no ISO50 mode here to slow things down. The scene modes do use a wider range of speeds, and Manual mode also has much longer shutter speeds available - up to 60secs compared to 8secs in AP and SP modes.
The metering tends to weight things for a brighter ground rather than the sky, so in high contrast scenes, the sky tends to get lost. The focussing is quite good, being fairly nippy and it can cope with most scenes other than low contrast ones where it gives up very quickly.
Panasonic DMC-FZ18 Noise tests
There is coloured noise and some artefacts visible in the grey card area right at ISO100, though the petals are sharp and full of detail. At ISO200 there's more noise though it isn't any more distinct. It's quite extensive at ISO400 and while not sharp, it does introduce noticeable green mottling. At ISO800 things shift so that the noise is now sharp in the shadows, detail is disappearing on the petals and the noise is evident on the black card. At ISO1250, the processing is keeping control of the noise on the grey area but at the expense of detail in the petals now. Also, in the shadow areas there's swathes of yellow-green noise - this isn't too impressive. Fortunately it doesn't really get any worse at ISO1600, though it's still now fairly poor.
Panasonic DMC-FZ18 Verdict
What's good about the FZ18 is the way it works. Everything is clear and straightforward, even the important stuff like ISO control which is in the menu system, can be rapidly accessed and changed. The zoom is fairly quick and has an enormous reach. The image quality is decent, if not top rank, but crucially, it's still perfectly fine at the end of that very long zoom. Colorus tend to be bright and punchy, and the scene modes give quite noticeable results compared to the standard shooting modes. The EVF is very handy to have in bright sunlight and the exposure compensation and the Exposure lock buttons enable accurate exposures and adjustment to be made naturally and quickly. The sizeable handgrip means that the camera is always firmly under control, and while the noise performance in the ISO tests leaves something to be desired, if you stick to ISO400 and below there should be few complaints.
For the newcomer to photography, the FZ18 is easy enough to pick up and shoot with while the enthusiast will enjoy the wide angle and big zoom aspects of the camera.
Panasonic DMC-FZ18 Minus points:
Made from plastic
Design not stylish
Burst mode poor
The Panasonic DMC-FZ18 costs around £260 on the streets.