At a Glance
The lens on the Panasonic DMC-FZ20 looks bigger than the camera itself. Among cameras we've tested, this model's 12X optical zoom is the longest, with a 35mm-equivalent range of 36mm to 432mm. Despite the length, the lens protrudes only about 2.25 inches from the body when the camera is off, and 3 inches when it's on. The mechanism is entirely internal: The lens case doesn't move at all when you zoom, and it's nearly silent. The lens also allows you to use an f2.8 aperture at both wide-angle and telephoto settings--highly unusual, and very useful.
Also unusual, at least on a still-image camera: Panasonic's optical image stabilizer, which is supposed to eliminate jittery images caused by shaky hands. It has a built-in gyro-sensor that detects movement and instructs an internal mechanism within the lens to move as necessary to compensate. It doesn't always work--especially at full telephoto, where it's most needed--but it helps in certain shooting situations, such as when the available light dictates that you must shoot at 1/30 second instead of 1/60 second. However, the stabilizer won't prevent you from getting the queasies when trying to focus at extreme telephoto, especially if you're using the electronic viewfinder. In addition, the camera often has trouble focusing on moderate-distance objects in extreme telephoto.
The camera has the usual shutter-priority, aperture-priority, and full manual modes, but nothing labeled as fully automatic. Its program mode is mostly automatic, except that if you get a focus lock on your subject, keep your finger down on the shutter release, press the exposure button, and then press the navigation button on the back of the camera, you choose different combinations of aperture and shutter speed. This "program shift" might be useful if it were more easily accessible, but you'd probably use it only if you knew you wanted less or more depth of field or a faster shutter speed, and in either of those cases using one of the priority modes would be faster and easier. Fujifilm's FinePix S9000, another camera we reviewed, has a similar capability, but you have only to rotate a dial near your forefinger to shift the settings.
If you prefer, you can access the camera's nine scene modes from two spots on its mode dial. You can choose any of the nine scene modes from either spot; the camera will remember which modes you choose, so you can switch back and forth between two favorites just by turning the dial.
The DMC-FZ20 earned high marks for exposure quality in our lab tests, but it fared less well in resolution-dependent tests like those for sharpness and distortion; this was mainly because it was up against several models with 7-megapixel or higher resolution, and the DMC-FZ20 has only 5 megapixels' worth. Of course, in some cases the very long zoom could more than make up for the modest resolution, because you may be able to zoom instead of cropping the image in software later. However, the zoom takes a toll in battery life: In our tests, the DMC-FZ20 lasted long enough to take only 308 shots, which put it near the bottom of our current batch of cameras.
The ultralong lens is impressive in its length, design, and operation, but the camera behind it could benefit from additional resolution.