Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3S
At a Glance
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 Compact Camera
The powerful zoom lens and features are great for casual shooters looking for versatility and oomph. Advanced photographers will be disappointed in the lack of manual controls.
One of a handful of pocket megazooms announced earlier this year, the 10-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3S ($400 as of 6/29/2009) carries a 12X optical Leica zoom lens, ranging from an ultrawide-angle 25mm to 300mm on the telephoto end.
A zoom range like that isn't very useful if image stabilization doesn't come with it, and the ZS3S has top-notch optical stabilization. The camera is downright shake-proof, providing crystal-clear images even when I shook it around at full zoom.
The ZS3's powerful lens offers up greater wide-angle capabilities than the recently reviewed Canon PowerShot SX200 IS; both are excellent cameras, but they have clear differences, and I'd recommend one or the other depending on how you'd use the camera.
The Lumix DMC-ZS3S is very much a "set-it-and-forget-it" model; it's dead simple for a novice to take a good photograph, because the camera is packed with complex automated features. The secret sauce is Panasonic's excellent Intelligent Auto mode, which combines a handful of in-camera settings working in conjunction (scene optimization, ISO controls, face detection, face recognition, and optical image stabilization) to optimize in-camera settings based on the shooting conditions.
Intelligent Auto mode worked extremely well, but with a tradeoff: You don't get a huge range of manual controls on this camera. For example, it has no aperture-priority or shutter-priority modes, which is a letdown in a camera of this quality and price.
If you can deal with the absence of manual tweaks--or if you are just looking for a powerful point-and-shoot model that takes care of everything for you--then the ZS3S is an excellent option. In fact, several fun in-camera features may make up for the unit's lack of manual controls.
The most innovative involves the Lumix DMC-ZS3's face-recognition feature. You can "register" a friend's mug by snapping a portrait of that person in face-recognition mode and then entering a name to be associated with the face; the ZS3S can tag any "registered" faces, then sort and filter photos based on that data.
There are also a couple of fun-to-use scene modes among the 21 included on the camera, such as a pinhole-camera simulator and a "film-grain" setting. The Auto Focus tracking mode is also a nice touch; it lets you lock in on a moving subject (or a still subject if the photographer is moving around) and keep it in focus while you compose the shot.
The ZS3S is also an exceptionally video-friendly camera, even beyond its 720p HD-shooting capabilities at 30 frames per second (it also shoots 320-by-240 and 640-by-480 standard-definition clips at 30 fps): The camera can zoom in and out with that powerful 12X optical zoom lens while you're shooting video, a rarity with most point-and-shoot cameras.
You also get a choice of two encoding formats: the more universally compatible motion-JPEG format, or the harder-to-handle AVCHD format. AVCHD works with fewer editing suites but offers smaller encoded file sizes while retaining HD quality. An HDMI port is also on the camera for playing your footage back on a big-screen HDTV; if you own one of the company's new, SDHC-slot-equipped Viera sets, Panasonic says AVCHD playback will work on that set when you insert your camera's memory card.
Adding to the Lumix DMC-ZS3S's video-shooting prowess is the inclusion of a handy dedicated video button, which means it's much quicker to start shooting a video on the fly than it is with a video mode accessible via a mode dial. One touch of a red button on the back of the camera, and you're already capturing video. Alas, although the ZS3S is equipped with stereo microphones, they're on the top of the camera, which means the person shooting the video is often more audible than a subject in front of the camera.
Framing shots and viewing stills and video is helped along by the ZS3S's bright, sharp 3-inch-diagonal LCD screen. (As with most new point-and-shoots, the camera has no optical viewfinder; you must use the LCD screen.)
In PC World Test Center image-quality jury evaluations, the Lumix DMC-ZS3S earned an overall image quality score of Good. It trailed the comparable Canon PowerShot SX200 IS in overall image quality and sharpness, but offered neck-and-neck results for exposure quality with and without the flash activated. In general, image quality was slightly below some of the full-size megazoom cameras we tested in its batch, but not by much.
In my informal hands-on tests, I tested the ZS3S's low-light shots with the flash turned off and the ISO boosted to different levels (the ISO range on the camera is 80 to 1600, and a "high sensitivity" scene selection can boosts ISO up to 3200). Noise became visible in photos taken at ISO 800 and 1600, but it wasn't invasive enough to ruin the shots.
Battery life lagged more noticeably behind the rival Canon PowerShot SX200 IS. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3S netted 243 shots on a charge of its lithium ion battery--enough for a Good rating, but short of the 300-plus shots that many current point-and-shoots now deliver. The camera looks just big enough to house a couple of AA batteries inside the hand grip, so those would have been a nice power option to have; as it stands, the ZS3S runs only on the rechargeable lithium ion cell.
The camera's physical design offers a lot more pros than cons, but we did find a few nits to pick. First, the good parts: Its metal build feels sturdy and good in the hand, and it has a near-perfect weight (7.7 ounces seems to be the magic number). The HDMI and A/V ports are tucked behind a sturdy plastic flip-out door on the camera's side; the door itself feels more wear-and-tear resistant than those on most other point-and-shoots.
Then there's the middle ground: aesthetic features that some users will love and some won't like too much. I happen to love the locking switches on the ZS3S; old-school, physical switches lock into place for the power controls and flipping between capture and playback modes.
But the camera has a couple of things that most users just won't like, if they're anything like me, and both involve the mode dial. First, it's placed right where the shutter button and zoom controls should be: on the top right, with the shutter button to the left of it.
That wouldn't be so bad except for a second design oddity. The mode dial has six selections (Intelligent Auto mode, a manual mode limited to ISO adjustments, two preset modes, a scene mode, and a mode that saves images to the camera's internal storage), but they don't fill up the dial's full 360 degrees, and they're hard to lock into place.
What's more, the camera alerts you--even if you're just playing back images on the camera--when the mode dial selection isn't locked in. This is problematic because it's very easy to inadvertently reset the mode dial when you're trying to press the shutter button (here's where that flip-flopping of positions comes into play), which in turn leads to frequent, annoying "Mode dial is not in the proper position" messages on the LCD.
The button layout should be familiar to anyone who has used one of Panasonic's recent Lumix cameras. On the top of the ZS3S are the power switch and the shutter button/zoom control ring, as well as the mode dial and the twin stereo microphones.
On the back, to the left of the big LCD screen, are the locking capture/playback switch, the dedicated video-recording button, a four-way directional pad, and two buttons below that adjust the screen's display options and provide a quick way to access the most frequently-used in-camera settings. The four directional buttons double as one-touch controls for exposure value settings, the flash, the macro mode, and the self-timer. On the right are the HDMI and A/V ports (behind that sturdy-feeling door), and the SD/SDHC card slot is in the battery compartment on the bottom.
The Lumix DMC-ZS3S is a very good pocket megazoom camera, just a shade below the Canon PowerShot SX200 IS in terms of manual features and image quality. For casual photographers who'd rather let the camera do the work instead of tinkering with the settings--as well as for anyone seeking a powerful pocket camera that can also shoot HD video--the ZS3S is a top-notch, easy-to-use option.