Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZR1
At a Glance
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZR1 Compact Camera
The ZR1's very quiet, ultrawide-angle lens makes it an unassuming all-star for both stills and video.
The 12-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZR1 ($280 as of 9/15/2009) was a largely unnoticed guest at the fall camera announcement party, thanks to its great but not mind-blowing specs. This isn't a camera that tries to outdo anything in stores today, but it's a well-balanced, meat-and-potatoes model that does several things well.
Its 8X optical zoom is on the higher end of the spectrum for a point-and-shoot, but a bit short of the 12X optical zooms we've seen from both Panasonic and Canon. Its basic specs are good: 29 scene modes, Intelligent Auto mode for no-brainer casual shots, optical image stabilization, and an ample 2.7-inch LCD (it lacks an optical viewfinder), all tucked into a compact (but not ultracompact) 1-inch-deep chassis. They won't make you do a double-take, however.
A few subtle features help the ZR1 rise above ho-hum status: an ultraquiet zoom lens that reaches to 25mm on the wide-angle end, lightning-fast autofocus in video mode, great image stabilization at high ISO levels and fast shutter speeds, and a few unique scene modes.
The sum of all those parts is an excellent all-purpose camera, the point-and-shoot equivalent of an all-star utility infielder. Thanks to the solid hardware foundation and the handful of intangibles, the ZR1 excels at both stills and video.
Let's start with that lens: The motors driving the ZR1's 8X optical-zoom (25mm to 200mm) lens are incredibly quiet, and you can zoom in and out while filming, which is a rarity in point-and-shoots. In anything other than completely silent conditions, the lens motors are inaudible; in dead-quiet conditions, you can barely hear the zooming action (and that's only if you're really trying to).
For stills, that 25mm wide-angle lens makes for dramatic landscape shots, and I saw only slight evidence of distorted vertical lines at the edges of the frame in such shots--nothing truly noticeable. In my hands-on tests, high-ISO shots up to 800 were sharp; shots taken at the maximum manual setting of ISO 1600 started to look pock-marked.
The ZR1 also offers Panasonic's AF Tracking feature, which lets you "lock in" to a moving subject and keep it in focus as it scampers around the frame. It's a nice setting to have for sports, action, or that hummingbird in your backyard, and it worked well in my informal tests.
The camera's optical image stabilization--dubbed "Power O.I.S."--was excellent at high ISO settings and with faster shutter speeds. Intelligent Auto is smart enough to choose the right settings for most shots, but unfortunately, image stabilization did struggle a bit in that setting. Blurring was visible in shaky shots taken in Intelligent Auto mode.
For me, one scene mode, in particular, was a favorite go-to: Dynamic Range, which did a nice job in unevenly lit settings. It boosted the contrast between objects in shadowy areas, brought out more detail, and created deeper, more vivid colors. It also made for lighter grays--brightening up those shadowy scenes--as well as less-intense whites. Other than the fun Film Grain and Pinhole Camera scene modes, the other 28 selections are generic but still useful (Portrait, Sunset, Fireworks, Panorama Assist, Starry Sky, and the like).
In video mode, autofocus is about as fast, sharp, and accurate as I've seen in a point-and-shoot. It records video in 720p high-definition at 30 frames per second as MPEG-4 files (as well as VGA and QVGA clips at 30fps). Although the zooming is inaudible and the fast autofocus keeps all footage incredibly crisp, it isn't the sharpest video we've seen. The resulting video is slightly grainy when you view it on a computer, but it serves up a good YouTube clip. Unlike with previous Lumix cameras, Panasonic has stuck here to straight-up motion-JPEG files rather than AVCHD Lite.
The ZR1 feels as if it will stand up to a beating, too. It has the same industrial-style build as most Lumix point-and-shoots, with physical metal switches for power and the photo/playback toggle. You also get metal buttons for the camera's electronic zoom, display options, and stabilization/focusing/LCD brightness options. Instead of that electronic zoom button, which many people probably won't use much, a quick-access button for shooting video would have been nice.
The navigation button layout is similar to other Lumixes, too: the center Menu/Set button is surrounded by metal buttons for exposure compensation, flash, macro mode, and the self timer. Those four buttons double as navigation controls for on-screen menus. A dial on the top of the ZR1 lets you choose between six shooting modes: Intelligent Auto; a manual mode that gives you control over ISO and shutter speeds; a saved settings mode; the scene modes; the movie mode; and a "clipboard" that saves images to the camera's internal memory. The rechargeable lithium ion battery and SD/SDHC card slot are stowed under a door on the bottom of the unit, while a single USB-out port is hidden under a door on the right side.
The solid ZR1 has only a few drawbacks, and none of them are deal-breakers for the price. Manual settings such as aperture priority or shutter priority mode would have been nice--they would even have made this camera an ideal secondary model for DSLR owners. Connectivity options are also scant: you get only a USB-out port for offloading images and video, but not HDMI or A/V-out options. And the placement of the control dial might irk some photographers: It's to the right of the shutter button--but is still comfortable to use when shooting.
The Lumix DMC-ZR1 won't bowl you over with fancy looks or gee-whiz features, but it's a rock-solid sub-$300 camera that offers a lot more than an entry-level snapshooter. Panasonic has hand-selected the features and specs that nicely split the difference between a $200 model and a more-advanced camera nicely, delivering a well-rounded, easy-to-use point-and-shoot that suits many needs.