Review: Panasonic DMC-FZ30K / FZ30S
8 MP SLR-like Fixed-lens Digital Camera
Buy from Amazon.com
So you’re looking for a camera more sophisticated than a pocket-sized point-and-shoot, but don’t want to deal with the big bucks and big size of an SLR? This camera may be for you. The Panasonic DMC-FZ30 falls into the category of mid-sized, fixed-lens digital cameras—a bit more camera than a pocket point-and-shoot, yet smaller than an SLR. Price-wise, the FZ30 falls between the two: around $500 for the FZ30S (silver body) and $900 for the FZ30K (black body).
Mid-sized Digital Cameras: Are They Worth the Money?
Before we get into the technicalities, let me just say a few things about this genre of camera. It’s very easy to be awestruck by the bells, whistles, and super-long zooms typical of these cameras. But at the end of the day, you’ve bought yourself either a huge glorified point-and-shoot, or a pseudo-SLR without the associated image quality and the flexibility if interchangeable lenses.
They’re tempting, let me tell you! I believe these cameras exist for two reasons:
- It’s physically impossible to put a X12 zoom on a little pocket point-and-shoot.
- It’s extremely expensive to get a DSLR with a X12 zoom.
Life is all about compromise, isn’t it?
Light Sensitivity and Image Quality
The other major technical difference between the mid-sized digitals and the other two types is the size of the image sensor. Mid-sized Digital Cameras have image sensors similar in size to point-and-shoots. Image sensors in DSLRs are much bigger, thereby producing greater light sensitivity and better image quality. This means, that with a DSLR, you can take pictures in dim light and overall, the resolution of all your images will be better.
Mid-sized digitals share a major drawback with digital point-and-shoots
Due to their small sized image sensor, these cameras seldom have light sensitivity greater than 400 ISO (a DSLR will be 1600 or more). Also because of the small image sensor, picture quality of these cameras is about the same as that of a point-and-shoot (inferior to that of a DSLR).
Comparing large image sensor pixel count to small image sensor pixel count
But wait—these days you can get digital point-and-shoot cameras as well as mid-sized digital cameras with 10 Megapixel resolution. Surely the images acquired by these cameras must be better than those shot with a lowly 7 Megapixel DSLR? Ah, the ad campaigns would certainly have you believing this, now wouldn’t they? Unfortunately this is comparing apples to oranges. It is simply incorrect to compare large image sensor pixel count to small image sensor pixel count! Partly because the actual pixels are bigger in an SLR-sized image sensor, they can hold more information and are more light-sensitive. So for instance, you would get better image quality with the 7.5 MP Panasonic DMC-L1K DSLR than you would with Panasonic’s 10.2 MP Panasonic DMC-LX2S point-and-shoot.
When considering the Panasonic DMC-FZ30 for purchase:
Aside from all that esoteric squitter above, there are a few more things to consider when contemplating this particular camera for purchase. They’re not necessarily good or bad, but they are worth noting:
- Being a crossover camera (between a point-and-shoot and an SLR), the FZ-30 shares some advantages of both. For instance, you get movie mode and a live view LCD display like a pocket camera, yet superior lens quality and manual focus like an SLR.
- The camera is relatively light, yet large and bulky.
- There are many preset auto exposure modes–like portrait, snow, and sports–typical of any automatic camera. However, the FZ-30 has some quirky modes, e.g. food, panning, starry sky, fireworks, and baby. Virtually useless, since if you really don’t understand how a camera works, and the best you can do to photograph fireworks is to flick to “Fireworks” mode, you’re sure to be disappointed.
- There is no power zoom; you have to rotate the lens barrel to change focal length.
- The X12 lens is equivalent to that of a 35 mm film lens having a 35 – 420mm zoom. This is an enormous focal range and is one of the FZ-30’s most tempting attributes. It’s a relatively fast lens (f2.8) and is made by Leica, one of the best lens makers in the known galaxy. However, we forget the old rule of thumb about hand-holding a camera. With a 50mm lens, we can effectively hand-hold at shutter speeds above 1/50 second (the inverse of the lens focal length). If we try to hand-hold it at a shutter speed of 1/30 second, it’s likely the camera will move during exposure and we blur the image.
With the zoom of the FZ-30 fully extended to 420mm, we can only effectively hand-hold the camera during exposures at shutter speeds above 1/420 second (the camera has a shutter speed of 1/400 second). Image stabilization helps somewhat, by allowing you to shoot at one or two shutter speeds slower, perhaps at 1/250 second). So unless you have the camera mounted to a tripod, you need to be aware of your shutter speed. Luckily, even in Auto mode, The FZ-30 displays aperture (f-stop) and shutter speed on the LCD display.
I’ve used the FZ-30K several times over the past couple years; here are the highs and lows in my opinion:
- The fast (f2.8) X12 Leica zoom lens is one of the highest quality lenses I’ve ever seen on a fixed-lens camera.
- The ability to manually focus the lens (through the LCD display) is very easy and highly useful. Quite unusual to be able to do this with anything less than a DSLR.
- The lens’ macro mode is simply a joy to use. It can focus down to an inch!
- Controls and menus are relatively easy to operate and navigate. For instance, if you’re in Manual mode, front and rear thumb wheels control aperture and shutter speed, with both displayed on the LCD. This is way easier than on any DSLR I’ve used (such control being next to impossible on most point-and-shoots).
- Monochrome (black and white) image capture is available.
- Camera has a hot shoe for a larger flash unit
- Flip down, rotating viewing screen
- “Mode I” stabilizer works, “Mode 2” makes no perceptible difference.
- Did you know that one of the advantages of having an exposure “Burst” mode is that it gives the camera’s auto-focus system a couple chances to get it right? Burst means a few rapid succession exposures are acquired during the time you hold the shutter release button down. Some cameras adjust their focus point for each exposure. So you can look at three nearly identical images, and pick the one that looks the sharpest!
- Time lag exists between when you push the shutter release and the image is captured, but this is true of all non-SLR digital cameras.
- Time lag at power-up, same reason as above.
- Light sensitivity is only 400 ISO max.
- Unwieldy, due to its bulk. Difficult to single-handedly operate the FZ30’s controls.
- Relatively small 2 inch image display – many digital cameras today boast a larger 2.5 inch display.
You know, the Panasonic DMC-FZ30 is not an SLR. It pretends to be one, but don’t be fooled. Like a digital point-and-shoot, this camera is essentially a video camera with still image capture. That’s why there’s a time lag between when you push the shutter release and the image is captured. If this camera had greater light sensitivity (1600 ISO) and an SLR-sized image sensor, it would be a terrific camera. But there are always compromises—you’d pay an arm and a leg for a DSLR with this kind of a lens!