It's been a few years since I played with a Panasonic. Back then, I personally felt that there was a risk in purchasing (or recommending for purchase) any camera made by a manufacturer that didn't begin with C or N. Brands like Panasonic made excellent cameras too, but they tended to be hit-or-miss. When in doubt, I always knew I could turn to a Powershot and expect a solid level of performance, and I still think this today. A Powershot may not always be perfect, but it'll get the major things right.
Having said that, I've always had a soft spot for Panasonics. With perhaps an exception here and there, Panasonics have been consistently fast and intelligently designed, and most importantly, they tend to produce really great images, with a special strength when it comes to performing in low light.
I'm thrilled to report that even a few years since my last Panasonic, the new Lumix DMC-FH20 model lives up to my expectations -- and then some. I'm less thrilled to report that I'm kind of regretting my recent purchase of a Canon as my new "everyday" pocket camera after having tested this. There's nothing wrong with my Powershot. It's a great little performer. But dang, I had fun with the FH20. I loved this camera.
Body and Design
It seems like digital camera manufacturers recently went through a frenzy of seeing who could produce the tiniest camera body, resulting in a slew of credit card-sized units that are uncomfortable to hold and cause users stumble over their own fingers trying to push pinhead-sized buttons. I hope this trend is over, and the FH20 is a positive sign. The FH20 is slim and lightweight without feeling too fragile. Compact, but not too small. Some of the operational buttons are a bit undersized, but they're cleverly laid out. There's enough space between them to keep you from pushing more than one at the same time (although someone with larger hands than I have might run into that problem). The layout makes sense (as in, I didn't need the manual to figure out where everything was) and the 2.7-inch LCD screen, while not gigantic, is well-placed, bright, and responsive.
Perhaps the only complaint I have in terms of design is the fact that you have to push Menu in order to get into the Scene modes. Here's where my Powershot comes out on top -- I'm used to turning a physical dial to reach multiple Scene modes. Having to click into a menu is an extra step that would probably cause me to leave the camera in regular Auto or Intelligent Auto mode more often than I would if the other options were more quickly accessible.
The Scene modes themselves are an interesting collection, with some slightly mystifying titles like Food and Soft Skin. I'm not 100 percent sure what all of them do in terms of changing the final effect, but they were fun to try out. I didn't happen to have any babies lying around to use for a true field test on the two -- count 'em, two -- Baby modes. The Film Grain mode was absolutely gorgeous. A large percentage of the scenes are geared towards super-darkness, like Starry Sky, Fireworks, Night Portrait, Night Scenery, and so on. I was hoping for something designed to handle dim situations, but not necessarily total darkness. Granted, there's a High Sensitivity mode that would probably do the job, but where was the regular old Indoor mode or its equivalent?
Performance and Image Quality
But then I remembered that this is a Panasonic, and if it's going to live up to its reputation, Auto mode should be perfectly capable of handling a low light scene without any help from special settings. Right?
So, of course, I tested it. I set the camera to Auto, switched off the flash, and took it into a closet about as dim as a bar or a room after sunset without any lamps turned on. And man, if the snappy-fast performance, nice layout, and sharp photos I'd taken so far hadn't already convinced me, the low light performance of the FH20 would have done it: yes, yes, yes, Panasonic. Well done. The low light photos were even better than I expected, with crystal clarity, a super-low amount of graininess, true-to-life color, and perfectly defined focus.
Focus: This is a major point. Low-cost digital cameras often have trouble finding focus in low light, since objects tend to lose definition. But the FH20's Auto Focus wasn't even fazed by being in my closet. It didn't even have to hunt. It locked in just like I was shooting in broad daylight. What's more, performing this test with the flash off would be a recipe for blurry photos with most cameras (no flash + dark room = an open shutter for a good, long time). But shake wasn't even an issue here. Sure, I had to brace the camera against my knee a bit, but it took one shot -- one shot! -- to get a sharp photo. The shake warning on the screen lit up, but the photo itself wasn't blurred in the least. I mean, geez. One of the selling points of this model is what Panasonic calls Mega Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), and yes, it seems to work.
Speaking of selling points, the other major features of the FH20 (at least according to the hangey tag attached to the test unit) are the 14.1 megapixel sensor, 8x optical zoom, 28mm wide-angle lens, “Sonic Speed” Auto Focus, and 720p HD movie mode. They all work as they should and are pleasures to use. The zoom is particularly impressive. I didn't really realize how strong an 8x zoom is until I used this. It's super-fast to operate, and even when zoomed fully out the Auto Focus still comes through without stumbling.
Who Should Buy an FH20?
I'm typically reticent to recommend a camera to a huge variety of users. Most cameras, no matter how good they are, work best for certain niche groups. Some are gorgeously designed and take great pictures, but are confusing to operate and should be avoided by novices. Some are loaded with intimidating technical features that make them iffy gifts for older relatives or children. Others are so fragile that anyone who's slightly rough on their camera would break them.
But I think nearly anyone, regardless of skill level, age, camera abilities, or expectations, would be pretty satisfied with the FH20. It's almost ridiculously easy to use. Even if regular Auto isn't satisfactory, Intelligent Auto can help. It automatically sets and adjusts to adapt to different scenes -- and most importantly, it actually works and almost always offers better results than standard Auto. I even tested it in a deliberately tricky backlit situation and it worked. Sometimes I think that feature is just a marketing trick, but in this case you can see a difference between photos shot with regular and Intelligent Auto, and you have to kind of wonder why anyone would use the regular version in the first place.
The FH20 is easy to handle, designed in a way that makes sense, has quick enough operation to capture fast-moving things like children or pets (a shutter speed of just 0.006 seconds, according to the official spec sheet), handles most lighting situations smoothly, and has enough fun options to let you experiment without feeling like you're getting in over your head. I suppose the only caveat is that if you're someone looking for manual control over your camera, someone who likes to set exposure and other factors for yourself, the FH20 isn't going to give you what you want. But personally, when I want to play with manual settings, I turn to my dSLR. A camera like the FH20 is meant to be carried in your purse, or used to take snapshots of the kids, or at family picnics, or on vacation. It's a quick, capable snapper that offers high-quality results. It's meant to take good pictures without much effort on the user's part. And it does just that, and man, it does it well.