For what seems like eons, the "megapixel myth" has been tops on the list of tech journalists' crosses to bear. For successive generations of point and shoot and, to a lesser degree, dSLR cameras, manufacturers have persisted in pumping up the pixel counts on their new models to obscene levels while neglecting to increase the physical size of the imaging sensor. While they have somewhat mitigated the effects of this behavior by improving image processing and optics, the end result is usually higher image noise and generally poorer image quality.
Enter the Panasonic DMC-FX150, which at a whopping 14.7 megapixels has only the Samsung TL34HD, the Canon SD990 IS, and the Nikon S710 to contend with for the title of largest-resolving point and shoot camera on the market. Like the Samsung, it also offers 720p HD video recording, a somewhat gimpy 3.6x optical zoom lens, and a 28mm wide angle. With a MSRP of $399 it has some ground to cover to justify its cost, so let's dive into the features and see what this pint-sized heavy lifter can do.
The FX150 is an attractive camera. With a dark grey matte body, black lens housing, and carefully chosen shades of white, silver, and red lettering, it nails the aesthetics. The design should be familiar to users who have handled a FX-series camera before, but for the uninitiated I'll describe:
The camera is a simple, fairly sharp-edged rectangle, similar in shape and size to a bar of soap. The front features an off-center lens housing, a long and thin flash, a small flash guide lamp, and tasteful lettering. The right side offers a flip-open compartment that contains jacks for component (a nice addition for those with HDTVs), standard AV/USB, and DC power connections. The bottom features a metal tripod mount on the far left end and a locking door that conceals the battery and SecureDigital card cabinet. A slightly different material graces the plate at the top of the camera, which hosts the on-off switch, zoom ring, "easy zoom" button, and shutter release.
The rear of the camera is laid out in a simple, easy to grasp style. The large 2.7-inch diagonal LCD screen takes up the majority of the real estate. On the right hand edge you'll find four directional buttons that double as quick-access function buttons. The top button handles exposure compensation in manual exposure modes, the right-hand button toggles the flash settings, the left-hand button controls the self-timer, and the bottom button activates and deactivates macro mode. At the center of these buttons is the most-used "menu/set" button. A shooting/playback slider is situated above these primary controls, while below you'll find a display toggle button and one for the "Q.Menu", which brings up the various exposure options (white balance, autofocus mode, metering mode, ISO settings, etc) available in your given shooting mode.
Interface and Handling
A rotary button at the upper edge of the camera back selects your shooting mode; you can choose between "Intelligent Auto" (where most shooters will spend most of their time), Program AE, Manual, Scene, and Video modes. Intelligent Auto mode, as on most Panasonic models, automates all of the exposure settings for theoretically optimal image quality in any given situation. Program AE allows for some manipulation of the exposure settings, while manual lets you actually control the shutter speed and aperture. One nice thing about the manual mode on the FX150 is a "Manual Exposure Assistance" function that uses live metering to tell you whether your setting will result in a good exposure or not, and guide you toward the correct shutter speed.
The FX150 offers an impressive tally of 24 scene modes including two (count 'em!) baby modes, as well as the usual options for sports, landscape, night time, portrait, and so on. Some unique settings include a "Transform" mode that can (according to the menu) record a subject as "either slim or curvaceous" and a "Pin Hole" mode that darkens the area around the subject of a photo.
The camera's main menu is impressively deep when in Program AE and Manual modes, with five pages of recording settings. To begin with, in the recording menus the user can set image size, quality, and aspect ratio. The FX150 is one of the few point and shoots I've used that offers a RAW recording option, and it even offers a RAW+JPEG setting. Let's all give Panasonic a round of applause for that one. Images can be recorded in 4:3 (max 14.7MP), 3:2 (max 13MP), and 16:9 (max 11MP) aspect ratios. Other settings that are covered in the "Q.Menu" can also be set here, such as white balance, ISO, and metering/AF settings.
A few other intriguing options can be found here. For one, the "Intelligent Exposure" option allows the camera to detect and compensate for drastic differences in contrast, evening out images that would otherwise be blown out or too dark. The "Quick AF" mode, also toggled in the main menu, allows the camera to continuously maintain focus when it is being moved around, essentially prefocusing the image at all times and resulting in a briefer shutter delay.
The FX150 is a capable performer in almost all respects. To begin with, it's quick to power up; ready to shoot just over a second after being turned on. The shutter lag is minimal in most situations, and the autofocus rarely has to hunt for very long, even in dim light. Menus are a breeze to navigate, and the controls are quite responsive.
So, let's recap. Thus far all signs are go for the FX150: it's sleek, it's stylish, and it's easy to use. It offers a ton of options, fun features, and great adjustability. But image quality is the true measure of any camera. Can this little titan justify its price, its megapixel count, and its marketing?
Well, sort of.
In my experience with Panasonic cameras, the x-factor that keeps them from greatness has always been image noise. Either due to overaggressive JPEG compression, poor sensor design, or some other unknown, Panasonics are plagued by unsightly noise that, in its worst instances, turns beautiful photos into unfortunate watercolor paintings. Lately, Panasonic has gotten pretty good at controlling this problem in low-ISO situations (ISO 100, 200, and occasionally even 400), which masks the overall problem. But at higher sensitivities it still all goes to pot.
This trend doesn't change with the FX150. Even at ISO 100 and 200, the camera produces a distinct fine grain in its images that is particularly noticeable at 100% zoom. Cushioning this blow is the fact that, given that the camera's huge native resolution, a 100% zoom viewing situation will be a relative rarity; the photos look quite good at the more commonly used PC viewing setting of 25% zoom or less. At higher ISO settings (400 and above) noise problems become glaringly apparent, even at lower zoom levels. These problems would also be apparent in printed photos, making them truly problematic. The fault for this problem must lie either with the the JPEG compression algorithm or the sensor's ridiculously high (36MP/cm2) pixel density; there's no way around it.
With that concern noted, I'm glad to say that in good light and when using the flash in low light situations the FX150 can produce excellent results. The Leica lens is extremely sharp throughout the zoom range and has the benefit of working with a very good autofocus system. Not only is it quick, as I mentioned earlier, but it's quite accurate and doesn't make you focus and refocus and refocus, as some other cameras can do; usually, it seems to know just what you want to shoot.
Shots taken in bright sunlight are well-exposed, boast natural colors and good contrast, and generally pop the way that a good photo should. Party photos are equally well done, with the flash almost always highlighting but not washing out brilliant colors. The macro mode works brilliantly, taking in minute details in close-ups. The Intelligent Auto mode has a wonderful success rate as well, nearly always hitting its marks in terms of accurate exposures. Full wide angle 28mm shots don't show much distortion, and provide excellent landscape opportunities. Finally, the Mega O.I.S. in-lens image stabilization works brilliantly, saving many shots from irretrievable motion blur.
While this is not a video-focused camera per se, I should re-mention here that it does record 720p-resolution HD video at 24 frames per second (as well as WVGA, VGA, and QVGA high and low non-HD resolutions). The HD video the camera captures suffers quite a bit from compression, which is quite evident when the video playback is paused but mostly obscured when in motion. On a HDTV, you'd be hard-pressed to point out exactly what's wrong, but no one will mistake it for a Blu-Ray movie or even a standard 720p HDTV broadcast. In general, the HD-recording function feels like more of a tacked-on marketing gimmick than a full-fledged feature, but that's common to all cameras in this class.
So, Is It Worth It?
Yes and no. As a photographic tool, in most situations the FX150 is more than adequate and at times even brilliant. It's a breeze to use, completely intuitive, it looks great, and under the right circumstances it can take wonderful shots. Is it the perfect camera? No. Low-light shooting, as ever, is problematic, and noise levels (or evidence of noise reduction) are less than desirable even at the lowest ISO settings. Shooting in daylight or with flash mitigates these problems almost to the point of erasing them, but not all photos can be taken outdoors, and not all night shots call for flash.
And then we come to the price. While the on-the-internet price has come down by about 25% from the MSRP of $399, it's still a much pricier proposition than some cameras that offer comparable feature sets. The Canon A590 IS, for instance, offers generally superior image quality at only 8 megapixels as well as a similar level of manual control, and costs one third the price of the FX150. Ironically, the very thing that's hurting the camera; the 14.7 megapixels that are crammed onto a 1/1.72" sensor; is, along with a gimmicky HD video mode, a major component of the equation that's jacked up its price. This is the megapixel myth and this is how the manufacturers structure their marketing, because it's in our natures to want the biggest and, presumably, the best of whatever it is that we may be buying. Unfortunately, in the world of digital cameras bigger doesn't always mean better.
Note: As indicated above, I was delighted to see that the FX150 offered a RAW shooting mode. I thought that perhaps it would give me the opportunity to compare shot-for-shot between JPEG and RAW on a Panasonic camera and determine whether the company's hereditary noise problems are more due to JPEG processing/compression or whether they come down to the sensor itself. Unfortunately, I was unable to get the FX150's RAW files (.RW2) to display on my machine, either via my own copy of Adobe Lightroom 2.2 or SilkyPix Developer Studio 3.0 SE (the software shipped with the camera). Since I have not seen any other reports on the internet regarding this phenomenon, I can only assume it's something to do with the configuration of this specific computer.