Panasonic first introduced the world to the idea of the "travel zoom" digital camera back in the halcyon days of 2006, with the TZ1. That model boasted a 10x zoom range of 35-350mm and packed it into a camera smaller than most 5x zoom models—small enough to slip in your pocket and take anywhere. Lots of consumers took notice, and nowadays the concept has proliferated across the wide digital camera marketplace, with all manufacturers offering something similar. The ZS1 is Panasonic's latest go at simultaneously miniaturizing and super-sizing the travel zoom camera, stuffing a 12x Leica zoom lens into a body that's fractionally smaller and lighter than its predecessors. Like its big brother the ZS3, this camera offers a big bang for your small buck, and might be just the ticket for many users out there.
Design and Handling
The ZS1 is a very stripped down camera, in the best of ways. The controls are simple, well laid-out, and easy to access. The menus make sense and are easy to navigate. This is a point and shoot camera, and there's no need to muck things up with too busy of a layout—it gets the job done.
The front of the camera is dominated by a large chromed lens barrel that is nicely set off from the black matte body. A red LED focus assist lamp is offset to the right of the lens, and the flash is offset to the left. The grip is nicely curved and gives your hand a better purchase than you get on many competing models. At the top of the camera, the on-off switch is joined by a mode selector dial and the shutter release, which is surrounded by the zoom ring. The rear of the camera consists of a toggle for playback and shooting modes, a four-way control pad, a central OK button, and buttons for Display and Quick Menu. As is common, several of these buttons double up on functions, changing in purpose depending on the context in which they're used.
The construction may be all plastic, but while you can tell the difference from a top-of-the-line machine, the ZS1 does have a nicely solid feel. The 2.7-inch, 230,000-pixel LCD isn't a world-beater, and has a tendency to wash out in bright light, but it's definitely up to its task. Now Leica-branded, the lens on the ZS1 has a very useful zoom range of 25-300mm in 35mm film terms, giving it both very wide and very long zoom possibilities. In one of its key divergences from its big brother, the ZS3, the ZS1 makes use of a slightly smaller sensor (1/2.5" vs. 1/2.33"), but still outputs a solid 10.1 megapixels. The key differences between this ZS1 and the ZS3 are the sensor, the ZS1's lack of HD video recording (it's limited to 848 by 480 pixels aka WVGA), and a lower resolution screen.
The camera takes the now-standard SD or SDHC memory cards, and comes with a proprietary lithium-ion battery with its own extremely compact charger. The rated battery life of 320 shots isn't spectacular, but given the size of the camera it's impressive that Panasonic's engineers managed to pack so much juice into such a small compartment.
The Shooting Experience
Like most of Panasonic's current point and shoot models, the ZS1 comes equipped with two fully automatic modes: Auto and Intelligent Auto. Auto gives you some control over manual functions, including white balance, max ISO, autofocus mode, burst shooting, and image stabilization mode. Intelligent Auto, on the other hand, controls everything for you, adjusting ISO, shutter speed, and aperture on the fly in its efforts to produce the best shots for a given situation. Intelligent Auto mode also makes use of some of Panasonic's innovative features, including Intelligent ISO (which detects camera shake and increases the ISO level accordingly to reduce blur) and Intelligent Exposure (which adjusts the ISO settings in different regions of a photo to balance light and dark areas).
Shooting with the ZS1 is a strictly point and shoot affair, and in that capacity its a joy to use. I have only a few niggles with the controls, the first of which is the mode dial's tendency to slip out of place mid-shooting. This results in a "Mode Dial Is Not in the Proper Position" warning that really interrupts the flow of your shots. Unfortunately, the dial moves very easily. The LCD's aforementioned tendency to wash out in bright outdoor light is another issue, and ties into the biggest issue for me—the autofocus system's tendency to claim it has focus when in fact it's focusing on something beyond your desired subject.
Several times while testing the camera, I came across a situation where the green "focus achieved" box would light up on top of my chosen subject and I'd snap away, only to find when I went to review the shot some time later that the focus had been on a fence 10 feet behind the supposed subject. Most of the time this won't be an issue, since you can see in the LCD that the subject isn't actually in focus. However, when glare becomes an issue, you sometimes have to trust the focus confirmation system with a kind of blind faith, and unfortunately it has a slight tendency to let you down.
The Image Quality
First, the good news: in nearly every lighting condition, the ZS1 produced above average image quality for a camera in its class. The camera produced a refreshingly noise-free image at lower ISO settings, and when the ISO was raised it managed not to destroy fine detail (as many other point and shoot cameras do) with overaggressive noise reduction. The dynamic range is impressive for a camera at this price point, nicely balancing dark shadows with bright (but not overexposed) highlights. The Leica-branded lens produces wonderfully sharp shots throughout the large zoom range, including the macro mode, and seems to be fairly well protected against flare and chromatic aberration (aka purple fringing). Outdoor images are slightly warm in tone and well-saturated. In general, I was very pleased with the images I took using the ZS1, even in moderately difficult light.
Now, the bad news: this isn't the holy grail of low-light point and shoot cameras. Like most cameras in its class, the ZS1 runs into serious trouble above ISO 400, and when the level of available light drops. This isn't really a huge concern because, as I've implied, you'll be hard-pressed to find any non-SLR digital camera that can handle low light trouble-free. And despite all my nitpicking, low-light images with the ZS1 are not bad—it's just that they could be better.
The ZS1's flash is generally spot on, not overexposing or underexposing shots. Red-eye reduction works as expected—no complaints there. Video quality on the ZS1 is about par for the course in this class. While the more expensive ZS3 offers high-definition 720p AVCHD video, the ZS1 tops out at WVGA standard-def. The 30fps shutter speed gives a nice fluid feel to videos, but the small resolution means that clips captured with the camera are suitable only for non-fullscreen viewing, as in a YouTube page.
Conclusion: Bang for the Buck
With a highly pocketable form factor, a great 12x Leica zoom lens, and excellent image quality, the ZS1 is a fantastic choice for anyone looking to get a big bang for their buck. If you're not the kind of person who can conceive of spending $500-plus on a new dSLR and another $500-plus on a quality zoom lens, your options essentially narrow to either a "travel zoom" like this ZS1, or a "bridge" camera like Canon's SX 1 IS or Panasonic's own FZ-series. Both offer excellent image quality, but the bridge cameras provide a wider array of manual controls and whiz-bang gadgets. The ZS1 may be fairly stripped down, but it's not wimpy, and the images don't suffer from the lack of manual control. This just might be the ideal point and shoot for the user who just doesn't need all those optional trimmings. I highly recommend it.