Panasonic began their compact travel zoom series way back in 2006 with the TZ-1. Subsequent models in the TZ and ZS lines have always married a relatively small body with a very useful zoom range and many high-end features, like manual modes and custom functions. The ZS20 builds on the success of the ZS10, but brings an even longer 20x optical zoom with nano surface coating to the table. While other major features, such as the 14 megapixel MOS sensor and touch screen, remain the same, the new ZS20 has been restyled to be quite a bit thinner and slightly lighter despite the longer zoom. There is also a ZS19 out there, which features the same specifications as the ZS20 but without a GPS. With competition heating up from the likes of Sony’s HX30v, Canon’s SX240HS, Nikon’s S9300 and Fujifilm’s F770EXR, however, are the ZS20’s modest upgrades enough to stay competitive? Read on to find out.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20: Body and Design
Without question, the ZS20 is a well-built camera. There isn’t any metal beyond the lens assembly here, but the matte-black plastic body is sturdy and doesn’t give at all under pressure. The camera itself is, we think, also a little more attractive than its predecessors. Past cameras’ styling has seemed utilitarian more than style-conscious, and while the ZS20 doesn’t make any bold statements its understated curves bespeak some class. It is still a very boxy and thick camera despite the slimmer cut, however, so women might want to test it out in their pants pockets before buying.
The front of the camera has a styled, slightly raised grip along the right side that does a decent job of grabbing your middle finger. It may be a tad understated, but any bigger and it would make the camera’s footprint larger. There’s also a small inset flash and the enormous 20x lens, which has a diameter about as tall as the camera itself (it even humps up a little at the top above the lens). That hump most likely houses the built-in GPS unit, which has its own small LED status light, and the left and right microphones. We do wish the mics were a bit further apart for better stereo sound definition. Other than these noteworthys, the usual mode dial, shutter button with zoom toggle, movie record button, and on/off switch round out the top.
The back is actually quite sparse for a high-end compact, probably due to the use of that 3-inch touch screen. Panasonic's usual Shooting/Review switch makes an appearance in the upper right, followed by anExposure/Map button below, a 4-way controller with Menu button in the middle, and a Display button and Quick Menu/Trash button along the bottom. It all comes together quite nicely and even the HDMI port and battery door don’t seem too flimsy. Well done, Panasonic.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20: User Experience and Performance
As expected for a camera of this class, the ZS20 has an array of modes and settings that make it the photography enthusiast’s portable camera of choice. With the full range of manual modes, two different custom function modes, a 3D Mode, iAuto Mode, and Creative Controls, there’s something here to appeal to everyone. Aperture control is somewhat superfluous on a camera of this type because just about everything is in focus all of the time (especially given the relatively slow f3.3-6.4 lens), but full manual and shutter priority definitely come in handy. The GPS is much improved over past iterations and includes a very usable map with custom tagging; it’s quite accurate and found a signal quickly.
The Scene Mode settings include the usual portrait, landscape, panorama and night as well as some unusual ones for shooting through glass, pet portraits, and two different baby settings. The most useful arethe HDR and Handheld Nite Shot modes, which both combine multiple stills into one image. HDR combines photos taken with different exposures into a single high dynamic range image while Handheld Nite Shot combines multiple photos to average out noise in low light. HDR works quite well although may have too little contrast for some (sample right). The Handheld Nite Shot mode was a mixed bag, often producing images that had wonky colors or, due to a higher ISO to accommodate the burst, were no cleaner than a normal photo. You can leave Handheld Nite Shot enabled all the time, although it often didn’t automatically engage when we wished it would. The Creative Controls apply special effects, such as high key, pinhole (sample left), or miniature, to your photos as you taken them. They’re fun to play with and can certainly lend an “artsy” look to your images but they do take longer for the camera to process.
Overall, the ZS20’s performance is good if not great. The autofocus snaps onto the subject with impressive speed at the wide end but languishes for a second or so at the telephoto end. For such a slow and long zoom that's still impressive, placing the ZS20 in the top tier of compacts for autofocus speed. Unfortunately, the somewhat clunky software is a bit of a letdown. Switching between modes brings up a fancy graphic that always seems a second too late and there’s a lag when scrolling through the menus. There was a problem with slowness in the shooting modes too; iAuto seemed too liberal with shutter speed, choosing ISOs too low for a given light-level and shutter speeds that really require a tripod. The camera supposedly measures handshake and subject movement and chooses accordingly, but 1/5 second at ISO 400 and 480mm is a stretch. The ZS20 does have a very impressive burst feature, however, shooting up to 5fps with full-time autofocus and up to 60fps at reduced resolution. The screen freezes briefly for each shutter actuation which makes tracking a bit difficult, but it's among the best implementations you'll find in a compact camera.
The Exposure button makes changing settings in manual a snap, and using it along with the Quick Menu provides near-instant access to all of your settings. With most cameras the center of the 4-way controller functions as a menu and OK button, and it takes a while to get used to pushing Exposure instead. There were multiple times I ended up menu diving without meaning to. The touch screen is a nice addition when you want to choose something to track, but using the on-screen zoom toggle is a lost cause and I found myself inadvertently taking pictures when holding the camera. Luckily the touch functionality can be turned off. One final issue: Panasonic still insists on mapping the Review function to a different mode than the Shooting function. Pushing the shutter button in review mode does nothing, a blatant disregard for shoot priority. It’s a camera first, Panasonic, an image viewer second. These small things count in usability, and unfortunately the little issues add up.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20: Image Quality
The ZS20 camera does a really great job with its 14 megapixel MOS sensor, producing vibrant yet accurate files that have just the right amount of pop. You can set sharpness, contrast or saturation as you please in the manual modes, but they all seemed spot on out of the box. At full screen, the images have a very good amount of detail that holds up right through ISO 800. Detail such as grass, a low-contrast nightmare for most digital cameras, is well-defined at base ISO and still looks like individual blades. At 100% view the telltale signs of noise reduction, such as blurring and color mottling, are quite clear, but it will be unnoticeable at normal viewing distances. Above ISO 800 noise increases dramatically yet image color doesn’t shift till ISO 3200. It would have been nice for post processing if Panasonic had included RAW capture.
The lens performs admirably for such a long range, too. It was hard to purposely induce flare, never mind come across some in normal shooting. Perhaps Panasonic’s new nano surface coating is to thank for this stellar performance. There was also very little chromatic aberration to be found, even on back-lit tree branches. Barrel distortion is quite heavy at the wide end, however, and lines don’t seem to ever really straighten out completely (sample left). Sharpness at the long end of the zoom is markedly worse than the wide, leaving a muddy mess in place of detail, but mid-range photographs show a good degree of sharpness. There’s definitely a price to be paid for such a long zoom range, namely on the long end, but overall it may be worth the compromise.
The 1080p HD video is really impressive, showing little of the tearing or muddiness of some compact cameras. The sound recording is very good as well and the wind-cut makes a noticeable difference outside. The ZS20 does zoom during video, too, at a nice slow pace to minimize motor noise. You'll notice in the sample above that the autofocus does have some trouble at the long end as mentioned earlier.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20: Conclusion
If you absolutely need a long zoom range in a small package, the ZS20 camera is a great choice. The compositional choices opened up by such a pocketable zoom range are really liberating and are unmatched for travel. Image quality is among the best you’ll find from a 1/2.3-inch sensor, with photos looking sharp and colorful even when the light gets low. Noise smudging rears its ugly head even at IS0 100 and perfectionists probably wont be happy with performance at 100% view, yet those who don’t view their photos under a loupe simply won’t notice. There are certainly still some important strides to be made in the ZS20 regarding usability and operational speed, yet none are dealbreakers in an otherwise great travel zoom camera.
As for the competition, the Canon SX260 HS is the ZS20’s top competitor and, although missing some of the speed features of the Panasonic, has better image quality. Nikon’s new S9300, too, looks to improve upon the very good S9100 although Nikon has neglected to add manual modes. Sony's expensive HX30v also lacks manual modes and features a new unproven 18 megapixel sensor. While impressive sounding, we don’t expect very competitive results. Finally, take a look at Fujifilm’s F770 EXR, which has a larger and more capable sensor but as yet usability remains an unknown. And of course, Panasonic released the cheaper ZS15 alongside the ZS20, which loses the GPS and a bit of zoom but offers a savings.