Panasonic's FH cameras look like point-and-shoots by the numbers -- small, simple, and affordable. But we've been surprised with how well the top models in this series have performed -- notably last year's FH20 and this year's FH25, both 8x-zooming shooters with quick performance, solid images, and reasonable price tags.
The FH5, reviewed here, is one rung down the ladder from those models, and lacks the same zoom capability as a result. But it does still share most of the same components as its older brothers, and rings up at a street price of just $130 through many retailers. Read on to see if it can stand with the big boys as an affordable point-and-shoot done right.
Body & Design
The FH5 is small and very light, almost exactly the same length and width as a credit card but about three-quarters of an inch thick. It can fit into just about any pants pocket. Its body is mostly metallic-looking plastic, with a few chromed-out metal highlights along the edges.
The 2.7-inch, 230,000-pixel LCD is unspectacular, but we’ve seen similar displays on much more expensive cameras, so it’s unfair to call it a flaw. Playback does look a bit grainy and it washes out easily in the sun, but that’s pretty much par for the course at this price point. The layout to the right of the screen is standard. There’s a four-way selector with some direct access keys; a few buttons to switch modes, change the info on the display, and access a quick menu; and a sliding switch to toggle shooting and playback modes. Controls are pretty sparse up top, too, featuring only a sliding power switch and a shutter release with a zoom tilter (plus what looks to be a tiny microphone aperture).
A Leica-branded 28-112mm (4x zoom) lens sits up front (it can effectively extend to 5x with the Intelligent Zoom function, a software-based trick that doesn't seem to hurt the image quality). It’s unclear whether Leica actually produced this lens -- they’re close partners with Panasonic on a number of other projects, so they may well have made it, or they could have simply licensed their name for its use. A small in-body flash and an LED focus-assist lamp sit next to the left of the lens. On the left side of the camera, a rubber flap covers a micro USB hookup. The door for the battery and memory card slots, as well as a plastic tripod threading, sit on the bottom of the body.
Performance & User Experience
For a $150 (or under) point-and-shoot, the FH5 is a quick camera. It powers up and is ready to shoot in under two seconds. Autofocus is admirably fast and accurate, even in fairly dim indoor settings. Shutter lag is barely an issue once it has locked focus, and shot-to-shot times are pretty quick too. There’s not really a burst mode to speak of -- one spec sheet we read indicated that it can crank out 4.4 frames per second in continuous drive mode, but we were never able to replicate that. It could reliably take about one shot per second, and occasionally a few more than that, but don’t count on it.
Speed was a big reason why we liked last year’s FH-series shooters so much, and it’s arguably the best part about this year’s iterations as well. Is it an ideal action shooter? Far from it, but it’ll do pretty well getting shots of kids during playtime, even if they’re indoors.
Shooting is almost totally automated here, as we expected. Panasonic’s reliable iAuto mode will do all the heavy lifting for users who just want to point and shoot, nothing more, and still get good-looking results. The standard Auto mode allows adjustments to ISO sensitivity, white balance, autofocus mode, and the like. It’s like a Program mode with a less-intimidating name. There are 28 scene presets and effects, too, including portrait, landscape, night portrait, pinhole effect, so on and so forth. Users can assign one preset to a custom My Scene slot in the mode menu.
The menu system is fairly easy to navigate. There’s a mode button in lieu of a mode dial; switching around is slower, but we didn’t need to change very often, so we found that it hardly matters. The Quick Menu offers one-touch access to the adjustments that mattered the most (aside from those with direct access on the four-way pad), and the regular Menu offers deeper control, which makes sense. A dedicated video record button would be a nice addition, and it seems to be more common to find them on even cheap cameras these days, but honestly, we didn’t miss it too much.
Our chief complaint is that the autofocus and zoom motors churn constantly, grinding like a dentist’s drill. It’s a noisy little guy, and though there’s nothing wrong with a loud camera, it’s always disconcerting to hear that noise coming from any electronic gadget.
But all told, we’re pretty happy with the way that this camera operates, considering its very reasonable price tag. Nothing new or novel, nor anything that a few extra dollars can’t improve, but not bad at all.
The FH5’s battery is rated for 260 shots per charge. We took about 220 shots in our review period and the battery still had some juice left in it. That’s pretty impressive. Batteries tend to be an easy place to reduce manufacturing costs, so kudos to Panasonic for taking the high road and giving us some extra power. It uses a standalone charger, too.
Image & Video Quality
In general, the FH5 takes decent pictures. Nothing is horribly wrong or ugly, even if the best shots are serviceable at best. They’re usually well exposed, as long as the dynamic range in the shot isn’t particularly challenging. Colors are somewhat muted, but accurate. And thanks to the optical image stabilization, shots are usually pretty crisp. The frequency of blurry shots in dim settings obviously increases compared to bright settings, but we’ve tested enough cheap cameras recently to know that the FH5’s hardware-based stabilization makes a big difference compared to the cheaper, software-based stabilization that tons of cheap cameras use.
The lowest ISO settings are clean enough to use for big prints. Noise really starts to appear around ISO 800, though shots retain their color saturation. Any higher than that, noise really becomes apparent and colors lose all their richness, but details aren’t too terribly garbled. While we wouldn’t recommend making prints with shots at the top ISO setting (1600), they’ll work for Web sharing. We can’t help but think the shots would be better if Panasonic had kept the pixel count lower (no point-and-shoot ever needs a 16 megapixel sensor, it’s just ridiculous), but we had expected much worse.
A small handful of other image quality issues popped up during our testing, but nothing out of the ordinary for a camera like this. Most obviously, the FH5 tends to blow out highlights (the brightest areas of a picture), even when the darkest parts of the picture aren’t so shadowy. The most obvious real-world consequence is washed-out blue skies from time to time. This makes it even tougher to get eye-pleasing shots when there actually is a huge disparity between the darkest and lightest sections of the shot.
The FH5 shoots 720p high-def video. Movie mode seems like a bit of an afterthought here, though it certainly never hurts to have it. There's no dedicated video record button, as many cameras have these days. Optical zoom is unavailable while shooting. Quality is just OK at best. Videos look a little grainy on playback, and there's some noticeable stuttering when panning.