The Panasonic FZ35 has been the most popular superzoom on this website since its release in fall 2009, so we’ve been eager to get our hands on Panny’s latest, the FZ100. It’s not a replacement, per se (that would be the FZ40). The look and feel are familiar, but the working parts got a big upgrade, allowing for an astoundingly fast burst shooting rate, quick autofocus, and 1080i HD video, to name a few features.
To put it all out there at the top of the review, the FZ100 is the most impressive superzoom that money can buy right now. But speaking of money, its $500 asking price also makes it the most expensive superzoom by about $70. Some decent dSLR kits even sell for less. The FZ100 is an excellent camera, but read on to see if this premium superzoom is in your future.
Body and Design
Like any superzoom camera, the FZ100 looks roughly like a miniature dSLR, complete with a big lens out front, a contoured grip, a viewfinder (electronic, in this case), and a wealth of buttons, hotkeys and toggles. It’s an all-around well-built camera with an intuitive yet powerful control scheme.
The FZ100 is a tad heavier than most superzooms. It’s light enough to carry around your neck comfortably but solid enough to feel like it’s made to last. The battery door is sturdy, and the cavity accommodates a hefty lithium battery, with a reasonable battery life. A metal tripod threading sits to the left of the battery door.
The 24x (25-600mm) zoom lens looks large on the front of the camera and extends several inches from the body at the telephoto setting. Up on the crest of the camera, there’s a pop-up flash with a manual release, as well as a hot shoe and stereo microphone. A rubber plug-door on the left side of the camera covers an external microphone hook-up, mini-HDMI output, and USB connection.
The tilt-and-swivel 3-inch widescreen LCD is a great touch. It’s as vibrant as LCDs come and the hinge makes shooting from odd angles (like self-portraits or low-angle shots near the ground) especially convenient. Video buffs will appreciate that the high-def videos take up almost the entire screen, without the typical black-bar sandwich seen on standard 4:3 screens. The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is a welcome feature as always, especially on a camera with such a huge zoom range (holding it at eye-level minimizes hand-shake, so long range shots are crisper more often). The EVF is high-res and is free from the pixelation seen on cheaper EVFs.
As for the buttons, hotkeys, and toggles, the FZ100 has a few more than we’re used to seeing on a non-dSLR. On the rear, there’s the standard four-way pad, a quick-menu/delete button, toggles for playback mode and display info, an EVF/LCD toggle, an AF/AE lock, and a selection wheel. Up top, there’s a mode dial with 14 selections, the power switch, a burst-shooting hotkey, a video hotkey, and of course, a metal shutter release with the zoom tilter around the base. Rounding out the control scheme is a focus-mode selector on the left side of the lens, which switches between manual-focus and autofocus modes.
Performance and User Experience
The FZ100 performs like a $500 camera should: It’s snappy and intuitive, yet still chock-full of creative potential. Start-up is very quick, autofocus is fast and accurate (as it has been with all of the Panasonics I’ve seen this year), and shutter lag is barely noticeable once the focus is locked. The zoom extends and retracts quickly, though less so in video mode. Image stabilization is quite effective at the telephoto end, though blurriness due to hand-shake is inevitable every few shots.
Menus are responsive and easy enough to navigate. Canon’s interface still takes the cake as far as intuitiveness, but Panasonic is pretty good too. The hotkeys are useful, I never had to dig too deep in a menu to adjust what I wanted to, and the level of control is appropriate for a semi-intricate camera like this. The selection wheel in particular is a boon for adjusting settings in aperture and shutter priority modes, as well as controlling the manual-focus feature (which in itself is something you don’t see too often on a fixed-lens camera).
One of the FZ100’s marquee features is the 11-frame-per-second burst mode -- that’s with a mechanical shutter, not electronic, so these are full-quality shots. It’s a blast to use, and is exceptionally helpful for capturing fast moving subjects -- I captured small animals and hyperactive coworkers, but I think the most popular use would be to shoot sports. Though it doesn’t re-focus on every shot, it does re-focus five times per second, so if your object moves unpredictably (like a squirrel or youth soccer player), the shots are still relatively crisp and blur-free.
For those who are still unfamiliar with the superzoom genre, a crash course: These cameras might look like dSLRs, but they have more in common with compact point-and-shoots. The most important factor in any camera’s image quality is the size of its sensor. The sensor in a $500 superzoom is the same size as the one in a $120 ultracompact camera. It’s important to keep in mind that we measure a superzoom’s image quality against other superzooms and point-and-shoot cameras, not against dSLRs.
With that in mind, the FZ100 takes very good photos all around. It’s easy to point the camera and snap a crisp, well-exposed shot on the first try. Most shots are keepers. Colors seem a bit blueish to me, but it’s nothing that a little post-processing can’t correct. Shots at ISO 100 and 200 are very clear. Shots at 400 are still almost noise-free, though there’s a little bit of smearing at edges that can make colorful shots look a bit like a painting. This will irritate some pixel-peepers, or at least folks who like to regularly make prints larger than 8x10 inches, but it shouldn’t be a dealbreaker for most folks. Noise really creeps in at ISO 800 and shots at ISO 1600 are quite messy.
Shots get a little bit soft at the tips of the corners, but it’s barely noticeable, and I couldn’t discern any barrel distortion along the edges. Softness also shows a bit toward the telephoto end, but that’s not a big surprise. I didn’t notice any purple or green fringing in my shots, though I've seen other sample photos where this seemed to occur.
Despite the Live MOS sensor, I don’t get the impression that low-light performance is particularly notable. I got some solid shots indoors and in dim lighting, though it wasn't a guarantee and the darkest-set photos were almost always marred by noise. In any case, the MOS sensor doesn’t hurt, and like the overall image quality, the FZ100’s low-light shots are among the best you’ll get from a superzoom.
While I’m generally happy with the IQ, two things do bother me: One, the FZ35 took better photos. It maintained details better at higher ISOs, not by a huge margin, but it’s still frustrating to see a step backward for the sake of a higher megapixel count. Two, it’s expensive relative to the image quality. It’s quite good for having such a small sensor, and the extensive feature set justifies the price, but again, a few dSLRs go for less than the FZ100 and take significantly better shots.
Video is another one of the FZ100’s attention-grabbing features, with AVCHD 1080i capabilities. That’s a mouthful, but it basically means it shoots very high-res video in relatively compact file sizes. The videos looked quite good on the camera’s LCD, but my Core 2 Duo Mac Mini running OS X 10.5 and iLife ‘07 can’t play the videos back without a ton of stuttering (keep this in mind if you’re running an older Mac -- you may want to throttle down videos to 720p motion JPEG -- but most PCs don’t have this issue once Panasonic’s software is installed). I can tell you that the zoom works during video and the motor noise is barely noticeable, and that the stereo microphone does a nice job picking up ambient noises without too much wind noise. For all else, I honestly have to defer to other video tests around the Web, which look quite impressive.
As far as superzooms go, this is among the best, if not the best one we’ve seen, all things considered. It’s a well-built camera and the performance is top-notch. Anyone could pick this up and snap away in auto mode, but discovering all the high-end capabilities is where the fun lies, and that’s even a straightforward adventure thanks to an intuitive layout and menu system. The image quality is quite good too, the best in its class this year from what I’ve seen, edging out the Canon SX30. I can grudgingly forgive that last year’s model controlled noise a tiny bit better, since the FZ100’s longer zoom and wealth of high-end features are a fair trade. Panasonic really paid close attention to the details on this one.
Since a superzoom provides unmatched out-of-the-box versatility, the FZ100 could work for many, many types of photographers. Wildlife enthusiasts, tourists (though the bulk does make it more difficult to travel with), and most obviously, any amateur sports photographer. This is a perfect camera for parents of children in youth sports. The zoom lens is powerful enough to get close-ups from the stands, and the speedy burst mode combined with the equally quick autofocus should help capture great action shots with ease -- just point it down-field, hold down the shutter, and you’re bound to snap at least one or two keepers, even in difficult conditions.
If image quality is your main concern, you’re better off spending your $500 on an entry-level dSLR kit, like the Canon XS or Pentax K-x. The zoom range on a kit lens is very limited and entry-level feature sets are relatively light, but there’s no substitute for dSLR photo quality.
As for other superzooms, Canon’s SX line is always worth a look. Its latest, the SX30, has an absurd 35x zoom range and strong image quality for a lower price, though the FZ100 is more full-featured. Panasonic’s FZ40, which keeps the 24x zoom but strips a number of the bells and whistles, is also a strong choice for much less money. But overall, if money isn’t a consideration, the FZ100 is arguably the best superzoom you can buy this year.