Panasonic's TZ series of compact digital cameras have always been remarkable in that they cram long-range zoom lenses into comfortable, portable camera bodies. Cameras like the Panasonic Lumix TZ5 simply offered specifications that other manufacturers could not match: nine megapixels, a long 12x optical zoom, a 28mm wide-angle lens, and high-definition video mode. Still, there's always room for improvement, and Panasonic has created a new model to push their line of fully-loaded compact cameras even further: The Panasonic Lumix ZS3.
The 'ZS' line will be taking over for the 'TZ' line from here on out (though this camera will be referred to as the TZ7 in Europe). In general, the Lumix ZS3 offers slight, but significant improvements in the major specs, increasing from nine to 10 megapixels, from 10x to 12x optical zoom, and from a wide 28mm to a wider 25mm lens. What really makes the ZS3 stand out, however, is the inclusion of a high-definition movie mode using AVCHD Lite. Typically found only in camcorders, AVCHD is a major advancement in digital camera movie modes, one we'll visit in more detail later.
The Lumix ZS3 will be available in April 2009, but we managed to get a quick hands-on preview of an early model.
While previous compact zoom cameras like the TZ5 were somewhat bulky and heavy, the Lumix ZS3 is an exceptionally light digital ultracompact. Weight was not an issue at all, and it hardly came to mind when using the camera, which was nice. Panasonic is marketing the ZS3 as a 'hybrid' camera, putting greater emphasis on the fact that it can take both digital still photos and high-definition videos. As such, video recording is afforded much greater prominence in the overall design.
The result is a big, red video record button placed on the back of the camera, to the right of the LCD display. Pressing this button will immediately launch video mode and start recording, right away. This is an idea whose time has come. Rather than sequestering video mode away on its own mode dial setting, it's easily accessible at all times. And if you want to return to still photo mode, you simply return to the shutter button. Panasonic understands that modern camera consumers aren't just shopping for a camera with video mode. They're shopping for a video/still camera, and each feature should be given equal weight and access.
Aesthetically, the ZS3 is nothing to write home about. The simple silver model I played with was relatively unremarkable, with a slight grip and smooth surface.
Though the ZS3 model I was using is an early model or prototype, I had very few complaints about its performance. Picture quality was excellent, and as you'll see from the sample gallery, the ZS3 provided crisp, vivid colors that accurately represented the scenes.
The Lumix ZS3 features Panasonic's 'Intelligent Auto' or 'iA' mode. While I was skeptical at first about its predictive power, Intelligent Auto more often than not accurately deduced the type of environment I was in, and properly adjusted the camera's mode accordingly. For example, when I crept in close to take a macro photo, the camera automatically switched into macro mode, making it possible for me to take an appropriate shot without having to dig into the camera's menu system to make adjustments. When I was by the beach, I could see the camera switching out of its normal mode to landscape mode whenever I aimed toward the horizon. The ZS3 is a smart camera, and if you're a novice photographer who'd rather not worry about such mundane mode settings, Intelligent Auto will be a godsend.
Face Recognition: Interesting, but Spotty
Panasonic has also introduced 'Face Recognition' technology with their new line of cameras, and while it's a novel (if gimmicky) idea, the implementation is still a little spotty. The Face Recognition mode on the ZS3 takes the familiar Face Detection mode one step further. Once the camera detects and focuses on a face, you can input the person's name into the camera. The idea is that in the future, the camera will remember the face of that person and when it sees them and focuses on their face, a little label with their name will pop up. The usefulness comes later: each photo is tagged with the person's name, allowing you to sort through your photo library looking for shots of that person.
The way it works is, it calculates the spacing between a person's eyes and nose. It's decent enough criteria, but results in some difficulty when people aren't looking directly at the camera, or when multiple subjects are moving around in a photo. In the demonstrations I saw, it worked fine if people were perfectly still, but as soon as anyone moved a muscle, the camera freaked out and would randomly assign a name to a face until everyone settled down.
AVCHD Lite: Important and Impressive
Prior to the ZS3, high-definition digital camera movie modes used a video format known as Motion JPEG. This provided HD video in 720p with decent quality. The downside was that Motion JPEG videos were large and would quickly fill up a memory card. Most digital camcorders that shoot in high definition use AVCHD, a video compression format that manages to maintain high-quality while substantially decreasing the size of the video file. Panasonic (along with Sony) has adapted AVCHD for digital cameras, and called it AVCHD Lite.
The new AVCHD Lite format means more video can be stored on a digital camera's memory card in better quality. An 8GB secure digital card can be expected to hold 30 minutes worth of HD video in Motion JPEG format, and 60 minutes of superior AVCHD Lite video. Audio quality is also improved, with two microphones for stereo sound recording.
The Panasonic Lumix ZS3 is a fine camera, and while it may not look very exciting, the introduction of AVCHD Lite HD video is a major step toward making digital cameras a comprehensive personal recording device, and freeing consumers from larger, bulkier, more expensive camcorders. We'll be keeping an eye on any changes or other news about the ZS3 should any surface before its release in April 2009. Currently, the suggested retail price is around $400, but surely better deals will be available this spring, once it is available.