Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT4 review

Pros

  • Extremely rugged
  • Good features
  • Fast Performance

Cons

  • GPS unreliable
  • Poor battery life
  • Weak flash

A few years ago if you wanted a waterproof compact camera your choices were either an Olympus mju Tough, one of the Pentax's W-series, or the overpriced but unbelievably rugged Ricoh G-series. However, as with every other type of camera, all the other manufacturers have now jumped on the amphibious bandwagon, and you can now buy waterproof compacts from Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fujifilm and of course Panasonic, whose Lumix DMC-FT4 I'm looking at today.

With such a lot of competition the specification of waterproof cameras has improved markedly in recent years, with many of them offering similar capabilities to their land-based siblings. The FT4 features a 12.1-megapixel high-speed CCD sensor, an internal 4.6x optical zoom (28-128mm equiv.) lens with a maximum aperture of f/3.3-5.9, a 6.7cm (2.7-in) LCD monitor and full HD video recording in MP4 or AVCHD formats. It also features a built-in GPS system to automatically geo-tag your pictures, as well as a compass, altimeter and barometer, but we'll come back to these later.

Features and design

Like most "ruggedised" cameras the FT4 is fairly large and heavy. It measures 103.5 x 64.0 x 26.5mm and weighs 196g including battery and memory card, almost twice the weight of a typical pocket compact. Also in common with the breed the overall appearance is rather macho, with a metallic-coloured shell, exposed (but purely cosmetic) hex-bolt heads on the front panel and a chunky chrome box surrounding the lens. Despite its butch pretensions, it's not an unattractive design, and the control layout is sensible and practical. The buttons on the rear, including those for the zoom control, are quite small and I had some difficulty operating them while wearing gloves, but the shutter button at least is large and easy to use. The body design incorporates a small handgrip and the camera is easy and secure to hold. The FT4 is available in blue, black, white or the orange shown here.

Unsurprisingly for this type of camera the overall build quality is fantastic. The body is mostly metal and is immensely strong. It has a single waterproof hatch covering the battery, the SD card slot and the HDMI and USB sockets, with a locking latch to prevent accidental opening. The FT4 is one of the toughest adventure cameras on the market, waterproof to a depth of 12 metres (40ft) and able to withstand drops of 2m (6.6ft). Its main rivals in this respect are the Olympus Tough TG-1 (£309) and the Pentax WG-2 (£229), both of which can match it for depth. Like a lot of adventure cameras the FT4 also claims to be "freezeproof to -10 centigrade, but as I've repeatedly pointed out, most normal digital cameras are perfectly fine in sub-zero conditions as long as you protect them against condensation and keep the battery warm as best you can.

GPS feature

One of the FT4's key features is its built-in GPS receiver. It's far from being the first camera to offer this; it's been included on travel cameras from several manufacturers for a number of years. It's a potentially useful feature, automatically tagging the EXIF data of your photos with latitude and longitude information, so you can pinpoint where you were when you took the shot. The FT4 adds to this information with a compass heading for the direction the camera was pointing, and altitude information as well, supplied by built-in sensors.

In practice, however, I found that the GPS receiver in the FT4 was very unreliable. I stood in the open in a large plaza in Avignon, France for about 15 minutes, holding the camera still under a clear blue sky while it tried to get a satellite signal, but it repeatedly failed to do so. In fact, it failed to get a satellite lock for the entire week I was in France, and as a result tagged all my holiday photos as having been taken at Topsham Yacht Club in Devon, England, and at an altitude of 72m below sea level. I think the compass heading was fairly accurate though, so there's that at least.

The GPS sensor system is also very power-hungry. Leaving it on will drain the battery completely in as little as a day of average use, and unless it's deactivated in the menu it remains active even when the camera is switched off, which means that when you next come to use your camera you'll find the battery is flat. Somebody really hasn't thought this idea all the way through. To paraphrase Heisenberg, you can determine your position or take pictures all day, but not both.

Performance

Apart from the lacklustre GPS feature, the FT4 performs extremely well. The start-up time is a little slow at five seconds, surprising for an internal-lens camera, but the shot-to-shot time in single shot mode is approximately 1.1 seconds, which is nice and quick. The FT4 has two continuous shooting modes, a full-resolution burst mode that can shoot six frames in approximately two seconds, and a high-speed continuous mode that can rattle along at 10fps for up to 100 frames, but only at 2MP resolution.

The autofocus system is very good, focusing quickly and accurately even in dim light or with moving subjects. Unfortunately, I didn't have the opportunity to test it underwater, but I've seen well-focused submerged shots taken with it. Panasonic's Power OIS stabilisation system has repeatedly proven itself to be extremely effective, and managed to cancel out shake even on shots taken while canoeing.

The FT4 can shoot full HD 1080p 50i/25p video, recording in either MP4 or AVCHD formats. Video quality is extremely good, and the single internal microphone is also surprisingly directional, with a digital wind cut feature that actually works.

Image quality

One might argue with some justification that picture quality isn't the primary goal of a camera such as the FT4; it's that fact that it can take pictures where no other camera can that's important. It certainly can produce good results; the 12.1-megapixel CCD sensor provides reasonably good dynamic range and plenty of fine detail, and colour reproduction in good light is excellent. The lens quality is surprisingly good for an internal periscope-type device, with excellent sharpness right across the frame and very little optical distortion. Noise control is about average for the class, with good results at up to 400 ISO but severely reduced image quality at 800 and 1600 ISO.

It does have a couple of drawbacks though. First, the compression algorithm is unexpectedly poor, producing visible compression artefacts despite the relatively large size of the JPEG files (around 4.5MB). Second, the glass cover that protects the front element of the lens tends to make the pictures a bit soft. It also picks up finger marks and other dirt that will reduce the clarity of your photos, and it is very prone to sun flare in bright conditions. The built-in flash is also surprisingly weak, with an effective range of only about three metres and poor frame coverage at wide angle.

Verdict

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT4 is an amazingly rugged camera that can take pictures and video under conditions that would destroy any normal compact. It can dive deeper and fall higher than almost all of its competition, and still manages to retain most of the performance, photographic quality and versatility of its land-based brand-mates. It has, in theory at least, some very useful features for the adventuring photographer, however in practice they are less useful than they might appear. The GPS system is unreliable at best, and drains the battery very quickly. It'll spend most of its time switched off, which brings into question why one would pay extra for something that is going to see little use. Other than that though, the FT4 is a great little camera for anyone into active outdoor sports.

Next page > ISO noise test photos

As usual the following ISO test shots were taken indoors using tungsten studio lights and manual white balance, with +.33EV exposure compensation. This shot shows the overall test scene.

f/5.6, 0.3sec, 100 ISO. At minimum ISO the image is free of noise, but there are some jagged lines visible along diagonal edges. Poor anti-aliasing, or JPEG compression problems?

f/5.6, 1/6th sec, 200 ISO. At 200 ISO the image is still largely noise-free, but there is a hint of colour distortion in the green area.

f/5.6, 1/13th sec, 400 ISO. At 400 ISO some noise is starting to creep in, but overall quality is still good.

f/5.6, 1/25th sec, 800 ISO. As expected, at 800 ISO the image quality takes a hit as the pixel-binning kicks in to reduce noise.

f/5.6, 1/50th sec, 1600 ISO. At maximum ISO the image quality is pretty poor, with both colour and detail problems.

Next page > Distortion and detail test photos

The FT4 has a Leica-branded lens which produces little wide-angle distortion.

Centre sharpness is good, although lacking a little in contrast.

The corners are a little soft, but there's no chromatic aberration.

Here's the usual detail comparison shot that I take with every camera. See my other camera reviews to compare it to other models.

Here's a full-scale crop from the above image. As you can see the FT4 can produce plenty of fine detail.

Next page > Sample photos

Dynamic range is slightly above average for the class, with burned-out highlights but some shadow detail.

As usual with this type of camera, unless the glass lens cover is spotlessly clean it does reduce contrast and introduce glare problems. Download the full size version.

The FT4's built-in flash is surprisingly weak, leaving this scene rather dark. Don't worry, the girl in the middle isn't naked under that accordion, she's wearing shorts. Download the full size version.

Despite its few flaws, the FT4 is an ideal camera for all sorts of outdoor activities. Download the full size version.

Next page > Specifications

Manufacturer and Model

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT4

Image sensor

1/2.33-type CCD sensor / 12.5-megapixels (total)

Max. resolution

4,000 x 3,000 pixels

Zoom

4.6x optical, 4x digital

Focal length (35mm)

4.9 - 22.8mm (28 - 128mm in 35mm equiv.)

Maximum aperture

F3.3 - 5.9

Shutter speeds

60 - 1/1300 sec

Auto-Focus

Contrast detection

Manual focus

N/A

Exposure control

Program AE, manual (min/max aperture)

Exposure metering

Intelligent multiple zone

Image stabilisation

Power OIS (optical stabilisation)

ISO range

100-1600 (HS mode 1600-6400)

LCD monitor

6.7cm (2.7in) TFT LCD, 230K dots

Viewfinder

N/A

Flash

0.3 - 5.6m Wide, 0.3 - 3.1m Tele, ISO Auto

Drive modes

Single, burst, continuous (at 2MP)

Image formats

JPEG

Video

Full HD 1080 50i, MP4/AVCHD

Memory card slot

SD/SDHC/SDXC

Supplied memory

Approx 20MB

Battery

940mAh Li-ion rechargeable

Ports

Micro HDMI, AV output, USB 2.0

Dimensions (W x H x D)

103.5 x 64.0 x 26.5 mm

Weight (body only)

Approx. 197g with battery and SD memory card

Accessories

Wrist strap, manual, software CD

Software

PHOTOfunSTUDIO 8.1 Advanced Edition

Warranty

12 months