As some of our readers may be aware, I used to write camera reviews for another well-known website. The camera reviews were always very popular, but the most popular article on the entire site was my 2009 review of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ38. Well now we'll see if lightning can strike twice, because today I'm taking a look at one of that camera's successors, the DMC-FZ48.
It's not quite the direct successor; in between the two models was the 2010 DMC-FZ45, a very similar camera to the FZ48 but with a 14.1-megapixel sensor. Panasonic's FZ series has been the benchmark for high-powered superzooms for most of the past decade, with a dozen models between 2002's DMC-FZ1 and today's camera. It's possible to trace a clear progression of advancing technology through this series of cameras, with longer and longer zoom lenses, ever more powerful sensors and the addition of extra features such as HD video and stereo audio recording.
It's very unusual for an FZ model to take a step backwards, but in this case Panasonic has abandoned the FZ45's 14.1-megapixel sensor in favour of a less powerful 12.1-megapixel chip for the FZ48. There's really only one reason why Panasonic would have done this, and that's to improve overall image quality. The FZ45 did meet some criticism regarding high-ISO image noise and overall poor performance. Panasonic is presumably hoping that using a less crowded sensor will restore some of the FZ models' excellent reputation.
In most other respects the FZ48 is almost identical to its predecessor. The body design of the FZ cameras hasn't changed all that much since the 2007 FZ18, but it's a simple and efficient design that works well, and as the saying goes, if it ain't broke, why fix it? It has a nice comfortable handgrip with a high-friction rubber cushion that is comfortable and secure to hold, and a textured thumb-rest on the back for extra grip. All the controls are sensibly placed and can be operated easily enough with one hand, and the buttons, while a little small in some cases, are clearly labelled and accessible. The FZ cameras have always had good handling, and the FZ48 is an easy and pleasant camera to use. It manages to be versatile without being over-complicated, and the complexity of its controls blend into an attractively elegant design.
The overall build quality is well up to Panasonic's usual high standard. The body of the camera is mostly plastic but is sturdily built. It has a metal ring around the lens barrel, and fittings such as the tripod bush, battery hatch hinge and strap lugs are metal too. The plastic panels are well put together, and the camera feels strong and durable despite its relatively low weight. At just under half a kilogram it's a camera you could have hanging round your neck all day without discomfort.
The FZ48 has both a monitor and an electronic viewfinder, with a button to switch between the two. While its senior stablemate the FZ150 boasts an articulated monitor, the screen on the FZ48 is fixed, but it's a big 7.5cm unit with a pin-sharp 460k resolution and an exceptionally wide viewing angle in all directions. It would benefit from a better anti-reflective surface; in bright sunlight it is hard to make out the screen without shading it with your hand. The electronic viewfinder is very good, bright and clear with good colour, and sharp enough that pixels are effectively invisible, although the wide angle of eyepiece lens does give a slightly fishbowl-like view. It has dioptric adjustment, just as well since the surround is hard enough to scratch spectacle lenses.
The FZ48 is intended to serve as a "bridge camera" between the versatility of an SLR or CSC and the convenience of a compact, and like all such cameras it's loaded with features. The most obvious is that massive lens - a 24x zoom covering a range equivalent to 25mm to 600mm - with Panasonic's acclaimed Power OIS optical stabilisation system, which is particularly good at the longer focal lengths. It's not the widest zoom range on the market; the Canon SX 40 HS has a 35x zoom equivalent to 24-840mm, but that camera is bigger, heavier and more expensive, and it's hard to imagine a situation where that extra bit more is going to make much difference.
The FZ48 offers a full range of exposure options, including aperture and shutter priority, program auto and full manual. The range of aperture adjustment is wider than most super-zooms, and even at full zoom, equivalent to 600mm, it still offers a maximum aperture of f/5.2 and a minimum of f/8. Shutter speeds from 60 seconds to 1/2,000th are available. As well as manual control the FZ48 has a wide range of automatic scene modes. On the main dial there are five program modes all of which have sub-menus of their own, and there are a further 18 scene modes available via the SCN setting, including panorama assist, panning assist and a 3D photo mode that synthesises a stereoscopic view from a series of panned shots, although you'll need one of Panasonic's impressive but pricey 3D TVs to appreciate the results.
Further automation is available from the various i-modes, including a full iAuto mode that eliminates nearly all user control, and iAuto options for ISO setting and the dynamic range booster. The camera also features Panasonic's Intelligent Resolution option, but this is really just digital zoom with bells on.
For those wanting more manual control, there are options for spot, centre-weighted and multi zone metering, single-zone or multi-zone AF, with a very good subject tracking option, as well as face recognition.
Like several previous FZ models the FZ48 offers full HD video recording in the high quality AVCHD format, with stereo audio recorded via a pair of microphones mounted on the top of the flash housing.
Despite its complexity and the sheer size of its massive zoom lens, the FZ48 is pretty nimble. It starts up and is ready to shoot in just under three seconds, and in single shot mode it can manage approximately a shot a second. In burst mode it can shoot a sequence of seven full-resolution shots in just under two seconds, and then takes only about two and half seconds to write them to the memory card, which is certainly impressive.
Focusing is very fast, accurate and reliable, even in low light and at maximum zoom. From indoors at night to outdoors on a bright sunny day there wasn't a situation in which the FZ48 did not perform brilliantly. If Panasonic was hoping that the switch back to a 12MP chip would improve performance they would appear to have been proven correct.
It certainly hasn't harmed the image quality, which is generally excellent. The Leica-branded lens is superb, producing images that are very sharp from corner to corner at all focal lengths, with none of the distortion or chromatic aberration that plagues some super-zoom lenses. The level of fine detail and image stability even at the longest zoom range was excellent, making this camera a good choice for low-cost bird-watching pictures. Colour reproduction is also very natural.
Like a lot of small-sensor, high-resolution cameras, the FZ48 is definitely at its best at lower ISO settings. It is limited to a maximum ISO setting of 1600 in normal use, and this is certainly a good idea. While image quality at 100 ISO is excellent, it does deteriorate significantly at even 400 ISO, thanks to the rather heavy-handed noise reduction system. There's not so much visible noise at 800 or 1600 ISO, but there's not much fine detail left either. See the sample shots to see what we mean.
The small sensor also limits dynamic range. Without the dynamic range booster option it clips both highlights and shadows. The booster does make a big improvement to shadow detail at least, but highlights still tend to blow out. It's no worse than most comparable compacts, but it would be nice to see what a camera like this could do with a slightly larger sensor.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC FZ48 is a brilliant camera. It is versatile, packed with features, has superb handling, takes excellent pictures in a wide range of situations, and is a real pleasure to use. If you're looking for a Jack-of-all-trades camera that really can do it all, you'd be hard pressed to find a better one at the price.
Pros: Fast performance, versatile lens, good handling, loads of features.
Cons: Heavy-handed noise control.
Next Page: Test Shots - ISO Performance.
Test Shots: ISO Performance
Above is a reduced size image at ISO 100. Below are full resolution crops.
At the minimum ISO setting there is no visible noise, but you can see the details where I forgot to dust the cars this week.
There's no real loss of quality at 200 ISO, as one might expect.
At 400 ISO the noise reduction system kicks in, losing fine details and also introducing dome colour blotches.
Further reduction in quality at 800 ISO, although the picture would still look good in a print.
At 1600 ISO the image quality is very degraded, with a lot of detail lost to the pixel-binning of the NR system.
Next Page: Test Shots - Image Quality & Exposure Evaluation
Test Shots: Image Quality & Exposure Evaluation
Here's a shot I take with every camera I review, so you can compare the sharpness and detail. See below for a full-res crop from this picture.
The excellent Leica-branded lens captures a huge amount of fine detail. Losing a couple of megapixels hasn't harmed image quality at all.
Despite its enormous zoom range the lens manages to produce almost no barrel distortion at its 25mm wide-angle setting.
Centre sharpness is excellent at all focal lengths, with lots of detail.
There's no trace of chromatic aberration or corner blurring at wide angle, although there is a little edge softness at the other end of the zoom range.
With the dynamic range booster turned off there is severe clipping of highlights, and some very dense shadows, however it was very sunny on this day.
The wide angle end of the zoom range is equivalent to 25mm, wide enough for outdoor scenes like this. You can barely see the church steeple in the middle of the frame.
Taken from the same position and angle as the shot above, this shows the power of the 600mm-quivalent zoom lens.