A couple of weeks ago I reviewed the recently-launched Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ48, a super-zoom camera featuring a 12.1-megapixel sensor, a 24x zoom, f/2.8 Leica-branded zoom lens, full-HD video recording with stereo audio and advanced optical image stabilisation. This week, just to mix things up a bit, I'm taking a look at the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150, a super-zoom camera featuring a 12.1MP sensor, a 24x zoom, f/2.8 Leica-branded zoom lens, full-HD video recording with stereo audio and advanced optical image stabilisation. Variety, after all, is the spice of life.
The FZ150 is the successor to the FZ100, which was introduced in 2010 alongside the similar but cheaper FZ45. This pair of super-zooms were intended to replace the enormously popular FZ38. The reason for the two-camera follow-up, and also the reason for the FZ48 & FZ150 double-act, is that super-zoom cameras have to some extent found themselves out of a job.
Super-zooms used to be called "bridge cameras", because they were seen as a natural half-way point between compact cameras and digital SLRs. However that role has now been largely taken over by compact system cameras, not least Panasonic's own G-Micro system, and compact camera zoom lenses have been getting more and more powerful, which leaves the traditional super-zooms looking a bit redundant. They're too bulky and expensive to compete with travel cameras, and lack the image quality to compete with CSCs.
Panasonic's response has been to split its super-zoom series between two models; the FZ45 and FZ48 have a lower specification and a lower price for the mass consumer market, while the FZ100 and now the FZ150 are aimed at more demanding photographers. They have pretty much every feature that it's possible to cram into a camera, but at a much higher price. The Lumix FZ150 has an RRP of £469.99, although by shopping around you can find it for around £370. By comparison you can buy a Lumix DMC-GF3 compact system camera, complete with 14-42mm lens, for around £340, and a Nikon D3100 DSLR with a kit lens will cost you around £400. So why on Earth would you want to buy a super-zoom?
The one-word answer is versatility. The FZ150 is packed with so many features that to get the same degree of versatility out of a DSLR or CSC you'd have to buy at least three different lenses, and probably an HD camcorder as well, while the FZ150 can do it all straight out of the box. When you look at it in those terms the price tag doesn't seem quite so daunting.
The FZ150's core specification is essentially the same as the FZ48. It has the same 12.1-megapixel high-sensitivity MOS sensor (a reduction in resolution from the 14.1MP FZ100). It also has the same excellent 24x zoom, f/2.8 - f/5.2 Leica-branded lens, equivalent to 25-600mm. It features Full HD 1080p video recording with stereo audio recorded via two microphones mounted on the top of the flash housing. It even has the same monitor, a very nice 7.5cm (3in) screen with 460,000 dots, although on the FZ150 it is fully articulated, pivoting around a swivelling hinge on the left side.
The overall body design of the FZ150 is also very similar to the FZ48, but this should come as little surprise since Panasonic has kept to basically the same body design for all its super-zoom cameras of the past five years. However if you put the two cameras next to each other the differences are obvious; as well as that swivelling monitor, the FZ150 is larger in every dimension, with a more rounded shape, especially the shape of the top panel.
The handgrip is slightly larger, with more clearance between the grip and the lens barrel, and the mode dial is not so crowded by the side of the flash turret. There are fewer crease lines than the FZ48 and the seams between the body panels appear smoother and better finished, but the most obvious difference is the inclusion of a flash hot-shoe, a relatively rare feature among super-zoom cameras.
Panasonic's build quality is excellent as ever, and there's no denying that the FZ150 has that "proper camera" feel, an important factor considering its intended demographic. It looks and handles more like an SLR than a normal super-zoom, and the addition of the focus selector and an extra zoom control to the side of the lens barrel amplifies this impression.
Like the FZ48 the FZ150 has a full range of manual exposure options, including full manual exposure adjusted by a control wheel under the right thumb. It also has a wide range of automatic scene programs, as well as a scene mode with even more options. Naturally it offers spot, centre-weighted and multi-zone metering too.
Although the FZ150 plainly has many similarities to its cheaper sibling, it also has some significant differences, and it is here that the main strengths of the camera lie. It is aimed at more capable photographers, and its extra features reflect this. One that will particularly appeal to enthusiasts is the inclusion of 16-bit raw mode shooting, as well as raw plus JPEG, something found on very few super-zoom cameras. The option to process and edit raw image files is highly prized by creative photographers, since it allows a wider degree of exposure and colour adjustment in post-processing, records greater colour depth and eliminates the loss of detail caused by JPEG compression. The camera comes with SILKYPIX Developer Studio 3.1 SE software for processing raw image files.
Other extra features include a normal maximum ISO setting of 3200, expandable to 6400. Oddly however the FZ150 has a slowest shutter speed setting of 15 seconds in manual exposure mode, where the FZ48 can time exposures to 60 seconds.
In terms of overall performance the FZ150 is extremely impressive. It can start up and take a picture in well under three seconds, and in single-shot mode it can take approximately one shot a second in both JPEG and raw modes, although in fact this is slightly slower than its predecessor the FZ100. It has a wider range of burst mode settings, and higher performance, than either FZ100 or the FZ48, and can shoot at 2fps continuously, 5.5fps for 25 frames, or 12fps for 12 frames in both raw and JPEG modes and at full resolution, or 40fps at 5-megapixel and JPEG mode, or 60fps at 2.5-megapixel and JPEG mode.
The autofocus system is extremely fast and reliable, with very good low light performance, focusing just as quickly in twilight as in full daylight. It has a very bright and well-focused AF assist lamp with a range of about four metres, and focuses with this very quickly even in total darkness.
When I reviewed the FZ100 I expressed some concern that the relatively small 895mAh battery might not be up to the task, but having owned an FZ100 for over a year I can report that this fear was unfounded, and I'm pretty sure the FZ150 will prove equally impressive. I shot well over 200 pictures and some short video clips with it over the course of a week, including a lot of zoom use and flash shots, and the battery indicator was still showing a full charge.
If you want to sell a camera to a photography enthusiast whose other options are a DSLR or a CSC, then it's going to have to deliver some excellent image quality. The FZ150 has a very small 12.1-megapixel 1/2.3in sensor, but it is a sophisticated MOS design, and has seen a reduction in resolution from the slightly noisy 14.1-megapixel FZ100. The results you can see for yourself in the accompanying sample shots, but suffice to say they are very good indeed.
The lens more than lives up to its prestigious Leica label, producing almost no barrel distortion, and with some of the best corner sharpness I've seen from a super-zoom camera. Image noise is also surprisingly good for a small-sensor camera, with no visible noise at 400 ISO. At 800 ISO the noise reduction does soften a lot of the finer detail, but the results are still printable. The NR gets a bit heavier at 1600 and 3200 ISO, but the results are far from disappointing.
Video quality is harder to test objectively, but in my opinion the results were at least as good as a dedicated camcorder, shooting smooth, clean video even in low lighting conditions, with fast and reliable continuous AF. Sound recording was also very good, with excellent stereo separation, and the automatic wind cut works well too.
Super-zoom cameras have a much smaller place in the market than they used to, and despite its incredible versatility the FZ150 is a fairly specialised camera. It's intended for the photographer who wants the capabilities of a multi-lens CSC or DSLR kit, but all in one package, and topped off with HD video. It's an expensive camera, but if you want one camera that really can do it all, this is the one you're looking for.
Next Page: Test Shots - ISO Performance >
Test Shots - ISO Performance
Here's the full scene of the usual two Jags at 100 ISO. These images were shot under tungsten studio lighting, using custom white balance.
At the minimum ISO setting there is no visible noise and plenty of fine detail.
Not much difference at 200 ISO. In fact if anything it's slightly better.
Still no noticeable problems at 400 ISO.
The noise reduction kicks into high gear at 800 ISO, softening the image and losing some very fine detail, but image quality is still very good.
Noise reduction is a bit more heavy-handed at 1600 ISO, but the results are still printable.
3200 ISO, and the image quality does look pretty bad, with blotches of random colour and little detail.
This is the full frame at 3200 ISO. At this resolution the damage doesn't look too bad.
Next Page: Test Shots - Detail Resolution >
Test Shots - Detail & Resolution
Here's a shot that I take with every camera I review, the west window of Exeter cathedral. Click through to download the full-res version, or see below for a full-size crop.
As you can see, despite the slightly cloudy conditions the FZ150captures an extraordinary level of detail. This was shot in JPEG mode; in raw mode it's even better.
The superb Leica-branded lens produces almost no barrel distortion even at wide angle.
Centre sharpness is excellent, as expected.
Corner sharpness is among the best I've ever seen from a non-DSLR camera, and there's almost no chromatic aberration either.
The tiny sensor does begin to show its weakness in this high contrast shot, with murky shadows and burned-out highlights, but to be fair I've seen a lot worse.
Next Page: Test Shots - Colour & Zoom Performance >
Test Shots - Colour & Zoom Performance
Colour rendition is as good as we'd expect, but the council could have made more of an effort with the flower bed this years.
The articulated monitor makes it easy to capture well-composed shots discreetly.
The wide angle end of the zoom is equivalent to 25mm. Take a good look at this scene, because before the end of the year most of the buildings in this shot will have been demolished!
The telephoto end of the zoom is equivalent to an impressive 600mm. What's more impressive is that this was taken hand-held at a shutter speed of 1/125th, with no trace of shake thanks to the outstanding image stabilisation.
Macro focusing is quick and accurate; this was at a range of about two inches.