If you can't decide whether you want a digital camera that shoots wide landscapes or zoomed-in close-ups, Panasonic's new Lumix DMC-FZ18 offers a stratospheric focal range that should help you cover all the angles. With a Leica-branded, 18X optical zoom lens, the FZ18 boasts the equivalent of a 28mm to 504mm range on a 35mm film camera, letting you go wide or go long with just a toggle of the zoom ring. It's our favorite ultra-zoom digicam.
Lumix DMC-FZ18 Design
Though the FZ18 comes in silver or black, the black version makes the mini-digital SLR-like body seem more professional. Though some users will like the FZ18's small build, we found it too Lilliputian for our big hands yet not small enough to stash in our coat pocket. Buttons are also tiny on this camera, and accessing the menu as well as some of the settings can be tricky.
On the plus side, the mode dial is well positioned on top of the camera, as is the silver shutter button encircled by the zoom ring at the end of the handgrip. A small joystick on the back of the camera is helpful for flipping through pictures in playback mode or scrolling through settings. The 207,000-pixel, 2.5-inch LCD screen was about average for this class of camera, but the fuzzy, 0.4-inch electronic viewfinder took some getting used to. Overall, though, the FZ18 was very easy to use, with its speedy Venus Engine III image processor virtually eliminating shutter lag.
Features for All Photographers
While the FZ18's main attraction is its 18X zoom, Panasonic has packed this camera with a range of features that should appeal to many skill levels. More advanced photographers will appreciate that the FZ18 can shoot in the RAW file format. Beginners will be drawn to the camera's Intelligent Scene Selector, which recognizes what type of scene you're shooting and automatically sets the appropriate shooting mode. Though not 100 percent accurate, it sped up and often improved our picture-taking experience.
Face Detection, which sets focus and exposure when it recognizes a human face, was also a welcome addition here, as was Intelligent ISO control, which adjusts ISO and shutter speed when it detects subject movement. We were annoyed, though, that Panasonic made the MEGA OIS (Optical Image Stabilization) and ISO settings harder to access by removing their dedicated buttons and putting them inside the menu system.
Lumix DMC-FZ18 Stabilization
To stabilize your shots when zooming in at the full 18X, the 8.1-megapixel FZ18 features Panasonic's tried-and-true MEGA OIS, which helped us decrease blur in long-range shots we took of a tugboat chugging along the Hudson River. Though not tack-sharp at 18X, pictures were crisp enough to clearly make out the name of the ship and the back of the captain's head even though they were shot from high above the Henry Hudson Parkway in northern Manhattan. When we zoomed out to 28mm, we were able to capture the full span of the George Washington Bridge, the tugboat just a speck in the water below.
Good Overall Photo Quality
Color reproduction was rich but not oversaturated as is common on some competing consumer cameras. The lens handled mixed lighting fairly well, thanks to a fast aperture range (f/2.8-f/8.0) that produced good sharpness in the shadowed areas of our shots.
In extreme low light, however, the FZ18 struggled, producing a lot of noise, especially when we cranked the sensitivity to over ISO 800. Images captured at the maximum ISO setting of 6400 were a total mess. Our recommendation: Stick with ISO 400 and lower.
We generally try to stay away from the built-in flashes on compact cameras because they tend to wash out our subjects, but the FZ18's pop-up flash was effective without being overly harsh. In outdoor close-ups of flowers, it served as a good fill flash as well.
Sharp Video Recordings
We loved the widescreen (16:9) video setting on the DMC-FZ18, which let us capture video clips at a smooth 30 frames per second and at a resolution of 848 x 480 pixels. Video of a pair of lounging cats looked great when played back on a 23-inch monitor attached to a laptop, and it's certainly good enough quality for YouTube. One caveat, though: Although you can use the FZ18's full 18X zoom to frame your video beforehand, you can't move it once recording starts, which is frustrating.
Lumix DMC-FZ18 Verdict
If you're looking for a digital camera but can't decide whether you want one that shoots wide or long, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 will do both for you exceedingly well. Though its 18X focal range is the same as theOlympus SP-550 UZ's, this camera is easier to use and perfect for advanced beginners not quite ready to make the leap to a DSLR. Image quality from this camera when shooting at ISO 400 and below was about the best we've seen for a model in this superzoom class, with the FZ18 producing rich color and excellent sharpness even at long range.
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