The idea of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX100 may seem like an anomaly at first. After all, who but professional photographers needs 12 megapixels? And don't prosumers prefer DSLRs? In short, the answer is yes, but even power users want a break from heavy zooms without sacrificing quality, which is where the compact DMC-FX100 fits in. It's the first camera to feature 12-MP resolution and a 28mm wide-angle lens. The FX100's 3.6X optical zoom, 2.5-inch LCD, and new 16-meter flash all help make this an impressive performer for $399.
For a camera so rich in features, the silver FX100, also available in black, is unassuming in design. At 6.2 ounces, it isn't the lightest camera, but its 3.8 x 2.1 x 1-inch stainless-steel chassis is still small enough to carry with ease. The 2.5-inch LCD is big enough and bright enough to see both indoors and out. The camera also features an LCD mode, which lets you choose from three brightness levels.
Navigating the interface is mostly painless, thanks to the well-labeled Select and arrow buttons that double as review, brightness, flash, and self-timer keys. With the Quick Settings feature, you can see all of the settings on the LCD, letting you quickly adjust multiple settings at once without having to take your eyes off the subject. When you're not in this mode, you have to press the right arrow instead of the center button, which isn't intuitive. We love the zoom controls, however, which include a rotating toggle attached to the shutter button and an easy zoom button to extend the lens past 3.6X to its maximum digital zoom of 7X.
You can choose among the FX100's default 4:3 screen ratio, its 16:9 widescreen option, and the less extreme 3:2 option to take photos. Even when printed on 8 1/2 x 11 paper, none of these options showed any stretching or distortion. But the wider the ratio, the more length and height you get in a photo.
Users can choose one of 21 scene modes, such as Scenery, Night Scenery, Portrait, and Baby. This may seem like overkill, but we appreciate the variety since the exposure on the camera's 16-meter flash isn't adjustable. The Night, Scenery, and Portrait modes each delivered appropriate light in our test shots, and our pictures taken in Baby mode were blur-free. (We like this feature so much we'd recommend using it on grown-ups, too.) Hi-Speed burst mode is rated for eight shots per second, which bore out on our tests. The camera also features a category playback option, so when you're reviewing photos on the LCD or included Lumix Simple Viewer, you can choose to see just the pictures Baby mode, for example.
Advanced users can manipulate almost every setting on the camera, but if the terms "AF Assist Lamp" and "Backlight Compensation" don't ring a bell, you can shoot in one of two Auto modes--Simple or Normal--and still take excellent pictures. Indoors and out, the photos we took with the default settings showed lifelike color and crisp detail. We were also impressed with the way the camera handled skin tones; in a photo of three fair-skinned women taken after sundown, each appeared glowing, not ghostly. In Auto mode, the camera's 16-meter flash produced natural light indoors, but it occasionally overwhelmed outdoor shots.
Like other Lumix models, the FX100 utilizes Panasonic's MEGA OIS (Optical Image Stabilizer) and includes two modes: One compensates for shaky hands and the other for moving subjects. On one test, we asked our subject to move, and in another we moved around while taking the picture. Without image stabilization, our headbanging subject looked blurry, but when we enabled these features we could make out the shine and curl in his hair.
The FX100 takes the guesswork out of ISO with its Intelligent ISO Mode, which detects motion and adjusts the sensitivity accordingly. Intelligent ISO gave us a clear, if artificially lit, picture of a friend sitting in a dimly lit room. When we manually adjusted the ISO, we noticed a big drop in quality between ISO 200 and ISO 400. By ISO 400, the wood table and leather chair looked grainy; at ISO 800, our subject's dark clothing appeared washed out; and at ISO 1600, the maximum setting, the outline of his body against the background looked fuzzy.
Although the camera's Venus Engine III image processor took only two seconds to start up, it took almost four to ready itself for consecutive shots. After taking just ten 12MP photos, the camera became frustratingly slow when switching modes and playing back images. Moreover, the 27MB of memory holds only three 12-MP shots at a time, so a high-capacity SD Card is essential. Once you get that, you'll be able to shoot for quite some time, as the long-lasting rechargeable battery lasts for up to 320 shots.
Shooting video was easy, and both our full-frame and widescreen 640 x 480-pixel resolution video footage of a large concert crowd looked smooth at 30 frames per second. However, when we enlarged the playback on our monitor, the picture appeared fuzzy. You can shoot at a higher resolution (up to 1280 x 720), but then the frame rate drops to 15 fps.
Advanced photographers will appreciate the FX100's sharp resolution, brilliant color palette, and customizable settings, but the noise at even low ISO levels is disconcerting. For most users, we'd recommend opting for fewer megapixels and better quality. The Olympus Stylus 780, with its shadow-adjustment technology for low-light situations, manages a very reasonable 7.1 megapixels and a 5X zoom (compared with 3.6X on the FX100) for $100 less.
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