Sunday, June 7, 2009
Panasonic Lumix FS7 Review
There have been a few questions about this camera showing up in various forums in recent weeks and so far not much in the way of reviews, so I thought I'd share my first impressions of Panasonic's latest ultra-compact here. This won't be a thorough review but for what it's worth I am a professional photographer who has sampled a fair few digital compacts over the years, so hopefully my humble opinion might be worth something to someone.
To put this in context I shoot professionally with a Nikon D700 and D300, and I own a Pansonic Lumix LX3 as a back-up / carry-around camera (I am very, very impressed with the LX3 by the way; having something that fast and wide in my pocket is a boon, and on more than one occasion has made me wonder why I bother bringing my 12-24mm Nikon to a shoot). The LX3 is such a great little performer that when I came to buying a point & shoot for my girlfriend (who is fussy about image quality but doesn't want too many buttons to worry about) I headed straight for the svelt little FS7, which uses the same Venus IV processor as the LX3 and has Leica branded glass. I won’t bother listing all the main specs here as if you’ve found this review you already know them. I’ll just try to give you my impressions of the camera’s main points. Here goes nothin’.
Out-of-the-box impressions are good. Despite its tiny size and incredible lightness the FS7 feels good in the hand - there is just enough bulk to let you know you are holding a camera, albeit one that would fit comfortably in a tobacco tin. The FX7 has a solid metal body and a good amount of screws holding it all together. The sealing around the lens is tight and the tiny hinged door covering the USB input is solid and satisfyingly spring-loaded. The only less than substantial element of the body is the battery / card compartment cover, which appears to be exactly the same slightly plasticy device that blemishes the (otherwise tank-like) LX3. The tripod mount placed is way, way off centre, but that’s par for the course on a camera this small and shouldn’t bother anyone likely to be using it.
The 2.7” LCD occupies the bulk of the rear, with well spaced buttons providing instant access to the usual oft-used functions such as self-timer, flash modes, macro and exposure compensation. These four buttons are grouped around the menu/set selector, and double as left/right/up/down keys when navigating through the menu. There is also a seperate recessed ‘mode’ button, which accesses the camera’s two shooting modes (Intelligent Auto and Normal Picture – more on them below), a chunky slider for switching between Review and Record, a button for cycling through the information displayed on screen (shutter speed, aperture and ISO are all acounted for, and there’s also and handy gridline option) and a quick menu / delete button. All in all there are a mere 9 button on the rear, making the FS7 a pleasingly uncluttered device, even for someone with gorilla thumbs like myself. The top of the camera has an off / on switch, a good sized shutter release mounted within a solidly sprung zoom ring and (this I love) a little red rubber button which instantly switches the camera to Intelligent Auto no matter which other mode you’re in. It really is instant too – press it and hey-presto, you’re in idiot mode. This is a like an emergency scramble button for when something is happening too fast and you just want the shot, no matter what. A nice addition.
It doesn’t take long to explore the menus of the FS7 – this is a camera which (as that IA button implies) wears it’s point-&-shoot credentials on its sleeve. Panasonic have kept its tricks to a minimum, but those it knows it performs well. Pressing the mode button in Record mode displays options for Intelligent Auto, Normal Picture, My Scene, Scene Mode and Motion Picture. Here’s what they do:
This is idiot mode with frills. Panasonic IA uses scene recognition technology to guess what you’re pointing the camera at and then picks its own Scene Mode accordingly. It’s not 100% bomb proof but its guesses right most of the time. Point the camera at something up close and the little macro flower appears on the screen, wave it at a landscape and the mountain icon appears. Stick it on a tripod and point it at a dark street it stops up and slows its little shutter obligingly, etc etc. It’s worth noting that in IA mode and Normal Picture mode the FS7 will keep its shutter open for a maximum of 8 seconds; for anything more than that you need to use the ‘Starry Sky’ Scene Mode, which offers speeds of 15, 30 or 60 seconds. Once again, this camera sings ‘point & shoot’ from the rooftops. While in IA mode the only functions you have control over in the shooting menu are picture size/aspect, burst mode and colour mode (i.e. film effects, which I’ll go into below). You can also disable flash if you want to. For control over anything else (ISO, white balance, exposure comp. etc) you’ll need Normal Picture mode.
This is a great mode for people (like my girlfriend) who are just discovered that mastering concepts like ISO, white balance and exposure compensation can vastly improve your shots, and it’s where the FS7 comes into its own. It basically offers all the hands-on potential of your average ‘P’ mode, minus the abilty to actually programme shift. Hitting the ‘quick menu’ button brings an array of options to the top of your screen: image stabilisation (off, focus or constant) burst mode, AF mode (face recognition, 9-point or single area), white balance (the usual options plus custom set – kudos Panasonic for including that) ISO, picture quality LCD brightness. (This last feature includes an option called ‘LCD high angle’ which configures the brightness and contrast of the display in such as way as to make it visible when holding the camera over your head in a ‘crowd shot’ manner. And it works, too.) Colour mode is for some reason stashed away in the main menu, so you’ll need a few more clicks to access the FS7’s Natural, Vivid, B&W, Sepia, Cool and Warm film effects. The main menu also offers three choices of Aspect Ratio (4:2, 3:2 and 16:9), which is a truly useful feature. I can’t say the same for the ridiculous gimmick which allows you to turn the on-screen focus icon into a love heart, a flower or a star (no, I’m not joking - do Panasonic really think this will sell cameras?). The exposure compensation button allows a margin of plus or minus 2 stops; pressing it twice begins up an auto bracketing scale with options for 1/3, 1/3 or a full stop adjustment each way. It’s a very useable function too; in bracketing mode the FS7 cracks off its three-shot burst with impressive speed. In short, in Normal Picture mode this camera allows the user fast, unfussy control of all the main point & shoot controls plus a few more besides. The menu system is intuitive and uncluttered, and in the unlikely event that you do get yourself in a tangle in the heat of the moment you can always cut your losses and reach for that emergency IA button.
This is simply a space where you can store your favourite preset from among FS7’s intelligent scene modes (listed below). It allows you to access your chosen mode with a couple of button pushes instead of having to cycle through sub-menu to find it. Don’t mistake this function for anything like a custom preset, it’s not.
The FS7 has 25 intelligent scene presets. All the usual suspects are present, as well as a few surprises such as a ‘Transform’ mode which makes the subject appear slimmer (is this really what we’ve come to) and ‘High Sensitivity’ mode that boosts the ISO to 1600 and 6400. Like all point & shoot presets these modes are for the most part worse than useless. The portrait mode, for instance, fixes the ISO at 80, which might work fine outdoors in bright light but be so handy in, say, a restaurant. Likewise ‘Beach’ mode merely sets the colour to vivid, while ‘film grain’ just turns the ISO to 1600. (Panasonic describe the effect as ‘blasted with sand’, which doesn’t say much for how they view the FS7’s ISO performance.) Note: I’m sure a lot of people will find these presets useful, but being a photographer by trade I’m genetically inclined to loath ‘scene modes’ for the dumbed-down, creativity-killing brain wasters that they are. I mean really, is it so hard to work out that using a flash won’t help to illuminate Sydney Harbour Bridge at night? Or that you turn up the ISO in dim light? Sigh. Ok, moving on...
The FS7 shoots motion picture with audio at three quality settings, the highest of which is 848 x 480 pixels (WVGA) with an aspect ratio of 16.9. The lower quality VGA (640 x 480 px) and QVGA (320x 240 px) are both shot with an aspect ratio of 4:3. Zoom and exposure are both fixed and stay the same from the point when the shutter is pressed. I’ve tested the video in WVGA mode only in a dimly lit room, and the quality is surprisingly good – crisp and clear, with good, accurately rendered colour and no discernable frame jerking. According to the manual the FS7 will record video to a maximum of 2 GB. Set to WVGA and with a 2 gig card in, our unit displayed an available recording time of over 16 minutes.
This is the bit where proper camera reviews usually insert loads of pictures of watchfaces and packets of coloured crayons blown up to 500%. You’ll have none of that here, I’m afraid; just a pro snapper and erstwhile magazine picture editor’s humble opinion, which is this: the FS7 produces damn fine photographs. An image stablised Leica lens with a sensible zoom range, that Venus IV engine proven in the LX3 and a conservative pixel count of 10 MP all count for something, and good old Panasonic know-how does the rest. The focal length (33mm to 132mm equiv) is sensible and comes in useful for everyday snapping, offers nothing special in terms of wide or tele capability. Personally I like point & shoot compacts to start wider, but that’s just me. What’s of more concern is that when zoomed in to the max the FS7’s aperture, which starts at a respectable f2.8, becomes limited to f5.9. It’s a good thing it has such good image stabilisation, or this could be limiting for unsteady hands in anything other than bright conditions. It also means you have to work hard to get any sort of selective focus / depth of field from the FS7. You have to be practically on top of your subject to get any real background blur. This works best in Macro mode, in which the lens will close-focus from around 3cm at its widest setting.
The FS7 offers ISO settings from 80-1600, and an Intelligent Auto ISO function which takes care of it for you, basing its decisions on light levels and subject movement, and allows you to set where it maxes out. Low ISO performance in particular is very impressive indeed for a camera of this size and price bracket. At ISO settings of 80, 100 and 200 resolution is eye-popping and images are flawless but for some rare instances of very subtle and near invisible yellow chroma noise in shadows at 200. At 400 edges do start to deteriorate slightly, but detail is still excellent and with noise manifesting only as a subtle ‘film-like’ grain I’d still happily use this setting for editorial photography without hesitation. At 800 the yellow chroma starts to become an issue, and at 1600 it’s everywhere, although still fine for casual snaps (incidentally the LX3 suffers from this yellow blotchiness at high ISO settings too, but not to the same degree as the FS7). At high ISO settings grain is fine, even and natural-looking. All in all an impressive little performer in low light conditions. I’ve posted some sample images on Flickr to give you a very rough idea if ISO performance. I know the samples are far from ideal and you can’t blow up the images, but its the best I can do for now (it’s the middle of the night here, I have no idea at all why I’m doing this). So anyway, for what it's worth:
ISO 1600 (note yellow chroma noise)
Good detail capture at ISO 200
Please note the images were hand held at shutter speeds of around 1/10 – 1/15 (it's late, I'm lazy) so probably best if you don’t use them as a benchmark for sharpness etc. As I said, far from ideal. I’m happy to whack up some better sample FS7 images later on if anyone’s interested.
I’m afraid I haven’t had the opportunity to extensively test the WB settings on the FS7. In the short time we’ve had the camera we’ve left it in Auto White Balance mode, which after all is where the majority of users will leave it most of the time. AWB works well indoors and out, with tendency towards a slight yellow cast under artificial light (as you’ll see from the ISO samples I’ve linked to above). What’s most impressive is the White Balance Set function, which is tucked away in the main menu but works superbly. It’s very simple to use – just point the lens at a flat white or grey area, press the ‘set’ button and hey presto, you get a screenful of accurately rendered neutrals. On my Nikon D700 I take this sort of thing for granted, but on an ultra compact point & shoot it’s a treat. It’s a genuinely useful function, and I only hope that people who buy this camera take the trouble to utilise it.
Like everything on the FS7 the little built in flash is a no frills affair, but what it does it does well. In Normal Picture mode it has four settings – Auto, Auto with Red Eye Reduction, Forced Off, Forced On. I might be wrong, but it appears to be linked to scene recognition and calibrates its output accurately according to the subject. It will light up a small room if required, but a close-up portrait will receive a wonderfully subtle wash, producing great skin tone and keeping hot spots and ‘forehead bounce’ to a minimum. Likewise the classic sunset snapshots we tried produced good results, with the FS7 exposing correctly for the subject and the evening sky. This is just as well, as there no way to adjust flash output on this camera - it’s either on or off. Once again, point & shoot all the way.
Again, no scientific tests here but suffice to say that the FS7 feels satisfyingly quick off the mark whatever it’s doing. Flick the on switch and the dinky little lens is ready of action in about 1.5 seconds. Auto focusing is fast and reliable even in low light. When in Record mode, no matter where you are in the menu system a half press of the shutter release will bring you back to the shooting screen instantly, and while there’s a second’s delay on switching from Record to Review the more important return journey is much snappier. Zooming from wide to full tele takes around 3 seconds, and the manual lists the burst rate at 2.3fps.
No cause for complaints so far - in fact it battery life seems very good considering how much we've been reviewing images on screen and mucking about with the flash. I really don't see this being an issue. (note: I previously mentioned here that the FS7 uses the same battery as the Panasonic LX3 - this is incorrect. They look almost identical, but are different units and only work in their respective cameras. Apologies if I got anyone's hopes up.)
“I just want something small that fits in my handbag, I want it to take great pictures with no fuss, I want it to look gorgeous and I want it to be easy to use” is what my undemanding girlfriend said as we headed out to the camera shops. With the FS7 she has pretty much got her wish. On paper there is nothing particularly noteworthy about this camera – no massive zoom or super wide angle, no wealth of photographic controls or mammoth pixel count – and yet as a fun, foolproof all-rounder for snappers who are fussy about end results and want more than just ‘record shots’ the FS7 will be hard to beat. This is pure, pared-down Panasonic, a lightweight pocket rocket reduced to the essence of the Lumix range, namely uncompromising image quality, intuitive controls, impressive high ISO performance and sexy, solid design. The way to get the most from the new generation of ‘intelligent’ ultra compacts is to know when when you can rely on them to think for themselves and when you need to intervene. When you do step in you don’t want to be fighting the camera for control. The FS7 can think for itself very well indeed, but it does not lock the user out of proceedings. In Normal Picture mode it encourages easy experimentation with all those ‘tweak’ functions (ISO, white balance, exposure compensation) which make a shot sing and help the user get the most from this camera’s considerable capabilities. On top of that the FS7 boasts some great little features – such as the choice of three aspect ratios, custom white balance and that instant IA button – that add to the impression that Panasonic have put a lot of thought into this great little camera. My girlfriend’s thrilled to bits with it, and she hasn’t even discovered the mode that makes her look thinner yet.
Superb image quality helped by Leica lens
Brilliant detail capture at low ISOs
Impressive high ISO performance
Effective image stabilization
Intuitive menu system
Useful zoom range
Face detection AF mode works a treat
Handy ‘instant IA’ button
Effective Auto White Balance mode
White Balance Set function
Brilliant 2.7” LCD with useful ‘high angle view’ function
Choice of 3 aspect ratios
High quality video recording
Solid build and good ergonomics
Sophisticated looks (expecially in black)
Leica lens is no speed demon, offering just f5.9 at the long end
Wide angle limited to 33mm equiv.
No great shakes at selective focus
No flash compensation
Colour mode hidden in menus
Pointless Scene Modes
Slow shutter limited to 8 seconds (unless in Starry Sky scene mode)
Once again I must apologise for the rather ad-hoc nature of this review. I ain’t no expert but hopefully this will be useful to someone, even if just to give people something to read until someone does a proper lab test. Over and out.