Friday, January 4, 2013

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ35 Review


In the early years of digital photography, superzoom bridge cameras were all the rage, thanks in part to the expense of dSLR's. If you were limited with a small sensor, you might as well have make lemonade out of lemons by adding more zooming power, which is something that Panasonic has been doing for quite some time. The market moved on; first came the lower-end dSLR's à la Nikon D40, and then m4/3 and the Sony NEX cameras. You can buy a large sensor camera today for the what a superzoom camera used to cost.

The Panasonic DMC-FZ35 is an older camera in a long line of Panasonic super-zooms. This camera was released in September, 2009, superceding a  number of cameras before it, and in turn, being replaced by the FZ40/45 and most recently the FZ60. However, considering that the majority of camera owners are not serious enthusiasts, this camera is actually representative of what's actually out there in the closets of real-world camera owners: a less expensive device that is a little bit out of date, and by no means cutting edge technology. If you spend your working day being non-productive on DPR's forums it's easy to forget that. However, this was a well-received camera for its day, and as is often the case, the easiest way to longevity is to be good from the get-go.

Consumer-level cameras tend to be refreshed every year, if not sooner, so the number of upgrades and improvements since has been incremental, but steady. Panasonic used to differentiate between their more serious-enthusiast compacts that used the larger 1/1.7" sensors over the less expensive cameras using 1/2.33" sensors, but the lines have gotten blurred over time as different permutations of sensors and lens combinations were issued. Still, the models with three digit numbers are higher spec'd than the ones with two digits. (If you are reading this in Europe, the FZ38 was a re-badged version of the FZ35). The FZ35 runs on a 1/2.33" 12.1mp sensor hooked up to Panasonic's Venus V engine. Driving all of that is a f/2.8-4.4 27-486mm full-frame equivalent zoom lens. The modern equivalent would be the DMC-FZ60, which has essentially similar specs but a modern modern sensor and image processing engine (goes to ISO "6400") and adds even more zoom. A step up would be the DMC-FZ200, which has a constant f/2.8 lens.



The camera is lightweight but solid feeling, which is in keeping with its price point. The grip is nice and deep and it has a notice in the front to wrap the middle finger of your right hand around. However, as well designed as it is, it still feels a bit too small for comfort. I don't think that's a result of this size of camera, as similar Fuji compacts in this price range seem more comfortable to hold. Note the petal hood that is included with the camera: it's surprisingly solid for the price range, and is seems gigantic compared to the camera itself. Also note the decent stereo microphone on top of the camera, making this a nice vacation video camera. (In fact, this particular camera has travelled across the world a number of times by now, and as far as I can tell, the owners tend to use it more as a video camera than a stills camera.)


The layout of the controls are familiar if you've handled any Panasonic camera of late. I'm not a fan of the on/off switch, or the toggle between shooting and playback, as these switches are small even for a camera this size, and while not flimsy feeling, don't have a solid feel. If you remember the DMC-LX3, this camera has a similar toggle/joystick controller for aperture/shutter/exposure compensation: it's easily the my least most liked thing about this camera, and I'm glad that later models graduated to a proper control dial. Overall, everything works okay, but compared to more modern hardware, the speed and responsiveness of the camera to button presses and menu selections seems lackadaisical at times.

ISO 80, f/5.6, 1/320s

The problem with cameras of this sort is that the small size of the photosites makes for a very limited dynamic range. Highlight clipping becomes a common problem in a lot of situations, and in my opinion, this, more than the high ISO noise, is what detracts from the quality of a compact camera. As you can see in the shot of our fine-feathered friends, the whites of their bellies are completely burnt out; there's no information that can be rescued there in post processing. This was taken in the mid-afternoon, and to be honest, the quality of the light wasn't as harsh as the camera is making it out to be. If the camera could only do pictures like this, I would have written it off and stopped writing right about here. Read on, however...

With a zoom ration of 18x, you're going to be playing with the zoom lever a lot. In fact, I would say that it's a temptation to overuse the zooming power, but this part of the equation lives up to the bill. Below is a shot of Steveston Harbour looking east to Mt. Baker. Except for some contrast boost to the mountains, this is more or less what the camera produced. The colours are natural looking, but a little bit on the saturated side as per usual with compact cameras. However, the overall tonal rendition is natural-looking without looking over-processed (more like Nikon, less like Sony). Don't be fooled by the water: that's not texture smearing, that's how the water actually appeared the day I shot this. It was a magnificent afternoon, with the river being perfectly still and the air so crispy and clear that you could see for miles.

ISO 80, f/2.8, 1/320,

Zooming all the way in, you can get a better view of  Mt. Baker over in Washington state. The exposure for this shot needed work, as the JPEG came very flat out of the camera, being a combination of the exposure meter not quite getting the scene right and the lens losing some contrast at max zoom. Viewed at 100%, chromatic aberration is visible in all of the hard edges of the buildings and ships, but is not as predominant as you'd think it would be... probably because the camera is already applying correction. The buildings in the foreground are about 4-5km away from the Steveston docks. Mt. Baker in the background is about 80km further. At this focal length, the distance that gets compressed into the shot is enormous: at 100% it's surprising to see how many seagulls are captured in the image simply because of the sheer volume of space that is being compressed into the shot.

ISO 80, f/4.4, 1/250s

Facing the other way towards the west, here is a wide shot of Steveston Harbour. Steveston village in Richmond, B.C. is the real life shooting location for Storyville from ABC's Once Upon a Time. During fishing season you can buy fresh fish right off of the boats; and it goes without saying, the fish and chips in the village are very good. However, it's a cold place to be in the middle of winter...

ISO 80, f/2.8, 1/400s

And here we are again zoomed all the way in:


ISO 125, f/4.4, 1/125s

Going east along the boardwalk towards the old canary buildings in the shot below. You'd expect the shadow rendition to be noisy and not worth touching in a camera like this, and you'd be right. However, I was able to do a bit of shadow recovery with this shot without too much fuss. The out of camera rendition did okay with the far elements of the following picture, but the near elements did better with a little bit of shadow lifting in post processing. Compared to the contemporary FZ60 and FZ200, the FZ35 shows its age, but not so much in terms of outright sensor performance but in terms of the improvements that the newer Panasonic cameras have made in JPEG processing. If you are familiar with the LX-3 and earlier Panasonic cameras, you'll remember that older models lagged the competition in the sophistication of how JPEG's were rendered. The FZ35, while not terrible, is by no means great. It's not so much noise as it is noise suppression that's the problem, and the difference between old and new cameras is probably not that great with RAW output, but there is about a one-stop difference in terms of noise suppression artifacts between the newer and older camera. If you promise to not pixel peep, it won't make that much of a real-world difference, honestly. However, just to reiterate, the smoothness of the water in this shot is not because of noise suppression, it was because it was an usually still day.

ISO 125, f/2.8, 1/30s

Another reason why the FZ35 is not that far behind the contemporary FZ60 is because it uses as CCD based sensor. The differences between CCD and CMOS have been hashed over many times on the internet, and while it's a backlit CMOS world now, during the era of the FZ35, CCD has the best choice for small-sensor cameras. Panasonic actually took a step backwards when the introduced the FZ100 with a MOS sensor.

One of things about having a lot of zoom on a compact camera is that it means that you can have lots of macro power as well. This is definitely something that you can't get at  reasonable price on a dSLR, as most telephoto zooms also have longish minimum focus distances as well.  Macro photography inevitably means wristwatch porn. Who am I to argue with that trope? So here goes:

ISO 80, f/2.8, 1/40s

In the above shot, we can see that the camera does a nice job of zooming in on the watch movement. Being a small sensor, the camera doesn't render metallic highlights as well as a more "serious" camera, but I think it could have done a bit better with more even lighting. This is by no means the closest that we can go:

ISO 400, f/2.8, 1/13s 5mm

This is not a crop! Well, actually it is... There are two macro settings, one normal and one "macro zoom". The camera is rated to 0.4" minimum focus distance at wide angle, with the practical limitation is that the lens barrel starts blocking the lighting. The minimum focus distance increases as you zoom out, but the "macro zoom" setting locks the lens in the wide position and then adds digital zoom on op of that. So essentially, it's the same as cropping into the photo. At this extreme amount of magnification, the limits of the small sensor are apparent. You can still make out the the subtle grain in the the balance wheel bridge, but we're dealing with the limits of the optics and sensor here. Still... you are missing out on this kind of close-up photography if you have a dSLR system with no dedicated macro lens.

Used prices for this camera however around $250 CDN for typical models. Asking prices will vary considerably because the owners of these cameras are, as a rule, are not following the camera market as closely as the serious enthusiast crowd. If the camera has been taken care of well, there's not much that can go wrong with the caveat that you should be on the guard for dust that has worked its way into the lens barrel. During the on-off cycle, and when you zoom in and out, the lens acts like a bellows that pumps air (and dust) in and out of the camera. If there is any visible dust on the inside of the lens, it's not catastrophic: in fact, it's not even that noticeable on most pictures. However, I would pass on any used camera with visible internal dust, as there is no cost effective way to clean it unless you yourselves are willing to disassemble the camera.

What strikes me about the FZ35 is that its the sort of camera that my dad would probably have given me if I were a kid today. He had his film SLR, I learned to shoot on something more modest until I graduated to his camera. If you find a FZ35 now, it's the perfect kids camera... it's not too expensive, but it's very capable for them to explore all of its photographic possibilities. For adults, it's still a good casual camera for vacations, or if you want to do some distance work without going to a heavier dSLR kit. For a modest amount of money, you can have a multitude of photographic tools... reasonably wide, very long, very close, stills and video.

Pros


  • Lots of zoom range, more than enough focal length
  • Excellent optical stabilization
  • Good Lens resolving power
  • Natural, but not necessarily accurate looking colour rendition
  • Amazing macro capabilities
  • Competent video capabilities

Cons


  • Small sensor: noise and dynamic range are issues
  • Lots of noise reduction and smearing when viewing at 100%
  • Chromatic aberration, especially at long focal lengths 
  • Slow (by modern standards) responding controls
  • Focus speed with moving objects
  • Tiny buttons. Joystick controller is a pain
  • Small grip

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