Friday, June 13, 2014

Launch Review: Panasonic DMC-FZ1000 First Impressions



2014 is shaping up to be the year of the 1" sensor. Sony has solidified their lineup with the third addition of the RX100 cameras. The replacement to the Fujifilm X20 (X30?) is expected to be announced on July 3 with a 1" X-Trans sensor. A wild-sounding rumor that has so far not come to fruition has been circulating that Canon will get into the act with a 1" super-zoom as well, though that sounds far-feteched given how close to the G1X Mark II specs that rumor comes to. Which brings us to Panasonic. The FZ1000 is the first of a two-pronged launch of 1" sensor cameras; first as a superzoom in the classic "FZ" DSLR-replacement form factor, and ostensibly later in the form of the rangefinder-esque LX series (DMX-LX8).

What this proves goes to show is that if you don't have a 1" sensor in the advanced-compact category for 2014, you won't be competitive. The previous standard was the 1/1.7" sensor size found in cameras such as the Panasonic LX-7 or the Canon G16. The Sony RX100 was the first to push upwards, and now everybody is following. There's little wondering why; smartphones are eating the camera industry from the bottom up, and DSLR's are continuing to push the image quality envelope for consumer devices. An advanced compact camera has to to two things: first it must be sufficiently better than a smartphone or entry level camera, and secondly, it must credibly come close to DSLR or mirrorless camera in order to maintain credibility. That's a fine line to walk. Here are the headline specs:

  • 20.1MP 1" sensor
  • 16x Zoom Lens, 25-400mm f/2.8-4 equivalent 
  • 62mm thread, no built in ND filter
  • 4K QFHD video at 30 fps
  • WiFi and NFC
  • 5-Axis OIS image stabilization
  • "Light Speed AF" with DFD focusing

There's one more spec in that equation and that is the weight: 831g; even more than the Sony RX10 of which it is ostensibly gunning for. As with the FZ200 before it, there's a lot going on here, so it's helpful to break down the moving parts.


Video


At just under $899, the FZ1000 becomes the least expensive camera to a semi-decent job with 4K video. (GoPro Hero 3+ Black doesn't count). Why that is is obvious when you add up all of the things that it either shares in common (or shares similarities to) with the GH4. Both products are born of the same research and development cycle, so naturally, there's some benefits of production scale going on here as well. It could be argued that this is also partly a by-product of Panasonic's business unit consolidation. Like almost all of the camera industry (save Canon, Nikon and Leica), Panasonic has struggled to achieve profitability in recent years. The company vowed to axe unprofitable business units within the conglomeration, but photo was apparently spared by being rolled into a single unit with video. Even if this was not the case, the GH3 developed a solid reputation as an excellent video camera, and it is only natural for Panasonic to extend that to other parts of its lineup. The downside to the FZ1000's video implementation is that there is no built-in neutral density filter for controlling shutter speeds in bight light conditions. Fortunately the camera takes 62mm filters, but this an additional expense compared to the RX10 with built-in ND filter.

Sensor


"If everybody is special, then nobody is." This is going to the hard truth of the 1" sensor era. The RX100 was remarkable because it was significantly larger than its 1/1.7" peers (and because of its audaciously high price). To that end, the FZ1000 should be a significant jump in performance over the FZ200. The problem with that is that there is a corresponding increase in size, weight and price. To be honest, 1" sensors are "large", but they are still small compared to m4/3 and APS-C. There image quality comes close to those types of cameras, but there's precious little in the way of depth of field isolation. For many people, especially those looking to get off the gear-acquisition DSLR-train, the FZ1000 will be "good enough," but hardcore DSLR aficionados will be reluctant to give up the image quality that they are used to, especially in terms of dynamic range and across-the-frame optical crispness.


Lens and Focusing


If there is one advanatge that bridge cameras have over DSLR's, its that they make for much more affordable long-distance shooters. There is no way to cross the 400mm focal length mark on any DSLR system without spending significant sums of money; a bridge camera can exceed that with ease so long as you overlook the tradeoff in image quality. The FZ1000 picks up right where the FZ200 left off, but adds the GH4's "Depth From Defocus" (DFD) ability. The short description of how this works is that the camera can examine a scene a determine which way the focus motors need to turn in order to achieve focus lock, all without doing the back and forth hunting that a traditional contrast detect system would need. IN other words, DFD approximates the way a phase detection system works.

The long description requires a step back to the fact that Panasonic has already been producing cameras with exceptionally fast contrast-detect focusing. This is achieved through a combination of a high sampling frequency off of the sensor in combination of lens motors that are capable of very fine and rapid motion. The result is that Pansonic (and Olympus) have been able to produce cameras that are extremely quick to focus... on still subjects. Where these systems show their weakness is in tracking moving subjects and during video focusing. 

DFD is an integrated software system where the out-o-focus characteristics are mapped into the AF programming. By analyzing the amount/quality of defocus in combination with how much the defocus appearance changes with lens movement, the system can achieve a quicker and more precise focus lock.The upside to this technology is that it reduces focus hunting during video, and allows for the camera to achieve more reliable focus locks of moving subjects. However, like traditional phase-detection systems, DFD aids with calculating distance relative to the camera; it does not aid with tracking motion that goes side-to-side across the image frame., by which most cameras attempt to do by colour and pattern recognition.

It can't be underestimated how important a technology like DFD is to the superzoom bridge camera category. Most of the subjects that require long focal lengths also happen to be moving as well. This is where the sub $400 superzoom compacts  disappoint: they have the reach but not the usability. Many people look at cameras such as the FZ1000 because the alternative is spending a fortune on  a DSLR lens; this group of shooters isn't looking for the best  in terms of camera performance, but there is a minimum expectation for their needs.


Concluding Thoughts: The Problem with Price


This is a full featured camera that many will see positives in. If one were to take a purely business-like approach to it, it would certainly be good enough for re-branding as a hypothetical Leica V-Lux 5. The problem is that for all of the praise that bridge cameras have been given over the years, it's a tough market segment to be in. There are two ways to look at a camera such as the FZ1000. For the features that you get, the price is not unreasonable, especially when compared to the RX10. The problem, though, is that the bridge camera segment has suffered and continues to suffer from a lack of market space. An entry-level DSLR or mirrorless camera costs significantly less than the FZ1000, but the camera itself does not offer a significant size or weight savings or the more advanced DSLR's. Yes, it does have more zoom capability, but for many people that is answer that they aren't looking for. The entry-level crowd wants small and light and cheap all of which do not describe the FZ1000. The hardcore DSLR crowd wants performance and features, which the FZ1000 has, but the price is problem again, as this group of photographers is forever saving up their limited funds for "that next lens acquisition." In other words, the bridge-camera in theory is a great concept, but that in itself has not been enough as of yet to elevate it above the surrounding market circumstances.

The deeper issue is that the FZ1000, the RX100M3 and the impending LX8 are all pricey cameras. Compared to their predecessors, you are getting more, but you are also paying more. That's not progress. There is a temptation in business to go for the premium end of the market where the margins are higher, but when everybody does that the advantages disappear and the competitive dogfight begins anew. When everybody keeps inching upwards, the consumer loses, as the public's spending dollars are limited. To illustrate how far the FZ1000 has drifted upmarket, have a look at this review of one of its distance predecessors.

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