Saturday, August 9, 2014

Panasonic DMC-FZ1000 Review:

You could make an argument that Panasonic products are Sony products which are "done right." Sony by philosophy and intention aims for the high ground when they are in an innovative mood. On the other hand, Panasonic is your prototypical Japanese corporation that produces high-quality and high-performance products, but often with a little bit of the techno-geekery polished into something a little more human and usable. Sony products tend to be great technological pieces, where as Panasonic products are more like great tools.

"Premium technology" was certainly the case with the RX100, which redefined what people were willing to accept in a high end compact, and which was carried forward to the RX10, which raised the bar for what an all-in-one camera could do... and cost. So it is inevitable that you cannot mention the Panasonic DMC-FZ1000 without mentioning the RX10. Sony certainly thought so, and lowered their premium pricing in advance of the FZ1000 arriving on store shelves. The pertinent FZ1000 specs are:

  • 20.1 megapixel 1/1"- sized sensor
  • 25-400mm equiv. F2.8-4 "Leica" lens
  • 5-axis lens-based image stabilization
  • 4K (3840x2160) video at 30p, 100Mbp
  • 1080p at up to 60p, 28Mbps (MP4/AVCHD)
  • 120fps slow-motion 1080p
  • 3.5mm microphone socket
  • Clean HDMI output
  • Zebra pattern and focus peaking
  • Wi-Fi and NFC

Even though these are similar cameras, the traditional pattern holds true. In most ways the FZ1000 is a more usable camera, but in some ways the RX10 has the technological edge.

Body and Design

Like many of Panasonic's previous super-zooms, the FZ1000 shares a family resemblance, namely with the GH4. That's not just in passing; disregarding the lens, the FZ1000 body is not small and is more or less the same size as the GH4 body and many of the controls are similarly shaped. Button layout allows for reasonable access without too many awkward stretches, but the buttons themselves are on the small side of things.

The viewfinder is and XGA OLED panel at, 2.36M dots. The rear LCD is 3" in diagonal and is  fully-articulated; resolution is 920K dots. In terms of performance, both displays are appropriate for this price range, but aren't at the top of the range in terms of image quality if you've been spoiled by some of the newer displays on the market.

Compared to the Sony RX10, the FZ1000 trades maximum aperture for increased focal length. The lens starts off at a maximum aperture of f/2.8, but only looses a stop at f/4. What's better is that the drop off from f/2.8 to f/4 occurs in a steady progression. However, it's the minimum aperture where the FZ1000 falls a bit short, as the lens can only stop down to f/8. By comparison, the RX10 minimum aperture goes to f/22. A usable exposure can still be achieved with the FZ10000 in sunny-16 conditions: at ISO 125 and f/8 the shutter speed would by 1/30s. For still subjects this is enough safe shutter speed if you aren't concerned about shallow depth of field, but with the lens fully extended to 400mm equivalent, this is cutting it close if you assume that the 5-axis HYBRID O.I.S. conservatively gives 3-stops of hand-holding advantage. Fortunately, Panasonic is arguably the best at lens-based systems and the the image stabilization does seem to exceed this figure, but its always best to err on the side of caution with manufacturer's claims.

Assuming normal viewing conditions, the FZ1000's will theoretically show the beginnings of diffraction limitation at  f/11 on a print with a dimension no larger than 10 inches. As the minimum aperture is f/8, this means that diffraction is never a problem with smaller sized prints. On a modern wide-screen desktop monitor or a 19"-sized print, the limit point comes down to f/8; again, just barely on the cusp.

Focus Performance and Image Stabilization

Like the GH4, the  FZ1000 uses Panasonic's Depth From Defocus (DFD) technology, which mimics the the ability of phase-detection autofocus (PDAF) to quickly determine the subject distance for focusing. The difference is that DFD is a software solution whereas PDAF utilizes hardware elements on the sensor. To achieve this, the focus and out-of-focus characteristics of the lens at all the focal lengths and apertures are mapped into the camera's programming. It then uses this information to determine the direction and distance the lens elements must move to achieve focus lock. In practice the focus performance is just a tad bit slower than what you would find with a true PDAF system (especially the Sony A6000), but the sum total of shooting with the FZ1000 is very pleasurable because of the performance of its focus system. For instance, this is an example of its motion tracking ability:

That's fairly impressive considering that the focus indicator did not drift off of the corner of the Starbucks label no matter how vigorously the cup was moved around. This ability extends to video as well, though naturally it doesn't work as fast. More important than speed, the autofocus lands on its subject precisely without hunting, and it does so with a "soft-landing" transition between out-of-focus and in-focus that is important for video work.

One thing that isn't depicted but hinted at in the above videos is how aggressive the image stabilization system is during panning motions. In Mode 1 where the cameras suppresses vertical and horizontal motions, there's a noticeable stuttering when you pan across a scene with the lens extended. This is ameliorated somewhat by switching to the second mode which predominantly suppresses vertical motion while reducing horizontal correction. Overall focus operation is a bit better than average for mirrorless/bridges cameras. Thankfully there is a dedicated focus button the 4-way controller; this reduces the number of button presses it takes to change focus area or focus mode. In this regards, most will find the FZ1000 an easier camera to set up for focus. The downside is that the buttons are a bit small, which is a common complaint for Panasonic compact cameras.

Image Quality

In terms of exposure, the FZ1000 exposes somewhat like a Nikon whereas the RX10 is closer to how Canons tend to meter situations. That is to say, the FZ1000 tends to produce a well-exposed image that is brighter-looking than the Sony but in which the subject is well-exposed. The RX10 takes a less aggressive approach to identifying the subject exposure and tends to produce something more akin to a wide-area average of the scene.

The following is an ad hoc demonstration of the camera's JPEG output quality through the ISO range. Pay attention to the legibility of the soda bottles for detail retention (or lack thereof) as the ISO value rises, speckling in the broad colour patches for overall image noise, as well as the harshness of the reflections and shadows as dynamic range decreases. These samples are not directly comparable to similar samples found elsewhere in this blog because of variable ambient lighting conditions. For each sample, the crop is taken from the center of the image with the lens set at f/4. Click on images for 100% crop view.

ISO 125
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400

There isn't much to differentiate between the RX10 and the FZ1000; the overall image quality is comparable. The Panasonic uses a less aggressive approach to noise reduction than the Sony, but this is moot if you shoot RAW.  Like the RX10,the FZ1000's "comfort point" is approximately ISO 800. Beyond this, the drop off in image quality becomes intrusive for carefree shooting, and the photographer must be mindful of technique or plan to use post-processing to clean the image up. ISO 1600 appears to be fairly clean but the softening effects of noise reduction are the same. Though neither camera is particularly good beyond ISO 3200, the FZ1000 does not lose colour saturation to the same degree as the RX10 does, at least with JPEG's. The Panasonic goes all the way to ISO 12,8000, which is quite frankly a waste of time.

What this means is that like the RX10 and RX100, the FZ1000 image quality more like a very good compact camera than it does as a DSLR competitor.  There isn't much opportunity for shallow depth of field at effects, but like the RX10, the FZ1000 lens gives a crisp rendition, especially at base ISO.

In terms of video work, the FZ1000 does produce 4k resolution at 30fps. You don't have to use the full 4K resolution to realize its benefits, as the 1080p output benefits from downsizing the 4k resolution in much the same way that downsizing a JPEG file from a larger resolution produces a crisper-looking file than a native file at the lower resolution. This isn't as great a leap over the Sony RX10 as it sounds, as the RX10 does a full-sensor readout for its video output. Because all of the pixels are read-out (versus the line-skipping approach used on other sensors) and the output is then downsized to 1080p resolution, the Sony produces equally impressive 1080p output. Disappointingly, the FZ1000 does not have an auto-ISO mode for video recording.


From Left to right: Panasonic FZ200, FZ1000 and Sony RX10.

As mentioned, it is difficult to discuss the FZ1000 without also mentioning the RX10. Though both cameras have the same mission, the Panasonic is generally the easier camera to live with. By virtue of its better lens system (constant aperture, click-less aperture control option, built in neutral-density filter, smaller minimum aperture) the Sony RX10 is a better tool for producing 1080p video. The Panasonic can make up for its deficiencies with the addition of neutral density figures, but this pushes the overall cost of the camera above the Sony. Though it is on the large size, where the FZ1000 excels is holding comfort; though more plasticy than the Sony, the camera doesn't feel heavy in your hands because the grip is ample and comfortable, whereas the it feels like you are fighting the RX10 because of its front-heavy weight distribution and smallish grip. However, the autofocus performance and the steadiness of the image stabilization make for a more marked all-around experience with the FZ1000. The Sony operates like a compact camera with a stellar (but heavy) lens welded to the front of it, but the Panasonic has a bit of the immediacy and shot-to-shot quickness that was previously only possible with DSLR's.

For example, to see how far the FZ1000 has come, one only has to compare it to the FZ200. Different cameras, different generations and different market segments... but there is a family resemblance between them.  What the FZ200 offered was a tremendous amount of zoom in a small body that was made usable by an effective image stabilization system. Because of this, it allowed for a steady optical platform for the conventional contrast-detect autofocus to work. The result was that it was a camera that actually let you utilize the full potential of its lens, making operation simple, direct and largely frustration-free. The FZ200 was (and is) a better cameras to operate than lesser superzooms like the Canon SX500 or the Nikon P600; on those cameras getting the autofocus to lock requires a steady hand and a bit of patience. The FZ1000 has the same virtuous quality as the FZ200: the specs aren't just about the numbers, you can utilize most of the camera's potential without having to struggle for it.

Concluding Thoughts

Though not perfect, the FZ1000 is one of the best implementations of the ideal of an all-in-one device. Not only is it well-featured, it is possible to utilize the capabilities of the camera without too much effort. In other words, the benefits of the camera are "transparent"... you are able to focus more on performing the task at hand rather than on operating the camera. Just like like its big brother, the GH4, the FZ1000 is a formidable video machine. We are now in an era where the traditional consumer-level camcorder is an endangered species; the FZ1000 does an admirable job of taking that place instead.

The price is not cheap, but like many all-in-one options, it is inexpensive in comparison to what it is replacing. The FZ1000 is less expensive than a DSLR with the equivalent zoom lens. Its cheaper than buying a dedicated camera and a camcorder. Its less expensive than its most immediate competitor. Those are very strong points, but at a retail price that is just under $900 USD the potential market for this camera is fairly small. Yes, there are those who will want to get off the DSLR-gear acquisition train into something lighter, but the majority of these shooters will be loath to give up the image quality that they are used to. At the same time, the FZ1000 is significantly more expensive than many of the options that beginning photographers look at. However, it is wonderful take-anywhere tool for amateur videographers and content creators: think "YouTube." If you want to know what all the fuss is about with the GH4 but don't want to invest in a premium camera and a set of m4/3 lenses, then the FZ1000 gives a taste of all that in an easy to step-into package and a relatively affordable price.

Bonus Content!

Here's what you can do with the FZ1000's stop-motion animation function. Credit: J.Peng.

With thanks to Broadway Camera

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