Cameras

Panasonic DMC-ZS20 Digital Camera Review

The Panasonic DMC-ZS20 follows up and improves upon last year's dud, the DMC-ZS10.

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Introduction

The Panasonic DMC-ZS20 (also known as the TZ30 outside North America) is the latest travel-zoom compact camera from the company that practically invented the category. Panasonic claims it is the slimmest camera with a 20x optical zoom, while also sporting a new 14.1-megapixel Live MOS image sensor, 1080/60p video capability, built-in GPS, and 3-inch touchscreen LCD.

The ZS20 replaces last year's ZS10 and will be available in March 2012 for $349.99 in black, silver, brown, red, and white. Panasonic also informs us that they offer a ZS19 model, which doesn't include GPS but is otherwise identical to the ZS20, for $299.99.

Front

Front Tour Image

Back

Back Tour Image

Sides

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Top

Top Tour Image

Bottom

Bottom Tour Image

In the Box

Box Photo

In North America the ZS20 body and the following accessories are included in the box:

  • battery pack
  • AC adapter
  • USB connection cable
  • DVD-ROM
  • hand strap
  • basic owner's manual

Lens & Sensor

The lens on the ZS20 telescopes out from the body, providing an optical zoom range of 20x, with a 35mm equivalent zoom range of 24-480mm (actual focal length range is 4.3-86mm). The lens has a maximum aperture range of f/3.3-6.4, with a minimum aperture of f/8.0 across the zoom range. The lens extends several inches out from the body itself, and the telescoping segments are not weather sealed, so you'll want to make sure you keep the camera away from sand or moisture that can get inside.

The sensor on the ZS20 is a 14.1-megapixel CMOS (Live MOS, by Panasonic's parlance) image sensor. It has a gross megapixel count of 15.3, with a standard color filter array. The sensor is a standard point-and-shoot size of 1/2.33 inches across. It's a slight upgrade over last year's ZS10, which also had 14.1 effective megapixels, but was a slightly different sensor overall.

Display(s)

The rear display on the ZS20 is a 3-inch touchscreen LCD, with a resolution of 460k dots. The screen is as responsive as we saw on the ZS10, which was the same size and resolution. The LCD has an auto power function, but can be adjusted by the user depending on conditions. It features an anti-reflective coating, but we didn't notice it to be any easier to read in direct sunlight than similar screens from Canon's travel zoom model, the SX230 HS.

Connectivity

The ZS20 includes two connectivity ports behind a small plastic door on the right side of the body. The port flips open and stays open easily, exposing a mini-HDMI and proprietary USB port. The USB/AV port allows you to output video to a television, as well as transfer information to and from the camera itself. It's also the main method of charging the battery, as the camera can charge via USB or with the included USB-AC adapter. For those who don't want to charge the battery in the camera, Panasonic unfortunately does not list a separate charging cradle for the included DMW-BCG10PP battery.

Image Quality

Last year's Panasonic DMC-ZS10 was an appealing collection of features, cramming a 16x optical zoom lens into a compact little body that could fit in your pocket. It was an impressive feat of engineering, but it sacrificed image quality significantly with a poor sensor and a lens that restricted image sharpness. The Panasonic ZS20 is a complete reversal of the ZS10, with an even more expansive zoom range in front of a retooled and dramatically better 14-megapixel image sensor. We were impressed especially by the sensor's high ISO performance, which preserved some measure of detail while keeping noise to a bare minimum. There are some performance hitches, of course, and you'll want to read on to get our full impressions of the image quality returned by the ZS20.

Sharpness

The Panasonic DMC-ZS20 performed pretty well in our sharpness tests, lagging just behind the better superzooms on the market. The camera had maximum sharpness of over 2000 lw/ph around the center of the lens, though this fell off dramatically near the edge to around 600 lw/ph. That's still decent performance, and it's what we expect from a compact camera with such an extensive zoom range. The camera does apply a pretty standard amount of sharpening, resulting in many edges having a white halo on one side and a dark line on the other, upping contrast. This works well for broad lines, but it does tend to hinder image quality of more complex shapes, like tree branches intersecting. More on how we test sharpness.

Image Stabilization

At 1/30th of a second the ZS20 did not return particularly sharp images with a standard, repeatable low shake applied, typical of holding a camera hand-held. The stabilization system did improve sharpness significantly (by around 50%), but it was mostly the result of improving on an already poor result.

Color

The Panasonic ZS20 features four color modes: standard, vivid, black & white, and sepia. The black & white and sepia apply a pretty firm colorization (or desaturation, in the case of B&W) cast across the entire image, thus we didn't bother testing their relative accuracy. The standard and vivid modes did yield somewhat decent color accuracy, with standard being the more accurate by far. In the standard mode we saw a color error of 3.35, with a saturation level 112% of the ideal. The vivid mode is not intended to be purely accurate, but it returned a color error of around 4.9 with a saturation level of 132% of the ideal. More on how we test color.

NOTE: Because of the way computer monitors reproduce colors, the images above do not exactly match the originals found on the chart or in the captured images. The chart should be used to judge the relative color shift, not the absolute captured colors.

Color Modes

Color mode is changed on the Panasonic ZS20 by going through the camera's main menu, without the option to change it in the camera's quick menu. With the lack of color mode options, this is hardly a nuisance, though, as it's unlikely you'll want to change from standard to sepia all that often.

White Balance

The ZS20 balances for color temperature fairly well, if not spectacularly. It had some of the typical problem areas, namely the automatic white balance's inability to properly handle indoor incandescent light. The camera did pretty well when balancing for the color white, but in daylight it seemed to have trouble assigning proper RGB values through for gray areas, as they came out significantly more blue.

Automatic White Balance ()

Automatic white balance worked well on the ZS20, save for the aforementioned issues with incandescent lighting. Under incandescent lighting conditions the camera returned a white balance error in excess of 1000 kelvin. That fell sharply under temperatures that are easier to account for, with average errors of only around 200 kelvin in daylight and fluorescent conditions.

Custom White Balance ()

When taking a custom white balance measurement the camera improved significantly better. Under incandescent lighting the camera had a white balance error of only 121 kelvin on average, though again the grays were much cooler than the white error. Under daylight conditions the camera performed about as well as with the auto white balance, while test shots under white fluorescent lighting had very accurate whites, but very inaccurate gray levels.

White Balance Options

The Panasonic ZS20 features a typical collection of white balance options and presets, with settings for daylight, cloudy, shade, incandescent, auto, and custom white balance. The camera allows you to make slight adjustments to each preset, but only on a +/- 10-stop red/blue scale, which just applies a standard warm or cool cast over the whole image.

Noise Reduction

Noise on the Panasonic ZS20 was hardly apparent all the way through its ISO sensitivity peak of ISO 3200. The camera's JPEG engine (it does not provide RAW shooting) was able to very accurately diagnose and reduce noise without destroying all the fine image detail at low ISOs, though noise reduction is heavily applied at ISO 1600 and above. Small details such as text were all but gone, but the overall application of noise reduction was better than last year's ZS10. More on how we test noise.

Detail Loss

Without a variety of noise reduction levels to compare it to, it's tough to tell how much detail is scrubbed by the JPEG engine that otherwise may have been preserved. That being said, in our still life example you can see that a good measure of fine detail remains in most of our images at low ISOs, with normal size text remaining perfectly readable up until ISO 800. Beyond that the typical struggles of point-and-shoot cameras are apparent, as noise reduction is relied upon heavily to keep images clean. Your best bet at these high ISOs is to not crop too much of the image out and use images on the web only, as prints from ISO 3200 shots will not look very appealing.

ISO Options

ISO options aren't extensive on the Panasonic ZS20, with a whole-stop scale of 100-3200 available, along with an automatic and intelligent ISO option. Intelligent ISO simply selects from a range up to ISO 1600, but it accounts for both subject movement and brightness. If you go into the camera's scene menu you can also select a "high sensitivity" scene mode that allows for a maximum ISO of 6400 when absolutely necessary, but for performance sake we recommend sticking to the main ISO scale of 100-3200 when possible.

Chromatic Aberration

We found that chromatic aberration on the ZS20 was a bit of an issue, though this is common in the point-and-shoot category (especially amongst long zoom cameras like this). The camera has issues in controlling chromatic aberration, with a strong defocusing error vertically on targets with moderate to high levels of contrast. In our testing we saw this most commonly on our slanted edge target, with a blue halo on the top edge of the target complemented by an ugly yellow-orange glow on the bottom edge. In real world results the yellow-orange glow was less apparent, but there was significant blue fringing in high-contrast areas.

Distortion

While there is clearly some distortion present when shooting on the rear LCD, the DMC-ZS20 controls for this very well. In the final image (which undergoes some correction in-camera as well), we saw that at the widest focal length the camera returned a barrel distortion of around 1.5%, which is definitely within acceptable boundaries. When zooming in on a subject that distortion flipped, registering a 0.96% pincushion distortion at 44.4mm (camera's actual focal length), and 0.857% pincushion distortion at the full telephoto focal length.

Motion

The Panasonic ZS20 reproduced motion pretty well due to its 1080/60p AVCHD mode. The 60p really shone here, with sharp images and motion the blurred, but with little trailing or artifacting. The camera did suffer from some ghosting in our motion example video, but less than we typically see out of point-and-shoot cameras. More on how CamcorderInfo tests motion.

Video Sharpness

The Panasonic ZS20 performed very well, producing sharp images with its 1080/60p recording mode. We found that it was able to reproduce frequencies as high as 700 lw/ph vertically and 750 lw/ph horizontally, which is exceptional for a compact camera. The 1080/60p can be a bit of a pain currently in terms of ways to display it, as it's a newer compression format and there aren't a great deal of delivery methods. More on how CamcorderInfo tests video sharpness.

Usability

The Panasonic ZS20 is not particularly difficult to use, once you get the hang of it. The physical switches for power and shooting/playback modes are a nice touch and help stop the camera from accidentally turning on and damaging itself. The main complaint we have with the camera's design is the use of etched labels for the rear keys on the camera. Instead of clear text labels for each, Panasonic just inscribes each key with the symbol. These symbols have practically zero contrast with the keys themselves, making them impossible to read in the dark. Otherwise the camera's physical mode dial and quick menu aid usability for intermediate and advanced users, though there are simpler travel zoom cameras available for the technophobic crowd.

Automatic Features

The ZS20 includes several automatic modes that will set the majority of the camera's many settings without requiring your input. The most obvious of these is the intelligent auto mode, signified by the red camera symbol with "iA" written in the middle. This mode takes over the majority of the settings from the user, taking into account subject distance and available light to properly expose each scene.

Intelligent auto mode also can decide to employ one of several built-in scene modes to better expose a scene. The camera does this automatically when it detects certain conditions—if its face detection and registry knows it's looking at a child under 3 years, or if it's looking at a landscape or sunset, for example—and switches to that scene preset. The camera indicates this switch by changing the symbol in the upper left-hand corner of the screen. You can manually select a particular scene (calling on a slightly larger library of scene mode presets), but turning the mode dial to the dedicated "scene" setting.

Buttons & Dials

The ZS20, despite having a 3-inch touchscreen LCD panel, does not require the user to use anything but the physical hardware keys on the camera itself. There aren't a great deal of these keys, as Panasonic has elected to keep things simple as they did on the ZS10, with just a shooting/playback mode switch, four-way control panel, center OK button, and menu, display, and exposure buttons rounding out the back panel of the camera. The top plate of the camera is similarly unchanged, with just a mode dial, shutter release/zoom toggle, power switch, and dedicated video record button.

Effects, Filters, and Scene Modes

The ZS20 includes a number of built-in scene mode presets, as well as several adjustments that can be made to the overall tone of your images. You can apply some of these (scene modes, for an obvious example) prior to capture only, while some can be applied after the fact through the camera's auto retouch and creative retouch playback settings.

The menu on the ZS20 is exactly as we've come to expect from Panasonic, with both a main menu and a "quick menu" setup that allows you to select from a number of basic shooting options for easy adjustments. The main menu has undergone some basic overhauling, with text that reads more clearly now. The menu is organized into four main sections, record settings, motion picture, GPS, and system settings. Each section is just one long list of options with multiple pages. You can easily swing between pages by using the zoom toggle, or scroll down options individually.

Instruction Manual

The Panasonic ZS20 includes a printed basic operating instruction booklet to get you started with the basic functions of the camera. For a more in-depth explanation of the camera's many modes and features, there is an advanced user's guide available on the included DVD-ROM. You can also download the manual for the camera online, though as of this writing it wasn't yet available on Panasonic's website.

Handling

The major change in design from the ZS10 last year to this year's DMC-ZS20 is the addition of a smooth rubberized material that now covers the large part of the front protrusion. This provides considerably greater grip for the user to hold onto, though the material doesn't provide much in the way of friction. It's ultimately more comfortable to hold, with the shape of the grip remaining largely unchanged. The back of the camera features a small section of raised dots in the body of the camera, providing just enough purchase that you feel secure when shooting the camera with a single hand.

Handling Photo 1

The buttons on the ZS20 have remained almost completely unchanged from the previous model, which is both a gift and a curse. The keys each give off a nice, audible click sound when depressed indicating that they've been engaged. The rear four-way control pad has had slight indentations applied to the four corners, better separating four possible directions you can push on.

The major disappointment is the return of etched labels on the keys themselves, as they are nearly impossible to read except in very specific light. This leads to plenty of mistaken key presses and time spent staring at the back of your camera rather than taking photos. Altogether the camera handles quite well for a compact body, though you'll definitely want to use two hands and stabilize the camera against something solid whenever utilizing the full effect of the 20x optical zoom range.

Handling Photo 2
Handling Photo 3

Buttons & Dials

The ZS20, despite having a 3-inch touchscreen LCD panel, does not require the user to use anything but the physical hardware keys on the camera itself. There aren't a great deal of these keys, as Panasonic has elected to keep things simple as they did on the ZS10, with just a shooting/playback mode switch, four-way control panel, center OK button, and menu, display, and exposure buttons rounding out the back panel of the camera. The top plate of the camera is similarly unchanged, with just a mode dial, shutter release/zoom toggle, power switch, and dedicated video record button.

Buttons Photo 1

The keys themselves offer a very nice response, with an easy-to-detect click sensation indicating they've been activated. The keys are spaced out appropriately, and each has a slightly different shape so you can easily differentiate between them. The lack of clear labelling on the rear control panel is a bit of a nightmare when you want to make adjustments in a dark setting, because their etched-in symbols are impossible to read without proper lighting. Despite this, the camera is quite simple to use in many situations, but you'll want to familiarize yourself with the control layout quickly, or else you may miss a crucial moment squinting closely at the back of your camera.

Buttons Photo 2

Display(s)

The rear display on the ZS20 is a 3-inch touchscreen LCD, with a resolution of 460k dots. The screen is as responsive as we saw on the ZS10, which was the same size and resolution. The LCD has an auto power function, but can be adjusted by the user depending on conditions. It features an anti-reflective coating, but we didn't notice it to be any easier to read in direct sunlight than similar screens from Canon's travel zoom model, the SX230 HS.

Image Stabilization

At 1/30th of a second the ZS20 did not return particularly sharp images with a standard, repeatable low shake applied, typical of holding a camera hand-held. The stabilization system did improve sharpness significantly (by around 50%), but it was mostly the result of improving on an already poor result.

Shooting Modes

The physical mode dial on the Panasonic ZS20 lets you select from a variety of creative, automatic, and manual shooting modes, including program auto, manual exposure, aperture priority, shutter priority, creative control, 3D shooting, scene mode, intelligent auto, and two custom user-savable modes. The amount of control isn't staggering, but it's right in line with other high-end travel zoom cameras that fall just short of the enthusiast-driven camera series.

Manual Controls

The ZS20 allows users to take partial or full manual control over exposure settings, setting aperture and shutter speed as they need. The camera is capable of shutter speeds ranging from 15-1/2000th of a second (manually selected), and an aperture range of f/3.3-8.0, though that shrinks to f/5.9-8.0 when zoomed all the way in. The camera also provides control over ISO sensitivity, with an automatic setting and whole-stop selection ranging from ISO 100-3200 (1600-6400 in high sensitivity mode).

Recording Options

The ZS20 is capable of recording images with a maximum resolution of 14.1 megapixels (4320x3240). The sensor natively provides an aspect ratio of 4:3. The camera lets you select image sizes almost anywhere between 14 and 0.2 megapixels, with ratios of 4:3, 3:2, 16:9, and 1:1 available. Like other cameras in this class the ZS20 does not provide RAW shooting, recording images in JPEG with "fine" and "standard" quality available.

Speed and Timing

One of the high points of the ZS10's performance was its shot-to-shot time, a performance element that continues on the ZS20. The DMC-ZS20 will feature a full-resolution burst mode of up to 10fps (maximum of 10 frames), shot with an electronic shutter. The camera also features a high-speed burst mode which can shoot 40fps at 5 megapixels or 60fps at 2.5 megapixels. In addition the ZS20 has the typical self-timer modes, and features slower burst shooting modes of 5fps and 2fps that can continually track a subject, keeping it in focus.

Drive mode is set on the ZS20 by going into the main menu and finding the "burst" setting under the [REC] menu (these are also available in the quick menu). This will let you select the type of burst to be employed, including the speed and resolution of each image, or whether to turn burst off and return to normal shooting. When recording a burst of images, regardless of whether they're full or reduced resolution, the entire group is kept together in playback, so that you can see the entire group played back at once. The camera will also let you see individual images, and group playback isn't available when using the GPS area play function.

We found that the Panasonic ZS20 did live up to expectations with up to 10fps shot-to-shot speed in a 10-shot burst. Unfortunately, that was only for at most 3 shots in the middle of that burst. On average the speed across the 10 frames came out to around 8.5fps, with some variation. The fastest shots were, indeed, only 1/10th of a second apart, but the camera could not keep that pace up for the entire burst.

The ZS20 includes only the simplest of self-timer options on the camera, which can be accessed by pressing the left key on the rear control pad (with the etched stopwatch symbol). The camera only allows for selecting either a two- or ten-second burst, with no custom options or interval timers available.

Features

Like the ZS10, the Panasonic DMC-ZS20 includes just about all the major features you'd expect in a flagship compact camera: touchscreen control, 3-inch LCD, built-in GPS, expansive optical zoom range, and 1080/60p recording. While the zoom range, 3-inch LCD, and 1080/60p recording are all welcome, we have to question the utility of the built-in GPS. While we can envision a day where a camera's GPS is as good as the one you've likely got in your pocket with you already, the ZS20 isn't quite there yet. In the end, it amounts to mere ornament that hardly functions and rarely provides much usability.

Effects, Filters, and Scene Modes

The ZS20 includes a number of built-in scene mode presets, as well as several adjustments that can be made to the overall tone of your images. You can apply some of these (scene modes, for an obvious example) prior to capture only, while some can be applied after the fact through the camera's auto retouch and creative retouch playback settings.

Recording Options

The Panasonic DMC-ZS20 features full HD video recording, with options for AVCHD 1080/60p (28Mbps), 1080/60i (17Mbps), and .MP4 1080/30p (20Mbps) recording. The sensor output in AVCHD modes is a full 60p, while that drops to 30p in the 1080/30p .MP4 settings. (In the PAL model, the TZ30, the framerates are 50p, 50i, and 25p respectively.

You can also record in 720/60p (AVCHD, 17Mbps) and 720/30p (.MP4, 10Mbps), with the PAL model recording in 50p and 25p, respectively. Users wanting smaller video files can also record VGA video in .MP4 30p (4Mbps). The camera also features high speed video recording options, with QVGA (320x240) resolution at 220fps in Motion JPEG. Find out how the performed in our video image quality test./r:link_to_content

Video Controls

There isn't much in the way of manual control when recording video on the Panasonic TS20, though you do have the use of autofocus and optical zoom control. The camera doesn't feature a dedicated video record mode, so it will generally inherit whatever settings it can from the still mode you were using prior to beginning a video.

Auto Controls

The TS20 allows users to begin recording a video at almost any time, with the only exception being the camera's 3D shooting mode. This means that certain creative settings such as the camera's creative control mode and color modes will continue on functioning even while the video is being recorded. This includes, for the most part, exposure settings, though the camera is obviously limited in what exposure it can use while recording a video. There is no manual override for exposure, however, and certain other functions (subject tracking, flash, etc.) are not available when recording video. When recording video in the intelligent automatic mode, the camera will automatically apply certain preset scene settings to cope with the scene.

Zoom

The camera's zoom functionality is slowed significantly when recording video, in order to provide a smooth transition from wide to telephoto focal lengths. There's no exposure control that we can find, though the camera does seem to inherit some of the same exposure settings when you switch from still photography to recording video by pressing the dedicated record button on top of the camera.

Focus

Focus on the ZS20 is handled continuously while recording video by default, though you can deactivate this if you like by going into the motion picture submenu in the main menu. This doesn't necessarily set the camera to focus on single press, as it seems to simply maintain focus at whatever plane it was at prior to the video beginning.

Exposure Controls

Aperture and shutter speed are automatically set when recording video in all modes, including manual exposure mode. ISO is not specified in the manual, but the camera seems to enhance gain where necessary to achieve an appropriate exposure in most modes. Without a dedicated video record mode (and no ISO option in the motion picture submenu), there's no way to know exactly what ISO setting is going to be employed.

Audio Features

The Panasonic DSC-ZS20 includes a stereo microphone on top of the camera, but no real control over audio input while recording video. There is a wind cut feature in the motion picture menu, however, that will help to reduce the rustling noise captured when wind passes over the mics.

Mic Photo

Conclusion

The Panasonic DMC-ZS20 (or TZ30, outside of North America) is a travel zoom model that manages to fit just about everything you might ask for into a compact camera that can fit easily into a jacket pocket or purse. It has a 20x optical zoom lens, new 14-megapixel image sensor, 3-inch touchscreen LCD, optical stabilization, and built-in GPS.

If you're skeptical, we don't blame you. That sounds an awful lot like the promise of last year's ZS10, which featured most of the same features save for a 16x optical zoom lens and a practically identical body. The ZS10 looked impressive on paper, but landed with a thud in the market due to poor image quality, bad high ISO performance, and a relatively useless GPS feature.

The GPS is still practically useless unless you're standing in a wide open field (the non-GPS ZS19 is probably a better option for most buyers), but the image sharpness is vastly improved, the high ISO performance is much better (though still stick to low ISOs when you can), and the 20x optical zoom lens provides serviceable image quality. Color accuracy took a big hit, however, but we're impressed by the improvements made in the lens. We wish there were more creative features and a little more fine control in the camera, but there's always next year.

Panasonic clearly took the poor reception of 2011's DMC-ZS10 to heart in designing the ZS20, improving in all the key areas that last year's model was lacking. Even the handling is improved with a rubberized coating over the grip—though good luck keeping it stable hand-held when zoomed all the way in. Overall it's a better sensor and better lens that's designed to compete in a segment of the market chock full of new long zoom, compact cameras.

Altogether the Panasonic DMC-ZS20 is a fine camera, an extended zoom model that doesn't sacrifice too much in key areas (color accuracy and lens performance) while surpassing our expectations in others (high ISO performance). For a camera that provides a very attractive combination of size and zoom range, you can live with its faults if you take advantage of its strong points.

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