Cameras

Panasonic FZ150 Review

The Panasonic FZ150 is among the best we've seen in its class, with strong performance results and great handling.

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Introduction

Panasonic has a strong reputation in the long-zoom category, both for their pocket-sized ZS series and the full-sized FZ series, like the FZ150 on review here. It replaces last year's FZ100, which boasted an incredibly fast burst-shooting mode, full HD video, and a great design, as well as a knack for taking some really ugly photos in even slightly challenging settings.

The FZ100 was a bit of a misstep, sure, but with this new flagship superzoom, Panny wisely kept the baby and ditched the bathwater. The FZ150 looks at a lot like its predecessor, and parts of the spec sheet are nearly identical, including the 25-600mm equivalent 24x zoom lens, articulating 3-inch LCD, and the aforementioned burst shooting and HD video modes. But crucially, it swaps out the old junker of a sensor with an updated 12.1 megapixel MOS chip.

Everyone loves a great redemption story, and the FZ150 proved itself to be the best superzoom we tested in 2011, even if that title seems to change hands month-to-month.

Design & Usability

Big enough to fit in your hand and light enough to hold for prolonged sessions

Big cameras tend to handle well, and the FZ150 is no exception.

Big cameras tend to handle well, and the FZ150 is no exception. It's mostly plastic, but it's well built and the big, contoured grip and comfortable button placement make it easy to hold the camera steady while adjusting settings. The FZ150 can take up a lot of real estate with its zoom extended and screen angled outward, but it always maintains a nice balance. It's light enough to hold with one hand for prolonged periods, but large enough to fit two big hands.

The FZ150 also benefits from having its LCD mounted on an articulated hinge, allowing you to see if from odd angles. Articulated screens are always a great idea with cameras this large. They reduce the strain on a photographer's neck and hands, reduce the number of bungled self-portraits and odd-angle shots on a memory card, and open up so many creative shooting possibilities. The FZ150's 3-inch LCD might not be the biggest or brightest out there, but the hinge alone earned it a point in this category.

For more advanced users, the wealth of external controls cuts down the time users will need to spend trolling the depths of the menu system, but when they do, it's logical and easy to navigate. Each setting on the four-way pad brings up a tiny sub-menu for a specific setting. The Q.Menu button brings up the most common adjustments without leaving the photo preview. The Menu button brings up a tiered system including Rec menu, with more specialized controls, as well as the Setup menu for settings that don't really concern photography.

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Features

Plenty of manual control with no end to the creative options, scene modes, and extras

The FZ150 has standard PASM shooting modes, each with a notch on the mode dial. The jog dial makes it easy to scroll through the available aperture and shutter settings, though there's no real-time preview for how the changes will affect exposure. The left side of the lens barrel also hosts an extra zoom lever and focus controls.

A superzoom needs a big ol' lens, and the FZ150's centerpiece is a 4.5-108mm (25-600mm equivalent), f/2.8-5.2 honker slapped on the front. It's similar to the one on this year's FZ47, as well as last year's FZ100 and FZ40, though the FZ150's apparently has a coating to reduce ghosting and light flare. It juts out about an inch from its barrel at the wide-angle setting, and about three inches at the long end.

The all-encompassing picture effects mode, known here as Creative Control, gets a dedicated spot on the mode dial. Most of the usual fun-time effects are available, including monochrome film grain, miniature effect, super-saturated Expressive, washed-out Retro, blown-out High Key, Sepia, and a fake-HDR High Dynamic. That last one is especially odd; the FZ150 should be capable of shooting actual in-camera high dynamic range shots, so why bother faking it?

By our count, the FZ150 offers a whopping 31 scene modes, including four portrait settings, three landscape presets, three sport modes, three macro scenes, and four night-oriented options. That's without getting into the "special" scene modes like high sensitivity, 3D capture, and high-speed video. Between that and the included 1080/60p AVCHD 2.0 video, there's plenty here to keep users entertained (or confused, or bemused) for a while.

Performance

A speedy, sharp, accurate superzoom, with only a few drawbacks

Image quality is plainly excellent for the class.

Image quality is plainly excellent for the class. The Canon SX40 HS scored slightly higher in our tests, but just looking at the sample images it's obvious the FZ150's pictures are clearer and sharper. We didn't spot any obvious, detail-smearing noise reduction until the higher reaches of the ISO sensitivity range. The FZ150 can take good-looking shots in just about any imaginable setting, from dimly lit indoor parties and washed-out indoor gymnasiums to fast-moving sports scenes and serene landscapes. Colors could be a bit more accurate, and we'd like to see better sharpness at the extremes of the focal range, but all things considered, these photos look great.

We were satisfied with the speed of the FZ150, as the advertised 12fps mode is really more like a 10fps mode: that's the result we got every single time we ran our speed test, without any significant variation. This makes it the fastest camera in the class for 2011, barely edging out the Nikon P500 and handily beating the Panasonic FZ47 and Canon SX40 HS. It's not the fastest camera to focus, especially in low light and zoomed all the way in, but in bright light it's serviceable.

It's one of the few still cameras currently on the market that can shoot full 1080 x 1920 HD video at 60p using the AVCHD 2.0 standard, and as such, it produces some of the crispest videos we've ever seen from a digital still camera. Editing the files could prove to be an epic struggle, since a) at 28mbps, they're huge, b) the bundled LoiLoScope software is a Windows-only, trial-version clunker, and c) most popular video software suites need an update to support AVCHD 2.0, while some older versions will never support it. Videographers who need to edit their clips should drop down to the 1080i AVCHD or 720p MPEG movie settings.

Conclusion

A very serviceable superzoom, though it's in a very competitive category that is constantly improving

Panasonic hit the nail on the head with the FZ150. Its predecessor was a well designed, high-performance hobbyist camera, that, unfortunately, took grainy pictures. All they had to do was toss in a better sensor and, boom, they've built the best fixed-lens camera that's ever passed through our labs.

It's tough to find much fault with this camera. It does have a shorter zoom range than just about all of its premium superzoom competitors, like the 35x Canon SX40 HS and 36x Nikon P500. But we're living in a crazy world when 24x magnification is below average—it's more than you'd likely ever need, and the functional difference between the superzooms is actually quite small.

Most of our concerns about the FZ150 have to do with the limits of the superzoom market in general. At $500, it costs as much a handful of entry-level DSLR or mirrorless kits. Superzooms can't match their image or build quality, and they don't offer quite as much user control. Then again, superzooms are incredibly versatile right out of the box—it costs several thousand dollars to pick up a lens that can match the FZ150's native focal range. Whining about a superzoom because it's not a DSLR is missing the point entirely.

So anyone in the market for a convenient, all-in-one digital camera should give the Panasonic FZ150 a good, hard look. Enthusiasts: It shoots RAW and allows adjustments to its sharpness, saturation, and noise reduction settings. That's a leg up on the otherwise-excellent Canon SX40 HS. Every other kind of shooter: It's easy to use when you need it to be, and it takes the best pictures of all the superzoom cameras we've tested. Enough said. We still have yet to publish our upcoming Fujifilm HS20EXR and Sony HX100V reviews, but the FZ150 has a great chance to hold the top spot in our fixed-lens camera rankings for the rest of the year.

Science Introduction

The Panasonic FZ150 breezed through our labs, with superb lab scores in most categories. For a fixed-lens camera the FZ150 offered acceptable noise results even at high ISOs, coupled with a fast shot-to-shot time and excellent color accuracy. The 24x lens is the headline feature, however, and we were pleasantly surprised at how sharp it was in most situations. There isn't much to complain about with this camera, and you could certainly do worse in the superzoom category.

Color Accuracy

Colors are pretty realistic by default, and they can be customized, too.

Most of the top-tier superzooms we've tested over the past few years tend to struggle with color accuracy a bit, at least compared to what we expect to see from cameras that cost $400 or $500. The FZ150 is on the higher end of average, edging out the Canon SX40 HS (and most other superzooms), while totally slamming the Nikon P500.

It's actually Panasonic's second-tier superzoom, the FZ47, that takes home the color-accuracy title. It's the most color-accurate point-and-shoot we've ever tested by a huge margin. That camera is fairly similar to the FZ150, but it's built around a slower 12.1-megapixel CCD sensor instead of a speedy 12.1-megapixel CMOS sensor. The image processors seem to be slightly different as well.

The FZ150 performed pretty well in our color accuracy test. The Natural color mode proved to be the most accurate, scoring a 2.82 in our color test (anything under a 3.0 is good) with saturation at roughly 104% (anything between 90% and 110% is acceptable). Shades of red and green are the most accurate, while blues are somewhat exaggerated and bright yellow is a bit pale. Even so, none of the hues on our test chart were too far off the mark.

Noise Reduction and Detail Loss

Very good high ISO performance for a fixed lens camera

The FZ150 earned a great score in our noise tests. On average, noise made up just 0.86% of images, but more importantly, it earned that score without a ham-fisted default noise reduction algorithm. Shots are clear and sharp and mostly free of smudged details, except at the higher ISO settings where you'd expect to see some software-based compensation. Everything up through ISO 800 looks great, and even ISO 1600 is still pretty clean. It's best to forget that ISO 3200 exists, though it really isn't so bad by point-and-shoot standards.

Low-light shooting is always a challenge for a small-sensor camera, but the FZ150 can snap great shots in dim settings almost as well as it can in bright settings. In both our 3000 lux (bright) and 60 lux (dim) tests, noise starts low and increases gradually throughout the ISO range. Even in our most challenging test (60 lux at ISO 3200), noise topped out at 1.32% of the shot.

Shot-to-Shot Results

Impressive performance, as the FZ150's speed puts it among the best superzoom cameras on the market

Panasonic wants you to know that the FZ150 is wicked fast, so they included a dedicated burst-mode hot key on the top panel. There are several full-res settings, starting at 2 frames per second and topping out at 12fps. The 2fps and 5.5fps options both offer full-time autofocus, and can fire indefinitely without filling up the buffer, though performance slows after a certain point.

The 12fps setting is a true burst mode, blasting out 12 shots in about a second before it incapacitates the camera, though the actual speed comes in at almost exactly 10fps. You may be able to glean the extra 2fps out of that mode in specific settings, but a fairly bright scene, low ISO speeds, and no other processing wasn't enough in our testing. There are also a few reduced-res settings, capturing up to 60fps if you're into that sort of thing.

Resolution and Sharpness

The 24x zoom lens has some drawbacks, with processing only able to return it to about average sharpness levels.

Long zooms can magnify (hah!) resolution problems. As the zoom range increases, the margin for error shrinks. The FZ150 performed pretty well for a superzoom, but as a $500 camera and one of the shorter-reaching models in the class, its scores didn't impress us.

The FZ150 resolves an average amount of detail for a fixed-lens camera. Sharpness seems to be best in the middle of the focal range and at the center of the frame. There's some noticeable pixel sharpening applied at the wide angle, while the lines remain a bit fuzzy and un-sharpened at the telephoto end. The FZ47 shows similar, slightly better results than its big brother, while the P500 is notably softer. The SX40 HS is clearly the sharpest shooter in the category, even with its comically large 35x zoom lens.

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