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Color* (11.07) *
To produce realistic, pleasing photos, a camera must be able to accurately reproduce color. We test color accuracy by photographing an industry standard GretagMacbeth ColorChecker chart and comparing the colors the camera reproduces with the known colors of the test chart. The ColorChecker chart consists of 24 tiles of colors from around the color spectrum, including common sky blues, foliage greens, and skin tones. The image below shows the colors the Panasonic FZ18 reproduces next to the actual colors of the ColorChecker. The outside squares show the colors the FZ18 reproduces, the inner squares show the actual colors of the chart corrected for exposure, and the inner, vertical rectangles show the chart colors at a perfectly even exposure. The FZ18 has most accurate colors when images are slightly underexposed.
As you can see in the image, many of the outer squares blend right into the inner squares, meaning color accuracy is excellent. A few tiles, however, such as the yellows and blues, are not perfectly accurate. The graph below shows this information in a different way. The background represents the entire color spectrum, the locations of the actual ColorChecker colors are represented by squares, and the colors the FZ18 reproduces by circles. The magnitude of the lines connecting the squares and circles shows the extent of the color error for each tile.
The graph confirms many of the color tiles are very accurate, with the exception of a few yellows, reds, and blues. Blues are shifted in most cameras to enhance blue skies, and yellows and reds are often shifted to make skin tones look nicer. The FZ18’s colors look great in photos, and Imatest confirms its excellent color accuracy.
We test resolution by photographing an industry standard resolution test chart at varied focal lengths, apertures, and shutter speeds. We run the images through Imatest to determine how sharp the camera is, and what settings produce the sharpest images. Imatest determines resolution in terms of line widths per picture height (lw/ph), which represent the number of equally spaced, alternating black and white lines that can fit across the picture frame before blurring.
The 8.1-megapixel Panasonic FZ18 shows its best resolution at ISO 100, f/3.6, and a focal length of 18mm. The camera resolves 2054 lw/ph horizontally with 9.2 percent oversharpening, and 1868 lw/ph vertically with 0.1 percent undersharpening. Not only are these impressive lw/ph scores, but the sharpening levels are very reasonable; the camera’s processor makes photos even sharper without losing too much detail through abundant oversharpening. The FZ18’s resolution is great at these settings and stays consistent using many other settings. The camera’s photos stay very sharp at the edges of the frames, and there are few signs of image artifacts. Without bumping up the megapixel count to 10 or 12, the FZ18 retains excellent resolution performance through quality optics and strategic processing, and scores better than many higher-megapixel models.
**Noise – Manual ISO ***(7.48) *
Image "noise" is the grainy or splotchy effect you can sometimes see on your photos, especially in low light or shadow areas. Noise is created within the camera itself, an unavoidable byproduct of the camera’s electronics, similar in principle to the background hiss stereos produce. Unlike film grain, digital camera noise is almost always unwanted, as it often looks very ugly. We test noise levels by photographing our test chart under bright, even studio lighting at all ISO sensitivities. Imatest measures noise levels in terms of the percent of image detail it drowns out, usually ranging from 1 to 4 percent.
As you can see in the graph, the FZ18 keeps noise levels very low at ISO 100, then increases significantly at ISO 200 and rises steadily at higher ISO speeds. The noise levels up to ISO 800 are quite good on paper, but this is a bit misleading. Looking closer at the noise itself (click on the still life images farther down the page), you can see how splotchy and colored the noise is. It appears the noise was smoothed a bit, meaning less detail as well as splotchy-looking noise. The images aren’t as badly smoothed as we have seen in other cameras, but the noise is unattractive. Keep this camera set to ISO 100 if you plan on cropping your photos or viewing them large.
**Noise – Auto ISO ***(2.15) *
We also evaluate noise levels with cameras set to Auto ISO, under the same bright, even studio lighting used in the tests described above. The FZ18 chose ISO 125, which is a good choice for such bright lighting. The camera still produces a bit of noise, but it is hardly noticeable unless viewed very large. Its Auto noise score is about average for 2007 point-and-shoots.
**White Balance ***(5.37) *
The FZ18 has fantastic color accuracy, but this is only relevant when the camera is white balanced properly. All types of light sources have different color casts, and cameras must be able to adjust accordingly. To test white balance accuracy, we photograph the ColorChecker test chart under four types of light: flash, fluorescent, outdoor shade, and tungsten. The FZ18 has an Auto white balance setting and appropriate presets, and we put them both to the test.
For a camera with such good color accuracy, the FZ18’s white balance accuracy is very disappointing. Using the Auto setting, the camera is mediocre under flash and fluorescent light, but very poor under outdoor shade and tungsten light. Tungsten light is often a major problem for cameras using Auto white balance, but the other light sources shouldn’t be such a problem.
Accuracy using the presets is a bit better, especially in tungsten light and outdoor shade, but still not nearly as accurate as we have seen in similar models. The flash preset was actually less accurate than the Auto setting, so keep this in mind when using flash. If you really need accurate white balance, use a white card and manually set the white balance. Also, this camera has the option of shooting in RAW, which means you can set the white point on your computer after you shoot.
Still Life Sequences
***Click to view the high-resolution image
**Low Light* (6.80) *
We have seen how the FZ18 handles color accuracy and noise levels in bright studio light, but what about less-than-ideal shooting conditions? We test low light performance by photographing the ColorChecker at 60, 30, 15, and 5 lux. Sixty lux approximates the brightness of a room lit softly by two table lamps, 30 lux is as bright as a room lit by a single 40-watt bulb, 15 lux is as dim as a room lit by a television, and 5 lux is very dim and tests the limits of the sensor. All shots are taken at ISO 1600.
Color accuracy in low light suffers a bit, but is better than many cameras. Noise levels are quite high in low light at such a high ISO speed, which may occasionally be your only option to capture a dimly lit scene without blur or flash. The main problem with the FZ18 in low light is its inconsistent autofocus. At light levels of 30 lux and below, the camera can only lock focus about one-third of the time, regardless of the autofocus mode. This is incredibly frustrating, and means you’ll have to keep prefocusing your camera to capture a sharp photo. We didn’t see this problem in the camera’s predecessor, the FZ8, and the FZ18 scores significantly lower.
We also test low light performance with long exposures. Setting all cameras to ISO 400, we shoot the ColorChecker chart at slow shutter speeds. The FZ18’s slowest shutter speed is eight seconds. Noise levels in long exposures are quite high, and color accuracy suffers, due in a large part to inaccurate Manual white balance at slow shutter speeds. Be careful of your white balance when taking long exposures with this camera.
**Dynamic Range ***(6.21) *
Dynamic range is a very important image quality factor that describes the range of tones a camera can discern. A camera with good dynamic range will be able to see more detail in dark parts of an image while keeping the bright parts of an image from being overexposed. Dynamic range has a more subconscious effect on a viewer than noise levels or resolution, but it is often the reason some photos look better than others, especially low ISO speed photos compared to high ISO speed photos. We test dynamic range by photographing a backlit Stouffer step chart at all ISO sensitivities. The Stouffer chart consists of a long row of rectangles, varying in tone from brightest white to darkest black. The more rectangles a camera can discern, the better its dynamic range.
The FZ18 has excellent dynamic range at ISO 100, and drops off at higher ISO speeds. Dynamic range is closely associated with noise levels; higher noise levels obscure image detail and hurt dynamic range. You can see the trend of this graph mirrors the trend of the noise graph further up the page. As we mentioned in the noise section, keep this camera at ISO 100 for the best possible image quality.
**Speed/Timing **– All speed tests were conducted using a Kingston Ultimate 120X 2GB SD Card, with the camera set to highest resolution and best quality, unless otherwise noted.
Startup to First Shot (7.8)
The FZ18 takes 2.2 seconds to turn on and take a shot.
*The camera has two Burst modes, Normal and Unlimited. In Normal mode, the FZ18 takes four shots, each 0.35 seconds apart. In Unlimited mode, it takes shots every 0.8 seconds until the card is filled.
When the shutter is held halfway down and the FZ18 is prefocused, there is no measurable lag. When the camera is not prefocused, it takes 0.3 seconds to fire a shot.
The FZ18 takes 1.4 seconds to process a full resolution best-quality 3.8 MB photo taken at ISO 160.
Video Performance* (6.54) *
*Bright Indoor Light – 3000 lux *
We record footage of our color charts under bright studio lights set to 3000 lux. Under bright light, the camera has poor color accuracy, though this is typical under tungsten lights with Auto white balance. Noise levels are very low.
Low Light – 30 lux
In low light, color accuracy is far better, and noise levels stay quite low. This is a great camera for capturing videos of your friends at a club, or your family during a sunset.
We also record footage of our resolution test chart in Movie mode. The FZ18 resolves 230 lw/ph horizontally with 25 percent undersharpening, and 371 lw/ph vertically with 11.9 percent undersharpening. This undersharpening helps keep image artifacts out, but means the video won’t be nearly as sharp as it could be.
*We take cameras out on the street to capture footage of moving cars and pedestrians. The FZ18’s video has great looking color and exposure, and impressively lacks obvious image artifacts. On the downside, it has soft focus, and motion gets jerky as objects leave the frame. It sure isn’t a camcorder, but the FZ18’s Movie mode is one of the best we’ve seen in a digital camera.
The Panasonic FZ18’s electronic viewfinder is positioned directly above the LCD screen and protrudes about a half-inch from the camera body. Because most noses are more than a half-inch long, the screen is likely to get marked up by facial oil.
The viewfinder is the same one that is on the older FZ8. It is decently sized at 0.44 inches but has sub-par resolution of 188,000 pixels. The FZ18’s viewfinder is larger than many of its competitors, such as the Sony H9’s 0.2-inch electronic viewfinder. The H9, however, has a higher 201,000-pixel resolution that makes for a smoother view. The viewfinder’s disappointing resolution makes it especially difficult to manually focus close to subjects because it’s tough to see fine details.
The display can be switched from the LCD to the viewfinder and vice versa with the designated button directly right of the viewfinder component. What is displayed on the viewfinder can be changed with the LCD mode/display button to the right of the LCD. This button cycles through these displays: no info, file info, file info with histogram, file info organized onto black bars (so it doesn’t block the image), and composition guide lines. The composition line pattern can be chosen in the Setup menu: it can look like a tic-tac-toe board or tic-tac-toe with a diagonal cross through it.
The viewfinder has a diopter adjustment dial on its left side with a nice range of -4 to +4 to correct for near and far-sightedness.
The electronic viewfinder’s resolution isn’t great, but the size is adequate and it has other positive aspects. The viewfinder is 100 percent accurate and has great color and contrast. It also helps that it is nicely shaded and is ideal for use on a sunny day, as the bright sun may make the LCD monitor difficult to see.
LCD Screen*(7.0) *
At 2.5 inches, the LCD screen is decently sized, but has only 207,000 pixels of resolution when most manufacturers are offering 230,000 pixels on this size of screen. The FZ18’s polycrystalline TFT LCD has a 100 percent view, but the resolution makes it tough to judge the focus.
Like the FZ8, the Panasonic FZ18’s LCD has two interesting modes: Power LCD and High Angle LCD. These are accessible by pushing the display/LCD mode button down for a full second. The Power LCD mode brightens the screen and increases the contrast and makes it easier to view outdoors on a sunny day – although the shaded viewfinder is still a better choice in bright sun light. The High Angle LCD mode increases the viewing angle. In this mode, the screen can be seen when the camera is held above the head, though the view from straight-on is blown out when this setting is engaged. It also increases the width of the viewing angle, which is quite narrow when the LCD modes are turned off.
The High Angle mode is interesting, but it doesn’t work as well as some other digital cameras’ standard LCDs. Many digital cameras’ LCDs have wide and high viewing angles without the user having to access a special mode. For instance, the Canon G9’s 3-inch LCD screen can be seen from side to side, above, and below at extremely wide angles.
Pushing the display/LCD mode button down for only a moment will display combinations of file information, histogram, and composition patterns, just the same as the viewfinder.
When most other manufacturers are improving their LCD screens with every successive model, the FZ18’s is at a standstill. It is the same LCD that is included on the older FZ8. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 has stiff competition from other manufacturers. The Canon PowerShot S5 IS has a similar 2.5-inch LCD screen with 207,000 pixels, which is still below the standard for resolution but it folds out and rotates on a hinge. It also has much wider viewing angles – better even than when the High Angle LCD mode is activated on the Panasonic FZ18. The Sony H9 has a larger 3-inch LCD with 230,000 pixels; its LCD also folds out and tilts and has better viewing angles.
The flash component is another element frozen in time; it is the same as the one included on the Panasonic FZ8. It is located directly above the lens and pops up only when its designated button is pushed. This could be a problem for point-and-shooters who are used to the flash automatically functioning. Many cameras also have flashes that automatically pop up when necessary.
When the flash unit is opened with the button to its left, it hops up about an inch and a half directly above the lens. With this stance, the flash can reach 0.98 to 19.7 feet (set to ISO auto). When the lens is zoomed in, the flash’s effectiveness shortens to a 3.28 to 13.1-foot range. The flash output can also be adjusted when the top of the multi-selector is pushed. The flash exposure can be adjusted on the same +/- 2 scale.
Once the flash is popped up, the Flash mode can be changed by pressing the right side of the multi-selector. The following modes are available: Auto, Auto/Red-eye Reduction, Forced On/Red-eye Reduction, Slow Sync/Red-eye Reduction, and Forced Off.
The flash produces some red eyes in images despite the red-eye reduction preflash that almost always fires. Unfortunately, there isn’t any in-camera red-eye fix, which many other manufacturers include.
The Panasonic FZ18’s pop-up flash has good range, an adequate set of modes, even flash coverage, and handy flash exposure control. It causes a few red eyes to appear occasionally and without an in-camera system to fix them, users will have to invest in good software to fix them.
Zoom Lens*(9.5) *
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 has an 18x optical zoom lens that puts it at the top of the ultra-zoom market. The FZ18 isn’t the only one on top though; it shares the privilege with the Olympus SP-560UZ and Fujifilm FinePix S8000*fd*, which also have 18x optical zoom lenses. Nearby are the Canon S5 with a 12x optical zoom lens and the Sony H9 with a 15x optical zoom lens.
Panasonic makes a big deal of the lens’s wide angle. The FZ18’s Leica DC Vario-Elmarit lens measures 4.6-82.8mm, equivalent to 28-504mm in the 35mm format. It is built from 11 elements in eight groups that include three aspherical lenses and four aspherical surfaces. The older Panasonic FZ8 has a 12x lens with a reach of 36-432mm. The Olympus SP-550UZ and FZ18 share the same zoom range. The newer version of the Olympus 550UZ, the Olympus SP-560UZ, has a 27-486mm optical zoom range. The same focal range is adopted by the Fujifilm FinePix S8000*fd*, which has 8 megapixels and an 18x lens. In terms of width, the new Olympus and Fujifilm ultra-zoom cameras win the battle. In terms of length, though, the older Olympus and the new Panasonic FZ18 are in the lead.
The long lens is nicely complemented by an optical image stabilization system. This has been a standard feature on Panasonic Lumix digital cameras for years but is especially necessary on ultra-zoom digital cameras that show more bumps and jitters.
The optical image stabilization has two modes. They are labeled ambiguously in the Recording menu as Mode 1 and Mode 2. Mode 1 runs continuously and Mode 2 runs only when the shutter release button is about to be pressed, which saves battery power.
The older FZ8 has an on-camera button for the image stabilization modes, but the new FZ18 moves this option into the Recording menu. This is a good idea. Most users will have a preference and likely won’t change the setting often enough to warrant a space-hogging button to access it. On all 2007 Lumix digital cameras, there is an "intelligent image stabilization system." This combines the standard optical image stabilization with intelligent ISO control, which detects whether a subject is moving and increases the ISO, and thereby shutter speed, to freeze the movement.
The large Leica lens is controlled by a small zoom ring that surrounds the shutter release button. The ring is stiff and gives fingers a good workout when they are constantly zooming the camera in and out. It takes the lens about three seconds to move through the entire 18x range when the ring is pushed continuously. When tapped gingerly the lens stops at 71 focal lengths; this sensitivity makes it nice for users who are very particular about the framing of their images. Zooming in and out, there is no breathing or backfiring like the lens on the Olympus SP-560UZ. The FZ18’s lens gives a smooth ride.
There are a few ways to further extend the zoom. The Panasonic Lumix FZ18 accepts close-up and telephoto conversion lenses and even comes with an adapter ring to thread the lenses onto the camera. The camera also includes a lens hood and cap. Another way to extend the zoom is to reduce the image size. The following list shows how much zoom is available for each image size (there are many sizes because of the many aspect ratios available).
Using this extra optical zoom will not degrade the image quality; the picture will just be smaller than 8 megapixels. For those users who simply can’t resist degrading image quality, there is the standard 4x digital zoom available. The digital zoom can be turned on and off in the recording menu.
Of note in the Setup menu is a zoom resume feature, which powers up the camera in the same focal length it was set to when it was turned off. This can be handy or annoying depending on personal preference. The feature can be turned off and on.
Overall, the Leica 18x optical zoom lens is excellent. It is wide enough to take photos of large groups and long enough to get back-row seats to a concert and still get good shots. It has a lot of nice features, the most helpful being the effective optical image stabilization system.
Design / Layout
Model Design / Appearance*(7.75)
*The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 is plainly styled without many flourishes or highlights. There are few chrome elements in the mix, but the body is mostly unadulterated plastic. The FZ18 comes in black and silver. Besides the meager color offerings, Panasonic doesn’t give much attention to this camera’s appearance; the ultra-zoom FZ18 is all about performance, which is a good thing.
Size / Portability*(6.25) *
The Panasonic FZ18 isn’t as large as we thought it’d be. We’d assumed that a longer 18x optical zoom lens would come in a larger package than its 12x predecessor. Apparently not. Panasonic fit the long lens into a camera body of similar size to the FZ8. The FZ18 measures a very chunky 2.96 x 4.63 x 3.47 inches. It weighs in at 12.7 ounces unloaded and 14.4 ounces with the battery and memory card inserted. This camera is heavier than its predecessor, which weighs 12.6 ounces loaded.
Its chunky SLR shape requires users to carry it around in a camera bag. It would fit into a purse or tote bag, but it should have its own case to protect the large lens. Cameras with fewer protrusions are better suited for storing in bags and purses, but the Panasonic FZ18 is chunkier than those compact models.
*The Panasonic FZ8 is easy to handle and it only gets better with the FZ18. The FZ18 retains the sizable rubber-coated right hand grip. The rubber surface is great; it is lightly textured like leather, but also has a silky feel at the same time. At the top of the rubber panel but just below the shutter release button is a divot in the rubber wide enough for the index finger to rest and grip the camera around the front.
On the back of the hand grip is a new addition to the FZ18: a wavy thumb grip made out of the same silky rubber. It provides a nice balance on the grip that makes it easier to support the weight of the camera. The older FZ8 has only a few plastic bumps and a tiny lump in the plastic shell in its place.
The left side of the FZ18 is slightly different from its predecessor too. The new model has a beveled edge instead of a crisp one, making it more comfortable for the left fingers to wrap around that side.
The SLR-shaped Panasonic FZ18 feels great to handle with the rubber surfaces and contours. The controls are all nicely placed within reach of the thumbs and index finger.
Control Button / Dial Positioning / Size*(7.5)
*The FZ18 may be shaped like an SLR but it doesn’t have the same controls. That said, it does have more controls than the average compact digital camera – it’s in that gray space between compacts and DSLRs. The controls are relatively small and scattered across the back and top surfaces of the camera body. There are a few designated buttons on the top and back, but there are multifunctional ones too.
The four-way navigational control on the back accesses features in the Recording mode, but navigates through pictures in the Playback mode. The joystick on the back of the camera is used to adjust the manual exposure settings; unfortunately, the joystick is small and finicky. The mode dial on the top of the camera is large and chock-full of exposure modes. In addition to the standard exposure modes, Panasonic added more dedicated positions on the dial including Custom and four scene modes: Portrait, Scenery, Night Portrait, and Sports.
The shutter release button is also on the camera’s top. It is nicely sized and framed within the zoom ring. The shutter release is problem-free, but the zoom ring is difficult to turn.
The menu system is set up in the same way as in other Lumix digital cameras with the title of the menu at the top of the screen, the page number (e.g. ¼) in the upper right corner, and two tabs on the left side. The top tab has a camera icon and houses the Recording menu, while the bottom tab has an image of a wrench and opens the Setup menu.
The menus are displayed in large text printed in capital letters. The selected item is highlighted by a yellow background. Navigational cues are printed along the bottom of the screen, but it’s intuitive to navigate with the multi-selector.
When in the Manual mode and the menu/set button is pushed, the following Recording menu appears. A live preview appears behind the text for many of the menu items such as white balance and color effect.
The Setup menu is easy to access, but is a lengthy five "pages" (five screens of five options each) long.
The menu system isn’t the cleanest design out there, but it’s not terrible either. It is nicely divided into Recording and Setup menus, but then there are long lists to scroll through within those tabs. Some other digital cameras further organize the menus so that a particular feature is only a few pushes of a button away at all times.
Ease of Use* (7.25) *
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 may look intimidating to some consumers because of its SLR-like shape, but it is just as easy to use as a point-and-shoot. It has an Auto mode along with a set of Scene modes, many of its controls are intuitively labeled (with the exception of the unlabeled joystick), handling feels good, and there is a nice large mode dial. The mode dial makes Shooting modes easily accessible, and the virtual mode dial that appears on the LCD screen (when the physical dial is turned) makes it easier to pick a mode while still looking from behind the camera rather than looking straight down on it.
Auto Mode* (8.0) *
Panasonic made a few changes to its Auto mode. It nixed the Simple mode on the FZ8 and replaced it with an Intelligent Auto mode, a bit ironic because the Simple mode insulted people’s intelligence with its short, brightly colored and monosyllabic menu and tacky heart icon. The new Auto mode incorporates image stabilization, face detection, continuous autofocus, and the intelligent scene selector to properly expose images. For the most part, it works. Images taken in different types of light all turned out well.
The menu is shortened in the Auto mode to include aspect ratio, picture size, stabilizer, and color effect options only. The flash and self-timer options on the multi-selector function on a limited basis (auto for the flash and only a 10-second self-timer is available). The exposure compensation’s +/- 2 range is simplified to an all-purpose "backlight" instead. Many of the buttons don’t work: the macro and manual focus aren’t available, for instance.
*The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 has a great Movie mode that shoots standard and widescreen videos in Motion JPEG format. The Movie mode has its own position on the mode dial and is as easy to use as the Auto mode.
Movies can be recorded at resolutions of 848 x 480, 640 x 480, and 320 x 240 pixels with frame rates of 30 and 10 fps available. The Recording menu is nicely populated with more options that enhance the image quality of the videos: white balance, white balance adjust, aspect ratio, picture mode (frame rate), metering, AF mode, stabilizer, continuous AF, AF assist, digital zoom, color effect, and conversion lens options are available.
The 18x optical zoom lens unfortunately locks up when movies are being recorded. Digital zoom is still an option, but that’s never a very good option as it simply enlarges pixels and makes subjects look jagged and odd. The nonfunctional optical zoom was an issue on the Panasonic FZ8 too. Few ultra-zooms are like this.
The Sony H7 and H9 have full access to their 15x lenses in the Movie mode, and the Canon S5’s 12x lens is fully functional while recording movies too. The Olympus SP-560UZ is somewhere in between; it locks its zoom when the audio is turned on, but allows the zoom to work in silent films.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18’s audio in the Movie mode isn’t very good. It sounds garbled and distant even when the speaker is only eight feet away.
There are some limitations to the Movie mode in terms of what media it can record to. When recording to the internal memory, it can only shoot at its smallest 320 x 240-pixel size. The FZ18 can’t record movies to MMC cards, so if users plan to record lots of movies an SD or SDHC card is recommended.
The Panasonic FZ18’s Movie mode tested very well producing great videos in many types of lighting. There are more details in the Testing/Performance section of this review.
The movies can be played back in the camera with VCR-like control to fast forward and rewind. There is, however, no in-camera editing. They can also be played back on computers with QuickTime, which is included on the CD-ROM.
In the end, the Panasonic FZ18 has an excellent movie mode. It has great exposure and can operate even in low light. Its resolution and frame rates are great for making smooth videos, and they can be recorded in widescreen format too. The image stabilization keeps the image from jumping all around. The only drawback to the FZ18’s Movie mode is that its 18x optical zoom lens doesn’t function while recording.
Drive / Burst Mode* (5.0) *
The Burst mode has a dedicated button to the lower left of the multi-selector. Normal and unlimited Continuous Shooting modes are available. The Normal mode snaps almost three frames per second (a shot every 0.35 seconds) for four shots in a row. This is a decent speed but the length of the burst isn’t impressive at all. For a longer burst, the unlimited mode is available. It is advertised as having a 2 fps speed but in testing it only took a picture every 0.8 seconds. It does, however, continue until the memory card is full. On the subject of memory cards, MMC media have slower operating speeds especially when shooting images continuously.
There is a self-timer available from the left side of the multi-selector that accesses 2 and 10-second options. There is also an interesting triple self-timer that delays for 10 seconds and then takes three shots three seconds apart. When shooting large groups, this ensures capturing a photo with everyone’s eyes open.
The Panasonic FZ18 has a 2.5-inch LCD screen with plenty of room for playing back images, but its resolution isn’t the best on the market. The FZ18 has 207,000 pixels and most other similarly sized LCDs have 230,000 pixels. The FZ18’s screen isn’t as smooth, translating to jagged lines on subjects. It’s tougher to judge focus in these situations.
The Playback mode has a position on the mode dial, although there is a faster "review" mode available from the bottom of the multi-selector. Using this button, pictures can only be scrolled through, magnified, and deleted. This makes it easy to check pictures right after taking them and still return to shooting images quickly.
There are many more options in the Playback mode. Images can be magnified 4, 8, or 16x or displayed as thumbnail pages of 9 or 25 images. Pictures can also be displayed on a calendar. These different views are accessible by pushing the zoom ring around. Scrolling through images isn’t a quick process when viewing them individually – there isn’t a rotary dial and holding down one side of the multi-selector or joystick won’t go any farther than one image.
Plenty more options are outlined in the Playback menu.
Deleting images is accomplished by pushing the button to the lower left of the multi-selector; images can be deleted individually, in batches, or all at once. This is a nice feature because it’s quick to scroll through thumbnails and mark them for deletion.
There aren’t that many options for video clips. Movies can be played back, fast forwarded, and rewound, but not edited.
The Panasonic FZ18’s Playback mode is missing red-eye fix and video editing, which many other manufacturers include. Besides those omissions, it has all the fixings for a good photo-viewing experience.
Custom Image Presets*(9.25) *
This area is much improved from the FZ8. The older model has a decent selection of Scene modes, but the FZ18 expands them and includes a few on the mode dial rather than grouping them all in one "SCN" position like the FZ8 does.
The Panasonic FZ18 has four "advanced scene modes" located on the mode dial. These provide additional specification and lead to better exposed images. Portrait, Scenery, Sports, and Night Portrait each have a sub-menu where users can choose what type of picture they’re planning on taking.
These are quite interesting and seem to work well. The standard Scene modes are crammed into a graphic-filled menu: Portrait, Scenery, Sports, Night Portrait, Food, Party, Candle Light, Sunset, High Sensitivity (3 megapixels), Baby 1, Baby 2, Pet, Pan, Starry, Fireworks, Beach, Snow, and Aerial Photo. The graphics in the menu are highlighted and move slightly when selected. For instance, the Candle Light mode shows flames shooting out of a candle-holder and High Sensitivity shows a ballet dancer pirouetting.
If the display button is pushed, an explanation will appear for the selected mode. For example, Aerial Photo comes with this blurb: "For taking pictures through an airplane window. Please turn off the camera when taking off or landing."
The FZ18 has a healthy selection of Scene modes. The advanced set is a nice feature and is easily accessible too.
**Manual Control Options
**The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 has a full range of automated to manual controls including Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Speed Priority, and Manual modes, enough to satisfy any photographer. There are also manual controls for just about everything: white balance, ISO, exposure, focus along with features like bracketing. The only real limitation is the inability to switch lenses, but the 28-504mm lens covers most situations and conversion lenses can be added.
*The autofocus system generally works quickly and effectively. The older FZ8 doesn’t have a face detection system, but the new FZ18 includes great face detection technology. It is advertised to detect, focus on, and expose for up to 15 faces in a scene, although when we tested it, it only detected seven faces. The camera recognizes faces quickly and can track them even when they are slightly turned.
The face detection option is among the other autofocus mode options in the Recording menu. Other options include 1-point, 1-point high speed, 3-point high speed, 5-point, and spot. Also in the menu, users can turn the continuous autofocus feature on and off. Macro focus shooting is available by pushing the small button by the shutter release. There is a separate button by it that switches between autofocus and manual focus modes.
The autofocus system can focus from 0.39 inches in the Macro mode and 11.8 inches normally. Those specs are from when the lens is at its widest; when zoomed in, the macro mode can focus from 3.28 feet and normally the camera focuses from 6.56 feet.
The autofocus system is generally quick. It takes the camera about 0.3 seconds to focus before snapping a shot. This may still be too long for some photographers, but there aren’t many other ultra-zoom models that perform any better.
The autofocus system struggles in low light. It shoots out an orange assist lamp but its performance is still unreliable. There are more details in the low light portion of the Testing/Performance section.
Manual Focus (5.0)
The AF/MF button on the top of the camera switches between autofocus and manual focus. When manual focus is employed, a vertical bar appears on the right side of the LCD screen. It has a few numerical indicators alongside it. A yellow bar slides up and down the bar to indicate to the user where they are in the range. Focus is adjusted by pressing the joystick on the camera’s back. The center of the image is magnified when users push on the joystick; this theoretically makes it easier to see the focus of subjects, but the LCD screen resolution isn’t good enough to support this. Jagged edges still appear on subjects, especially those close to the camera. The manual focus can be adjusted from 0.04 feet to infinity.
The Panasonic FZ18 slightly improves upon the FZ8’s ISO range. The older FZ8 has a range that extends to 1250, and the new FZ18 adds a ISO 1600 option. Higher sensitivity brings increased noise, which is a problem for this camera. There are more details in the Testing/Performance section.
The ISO settings, located in the Recording menu, are: 100, 200, 400, 800, 1250, 1600, and auto. There is also a High Sensitivity Scene mode that uses ISO settings from 1600 to 6400, although at the expense of the resolution – it shoots at 3 megapixels. The Panasonic FZ18 also has an intelligent ISO control with the following options: Off, ISO max 400, ISO max 800, and ISO max 1600. This feature senses whether subjects are moving and how high to move the ISO to freeze that movement. This is a cool feature, but must be taken with a grain of salt considering the noise performance.
The FZ18’s ISO range is about average compared to other similar digital cameras. The Canon S5 has an 80-1600 range, the Fujifilm S8000*fd* has a 64-1600 range, and the Sony H9 has a 64-3200 range.
White Balance*(8.5) *
Users can adjust the white balance in the Recording menu with the help of a live preview. The following modes are available: auto, daylight, cloudy, shade, halogen, custom 1, and custom 2. In the list is also a custom set option that makes it easy to frame something white and set the white balance in just a few seconds.
There is also a white balance adjustment option that allows users to choose the hue along an X-Y grid with amber and blue on the horizontal axis and green and magenta on the vertical axis. There are +/- 9 steps on each axis. These white balance options are above and beyond the norm.
The white balance performed well and made it possible for the Panasonic FZ18 to accurately portray very realistic colors. More details about this can be found in the Testing/Performance section.
The Panasonic Lumix FZ18 has plenty of Scene modes, a fully Automatic mode, and more Manual modes: Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Speed Priority, and Manual.
Exposure compensation is available in the typical +/- 2 scale with steps of a third. For users who want to find just the right exposure and do it quickly, an auto bracketing mode can be accessed by pushing the top of the multi-selector. It shoots three pictures at +/- 1/3, 2/3, or 1 EV step. In the fully Automatic mode, there is only an all-purpose backlight compensation that brightens the image a bit.
Users who want to monitor the exposure can view a live histogram along with full file info including the shutter speed and aperture.
The Panasonic FZ18 has the same metering options as its predecessor and many other compact digital cameras: intelligent multiple, center-weighted average, and spot. There isn’t a live view in the menu for this option, which makes it a bit harder to instantly judge the exposure.
Shutter Speed*(8.0) *
The Panasonic FZ18 has a shutter speed range typical of its class of digital camera. In the Manual mode, the shutter speed ranges from 60-1/2000th of a second. The Shutter Speed Priority mode offers an 8-1/2000th range while the Program mode shortens it even more to 1-1/2000th of a second. The shutter speed is manipulated with the joystick, which can switch between aperture and shutter speed by moving horizontally and then through the shutter speed range by moving vertically. In the Starry Sky scene mode, the shutter speed can be slowed to 15, 30, or 60 seconds.
*The massive 18x optical zoom lens has a 10-step aperture range when the lens is zoomed to its widest 28mm. It maxes out at f/2.8, which lets in a good amount of light hit the image sensor. When the lens is zoomed in, the aperture shrinks to f/4.2, which is slightly larger than its competitors. For instance, the Olympus SP-560 and Fujifilm S8000fd both have a max f/4.5 aperture when their lenses are zoomed in. The Panasonic FZ18’s aperture shrinks as small as f/8. Users can scroll through aperture options in the Manual and Aperture Priority exposure modes with the joystick. This control switches from shutter speed to aperture by pushing left, then up and down through the aperture range.
Picture Quality / Size Options*(9.0) *
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 has 8 megapixels on a standard 1/2.5-inch CCD image sensor. It has a plethora of image size options, mainly because it can record pictures in three different formats – the standard 4:3, the 4 x 6-inch print-optimized 3:2, and the widescreen television-friendly 16:9. The 4:3-formatted image sensor can record RAW 3264 x 2448-pixel files and can record them simultaneously with JPEGs if desired.
JPEG images can be shot in fine or standard compression in the following resolutions.
Images can be resized and trimmed in the Playback menu to any resolution smaller than the current image size. The file can be saved separately or simply replace the larger image.
Picture Effects Mode* (7.0) *
There are several picture effects available, but they are hard to find. They are buried in the Recording menu under the Color Effect and Picture Adjust titles. The color effect offers cool, warm, black & white, and sepia filters and shows a live view. The picture adjust does not have a live view but shows full-step +/- 2 scales for contrast, sharpness, saturation, and noise reduction. The picture effects aren’t very elaborate; the Canon S5 comes with about a dozen interesting Color modes and adjustments that are available in Recording and Playback. The Panasonic FZ18’s effects are only effective before pictures are taken.
Connectivity / Extras
The Panasonic FZ18 comes with a CD-ROM that is loaded with software. When the disc is put into a computer drive, a Setup menu appears with the plethora of software that can be installed. These must be individually installed and it takes longer than one would think.
In addition to the USB driver, Adobe Reader, and QuickTime programs, there are several photo viewing and editing programs. Panasonic’s Lumix Simple Viewer 1.3E is included on the CD-ROM; this only allows users to view images and not to edit them. The USB Driver, Photo Fun Studio, and Viewer programs are only available on Windows operating systems. The other programs, SilkyPix Developer Studio 2.1 SE and ArcSoft’s Software Suite, can be run on either Windows or Macintosh.
The Lumix Simple Viewer is just what it says it is: simple. It pops up as a small window with very few functions: acquire to PC, view, print, and send by e-mail. Its so-called "advanced" options include adding pictures, exporting to a memory card, and starting the Photo Fun Studio program. Pictures have to be manually loaded into the Simple Viewer. That can be done individually or in batches of images. Once the image is opened for viewing, its full file information is shown just below it. Pictures can be marked as favorites, deleted, printed, or e-mailed.
The Photo Fun Studio is another Panasonic special. It automatically accesses files and images from computers and displays them as categories along the left side of the window. This program is much more advanced than the Lumix Simple Viewer. The Photo Fun Studio allows users to view, organize, browse, and edit images in one program. Images can be viewed in thumbnails of different sizes and on a full-screen view. There is also a view that combines a film-strip of thumbnails with a larger preview and a slew of file information and comments.
Photo Fun Studio
From the right side of the window, users can print and e-mail images, acquire more images from a memory card, change the DPOF setting, and redo the computer’s wallpaper with a selected image. Along the top there are plenty more options: acquire, categorize, tools, retouch, rotate, refresh, launcher, help, and Simple Viewer. In-camera editing is still a bit scant. Images can be rotated and color filters added. There is an automatic picture adjustment and red-eye removal feature, which worked well on the red-eyed images from the FZ18.
The SilkyPix Developer Studio allows users to exercise full manual control of RAW images. There are options and sub-menus and icons all around the window to represent the many manual controls that can be adjusted. It goes beyond white balance and exposure compensation and into sharpness, tone, color, lens, noise reduction, and lens rotation.
SilkyPix Developer Studio
The ArcSoft Software Suite includes MediaImpression and Panorama Maker 4. MediaImpression is mainly to build slide shows and movies, but has many of the same editing tools like crop, red-eye, and color adjustments. It adds a few like straightening and blurring of the background. It doesn’t have the organizational features though. Panorama Maker 4 is an interesting inclusion because the camera doesn’t have a stitch assist or Panorama mode on it. That means users have to line up shots themselves and the software has to work harder to fix all those human mistakes. This program allows users to create horizontal, vertical, and 360-degree panoramas with a few clicks of the mouse.
There is a lot of repetition between all the software programs so it is unlikely that users will employ all of them for different needs. It is more probable that users will have a favorite program and use it for their viewing, editing, and organizing.
*Jacks, ports, plugs (6.0) *
On the camera’s left side is a plastic door on a spring hinge. It covers two ports: one is a combo for the USB and AV jacks and the other is for the DC-in power adapter. The AV-out function has a few options in the Setup menu: it can be set to NTSC or PAL standards, and the output TV aspect ratio can be set to 4:3 or 16:9.
*Direct Print Options (5.0)
*Print orders are created in the Playback menu. Users can select all the images for printing or scroll through the batch to pick and choose certain pictures. The number of prints to be made can be set from 0-99 and the date can be printed on the image if the display button is pushed while adding it to the print order. For pictures to actually be printed, the camera must be connected to a PictBridge-compatible printer with the supplied USB cable and the mode dial must be rotated to the designated print position.
*Battery (7.0) *
The FZ18 has the same battery as the FZ8. It is fairly thick and has 7.2V and 710 mAh of power. The lithium-ion battery can snap up to 380 shots. According to the specs, there is no significant power difference between using the electronic viewfinder and the larger LCD screen. The camera comes with a wall-mounted charger that is convenient and doesn’t take up much space. The battery takes about two hours to fully charge. There is a port for a power adapter on the left side of the camera; the adapter can be purchased through Panasonic and allows the camera to run indefinitely without the battery but at the expense of being tethered to a power outlet.
*Memory (3.0) *
The FZ18 comes with 27MB of internal memory, the same amount as the FZ8. The internal memory is a nice backup, but a SD or SDHC card is a necessary accessory. The internal memory can’t record decent videos; it can only save 320 x 240-pixel movies. Only one RAW image or eight JPEG images can fit in the internal memory. MMC media can fit into the slot, but users are better off with SD or SDHC. The camera’s Burst mode slows down when recording to a MMC card, and movies can’t be recorded to that card either.
Other features* (7.0)
Still image recording with audio* – This feature can be turned on and off in the Recording menu. When activated, it records five seconds of audio immediately after a pictures is taken. The audio isn’t great, but could be a reminder of a hearty rendition of "Happy Birthday."
Audio Dubbing – This feature is in the Playback menu. It records 10 seconds of audio and attaches it to an image file.
*Flip Animation *– This mode snaps 320 x 240-pixel images at a selectable frame rate of 5 or 10 fps for up to 100 continuous shots. Once the string of pictures is shot, users can create a small movie (with 100 shots, it comes out to about 20 seconds at most). This will keep the kids busy on a rainy day.
Title Edit – This feature is located in the Playback menu. This new function allows users to scroll around and select letters on a virtual keyboard to create titles more interesting than the ones automatically assigned to the images.
Custom Modes – The Panasonic FZ18 has a Custom position on the mode dial, but it really houses three custom modes. In these three custom sets, users can preset the following: exposure mode, white balance, ISO, aspect ratio, image size, image compression, metering, AF mode, continuous AF, auto focus assist, AF/AE, exposure compensation, audio, world time, composition pattern, review display, burst, and sleep mode. The Custom modes can be specialized in the Setup menu.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 is more expensive than its predecessor but the extra $50 is worth the upgrades. The older camera has a 12x lens, 7.2 megapixels, and is missing some of the newer technology like face detection and Intelligent Auto mode. The new FZ18 has 8 megapixels and an 18x optical zoom lens. Its long lens puts it at the top of the market but its price remains relatively low. There are two other 18x ultra-zoom cameras currently on the market; the Olympus SP-560UZ retails for $499 and the Fujifilm FinePix S8000*fd* sells for $399. The Panasonic FZ18 still has competition, but is priced to sell – not to impress.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 – The FZ8 is the older sibling of the FZ18 and it looks very similar. It has 7.2 megapixels and a 12x optical zoom lens, which have been clearly upgraded on the FZ18. The FZ8 has the same Manual modes and many of the Scene modes, although it doesn’t have the advanced Scene modes that are included in the newer model. The FZ8 has optical image stabilization and the same Burst mode. It also shoots RAW files and is powered by the same lithium-ion battery. It does not have face detection and its ISO range tops out at 1250, below the FZ18’s 1600 at full-resolution. The Panasonic FZ8 has the same electronic viewfinder and 2.5-inch LCD screen. The FZ8 was outperformed by the new FZ18 in almost every way; it has less resolution, less accurate colors, more noise and less dynamic range. It retails for $349.
Canon PowerShot S5 IS – The 8-megapixel Canon S5 can’t compete with the FZ18’s lens as this PowerShot has only a 36-432mm (equivalent) 12x optical zoom lens. It isn’t as wide and can’t reach as far, but it is fully functional in the Movie mode. That is just one of the reasons why the Canon S5 makes a better hybrid camera-camcorder choice. It records 640 x 480-pixel movies at 30 fps and even manages to pull off proper exposure. The optical image stabilization system keeps bumps out of videos, and there is a wind filter to keep extraneous noise out of the audio. The audio however, is much better quality than on the FZ18: users can choose a sampling rate, but the finest quality audio on the S5 sounds very clear and can be picked up from several meters away. It also helps that the sound is recorded in stereo, as opposed to the FZ18’s mono. The Canon S5 has a similarly sized 2.5-inch LCD screen with the same disappointing 207,000-pixel resolution. The Canon’s LCD folds out and rotates though, and has wider viewing angles without pushing any special buttons. The Canon PowerShot S5 IS also has a hot shoe for flashes to be attached. The S5 retails for $499.
Fujifilm FinePix S8000*fd* – These specs sound familiar: 8 megapixels, 18x optical zoom lens, optical image stabilization, and face detection. It has a wider 27-486mm lens that is controlled by a similar zoom ring. It has full manual controls and 15 Scene modes along with a 640 x 480-pixel Movie mode that shoots 30 frames per second. The S8000*fd* does not record widescreen movies though. It has a better 2.5-inch LCD screen because of its 230,000-pixel resolution. It also has more internal memory with 58MB as well as being compatible with xD-Picture, SD, and SDHC memory cards. It runs on four AA batteries, which add some heft but are more convenient to find. The Fujifilm FinePix S8000*fd* sells for $399.
Olympus SP-560UZ – This digital camera also has an 18x optical zoom lens, but it is 1mm wider. Unfortunately, the lens isn’t very functional in the SP-560’s Movie mode. It locks unless the audio is turned off – but who wants silent movies? The 8-megapixel ultra-zoom digital camera has optical image stabilization and face detection technology. It also has a 2.5-inch LCD screen with smoother 230,000-pixel resolution. The SP-560 has manual controls but they are accessible only in menus; there isn’t a joystick or jog dial to quickly scroll through the options. The Olympus SP-560UZ can shoot RAW files and can even edit RAW files in the Playback mode. It is powered by four AA batteries, comes with 47MB of internal memory, accepts xD-Picture cards up to only 2GB, and retails for a pricey $499.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 – For $30 more, users can get a lot more features. The 8.1-megapixel Sony H9 has a full set of manual controls and automated modes including advanced Scene modes similar to those on the FZ18. The H9 has an advanced Sports mode that combines fast shutter speeds with its tracking 9-point auto focus system. This ultra-zoom camera has a 15x optical zoom lens, an optical image stabilization system, and a 3-inch LCD screen with 230,000 pixels. The LCD folds out and tilts. The electronic viewfinder is smaller but has better resolution. The H9’s ISO range extends to 3200 in full resolution and it boasts HD output, a NightShot infrared system for photographing in no-light situations, and HD slide shows with music. The Sony H9 also has an optical image stabilization system that works well and a face detection system. The Panasonic does beat it in a few areas besides the length of the zoom lens: the Sony has a weaker 250-shot battery and runs only on pricier Memory Stick Duo media. The Sony H9 retails for $429.
Who It’s For
Point-and-Shooters – Ultra-zoom digital cameras aren’t as pocket-friendly but still have automated modes for point-and-shooters. The FZ18 probably isn’t their first choice, but they would enjoy the ample zoom and Auto mode.
Budget Consumers – The $399 price scares away most budget consumers.
Gadget Freaks – Optical image stabilization and face detection are cool features, but are included on so many recent digital cameras that these picky consumers are hardly impressed anymore.
*Manual Control Freaks *– The joystick could be an annoyance, but the FZ18 has all the right stuff for these consumers.
Pros/Serious Hobbyists – The FZ18 could perhaps be a backup of a backup camera, but without interchangeable lenses it won’t be the main attraction for this group.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 is much improved from the FZ8. It has more resolution, a longer and wider 18x optical zoom lens, and adds features like face detection. The Panasonic FZ18 outperforms its predecessor in almost every way. Its pictures have much more accurate colors and greater dynamic range. The FZ18 retains some of the best aspects of the FZ8, such as the optical image stabilization. These improvements, particularly in image quality and performance, make the $399 price well worth it.
***Click the thumbnails to view the full-resolution images*
Specs / Ratings