Panasonic Lumix ZS100 Digital Camera Review
In a battle for the high ground, Panasonic's ZS100 settles for the middle
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By the Numbers
The ZS100 is a camera designed to fill a rare void in a camera market that generally doesn't have them. Its spot is between small sensors with long zooms and big sensors with shorter lenses. It gives users a big sensor with a 250mm (35mm equivalent) zoom that is more than enough for most users. We put the ZS100 through the paces in our lab to see how well it holds up under closer inspection.
Ever since Sony came out with the stunning original Cyber-shot RX100, manufacturers have been scrambling to put out their own compact cameras with 1-inch sensors. Some have stuck with Sony's original blueprint, while others have put out bulky step-up options with significantly more zoom.
The new Panasonic Lumix ZS100 (MSRP $699.99) sits firmly in the middle, landing between the Panasonic LX100 and Panasonic FZ1000 in the company's lineup. It offers a 1-inch sensor and a 10x optical zoom all in a pocketable camera, with perhaps the best combination of image quality and size we've seen yet.
Of course, like most point-and-shoots, it's a combo that's built on compromise. For example, the ZS100 isn't as sharp as the RX100 IV and it doesn't have nearly as much zoom as most point-and-shoots in this price range. But even if it wins few superlatives, it should have enough zoom and enough resolution to satisfy most people.
Color & White Balance
Color on the ZS100 is hardly an area of strength with a ∆C00 (saturation-corrected) error of 3.01 and a saturation percent of 98.6% while shooting in the "Natural" color mode. This mediocre score is amplified since Sony's RX100 III recorded one of the best color scores we've ever seen, even among professional cameras. Other color modes, such as Vivid, allow users to boost saturation well above 100% if you're looking for more pop from your colors.
White Balance wasn't as bad off as the color modes, but it was still mostly pedestrian. Auto white balance struggled mightily with incandescent light and a little more than most cameras do with fluorescent, but was spot on for daylight. Custom was mostly spot on, never more than 100 kelvins off, so I recommend sticking with it if you have the time to set it. If you don't have time to do custom white balances every time you should stick with shooting RAW so adjustments can be made in post.
Design & Handling
Since the ZS100 is an entirely new model, we don't have a direct predecessor from Panasonic to compare it to. However, we can compare it to various compact cameras in its class, like the Sony RX100 IV and the Canon G7 X Mark II.
Like its competitors, the ZS100 is designed to be pocketable and lightweight—two things it absolutely is. However, both the Canon and Sony are smaller in every dimension, particularly the lens, though the ZS100's EVF also awkwardly sticks out. The Sony and Canon have fewer protrusions, making them less likely to get snagged on something in your pocket.
The entire body of the ZS100 is otherwise smooth to the touch, though it has a knack for picking up more fingerprints than a CSI crime scene. It also has a touchscreen (which is also a fingerprint magnet) that is fairly responsive. One annoying quirk of the touchscreen: if you're left eye dominate, your nose will move the focal point while shooting with the EVF. The only way to stop this is to completely turn "touchpad AF" off in the menu.
Smudges aside, the ZS100 certainly looks the part of a premium camera, with a control dial and mode dial on top, as well as a control ring around the lens. The overall aesthetic of the ZS100 is minimalistic, with buttons that are laid out in a fairly standard arrangement–none of which are out of the reach with either your index finger or thumb.
The rear LCD is a standard 3-inch 1,040K-dot screen, but the EVF is a bit lacking with a dull 0.2-inch 1,166K-dot "equivalent" viewfinder. This seems like an unnecessary corner to cut, especially when the RX100 III and IV excel in this department with 1,400K-dot and 2,360K-dot EVFs, albeit at slightly higher price points.
Travel cameras need to be very versatile for shooting in areas that may be too crowded to get the angle on a shot you want. The RX100 and G7 X Mark II both offer users tilting-LCD screens so you can shoot over crowds or get a low angle when you don't have the room to crouch. The ZS100 shaved off a few bucks by not including it, but I'd wager most users would rather have it when they need it.
The ZS100 shares a 1-inch sensor with the beastly Panasonic FZ1000 that came out back in 2014. Obviously the ZS100 is much smaller and therefore has a much shorter and slower lens–25-250mm f2.8-5.9 on the ZS100 versus a 25-400mm f2.8-4 lens on the FZ1000. However, it has double the zoom of other compact 1-inch sensor cameras while keeping the same relatively pocketable form factor.
What kind of image quality are you getting for giving up all that zoom? The kind that traditional travel zooms only dream of. The ZS100 isn't quite on the same level as the RX100, G7 X, or even the FZ1000, but it blows almost any smaller sensor camera out of the water. While we did hope to see better sharpness out of the ZS100, we knew doubling the reach of its rivals wasn't going to come without a tradeoff, and images are softer as a result.
Color and white balance scores were pedestrian at best. The most accurate color mode, Natural, was further off than Vivid is for most cameras in its class. White balance wasn't stellar outside of daylight, but you can shoot RAW images, so I suggest sticking with that if you want decent color and don't mind post processing. Noise was kept under control in our tests, but you can see a fair amount of reduction is going on if you inspect images at higher ISO levels. Most fine detail is smudged away once you pass ISO 1600, so I'd suggest staying under that.
Panasonic does have the one thing that they've nailed on nearly every camera in the last few years: 4K video. Users can rest easy, because the ZS100 is no exception. Even on a camera that had less-than-stellar resolution performance for still images, the video came out crisp and smooth. It was also able to capture a useable image in light as low as 3 lux, meaning you can shoot video around twilight without much hassle.
The ZS100 does sport the same big 1-inch sensor as the FZ1000, but all the image quality didn't transfer with it–mostly due to the lens. We recorded sharpness readings as high as 2500 LW/PH at MTF50, but also as low as 1000 LW/PH depending where you are in the focal range. Wide shots are sharp in the center, but fall off around the edges. The sharpest images came about halfway through the focal range or around 5x zoom–where its competitors' zoom stops.
We knew that the ZS100 was going to give up some sharpness by extending the zoom, but we would've liked to have seen a little better performance in this area. However, it was still much sharper than most compact super zooms on the market that lack the 1-inch sensor.
By the numbers the ZS100 had outstanding noise results, mostly due to the 1-inch sensor performing better in low-light. However, if you look at the image below, you'll notice that there is quite a bit of noise reduction going on and detail fades as a result. Pretty much anything over ISO 1600 starts to lose the fine details and becomes extremely muddy by the time you hit ISO 6400.
Feature-wise, the ZS100 is packed full of cool things from Panasonic's growing arsenal of quality cameras. Users have access to Panasonic's 4K Photo mode, which has become a staple on most of its cameras in recent years. It allows a shooter to capture 8-megapixel shots at 30 fps, including 30 frames before and after you hit the shutter. That can really come in handy for parents catching those unexpected moments that children tend to provide.
One of Panasonic's newest modes is called "Post Focus". This newer mode gives shooters the option to choose a focal spot after the photo is already taken. Basically it takes photos with different focus points to produce an image that gives shooters the option to choose the focal point you want after the fact. It does pretty much what a Lytro does, without as much technical wizardry. I'm not sure how useful it will be since you have to be in the mode–which Panasonic has given a dedicated button for–in order to use it, but I can see the utility in some fringe instances.
The ZS100 also has a WiFi connection that allows users to shoot, share, and transfer photos via their smartphone. When connecting the ZS100 to the Panasonic app, users choose remote shooting, playback on TV, send images while recording, or send images already stored on the camera. Shooting remotely allows you to do just that, shoot with your smartphone acting as the remote control for the ZS100. Wired playback on TV allows you to see 4K footage in all its glory on a 4K TV. Lastly, sending images (both while shooting and stored images) allows you to transfer images quickly to your phone for sharing via social media or other means.
One thing that Panasonic has seemingly mastered on all of its recent cameras is video, 4K video specifically. The ZS100 does shoot 4K video at 30 fps, but given the lenses same limitations that we saw in still image resolution, the results were merely average. In bright light, the ZS100 produced around 1,350 LW/PH horizontally and 1,250 LW/PH vertically. Dimming the lights down to 60 lux, we saw those numbers drop to 1,100 LW/PH horizontally and 1,050 LW/PH vertically.
In the past few years, you've basically had two choices when it came to compact cameras: large sensors or long zooms. Panasonic's ZS100 is one of the first to find an appealing compromise between the two. And though the image quality isn't quite on par with the best compact cameras out there and 10x zoom isn't that much, for the price we're not complaining.
As I mentioned earlier, there are a few downsides to the ZS100. One of which is the lack of a tilting LCD, which you'll find on the Sony RX100 IV and Canon G7 X Mark II. After all, a travel camera needs to work in crowded areas where you might need to shoot overhead or at low angles. It's really hard to frame a good shot of the Mona Lisa without that ability.
For people that don't need quite as much zoom, I recommend the Sony RX100 series. You don't have to drop the $950 for the Mark IV either–unless you really want 4K. You can pick up earlier versions for much lower price points and get phenomenal image quality and a slightly smaller camera. Even Canon's G7 X Mark II will likely be a good alternative, judging by the performance of the original G7 X.
But in the end, the Panasonic ZS100 is absolutely worth a look if you need a respectable compact camera that doesn't skimp on the zoom. Its combination of a 10x optical zoom, 4K video, 1-inch image sensor, and a compact body is simply unmatched in the market right now. While we would like to see an improved EVF and a tilting LCD, if you want a travel zoom with high-grade image quality the ZS100 is the camera for you.