Panasonic Lumix ZS50 Digital Camera Review
Panasonic's ZS50 travel zoom trades megapixels for low-light prowess
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By the Numbers
Like the ZS40 before it, the ZS50 is a monster on paper. Sporting a 30x zoom, reduced pixel count meant to improve quality, and improved EVF, the ZS50 aims to return honor to the ZS-series. But does it have too much in common with its predecessor to keep it from changing our tune about the ZS-series?
In recent years, cameras have been fighting a losing battle. As more and more users elect to use their phones as their on-the-go camera, there are fewer times when a dedicated compact camera makes sense. Camera manufacturers have been combating this trend by packing as much performance as possible into pocketable point-and-shoots, hoping optical zoom will sway buyers. Just over a year ago, Panasonic announced the ZS40, a compact camera with advanced controls and a mighty 30x optical zoom lens to serve that exact purpose.
One year later, Panasonic has announced its newest take on the travel camera with the ZS50 (MSRP $399.99). At first glance, the ZS50 is almost identical to last year's ZS40, with the exception of the redesigned grip. On closer inspection, the ZS50 has a few key changes that separate it from its predecessor. Panasonic has been shrunk the resolution from 18.1MP to 12.1MP, expanded the ISO range, removed the built-in GPS, and increased the resolution in both the EVF (electronic view-finder) and the rear LCD.
While the changes to the ZS50 seem promising, previous ZS-series cameras have come up short of expectations once we put them to the test. This year is different.
Design & Handling
Panasonic got a grip on the ZS series again
The ZS50 continues to carry the same overall feel as previous ZS-cameras aesthetically–small, dark, and handsome. Physically you won't notice a difference in this year's version other than the larger grip. It also retained all the controls necessary for users to have full control of their images.
The layout on top of the ZS50 is completely unchanged, with a mode dial, zoom toggle, power switch, record button, microphones, speaker, and shutter release all reprising their roles. The rear controls are in a standard point-and-shoot layout with a command dial surrounded by playback, display, trash, and a function button. The WiFi button remains under the rear grip, but the LVF button is now further right and doubles as a second customizable function button.
Probably the largest, and most welcome, additions are the changes to the grip and aperture ring. The forward grip on the ZS40 was merely a 1-inch strip of leather, making it next-to-impossible to steady the camera while shooting at longer focal lengths. The ZS50 has gone back to the previous ZS-series grip which is a healthy, curved grip that provides plenty of stabilization for its 30x zoom. The rear thumb grip is also slightly more robust, improving overall handling. In addition to the grip, the front aperture ring is slightly thicker and more tactile than the ZS40, making it easier to change settings on the fly.
One advantage that the ZS50 has over the competition is its EVF. While both the rear LCD and EVF have been given resolution bumps, the EVF has been upgraded in a huge way. The LCD has gone from 920k dots to 1,040k dots–a 13% increase in resolution. The ZS40's EVF was only 200k dots whereas the ZS50 is sporting a 1,166k-dot EVF–a whopping 483% higher resolution. The changes make the new EVF a much more attractive framing option for users than it was previously.
Shooting with the ZS50 is simple and straightforward, though it can be a bit slow to focus at long range. We loved the aperture ring on the ZS40 and we love it even more with the extra surface area on the ZS50. You can even customize it, so that it'll control shutter speed, aperture, or creative modes. The new grip also makes framing long range shots easier, though it is still rather shaky once you approach the 15x zoom mark—even with the optical stabilization.
Color and White Balance
Let's start with what the ZS50 does fairly well, color and white balance. We were a bit surprised to see the ZS50 post very average scores considering last years ZS40 was one of the best we have ever seen. Just to be clear where our disappointment comes from, the ZS50 didn't do poorly in these categories, but the ZS40 crushed them last year.
In the color test the ZS50 scored a ∆C00 saturation error of 2.12 with an overall saturation of 106.7%. This is a solid score–especially for a point-and-shoot–but it's just not what we saw from the ZS40 last year. However, it's on par with what both Canon and Sony's travel zooms produce.
When it comes to white balance, the ZS40 was a superstar among all cameras, not just point-and-shoots. The accuracy it showed us last year was so impressive that we ran the test multiple times more than usual to make sure it was true. Unfortunately, the ZS50 does not carry over the freak-of-nature accuracy, but it isn't bad.
The auto white balance recognized daylight with near perfect accuracy, but stumbled with fluorescent before falling flat on incandescent. These results too are fairly average for the class of camera it's in, just a shame that it couldn't repeat last years herculean effort. We suggest you stick with custom white balance if you want true colors.
Another disappointing ZS camera in the lab
The ZS50 shares many performance features with the ZS40, including a 24-720mm f/3.3-6.4 Leica-branded zoom lens, 1080/60p video, 10 fps burst shooting at full resolution, and a Venus Engine image processor. Since the ZS40 was a dud in the lab, the similarities had us a bit skeptical about how the ZS50 would stack up.
One surprising change is to the sensor, which is the same size as the ZS40’s but has 50% fewer pixels. The benefit there is that the pixels can be about 50% larger, gathering more light. This improves low light image quality, though sometimes at the expense of fine detail.
When we tested this, we saw an overall drop in sharpness on the ZS50, but noise levels were lower which often leads to a better looking image. That said, just because it improved over the ZS40 doesn't mean it's good. Most zoom cameras in this class suffer from what is called diffraction limitation. Basically when the lens closes down too far, sharpness suffers regardless of how good the lens is. The ZS50 hits this around the 10x zoom mark, after which image quality diminishes.
Both color and white balance took a slight dive in accuracy as well. Not that the ZS50 was particularly bad–it was on par with most cameras in its class–but the ZS40 comes out on top when you compare it to almost any point-and-shoot on the market. We aren't sure what Panasonic did differently for white balance on the ZS40, but they should have stuck with it on the ZS50.
Low-light performance is slightly better on the ZS50 thanks to the lower resolution and less aggressive noise reduction. The range extends up to ISO 6400, but we would be hard pressed to recommend floating anywhere above ISO 800. If you look at Rosie below, you'll notice a colossal loss of quality from ISO 1600 and up–with ISO 6400 looking more like an impressionist painting than a photo.
Video is in the same boat as the still photos, with muddy details. However, the 1080/60p video is smooth and shows minimum signs of trailing and artifacts. Low-light sensitivity is a bit disappointing as the camera needs at least 15 lux of light to record a usable image, so things like candle-lit birthday parties are bound to suffer. That isn't too surprising given the lens is only f/3.3 when wide open, but it's still worse than its predecessor.
Sharpness, as we mentioned in the main review, is a tricky thing to pull off with long lenses, small sensors, and small apertures. Unfortunately, Panasonic has not defeated physics with the ZS50, so it suffers from the same diffraction limitation that plagues all of these cameras.
A camera with a 1/2.3" sensor, like the ZS50, that limit is when the aperture is just under f/5. The ZS50 goes from f/3.3 to f/5 when it reaches just 4x zoom. That means that the 5x-30x zoom range are all suffering great loss in quality due to the diffraction limit. This makes details muddy and images seem blurred even when they are perfectly in focus.
This isn't a flaw from manufacturers, but a sacrifice that physics demand. If you make the sensor bigger, you lose the zoom ratio. If you make the lens bigger, you lose the small size of the camera.
Noise is always the nemesis of small sensor cameras, there just ins't enough surface area to gather much light. It's another sacrifice demanded by physics. However, the ZS50 does a better job than the ZS40 of handling its noise thanks to the smaller resolution. Shrinking the resolution gave Panasonic more room for larger the photodiodes, thus being able to collect more light.
Even with the changes, the ZS50 is pretty atrocious at high ISOs. When you get above the ISO 800 mark, you start to get noise that slowly turns your images into detail-less blobs of color. If you look at Rosie, ISO 1600 is useable in a pinch, but ISO 3200 and 6400 are off-limits unless you are going for the abstract look.
Full of features, but the EVF still separates it from the pack
Last year's ZS40 was truly brimming with features, and this year's ZS50 is no different. The biggest feature is by far the built-in EVF, something no other camera in its category offers. As we mentioned earlier, the ZS50's EVF resolution is a staggering 483% higher than that of the ZS40's. This gives users a huge leg up over other cameras in its class while framing and tracking subjects.
Obviously a 30x zoom packed in such a small package is the main draw with travel cameras. However, the ZS50 also includes built-in WiFi and NFC that allows you to use your smartphone as a remote with the "Panasonic Image App". The app allows you to change settings, focus, and zoom remotely with your phone.
The ZS50 is compatible with the app's new "Jump Shot" mode which allows you to trigger the shutter release on the camera by jumping with your connected phone in your pocket. (You can also just shake your phone for a less dramatic trigger.) Additionally, you can transfer photos from the camera to your phone or even share photos straight to the web.
Unfortunately, the built-in GPS from the ZS40 wasn't included on the ZS50. The ZS50 does roll out a new Time Lapse Shot feature–previously seen on the Panasonic GM5–which automatically combines a time-lapse series of images into a single MP4-format video at 30 or 60 fps. There are also two high-speed modes of 720/120p and 480/240p.
Creative modes and filters are a must for travel cameras to compete with smartphones. The ZS50 carried over Panasonic's Creative Control filters, which include 15 options ranging from Retro to Dynamic Monochrome to Cross Process. Creative Retouch, which are the same 15 filters as Creative Control, can be used to apply these filters to JPEG photos that have already been taken. There are also 18 scene modes such as Sunset, HDR, and Night Portrait that help entry-level users get the shot they want the first time.
Video on the ZS50 falls victim to the same dull details as the still images. In testing, it resolved 450 LP/PH horizontally and 500 LP/PH vertically, which is fairly average for point-and-shoots. It is capable of 1080/60p video which is silky smooth with little artifacting or trailing.
When we switched over to low-light, sharpness dropped to 350 LP/PH horizontally and 450 LP/PH vertically. While this isn't ideal, we knew the camera would struggle a bit in low-light. Sensitivity also took a hit on the ZS50. The ZS40 got as low as 9 lux while being able to still expose an image above MTF50, but the ZS50 only got to 15 lux before it hit that mark. This means you'll need more light to shoot useable video than with previous ZS-series cameras.
Have zoom, will travel
All in all, the ZS50 is a fun alternative to using your phone. It's portable, packs a whopping 30x zoom, and the controls are balanced enough to be comfortable for new users and enthusiasts alike. Add in the improved EVF, aperture ring, and RAW shooting, and you've got the tools to take much more control over your images.
The changes made to the sensor did improve image quality slightly, but the camera is still suffering from a small sensor, slow autofocus speeds, soft images, and a small aperture. Unfortunately, the quality is simply not good enough for anything more than small prints and social media. In truth the images aren't much better than we're seeing with current smartphones, leaving the long zoom as the sole benefit.
When comparing the ZS50 to its predecessor it seems to take several step forward, but a couple steps back as well. It improved handling and usability with a far sharper EVF, more robust aperture ring, and more substantial grip. However, it lost the built-in GPS, resolution is down, and both color and white balance performance dipped. In general, though, it's worth the slight premium thanks to that EVF.
The real question is: "Does it stack up to the competition?" Performance wise, there are better 30x zoom cameras out–like the Canon PowerShot SX700 and the Sony CyberShot HX50V. However, neither of them have an EVF, aperture ring, or shoot RAW files. These features generally belong to more expensive high-end point-and-shoots, giving the ZS50 a huge advantage.
But given that the ZS50 costs around $400 itself, it's really not all that far off from those better cameras. Current models like the Sony RX100 III and Canon G7 X are very pricey, but older high-end cameras like the original Sony RX100 can be found for less money. You won't get the EVF or 30x optical zoom, but you'll get far better images.
If you're looking to stay under $400 and absolutely need the 30x zoom, the ZS50 stands alone. It's expensive for the image quality you get, but that's the price you pay for a product with so few direct competitors.