10x optically-stabilized zoom and great image quality makes this pocket
rocket a real winner.
The build is first rate. The zoom is well-damped, with very little zoom-barrel play, even at long reach. The mode dial atop the camera, in the retro-rangefinder styling of this line, spins nicely with just enough resistance to indicate that quality control is a big part of the design and marketing of this travel cam. The cross-and-center multi-array is on the small side, which may challenge photographers with very large hands. If you can "palm" a basketball, the multi-array may present some challenges.
Autofocus speed in bright and average light is fast -- not the fastest we've ever seen, but it certainly doesn't crawl. At lower light levels, the AF assist beam kicks in to help find focus, and it slows down AF just a bit. There are nine AF zones (3x3 grid covering about 2/3 of frame) and multiple AF point selection settings, along with Single or Continous AF in most settings. Metering options? Average, center-weighted average, and spot, just as you'd find on a DLSR. There's still no full manual mode, but it's not the end of the world -- scene modes can be used to cheat shutter or aperture priority, and there's +/-2 exposure compensation to give the creative shooter a degree of manual-like controls. Again, we'll take the much-improved image quality and bigger sensor, and be happy that two of our three big requests were addressed.
We wish there was RAW, and we'd gladly pay a hundred dollars more for RAW capture in this camera. (We'll also take that full manual mode tossed in for the extra $100.00) as well. But, this camera is still very capable, and very affordable, even if it skips some of the really cool features of its bigger (and pricier) siblings, such as RAW, manual, and user-adjustable noise control settings.
One really great feature for the control freak is the "Speed Rack" image quality menu, which appears on-screen by pressing the Function/Trash button. From here, it's a couple of quick clicks on the multi-controller to adjust white balance, ISO, image quality and more. To put these image quality adjustments so close to top-level and almost one-touch in a compact camera is great for on-the-fly once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunities.
There's a couple of flavors of burst capture. High-speed, maximum quality will capture 5 shots at three frames per second. Low speed will grab 7 shots at standard quality in just under four seconds. There's also the INFINITY SYMBOL burst mode, which starts at 2 frames per second and chugs along until the card is full. It will slow down with a slower card (we strongly suggest an SDHC for this style of shooting), at higher ISOs (aggressive image processing), and at maximum quality (more data to be analyzed and algorithmed to the card.) The best we can tell you is this: it keeps going and going and going, but the ∞ burst is challenging to quantify, since there are a number of scene-specific and setting-specific factors that will affect your results.
Scene modes? Of course. And they cover just about any situation the world traveler might find themselves in -- starry sky, night portrait, aerial, fireworks, sunset, beach, snow, and underwater, to name a few.
Video mode captures at a maximum 640x480 at 30 frames per second at any focal length, but as as very typical of this camera class, there's no zooming during recording. The TZ3 also abandons the fun and silly stop-action video mode of its predecessor -- it was a fun feature, but it just doesn't seem to fit the whole "world traveler" photographer who is the target market for this camera.
If you've been paying attention, you'll have seen the word "travel" or "traveler" several times so far. "TZ" stand for "Travel Zoom" and Panasonic has gone to great lengths to incorporate many features aimed specifically at the frequent flier. Travel Date allows the photographer to pre-set and pre-load the dates and location for a trip, and the time and date will be adjusted accordingly, whether it's Morocco, Macau, or Miami for this photo adventure.
Another great traveler-centric feature is "Clipboard" capture mode. This low-resolution (1 or 2 megapixels) shooting mode writes to the internal memory of the camera, not the SD card. 2 megapixels isn't big enough for an enlargement, but it's plenty big for using the LCD screen to help navigate the sidestreets of Amsterdam off a snapshot of a map. And since these "Clipboard" maps and itineraries are saved to the internal memory, they're always on the camera, even if you swap out SDHC cards.
In playback mode, it's possible to add audio notes to a photo, while the details are still fresh in your mind. There's a calendar view option, and some rudimentary image adjustments, but clearly, the thinking is that the photographer that buys the TZ3 will wait to get home to do the serious image optimization adjustments on their home computer. There's the basic slideshow, with some fade effects and canned music, but the TZ3 isn't a pocket photo editing device -- it's a camera for the serious photographer looking for a compact device to make pictures on their travels.
If you're a High Dynamic Range enthusiast, you'll love that this compact cam has Auto Exposure Bracketing. It is only +/- one EV, but it can be combined with Exposure compensation to bracket a sequence of images all the way from -3 to +3 for your HDR visions. (And even if you're not into HDR, AEB is a great feature in this camera class.)
All in all, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3 has a great feature set, easy-to navigate menus, and great optics combined with true image stabilization in a compact, affordable package that is ready for just about any adventure. Toss it in the optional underwater housing, and this digicam is a capable world traveler, on land and at sea.