A Sneak Peek at Panasonic's new Ultrazoom EVF leaves us wanting an encore.
We were able to get our hands on the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 a few days before today's official announcement, and, to put it briefly, the Olympus SP 550UZ appears to have some serious competition in the EVF ultrazoom category. With an optically-stabilized 18x 28-504mm (equiv.) f/2.8-4.2 Leica zoom, RAW capture, Intelligent Auto mode (IA), face detection and a slew of other high-end features as well as fun and easy scene modes, the FZ18 is perfectly positioned for both the beginner looking to move up and the advanced enthusiast looking for something with DSLR-like performance and versatility in a more compact package.
The build is sturdy, hand-feel is right-on, and our first impressions of the Image Stabilizer and face detection are "impressed." Under stage lighting, no flash, at high ISOs, at supertelephoto, at slow shutter speed, exposures in Face Detection were right-on. And the floating lens elements of Mega O.I.S. produced a lot of long-reach keepers, even under less-than-ideal lighting. Stage lighting is challenging even for experienced photographers, and it can easily fool metering systems, but the Face Detection usually tracked and exposed the images correctly once it locked onto a face in the frame.
Intelligent Auto mode is an interesting innovation that analyzes the scene and chooses Face Detection, Backlighting, Macro, or a couple of other types of meter-challenging shots and picks which mode it predicts will best expose the scene. Our sneak peek featured performers onstage with dramatic spotlighting. The FZ18 sometimes chose "Backlighting" and other times chose "Face Detection" during the show. The "Backlighting" shots were a bit overexposed with blown skintones. When IA chose "Face Detection," the skintone exposures were pretty tack-on, but face detection only works when there's two eyes -- so for profiles it usually chose backlighting. Twitching the shutter button in IA mode helped prod the FZ18 from one IA mode to the next, and it would usually jump right to "Face Detection" so long as there were two eyes visible on the subject when the shutter was twitched.
We'll be honest -- all of our shots weren't keepers, but low-light stage photography of moving subjects is a low percentage style of photography, even with top-of-the-line pro gear. You've got to crank up the ISO, slow down the shutter speed, open aperture wide, and shoot a lot of shots to get a handful of winners of indoor on-stage action. It took guts for Panasonic to preview its cameras in a situation that is challenging even for seasoned pros -- and the FZ18 performed admirably.
There's an old showbiz adage about always leave them wanting more -- not in terms of the feature set or performance -- we just didn't have enough time with the FZ18 in the one-hour limited engagement sneak peek. We're ready for the encore!
Our first impression of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 is that it is an impressive little camera, and we can't wait until we get our hands on a fully testable unit for our lab and field tests.