The Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ8/ZS5 Super-Zoom Camera

For my trip to Zurich I bought a Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS5, which was released in March 2010.  Here are my Picasa albums for Zurich and my later trip to Tygerberg Zoo in Cape Town taken with the DMC-ZS5 (DMC-TZ8 in Europe).

Here are some of the reviews by photographyblogdpreview and Panasonic's product page.  The product page gives a summary of the camera's vital stats and features.  Below are my findings from taking the camera on real-life overseas travel for a week.

On the confusing naming, I think ZS implies "Super Zoom" and TZ means "Travel Zoom".   The  ZS5 is the US camera specially imported by SA Camera, because the European version, the TZ8, is not yet  available in South Africa through the Panasonic distribution channels. The difference is the charger (US vs EU plug) and NTSC vs PAL TV-out.  The charger is a pain in Europe where travel adaptors feature a rim that prevents the US pins on the charger from actually reaching the socket.  Fortunately the lithium battery lasted over 330 photos and a few minutes of movie (Friday to Monday), and only needed 10 minutes of charging at a Zurich camera shop to last the rest of Monday.

The ZS5/TZ8 is also the baby brother of the ZS7/TZ10, the difference being a smaller LCD, lack of RAW recording, lack of AVCHD encoding for hi-def video, and lack of a (power-sucking) GPS to geocode all your photos for you.   Nonetheless the ZS5/TZ8 is a great travel companion: small and lightweight, it's happy to do all the hard thinking for you, and has great zoom for zoo visits, and you can even tell it what time zone and location tag to use for the dates of your trip.   Lastly, the ZS5/TZ8 and ZS7/TZ10 are successor to the ZS3/TZ7 that was released in early 2009.

Most of the time I stick with the iA or "Intelligent Auto" mode, which on half-press will select a scene type (portrait, scenery, action, night portrait etc), detect normal vs macro mode, select ISO rating, shutter speed and aperture, flash mode, picks out the subjects to focus on.  iA mode does have a few parameters including maximum ISO rating, forcing flash-off the resolution / aspect ratio (4:3, 16:9 or 3:2).   If I don't like the settings, I release the button, half-press again and iA will often pick different settings, for example focusing on the zoo animal instead of the cage.   Specifying "ISO-max 400" is handy for auto-mode because the higher ISO levels that it might pick - up to ISO 3200 for a motion-shot in the dark - are too grainy to be of any use.

The zoom is also pretty smart: the zoom toggle maxes out at 12x zoom, but hitting the extended zoom button will let it go up to 16x zoom at a lower resolution (center of CCD), and hitting the button again will digitally zoom to 32x.   Once more goes all the way back to 1x zoom (wide-angle).  The image stabiliser ensures photos are not blurry except if the subject was stationary at half-press (slow shutter selected), but then starts moving after the half-press.  If it is very dark and your hands aren't steady the camera tries to compensate by using the highest ISO and fastest shutter feasible, for a dark and grainy but only slightly blurry photo. If you use a tripod for the night scenery it will select a longer exposure and take a good photo.

I also use the P or "Programmable" often in situations where iA gets it wrong, typically with funny lighting or macro scenes.  I prefer programmable mode to selecting one of the three-dozen specific scene modes. P-mode will still select the shutter, aperture, ISO and auto-focus, but it has a quick-menu to  configure all the scene related settings like exposure, white balance, macro mode, ISO mode (specific ISO or auto+ISO-max) flash mode, auto-focus mode, stabiliser mode and dozens of other settings.  The P mode has an option to record 5 seconds of sound alongside the photo, which is handy for recording captions you would otherwise forget, like plant names.

For special shots I use manual (M), shutter-priority (S) or aperture-priority (A) modes. S-mode has manual shutter speed and auto-aperture, useful for long nigh-time exposures taken with a tripod.  Aperture-priority mode is the opposite and is useful for shallow-field or deep-field shots. Manual mode takes manual shutter, aperture and exposure, but will still do automatic ISO, white balance and such if you let it.

The image quality is fine if you don't let the ISO go above 400.  The small high-density CCD has a lot more per-pixel noise than the small low-megapixel CCD's of older cameras or the large CCDs of the four-thirds DSLRs.  But the noise is mainly noticeable at 1:1 zoom - you don't see it at screen size, scaled down for web albums, or in print.  The movie quality is meh, it's ok provided you pan very slowly, but so far I haven't taken anything worth uploading. 

I do have a reliability complaint, in that the LCD is easily scratched by just one grain of sand.  So do not let the camera anywhere near sand or dirt.  Also, I expect that to sit on the camera or drop it once will be the end of it.  It's also susceptible to humidity, temperature and pressure changes (well, to condensation), so I'm concerned that the dirt and dew found on overnight hikes will bring the camera to an early death if I regularly take hiking.   So far the camera is two weeks in and going strong.

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