The Panasonic DMC-ZS20 (also known as the TZ30 outside North America) is the latest travel-zoom compact camera from the company that practically invented the category. Panasonic claims it is the slimmest camera with a 20x optical zoom starting at an impressive 24mm equivalent ultra wide angle, sporting a new 14.1-megapixel Live MOS image sensor, 1080/60p video AVCHD capability, built-in GPS, and 3-inch touchscreen LCD.
The ZS20 replaces last year’s ZS10 and is available starting in March 2012 for $399.99 in black, silver, brown, red, and white. For this pictorial report, Panasonic provided me with the red one.
[nggallery id=52] Let me start that I may just be the biggest sceptic in pocket cameras. I hate them… no, I loathe them. They are only good for “emergencies” and that’s about all. Slow focus, shutter lag, bad metering, oversaturated colour rendition, unuseable ISO higher than 200. To put it simply, I’d rather lug my gigantic dSLR even while travelling literally half way around the world rather than to use one of those pocket cameras.
This time, however, Panasonic have convinced me otherwise and in order to prove them wrong, I deliberately only brought the Panasonic DMC-ZS20 as my sole camera for my 2-week travel to Indonesia.
Last year’s Panasonic DMC-ZS10 was an appealing collection of features, cramming a 16x optical zoom lens into a compact little body that could fit in your pocket. It was an impressive feat of engineering, but it sacrificed image quality significantly with a poor sensor and a lens that restricted image sharpness. The Panasonic ZS20 is a complete reversal of the ZS10, with an even more expansive zoom range in front of a retooled and dramatically better 14-megapixel image sensor. I’m particularly impressed especially by the sensor’s high ISO performance, which preserved some measure of detail while keeping noise to a bare minimum even at ISO 1600. There are some performance hitches, of course, and you’ll want to read on to get my full impressions of the image quality of the ZS20.
Noise on the Panasonic ZS20 was hardly apparent all the way through its ISO sensitivity peak of ISO 1600 (although it becomes very apparent at ISO 3200). The camera’s JPEG engine was able to very accurately diagnose and reduce noise without destroying too much of the fine image detail at low ISO, though noise reduction is heavily applied at ISO 1600 and above. Small details such as text were all but gone, but the overall application of noise reduction was better than most pocket cameras out there.
Noise was a primary concern I had with the performance of last year’s Panasonic ZS10 (where even ISO 400 was atrocious). I was left impressed by the ZS20’s improved performance in this area (ISO 400 and higher), with the camera returning a relatively minimal noise at the maximum ISO setting of 3200. The camera did show an average noise level at ISO 100, but with noise reduction not taking the broad-stroke and hamfisted approach of previous years’ models the results at ISO 100 were very impressive.
ISO options aren’t too extensive on the Panasonic ZS20, with a whole-stop scale of 100-3200 available, along with an automatic and intelligent ISO option. It is not a bad thing. In fact, simplifying things are key to the pocket camera users. Intelligent ISO simply selects from a range up to ISO 1600, but it accounts for both subject movement and brightness. If you go into the camera’s scene menu you can also select a “high sensitivity” scene mode that allows for a maximum ISO of 6400 when absolutely necessary, but for performance sake we recommend sticking to the main ISO scale of 100-1600 when possible while leaving ISO 3200 and 6400 for 4”x6” prints only
The Panasonic DMC-ZS20 (or TZ30, outside of North America) is a travel zoom model that manages to fit just about everything you might ask for into a compact camera that can fit easily into a jacket pocket or purse. It has a 20x optical zoom lens, new 14-megapixel image sensor, 3-inch touchscreen LCD, optical stabilization, and built-in GPS.
If you’re still sceptical, I don’t blame you. I was sceptical too.
The GPS is still practically useless unless you’re standing still in a wide open field, the image sharpness is vastly improved, the high ISO performance is much better (though ISO 1600 is the maximum I would ever use in this camera), and the 20x optical zoom lens provides an extremely serviceable image quality. Color accuracy is still a bit lacking, however, but I’m extremely impressed by the improvements made in this camera. I wish there were more creative features and a little more fine control in the camera, but there’s always my dSLR should I want that type of controls.
Altogether the Panasonic DMC-ZS20 is a fine camera, an extended zoom model that doesn’t sacrifice too much in key areas (color accuracy and lens performance) while surpassing ,y expectations in others (high ISO performance up to ISO 1600). For a camera that provides a very attractive combination of size and zoom range, I can live with its faults and take advantage of its strong points. All in all, I hardly miss my dSLR during my two-weeks stint in Indonesia.