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Gives Canon a Run for the Money. Some Compromises in Exposure
on October 6, 2009
After my overwhelmingly positive experiences of owning Canon PowerShots (SD700 and SD800), I was was pretty sure I wanted another. I looked at three:
SD1200: only 3x zoom, 35mm not wide enough
SD980: 24mm wide, f/2.8, 5x zoom, touch screen. Wow! But no thanks to focus problems.
SD780: 33mm wide, 4x zoom. Almost, but since I take a lot of no flash shots, f/3.2 is a handicap.
After some more searching I came across the DMC-FS7 with f/2.8, 33mm wide, and 4x zoom. Not a lot has been written about this model in either official or user reviews. Amazon.com has not linked the reviews for the various colors of this model, but even combined there are fewer than 20 at the time of writing, despite being available for most of 2009. Based on Panasonic's track record for building decent cameras such as the DMC FX37, DMC-ZS1/ZS3, DMC-LX3--and the irresistible price--I ended up buying this one. No it does not have the hefty 'quality' feel of Canons. After a couple of days, I'm actually preferring the lighter weight because I usually shoot one-handed. I only miss a contoured grip to stabilize the lateral motion required to operate the zoom lever.
What stands out about this camera is the quick access to controls. Exposure compensation is one click away. Forcing FLASH ON is available universally whereas my Canons allowed this only in MANUAL mode. In PLAYBACK mode, you can delete while zoomed in--also unavailable on my Canons. And when you are shooting with a special setting such as a scene mode, MOTION PICTURE, 16:9, etc., one press of the red button switches you instantly into iAUTO ready to take a regular still picture--and another press gets you back to the setting you were in. Much faster than a dial, especially if you like to switch back and forth.
As is typical with digital cameras, outdoor shooting on a hazy day or in consistent shade produces the best pictures: here the DMC-FS7 is capable of good tone, gradation and sharp detail. But introduce some sun and the bright areas tend to overexpose and lose detail. When shooting portraits by the window, even indirect sun can cause parts of cheeks to whiten. Unfortunately, fill-in flash is not much help as FORCE FLASH ON often results in washed out whites. I also get the occasional half stop overexposure when shooting people against foliage.
I really enjoy the 16:9 (HDTV) aspect ratio. At social occasions, it makes up for the not-so-wide 33mm focal length because you can frame 3 faces or a group of people without them having to lean inwards or squeeze together. In fact, at a distance where people fill the frame waist-up, this camera takes some very pleasant indoor flash photos. Beyond that, the flash is too weak. The wide format also brings a fresh perspective to environment and landscape shots. A 3:2 aspect ratio is also available, probably for film converts.
Panasonic has definitely skimped on some features to keep the cost down. In PLAYBACK mode, rotating the camera to vertical does not fill the screen with a vertically taken (portrait) picture. Unless Canon has a patent on that, why omit this feature? The download to iPhoto seems slower than the Canons despite both being USB 2.0 interfaces. And incredibly, it's possible to insert the battery pack back-to-front and still latch the cover closed! I only realized my mistake because of the gaping sides. Fortunately the flimsy cover flexed and did not break.
In summary, the DMC-FS7 is a well thought out camera with decent performance, some compromises in exposure, and amazing value. I can literally buy two of these for the price of a Canon SD940!
To Canon I say: for people like me, your current line of point-and-shoots are less attractive than your older models. The fact that an SD880 sells for $1,200 (4x original price!) on amazon.com attests to how real a problem you have on your hands.
TWO MONTH UPDATE:
Take a look at the shots I've posted under customer images. iAUTO has really impressed me over time. It senses the type of picture you are taking and switches on the fly to the appropriate scene/mode. My favorite aspect of this is its ability to switch in and out of MACRO without me having to press anything! Image stabilization works well. I continue to experience the occasional overexposure, but the bulk of photos are fine. Forget about setting the COLOR MODE to NATURAL. Anyone used to the boosted color of Canon point-and-shoots will find this underwhelming. STANDARD is the factory setting, and VIVID is for color junkies. I've since learned more about the new Canon SD940 with f/2:8 and 4x zoom. I would seriously consider it, but if I dropped my Panasonic into the ocean today, I think I'd still buy another DMC-FS7.