on September 25, 2012
After years of being a Canon guy, Panasonic won me over last year with their Lumix FZ35 "bridge" camera, a top of the line, compact zoom that looks like a DSLR but has no interchangeable lenses and lets you shoot totally automatic or go manual. Without making this a FZ review, those cameras take fabulous still and HD videos automatically that will please the most fussy photographer. That Lumix line is still going strong with plenty of budget point choices for the serious amateur. I should note that I entered the digital world six or seven years ago with my prized all-metal body Canon SD450 Powershot Elph, a 5 mp little wonder that is a tiny terror that continues to take great stills and videos. So why am I buying another with two pleasers in my collection? Like a DSLR, my FZ35 is a bit too bulky to tote around daily for spontaneous shots, it's best reserved for the birthday, holiday, special event shots I take at home. So being a camera junkie, I thought it was time to treat myself to one of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of new, updated pocket-size cams that have come out since I purchased my Canon SD450 about 7 years ago. Specifcally, I was looking for a bigger LCD, longer optical zoom, better low-light sensitivity, preferably with one of the new CMOS sensors vs CCD, more megapixels to handle enlargements, and HD video (at least 720p which computers like) with zoom and continuous autofocus capability. These features are easy to find today, and frankly are on almost every point and shoot camera you might be considering over $100. The one thing I will likely lose from the old Canon SD450 is the viewfinder, as most manufacturers have discontinued giving you one on the point and shoots. But that's OK, my other cams have them if I encounter a serious outdoor bright light problem, or I could throw on one of those nifty folding combo light hoods and screen protectors for about $10.
So how did I find the Panasonic SZ15 out of the way-too-many choices? At first, the challenge seems daunting. Every manufacturer makes so many variations of the same camera, that it's a project in itself to figure which feature was dropped or added between model A and B. Therefore, I take a 3 step process to narrow down my choices. First of all, I go to the Amazon Best Sellers list for the category to see what is ranked #1, you can't argue with the marketplace, it's generally pretty accurate. The number one seller was the Panasonic ZS20, the model above the one I bought. The ZS15 is one step below and anywhere from $30 to $65 cheaper depending on the price you catch it at. I got mine for $165, currently it's $199. But the ZS15 was ranked #38 on that list, so why did I buy it? I probably wouldn't have if I had only used that best seller list. However, my next step was to Google up some professional reviews on the ZS20. A good reviewer will usually mention nearby models and steer you in the right direction. In this case, the reviewer loved the ZS20 and stated if you didn't need the GPS function, which tells you forever exactly where that pics was taken on the map, buy the ZS15 because it will save you money and essentially you have the same camera as the number one seller. I wasn't interested in GPS, so I followed his advice, and he was absolutely right! As a final check before I ordered it, I looked up the consumer reviews. Both the ZS20 and ZS15 had 4.5 stars and glowing reviews, so I purchased it. Had I only used the best seller list, I would have never considered the ZS15 as it was way too far down on the list. But I believe this kind of thing constantly happens when camera manufacturers make so many similar models, many get lost in the shuffle, or buyers simply buy the "loaded" one to make sure they have everything they need as they learn to use the camera. Forgive me for spending so much time on the choosing process, but I hope this may help others from overlooking better,wiser, less expensive choices by doing just a little more research prior to purchase.
Now for the camera itself. I've owned it about 5 days now and so far I am very pleased. It's a little thicker than many pocket cameras, but I love the metal body and controls, it speaks quality out of the box. Mine was made in Japan and they still build good cameras there. The controls set-up and software is similar to that of my upscale Panasonic FZ35 so the learning curve to use and understand all was short for me. I figured the best test was to shoot the same pics and videos using the FZ35 (which is about twice the price of the ZS15) then download the results on my computer and do side-by-side comparisons. And that's exactly what I did. All shots were done set on IA or P or Macro, both with and without flash on. I have to say the ZS15 shots were amazingly close to ZS35 shots, whether I was doing stills or videos. In fact, most people probably couldn't tell the difference and would be totally delighted. If the FZ35 is a 10, I'd rate the ZS15 a 9. The autofocus system worked perfectly both on close-up and on video, as well. The ZS's sound is mono vs stereo on the FZ's, but it too is not detectable on the computer view. I shot in 720p mode on both which is MPEG-4 on ZS15 whereas the FZ35 is MOV.com. Both formats looked great on my computer screen, though you may have to download a viewer like KMP or VLC instead of using your built-in Windows movie viewer. The ZS has a neat auto-retouch and creative retouch feature. With the push of a button it will show you an alternative look, and if you like it you can save it without losing the orgininal shot. Both have dedicated movie buttons to start and stop, and yes, you can zoom during video shoots. The Leica lenses do their cameras proud in both cases. The macro shots with the ZS15 were quite amazing, fabulous detail, even when it settled on that mode itself using the IA setting, which I believe stands for Intelligent Automatic mode. One quick negative side note, instead of the traditional battery charger, the ZS15 comes with a cord that charges the battery in the camera using either AC or your computer's USB port. This is a bit inconvenient, especially for charging back-up batteries for special events, so I'm going to buy a charger for it on Amazon along with a back-up battery and that problem will be solved for very little money.
That's all I have to say for now, so if you're looking for very well built, mostly metal, pocket-sized point and shoot camera that will automatically give you pictures that will rival some of the best bridge and entry level DSLR's, I'd recommend this one. If you need GPS, then spend a little more and get the ZS20, otherwise this Panasonic ZS15 is a great buy and a real performer.