Lumix FZ30: The Great Digital Chameleon

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works
Tuesday, April 25, 2006; 1:07 PM

In the shifting middle world of "prosumer" digital cameras -- ones that are more than consumer (i.e.: amateur-market) point and shoots, yet nowhere near professional-level gear--you likely will hear comments like these:

"Look," the novice might say, "all I want in a digital camera like this is one that's portable and easy to use."

"Look," the serious amateur might add, "all I want in a digital camera like this is one that's portable, not too difficult to use and that takes good pictures."

"Look," the pro will say, ending the discussion, "all I want in a mid-range digital camera is one that is good enough, sharp enough and reliable enough to act as a second body when my brand-new hyper-expensive Humongoflex Digital XY-47 goes down in flames during a shoot."

Remarkably, the latest hybrid digital from Panasonic/Leica, the Lumix DMC- FZ30, may satisfy each of the above photographers -- if not all the time, then most of the time; if not completely, then sufficiently.

It is one remarkable camera chameleon, with a list price of roughly $650, street price closer to $500.

The "hybrid" part of the FZ30 refers to the fact that two great camera makers, Panasonic of Japan and Leica of Germany, have once more teamed up to produce it -- each maker going to its strengths. Panasonic (aka: Matsushita Electrical Industrial Co.) has designed the innards of this easy-to-handle camera and has packed it with enough features to satisfy even the pickiest gear head. (And, I must add truthfully, enough to occasionally befuddle the novice -- or a film-loving troglodyte like yours truly.)

This is not really a problem, though. I found the FZ30's manual fairly easy to follow, which is not always the case nowadays with ever-more sophisticated (read complicated) electronic photo equipment.

For Leica's part, its input covers what is, and always will be, the most important part of any camera: the lens. The very fast fixed f.2.8-3.7 Leica Vario-Elmarit zoom lens (the astounding equivalent of a 35-420 mm zoom in conventional 35mm) simply may be the best, sharpest lens on any digital camera on the market today -- certainly on any prosumer camera. Combine this with the Lumix's new, larger and very bright viewing screen and you have a camera that is just a delight to use, especially in low light.

This amazing zoom range, combined with only a half-stop decrease in speed at the high end, is one reason the FZ30 could work as a pro's second body or anyone else's all-around camera. A camera with a fixed lens like this, and as good as this, easily could take the place of a higher-end digital SLR taking multiple lenses.

And I haven't even mentioned image stabilization. [Be patient; I will.]

The Leica glass on the FZ30 is similar, though not identical, to that which appeared on Panasonic's predecessor FZ cameras: the groundbreaking FZ-1 and the later FZ20. Note: while these lenses are not made in Germany; they are made in Japan to Leica's exacting specifications. And it shows. Granted, my view is subjective, but I found a palpable difference in image sharpness, even in the FZ30's LCD image, compared to what I have seen on other digital SLRs. And the results speak for themselves. [Check out the macro image that I made of my ring hand and you will see what I mean.]

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