By today's standards, it also is a steal.
It was Bruce Dale, the legendary ex-National Geographic shooter, who first raved about the camera. Months ago, he touted it to a luncheon group of photographers to which I belong and said flatly that the Panasonic FZ-1 had the best optics of any digital point and shoot he ever had seen.
[Now, here I should explain something. This is not any group of shooters getting together over burgers and beer to socialize. The f.65 group is what charitably might be called a group of "senior" photographers, editors and curators who have lived and worked (and made some pretty impressive reputations for themselves) in the DC area over the years. In fact, it's called "f.65" because you used to have to be 65 before you could be invited to attend the monthly luncheons. Happily (for me) that has changed. But the group still boasts some pretty heady company. Folks like the late Fred Maroon (who invited me to join), Bruce Dale, Bernie Boston, Volkmar Wentzel, Alan Fern, Dennis Brack, Fred Ward, to name just a few. In other words, people who are not easily impressed by the Next New Thing in electronic or photographic gadgetry and gimmickry.]
But at this particular luncheon, Bruce couldn't stop raving about the feature-laden FZ-1.
Dutifully, I took down the information and said to myself, "There may be a column here." Still, I told Bruce that I was a little put off by the fact that the camera weighed in at a mere 2.0 megapixels. [I should have paid attention to the smile on Bruce's face afterward.]
Months went by and I never got around to getting the camera from Panasonic, much less to doing a review. As it happened, at the final f.65 lunch before the summer Bruce brought in a number of 8x10 and other prints he had made to show off to his colleagues. They were spectacular, but we all have come to expect spectacular prints from Bruce who now is widely seen as one of the best digital printers around. These prints included several pictures of animals, including a gorgeous, incredibly sharp and detailed close-up of the head of a gorilla.
I assumed he had made the shots on assignment, with a big gun 35mm camera and an equally big gun lens.
Nope, Bruce said, it was during a family outing at the zoo and he had made the pix on his widdle FZ-1.
Now I was kicking myself: I had to get this camera and play with it.
And so I did.
Truly, this is a pro's digital point and shoot: the camera any serious photographer can carry when he or she does not feel like lugging the "real" gear.
First and foremost is the optics. The lens on the FZ-1 simply is unsurpassed in the digital field. Not surprising since, yet again, we have here a hybrid camera i.e.: different manufacturers supplying their best stuff for one product. In this case it is a body by Matsushita Electric (Panasonic) that is intelligently designed and well made, with a lens by Leica, arguably the industry standard for sharp camera glass.
The fixed zoom lens on this agreeably compact, yet substantial-feeling, camera is 4.6-55.2mm, which is equivalent in 35mm to a mind-blowing 35mm medium wide angle to a 420mm big gun telephoto!
But that's not all. The damn thing is a straight f.2.8 throughout the entire zoom range. This in itself is a remarkable feature since virtually any other point and shoot zoom lens loses significant light-gathering power the farther out the telephoto is zoomed sometimes more than two full stops, making the far end of the zoom virtually unusable in low light.
But wait, as they say on the Home Shopping Channel, there's more. Built-in image stabilization only adds to this camera's ability to deliver tack sharp pictures with remarkable consistency.
The examples I've shown here frankly blew me away. The first shot of a room with a nightstand lamp in the background, simply sets up what comes next. From the same camera position (and shooting by available light) I zoomed the FZ-1 all the way out to frame only the head of the lamp. I was shooting at a 1/15th of a second and as I slowly pressed the shutter, I could see the letters on the light bulb snap into focus as the camera's optical image stabilization made me feel as if I were swimming through nearly-set Jello (this is a good thing, trust me.)
Inevitably, the question of pixels will come up. At a flimsy 2.0 megapixels, the FZ-1 certainly sounds anemic. And, one might argue, this shortcoming is one reason Panasonic can charge so comparatively little for it (list around $450; street $375-99).
But I keep coming back to Bruce Dale's spectacular 8x10 images, as well to what other of my friends and colleagues, far better versed in digital than I, have been telling me: Size (in this case the number of megapixels captured by a camera) has turned into a kind of meaningless arms race. So much depends on other factors: post-production (i.e.: Photoshop tweaking), printing not to mention lens quality (remember that Leica glass), that simply touting megapixels is like bragging about having a Nikon body and using it with an off brand cheapo lens.
Real downsides? A few, though not enough to keep me from buying this little beauty. The ISO sensitivity tops out at 400. The storage medium is a flimsy, wafer-thin SD memory card, not the more rugged, industry standard, CF card.
But, if I am going to use this machine as my digital happy-snap, I'm just going to buy a 256mb SD card and not worry about taking the thing out of the camera and dropping it down a storm drain.
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.