This Panasonic/Leica hybrid blew me away on a number of fronts, mostly relating to its lens: tack sharp optics (not surprising, coming from Leica), a lens that zoomed from here to next week (the equivalent of 35mm to 420mm on a 35mm camera) and a maximum aperture of f.2.8 that stayed that fast throughout the entire range of the zoom.
Combine this with a handsome, lightweight body and easy-to-read controls (not to mention a reasonable list price of around $450) and you had a very good camera indeed.
But what turned the FZ-1 into a great camera was its phenomenal optical image stabilization that let me make incredibly sharp pictures.
In comparatively low light.
At full zoom.
The FZ-1 got any number of deserved raves besides mine, even if some reviewers balked at the camera's skimpy 2 megapixel pedigree and wished that it gave the photographer a bit more creative control.
So when Panasonic unveiled its new and improved Lumix FZ-10 (List $599; street price closer to $500), with twice the megapixels and such retro features as manual focusing, I assumed this would be a camera I might have to add to my repertoire. (My wife hates it when I say this.)
But, as it happens, I chose not to write a check, even though the FZ-10, by almost every measure, is a hell of a camera.
For me, this was a classic case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
And my principal disappointment with this camera was with its optical image stabilization: the very feature that thrilled me on its predecessor.
But first a rundown of features, some new, some improved.
This is an appreciably larger camera that the FZ-1. Its lens, especially with its big hood, makes for a sizable presence on the shoulder, and ironically, a troglodyte like me who remembers older, heavier, "ruggeder" SLRs, found this fact disconcerting with the camera's comparatively light weight. Go figure: with the smaller FZ-1, I had no problem with the weight could even make the case that this would be a plus to the average snapshooter traipsing through Europe on vacation. But make the camera bigger make it look, in fact, like an SLR, which it is not and something in me wished the camera had a little more heft, a little more authoritative bulk.
Hey, I didn't say it made sense.
In fairness, the engineers at Matsushita Electronics in Japan, which manufactures the FZ-10, have packed more than additional megapixels into this camera.
Little things, like a separate hot shoe that allows for the use of more powerful flashes than the tiny, though effective, pop-up version provided.
Bigger things like a much larger LCD viewing screen two inches, instead of the FZ-1's 1 1/2 inches.
A full array of creative controls (Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority) as well as all-manual.
Auxiliary lenses that expand the FZ-10's already wide range so that on the wide end you can go to 28mm, on the high end, to a whopping 630mm.
The controls on the camera are logically placed and easy to read. I love the fact that the camera offers a histogram a kind of electronic exposure meter, of you will that can help you create a perfect exposure, as opposed to one that will drive you nuts trying to fix things later in PhotoShop.
Like another, much, much pricier Panasonic/Leica hybrid, the Digilux 2 (reviewed here a few weeks back), the FZ-10 offers visual fine-tuning when focusing manually: the center of your image enlarges in the viewfinder to let you know for sure that you are in focus a great, great feature.
In fact everything about the FZ-10 sings, except when you look through the viewfinder and try to make a picture.
For example, I am not the only person who found the FZ-10's autofocus a tad slow. My friend Steve Hash, owner of PhotoPro in Kensington, Md., cited this as soon as I handed him the camera and he put it to his eye and squeezed the shutter release. He was right, too. Two other fixed lens digital cameras that he touts, the Fuji S5000 and S7000, are much faster in this regard.
But the biggest disappointment for me was in OIS optical image stabilization. Try though I might, I could not get the FZ-10's OIS to work as well as the system on the predecessor FZ-1.
They are, in fact, two separate systems. The FZ-1's was comparatively simple albeit ingenious, employing internal gyroscopes that sense motion. When activated, and especially when shooting at full zoom (i.e.: when you need OIS most), the FZ-1 made it feel as if you were working in slow motion. The normal tendency of an extreme zoom lens to accentuate the effect of lateral movement simply was minimized, if not eliminated altogether on the FZ-1. It was as if my arms were suddenly encased in semi-set Jello (this is a good thing when shooting at 420mm) and the pictures I got were sharp as tacks.
The FZ-10 boasts a somewhat different system, reportedly using two separate motors, and even offers you two separate modes of OIS, one that is continuous, another that kicks in just as the picture is snapped.
Granted, I was able to make better pictures at full zoom with the FZ-10's OIS than without. [See example I've presented here.] But neither of the FZ-10's systems, I'm afraid, worked as well for me as the simpler system on the FZ-1.
And that, in a nutshell, is what kept me from reaching for my checkbook.
[Postscript: Also in the "If it Ain't Broke..." department is the fact that there is, in fact, another FZ camera out there. The FZ-2 is identical to the FZ-1 in terms of size and megapixels, but it has a fuller range of controls, including aperture priority and manual.
In short, it sounds like the way Panasonic made a great camera even greater. But the FZ-2 is not available in America, which makes me wonder whether somebody in Japan thought the American market, obsessed with "bigger is better," figured the larger FZ-10 (despite its attendant OIS problem) would better appeal to camera enthusiasts in the land of the Super-Sized.]
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.