Panasonic aims for a high quality but still simple compact camera. (December 18th, 2010)
Panasonic's teamwork with Leica has arguably been one of the better partnerships between mainstream and high-end camera brands; some of Leica's lens treatments have led to enthusiast cameras like the Lumix LX3. Straddling the line is the Lumix DMC-FX75. While a more mainstream, pocketable point and shoot, its fast f2.2 lens and a full touchscreen interface might get some to leave their bigger rigs at home. Electronista will find out just how many in its FX75 review.
Product Manufacturer: Panasonic
- Bright lens, fast autofocus.
- Better than average in low light.
- Overall good image quality.
- Reasonably bright flash.
- Good (though not great) 720p video.
- 5X zoom.
- Simple touchscreen UI; tap to shoot option.
- Still compact-like in the darkest scenes.
- Not as fast as it could be for action.
- Low-resolution LCD.
- No viewfinder.
- Price may be in hard to defend middle ground.
Design, controls and expansion
The FX75 is handsomely finished with a metal and polycarbonate casing that features just enough trim to nicely contrast with the overall "blackness" of the body. The image-stabilized, Leica DC Vario-Summicron 4.3-21.5mm variable aperture f2.2-5.9 lens offers a film equivalent zoom of 24mm to 120mm (5X). The zoom makes it an average "walking around" lens for everyday shooting, but the aperture is wide and compares well against semi-pro cameras like the Canon PowerShot G12 or Nikon CoolPix P7000; it's not as wide as the Canon S95, however. If your needs go beyond these in zoom or light, it might be time to pull out the big camera once again.
The first thing you notice is a minimal amount of control buttons anywhere on the body. A power switch, a concentric zoom toggle, the shutter release and a movie recording button are the only controls on tap. A tiny electronic flash tube sits up and to the left of the lens and is sufficient for photography in most party situations where you are within ten feet of your subject. On the back is a record/playback switch, as well as a mode and menu button.
In place of all of the other seemingly missing controls is a three-inch diagonal touchscreen monitor that also handles menus and subsequent sub-menus to operate the Lumix. The interface is thankfully very intuitive and supports swipe gestures during playback; Panasonic has typically been good about camera interfaces, but the move to all-touch can sometimes give a reason to worry. The main problem we noticed is simply the default time given to wait for a response. It requires quickness on the part of the user as it oddly will automatically revert back to the previous menu.
As good as the interface might be, the 230,000-pixel screen is definitely showing its age. Many other devices have sharper image playback than the FX75, even on smaller screens, and this can make a significant difference for gauging the focus and overall sharpness of a shot.
Under the wrist strap lug is proof of good expansion, with a port housing both the mini-HDMI and mini USB connectors for transfer to HDTVs and computers, respectively. On the bottom are the requisite metal tripod socket and a lockable cover housing the SDHC memory card and the lithium-ion battery. The camera also has 40MB of built-in memory, although it's really only for emergencies; it allows for seven high quality, low compression images in the 14-megapixel mode, or 26 images in the five megapixel, high compression mode.
Seeing that virtually all DSLRs and even many compact cameras are filled with dials, buttons and touchpads, we are still getting used to the touchscreen, menu-based controls found on most of the new generation of point-and-shoot cameras. The Lumix FX75 fits squarely in that last category.
As with most of Panasonic's 2010 cameras, several automatic modes exist for those new to photography or just unwilling to tweak settings. They include an Intelligent Auto (fully automatic scene selection) mode; Normal Picture, where the camera sets up a more typical programmable auto mode; a Scene Mode with many variations on specific situations, ranging from sports to portrait to food, party and nighttime photography; and Cosmetic Mode, which compensates for various skin conditions and helps to give a tanned appearance for pale or off-color portraits. Manual settings aren't as wide-ranging as on pro or semi-pro cameras and focus on the pictures ratio and size, light sensitivity (ISO), white balance and the option of face recognition. Not surprisingly, fine-grained control isn't the focus, so you won't find dedicated mode dials or in-depth menus.
Shooting is easy using the normal shutter button located on the top plate of the camera. We miss the lack of a standard viewfinder in addition to the 3-inch monitor, but that's the direction that camera design is now taking. In a bow to convention, (and to those using touchscreen camera phones) Panasonic has also equipped the camera's touchscreen with the ability to tap to focus or even to take the shot; the feature is still relatively rare. The downside of this function is that it's too easy to introduce camera shake by an overly vigorous tap.
A burst mode fires shots at the rate of 1.8 frames per second in full quality or up to 10 frames per second if dropping down to three megapixels. The former is strictly average for the category, but it's fast enough when stepped down to catch genuine action scenes. One word of caution: as is often the case in this class of camera, the flash is disabled because it wouldn't properly keep up with the shutter speed.
Image quality and videos
Compact cameras' small sensors are relatively small and normally fare poorly in low light, such as at a concert or a museum. That's not necessarily the case here. An f2.2 aperture lets in a lot of light -- even more than some DSLR macro lenses -- and thus is less prone to either losing detail in the scene or blurring from an inability to lock in. Combine this with a very fast autofocus (as little as 0.25 seconds) and you get a camera that we found was surprisingly good at capturing a stable image in less than ideal conditions. We still noticed traces of mild blur in common conditions and wouldn't consider this a replacement for a modern DSLR in a truly dark scene, but it may tip the balance for those who frequently find themselves in edge cases where the light is only just good enough.
If it gets dark enough to invoke the flash, the results also tend to be fairly good, though the flash range limit of course still applies. Our test hit a roughly ideal point where the subjects, in this case fellow partygoers, were in focus and were given a healthy, if slightly light-hued skin tone. It's in these situations that you'll definitely see noise in the shot. The light sensitivity at high ISO levels is good enough for web photos and for night scenes where it's virtually expected that noise would creep in, but we'd advise looking higher if a clean image at night is your goal.
Clean images are the rule of the day for the daytime, and we were pleased in that environment more often than not. In the alternately overcast and sunny conditions of the season-ending NASCAR Ford 400 race in Homestead, Florida, we had few complaints about the color accuracy or any sunlight-related artifacts; colors were slightly on the warm side, but not gaudy. Metering was fast and got the right level of exposure even in situations that tend to force under- or overexposure. We didn't see any purple fringing (chromatic aberration), although the sky made this difficult to test.
The speed of the lens was at once slightly impressive and disappointing. It could follow a fast-moving pit crew with little blur, but the shutter speed was just not quite enough to follow the stock cars just after their start. That it kept up at all was good; a lot of cameras this size often can't manage as well. Still, it's clear that action photographers will want to consider either a mirrorless interchangeable camera or a DSLR. We were also made painfully aware of how much we miss a proper viewfinder on most every camera these days. Framing of moving objects (in this case, fast moving racecars) going in a right to left movement becomes a lesson in futility. If the object were coming directly towards the camera, there would be no problem.
As you might expect with the wide aperture and the 24mm minimum zoom, the FX75 does fairly well with macros; we got sharp detail and a pleasing soft background from the shallow depth of field. The 5X zoom wasn't as good as on some cameras; the Canon SD4500's 10X is much more powerful. We'd also toss out Panasonic's "intelligent zoom," since while it preserves detail better than others, it's not going to provide as accurate an image. As we saw, though, even the base zoom still went slightly further than with many point-and-shoots in a body this large and could at least make for a good crop. We'd take the wider angles over the further reach in most situations.
Video is covered in two possible formats. Panasonic supports 720p video recording in both Motion JPEG, for those who need an easier time editing in some movie apps, as well as the higher quality AVCHD Lite (H.264) format. The dedicated movie recording button is definitely useful as it lets you start shooting regardless of the video settings. Our experience with moving image quality was good, though not spectacular. There weren't any glaring artifacts or judder, although video uploaded to YouTube showed some block artifacting from the bitrate. Audio quality is average, too, and should work for most moderate or quiet scenes but may struggle to avoid clipping in a loud event.
After several days of shooting, we came to see the Lumix FX75 as a capable camera that without a doubt could be a full-time camera in the form of a sharp, well-exposed image or video clip for the average user. Again, it won't be a professional camera that earns an income, but it's good enough that virtually every casual user will produce good results. Even some hobbyists will like the camera for its macro-friendly lens and usefulness for more than just the well-lit outdoors.
At a $300 official price, the camera is similarly in a fairly safe category, as well. Canon's SD4500 and S95 are $50 to $100 more, and alternatives from Fujifilm, Nikon and others either lack a similarly bright lens or are again out of the price range. Our only real reservation is that the FX75 may be in an in-between category and could suffer by being relatively isolated; more dedicated photographers will almost always be willing to pay more for an even better lens or more manual control, and $300 can be a lot to ask for someone who might only take photos at parties and family events.
Still, it's hard to dispute that Panasonic has hit a sweet spot for anyone who prefers automatic shooting and simplicity but still cares enough about image quality to pay that much more.