You want a long zoom but you'd rather not pack a long lens. You aren't alone. It's a trend that every manufacturer is hoping to satisfy now that the mad scramble for ever-higher resolutions has drawn to a close.
Panasonic's latest play in this particular market is the TZ30, a compact, sturdy superzoom with plenty of extra features built in. It can be bought now for around £330.
At its heart you'll find a 14.1-megapixel sensor. This is a new component for Panasonic, with both high-sensitivity and high-speed data transfer that allows it to snap 10 full-resolution stills per second.
The truly impressive part though is the zoom, the range of which would equate to 24-480mm on a regular 35mm camera. That's a 20x zoom, and an impressive range. The shorter end of the scale is perfect for wide-angle landscape shots, and the longest is well suited to wildlife and sports photography.
These measurements only really make sense when experienced in practice, but it's easy to see what effect that 20x zoom can have on your images. In each instance below I have shot the same scene twice -- first at the lens' widest angle setting, and then at maximum telephoto, focusing on the area indicated by the red box.
The optical image stabiliser comes into play here, and proved its worth throughout these tests, making it easy to frame distant subjects and take sharp, unsmudged pictures at full zoom.
The long zoom should entirely compensate for the conservative resolution -- 14.1 megapixels is perfect for poster printing, but some may be put off buying a camera that's outranked in this respect by many of its competitors. Don't be. Once you get to this level, resolution is less important than the quality of the lens, and here I have no complaints.
Impressively, the maximum aperture at full telephoto stands at f/6.4, so even at this level you shouldn't have any trouble with overly dark shots. Panasonic also claims a maximum focus speed of just 0.1 seconds.
Sadly, minimum focusing distance is less impressive. Even at wide-angle, you can't get any closer than 50cm. The stats at full telephoto are more respectable. You'll still have to stand a minimum of 2 metres from your subject to focus, but if you're snapping portraits, you won't fit in a full face at full zoom from this distance anyway, so it's entirely reasonable.
Macro mode tops out at 3cm. Again, there are plenty of cameras that will take you closer, but few that will produce a sharper image. In this picture of a cat's nose, you can see individual beads of moisture on the surface, and extremely fine detail in the short hairs.
Design and build
You can't fault it where build is concerned. Rather than buttons, Panasonic has once again opted for clicky switches where power and playback/shooting modes are concerned. The zoom control is a little small, and the mode selector slightly further into the body than is comfortable for turning with just your thumb. But it's well balanced and has a comfortable rubber grip at the battery end that helps keep it steady.
Around the back, the 3-inch screen is perfectly integrated with the rest of the body, only slightly recessed to preserve the camera's smooth lines.
It's used for more than just framing subjects and reviewing results. The display is touch-sensitive, so a single tap will set the focus or fire the shutter. Likewise, sliding your finger up and down the right-hand edge of the screen zooms in and out.
There's a small bump on the top housing for the stereo mics, behind which you'll find a small green light that blinks periodically, even when the camera's switched off. This is the GPS indicator.
The TZ30 uses GPS to geotag your pictures, adding data that can be used by applications like Aperture and photo sharing sites like Flickr to position them on a map without you having to manually pin them. It's also used to set the camera clock to your local timezone. If you habitually forget to do this when taking pictures abroad, this could save you manually updating them when you get back home.
You can update the GPS feature's integrated maps by copying data from the bundled DVD onto an SD card, and importing it from there to the camera memory.
I tested this camera over two days under primarily overcast skies. It made excellent use of the available light to produce a punchy set of results with good colours and great contrast.
I never apply any colour correction to my test results, so what you see here is taken straight from the camera in Intelligent Auto mode. In both cases below, the dominant colours -- blue and yellow respectively -- are bright and vivid, without being over-saturated. There's plenty of variation in the lighting to differentiate shadow detail, and smooth transitions between tonally similar areas, without any stepping.
It performed just as well in situations where the subject has little tonal variation. There's very little differentiation in the colours of this horse's coat, for example, yet it's easy to distinguish the hairs of its mane, both from each other and from the shorter hair on the bridge of its nose.
However, it wasn't always perfect. Shot at f/5.9, there's a good depth of field in this shot of seagulls weathering a stiff breeze, below. They're all in focus from the front of the group to the back, but when you view the image at 100 per cent zoom, there is noise in the frame. This is particularly obvious in those parts that lie outside of the field of focus, such as the tree on the extreme left and the chain link fence at the back of the shot.
Dappling is easily observed in this image of a grounded boat -- most clearly on close examination of the name painted on its hull.
The image above was taken with the TZ30 set to its maximum zoom, at which point it would be reasonable to expect a small amount of vignetting, which means a darkening of the corners of the frame. It's rare that you would want to see this unless you particularly wanted to draw the eye towards the centre of the frame, which can be added in post-production, so it's good to see even illumination across this frame, and right into the corners.
The TZ30's video performance lived up to the high standard set by its stills results. Again, it made excellent use of available light, even under fairly overcast conditions. Apart from some very slight loss of focus while changing the level of zoom -- from which it quickly recovered -- the footage was sharp throughout.
The zoom was smooth and wind noise reduction is effective, although as can be witnessed from the footage below, it didn't manage to entirely eliminate a stiff onshore breeze.
The DMC-TZ30 is packed with features. Build quality simply can't be faulted. Although there was some noise on a few results, the output overall was of a standard to be proud of. Colour reproduction was good, even under unfavourable shooting conditions.
At £330, it's not particularly cheap, but you're getting a lot for your money, and we'd expect that price to fall substantially over the next few months -- as is the case with all pocket cameras. If you're not looking for an upgrade right away, then this is certainly one to keep an eye on, and you should give it some serious consideration before you next head off on holiday.