Build complex toys and simple tools
by Tony Karp

In-use review -- Panasonic DMC-FZ18 - Part 1
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Bouchons in wooden cabinet
Panasonic DMC-FZ-18, 28mm equivalent, 1/13 sec. handheld @ F3.6, ISO 400, post processed in LightZone 3 and Paintshop Pro X2.

Always looking for the latest and the greatest, I have a new camera -- a Panasonic DMC-FZ18. So new, in fact, that most stores don't even have it in stock as yet. I got mine at the local Costco, which has a special bundle that throws in a 1GB memory card and a case, all for about twenty bucks off the list price. The only downside is that Costco doesn't offer extended warranties for digital cameras.

After my earlier disaster with the Sony DSC-H9, I probably should have waited until the reviews came out, but there had been a number of messages from other early adopters on Internet forums, and they were all quite positive. In addition, I already own a DMC-FZ5, the earlier version of this model, and it's my favorite camera. So I figured it was worth the risk.

Well, the news is good. This camera is definitely a step up from the earlier models, with real improvements in almost every area. It's what I was hoping for when I bought the Sony in May.

Let's start with the lens, since it's probably the most interesting feature of the camera. The lens features an 18X optical zoom range. In 35mm equivalent, that would be 28mm to 504mm. I was looking forward to the wide angle part, as 28mm is a good step from most cameras of this type. In fact, it's the first of the Panasonic "superzoom" cameras to offer anything wider than about 35mm at the widest angle. My DMC-FZ5 was actually 36mm at the widest. So the FZ18 offers a noticeable improvement in this area.

Many years ago, I did camera reviews for Modern Photography magazine. We used the usual test charts to measure the performance of the lens. It was more difficult then, because we were using film and that introduced a number of other factors. But after the formal testing, we went and took pictures in real-life situations, and this turned out to be far more revealing. I've described this in an earlier post.

Starting at the widest angle, the FZ18's lens is sharp from corner to corner with almost zero barrel distortion. (This is a common fault on many wide angle lenses, rendering straight lines as bowed towards the side of the picture.) The wide angle setting will give about 25% more in the picture than the usual 35mm on other cameras of its type.

Now let's look at the other end of the lens' range -- the 504mm equivalent telephoto. What exactly does this mean? It means that if we were using a 35mm film camera (or a DSLR with a full-size sensor) it would take a lens with a focal length of about 500mm to give same magnification. In real-world terms, 500mm is about 20 inches. In other words, the lens, by itself, would be about 20 inches long. A 500mm lens costs anywhere from about $800 to over $5500 for an image-stabilized Canon lens that weighs about 8.5 pounds and requires a tripod for its use.

Now we come to one of the real advantages of the compact superzoom cameras like the DMC-FZ18. Because of its small sensor size, it can pack an 18X zoom, from 28mm to 504mm equivalent into a compact little camera that weighs about 14 ounces. The FZ18 has an image stabilizer that's probably as effective as the one in the giant Canon lens and, because of its small size, can be used handheld. I've gotten fine results at the 504mm setting with shutter speeds as slow as 1/25 second.

The first law of photography is that everything is a tradeoff. Whenever you push in one direction, you lose in another. Faster shutter speeds mean sacrificing depth of field (and vice versa). Higher ISO settings will let you use a faster shutter speed, but your pictures will have more noise.

And so it is with the sensor size of digital cameras. Compact superzoom cameras with smaller sensors will have lower image quality than the fancy DSLRs with their larger sensors, but have the advantage of a single lens that goes from wide angle to extreme telephoto, with image stabilization at all focal lengths.

The DSLRs, with their higher image quality, are much larger and heavier, require multiple lenses to get the equivalent range of the superzooms. In addition, extreme telephoto lenses, such as a 500mm, may be impractical because of size and weight.

There are lots of other advantages and disadvantages to each type of digital camera, but I'll save that discussion for another time.

In the end, I prefer the convenience of having a small camera that I can easily carry and one that doesn't attract attention when I'm taking pictures. I use a printer that takes 17 inch wide roll paper and I print pictures up to five feet long. I'm very happy with the results I get from cameras like the DMC-FZ18.

So, after owning the DMC-FZ18 for only a couple of days, I'm more than pleased with the results. Look for some future posts about this very interesting camera.

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