Dec 022011

This image was taken Tuesday evening. It was one of the last with the Panasonic FZ150, Wednesday morning I returned it to my friend. So, I guess you want to know my conclusions, right? Will I buy it for myself?

The short answer is, no, I won’t. Why not, that’s the subject of the rest of this post.

Let’s begin by turning it around. Why would I consider buying a superzoom bridge camera at all?

One obvious reason is my desire to play with new toys, but obviously this has just been satisfied and does not count any more (Question to myself: “Do I know someone with an X100???”).

When I walk around, I often notice my subjects from afar, or at least from further away than the distance where it begins to fill the frame of my LX5. A typical situation is, that I see a bicycle leaning somewhere at a particular angle, and that I’m intrigued with the elegance of its lines and curves. Of course I can step nearer and take the image, but the laws of perspective prohibit me from taking exactly the image that I’ve seen in the first place.

With many subjects this won’t be a problem, but a bicycle is basically a set of lines, just like a wireframe, and due to this lack of volume, a small shift in the configuration of the lines can completely alter the image. Are two lines exactly parallel? Does one line hide behind the other? Is there a particular angle that is repeated between two other lines?

It’s not only bicycles, but bicycles are a good example. Some images can only be taken from a certain distance, and for some subjects this can be crucial.

Apart from pure reach, it is also the enormous versatility of such a camera, coupled with the fact that I don’t need anything else. The idea is, to have a camera that is compact, has a RAW mode, can give me the range that I need, is good enough for what I do with my images, is light and does not force me to use a multitude of lenses. After all, if I want to cover the range with interchangeable lenses, I can always do that with my D300. My longest lens is only 300 mm, but that’s equivalent to 450 mm on full frame, and if I want, I can always get a Tamron or Sigma with 500 mm for an acceptable price.

Oh yes, I really want to be able to compose in square format 🙂

Narrowing down the whole field with only three criteria, RAW, square aspect ratio and a reach of over 500 mm, leaves me only three cameras in the whole market to choose from, and interestingly enough all three are made by Panasonic. They are the DMC-FZ45, DMC-FZ100 and DMC-FZ150. The FZ45 is the poor brother of the FZ150, the FZ100 is the predecessor of the FZ150, and that’s basically how I arrived at the place where I am.

There is one single camera in the market that even has a chance to play my game, so let’s look at how it fulfills my other criteria.

Is it compact? Well, not like the LX5, but that can’t be reasonably expected. It feels good in my hand though and it is very, very light. Due to its shape you can’t easily pocket it, Not in your shirt, not in a coat, really not at all, but I don’t pocket cameras anyway. I hold them in my hand or, like the LX5, let them dangle from a wrist strap. The FZ150’s size may be too big for some people and their uses, but for me there is nothing to complain here.

Is it good enough? Well, maybe, but it is worse than the LX5, and that bothers me. Sure, I could carry both, use the LX5 for the low range and the FZ150 for the reach, but in a way that is almost as inconvenient as carrying the D300 and an extra lens. I wouldn’t have to change lenses, but it is still not an option that I consider. Therefore it has to be able to replace the LX5. Can it?

Quality-wise it is near but not equal, but I could be willing to trade off image quality for versatility. Let’s look at the range. Starting at 25 mm, it almost covers the range of the LX5. The one millimeter at the low end is precious, but I could live without it, at least much better than with something starting at 28 mm.

Of course there is more to “good enough” than simple image quality. I definitely can live with the way the user interface works. It is configurable, has decent defaults, but it is slow. Turning the camera on, taking an image and trying to display it on the LCD in full size, it all feels slower than on the LX5. The LX5 is no speed demon either, but the difference is noticeable.

One of the factors is the retractable lens. Both cameras have it, but due to the longer zoom range, the FZ150 feels much slower. It is especially pronounced when you activate “Lens Resume” in the settings. I always had it active on the LX5, but on the FZ150 it annoyed me so much, that I finally deactivated it on the LX5 as well. Funnily enough, although speed-wise the LX5 is much nearer to the FZ150 than to the D300, it does not bother me in the same way. I seem to have a tolerance threshold though, and the FZ150 may fall below it.

I always have the electronic viewfinder attached to my LX5, but I don’t always use it. I frequently compose by holding the LX5, as Michael Reichmann puts it, “like a baby in smelly diapers”. I like that. It works for me and it often lets me choose compositions that I otherwise wouldn’t. You can do that with the FZ150 as well, but due to its size and shape I don’t do it even remotely as often. What feels natural with one camera, feels smelly with the other.

Thus I rely mostly on the EVF, and therefore its inconveniences have more weight. One is the low resolution. I have seen the Olympus VF-2 on an XZ-1 camera and I have seen the viewfinders of Sony’s SLT cameras. Well, the Panasonic viewfinder is no comparison in image quality, but what even bothers me more, is that I have no way to automatically switch between EVF and LCD. Sony cameras have an eye sensor, and you just have to try it once and you’ll have a hard time going back. As I said, the LX5 and the FZ150 have basically the same viewfinder, one as an accessory, one built in, but while its deficiencies were less of a problem on the LX5, they bother me on the FZ150.

Are there alternatives, probably if I relax some requirements?

RAW format is not open for negotiation. I love using Photoshop, I love playing with white balance, thus RAW is needed. What about reach? Wouldn’t a light camera with a smaller range be fine? Well, yes, but the LX5 is exactly that, and in order to be interesting, a candidate would have to beat it in image quality.

I may have mentioned once or twice that I consider buying a Micro-Four-Thirds camera. I think stabilization of lenses is stupid in mirrorless cameras, thus Panasonic is out of the game and Olympus has to be it. I’m missing a fast standard zoom though. Due to the crop factor this would have to be something like a 12-40/2.8 or (may I dream?) even 12-35/2.0. I could use my Tokina 11-16/2.8 with a Nikon adapter, but the equivalent range of 22-32 mm is pretty restricted. The Tamron and Nikon 10-24 both start at f3.5 and all those lenses are rater big and heavy. Somehow that defeats the purpose. In essence, the lack of a decent standard zoom is what held be back from buying into Micro-Four-Thirds. One lens would suffice to change my opinion though.

Other mirrorless systems? Sony NEX has a wonderful electronic viewfinder, the best in the market, the NEX-7 seems to be very usable and the image quality is fine as well. Would I say no to 24 megapixels? Certainly not!

Sony has two problems for me. First is the sensor size. It’s APS-C, thus the lenses are as big as those for my Nikon system. Yes, the NEX cameras are smaller, but as a combination, it’s not what I consider a small, light camera. The other problem is the choice of lenses and the fact that Sony chose (contrary to their Alpha line) to stabilize lenses and not the sensor.

Samsung NX? Not really. It’s just the same as Sony NEX, only without the gorgeous sensor and viewfinder.

Pentax Q? Definitely pocketable but I suspect too small for my hands. For a system camera slightly limited in choices, pretty expensive for its image quality, maybe a niche product that won’t survive. Not much value over my LX5, maybe none.

But wait, wasn’t there an announcement recently? Let’s have a look at the Fujifilm X-S1. It won’t be out before February, but it is announced to be a luxurious superzoom camera with a comparatively high price in the range of $1000 and probably 700-800€.

Honestly, it has about every feature that I want, a zoom range from 24-624 mm, an articulated LCD (not as good as the FZ150’s tilt-swivel one but nevertheless), a non-retracting lens with manual zoom, the same very good sensor as the Fujifilm X10, an electronic viewfinder of the same resolution as the Olympus VF-2, it can shoot square, and there is only one tiny problem: its size and weight.

Not only is the X-S1 bigger than some entry level DSLRs, with 945 g / 33.3 oz (batteries included) it is also very, very heavy. It looks gorgeous though and I might consider it.

Here we are. I like the FZ150, but I don’t like it as much as I thought I would. None of the available alternatives can beat it in terms of versatility or price, the one alternative that seems to have enough sex appeal, the X-S1, is not yet available. I don’t know what to do, and therefore I’ll do nothing. This decision is also eased by the fact that in the meantime another friend has bought the FZ150, thus I guess I can have one for a few days if I need one. But then, I may still buy it if I begin to miss it.

In any case it is not a straight rejection at all, it’s more of a very near miss, and it is also clear that there is currently no viable alternative. Not a bad thing to be said about a camera.

Let’s close this rather long post with something completely different. The Song of the Day is “Lessons To Be Learned” from Barbra Streisand’s 1997 album “Higher Ground”. Hear it on YouTube.

Nov 282011

Using a long lens you always have the problem that people run into your view. There is just so much distance, that the probability of someone walking into your line of sight is very high. Of course you can always embrace it. In this case I was lucky, depth of field was just deep enough that the rider was sharp and could go for the subject. Re-focusing, even with a fast camera, would have made me miss the moment.

Had I made the image with my D300 and, say, the Nikon 70-300 VR, the rider would have been clearly out of focus, the image would have been lost. These are the situations where small-sensor cameras really shine, at least as long as their image quality suffices. Here it clearly does.

The Song of the Day is “Dancing In The Light” from the bonus disc of the 2010 re-issue of “Exile On Main Street”. Enjoy it on YouTube 😀

Nov 272011

Today was another sunny day and I went photographing at around noon. This is not what people call “good light”, but it’s plenty of light for the camera, and I wanted to see what kind of quality I can get when I’m not always forced into higher ISOs.

It’s a mixed bag. For this particular image I have the feeling that its quality has been improved by working from RAW. It’s not free of noise, but it has excellent detail, rich colors, I got rid of the effects of haze nicely, so basically I’m perfectly satisfied.

This is not a general rule though. For some images Panasonic’s JPEG engine produces fairly nice images, and when I try to reproduce them from RAW (for instance because I want to fiddle with white balance) I fail. What I mean by fail is, that I smudge too much away with noise reduction, introduce too much noise by sharpening, and that in the end my result is noticeably worse than the JPEG straight from the camera. Of course this is disturbing and for me it is an indication that I’m always working on the edge. Image quality of the FZ-150 is fairly good, the camera’s JPEG engine is nothing short of impressive, but when you fiddle with the images, the smallest mistake is enough to make the image fall apart.

April asked me in a comment if the images are “print quality” and I confidently answered yes, but I really should note that the slightly lower quality, although probably not visible in prints, might prevent certain kinds of manipulations in Photoshop.

The Song of the Day is “Quiet Moments” from Chris De Burgh’s 1979 album “Crusader”. Hear it on YouTube.

Update: I’ve re-worked the colors and added some more contrast.

Nov 262011

Today we had sunshine in Villach. This was a first in a few weeks, every other day since having been foggy and gloomy.

I still didn’t make a lot of pictures. What I found out though is, that the JPEG engine of the FZ-150 is excellent. I hardly can produce anything better than the camera’s JPEGs, even if I work from RAW. This does not mean that I will use the camera’s JPEGs, but at least in terms of image quality there is not much to be expected.

There are still enough reasons to use RAW though. Setting your own white balance is a good one and there are others. In general, as soon as you want to take your image into Photoshop, RAW is the safe way to go.

The Song of the Day is “Its All Good” from Bob Dylan’s 2009 album “Together Through Life”. Hear it on YouTube.

1865 – Darkness, Darkness

 Panasonic DMC-FZ150  Comments Off on 1865 – Darkness, Darkness
Nov 252011

This is a difficult time of the year with such a camera. The FZ-150’s image quality is pretty much the same as that of the LX5. Slightly worse but not much, at least at its base ISO 100. The only problem is, that at this time of the year in foggy Vienna even daylight is gloomy. Consequently I used the FZ-150 at ISO 200 mostly (for the images that I deleted by accident), and then later, when I went to the train and when I finally waited at the station, I had to resort to ISO 400 and -1 EV.

Nevertheless, this image was taken at around 550 mm, hand-held at 1/8 s and its quality is at least acceptable. It looks like the camera’s stabilization is up to its job 😀

The lesson learned is, that a superzoom camera is no panacea. You have an enormous zoom range, but as soon as you use it in current light, you end up in ISO ranges and / or with shutter speeds that threaten to impede image quality. This should be no problem in summer, but in winter even the LX5 with its slightly better image quality and its considerably faster lens is challenging. The FZ-150 is definitely borderline.

The Song of the Day is “Darkness, Darkness” from the 2004 Cowboy Junkies album “One Soul Now”. Hear it on YouTube.

Nov 252011

Sometimes people do stupid things. You do, I do, it doesn’t matter how clever we are or feel, when it’s time to get stupid, we invariably manage to do so.

Can you remember the last time you did something incredibly stupid? I can. It was three hours ago when I managed to accidentally delete all images made yesterday and this morning. Cool, huh? Well, they were not that good to begin with and I made some more while on my way to the train. Here’s one of them, displayed for yesterday’s post.

Let’s get back to my current review or field test or whatever we want to call it. Let’s talk about the Panasonic FZ-150 and its user interface.

As you certainly know, my current main camera is the Panasonic DMC-LX5. I own a Nikon D300 DSLR as well, but have found the LX5 to be of sufficient quality while at the same time unbeatable when it comes to size, weight and sheer convenience.

The FZ-150 is bigger than the LX5 and smaller than a small DSLR. It does not feel as solid as the LX5, more plastic, less metal, but it is undeniably a current Panasonic top compact model. If you know the LX5, you won’t need a manual to use and configure the FZ-150. This is a good thing as there was practically no learning curve. That’s very similar to what happened when I moved from the Nikon D200 to the D300. Some small details are different, some buttons are in other places, but in general you won’t miss any major feature. The camera has a very different look but largely the same feel.

Among superzoom camera the FZ-150 has one of the fastest lenses, especially at the long end, and that alone would have warranted my interest. Additionally it has almost all the major features that I look for. It can shoot in the same aspect ratios as the LX5 (“Never again a camera that can’t shoot square!”), and although there is no explicit switch on the lens barrel, I could program the function button to bring up the aspect ratio menu. Not perfect but convenient enough.

A big plus over the LX5 is the tilt / swivel screen on the back. I’ve often said that I consider this essential. It is nice to have it indeed and it opens new possibilities for pictures that can’t easily be taken with cameras without such a screen. Admittedly I didn’t take any such picture yet, but I can remember situations where I missed a shot with the LX5 or the D300.

The electronic viewfinder is basically the same uninspiring affair as the one that I bought for the LX5. Low resolution, disappointing when compared to Olympus’ VF-2 and utterly destroyed by Sony’s new EVF in the A65/A77/NEX-7, but if you leave the comparisons aside, it absolutely does its job. I really would have appreciated an eye sensor though. Switching between rear LCD and EVF by means of a button is inconvenient and unnecessary.

My verdict regarding the user interface is largely positive. The camera has the major features that I need and it is so similar to the LX5, that switching between the two does not make you fumble all the time. It’s similar as in other camera families, for instance Nikon DSLRs, and if I had the choice between the FZ-150 and and another superzoom with the same features, I suppose I would decide for the familiarity with the FZ-150’s interface.

The Song of the Day is “That Old Feeling“. I have it on a collection of standards performed, among others, by Barney Bigard. Hear it on YouTube. I have no idea who the female singer is though.

Nov 242011

The Panasonic DMC-FZ150 is a superzoom camera. Basically that’s what has become of what has long been called “bridge camera”. I’ve wanted to try one of these for a long time, and now that two of my friends have the FZ-150, Panasonic’s new flagship in that category, I have the possibility to try it without actually buying it.

Let me explain: I am pretty sure that I want such a camera. It’s fine for travel, it’s fine for the moments when I want longer reach, and I am pretty convinced that a small camera with a focal range equivalent to 24-600 mm is more useful to me than a 400 mm lens on my D300. It is not only much cheaper (the Nikon 200-400/f4 zoom costs a fortune), it is much, much lighter as well.

The FZ-150 is lighter in fact than my LX5, at least as I use it, with EVF and filter adapter attached. It’s only marginally lighter but nevertheless.

Of course this is not the shallow DOF that a 600 mm lens on a 35 mm camera would give you. After all, the lens is really 108 mm / f5.2 on its long end, that means at perceived 600 mm it has the DOF of a typical low end zoom on a DSLR, but that’s fine for me. I am much more after images like today’s than after the wildlife / throw-your-background-away type. For such images extended DOF is actually what I want.

The idea here is to exploit compression, to flatten the three-dimensional space into an abstract composition.

Or maybe it’s the other way round: that is how this camera sees and this is why I enjoy using it. It doesn’t matter. Fact is, it is fun and if I find that the image quality suffices for my usage, I may end up buying it. I’ll have the camera for a week, let’s see where we get.

The Song of the Day is “Long Tall Mama” by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra. Hear it on YouTube.