The fact that this post has been such a long time coming is as much a tribute to my inertia as it is to the complexity and richness of the features and settings on the Panasonic DMC-FZ18. Although the settings here are for a specific camera -- the DMC-FZ18 -- most cameras of this type have similar settings.
Before starting, I want to say something in favor of evolution, the evolution of technology in particular. For the first 150 or so years, photographers used film or glass plates. But in a very short timeframe, the digital camera has replaced the film camera. The film has been replaced by a digital sensor working together with a computer in the camera.
The digital camera is a relatively new thing, and it is still evolving. With each new generation the computers in the cameras get faster and smarter. The automation on early digital cameras wasn't particularly good. I've used cameras that suddenly decided to shoot everything at the same aperture, another had a "Sports Mode" with a maximum shutter speed of 1/60 sec., and still another decided to use a high ISO setting when it wasn't necessary, yielding needlessly noisy pictures.
Engineers and designers are constantly thinking up new facilities and new features that add to a camera's capabilities while improving image quality and making the cameras easier to use. As they get more sophisticated, I start asking questions like, "I can set the camera on automatic or manual -- who will make better decisions, the camera or me?" or "I can choose raw or JPEG -- which will give better results with this particular camera?"
For me, the FZ18 has changed the answers to these questions. I've started using some of the automated features, such as the automatic ISO selection because testing showed that it picked the better ISO for a particular situation more often than I did. In addition, Panasonic has thrown a monkey wrench into the raw-vs-JPEG debate by automatically correcting lens faults like barrel distortion and color fringing in the FZ18's JPEG processing. (Raw shooters are left to fix these problems on their own.) On top of the camera:
I use the "P" setting on the mode dial, which lets you have a good amount of automation, but allows tweaks in the camera settings to make things a little bit better. On the back of the camera
- There are two buttons for accessing the camera's menus -- the traditional "Menu-Set" button that accesses the main menus, and a silver-colored (unlabeled) joystick that can be pressed straight in to give quick access to functions you might want to change while shooting.
Let's start by pressing the "Menu-Set" button to bring up the main menu structure. Here, I'll only cover settings that aren't on the quick-access menu, and If I skip a particular setting, it means I left it at its default value. There are two sections to the main menu - REC and SETUP, shown with a camera symbol and a wrench symbol respectively.
On the REC
INTELLIGENT ISO: ISOMAX 400 While setting the ISO in the usual way yields only a few set values, ISOMAX will choose intermediate ISOs like 135 and 160. And it chooses a better ISO than me, most of the time.
AF ASSIST LAMP: OFF This thing doesn't do much except annoy people and alert them that you're taking their picture.
AF/AE LOCK: AE You can set whether the AF/AE LOCK button on the back of the camera will lock the exposure, the focus or both. You might want to choose AF if you're shooting sports or something similar where locking the focus will cut the delay. I'm using AE to lock the exposure, in combination with the spot metering. (More on this later.) You also want lock the exposure when shooting panoramas.
COL. EFFECT: OFF This is my normal setting, but you can use this to set things like B/W (black and white), SEPIA, etc. The B/W setting is helpful when you want to shoot black and white - you can preview the scene in a way that photographers like Edward Weston and Ansel Adams could only dream of.
PICT.ADJ. The four settings below let you maximize the image quality when shooting JPEG.
* CONTRAST: -1 This will flatten out the tonal range and help with contrasty scenes. You can always pump up the contrast when adjusting things in the computer, but the reverse is not possible.
* SHARPNESS: 0 No in-camera sharpening is done. You can always add a little sharpness in the computer.
* Saturation: 0 This seems to be the best setting as higher settings seemed to add a little noise.
* NOISE REDUCTION: -2 This setting turns off the noise reduction, giving you a result very close to raw. You get the maximum sharpness and you can always use one of the popular noise reduction programs on the computer to get the best blend of sharpness and noise reduction.
CLOCK SET - I check this from time to time as the camera's internal clock seems to drift a little. Also, don't forget to change this when switching between Standard Time and Daylight Savings Time.
On the SETUP
On the GUIDE LINE menu, there are three items that determine the information displayed in the camera's viewfinder when the guide line pattern is displayed.
* REC. INFO: ON Show camera information
* HISTOGRAM: OFF I'll probably get some flack about this, but I'm not a histogram person. I find it distracting and I can tell a lot more about what's happening just by watching the viewfinder.
* PATTERN : I chose the rectangular (upper) pattern as I have trouble holding the camera straight and this helps a lot.
AUTO REVIEW: ON This is the best thing ever. You get a quick flash of the picture, right after you take it. You can spot a lot of things like someone blinking or caught with a strange expression. DSLR folks, eat your hearts out.
ZOOM RESUME: OFF Although well intentioned, this can only cause trouble. Imagine turning the camera off while the lens is set at telephoto and then turning it back on after putting on the lens cap.
VOLUME: 0 This seems to turn off all of the annoying noises that the camera makes.
In the next part of this series, I'll cover the settings that you reach with the FZ18's joystick. And if I've left out your favorite setting, send me an email and I'll try to make things right.