It all started when Panasonic introduced their latest superzoom camera -- the DMC-FZ200, successor to my fabulous FZ150 (See my earlier posts). The new model didn't seem like that much of an improvement, and reports on the various forums were mixed, with some saying the you could only get acceptable results from the new model by shooting in raw. Thanks, but no thanks.
What to do? Instead of just an incremental improvement to cameras I already had, why not try something new?. I noticed that there had been some posts about Panasonic's ZS series of cameras. I'd never given them serious consideration, but now I took a closer look. The ZS (TZ outside the US) cameras are sometimes referred to as "travel zoom" cameras -- small size, but with long zoom lenses and other "serious" camera features.
I ended up buying a Panasonic DMC-ZS20 (TZ30 overseas), their top-of-the-line travel zoom. It even has a GPS, which is pretty much worthless in actual use. They make the same model without the GPS but, for some bizarre reason, Amazon was selling the GPS version for $50 less. Go figure.
The ZS20 is definitely pocket-size. But my cellphone also has a camera, and lots of people now rely on their cellphone cameras. How does the ZS20 compare? There's no contest. The ZS20 is actually smaller than my cellphone, and weighs a mere 2 ounces more. But it's a real camera, with a 20X optical zoom with image stabilizer. It has a 14 megapixel sensor and produces images almost as good as my larger cameras. Take a look at the picture above, straight from the camera, and click to see the 100% detail. It's about what you'd see in a 30 x 40 inch print. Far better than I expected. To keep everyone happy, I promise not to make any phone calls from my ZS20.
But the most important thing about my new ZS20 is that it changes the way I think about cameras and it changes the way I take pictures. Let's see how.
I finally have a camera that I can take with me all of the time. Instead of lugging a shoulder bag with my FZ150, the ZS20 fits in a belt pouch that once held a PDA (remember them?). The pouch has a Velcro flap, which lets me quick-draw the camera, while at the same time, switching it on.
The ZS20 doesn't have a lens cap, which makes it even easier to bring into operation. Instead of a cap, it has sort of an eyelid, which opens and closes when you turn the camera on or off. One less hassle, and no more lost lens caps.
Some people prefer to compose their pictures on the LCD screen on the back of the cameras. Others prefer to use the viewfinder. I'm a viewfinder guy, and I have been for over fifty years, with a wide variety of cameras. The ZS20 has only the LCD, screen, which I'm learning slowly how to use. One problem is using the screen in bright, outdoor light. I'm learning how to wrap my hand around the camera to create sort of a sun shade.
The first cameras I used were made of metal and weighed enough to make it easy to hold them steady. Cameras are made of plastic now, but a camera like my FZ150 still has enough mass to make it steady. The ZS20, on the other hand is this itty bitty thing that weighs about as much as a potato chip. Much harder to hold steady. Fortunately, the ZS20 has an Optical Image Stabilizer, just like its big brothers. That, and some more practice in keeping still, seems to be helping.
One of the ZS20's best features is that it doesn't shoot raw. Just (excellent) JPEGs. Many hours of pointless discussion and "testing" have been saved. You can use the time you save for actually shooting pictures.
Having a high-quality camera that's this small, lets me be viewed as an innocent tourist, certainly not to be taken seriously. You can shoot away while not drawing any attention.
The ZS20 is quite a camera for just a little bit of money. It goes for about half of what the latest model of the FZ series costs.
It's very difficult to set the metering mode on the ZS20. I use both spot metering and center-weighted metering, and I switch between them a lot. With the FZ series, the metering mode is quickly changed using the Q menu button. On the ZS20, this is buried on the third page of the REC menu. It takes about 14 key presses to work your way through the menu system to do the same thing.
Fortunately, there's a workaround for this. You can set up two custom profiles that are the same, except for the metering mode. Now you can use the Mode dial to switch between them. Not exactly elegant, but it works.
Most digital cameras have some sort of Exposure Lock button that locks the exposure for things like Panoramas, which require the same exposure for each frame. No such button for the ZS20. And there's no useable workaround for this. Curse you, Panasonic.
The last problem is that there's no easy way to use a filter on the ZS20's lens. I can live with this.
The ZS20 has a built-in GPS that can add location data to your pictures. This sounds great in theory, but getting a GPS fix can take several minutes, and it won't work at all if you're indoors or without a clear view of the sky. But it was fun to play with.
I've had my ZS20 for about a month now, and I've taken several thousand shots, under all sorts of conditions, and all I can say is, Wow! This isn't the biggest or the fanciest camera, but it combines enough great features, including great image quality, to consider it as an important camera in my future. I now have a camera that's always with me, ready for just about anything.
Stay tuned. In the next posts, I'll be showing some really impressive shots taken with this miniscule camera.
And I'll be showing how to shoot raw with the ZS20.