Panasonic was kind enough to send me a DMC-ZS3 to test out during my recent trip to Argentina. At first I wasn’t too excited to try out a new camera. I really like my Nikon S600 for its wide-angle lens and small compact body. It’s easy to us and takes good photos. I don’t like to mess with success.
I took a look at the DMC-ZS3 anyway and was quickly excited to try it out when I saw some of the specs: 25mm wide-angle lens, 12x zoom, and best of all, 720p HD video recording. OK Nikon. You’re sitting this one out.
I played with the camera a bit and noticed a few things right off the bat. It’s a little larger than most Point & Shoot cameras, the black metal body looks pretty slick, and the menus and settings are pretty easy to navigate. In reality, those are probably the top three things shoppers look at when purchasing a camera.
Technology has moved incredibly fast over the last few years and even the cheapest cameras take great photos. If you are shopping for a new camera and you’re spending hours browsing the internet comparing photos to see which camera takes the highest quality photos, you’re wasting your time. They may not be identical, but nearly every camera being produced takes great photos. I don’t care if it’s $99 or $499, you are going to be hard pressed to find much difference in picture quality between them.
The DMC-ZS3 is no exception. The pictures look great, just like I’d expect. Shots taken around town, indoors, and other normal photo situations look great but don’t exactly stand out above any other consumer grade camera. Where the DMC-ZS3 shines is in harsh lighting conditions. Maybe it’s the high quality Leica lens that has been coated in ways only professional glass ever receives, or maybe it’s the great 10megapixel sensor. I’m not sure, but either way, it excels in harsh light.
Speaking of the lens, the DMC-ZS3 is packed with a 12x wide-angle Leica zoom lens. Most cameras that are advertised to have a wide-angle lens have a focal length of 28mm and widest. I’ve never seen it before in a Point & Shoot, but the DMC-ZS3 is 25mm at its widest. 3mm doesn’t sound like much, but it does provide a somewhat significant increase in viewing angle. It’s a great bonus for travel photographers who constantly find themselves shooting beautiful landscapes, classic architecture, or even large groups of people. Most standard Point & Shoot cameras have 35mm lenses and the difference is astounding. I always recommend people look for a camera with a wide-angle lens. It’s a necessity and I’m glad Panasonic not only recognized this, but expanded on it.
The only thing better than the 25mm wide-angle is the 12x zoom. Roughly equivalent to a 300mm telephoto lens in traditional film photography, the 12x zoom allows you to get photos that were impossible with most other cameras. I realized how powerful this can be when taking a boat tour of the Beagle Canal down off the southern tip of Argentina. While the other people were using their 3x zooms to capture half of the island pictured below, I was able to use the 12x zoom and optical image stabilization to capture great close-up shots of the sea lions that were posing for us.
There has been a lot of hype on this camera and most of it has been surrounding the 720p HD video. I’ve used several flash camcorders and always have been underwhelmed with the video, even when it’s 720p. Encoding HD on flash memory has been around for a couple of years now, but due to the codecs and processes used to encode video into a usable format that is also small enough to fit on a memory card typically causes some pixelation. It’s a trade off that most people can live with if they want a compact video recorder.
Some pixelation is present in the DMC-ZS3‘s video, but it is, by far, the best flash memory video I have seen with a compact camera. Even the stereo audio sounds good though users should be careful of covering the mic with their finger when holding the camera.
Overall the video is clean and sharp, the audio is good, you can zoom while shooting video, and best of all, the optical image stabilization does wonders. Without OIS, it would be practically impossible to hand hold the camera and shoot at 12x zoom without making your viewers sick.
Take a look at the video I shot during my boat tour of the Beagle Canal.
Watch this video in HD: Beagle Canal – Ushuaia, Argentina on Vimeo.
Keep in mind that much of the above video was shot with the lens fully extended to 12x and was on a moving boat. It moves up and down quite a bit, but there is very little shake from hand holding the camera. Overall I am extremely impressed.
Another thing you might notice with the video is the purple lens flares when shooting directly at the sun. This is pretty common with video as the sensors can’t handle the full range of bright colors like still photography can. It’s unfortunate, but I’m not surprised. I doubt there is a consumer level camera that could do better.
The last thing, and possibly most important to many people is the size of the camera. Because of it’s impressive lens and beautiful 3″ LCD screen, the DMC-ZS3 is larger than most current Point & Shoot cameras. As somebody who has used Digital-SLR cameras for most travel needs, it’s very small. It’s not a “pocket” digital camera though. I held mine in a waterproof Tucano neoprene case and it fit decently in my pants or jacket pockets, but it was more bulky than others I have used over the past couple of years. It’s a trade off.
The Panasonic DMC-ZS3 is by far, the most impressive Point & Shoot digital camera I have ever used. For the traveler, this camera should be a no-brainer. I can’t imagine a better option in its class.
For the average user though, it may be a little overkill. If you like to tuck a camera in your pocket and bring it out with you to the bar or club, this may not be the camera for you. If you like to get out and go hiking, play sports, travel, or shoot high quality video, you’ve found the right camera. It’s sturdy enough to get tossed around and take a beating so it will serve travelers well.
Overall, I’d give the DMC-ZS3 a 9/10. The only thing that could use improving is the size, but if making it smaller means losing any features, I’d stick with the size it is. It’s worth it.
MSRP is $399 but Amazon has the Panasonic DMC-ZS3 for closer to $300 currently.