Though it's easily small enough to slip into a shirt pocket, the new Panasonic ZS8 digicam features 14 megapxiel resolution, a Leica-badged f/3.3 - f/5.9 DC VARIO-ELMAR (24mm-384mm equivalent) 16x optical zoom, and 3.0 inch LCD screen with 230K resolution. That’s a lot of imaging power jammed into a very small package, making the ZS8 a very attractive addition to the new “travel zoom” digicam class.
Recommend this product?
Last years amazingly popular Panasonic ZS7 was one of those rare digicams that become instant classics with the camera buying public – a genuine best seller. The ZS7 was Panasonic’s first P&S digicam to feature GPS capabilities – allowing users to geo-tag their images with the precise coordinates where they were shot. Many digicam buyers really liked the camera, but didn’t need or want GPS capabilities, or couldn’t justify spending four hundred bucks for a P&S digicam. Panasonic’s solution to that conundrum was to replace the very popular ZS7 with two almost identical digicams – the ZS10 which features GPS capabilities, a 460K touchscreen LCD, a MOS sensor, a 1080i AVCHD movie format, and a 3D image mode (for generating images that can be displayed on 3D TVs) and the ZS8 which eschews the GPS receiver, features a CCD imaging sensor, a standard 3.0" LCD screen, drops HD movie resolution to 720p in Motion JPEG format, and provides no 3D image mode. The ZS8 retails for $100.00 less than the ZS10.
NUTS & BOLTS
The ZS8 (like most currently available P&S digicams) doesn’t provide an optical viewfinder. Shooters must use the LCD screen for all framing/composition, captured image review, and menu navigation chores. The ZS8’s 3.0” LCD screen (230,000 pixels) dominates the camera's rear deck. The default (full screen) aspect ratio is 4:3, but 3:2 and 16:9 aspect ratios are also available. The ZS8’s TFT LCD screen is fairly bright, hue accurate, fluid, automatically boosts gain (brightens) in dim/low light, and displays almost 100 percent of the image frame.
The ZS8's LCD screen performs as expected for framing and composition, captured image review, and menu navigation, but the 230K resolution leaves a bit to be desired – considering that much of the competition features LCDs with two or even three times the screen resolution of the ZS8. The default info display provides all the data this camera’s target audience is likely to want or need, in fact this is one of the best information displays I’ve seen to date. The ZS8 provides three info display options: Clear screen (no data), grid line display for compositional assistance, and the full info display – just tap the info button until the screen you want appears.
The ZS8 is built around a fairly fast f3.3-f5.9/4.3mm-68.8mm (24mm – 384mm equivalent) DC VARIO-ELMAR zoom from famed German lens/camera maker Leica. When the ZS8 is powered up, the zoom extends from the camera body automatically. When the camera is powered down, the lens retracts into the camera body and a built-in guillotine style lens cover closes to protect the front element. Zooming is smooth, fairly precise, and relatively quiet. The ZS8 needs about 3.0 seconds to power the zoom lens from the wide angle end of the zoom range to full telephoto.
The ZS8's Leica DC Vario-Elmar zoom is very good, but it is not as quite sharp as I expected it to be. As lenses get smaller and more complex optical faults and aberrations are magnified exponentially. Miniaturization and optical complexity are obviously the twin culprits here. There's some visible corner softness, but no vignetting (dark corners) at the wide angle end of the zoom. Barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center of the frame) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range is above average. Pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center of the frame) is present, but fairly well controlled at the telephoto end of the zoom. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is noticeably above average.
Image Stabilization (IS)
The ZS8 utilizes an optical image stabilization system to counter involuntary camera shake – built-in gyro-sensors detect camera movement and an element in the zoom lens is rapidly and precisely shifted to compensate for that minor (involuntary) camera movement. Image stabilization allows users to shoot blur-free images at much slower shutter speeds than would have been possible without image stabilization. Image stabilization is especially useful when shooting in dimly lit indoor venues where flash is inappropriate or where flash use would be obvious when viewing the image or at the telephoto end of the zoom range where even very minor camera movement is magnified exponentially. According to Panasonic the ZS8’s new POWER O.I.S. system nearly doubles the anti-shake correction power of their conventional MEGA O.I.S system.
Auto Focus (AF)
The ZS8 features the same TTL Contrast Detection AF system with Center AF (1 af point), Multi AF (23 af points), Face AF, Tracking AF, Spot AF, and Touch Area AF modes as its more expensive sibling. The ZS8’s AF system analyzes the scene in front of the lens then calculates camera-to-subject distance to determine which AF point (in multi AF mode) is closest to the primary subject and then locks focus on that AF point. The ZS8’s AF system was dependably quick and consistently accurate when acquiring the subject and locking focus - in most shooting situations.
The ZS8 also features Panasonic’s new Quick AF mode. With conventional AF systems auto focus is initiated when the shutter button is pressed half-way. With Quick AF auto focus is initiated as soon as the camera is pointed toward the subject which could cut up to a full second off the frame/compose/lock focus/capture sequence. Quick AF is automatically activated in the iA Mode and can be turned on or off in the P/A/S/M Modes.
According to Panasonic the ZS8 is good for about 260 exposures on a fully charged SLB-07A rechargeable lithium-ion battery, but based on my experiences with the camera that claim is actually a bit conservative. I used the camera fairly heavily for over a week and only had to charge the battery once. The battery is charged via a flip-plug wall unit and requires about two hours to fully charge a depleted battery.
Memory Media/Image Storage
The ZS8 provides 18mb of on-board image storage and saves images to SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media.
I often complain because there isn’t a full user’s manual included in the box, but, unlike many current digicams, the ZS8 actually comes with a full printed user’s manual. So what’s the problem with the ZS8’s user’s manual? Digicams today are the most feature rich image capture devices in the history of photography, but most of those features are never used by camera purchasers. Why don’t consumers utilize all of these nifty cutting edge features to make their pictures better? Simply put, because most of them aren’t explained adequately enough (or in sufficient detail) to allow the camera’s target audience to understand how to use them. Case in point – the Panasonic ZS8.
Auto exposure in Intelligent Auto, Program, and Scene modes is dependably accurate and fairly quick. The ZS8 generally selects the appropriate shutter speed in aperture priority mode and the appropriate aperture in shutter speed priority mode. In manual mode exposure accuracy is entirely dependent on the skill and experience of the shooter.
Menus and Modes
The ZS8 features a user friendly three tab (record mode, playback mode, and setup mode) menu system. The ZS8's menu system, accessed via a dedicated button below the compass switch, is logical and easy to navigate.
Menu navigation is accomplished via the traditional compass switch route (the ZS10 has a touch screen LCD) and menu navigation is fairly straightforward.
The ZS8 provides a comprehensive selection of shooting modes including:
· Intelligent Auto: The camera automatically selects all exposure parameters by analyzing the subject in the frame and then selecting the most appropriate exposure settings based on conditions - including choosing the correct Scene mode for the subject.
· Program: Auto exposure with limited user input (sensitivity, white balance, exposure compensation, etc.).
· My Scene 1&2: Choose two favorite scene mode (Landscape and Portrait spring immediately to mind) and the camera will automatically go to those scene modes when the mode dial is turned to the MS1 or MS2 setting.
· Scene: Portrait, soft skin (smooths skin texture), transform (makes person's image fatter or thinner), self-portrait (activates timer), scenery, panorama assist, sports, night portrait, night scenery, food, party, candle light (tripod use recommended), baby, pet, sunset, high sensitivity, high speed burst (3, 2.5 or 2 megapixels), flash burst, starry sky, fireworks, beach, snow, aerial photo, pinhole, film grain, and high dynamic range.
· Aperture priority: Users select the aperture and the camera selects a shutter speed appropriate to the existing conditions.
· Shutter priority: Users select shutter speed and the camera selects an aperture appropriate to the existing conditions.
· Manual: Users select all exposure parameters.
· Custom:The camera will remember a favorite set of exposure preferences
· Movie/Video: The ZS8 captures HD video at 720p & 30/24 fps, VGA video, or QVGA video. Zoom and focus can be adjusted during video capture – video clips are limited to a maximum of 2GB.
White Balance (WB)
The ZS8 provides users with a very good selection of White Balance options, including Auto WB, Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Incandescent, and White Set. Based on my use, the ZS8's auto WB system does a pretty good job across the board, even under incandescent (tungsten) and fluorescent lighting.
The megapixel wars have obviously arrived at the point of diminishing returns - crowding more pixels onto tiny sensors dependably results in higher levels of image degrading noise, fuzzy details, and lower contrast. P&S digicams with 14 or 16 megapixel resolution don’t really produce better pictures than digicams with 10 megapixel resolution – they just generate larger and noisier image files. The ZS8’s 15 megapixel images all show noise, even those shot at ISO 100 – although low ISO noise levels are not egregious.
The ZS8 provides a very impressive range of sensitivity options, including auto, intelligent ISO, and user-set options for ISO 100 to ISO 1600. ISO 100 and ISO 200 images are essentially indistinguishable. Both settings show over saturated colors, slightly flat native contrast and very little noise. ISO 400 images were also very good, but with a tiny bit less pop. At the ISO 800 setting, noise levels are noticeably higher and there's a perceptible loss of fine detail. ISO 1600 images show flat under-saturated colors, reduced contrast, no fine detail, and much visible noise.
The ZS8's default evaluative (Panasonic calls this metering mode Intelligent Multiple Metering) light measurement system is dependably accurate in most lighting - so casual shooters shouldn’t have to worry about metering. More experienced photographers can opt for either Spot metering or Center-weighted Averaging metering for more demanding/creative compositions. Like all ultra-compact digicams, the ZS8 has some dynamic range (from deep shadows to bright highlights) shortcomings because the diminutive1/2.3" CCD sensor can’t capture the full tonal range. Like most current digicams, the ZS8’s default metering system is calibrated to preserve shadow detail at the expense of highlight detail and that built-in exposure bias results in occasional clipping (burnt out highlights).
CONTROLS, DESIGN, ENGINEERING, BUILD QUALITY, & ERGONOMICS
The ZS8 is one of the new “Travel Zoom” models – a series of relatively compact digicams with very long zooms that are becoming very popular with consumers. The ZS8 is an attractively understated and fairly inconspicuous P&S digicam – the camera is available in black, silver, blue, gold, red, and brown. The ZS8 is a well designed, precision built and robustly constructed imaging tool that will function nicely as a point and shoot digicam, but it is really aimed at photo enthusiasts. The ZS10’s metal alloy body seems tough enough to go just about anywhere - it is robustly constructed and was clearly built to withstand the rigors of relatively heavy use and busy modern lifestyles. Fit & finish are first rate and the weather/moisture/dust seals appear to be more than adequate.
The ZS8's user interface is logical and uncomplicated - all buttons and controls are a bit small, but they are all clearly marked, sensibly placed and easily accessed by right handed shooters - with the exception of the one touch video capture button. Most digicams with a one touch video capture button place this control in the upper right corner of the camera’s rear deck – since that placement allows the camera user to simply push the video start/finish button with their right thumb. The ZS8’s tiny one touch video capture button is on the camera’s top deck – right where the shutter button is traditionally located – which in my opinion is counter intuitive. That minor design flaw is somewhat ameliorated by the ZS8’s built-in handgrip - it is a vestigial grip, but that is more than consumers get with most P&S digicams. The wrist strap should be used at all times – small cameras are easily dropped. The ZS8’s shutter button is fairly large and surrounded by a standard back-and-forth zoom tab. While the zoom tab is small, zooming from wide-angle to telephoto and back is smooth, easy, and fairly precise. The ZS8, unlike the auto exposure only P&S digicams currently dominating the imaging marketplace, permits full manual control of exposure.
In the Field/Handling & Operation
I had the use of the ZS8 for just over a week. During that time I carried it with me just about everywhere I went. Our local weather, during that week ranged from 56 degrees with driving rain to 90 degrees with blinding sunshine. I shot skateboarders and BMXers at the Extreme Park (twice), enthusiastic Derby revelers, myriad blooming flowers, the Bardstown Road wandering bar crowd (on Friday the 13th), a local farmer’s market, colorful houses in the Butchertown neighborhood, and the first buskers (musicians who play for pay) that I’ve seen this year. The ZS8 rose to each challenge with aplomb.
P&S digicams rarely surprise me, but the ZS8 was an exception. My first outing with the ZS8 was to our downtown riverfront. After checking out the severely flooded great lawn (which is now the great pond) I headed over to the Extreme Park, which is the go to place for local photographers looking to capture some action. Skateboarders, ‘Bladers, and BMXers are drawn to the park 24-7 to practice their moves in the industrial sized full pipe, 5 interconnected bowls, and twelve-foot half pipe.
Many of the kids at the Extreme Park are talented athletes and most of them enjoy showing off for the camera. BMX bikers move faster than skateboarders and they need a little more frame space to accommodate their machines - so shooting BMXer’s is a bit tougher than shooting skateboarders and ‘bladers. What I usually do is to watch each of the BMXer’s do their typical routine a couple of times to isolate the moments when the most dramatic action will occur, pre-focus on that spot, and then I track the kid through his run and nail him when he does his most impressive mid-air stunt. With most P&S digicams I have to anticipate the peak action moment by about ½ of a second so the camera will the fire the shutter just as the decisive moment arrives. I usually trip the shutter as soon as the bike’s front wheel enters the frame - shutter lag adds enough time (about ½ a second) to allow the subject to move from the edge of the frame to the center. That wasn’t the case when I tested the ZS8. My first few shots showed my subject not in the center of the frame where I expected them to be, but rather off to the left or right of center. Clearly the ZS8 was faster than I expected it to be. For my second run through I started tripping the shutter button as soon as the bike’s back wheel was completely in the frame and every one of my subjects was centered nicely after that. I’ve tested a lot of P&S digicams and only a very few of them have been that fast.
The ZS8's image files are clearly optimized for the bold bright colors and slightly flat contrast that most consumers seem to prefer. Images display decent resolution (sharpness), but default color interpolation is typical of modern consumer digicams - reds are a bit too warm, blues are noticeably brighter than they are in real life and greens/yellows/oranges are overly vibrant. Veteran shooters call this “consumer color” because casual shooters (the demographic that buys the most digicams) like bright bold colors.
The ZS8 captures HD video @ 720p & 30/24 fps, VGA video (640x480 & 30 fps) or QVGA video (320x240 & 30 fps). The ZS8 uses QuickTime Motion JPEG compression for high-def movies and Motion JPEG for standard-def movies. Zoom and focus can be adjusted during video capture, but video clips are limited to 2GB.
Timing is one of the two most important considerations when assessing digital camera performance – the other major criteria is image quality. The ZS8’s times are at (or very near) the top of its class in shutter lag, AF acquisition, and continuous (5.5 fps) shooting mode.
Most P&S digicams don’t allow much user input into the image capture process. That lack of personal input often limits a camera’s potential usefulness for more advanced shooters. The ZS8 was designed for serious photographers. The ZS8 features a 1/2.33" (6.12mm x 4.51 mm) sensor giving it higher resolution, but from a smaller sensor, than some of today’s entry level DSLRs. Continually crowding more pixels onto tiny sensors results in a hefty increase in image degrading noise. So, the ZS8 generates noise, even at low ISO sensitivities – should that discourage anyone from buying the camera? No, it shouldn’t. The ZS8 is not alone in being a bit noisy – most of its competition suffers from the same malady. Overall, the ZS8 will do a fine job as a general purpose digicam, but in the final analysis it isn’t really much of an improvement over its predecessor.
Read more product reviews on Panasonic LUMIX DMC-ZS8/DMC-TZ18 14.1 MP Digital Camera - Black
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This Camera is a Good Choice if You Want Something... Flexible Enough for Enthusiasts