Three years ago, I bought a Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7 digital camera, which was the first compact point-and-shoot camera with built-in GPS capabilities. After using and enjoying it for about 18 months, I discovered that it had a chip on the lens and it was no longer usable. I have no idea how the lens got chipped, but I can say that I really liked the ZS7 camera. It took decent photos and very good video, with excellent audio to go along with the video.
After consideration and research, I replaced the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7 with its direct replacement from Panasonic: the Lumix DMC-ZS20. I bought it in October 2011 from B&H Photo for about $350.
What it is
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 is a compact digital camera (often called a "point-and-shoot") with a 20x zoom lens, 14.1-megapixel sensor, 3-inch LCD display (that does not articulate) and GPS capability. It came with a charger and USB cable, which lets you charge the battery inside the camera. The 20x zoom lens has a focal length of 25mm to 500mm, stated as its equivalent to a 35mm camera.
Speaking of the battery, it's a proprietary battery about the size of a matchbox. My old camera, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7, used exactly the same battery, so now I have a spare battery. This was one reason why I wanted to buy a DMC-ZS20.
The ZS20 can record 1080p video, and it can also be set for lower resolutions. Stereo audio is recorded with two microphones on top of the camera, which is similar to the older ZS7. (The ZS7's highest video resolution was 720p.) The ZS20 records video in the AVCHD format, and saves photos as JPEGs. It does not have RAW photo capability.
The Panasonic ZS20 saves files on an SD card located in the same compartment as the battery. The ZS20 can use the new SDXC memory, which is just now starting to become available at reasonable prices. I use a 32GB SDHC card in the camera, which works fine. SDXC cards start at 64GB and go up from there, but I have not tried one in this camera.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 also came with a DVD with software for video editing and picture processing. I have more competent programs for both those applications, so I ignored the included software.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 has a variety of controls and switches, including a shutter button, zoom lever, on/off slide switch and a wheel switch to select among various operating modes. On top near the shutter button is a video button that switches on the video mode with a single press. On the back is a slide switch that selects between shooting and playback status. The front of the camera has an automatic lens cover, as well as a flash. One other physical item to note is a door on the side of the camera that covers a mini-HDMI connector and a non-standard USB port.
One of the modes for the round switch on top is called "intelligent Auto," and it's indicated by a tiny red camera with "iA" in it. This is clearly the mode that Panasonic expects you to use, as some of the camera's best features are available only in this mode. For example, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 has a 20x optical zoom lens, which is pretty amazing for a camera that will fit in a shirt pocket. In iA mode, the ZS20 actually extends that zoom to 40x with some digital manipulation. The effect is not perfect, but it is worthwhile if that is the only way you can get the shot. However, only the 20x optical zoom is available in any of the camera's manual modes.
Likewise, in iA mode, the ZS20 processes photos with a little more detail and color sparkle. In manual modes, this extra photo oomph is not available. However, in iA mode, you are very limited as to what you can do -- pretty much nothing can be adjusted besides turning the flash on and off. If you want to adjust the exposure to compensate for odd lighting, that's not available in iA mode.
I take a lot of photos with my cameras (including the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20), but I also use the cameras extensively for video. Photos taken with the ZS20 are good but not great. Outdoors during the day, photos taken with the ZS20 are very good, but the quality drops off as the light dims. Indoors, even with lots of lights on, photos from the ZS20 have more noise/grain than I'd expect to see from a manufacturer's best point-and-shoot camera.
The same is true for videos. In fact, I'm less pleased with the quality of the ZS20's 1080p video than I was with the older ZS7's 720p video. Where I was expecting a step up in image quality from the ZS7 to the ZS20, it actually looks to me like photos and videos are slightly worse, despite both being higher resolution.
A big problem that I have with the ZS20 is that its focus will "hunt" during videos, if the camera is in iA mode. For example, the ZS20 has a useful face recognition feature that locates faces and sets the exposure and focus for the face. That's good, except that the faces more-or-less have to be looking directly into the camera for this feature to work. If the person looks to the side or a lock of hair partially covers the face, the camera loses track of the face and starts looking for other things to focus on. This has caused numerous focus problems when I shoot video of someone speaking at a podium. As the person looks toward the audience and then glances down at notes, focus is lost. I can touch the display to identify what I want it to focus on, but that's not always reliable. The lens also loses focus when zooming, which is also annoying.
So I've learned to shoot videos in a manual mode, where I select a setting that tells the ZS20 to focus only once. However, then the camera doesn't have the useful digital zoom feature.
In manual mode, I can control the exposure for both photos and videos. When exposure is not right in iA mode, I can switch to manual and adjust the ZS20 over a fairly wide range of exposure. Sadly, I then lose the additional punch provided by having the camera in iA mode.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 has a variety of shooting scene modes, such as night portrait, landscape, snow, night sky, etc. I don't use any of these except for HDR (High Dynamic Range) mode, which captures detail in both the bright and dark areas of the screen. HDR works for photos only, but it definitely does a good job of showing detail in all parts of the image. I don't use the HDR setting a lot, but it's very handy to have. I wish it also worked on video, however.
The LCD display on the ZS20 is good. It gets a little hard to see in the bright sun, but that's pretty typical. I often use the ZS20 on a monopod, which lets me hold the camera WAY over my head to get shots that are otherwise blocked by walls, fences or crowds. Since the display is flat against the back and doesn't articulate, that can make it hard to see exactly where the camera is pointed. However, the ZS20 is so light that I can hold it over my head for a long time on the monopod without tiring.
The stereo microphone atop the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 is really good. It has nice crisp sound and fine fidelity overall. I shoot lots of video interviews with people using the ZS20 and it captures the sound well. With the camera's 25mm wide-angle capability, I can get close to the subject -- and that means the subject is close to the microphone. This makes for good recordings that look and sound surprisingly more professional than you'd think for a small point-and-shoot camera.
Here's an example of a video that I shot myself, using only the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20. I did all the interviews with the ZS20 held close to the person I'm interviewing, and you might think that I was using a much more expensive camera:
The built-in flash on the ZS20 is good, and it will reach out as far as 12 feet or so. The flash is positioned above and beside the lens, so therefore it will cause a "flash shadow" to the side of the subject. That can look really distracting, but other cameras are worse in this regard. Also, the ZS20 has red-eye reduction that works pretty well. I can get a little red eye with this camera, but not too bad.
One of the widely advertised features of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 is its GPS capability. This records the location of every photo you take, storing the data in the "user bits" portion of the image data. It works very well... and I find that I never use it. Not once have I needed or even used the GPS capability, mostly because I'm good about immediately filing my photos and videos every day. I suppose GPS could be a really important feature if I traveled a lot, but I don't travel often. I keep the GPS feature turned off, as it will consume battery power if left on.
I usually get about 250-300 photos per battery charge, and recording video is good for about 75 minutes per charge. As I mentioned, I have a spare battery. That works out really well, since the battery is so small that it's easy to carry. I have had to swap the battery out in the field many times, so it's great to get decent time from such a small battery.
Speaking of small, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 is not the smallest camera available, but it is a nice size for easy portability. It will fit in a shirt pocket, and it comfortably goes in a jacket pocket. With the camera switched off and the lens retracted, there is nearly no protrusion from the front of the camera. I've even carried it occasionally in a snug rear jeans pocket. The camera feels solid and well built.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 is a good camera, but not a great one. I'm a little disappointed in its photo and video quality, and I'm more disappointed that its "intellgent Auto" features can't be used in modes besides the iA mode. And give me the iA mode with the ability to adjust the exposure. I use the ZS20 a lot, and almost always grumble to myself about one of its shortcomings.
On the other hand, it is an excellent camera for doing inexpensive "guerilla" videos, where you conduct interviews and capture action without the attention that a big professional camera brings. So far, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 is about the best camera I've found for that sort of video and audio, which is something I regularly do. That's not to say it couldn't be better, and fixing the camera's annoying focus hunting would be an excellent place to start.
Overall, I wish the ZS20 took better photos and video. I wish it had an articulating display, and that the focus didn't hunt so much. However, I will keep using it until something that's obviously better is available.
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Amount Paid (US$): 350
This Camera is a Good Choice if You Want Something... Easy Enough for Anyone to Use