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Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7
Sunday, January 2, 2011  
Wouldn't it be great if there was one compact digital camera that could do everything you need reasonably well? The typical cruise enthusiast is not a professional photographer and does not need all of the functionality and complexity of a full-blown DSLR or professional-grade video camera. However, our travel pictures are important to us and some of us like to shoot video clips of our adventures. Panasonic may have come up with a near-perfect solution. The LUMIX DMC-ZS7 is their top-of-the-line pocket digital camera. The unit features a 12X zoom lens, 14-megapixel images, 720p HD video and even has GPS capabilities built-in! What more could you ask for?

Full Disclosure

In the spirit if full disclosure I should mention that when we began looking for our own personal "do-it-all" pocket digital, we chose the DMC-ZS7. After field testing several Panasonic cameras, we grew comfortable with their menu interface and have continued to be impressed with the quality construction. We have been using the DMC-ZS7 to shoot many of the photos you see in CruiseReport.com editorial reviews.

Please submit your comments about this review at the bottom of the page

WALK AROUND


The design of the ZS7 is comparable to its predecessor, the ZS3. The weight and dimensions are about the same. Even though it is a bit bulkier than your typical pocket digital, it is remarkably compact for its features and its 25mm-300mm 12x zoom lens. The ZS7 will take up most of the room in your pants pocket, and is most comfortable in a jacket pocket or hanging around your neck on a lanyard (that's how we carry ours). The ZS7 is available in black, red, silver and blue. We chose blue for an obvious reason...we have never owned a blue camera! The LCD offers good visibility even in sunlight. Even though the sensor claims 14 megapixel, only 12 are used to give you a choice between various aspect ratios - 4X3, 3X2 and 16X9.

The ZS7 employs optical image stabilization, an essential feature on a compact with a 300mm equivalent zoom. With this new model though, Panasonic has updated the stabilization from "Mega OIS" to "Power OIS", and claims nearly double the compensation of the previous system.

If you are familiar with other Panasonic cameras, the ZS7 menus will be familiar. Even if you have never used a Panasonic, the menus are very logical and probably do not even require glancing at the enclosed camera manual. Menus are easy to navigate with tabs for still shooting, video, and general  settings. Menu choices do change depending on the mode you have selected in the mode dial. The manual and semi-manual modes present a fair amount of menu choices that may take some getting used to. However, the menus for the iAuto and Program mode are extremely simple and straightforward.

On top of the ZS7 is the shooting mode dial, shutter release,  zoom control, and power on/off switch. The battery and SD card compartment are on the bottom of the camera behind a hinged door. Another hinged door on the right side of the camera reveals the USB and HDMI port. Unfortunately, Panasonic uses a proprietary USB connector requiring me to carry their cable when we travel. Not a big deal, however. On the rear of the camera and to the right of the LCD is a switch for changing between shooting and playback; an exposure button for accessing changes to shutter speed and aperture; a movie record (start/stop) button; four navigation buttons for moving through menus and settings, flash, macro, and self-timer options; a Display button for changing the amount of setting information displayed on screen; and the "Q.Menu" button that brings up a bar of commonly used settings like ISO, photo and movie resolutions, autofocus modes, and white balance. The main menu system is reached by pressing the Menu/Set button at the center of the four navigation buttons.

The ZS7 has a built-in GPS (Global Positioning System) that can record your location as part of the data stored with each photograph. If you use a photo management program that can read this data, you can see where you were when the photo was taken. This was a major reason why we chose the ZS7. We have thousands of photos in our library and often cannot remember where we were when we took the picture. The GPS capabilities make the ZS7 uniquely well-suited for cruise enthusiasts and travel photography in general. However, the GPS features come at a cost, most notably, a significant drain on the battery life. When the GPS receiver is turned on (via the menu system) the receiver is always running, even when the camera is turned off. A tiny flashing red light on the back of the camera will remind you that the GPS is still working in the background. When the GPS is first turned on, it can take a few minutes for it to acquire and lock onto a satellite signal. Once locked, it can display the country, state, city and even the landmark information. The system has a database covering 173 countries making it useful for international travel. You can use the GPS menus to define how much information you want stored with a photo. In other words, you may only want the city and state while ignoring the landmark information. When shooting with GPS, the longitude and latitude are stored in the EXIF data. The GPS system can automatically update the camera's time when you travel through different time zones, something we do often on our motorcycle trips across the US.

Even though it is possible to store GPS information when recording AVCHD Lite movies, it comes with a lot of restrictions on playback. We choose to stick with the non-GPS AVCHD Lite option when shooting video.

SHOOTING PHOTOS


The ZS7 allows the novice to simply turn the camera on, set the mode dial to iAuto or Program, frame the shot and snap the shutter button. What could be simpler? In iAuto mode, the camera's internal computer will choose one of the built-in scene modes automatically and briefly flash the icon of the selected scene on the LCD In Program mode, the camera will choose all the settings for you, but you have more ability to override the automatic settings. We use the iAuto and Program modes in 90% of our shooting and we suspect most who use this as their travel camera will do the same. There is an Aperture Priority mode and Shutter Priority mode as well as a Manual mode for those times when you need to tweak specific settings.

Turning the dial to SCN lets you choose from 29 presets modes. The ZS7 includes a High Dynamic option. The High Dynamic preset simulates the effect of HDR photography within a single frame. The camera digitally boosts shadowy areas while attempting to maintain bright highlights. This noble attempt falls short in actual practice, however, with a substantial amount of noise appearing in the shadowy areas. There are two MyScene (MS1 and MS2) settings where you can record and recall two user-defined settings for quick recall.

But what about quality of images? Quality depends on the type of photos you are shooting. In our case, the majority of our pictures are taken outdoors. We shoot mostly landscape and outdoor portrait shots. For us, the ZS7 is an excellent choice. It responds quickly, offers an excellent long-range zoom and produces sharp photos with brilliant color accuracy. However, when photo duty shifts to indoor flash pictures, the camera begins to show its weaknesses. This is common to most portable digitals we have tested. The flash capabilities are just too weak to produce good results. If you are shooting indoors, you are better off using a tripod and turning the flash OFF allowing a longer exposure time to compensate.

SHOOTING VIDEO

The ability to shoot HD video (720p at 30fps) was a major factor in our decision to purchase this as our "go to" camera. On a typical cruise assignment, we will shoot upward of 1,000 photos in a week and 60 minutes of video (each clip no more than 20 seconds). The ZS7 handles this work load very well. Shooting video is simple. Regardless of the mode selected on the mode dial, you simply press the red Movie Record button on the back of the camera to start recording. An on-screen timer displays the length of the current clip being recorded. To stop recording, press the button again and the clip will be saved to the SD card.

There are three Video encoding options on the ZS7. AVCHD Lite, Motion JPEG and AVCHD Lite w/GPS. AVCHD Lite requires a Class 4 SD card or faster while Motion JPEG requires Class 6 or better. Essentially, AVCHD Lite is the same format as AVCHD, but only operates at 720p. The AVCHD Lite w/GPS will tag the video clips with GPS information. However, this may make the files incompatible for playback on some devices that would otherwise accept AVCHD file formats. Motion JPEG has the advantage of easier editing, while AVCHD Lite allows smaller files, longer recording times, stereo sound and the compatibility for playback on compatible Panasonic TV sets. We shoot using AVCHD Lite and have no issues editing using iMovie™ or Final Cut Express™ on a MacBook™ Pro.

The continual auto focus while shooting video is excellent with minimal "hunting" for focus, even when zooming in/out during shooting. And yes, you can use the zoom while shooting video. The zoom motor is actually pretty quiet and is virtually undetectable in the video clips. However, if you suddenly let go of the zoom rocker switch it can make a small click sound, which the stereo microphones will pick up.

Our only real complaint with the video capabilities of the ZS7 comes when attempting to shoot brightly lit scenes, such as the sun reflecting off the waves of the ocean, or a very bright light source. The sensor will display annoying streaks of light through the video. There are a couple of workarounds to this, however. Even though the ZS7 has no threads on its lens to accept polarizer filters, there is an aftermarket stick-on thread ring that will accept a 37mm filter. We have the ring installed, but have not fully tested it. For now, we try to avoid shooting very brightly lit scenes.

WHAT WE LIKE

  • Ultra-wide angle 25mm lens
  • 12X zoom (300mm equivalent)
  • Solid construction, quality build
  • GPS tagging
  • HD video capabilities
  • Stereo mic

WHAT WE DON'T LIKE


  • Light streaks when shooting bright objects

SUMMARY

We must like the ZS7 since we have chosen it as our compact camera to use on our own cruise review assignments. The camera is reasonably compact, has all the manual features that we would ever desire in a compact camera and excellent full-auto capabilities. The HD video coming out of this camera rivals footage from dedicated video cameras. In our opinion, this is one of the best compact cameras for travel photography on the market today.

SAMPLE PHOTOS
Click on the thumbnails below to see a larger version



SAMPLE VIDEO
The video scenes were shot using the Lumix DMC-ZS7 and edited using iMovie on a MacBook Pro.


     
     
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One Comment
 
ERNIE F.
 
Thank you for the reviews. I find them to be extreamly informative and insightful in helping me to find just the right camera for my uses.
 
Monday, June 11, 2012 12:40 PM  
 
 
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