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Panasonic Lumix LZ8
8.1MP | 32-160mm (5X) ZOOM | $120 US, £110 UK

Over the last five or six years Panasonic has established itself as a major player in a market once dominated by the 'old world' photographic brands from the days of film. The key to that success has been pretty simple; a reputation for quality cameras (something not harmed by the association with the most revered 'old world' names of all, Leica) and some genuine innovation. It was Panasonic that pushed optical image stabilization into the mainstream compact camera market (these days all Lumix models are stabilized), not to mention popularizing and then shrinking the 'super zoom' digicam and leading the way with true wideangle lenses on compacts.

In recent years Panasonic has been attacking the budget end of the market far more aggressively, allowing features from its high-end models to trickle down into cameras such as this one, which offers a remarkably comprehensive feature set for as little as a hundred dollars. It's not the prettiest camera in the world, but it offers, without a doubt, the most bang for your buck out of all the cameras on test here.

  • 8.1 effective Megapixels
  • 32 mm lens with 5x optical zoom
  • 2.5-inch LCD with 230,000 dots resolution
  • Optical Image Stabilizer
  • ISO sensitivity up to 6400
  • 9-Point Autofocus with Face Detection
  • 11 shooting modes including Intelligent Auto Mode
  • Program, Shutter-Priority, Aperture-Priority and Manual Exposure Modes
  • 20MB Internal Memory
  • Available in Silver or Black
  • Optional accessories available

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Overview

The LZ8 is one of the larger, more traditionally shaped cameras in the group, but it justifies some of its bulk by incorporating the greatest zoom range in this test (and optically stabilized, to boot). The 32mm start point isn't terribly wide-angle in the grand scheme of things but is the joint-widest of this batch of cameras, and the 160mm equivalent telephoto end of the zoom is the longest, making it by far the most adaptable lens of the bunch. The styling is somewhere between conservative and drab, and the plastic used for the rear of the camera (and all the buttons), feels distinctly inexpensive compared to the metal front. Somewhat perversely, the similarity of finish used on the plastic back and metal front-panel makes the whole camera feel plasticy, rather than implying the all-metal construction we suspect the designers were hoping for.

The screen is one of the best examples in this test, featuring 230,000 dots in a 2.5" display. Panasonic's two-menu structure, which puts keys settings in the 'Q.menu' and more detailed settings in the main menu is quick to learn and easy to use. However, the removal of menu options in the simpler, automated modes - including the ability to format the memory card - is in some respects more confusing than simply graying them out would have been.

Key Features

The Panasonic is one of the bulkier cameras in this test, making it harder to slip into a pocket or handbag but easier to get a good grip on.
As well as a four-way controller, the Panasonic adds a button for accessing the Quick Menu which gets you to the key shooting parameters. There's also an 'exposure button' used in the manual and semi-manual modes.
A mode dial gives a selection of modes offering various degrees of user control, all the way through to the Intelligent Auto mode, that does pretty much everything for you.
The lens is the stand-out feature of the LZ8. It's an image stabilized 32-160mm lens, meaning it's the joint widest-angle lens in this test as well as offering the longest telephoto range.
The extent of the Quick Menu changes, depending on the shooting mode. In Program, A, S or M modes, it offers control over technical settings such as AF area mode, as well as the image size option that is accessible in all modes.
The length and complexity of the main menus is also defined by which mode you're in. It's a nice idea and one that's generally well implemented, but the inability to format a memory card if you're in the more automated modes would appear to be taking things a bit far.

Image quality and performance

Technically, at a pixel level, there really isn't a lot of difference between most of the cameras in this group, but overall we'd have to place the LZ8 fairly near the top. The new Venus Engine IV processor is a huge improvement on its predecessor, especially at higher ISO settings (low light performance has long been Panasonic's Achilles' Heel), where the LZ8 is one of the best two cameras here.

As with most of the cameras in this test the output doesn't look that nice close up (it's a bit soft and has the over-processed look associated with noise reduction smearing and sharpening) but exposure/metering is excellent, focus very reliable and color natural without being dull (saturation is quite high). Unlike most of the cameras here the LZ8 offers extensive control over image parameters (contrast, sharpness, saturation, noise reduction and so on) and even offers white balance fine tuning. The lens is sharp corner to corner throughout the zoom range and - as long as you're not going to produce big enlargements - I doubt many users will complain about the output quality, especially given the keen pricing.

The camera itself performs reasonably well, with no discernible shutter lag and a snappy, responsive menu system. As we've seen before on budget cameras with long zooms AF speed isn't that impressive, especially at the tele end and in low light, but it always gets there in the end. Flash performance is pretty good (though recycling can be slow, as with all AA powered cameras).

Up close the LZ8's output can look a little over processed (noise reduction smearing of low contrast detail), but there's plenty of resolution and the lens is actually very good. It's also a lot better than most of its competitors when you look at the entire ISO range, and exposure, focus and white balance are very reliable.

Summary

The LZ8 stands out from every other camera in this group by virtue of its extensive feature set and comprehensive manual controls. It works perfectly well as a 'point and shoot' snapshooter but is also ideal for the beginner wanting to learn a little more about photography. It's not very pretty or very pocketable, and the plastic body hardly feels luxurious, but it more than makes up for this with a feature set that wouldn't be out of place on a camera costing twice as much. Add in the reliable image quality and you've got a camera that the head would choose even if the heart said no. By far the best value for money in this group, and one of the best performers too.

  • We like: Superb feature set, 5x stabilized zoom, decent image quality, lots of control, high res screen, user interface
  • We don't like: Slow flash recharge, rather dated styling, quite bulky
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