By Jeff Keller
As a fan of the travel zoom camera, I must admit that I was pretty excited when the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 came out. Nice build quality, great lens, plenty of manual controls and amazing video quality. What kept it from ending up in my camera bag was its price (since reduced) and limited zoom range. While 24-200mm equiv is fine for most people, I'm a telephoto fan, and just wasn't enough for my taste.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ1000 came as a surprise, and a pleasant one at that. It takes care of the price and zoom issues I had with the Sony and adds a nicer EVF, fully articulating LCD, a more comfortable grip, and future-proof 4K video. Seeing how its sensor specs are roughly the same as the Sony's, I assumed that they were using the same BSI-CMOS and that image quality would be comparable. And that is the case, based on my experience with the camera.
When I first got the FZ1000 into my hands, I had two reactions. First, the camera felt a bit too plasticky for its price, especially compared to the all-metal Sony. The only part of the FZ1000 that says 'this is a $900 camera' is the metal lens barrel. My second, more positive impression was that the FZ1000 was easier to handle, thanks to its more substantial grip. I don't mind the fact that the camera is SLR-sized, given what the FZ1000 offers and how comfortable it is in the hand.
I like the direct controls for drive mode, focus type, and image stabilization, I was less thrilled by the single dial operation. This dial, located at the top-right of the rear plate, handles exposure compensation, shutter speed, and aperture, though you have to press it inward to switch between them. I'd much rather have two dials for quicker adjustment of settings. And, as mentioned in the comparison to the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10, adjusting settings via this dial could introduce noise (of the audio type) or camera shake, when shooting video.
After a quick play, it was time to get the camera set up to my liking. That didn't take long, as the FZ1000 already has a number of direct buttons, plus dials for quickly switching drive and focus modes. First up was turning on the histogram, which can be placed anywhere on the display - something I've always liked about Panasonic cameras.
|Having a manual zoom/focus ring around the lens is good. Accidentally turning it due to the lack of finger room all the time is not.|
Next was setting the zoom ring around the lens to use 'step zoom', which hops between common focal lengths (28, 50, 70, etc.). Something that really bugged me about the zoom/focus ring was just how easy it was to accidentally turn, since there's not much room on the lens barrel for your hand. There were countless occasions when I adjusted the focal length without trying and, in some cases, realizing that I did it. Panasonic says there are five different zoom speeds on the FZ1000, though I'm not precise enough to notice more than three.
The DMC-FZ1000 has a long, somewhat intimidating main menu (due to a seemingly endless list of options). Navigating through it is lighting quick, but I'd rather avoid it altogether if possible. By default, pressing the Fn3 button opens up the Q.Menu, a shortcut menu that can hold up to twenty items and customized to your liking, if you wish. The default menu is fine for most people, but I added HDR and focus peaking to the mix, since those are two things I'll be accessing more frequently. I also redefined two of the five custom buttons to toggle the electronic level and grid lines.
|The FZ1000's fully articulating LCD came in handy when I couldn't stand directly above the camera to take fireworks photos like this one. ISO 1250, 0.8 sec, f/6.3, 110mm equiv.|
Actually taking pictures
Now that I was happy with the control setup, it was time to actually take photos. I generally use the electronic viewfinder for most of my shots though, as is frequently the case, I had to block out incident light with my hand. As much as I prefer fully articulating LCDs compared to 'tilting' ones, the only occasions in which I actually took advantage of it were when I was using a tripod. The LCD is pretty easy to see outdoors once the 'Auto Power LCD' is turned on, which adjusts screen brightness based on ambient light. For night shooting I turned it back off, as it tended to make photos look overexposed.
I already mentioned how responsive the camera feels, and that extends to the autofocus system. If the FZ1000 isn't the fastest-focusing compact camera out there, it's darn close. In nearly all situations - wide-angle, telephoto, bright light, low light - the FZ1000 focused quickly and accurately. I've spent a lot of time with the Panasonic's main competitor - the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 - and the FZ1000 is quicker to focus in every situation that I encountered.
|Thanks to the FZ1000's silent mode, this Seattle PD officer had no idea that I was taking his photo. ISO 125, 1/500 sec, f/4, 260mm equiv.|
The combination of the FZ1000's long zoom lens and optional electronic shutter make it great for 'stealth' photography. Being able to photograph people chatting on the street or wildlife in the trees without anyone/anything noticing opened up some interesting options that my big DSLR couldn't pull off. The downside of using the electronic shutter is that moving subjects may appear distorted by the 'rolling shutter' effect.
There are a couple of playback mode features that I appreciate, as well. Panasonic cameras have had video trimming/splitting for awhile, and I found it helpful when recording fireworks video as it let me get rid of the parts where nothing was happening. For still shooting, the built-in Raw Processing tool allows me to fix white balance, noise reduction, sharpness, shadows/highlights, and more - without having to touch Photoshop. Or worse, SilkyPix.
Video is a huge part of the FZ1000, and both the quality and tools provided are very good. The biggest draw is the camera's ability to record at 4K (that's 3840 x 2160), which offers four times the resolution of 1080p. The bit rate is an impressive 100Mbps and you'll need a UHS Speed Class 3 card to take advantage of it. While I'm yet to make the jump to 4K myself (due to the lack of content), I like how the FZ1000 is ready for the eventual transition from Full HD. One thing I can take advantage of now is the ability to grab 8MP stills from 4K video, and they look very good.
|The 8 megapixel (3840 x 2160) frame grabs from 4K video look great.|
While I didn't use them very often, Panasonic has loaded with the FZ1000 with numerous tools for taking video. You've got focus peaking for manual focus, zebra for detecting overexposure, audio level adjustment, and manual exposure control. Five-axis image stabilization is also available, though rotational shake reduction is digital.
One thing missing is Auto ISO, which lets you keep aperture and shutter speed constant, and letting the camera adjust sensitivity to maintain proper exposure. In fooling around with focus peaking, I found that it wasn't strong enough to really fine-tune focus, and found that enlarging the frame and 'eyeballing it' was easier.
One feature unique to the FZ1000 is 'Level Shot', which does exactly as it sounds, which is perfect for horizon-challenged photographers such as myself. Based on my totally non-scientific experiment it seems to work, though it's hard to do A/B testing on a handheld panning video. Using level shot will reduce the field-of-view in your videos, though, and is not available at the 4K resolution.
Speaking of 4K, below is a YouTube-ized version of 4K footage on the 4th of July. Obviously, this will look best on a 4K display, but it's not too shabby at 2560 x 1440, either.
|3840 x 2160 (4K) 30p 100Mbps, MP4, 16 sec, 183.2 MB Click here to download original file|
Back in January 2013 I was lucky enough to visit South America and Antarctica. I brought along my EOS 7D and three lenses, covering 15-85mm, 70-200mm, and 400mm focal ranges. All of this was in a rather heavy backpack that I carried around throughout the trip. I'd often have to find a place to sit down and change lenses, such as when the 70-200mm lens I'd been using most of the time couldn't capture a whale in the distance, so out came the 400.
What I'm getting at here is that it was a pain to carry all that around, which is what's drawn me to the Panasonic FZ1000. It gives me a similar focal range (save for the long end), a more flexible LCD, a beautiful EVF, and better video quality and features than the 7D or the EOS 5D Mark III that has since replaced it. And best of all, it's all in one package, so I can just sling it over my shoulder and can get down to business.
Photo quality won't rival that of my 5D and nice lenses, but I never print larger than A3+ (13 x 19 inches), so this shouldn't be a major issue. I've also been quite impressed with the video quality and am suddenly taking an interest in that 4K television that I don't really need.