Features

I want to talk about features now, beginning with those controlled by the various buttons and dials on the FZ200. Let's begin with the mode dial, which has these options:

Exposure mode dial options

Option Function
Intelligent Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with automatic scene selection, face detection, subject tracking, intelligent sharpening, dynamic range improvement, and more. Many menu items are locked up.
Program mode Automatic, with full menu access; a Program Shift option lets you use the rear dial to move through sets of aperture/shutter speed values.
Aperture Priority mode You set the aperture, and the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed. The aperture range on the DMC-FZ200 is F2.8 - F8.0.
Shutter Priority mode You pick the shutter speed, and the camera selects the matching aperture. The shutter speed range is 8 - 1/4000 sec.
Full manual (M) mode You select both the aperture and the shutter speed. The aperture choices remain the same, while the shutter speed range opens up to 60 - 1/4000 sec.
Creative Motion Picture mode While you can take a movie in any shooting mode by using the dedicated button, in this mode you can adjust the aperture and/or shutter speed.
Custom mode 1/2 You can store up to four sets of your favorite camera settings to these two spots on the mode dial.
Scene mode You pick the scene and the camera uses the appropriate settings. Choose from portrait, soft skin, scenery, panorama shot, sports, panning, night portrait, night scenery, handheld nite shot, HDR, food, baby, pet, sunset, high sensitivity, glass through, and 3D photo.
Creative Control mode Choose from various special effects, each of which can be adjusted to your liking. Effects include Expressive (pop color), Retro, High key, Low key, Sepia, Dynamic Monochrome, Impressive Irt, High Dynamic, Cross Process, Toy Camera, Miniature, Soft Focus, Star Filter, and One Point (selective) Color. You can also adjust the background blur and brightness for each of these.

If you want a point-and-shoot experience, look no further than Panasonic's Intelligent Auto mode, which is the best Auto mode out there, in my opinion. It literally takes care of everything for you. You can also turn on Handheld Nite Shot and HDR (described shortly), both of which combine multiple exposures into a single image. If you want even more control, there's iA+ mode, which gives you sliders that adjust brightness (exposure compensation), background blur (aperture), and color balance (white balance).

Panorama Shot

Panorama shot works just like the "sweep panorama" feature that Sony pioneered a couple of years ago. You choose the direct in which you wish to "pan", hit the shutter release, and then "sweep" the camera from one side to the other. The panorama is created on-the-fly, so there's no need to stitch it together on the PC. The FZ200 does a decent job of stitching together the image, though you may see vertical stripes in certain situations (they're barely noticeable here). The image size isn't terribly large, so they're best suited for web viewing and small prints, and you're limited to shooting at the FZ200's widest-angle lens setting.

Handheld Nite Shot

Handheld Nite Shot takes a series of exposures and combines them into a single image that should be relatively sharp, and less noisy than if you just cranked the ISO up all the way. The example above is indeed fairly sharp and low in noise (considering the circumstances), though it's really only suited for small prints or web viewing.

HDR

The HDR (high dynamic range) feature also combines several exposures into one image, but instead of reducing noise and blur, its aim is to boost contrast. Three photos are taken: one at the selected exposure, another underexposed, and a third overexposed (you cannot set the interval, though). The three exposures are combined into one, with the resulting photo having better shadow and highlight detail. Here's an example:

HDR off HDR on

This photo, taken at the site of my weekend volunteer job, has a very strong backlight. Thus, everything else is super dark. Turning on HDR mode really balances things out. The highlights are still pretty blown out, but the foreground is much brighter. My only wish is that the HDR feature wasn't a scene mode, so you could control things like the ISO sensitivity.

Intelligent Resolution

This feature selectively sharpens an image, applying it to things that need it (like edges) and leaving alone things that don't (like the sky). The feature is off by default, except in Intelligent Auto mode. In the manual modes, you can choose from on or off, unlike on other models that let you choose low, medium, or high. Here's a crop of a larger photo that shows Intelligent Resolution in action:

Intelligent Resolution off Intelligent Resolution on

You'll find the most obvious improvements in sharpness on the various edges in the crop. The sign, the window frames, and the hours on the window are all noticeably sharper with Intelligent Resolution turned on. If you back out and view the full size images, you'll also see improved sharpness on the various trees and plants that surround the building. Sharpness is obviously a subjective matter, but if I was an FZ200 owner, I'd have the Intelligent Resolution feature turned on.

Intelligent Zoom

The other part of the Intelligent Resolution system is Intelligent Zoom. This gives you a 2X boost in zoom power with less of a drop in image quality than traditional digital zoom. That means that you now have the reach of a 1200 mm lens. Let's see how it looks:

Full telephoto (600 mm) Full telephoto + Intelligent Zoom (1200 mm)
When you view the downsized images, the Intelligent Zoom feature looks like a winner. However, view the full size images, and you'll see that photo quality goes downhill quite a bit when using this feature. Thus, I only recommend using Intelligent Zoom if you'll be making small prints, or downsizing your photos for web viewing.

Raw Mode

The FZ200 is relatively unusual for its class, in offering a Raw capture mode as well as JPEG. Although JPEG definitely scores when it comes to convenience, for more critical work, shooting Raw can make all the difference. If you're prepared to do a little post-processing, you'll be able to get better resolution, better highlight recovery, and more sophisticated noise reduction by shooting Raw. You'll also be able to make white balance adjustments 'after the fact' and take much more control over tonal adjustments as well. The FZ200 comes bundled with SilkyPix Developer Studio 3.1 SE, a capable but not all that user-friendly Raw converter. If you're serious about shooting Raw with the FZ200 we'd recommend investing in something like Adobe Photoshop Elements or even Lightroom. We're using Adobe Photoshop CS6 for these examples, running Adobe Camera Raw7.3 (release candidate). In both ISO 100 and 3200 examples, the Raw files are processed 'to taste', using ACR's white balance, tonal, sharpening and noise reduction sliders to get the best results.

ISO 100 - JPEG versus Raw

JPEG (default settings) 100% Crop (shadow)
Processed Raw (ACR 7.3) 100% Crop (shadow)

ISO 3200 - JPEG versus Raw

JPEG (default settings) 100% Crop (shadow)
Processed Raw (ACR 7.3) 100% Crop (shadow)
As you can see, at both the low and high ends of the FZ200's ISO sensitivity span, JPEG output is pretty good, but the benefits of carefully processing a Raw file should be obvious. More detail, and more natural reproduction of that detail. If you can live with the larger files, and the extra time post-capture, you'll get the best out of the FZ200 by shooting Raw.

Manual control / customization

Naturally, the FZ200 has a full set of manual exposure controls, too. In addition to aperture and shutter speed, you can also manually focus, customize and fine-tune white balance, and record images using the RAW image format. Bracketing is available for both exposure and white balance. As we've seen previously in this review, the FZ200 has three customizable buttons, as well as two spots on the mode dial that can store a total of four sets of camera settings.

The FZ200 lest you fine-tune and bracket for white balance at the same time