Conclusion - Pros:
- Very good photo quality
- Packs a high quality 16X (24 - 384 mm) zoom lens into a small package
- "Power OIS" image stabilization, with "active" mode for movies
- 3-inch LCD offers good outdoor/low light visibility
- Good selection of manual controls
- Intelligent Auto mode does it all for you, including scene selection, face detection, blur reduction, shadow brightening, and smart sharpening
- Robust performance, especially focusing and shot-to-shot speeds
- Tons of scene modes and special effects
- Intelligent Resolution improves sharpness
- New HDR feature noticeably improves contrast, doesn't require a tripod
- Fast burst mode (though see below)
- Records Full HD video at 1080/60i with use of optical zoom and continuous autofocus; choice of AVCHD or MPEG-4 codecs
- Optional underwater case
Conclusion - Cons:
- Occasional highlight clipping
- Redeye a problem; no removal tool in playback mode
- Photos taken in artificial light tend to have a yellow/brown color cast
- LCD seems a bit blurry (on my camera, at least)
- No RAW, manual focus, or WB bracketing support; smallest available aperture is F6.3
- Buffer fills quickly in burst mode
- Monaural sound recording
- Slow internal battery charging system
- Flimsy door over memory card/battery compartment; can't access memory card while camera is on a tripod
- Full manual on CD-ROM
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15 is a compact ultra zoom camera that performs better than its more expensive sibling (the ZS20), though you'll miss out on some of that cameras biggest features (zoom, GPS, 1080/60p video). The DMC-ZS15 looks a whole lot like the ZS10 that came before it, and it uses the same 16X, 24 - 384 mm lens. This lens is pretty solid, offering good sharpness across the frame and minimal purple fringing. The camera has the same Power OIS that's been around for a few generation of Panasonic cameras, and it does a fine job of reducing blur in stills and making your movies a less shaky. On the back of the camera is a 3-inch LCD display with 460,000 pixels. The LCD seemed a little blurry on my ZS15, and I'm not sure if that's an issue with all of them or just mine. The screen retains the very good outdoor and low light visibility that Panasonic LCD's are known for. The ZS15 has a built-in flash with a decent amount of power. The only accessory of note is an underwater case.
The Lumix ZS15 is fully loaded with features. For the best point-and-shoot experience out there, just set the mode dial to the Intelligent Auto position. The camera will select a scene mode, reduce blur, detect faces, brighten shadows, and intelligently sharpen your photos, with zero work on your part. The ZS15 has numerous scene modes and creative filters, as well, including those for panoramas (though the quality isn't great), 3D stills, handheld night scenes, miniature effect, and much more. There's also a very handy HDR (high dynamic range) feature, which noticeably improves image contrast. Since the camera shoots so quickly, you won't need to use a tripod to take advantage of this feature.
Another useful feature is Intelligent Resolution, which does a nice job of sharpening your photos. Part of Intelligent Resolution is Intelligent Zoom, which boosts your zoom power by a factor of two, though image quality is reduced somewhat. In the manual control department, you can adjust the shutter speed and aperture (though the latter won't go higher than F6.3) and white balance (including fine-tuning). You cannot bracket for white balance or manually focus, nor is the RAW format supported. The ZS15 records videos at 1920 x 1080 at 60 interlaced frames per second (though sensor output is 30p) with monaural sound. When using the AVCHD codec, you can record up to 30 minutes of continuous HD video. The easier-to-edit MPEG-4 codec is also available, though recording times will be shorter. The optical zoom, image stabilizer, and autofocus system can all be used while you're recording a movie. There are no manual controls in movie mode, unless a wind filter counts.
Camera performance is very good. The ZS15 starts up in an average amount of time (1.5 secs) but after that, it's off to the races. The autofocus system is very responsive, which really separates the ZS15 from my other favorite compact ultra zoom, the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS. Shutter lag wasn't an issue, and shot-to-shot delays are brief. The ZS15 can shoot continuously at a number of speeds, with a top speed of ten frames/second at full resolution. Unfortunately, the camera has very little buffer memory, so shooting stops after just four photos, except at the 2 fps setting (which is unlimited). Battery life was a tiny bit above average. That said, the new internal battery charging system is slow and doesn't allow you to charge a spare battery -- so consider buying the external charger along with your ZS15.
Photo quality is right up there with the PowerShot SX260 in the compact ultra zoom group. Photos are well exposed though, like nearly all compact cameras, the ZS15 will clip highlights at times. Colors look good in nearly all situations, except in artificial light, where there's often a yellowish color cast (which most Panasonic cameras suffer from to some degree, in my experience). Sharpness is decent with Intelligent Resolution turned off, and just how I like it when it's turned on. While you will spot some noise and detail smudging at the base ISO of 100, the ZS15's photos still look better than most compact ultra zooms. You can safely increase the sensitivity to ISO 400 in low light and ISO 800 in good light. As I mentioned earlier, purple fringing was minimal. One thing that wasn't minimal is redeye -- it's quite the annoyance, and there's nothing you can do about it on the camera.
While it doesn't have the most Megapixels, zoom power, or features, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15 is still a very good compact ultra zoom camera. It offers a nice zoom lens in a compact body, along with robust performance, very good photo quality, tons of features, and Full HD video recording. And, with an average price in the $260 range, it's also a pretty good bargain. For those who were considering the DMC-ZS20 but were turned off by its image quality, I think the ZS15 is well worth sacrificing the 20X zoom, GPS, and 1080/60p movies for. I've got plenty of samples from recent ultra zoom cameras -- with more to come-- so have a look at those (as well as the performance tables), and I think if you compare the various options, that the ZS15 will come out on top (or darn close).
Some other compact ultra zoom cameras to consider include the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS, Fuji FinePix F750EXR, Nikon Coolpix S9300, Olympus SZ-31MR, Pentax Optio V20, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX10V.
As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera or electronics store to try out the Lumix DMC-ZS20 and its competitors before you buy!
Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
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Ergonomics & handling
Exposure and focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Movie / video mode
Travelers who want an inexpensive travel zoom that produces good photos and videos and are willing to give up the "frills" found on more expensive models.
Not so good for
Movie enthusiasts, manual control lovers, and folks who want a camera on the bleeding edge of technology.
While it doesn't have all the bells and whistles of the more expensive ZS20 (the omissionn of GPS being the most significant), the DMC-ZS15 produces better-looking images, while maintaining the robust performance, competitive feature set, and ease of use of its more costly sibling.
About Jeff Keller
Jeff Keller is the Founder and Publisher of the Digital Camera Resource Page. When it was created in 1997, DCResource was the first digital camera news and review site on the Internet. Jeff's love of gadgetry introduced him to digital cameras in the mid-90's, from which his passion for photography developed. Jeff runs DCResource from his home in Oakland, CA, and is often found wandering the streets of San Francisco with a bag full of cameras.