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Performance & Image Quality

In general, the DMC-ZS20 performs very well, especially when it comes to autofocus performance. The table below summarizes what you can expect from it:

Timing Measured Performance How it Compares

Startup
(GPS off)

2.0 sec Below average
Autofocus
(Wide-angle)
0.1 - 0.3 secs Above average
Autofocus
(Telephoto)
0.8 - 1.0 secs Above average
Autofocus
(Low light)
~ 1 sec Average
Shutter lag Not noticeable Above Average
Shot-to-shot
(no flash)
~ 1 sec Above average
Shot-to-shot
(with flash)
~ 2 sec Above average

As you can see, except for the startup time, the ZS20 is pretty 'smokin!

The DMC-ZS20 has a huge selection of burst modes, including an automatic mode (for Intelligent Auto only) whose frame rate varies depending on the scene, two modes where the camera refocuses between each shot (at 2 or 5 fps), three fixed-focus modes (10, 40, and 60 fps, though only the first one is at full resolution), and a 5-shot flash burst feature. The following chart summarizes the performance of the four burst modes you'll most likely use (and that I can measure):

Setting Performance
2 fps (w/autofocus) Unlimited @ 2.0 frames/sec
5 fps (w/autofocus) 12 shots @ 4.8 frames/sec
10 fps (fixed focus) 10 shots @ 10.0 frames/sec
Flash burst (2.5 MP) 5 shots @ 1.7 frames/sec
Tested with a SanDisk Class 10 SDHC card

Not too shabby, eh? The 2 fps AF mode will just keep on shooting, while the 5 fps mode will slow down considerably when the buffer fills up. Both the 10 fps and flash modes will stop after they've completely their burst.

Image Quality

It's time for some photo quality discussion!

Indoors

Photos are taken under indirect lighting provided by two Smith-Victor Q80 lamps at a focal length of 40mm (equivalent) and an aperture of f/3.9.

Now it's time to see how the ZS20 performed in our studio ISO test, taken under consistant artificial lighting, indoors. Keep in mind that the crops only show a small portion of the test scene, so you might want to click to see the full size original images too. And with that, let's take a journey from ISO 100 to 3200:

ISO 100 ISO 200 ISO 400 ISO 800 ISO 1600 ISO 3200

Things look pretty clean at ISO 100 and 200, with just a slight increase in noise at ISO 400. Noise is lot more obvious at ISO 800, and color saturation drops slightly, but it's still usable for small and midsize prints. Things start to go downhill at ISO 1600, so I'd save that setting for emergencies only. You're better off avoiding ISO 3200 completely.

Compared to ZS10

Again, there's no RAW on the ZS20, so I can't do any RAW vs. JPEG comparisons. One comparison I can do is between the DMC-ZS10 and the ZS20. Noise was a big problem on the ZS10 (enough for me to not recommend it), and Panasonic promised better results on the ZS20. Let's find out:

Panasonic DMC-ZS10 (100% crop) Panasonic DMC-ZS20 (100% crop)
ISO 400
ISO 800

I think I can unequivocally say that the ZS20's noise levels are at least 1-2 stops better than the ZS10. Not only is there less noise - colors look a lot better, too. The ZS20 isn't going to win any awards for its noise levels, but Panasonic has improved things considerably. Turn to our image quality compared page to see how the ZS20 fares against a wider range of competitors.

Nighttime

This scene was shot from a fixed position using a tripod at at a focal length of 130mm (equivalent). Exposure was automatic in aperture priority mode at f/5.4, and image stabilization was turned off.

Now we're going to use this night scene to see how the ZS20 performs as its sensitivity increases:

ISO 100 ISO 200 ISO 400 ISO 800 ISO 1600 ISO 3200

At base ISO (100) the night shot is decent, but there is room for improvement. The camera took in plenty of light, though there's a moderate amount of highlight clipping. The buildings are fairly sharp, but if you look closely you'll see mottled details from noise reduction. As far as color goes, the image is a bit more yellow that I'd like, which is a common issue with Panasonic cameras and artificial light. I was surprised to see purple fringing in the photo. While it's not major, Panasonic cameras usually have no problems with it.

The ISO 200 shot is just a bit noisier than the one at ISO 100, so it's just as usable. Noise and detail loss become a lot more obvious at ISO 400, so this is a good place to stop in low light. At ISO 800 you can observe quite a bit of detail loss, so that setting is for desperation (and small prints) only. Everything about that is too noisy to be usable. And, since the ZS20 lacks a RAW mode, this is as good as you're going to get.

Macro

The DMC-ZS20 did a nice job with our macro test subject. As is usually the case with Panasonic cameras, there's a slight yellow color cast here, but you mostly notice this on the white background. The subject is nice and sharp, and plenty of detail is captured. While there is some noise reduction artifacting here, you won't notice in the real world.

The DMC-ZS20 did a nice job with our macro test subject. As is usually the case with Panasonic cameras, there's a slight yellow color cast here, but you mostly notice this on the white background. The subject is nice and sharp, and plenty of detail is captured. While there is some noise reduction artifacting here, you won't notice in the real world.

There are two macro modes on the ZS20, though I'd only bother with the standard one. In this mode, the minimum focus distance is 3 cm at wide-angle and 1 m at telephoto. The macro zoom feature locks the lens at full wide-angle and lets you use the digital zoom to get closer. This, of course, will reduce the quality of your photo, so it's best avoided.

Redeye Reduction

The DMC-ZS20 takes a two-pronged approach to reducing redeye. First, it'll fire the flash a few times (before the photo is taken) to shrink your subject's pupils, which tends not to work on compact cameras. If the camera detects any redeye after the photo is taken, it'll attempt to remove that digitally.

I've found Panasonic's digital removal system to be pretty finicky - sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. In the ZS20's case, it never got rid of the redeye, in repeated tests. And, since there's no way to remove it in playback mode, you'll have to fix this annoyance on your PC.

Distortion

The more complex the lens, the greater the likelihood of issues like distortion making an appearance in your photos.The ZS20 features an optical zoom that spans 24-480mm (equivalent). This photo was taken at the wide end.


There's fairly mild barrel distortion at the wide end of the ZS20's 24 - 480 mm lens. If you look at the building on the right side of this photo, you can see what this distortion does in the real world. There are small amounts of corner blurring at full wide-angle, though you'll only notice when closely inspecting the photos on your PC. Vignetting (dark corners) were not a problem.

Overall Image Quality

Overall, the Lumix DMC-ZS20's image quality is good, but not fantastic. Is it better than the ZS10? Absolutely. Is there room for improvement? Quite a bit. Let's start with exposure which, while generally accurate, tends to clip highlights easily. My suggestion is to bracket (or use HDR) in high contrast situations. Colors are nice and saturated -- no complaints there. Photos are a bit on the soft side, but turning on Intelligent Resolution makes them a lot more pleasant to look at.

While photos aren't as noisy as on last year's model, the ZS20's pictures still have noise and noise reduction artifacting, even at ISO 100. This gives low contrast areas a fuzzy, mushy, and sometimes mottled appearance. While it'll blend away when you downsize for the web or make small prints, other cameras do better in this area. As the previous tests showed, taking the ISO over 400 in low light or ISO 800 in good light is not recommended. Purple fringing is rarely a problem on Panasonic cameras, and that is the case on the ZS20, as well.

As always, don't just take my word for all this. Have a look at our ZS20 photo gallery and decide if the image quality meets your standards!

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