Conclusion - Pros
- Good, sharp results in optimal shooting conditions
- Good, natural color and excellent exposure
- Hugely versatile 18x zoom range covering true wideangle to long telephoto
- Smooth, almost stepless 2-speed zoom
- Effective image stabilization
- Good build quality
- Compact package
- Very comprehensive range of controls
- Very fast operation
- Fast (and accurate) focus
- Well designed menu system
- Nice handling
- Bright, clear, high resolution LCD screen
- Excellent EVF
- Decent burst mode and fast card writing
- Powerful flash
- Excellent battery life
- Good movie mode
- Usable raw mode (approx 4 second shot-to-shot with a fast card)
- Powerful raw converter (SILKYPIX) included
- Lots of in-camera image adjustments
- Excellent value for money
Conclusion - Cons
- Images lack biting crispness, some loss of fine detail to noise reduction even at ISO 100
- Default noise reduction too high at all ISO settings (use low NR setting or raw)
- Occasional odd artefacts at lower ISO settings (some moiré related, some just plain old NR)
- Soft, over-sharpened JPEGs don't work well with very fine detail (though they produce perfectly acceptable prints)
- Anything over ISO 400 of very limited use due to noise and blurred detail
- Occasional highlight clipping and fringing in JPEGs
- Occasional focus hunting at long end of zoom in low light and in macro mode
- Some corner-softness
- Lens performance drops off slightly at long end of zoom range
One thing that has become obvious to us as we've looked at the various 18x 'super zoom' models that have appeared since the Olympus SP-550UZ burst onto the scene at the start of the year is that they will always involve a certain degree of compromise, particularly when it comes to image quality. The FZ18 is no exception; it offers all that we loved about the FZ8, plus a genuinely useful extension to the wide end of the zoom (the little extra telephoto is nice too, but nowhere near as important photographically speaking). But the image quality has actually fallen, partly due to the constraints involved in designing a 28-504mm equiv. lens this small, but mainly we suspect due to the painfully inevitable decision to add yet another million pixels to a 1/2.5 inch sensor already straining at the seams. This means that despite Panasonic more or less sorting out the bleeding color issue at higher ISO settings, the noise from the sensor is obviously a lot higher and the net result is images that we would struggle to find a use for at anything over ISO 200.
That all said, there really is much to like here; the FZ18 is a well built camera with a brilliant user interface and a superb range of photographic controls. The excellent quick menu gives you comfortable access to all important settings and the entire menu structure is designed in a way that'll let you know your way around the buttons without any problems after a couple of days or so. There is a very comprehensive range of manual controls, so the choice is yours; you can leave all the thinking to the camera or adjust all settings to your preference. We found the FZ very responsive and quick all around and the efficient stabilization system is a very welcome feature, especially at the tele end of the very long lens.
And in good light at ISO 100 the output is - as long as you don't spend too much time peering at the pixels - actually very good; highlight clipping, though still an issue in very bright conditions, is less prevalent than many camera's we've tested, thanks to an exposure system that gets it right far more often than it gets it wrong. Color is pleasing without being too 'in your face' and the focus system fast and reliable as long as there's enough light around. I'm sure for many potential users the combination of such an impressive zoom range and such a reliable focus/exposure system - all in a package that won't break your back if you carry it round all day - will more than outweigh the less than stellar pixel-level performance.
And this is where the FZ18 differs so much from the Olympus SP-550 UZ, reviewed earlier this year and sporting almost identical specification (and very similar image quality): the FZ18 is fun to use, and it's responsive and reliable enough to allow you to snap away to your heart's content, experimenting with the huge zoom range. Where the SP-550UZ seemed hell-bent on annoying you into giving up photography forever, the FZ18 is another of those cameras that actually makes you want to go out and take pictures, just for the sake of it.
It's not a camera we'd recommend for low light use, and its 'hit rate' drops noticeably in social 'party snaps' situations, where frankly you'd be better off with something with a slightly less ambitious zoom range and a slightly larger sensor (though flash and focus performance at wider focal lengths is perfectly acceptable). As a walk around camera with a lens capable of everything from sweeping landscapes to sports and wildlife telephoto shots, however, it's hard to beat.
In summary the the FZ18 is a well built, well designed and very versatile photographic tool that offers an awful lot in a compact and easy to use package, and one that's ideal for anyone not quite ready to commit to a bulky and expensive SLR outfit. The sensor performance struggles to live up to the rest of the package, but we say this so often it's beginning to sound like a broken record.
If you can live with the compromises that such a camera inevitably comes with (and you mainly shoot in daylight), you will get a lot out of using it, even if it's your first 'serious' camera. On this basis we think it's safe to say that the FZ18 - which is certainly the best of the 'really big' zoom cameras we've tried so far - easily offers enough to earn a Recommended rating, even if overall the IQ doesn't rate our highest honor.
|Detail||Rating (out of 10)|
|Ergonomics & handling||8.5|