Panasonic has stuck to the tried and tested design formula that they established back with the FZ7, and the FZ18 is externally very, very similar to the FZ8, though it has had a minor facelift to make it a little less boxy. This is no bad thing, recent Lumix FZ generations have been nice to look at and managed to integrate good ergonomics, SLR like controls and a massive zoom range in a very compact package.
In your hand
Unsurprisingly the FZ18's handling is almost identical to its predecessor's. The small dimensions don't harm the camera's handling at all. It feels stable, safe and solid, and operation of the main controls (zoom and shutter release) very easy. The excellent handling - along with the image stabilization - means the FZ18, just as the FZ8, feels perfectly safe to use with one hand. It is very well balanced and not too heavy (though inevitably you'll get less camera shake if you support the right side of the camera with your 'spare' hand).
The FZ18 is powered by a Lithium Ion pack that sits beside the SD card slot under a sturdy spring-hinged cover. The battery provides enough power for 400 shots (CIPA standard). Images are stored on SD (The camera is SDHC compatible) or MMC cards - there is also 27MB of internal memory.
The screen is the same as the FZ8's. It has a resolution of 207,000 pixels and is as bright and sharp as ever, showing a lot of detail.
The electronic viewfinder has been borrowed from the FZ8 too. It sports 188,000 pixels which makes it perfectly usable and a good alternative to the display in bright sunlight. Although far from perfect it's certainly one of the better electronic viewfinders on the market.
The pop-up flash is activated manually by a small button on the rear of the camera. The range remains the same as it was on the FZ8 (0.3 to 6.0m at the wide end using auto ISO). The flash range at the long end of the zoom has fallen slightly (the lens is around 2/3 stop slower at the telephoto end of the zoom) to 4.0m, but I can't imagine many people want to use flash with a 504mm lens that often.
The Leica-designed 18x (28-504mm equiv. F2.8-3-3) optic is wider and longer than that used on any previous FZ model, and now covers an incredibly useful wide to tele range. When the camera is powered up, it extends by around an inch at the wide end of the zoom. The FZ18 is supplied with a flower lens hood (attached via a screw-in adaptor).
A sturdy hinged flap (on the right hand side of the camera viewed from the back) covers the USB connector and DC input. The connector is USB 2.0 compatible, but it's still only at 'Full Speed' (which is USB 2.0-speak for slow old USB 1.1 - 12Mbits/ sec) - unforgivable for a camera launched in 2007. The same port is used (with a different cable) for audio/video output.
The shutter release sits at the front of the grip. The zoom lever is a ring around the shutter release. The zoom motor isn't stepless, but it is getting close - unlike some superzooms, which leap from one zoom position to the next in huge steps. It's also very quiet, and has two zoom speeds according to how far you push the zoom lever. The mode dial now has a few scene modes on it - and a welcome 'CUSTOM' position for instant recall of saved settings.
The 'joystick' was first introduced with the FZ7 and is thankfully still here. It is used to access and navigate the quick menu for commonly changed settings (ISO, white balance etc). The functionality of the quick menu has been expanded to include the settings for Image Stabilization (the pointless IS button on the top of the camera now controls the macro mode). Note also the new AF/AE lock button.
The four direction keys are used to navigate menus, and each also has a dedicated function in record mode.