The FZ20 is designed to look - and operate as far as possible - like a traditional SLR (single lens reflex) camera, and it's not that much smaller either. The body is dominated by the large 12x zoom lens, which extends by about 20mm when powered up (the zooming is entirely internal, so this is as far out as the lens comes). There are plenty of external controls, covering all the most commonly accessed photographic functions, and the refinements to the body design (over the FZ10) are small, but welcome. The changes to the mode dial (which now includes the manual modes instead of scene modes) are welcome, but it's still too easy to knock out of position in use.
Side by side
Here you can see the FZ20 beside the camera it replaces, the four megapixel FZ10. As you can see the changes to the body design are quite subtle, mostly a rounding of edges and an increase and re-shaping of the hand grip (a significant handling improvement). Other changes are less obvious, the storage compartment door now opens to the center of the camera instead of forward, all connectors are now found on the right side of the camera (from the front) and the dioptre adjustment on the EVF is on the left side of the eyepiece. FZ10 owners will feel immediately at home with the FZ20.
In your hand
The combination of the new deeper hand grip, more rubber and the molded rear thumb grip make the FZ20 a fairly comfortable camera to hold. The large lens barrel automatically becomes the grip position for your left hand. You can shoot single-handedly - if you've got strong wrists and a steady hand - but the weight of the lens barrel makes it feel a little unbalanced, and you get much less camera shake when you support the camera with both hands.
The FZ20 is powered by a Lithium Ion pack that sits beside the SD card slot under a sturdy spring-hinged cover. The battery pack has a retaining clip, so there is no chance of it falling out when changing cards. Battery life was impressive - Panasonic quotes 240 shots using the LCD (270 with the EVF, using CIPA standard testing). We certainly found it good enough for a whole day's shooting. Below the battery compartment is a sprung 'click in, click out' SD/MMC card slot.
The FZ20's ports are now grouped together under a small, sprung cover on the left of the camera (viewed from the rear). Here you'll find a mini USB port (USB 2.0 Full Speed; USB 2.0-speak for slow old USB 1.1 - 12Mbits/ sec), which also doubles as an AV output using the supplied cable and the DC-in socket (for the optional AC adaptor). There's also a socket for the optional DMW-RS1 l remote control.
The pop-up flash is activated manually by a small button on the rear of the camera. It is fairly high - around 1.5 inches from the top of the lens barrel, which should help minimize red-eye, and fairly powerful. With auto ISO you can use the flash from around 30cm to 7.0m, and it recycles very quickly. All the usual flash options (on, off, red-eye reduction, slow synch) are available; the red-eye reduction system is a simple single pre flash (around 0.8 seconds before the main exposure).
Serious photographers will welcome the inclusion of a standard hot shoe use with external flashguns. It's a non-dedicated shoe, so you can use any flash that conforms to ISO 10330 (trigger voltage of under 24 volts). The built-in flash cannot be used at the same time as an external unit.
The 130,000 pixel, 2.0-inch LCD screen is very bright and very clear, and has a high enough refresh rate to appear virtually lag-free. It works well in practically every situation - though (as with all screens) it can be a little difficult to see in very bright direct sunlight. On the other hand, it is remarkably good in very low light. My only complaint (shared with the EVF) is that it can be a little slow to respond to big changes in the brightness of the scene being previewed.
The improved electronic viewfinder (EVF) has 114,000 pixels, and - though not a patch on the LCD - is bright and clear enough for use in most situations. There is a slight video lag - although Panasonic doesn't quote a refresh rate, I suspect it is a little lower than the main screen. It works well in bright light, and remains perfectly usable indoors at night under low lighting. A -4 to +4 dioptre adjustment dial sits to the left of the eyepiece.
Of course the big selling point of the FZ20 is all that glass on the front. The Leica-designed 12x (36-432mm equiv.) is all the more usable thanks to the constant F2.8 aperture throughout the range. Unlike the FZ3, there is a single ED glass element in this zoom. The zoom extends around 20mm on power up, after that all zooming is internal (the lens doesn't get any longer).
Another feature popular with serious photographers is the proper manual focus system. Flick this switch to MF and you can use the knurled metal focus ring at the front of the lens barrel to manually focus. The focus ring is fluid-damped and a joy to use. A magnified area in the center of the preview screen helps critical focus. It's almost like using a real camera!
Panasonic supplies a 'flower' lens hood for use with the FZ20, which attaches via an adapter collar, which also accepts optional MC (multi-coated) and ND (neutral density) filters - though not at the same time. The hood reduces flare in bright light - especially at the wide end of the zoom. You can't leave it attached permanently, however, as it can interfere with the AF illuminator in low light, and block the flash at short subject distances.
The shutter release sits on the top of the camera, just to the left of the grip. Around it sits the zoom rocker, making zooming and shooting a fast and fluid operation. The zoom motor isn't stepless, but it is darned near - unlike some superzooms, which leap from one zoom position to the next in huge steps. Zooming is smooth, and fast, though a vari-speed zoom would have been nice. Note also the new mode dial, which now gives instant access to P,A,S and M modes.