The first thing you notice about the FZ3 is how small it is - especially compared to the FZ1/FZ2/FZ10/FZ20 models that preceded it. The design is simple, boxy even, and is dominated by the huge (for a compact camera) 12x F2.8 zoom. It may look like it should squirt water when you press the shutter, but the basic, 'mini SLR' design is functional rather than decorative - which shows Panasonic has got its priorities right. Compared to its predecessor, the FZ2, the changes are obvious (apart from the color change) - the edges have been rounded slightly, the grip is marginally larger, the flash unit redesigned and the whole thing shrunken slightly (its around 6mm narrower and 25g lighter than the FZ2). Inside the changes are more fundamental - as well as the increased resolution (three megapixels up from two), the new Venus II engine promises faster processing, better image quality and improved image stabilization.
Side by side
The image above should give a good impression of how much smaller the FZ3 is compared to the FZ20. This means it's obviously more portable which means it's likely to be carried out more and used more often. The FZ3 doesn't have the FZ20's poly carbonate case material, but it still feels perfectly adequate and capable of taking the knocks.
In your hand
The smaller size has not harmed the FZ3's handling one bit. Quite the opposite in fact; the camera feels stable, safe and solid, and operation of the main controls (zoom and shutter release is very easy. The excellent handling - along with the image stabilization - means the FZ3 is probably the only 'super zoom' camera I have ever felt really safe using 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). Excellent.
The FZ3 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. We found battery life to be very good for a camera with an EVF and large lens - Panasonic quotes a 260 shot/240 minute per charge figure (CIPA standard) - we'll publish our own results when we've tested battery life. The charging time is approx. two hours.
Images are stored on SD or MMC cards - a rather measly 8MB SD is supplied to get you started (well, as much of a start as 4 fine quality pictures at full resolution can be).
The 114,000 pixel, 1.5-inch LCD screen is bright and 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) also 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. It's not the best EVF we've ever seen, but for a 'budget' model it is very impressive.
The pop up flash is activated manually by a small button on the rear of the camera. It is fairly high - around an inch 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 4.6m, 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).
Of course the big selling point of the FZ3 is all that glass on the front. The Leica-designed 12x (35-420mm equiv.) optic is not that much smaller than the one found on the much larger FZ20 - due no doubt to the constant F2.8 aperture throughout the range. Unlike the FZ20, there are no ED glass elements in this zoom. The zoom extends around 16mm on power up, after that all zooming is internal (the lens doesn't get any longer).
Panasonic supplies a 'flower' lens hood for use with the FZ3, 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.
Another 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 only at 'Full Speed' (which is USB 2.0-speak for slow old USB 1.1 - 12Mbits/ sec). The same port is used (with a different cable) for audio/video output.
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 we would like to have seen at least a two-speed system to make using such a huge range a little easier.
The main mode dial - also on the top of the camera - gives fast access to the main exposure modes. The heart symbol is the new 'simple' mode, which features fewer options and large, friendly on-screen symbols. Note that macro has its own mode - you cannot change exposure (save for AE compensation) when shooting macro.