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Operation and controls

The FZ3 packs a wealth of features and functions into its compact body, offering everything from point-and-shoot scene modes to advanced manual photographic controls. Although inevitably many of the controls are accessible only via the excellent on-screen menus, pretty much everything you need for everyday shooting gets its own external control. The challenge for designers of such sophisticated cameras is to minimize the inevitable complexity of operation resulting from offering so many options and controls. The good news is that the guys at Panasonic have learnt many lessons over the last few years, and - though you need a few days to truly master it - the FZ3 is surprisingly easy to use - and if you are a total novice there's even a friendly 'Simple' mode with fewer controls and simplified displays. I found I was able to pick up the FZ3 and use virtually all the myriad controls without even having to open the manual - always the mark of a well designed interface.

Rear of camera

All the camera's controls are placed above, and to the right of, the 1.5-inch LCD screen. Directly behind the flash is the pop-up flash button. Directly below this we have the viewfinder/LCD toggle, Display button (changes the amount and presentation of on-screen information), Exposure button (used to change settings in manual/semi automatic modes) and on/off switch. To the right of the LCD is the main menu button and the four-way controller. In record mode three of the four arrow keys have a single function; Quick Review (look at the last image saved), flash mode and self-timer. The top (up) arrow cycles through AE-Compensation, Flash Exposure Compensation, AE Bracketing and (if you are not using Auto White Balance) an unusual White Balance Adjustment (a 20-step slider from more red to more blue). At the bottom is a final button used to delete images in playback mode (or in Quick Review). This button can also be assigned as the focus trigger, for faster shooting (the shutter release no longer activates the AF if this option is enabled).

Top of camera

The top of the camera shows clearly the 'SLR-like' styling of the FZ3. The main 'shooting' controls are all placed together on the top plate; exposure mode, zoom lever, shutter release and drive mode.

Display and menus

Scrolling through the FZ3's menu system, which is virtually identical to the FZ20's, gives you some idea of just how feature-rich the camera is, and how much thought has gone into making it not only versatile, but easy to master too. The menus are clean, bright and easy to read. They're fast too, and Panasonic has done an excellent job of taming some of the complexity inherent in such a large feature set.

The most basic preview screen in record mode is completely free of any overlays or icons. You can also, by pressing the Display button, get a simple grid to aid framing. Half-press the shutter release and the camera will calculate exposure (AE) and focus (AF) indicating the AF area used and the aperture/shutter speed chosen. You'll also get a warning if camera shake is a danger.
If you want all the information, but like to see your preview without all the clutter, choose the 'out of frame' mode - designed to mimic a professional SLR viewfinder. One more press of the display button gives you the full monty; full shooting information, plus a live histogram.
In aperture priority, shutter priority and manual mode you need to press the 'Exposure' button to change values (using the four-way arrow keys). Pressing the 'up' arrow repeatedly cycles through Exposure compensation, Flash level, White Balance adjustment and AE Bracketing. The left/right arrows change the actual settings.
Pressing the down arrow brings up an instant review of the last image recorded without having to go into playback mode. You can zoom in and delete this image (or in fact any other if you scroll through them). The three-page record menu covers options such as white Balance, sensitivity, picture size/quality, metering and focus modes and image adjustments. Here is also where you'll find options for the stabiliser, alternative focus trigger and the unique 'flip animation' function. This allows a series of shots to be turned into a QuickTime movie - make your very own 'Chicken Run'.
Choose any option that has an effect on the appearance of the picture and the plain background is replaced by the live preview, so the affect of your changes can be seen on-screen. Turn the main mode dial to SCN (scene) and press the menu button to choose a subject mode (from the 9 available). Press the menu button again and you get most of the options in the normal record menu.
Switching to the 'Simple' mode (indicated by a heart symbol on the mode dial) gives you a friendlier, simpler OSD with larger icons and less information. The menus for simple mode are - naturally - much simpler, and there are far fewer options on offer to trip up the inexperienced user.
The two page playback menu offers the usual array of printing, erasing, protecting and slide show options. There's also the option to add sound to saved files, as well as crop (trim) and resize them. As when in record mode you can choose the amount of information displayed in playback mode - from nothing at all to full data and histogram (as shown here).
Moving the zoom lever to the left ('zoom out') to view nine thumbnails (again you can turn off the frame numbering and menu bar with the display button). Moving the zoom to the right enlarges the playback image. There are only four steps (2x, 4x, 8x and 16x), but it's very quick. The four arrow keys are used to scroll around enlarged images.
The setup menu - accessible from either playback or record mode - has four pages of basic camera-related settings, from monitor brightness and auto review settings to power management, sounds and date and time settings. Finally a quick mention for the movie mode. The 320x240 pixel (30fps) is nothing special, but there are more than the usual array of options, many of which are the same as when shooting stills.
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