In addition to the auto white balance mode the FZ3 offers four presets (daylight, cloudy, incandescent and flash). There is no preset for fluorescent lights (unfortunate given the rather poor performance of the AWB in such situations), but there is a manual white balance mode that allows you to point the camera at a white or gray card and create a custom setting.
In use - especially outdoors - the FZ3 delivers consistently accurate color. Under artificial lighting the results are more patchy. You'll need to use manual white balance under mixed lighting (especially fluorescents), though the results from auto white balance under incandescent (tungsten) lighting are good - as long as it's bright enough. When light levels drop (indoors at night) you'll get very orange results unless you switch to manual WB.
Outdoor - Auto WB
|Fluorescent - Auto WB
Red: -1.91%, Blue -9.1%
|Incandescent - Auto WB
Red: 0.7%, Blue -2.0%
No real complaints here. The range is good (around 1 to 15 feet with auto ISO), and color and exposure very reliable.
|Skin tone Cool color cast, good exposure||Color chart
Virtually no color cast, excellent exposure
The FZ3 has a dedicated macro mode, accessed via the main exposure mode dial - this means you cannot combine macro focus with manual or semi-automatic exposure, which is a pity. The macro mode works throughout the zoom range, but - as is usual on this type of camera - only gets really close when used at the widest setting. There is inevitably some distortion when you get really close - less expected (and less forgivable) is the slight vignetting (darkening of corners). To be fair this is far less visible in real life shots.
Barrel and Pincushion Distortion
The wide end of the FZ3's zoom is marginally wider (35mm equiv.) than most of its competitors (which tend to start at around 38mm equiv.), and the range - 12x - is greater. So it is a tribute to the designers at Leica (who presumably had some say in the design of the lens) that distortion is kept fairly low. The 1.6% barrel distortion is certainly enough to be visible in wideangle shots, but not enough to be a problem, whilst there is no measurable distortion once you start to move into the middle and long end of the zoom.
|Barrel distortion - 1.6% at Wide angle
Equiv. focal length: 35 mm
|Pincushion distortion - 0.0% at Telephoto
Equiv. focal length: 420 mm
Specific image quality issues
It is hard not to be impressed with the images produced by the FZ3 - sharp, full of detail and with admirably natural (i.e. not over-saturated) colors. In our extensive real-world testing we only found a few minor problems - the occasional focus error when shooting quickly at full zoom, some mild exposure problems, and some flare in very bright light (mostly solved by the use of the supplied hood). It should be noted, however, that the 'hit rate' is very high; I would guess only 1 in 100 shots had a problem serious enough to ruin the shot, and nearly all these were when shooting at the 420mm extreme of the zoom or when shooting in very high contrast situations (when highlight and shadow detail tends to get clipped).
Vignetting (darkening of the corners of the image) is visible in many wideangle shots - specifically those with large expanses of blue sky and in macro images. The amount varies according to the aperture used and the brightness of the scene, but it is noticeable in many of our test shots to some degree. As is to be expected it is worst at the wide (35mm equiv.) end of the zoom, but can also be seen in some shots at slightly longer focal lengths. The vignetting can, of course, be removed using software, and in truth it only really becomes a problem with very close macro shots, but it is a pity given the overall excellence of the results the FZ3 produces.
|100% crop||35 mm equiv., F4.6|
|100% crop||35 mm equiv., F2.8|
We found virtually none of the purple fringing we've come to expect from long zooms and small sensors - perhaps because one of the functions of the new Venus II engine is the removal of chromatic aberrations (CA). The rare occasions we did see it - maybe two shots out of 300 - were at the edges of areas of extreme overexposure, such as here.
|100% crop||35 mm equiv., F2.8|
A different type of color fringing - which to our eyes looks to be an optical, rather than digital problem, can occasionally be seen in telephoto shots. It only happens when using the long end of the zoom with IS enabled for handheld shots at relatively low shutter speeds. This would imply we're seeing the optical degradation caused by the most extreme movement of the moving element in the image stabilization system. It must be pointed out that this fringing should be viewed in context; without the IS system all you would see is a blurred image.
|100% crop||420 mm equiv., F2.8, 1/100th sec|
Burnt out highlights
The only time the FZ3's sensor/processor system seems to struggle to capture the full range of tones in a scene is when the dynamic range is very high - contrasty scenes on bright days containing extremes of highlight and shadow. The result is either clipped shadows or (more commonly), burnt-out highlights, or, occasionally, both. Again, these are situations where most cameras with small sensors will struggle, but it is worth experimenting with exposures when shooting on a very bright day.
|100% crop||35 mm equiv., F3.3|
The MEGA O.I.S image Stabilization system used on the FZ3 (and many other recent Panasonic models) works, and it works well. There are two modes: Mode 1 (IS on all the time) and Mode 2 (IS is activated at the moment the exposure is made). Mode 1 makes framing easier - the IS system steadies the preview image (in the same way as, for example, the Canon S1 IS), but is less than 100% effective when it comes to actually taking the pictures. Mode 2, which minimizes the amount of movement needed by waiting until the actual moment you press the shutter, is considerably more effective. I certainly found the 3 or 4 shutter speed steps gain claimed by Panasonic to be justified - and was able to shoot at 420mm equiv. at speeds as low as 1/60th second successfully. Impressive stuff. The 100% crops below show the effectiveness of the IS system - especially in Mode 2 - when shooting at 420mm equiv. at 1/50 sec (top row) and 1/15 sec, both examples were handheld (the lower example I was resting on my elbows, thus the slower shutter speed was possible). Although we've no definitive test for IS systems in real-world use, I was very impressed with the FZ3's system, which seems as good as, if not better than that used in the similarly specified Canon PowerShot S1 IS. Excellent stuff.
|IS off||IS mode 1||IS mode 2|
|1/50 sec, 420mm equiv.|
|IS off||IS mode 1||IS mode 2|
|1/15 sec, 420mm equiv.|