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Conclusion - Pros

  • Excellent resolution and corner-to-corner detail at lower ISO settings
  • Vivid but realistic color
  • Superb 12x optical zoom
  • Effective image stabilization
  • Excellent handling and SLR-like control
  • Comprehensive range of controls and features
  • New Function menu for direct access to white balance and ISO
  • Very fast operation
  • Well designed menu system
  • Easy to use, well built
  • Good screen (though slightly lower resolution) - wider range of tilting available
  • Very usable EVF
  • Powerful flash & TTL dedicated flash hot-shoe
  • Good battery life - improved over FZ30
  • Program shift and direct access AE compensation
  • Useful new Custom modes
  • RAW modes and comprehensive bundled raw developer software
  • Improved movie modes
  • Intelligent Auto ISO detects movement in the scene
  • Fast startup, fast focus

Conclusion - Cons

  • Extra 2 million pixels offer little visible advantage
  • Noise reduction produces visible artefacts and loss of low contrast detail even at low ISO (and noise if you don't use NR) if viewed at 100% (actual pixels)
  • ISO 400 and above very soft and smeary due to excessive NR
  • Bleeding of colors (particularly reds) at high ISOs (excessive chroma sub sampling)
  • Occasional exposure problems
  • Max aperture at long end of zoom only F3.7
  • Reduced burst mode performance
  • Limited dynamic range, highlight clipping in JPEGs
  • Default contrast a bit on the high side
  • Limitations on shutter speeds that can be used with some apertures

Overall conclusion

The FZ50 answers several of the minor quibbles we had with the FZ30 (better access to ISO and WB, proper raw conversion software in the box, more flexible screen positioning) and adds some useful new features (TTL hot shoe, custom modes, function menu). It also retains all that put the FZ30 head and shoulders above the rest of the super zoom pack and made it the nearest thing you could get to a DSLR without actually using one.

If you look at the list of pros and cons above you'll notice that the pros are mostly concerned with the camera and the cons are mostly concerned with the image, or more specifically the effect of noise and Venus III noise reduction. This sums up the FZ50 perfectly; a fantastic camera with a less than stellar sensor / processor, and way too many pixels.

Producing a camera this size with 35-420mm (equiv.) F2.8-3.7 zoom lens means you have to use a small sensor, and small sensors mean compromise because noise is always going to be an issue. I completely understand why Panasonic chose to jump from 5 to 8 to 10 megapixels in three generations of its flagship FZ camera - it's a lot easier to sell a camera on pixels than picture quality, and the average consumer (and it must be said the average camera store buyer) uses megapixels above all else when sorting cameras into categories. Panasonic's marketeers knew full well that with 10MP 'consumer' SLRs on the horizon (and 10MP the new high end for compacts too) the FZ50 needed a headline 'resolution' that kept it near the top. I do, however, think it was a mistake to think that the FZ50 buyer is the 'average' consumer, unable to base decisions on anything but megapixels...

And so what we have is a camera that stretches its sensor to almost breaking point and compensates for the lack of sensitivity in anything but the brightest conditions by using excessive noise reduction. The FZ50 is an excellent 5 or 6MP camera, but a rather less impressive 10MP camera. Is this a problem? Probably not - by the time the huge files have been shrunk down for printing or viewing on-screen they look fantastic, and the handling and features are quite simply peerless. But do not, for a minute, think that the 10 million pixels you're getting with the FZ50 bear anything but a passing resemblance to the 10 million pixel images you'll get from a good SLR once you get above ISO 100, or once light levels start to drop.

The FZ50 - at around $570 - sits halfway between the likes of the Canon S3 IS (currently about $370) and a digital SLR kit with lenses covering a similar range (at least $1000 - more if you want quality lenses, a lot more if you want image stabilization). For the serious user wanting more than the other super zooms can offer (particularly in terms of handling and photographic features) it offers a real alternative to lugging round a larger, heavier camera and a couple of lenses. And not actually being an SLR you get the advantages of live preview on a tilting screen, movie mode, no dust on the sensor and so on. Of course this has to be countered with the fact that the SLR will give you immeasurably better high ISO performance, a better viewfinder and the versatility of interchangeable lenses. But them's the choices we make.

And so, to sum up; for the serious user the FZ50 is without doubt the best equipped, best specified and best handling 'bridge camera' on the market today, and under the right conditions it produces superb output. It is a rewarding and enjoyable photographic tool that - once you've learned its quirks - offers a compact 'all-in-one' solution to anyone wanting a huge zoom range without all that lens changing and all that bulk. Inevitably this involves a certain amount of compromise; the smearing of fine, low contrast detail that is the hallmark of the Venus III engine limits the FZ50 to low ISO settings for any serious photography unless you're happy to accept that you'll never be able to produce big enlargements. For me this is an acceptable compromise, and - though I wish Panasonic would drop the megapixel race and concentrate on picture quality - it does produce excellent printed results. If this had been a mould-breaking 5 or 6 megapixel with excellent low noise performance throughout the ISO range (and particularly up to ISO 800) it would no doubt have performed considerably better and would have been an easy choice for a Highly Recommended. As it is it just squeezes in thanks to its many other outstanding qualities - and only for those users who can live without anything over ISO 200.

Detail Rating (out of 10)
Build quality 9.0
Ergonomics & handling 9.0
Features 9.0
Image quality 8.0
Optics 8.5
Performance (speed) 8.0
Value 7.5

Highly Recommended (just)

Recommended

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