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White Balance

In addition to the auto white balance mode the FZ50 offers five presets (daylight, cloudy, shade, halogen and flash). There is no preset for fluorescent or incandescent (tungsten) lights (though the AWB does a good job under such lighting), but there is a manual white balance mode that allows you to point the camera at a white or gray card and create/save two custom settings. There is also an enhanced WB fine tune function that allows you to move sliders in two directions (blue-amber and green-magenta).

In use - especially outdoors - the FZ50 delivers consistently accurate color. Under artificial lighting the results are more patchy. You'll need to use manual white balance under mixed lighting or when light levels drop (such as indoors at night).

Fluorescent - Auto WB
Red 5.7%, Blue -11.1%
Average

Incandescent - Auto WB
Red 2.7%, Blue -1.7%
Good

Flash Performance

The FZ50's powerful built-in flash, along with the bright F2.8-F3.7 lens, gets a lot further than most (especially at the wide end of the lens) - it's good for at least 7.4m (24.3 feet) - marginally better than the FZ30 - and it works very well at close distances too, throttling down well until you get to about 25cm (2 feet) or so. Exposures are generally excellent, as is white balance, and of course you can add an external flash or use studio lighting easily thanks to the hot shoe, which now supports a dedicated TTL flash. Our only complaint is that if you're shooting in full auto mode the ISO jumps to 400 and the default flash synch speed is a bit low, 1/30th second.

Skin tone
Excellent color and very slight underexposure
Color chart
Excellent color and exposure

Macro Focus

Like the FZ30, the FZ50 has a dedicated macro switch on the side of the lens barrel, and can get down to around 5cm at the wide end of the lens (capturing an area around 5.5cm across). At the long end of the zoom the macro is, inevitably, less impressive, focusing down to around 200mm and capturing an area just over 16cm across. At the wide end there is inevitably some distortion, and you can see some chromatic aberration (CA), but it's good for this class of camera. My only complaint is that the minimum focusing distance at anything other than the widest end of the lens isn't close enough (I often found myself hitting the limit when trying to fill the frame with a face or flower).

Wide macro - 55 x 41 mm coverage
66 px/mm (1676 px/in)
Distortion: Average
Corner softness: Low to average
Equiv. focal length: 35 mm
Tele macro - 165 x 123 mm coverage
22 px/mm (561 px/in)
Distortion: Low
Corner softness: Low to average
Equiv. focal length: 420 mm

Barrel and Pincushion Distortion

The wide end of the FZ50's zoom is marginally wider (35mm equiv.) than most of its competitors, 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 1.2% barrel distortion is only just enough to be visible in wideangle shots, but not enough to be a problem, whilst there is virtually no measurable distortion once you start to move into the middle and long end of the zoom.

Barrel distortion - 1.2% at Wide angle
Equiv. focal length: 35 mm
Barrel distortion - 0.1% at Telephoto
Equiv. focal length: 420 mm

Specific image quality issues

Our biggest complaint about the FZ30 was noise (and noise reduction), and there's no getting round the fact that it is also the FZ50's achilles' heel too. The Venus III noise reduction is undoubtedly effective at reducing measurable noise, but it does so in a way that produces a soft, smeared appearance even at ISO 100 if you view actual pixels on-screen. The excessive chroma noise reduction is particularly evident with low contrast detail such as distant foliage or hair.

That said, with 10 million pixels to play with you're unlikely to see it in standard sized prints or scaled down to fit a typical computer screen or TV. The default contrast is also a little too high, which combined with the limited dynamic range means there is the usual tendency to either clip highlights or to fill in shadows. This means accurate exposure is critical, and the FZ50 is pretty good, although in very bright contrasty conditions the pattern metering seems too easy to fool, and it's worth checking the histogram or bracketing.

I'd advise leaving the noise reduction, sharpness and contrast settings to low if you want the cleanest images and don't mind doing a little post-processing. For the ultimate control switch to raw mode. And of course, remember that 10 million pixels doesn't mean poster sized prints when the sensor is this small; the FZ50 is a camera that demands you understand its limitations if you want to avoid disappointment.

Finally, we found very little of the fringing we've come to expect from long zooms and small sensors - even in areas of extreme overexposure the only problem was a little purple fringing associated with blooming. There is a small (and barely noticeable) amount of chromatic aberration visible if you look very very closely, but it's not significant. It should be noted that the absence of fringes appears to be a result of the Venus engine processing; if you shoot raw you'll see more.

Image Stabilization

The MEGA O.I.S image stabilization system used on the FZ50 (and all other recent Panasonic models) works very well indeed (in the absence of a cast-iron test I remain convinced it is the most effective such system on offer today). The ability to shoot at long focal lengths without worrying too much about shutter speeds and camera shake is remarkably liberating, and does go quite some way to making amends for the poor high ISO capabilities.

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, 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 supposed to be more effective.

In our extensive testing of the FZ50 we found that - like other cameras using the system - the differences between mode 1 and mode 2 are not so clear cut. Overall mode 2 is still the most effective, allowing handheld shots at the wide end of the zoom down to around 1/4 of a second (if you're fairly steady-handed). But there were times when mode 1 seemed to work better (specifically with extreme shake; long exposures or when using 420mm the long end of the zoom). In either case the IS has demonstrable benefits - even at the wide end of the zoom, but there are limits to what it can do. Our advice when the shutter speeds falls below about 1/30 sec would be to take a few shots - at least one of them will be sharp enough to be a 'keeper'. It's also worth noting that using mode 2 increases shutter lag noticeably.

IS off IS mode 1 IS mode 2
1/25 sec, 420mm equiv.
IS off IS mode 1 IS mode 2
1/15 sec, 420mm equiv.
1/6 sec, 65mm equiv.
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