Software - RAW conversion
The biggest news feature-wise with the FZ8 is the inclusion of raw mode, something I would now class as essential if you don't like the heavy-handed approach to noise reduction taken by the Venus III processor. As with other Lumix models the camera ships with a special (fully featured) edition of SILKYPIX, a rather quirky, though surprisingly well-featured, raw development application for Windows and Mac. The (on-screen) manual is very comprehensive, but doesn't really explain the features very well, and first-time users may find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer volume of options on offer. This isn't helped by the slightly dodgy translations and the plethora of sliders with names that don't really indicate what they actually do. But there is lots here to get stuck into, and the default settings produce perfectly acceptable results (very similar to out of camera JPEGs).
But then, after a lot of experimentation (and a good read of the manual) you'll discover that the SILKYPIX can produce far superior results - and can be fine-tuned to produce output that suits your own needs / tastes. In fact there's much, much more tweaking on offer than you get with Adobe Camera Raw, for example, and compared to what you get with most cameras it's hard to complain. It is worth using SILKYPIX for the ability to control noise reduction alone.
You can save parameter sets (for some reason you put them in the 'cloakroom', but hey ho) once you've found out what works for you, which combined with batch processing and extensive output options (TIFF or JPEG), takes some of the grind out of the business of developing large numbers of raw files.
JPEG & RAW Resolution compared
Although the FZ8's JPEG resolution is very good there is a slight advantage to shooting raw. On the downside there's a bit of moiré at the very highest frequencies, but you're not going to see this in 'real world' shots, and the extra resolution (and control over noise reduction) will deliver real benefits in scenic shots containing foliage or other fine detail. Note that at the time of writing there is no support for the FZ8's raw files in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) but it will no doubt eventually find its way into a future update.
As the crops below show the camera is by default applying quite a lot of sharpening during JPEG processing, and the raw files (using the default settings) look very soft by comparison - perfect for post-processing. You can increase the sharpness in SILKYPIX but - as shown below - the difference isn't great, and you're better off doing it in Photoshop later.
RAW -> TIFF
|JPEG from camera||SILKYPIX RAW
RAW -> TIFF (Default)
ISO 100 Studio shot comparison (default settings)
Using the SILKYPIX default settings produces output that has a similar 'feel' to the out-of-camera JPEG, though closer examination reveals a considerably less processed-looking image with considerably lower sharpening. The beauty of shooting raw is, of course, that you don't have to make do with the default settings, and it's an easy job to reduce the rather excessive saturation and contrast if you want to produce a more natural result, or one better suited to post-processing.
To get an idea how much work the VENUS III engine is having to do - even at ISO 100 - to combat the inevitable noise problem arising from cramming so many pixels onto such a small sensor we've also included below a crop from the same shot developed from raw with SILKYPIX's noise reduction options all set to their lowest settings. This would explain why even at the lowest ISO setting the out-of-camera JPEGs show obvious signs of NR artefacts if you look closely. Then again, unless you're producing huge enlargements or viewing - as here - at 100% / actual pixels - the JPEG output is pretty good.
ISO 400 Studio shot comparison
At high ISO settings there's an awful lot of noise, and shooting raw allows you to make decisions about how much detail you're prepared to sacrifice in order to reduce the visible graininess. The camera's own approach is fairly unusual (and is the instantly recognizable visual signature of the Venus III processor) - the luminance detail is left almost untouched, whereas the chroma (color) information is blurred to the point where it looks like it's been painted on later. Using SILKYPIX allows you to control the amount of noise reduction and to preserve the final low contrast tonal detail / texture that is lost by the in-camera noise reduction (even using the low NR option). The crops below show the default output as well as an indication of the range of noise reduction available, from minimum to maximum.
ISO 1250 Studio shot comparison
Interestingly at very high ISO settings (ISO 800 and 1250) the raw output is so noisy that in most cases you're no worse off with JPEGs, as it is impossible to get as much luminance detail out of the raw files as the Venus III manages in-camera. Sure, the color information is all shot, but at least for low light social shots you're going to be able to recognize the people in the picture.