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Photographic tests

White balance

In addition to the auto white balance mode the TZ3 offers only four presets (daylight, cloudy, shade and halogen). There is no preset for fluorescent lights, 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 when light levels are good - the TZ3 delivers consistently accurate color, even under 'difficult' conditions, such as mixed lighting indoors. When light levels drop (indoors at night) you'll get rather orange results under tungsten lighting unless you switch to manual WB (the incandescent preset doesn't work very well as it's designed for halogen, not tungsten lights). One nice touch (also seen on the FZ series) is a white balance 'fine tune' function (for the presets or manual WB mode), which allows you to dial in more red or blue using a sliding scale.

Auto White Balance Auto White Balance Incandescent preset (Halogen)
Fluorescent light -
Auto white balance average
Incandescent light - Auto white balance average,
Preset white balance poor (there is no 'tungsten' setting)

Flash

No real complaints here. The range is acceptable (around 2 to 14 feet (0.6 to 4.2m) with auto ISO at the wide end), and color and exposure very reliable. The only thing you need to remember is that using the flash at the long end of the zoom limits the range to about 9 feet (2.8m), and even then you're going to be up in the fairly high ISO region.

Click here for flash test chart

Skin tone -
Good color, slight underexposure.

Macro

It took me a while - and a visit to the instruction manual - to work out what was going on with the TZ3's macro performance. Basically there is no 'macro' button, but there is a dedicated macro mode (on the mode dial), which is exactly the same as the normal program mode, it just focuses closer (the reason for this appears to be to speed up the focusing in normal use). This is a bit of an issue because the closest focus distance (which ranges from 50 to 200cm as you zoom from wide to tele) isn't near enough for a lot of social snaps. In macro mode (and, oddly, Simple, Intelligent ISO, movie and clipboard modes ) the closest focus at the wide end drops to a more useful - but far from impressive - 5cm (around 2 inches), allowing you to capture an area around 6x4cm (59x44mm to be exact). There is a slightly more impressive 'tele macro' option (at the very longest 280mm equiv. end of the zoom - and at no other zoom setting) that lets you focus down to 100cm (about 39 inches), capturing an area just over 13cm across.

In both cases (wide and tele macro) distortion and corner softness - though present - are fairly low for a camera in this class.

Movie mode

The TZ3 offers movie capture at sizes up to 840 x 480 pixels (widescreen VGA) at 30 frames per second. Unlike the TZ1 you cannot use the optical zoom whilst recording.

The movies are recorded in QuickTime MJPEG (.mov) format, with fairly heavy compression; they work out at around 1.3 MB/sec, meaning you can fit around 11 minutes of 640x480 / 30fps footage onto a 1GB card.

Overall quality is pretty good, and the movies are very clean. Of course the image stabilization helps a great deal, avoiding excessive jerkiness even when shooting at the very long end of the zoom hand-held. The biggest problem we found is that the microphone is very sensitive to wind, and outdoors it's often all you can hear (example - 5.9MB)

Sample movie: 640 x 480 pixels @ 30 fps
File size: 5.45MB, 4.0 secs

Click on the thumbnail to view the movie
(caution: large file!)

Resolution

We've come to expect a lot from the Leica/Panasonic partnership when it comes to pure resolution, and the TZ3 doesn't disappoint, offering not only a measurable increase over the TZ1 (as to be expected from the 2 million extra pixels) but also giving most 'full size' super zoom cameras a run for their money. The output is also very clean (with little sign of moiré or sharpening).

Crops

Click here for the full resolution test chart

Horizontal LPH

Absolute resolution 1575 LPH
Extinction resolution 2000 LPH

Vertical LPH

Absolute resolution 1525 LPH
Extinction resolution 1950 LPH

Distortion and other image quality issues

The TZ3 exhibits admirably low distortion at the wide end of the zoom given the zoom range on offer - 0.5% barrel distortion (click here for test chart), thanks no doubt to Leica's involvement in the design of the lens (we suspect that Panasonic also does some distortion correction in-camera, but it's impossible to know for sure). There is only the smallest measurable distortion (0.2%) at telephoto end (click here for test chart).

Looking at the overall image quality it's clear Panasonic has made some minor changes to the processing; the output is far less 'in your face' than the TZ1, with lower saturation and sharpening (not a bad thing, and the new 'vivid' setting is there if you want out of camera 'pop') and, I have to say, a slightly soft and 'flat' appearance (unless the subject is full of bright colors). There is a slight tendency to overexpose bright outdoor scenes, which combined with a rather muted response to blues can - using the default settings - lead to rather washed-out looking skies, even on a nice day. The answer is to use the AE compensation and boost the saturation a little in post processing (or if you like it, use the day-glo 'vivid' option).

Like the TZ1, the TZ3 is capable of its best results in good light using the lowest (ISO 100) sensitivity setting, which produces clean, sharp, detailed images which show that designing a 28-280mm equivalent lens that fits into your back pocket doesn't have to involve huge compromises. The only fly in the ointment is, surprise surprise, noise - or in this case the lack of it, as even at ISO 100 there is evidence (viewed at high magnifications) of the smoothing of texture and smearing of low contrast detail that Venus III noise reduction causes. For prints or on-screen viewing at normal magnifications - and with a little post-processing to sharpen/boost saturation if you want it - the output isn't going to disappoint the typical user of a camera like this.

Other niggles (leaving the high ISO output aside) include a slight lowering of contrast and sharpness (and occasional focus errors) at the long end of the zoom and highlight clipping in contrasty conditions, though the latter is pretty much the same for every camera we test these days. Finally there is mild, but visible vignetting when shooting at the very widest zoom setting and maximum aperture, though you really don't see it in 99% of shots. On a more positive note we found virtually none of the color fringing seen in the TZ1's images.

Overall then, given the ambitious lens range and compact design the TZ3 offers as good as we can expect, image quality-wise. It's not outstanding (because the lens might be good, but what's behind it is nowhere near as impressive), but for the typical user not wanting to produce huge enlargements, and working mainly in decent light, it's better than I expected.

Metering issues / highlight clipping

As usual we found the sensor's lack of dynamic range, combined with the rather unforgiving tone curve and a slight propensity towards over exposure of bright daylight scenes to produce clipped highlights unless you are very careful about exposure - the AE compensation slider gets a lot of use (and to be honest this is a camera where the bracketing option can be a lifesaver).

100% crop 280mm equiv., F4.9
100% crop 280mm equiv., F4.9

Noise

Like the TZ1 the TZ3 has very low measurable noise at all ISO settings (it's marginally higher) but, like the TZ1, this is only half the story. At anything over ISO 100 you're seeing very strong noise reduction in action, particularly on the color information, though as you move up the sensitivity range you see more and more fine luminance detail being lost too. At ISO 100 there is a touch of visible noise (viewed at 100%) and a touch of NR smoothing, but it's acceptable for normal printing / viewing sizes. As with other Venus III cameras how useful the ISO 400+ settings will be depends entirely on the type of shot; for scenes that don't rely too much on low contrast or fine color detail they're usable, for anything else you're looking at very small print sizes only.

The TZ3 has a special 'high sensitivity' mode that offers higher than ISO 1250 sensitivity, but since it uses pixel binning the results are very, very low resolution, and have not been tested here.

  ISO 100 ISO 200 ISO 400 ISO 800 ISO 1250
Crops

Noise graph

Indicated ISO sensitivity is on the horizontal axis of this graph, standard deviation of luminosity is on the vertical axis.

You can easily see the noise reduction really kicking in at ISO 200.

Low contrast detail

What the crops and graph don't show is the effect of noise reduction on low contrast fine detail such as hair, fur or foliage. An inevitable side effect of noise removal is that this kind of detail is also blurred or smeared, resulting in a loss of 'texture'. In this test the crops below show the effect of the noise reduction on such texture (hair) as you move up the ISO range.

100% Crops
ISO 100 ISO 200 ISO 400
 
ISO 800 ISO 1250  

At ISO 100 only the very finest detail is being blurred away by the Venus III noise reduction, but at ISO 200 (and increasingly as you go up the range) the characteristic 'smearing' of tones reduces the individual hairs to a single lump. For critical work I'd stick to ISO 100, but for many types of photography you will get away with anything up to ISO 800 as long as you aren't doing a lot of enlargement and aren't expecting miracles.

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