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Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 (DMC-TZ7)
10.1MP | 25-300mm (12x) ZOOM | $380/£280

The original Panasonic 'Travel Zoom' TZ1 from 2006 was the first camera to combine a relatively compact body with a 10x zoom lens and in this respect is the great-grandfather of all the cameras in this test. The ZS3 (TZ7 in Europe) is the fourth generation of this popular model and comes with the usual upgrades (10.1 MP and 25-300mm 12x zoom vs 9.1 MP and 28-280 10x zoom on the predecessor TZ5). What's new though is that the camera is officially marketed as a stills/video hybrid and in fact the ZS3 offers some features you'd expect on a camcorder rather than on a compact digital camera. It can record 720p HD video at 60 frames per second (only in AVCHD Lite format), offers 48 Khz audio sampling and reduces background noise with a wind cut function. To emphasize that video is one of the key features of the ZS3 rather than just a by-product there is dedicated video button on the camera's rear.

  • 10.1 effective Megapixels
  • 25-300mm equiv lens with 12x optical zoom and up to 85.6x Extra Optical Zoom
  • 720p HD video (AVCHD Lite), 60 fps
  • 3.0-inch LCD with 460,000 dots resolution
  • Optical Image Stabilizer
  • ISO sensitivity up to 1600 (up to 6400 in Auto ISO)
  • Face Detection and Tracking, Dynamic Range enhancer (iExposure)
  • 27 scene modes and Intelligent Auto Mode with scene selector
  • Battery life: 300 shots (CIPA standard)

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Overview

Apart from the larger screen (3.0" vs 2.7") at first sight the ZS3 is the ZS1's identical twin, with exactly the same shapes, materials and build quality. If you have a closer look though you'll spot some subtle but important differences. The red movie button that can be found on the ZS3's back is a new addition and makes clear that the movie mode on this camera is not simply an add-on but an integral part of of the package. The ZS3 records 720p HD video either in AVCHD format (for playback on an HD TV) or Motion JPEG (for playback on a computer). You simply start and stop video recording by pressing the movie button, there is no movie setting on the mode dial any more. The other visual difference are the holes for the stereo microphone on the camera's top plate.

From a usability point of view the ZS3 is unsurprisingly very similar to its sibling, the ZS1. However, the fact that the ZS3 is not simply another digital compact camera but a stills/video 'hybrid' as Panasonic likes to call it is also evident in the menus. There is a dedicated movie menu and movie settings can also be changed in the quick menu at all times (On the ZS1 movie settings can only be changed when the camera is set to movie mode on the mode dial).

Key Features

With the exception of the stereo mic on the top of the camera, the ZS3/TZ7 is essentially the double of the ZS1/TZ6. As a result the ergonomics are exactly as sorted as you'd expect from a fourth-generation product.
Much like the ZS1, the ZS3's lens doesn't extend too far from the body when working at the telephoto end of the scale. It's one of the slower lenses to extend and retract and it slows down still further in movie mode (Though it is one of the few cameras to even try).
The ZS3 features the same four-way controller as the ZS1 but the addition of a bright red dedicated movie button makes clear that the ZS3 is not simply another digital camera but a stills/movie hybrid. There is no movie symbol on the mode dial. You press the shutter button to take in image and the movie button to start/stop video recording.
The top control layout of the ZS3 is identical to the ZS1 but on the ZS3's mode dial you won't find a movie setting (see above).
10x zooms have been on the market for a while but Panasonic has not only made them smaller (the TZ1 was the first really compact 10x zoom), but has also been one of the companies pushing the lenses towards the wide-angle end (it makes lenses harder to design but the benefit to photographers is huge). The ZS3 offers an impressive 25-300mm equivalent range.
The ZS3 records Dolby stereo sound with its movies (Dolby AC3) and therefore has two mic openings on its top. There is also a wind-cut function for reducing background noise.
To make sense of its two buttons for stills and video capture, the ZS3 has a single interface that is equally ready for you to press either the stills shutter or red movie button. Pressing the 'DISP' button changes whether you see the number of stills or the duration of movie that can still be fitted on your memory card.
To make its 27 scene modes a little more accessible, there are two dial positions that can be set to jump directly to the modes you use most often.

Image quality and performance

The ZS3/TZ7 performs similarly to many of the other cameras in this test (there is a fairly narrow performance spread, with them all doing fairly well). Along with the ZS1/TZ6, the ZS3/TZ7 is pretty quick to startup but comparatively slow when it comes to zooming the lens. Expect to wait around 2.7 seconds for the lens to extend from wide angle out to telephoto and a fraction less for it to retract again. The ZS3/TZ7 is slightly faster at focusing, in our tests, than the other Panasonic, taking around 0.65 seconds to achieve focus lock - much nearer to the class average.

In review mode the speed of image browsing and magnification is fairly average. At first there is a very slight delay between images but once the thumbnails have been buffered the transition becomes more or less instantaneous.

The Panasonic ZS3 is very closely related to the ZS1 and so it's not a surprise that, although the cameras do not use the same imaging sensor, the results are very similar. The ZS3's image quality is equally good as the ZS1's and images can be printed straight from the memory card with good sharpness and natural colors. Focus, exposure and color are consistently reliable and the camera offers very good image detail across the zoom range.

Like on the ZS1 (and most other compact cameras for that matter) there is some shadow noise, smearing of low-contrast detail by noise reduction and a tendency to clip highlights but compared to the competition these issues are rather well-controlled on the ZS3.

The ZS3's flash exposures show good detail thanks to the camera not pushing the sensitivity too far up (usually ISO 125 or 160) but can sometimes be just a tad underexposed when shooting in Intelligent Auto mode. Manual intervention should do the trick here. The ZS3's high ISO performance is virtually identical to its sister model ZS1. None of the cameras in this test achieve great things at higher settings but the Panasonics do the best job in higher sensitivity regions.

The DMC-ZS3 shares the top-spot in this group test's image quality ranking with its sister model ZS1 and the Sony H20. It shows good detail at base ISO and manages to find a (relatively) good compromise between noise reduction and detail at higher sensitivities.

The ZS3 is not perfect and you'll find some of the same issues that we see on almost all compact cameras (such as fine detail smearing through noise reduction or highlighting clipping) but the ZS3 simply controls them better than most.

Summary

Everything we said about the Panasonic ZS1 holds true for its sister model ZS3. The camera's metal body handles nicely and it delivers very good image quality at low ISOs and does a better job than most others in this test at higher sensitivities. However, the ZS3 improves on the ZS1 by adding an excellent 3.0 inch/460.000 dots LCD screen and a very versatile HD movie mode to the package. Obviously this comes at a cost and the ZS3 currently (May 2009) retails for approximately $110 more than the ZS1.

The ZS3's movie mode offers AVCHD Lite recording and stereo sound and makes the camera the obvious choice if your intent is to shoot a large proportion of video footage with your compact superzoom camera. For everybody else there is, apart from the larger (and admittedly much nicer) screen, not really a reason to choose the ZS3 over the ZS1.

  • We like: Good image quality, intuitive user interface, decent high ISO output (for smaller prints), 25mm wide-angle, relatively fast lens at the long end (F4.9), large high-res screen, versatile movie mode

  • We don't like: Some highlight clipping of contrasty scenes, occasionally slightly underexposed flash shots
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