Exposure Mode Dial Options

Let's discuss camera features now, starting with the fully loaded mode dial:

Option Function
Intelligent Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with automatic scene selection, face detection, subject tracking, intelligent sharpening, dynamic range improvement, and more. Many menu items are locked up.
Program mode Automatic, with full menu access. There's no Program Shift feature available.
Aperture Priority mode You set the aperture, and the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed. The aperture range on the ZS15 is F3.3 - F6.3, which is a pretty small range.
Shutter Priority mode You pick the shutter speed, and the camera selects the matching aperture. The shutter speed range is 8 - 1/4000 sec.
Full manual (M) mode You select both the aperture and the shutter speed. The aperture choices remain the same, and the shutter speed range expands to 15 - 1/4000 sec.
Custom mode 1/2 You can save a total of four sets of cameras settings to the two spots on the mode dial.
3D Photo mode Create a 3D photo by panning the sliding the camera from left to right. Image is saved in MPO format.
Scene mode You pick the scene and the camera uses the appropriate settings. Choose from portrait, soft skin, scenery, panorama shot, sports, night portrait, night scenery, handheld night shot, HDR, food, baby, pet, sunset, high sensitivity, through glass, and underwater.
Creative Control mode Similar to Art Filters on Olympus cameras, here you can quickly turn on special effects, which include expressive, retro, high key, low key, sepia, dynamic monochrome, high dynamic, toy effect, miniature effect, and soft focus. These work for both stills and videos.

If you want a total point-and-shoot experience, just set the mode dial to the Intelligent Auto position. I still contend that this is the best automatic mode in the business, as the camera will select a scene mode for you, detect any faces, reduce blur, intelligently sharpen, brighten shadows, and track a moving subject (if you wish). The camera is even smart enough to know when you're using a tripod. You can also allow the camera to use multi-exposure features, such as HDR and Handheld Night Scene, if the camera deems that necessary.

If you want manual controls, you'll find them for shutter speed and aperture, as well as white balance (custom and fine-tuning). The ZS15 can bracket, but only for exposure. If you're looking for RAW support, white balance bracketing, or manual focus, you'll want to look elsewhere, as the ZS15 doesn't support any of those.

Now I want to highlight a few of the more unique items in the scene mode menu:

  • 3D photo mode: pan the camera from left to right and it will create a 3D image, saved in MPO format, which can be played back on a compatible HDTV
  • Panorama Shot: new to 2012 Panasonic cameras, this is basically a clone of Sony's sweep panorama feature. Sweep the camera from side-to-side and the camera will create a huge panoramic image; zoom is locked at full wide-angle
  • Handheld night shot: combines a series of exposures into a single, sharp photo; don't expect miracles, though.
  • HDR (high dynamic range): also new to 2012 Panasonic cameras, this quickly takes three shots in a row -- each with a different exposure -- and combines them into a single photo with improved contrast

Panorama Shot

Above you can see a panorama that the ZS15 created on a cloudy day here in Oakland, CA. The quality of the image isn't great, though it'll do for web viewing.

HDR (High Dynamic Range) mode

Standard photo HDR on

The original shot, taken in Program mode at default settings, isn't terribly appealing. The sky isn't very blue, and the building is too dark. Flipping the camera into burst mode and letting it take its three-shot burst (and spend a few seconds processing everything) results in a much more pleasing photo. The building has been brightened, and the sky is a more natural blue. Since the ZS15 does all of this so quickly, there's no need for a tripod.

Just about everything else on the mode dial should be self-explanatory. The ZS15 has manual control over the shutter speed and aperture, but not focus. You can also bracket for exposure, by pressing "up" on the four-way controller. Unfortunately, the ZS15 does not support for the RAW image format.

Intelligent Dynamic mode

It's time for some additional explanation of some of those features. Let's start with Intelligent Dynamic, which is supposed to improve image contrast by reducing highlight clipping and brightening shadows. It's on by default in Intelligent Auto mode, and off in the manual shooting modes. You can choose from low, standard, and high settings, though keep you're setting the maximum amount of enhancement that you'll allow, rather than how much is actually applied. Panasonic is very conservative as to when I.D. is actually used -- I took a LOT of test shots before finally getting it to work. Basically, you need to be metering a bright light source in order for it to kick in. Kind of like this example:

I. Dynamic off I. Dynamic low I. Dynamic standard I. Dynamic high

As you can see, the hallway gets brighter as the amount of Intelligent Dynamic goes up. It's not turning night into day, but it's still an improvement. While there is a slight improvement in highlight detail, it's nothing to write home about.

Intelligent Resolution (Intelligent Sharpening)

Next up is Intelligent Resolution system, which has two components. First is intelligent sharpening, which is a fancy way of saying that the camera selectively sharpens objects that need it (edges, trees), and leaves alone things that don't (skin or the sky). While some previous Panasonic cameras let you select how much I.R. is applied to a photo, it's just on or off on the ZS15. This feature is turned on by default in Intelligent Auto mode, and off in the manual modes. The example below gives you a quick overview of the effectiveness of this feature, but be sure to view the full size images too, as it's a nice view.

Intelligent Resolution off Intelligent Resolution on

Pretty big difference, eh? I really like the improvement, and would probably keep this featured turned on if I owned the ZS15.

Intelligent Resolution (Intelligent Zoom)

The other part of the Intelligent Resolution system is Intelligent Zoom. This gives you a 2X boost (up from 1.3X on previous models) in zoom power with a minimal loss in image quality (unlike traditional digital zoom). Thus, you now have 32X (768 mm) worth of zoom power. The camera also has the Extra Optical Zoom feature, which boosts the focal length when you lower the resolution. The lower the resolution, the more zoom power you get. You can combine these two features, too, so at 5 Megapixel you get 50X total zoom power -- that's 1200 mm! Below is an example of the distances you can cover using these features:

Telephoto (384 mm) Intelligent Zoom (768 mm) Intelligent + Extra Optical Zoom (5MP / 1200 mm)

Hope you have a tripod handy, as that's a pretty substantial boost in zoom power! I don't really buy Panasonic's claim that there's no loss in image quality, though it's hard to tell, given the amount of atmospheric distortion going on here. If you're making small prints or downsizing for the web then it's worth using, but don't expect to be making posters using Intelligent Zoom.