Image Quality

We've seen the ZS200's 20MP BSI CMOS sensor many times before on other Panasonic models (and probably cameras from its competitors). For that reason, we don't expect major differences in terms of image between the ZS200 and the ZS100/FZ2500/FZ1000, other than the effects of the smaller maximum aperture.

Key takeaways:

  • The lens on our first ZS200 was very soft in the center. We tried two other cameras which had their own optical problems.
  • This softness isn't entirely surprising, since it's a long zoom that takes up very little space, and diffraction from small equivalent apertures makes things even softer.
  • High ISO performance in Raw is competitive with other cameras with 1"-type sensors
  • JPEG color has been improved since the ZS100, with yellows losing their green cast
  • The camera applies quite a bit of noise reduction to its JPEGs, smudging away fine detail
  • The camera's excellent sensor lets you recover detail from the shadows, especially at base ISO, giving some flexibility to lower exposure to protect highlights.
  • This sensor allows you to push shadows several stops - similar to its strongest peers

Our test scene is designed to simulate a variety of textures, colors and detail types you'll encounter in the real world. It also has two illumination modes to see the effect of different lighting conditions.

First things first: The lens on our ZS200 is very soft, especially in the center of the frame. We tried another ZS200 and it was better in the center but was worse on the left side. The third camera was tried was even worse than the first. Your experience may vary.

It is worth pointing out that some softness on a compact, 15X zoom lens is to be expected. The effects of diffraction due to the small equivalent apertures (which crosses F10 equiv. at 35mm) just amplifies the softness. The camera's JPEG engine does do a fairly good job at compensating for this softness, and we expect that many ZS200 owners won't be bothered by it. The camera does offer a 'diffraction correction' mode, which adds additional sharpening at smaller apertures.

Raw

Given the softness of the lens, it's hard to judge how exactly much detail the ZS200 is capable of capturing. In terms of high ISO noise, the ZS200 looks about the same as the ZS100 as well as the Canon G7 X II and Sony RX100 III. The Canon and Sony do have a slight advantage here, as they were shot at a smaller aperture where there's less diffraction (the ZS can't go any faster than F5 at this focal length). Also, since those cameras have faster lenses, they let in more light, which reduces the need to increase the ISO.

JPEG

Something that has improved over the ZS100 is JPEG color accuracy. Yellows tended to have a greenish cast on the ZS100 and that's gone now. At the default white balance setting colors are warmer in low light, as well. (If you want 'cooler' color when using auto white balance, an 'AWBc' option will do just that.)

At higher sensitivities the ZS200's noise levels are about the same as on the ZS100 though, when viewing the results from the Canon G7 X II and Sony RX100 III, you can see that a lot of noise reduction is being applied. In low light the ZS200 and ZS100 are again about the same, with sharper results from the Canon and Sony models. It's hard to draw conclusions here due to the ZS200's soft lens, though.

ISO invariance

A camera with a very low noise floor is able to capture a large amount of dynamic range, since it adds very little noise to the detail captured in the shadow regions of the image. This has an interesting implication: it minimizes the need to amplify the sensor's signal in order to keep it above that noise floor (which is what ISO amplification conventionally does). This provides an alternate way of working in situations that would traditionally demand higher ISO settings.

Here we've done something that may seem counter-intuitive: we've used the same aperture and shutter speed at different ISO settings to see how much difference there is between shooting at a particular ISO setting (and using hardware amplification) vs. digitally correcting the brightness, later. This has the advantage that all the shots should exhibit the same shot noise and any differences must have been contributed by the camera's circuitry.

The ZS200's sensor is essentially ISO invariant, so you can (in most instances) shoot at base ISO and increase the brightness several stops while processing the Raw image, with a minimal noise penalty. By keeping the ISO low the camera captures additional highlight data instead of 'throwing it away' at higher sensitivities by amplifying the signal. You can see similar results from the Sony RX100 IV, which has a more modern CMOS sensor.

Exposure latitude

In this test we look to see how tolerant of pushing exposure the ZS200's Raw files are. We've done this by exposing our scene with increasingly lower exposures, then pushed them back to the correct brightness using Adobe Camera Raw. Examining what happens in the shadows allows you to assess the exposure latitude (essentially the dynamic range) of the Raw files.

Because the changes in this test noise are primarily caused by shot noise and this is mainly determined by the amount of light the camera has had access to, the results are only directly comparable between cameras of the same sensor size, like the Canon PowerShot G7 X II and Sony Cyber-shot RX100 IV. However, this will also be the case in real-world shooting if you're limited by what shutter speed you can keep steady, so this test gives you an idea of the amount of processing latitude different formats give.

As you can see, the ZS200 holds its own against the Sony, with very similar results when pushed 3 or 4 stops brighter.

Lens Quality

Note that, at longer focal lengths, the vertical alignment of the two lenses is slightly off.

While the ZS200's lens isn't great, neither is the glass on its predecessor. Generally speaking, the ZS200's lens is sharper than the ZS100 from wide-angle/wide-open (shown above) to standard portrait focal lengths and into telephoto territory. The ZS100's zoom ends at 250mm equiv. and at that point the cameras are about equal, though neither are terribly sharp due to diffraction. At 360mm equiv. you'll run out of zoom power on the ZS200. With a maximum aperture of F6.4 (F17 equiv.) at that setting, everything will be a bit soft.