Operation and controls

The FZ30 looks like a serious camera, and it acts like one too, offering everything from point-and-shoot scene modes to advanced manual photographic controls. Panasonic's engineers have obviously listened to some of the criticisms aimed at earlier models and have added two control dials to give easy, direct access to apertures and shutter speeds (amongst other things), in a step that brings the FZ series a step closer to SLR-like handling and control. There's still no quick way to change white balance or ISO (a custom shortcut button would be very welcome), but the menu system - essentially untouched since the FZ20 - is fast and easy to navigate.

Rear of camera

All the camera's controls are placed to the right of the 2.0-inch LCD screen (those that were above the screen on the FZ20 are now down the side). From the top you have AE lock, viewfinder/LCD toggle, display (changes the amount and presentation of on-screen information), menu and delete buttons. Further to the right is the four-way controller; in record mode three of the four arrow keys have a single function; quick review (look at the last image saved), flash mode and self-timer. The top (up) arrow cycles through AE compensation, flash exposure compensation, AE bracketing and (if you are not using auto white balance) an unusual white balance adjustment (a 20-step slider from 'more red' to 'more blue').

Top of camera

The top of the camera shows clearly the 'SLR-like' styling of the FZ30, as well as the newly-enlarged hand grip. The main 'shooting' controls are all placed together on the top plate; exposure mode, shutter release and drive mode.

Display and menus

Scrolling through the FZ30's menu system, which is virtually identical to the FZ20's, gives you some idea of just how feature-rich the camera is, and how much thought has gone into making it not only versatile, but easy to master too. The menus are clean, bright and easy to read. They're fast too, and Panasonic has done an excellent job of taming some of the complexity inherent in such a large feature set.

The most basic preview screen in record mode is completely free of any overlays or icons. You can also, by pressing the Display button, get a simple grid to aid framing. Half-press the shutter release and the camera will calculate exposure (AE) and focus (AF) indicating the AF area used and the aperture/shutter speed chosen. You'll also get a warning if camera shake is a danger.
If you want all the information, but like to see your preview without all the clutter, choose the 'out of frame' mode - designed to mimic a professional SLR viewfinder. One more press of the display button gives you the full monty; full shooting information, plus a live histogram.
Manual focus is relatively easy given the high resolution of the LCD screen and this (optional) focus aid, which magnifies the central portion of the frame. Pressing the 'up' arrow repeatedly cycles through Exposure compensation, Flash level, White Balance adjustment and AE Bracketing. The left/right arrows change the actual settings.
If you press the FOCUS button in single-point AF mode you can choose from one of the nine autofocus points using the four-way controller. Manual mode - the two control wheels change shutter speed and aperture.
Something still rare on non-SLR cameras; a program shift function. Once you've metered (half-pressed the shutter) you can use the rear control dial to change the chosen shutter speed / aperture combination without changing the exposure level. The three-page record menu covers options such as white Balance, sensitivity, picture size/quality, metering and focus modes and image adjustments. Here is also where you'll find the unique 'flip animation' function. This allows a series of shots to be turned into a QuickTime movie - make your very own 'Chicken Run'.
There are two 'SCN' positions on the mode dial, which can be configured to your needs. The default behavior is to display the scene mode menu when you turn the dial to either position (so you can choose the scene mode you want). Alternatively, you can set each position on the dial to your most commonly used scene modes. As we saw on the FZ5, all scene modes also have brief descriptive 'info' pages. The three page playback menu offers the usual array of printing, erasing, protecting and slideshow options. There's also the option to add sound to saved files, as well as crop (trim) and resize them (or change the aspect ratio). Here is also where you'll find the card-formatting command.
As when in record mode you can choose the amount of information displayed in playback mode - from nothing at all to full data and histogram (as shown here). Moving the zoom lever to the left ('zoom out') to view nine thumbnails (again you can turn off the frame numbering and menu bar with the display button). You can also 'zoom out further' to see 9 or 25 thumbnails.
Turning the front control dial to the right enlarges the playback image. There are only four steps (2x, 4x, 8x and 16x), but it's very quick. The four arrow keys are used to scroll around enlarged images. The setup menu - accessible from either playback or record mode - has four pages of basic camera-related settings, from monitor brightness and auto review settings to power management, sounds and date and time settings.