Operation and controls

The FZ30 was such a huge leap forward from the FZ20 that it's little surprise that the new model The FZ50 looks like a serious camera, and it acts like one too, offering everything from point-and-shoot scene modes to advanced manual photographic controls and - new for this model - a high degree of customization. The dual control dials give easy, direct access to apertures and shutter speeds (amongst other things), and some of the minor tweaks over the FZ30 bring the FZ50 even closer to true 'SLR-like' handling and operation. Panasonic appears to be one of the only companies left that actually listens to its users (and reviewers!), as the FZ50 now features a 'FUNCTION' button for fast access to white balance and ISO, so there is little need to ever visit the (admittedly excellent) menu system when you're actually taking pictures.

Rear of camera

All the camera's controls are placed to the right of the 2.0-inch LCD screen. From the top you have AE lock (which now doubles as a focus lock), viewfinder/LCD toggle, display (changes the amount and presentation of on-screen information), Function and delete buttons. The new function button replicates the joystick button seen on the LX2, bringing up a mini menu giving quick access to metering, focus, white balance, ISO and image size/quality. 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'). In the middle is the new SET button (which replaces the menu button on the FZ30).

Top of camera

The top of the camera shows clearly the 'SLR-like' styling of the FZ50, and the perfectly positioned shutter release at the end of the large grip. The main 'shooting' controls are all placed together on the top plate; exposure mode, shutter release and drive mode.

Display and menus

I've praised Panasonic's clean, clear menu system in the past, and the good news is that the FZ50's interface is virtually identical to the FZ30 before it (though it has had a slight facelift). The only differences are where new features have been introduced (and of course the new mini 'function' menu).

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 (the FZ50 actually has two different grid options). At the other extreme the full information view - with histogram - can look a little cluttered on what is these days a fairly small screen.
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. 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. Note that in P mode you get a very neat program shift option.
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. You can even move the magnified area around the screen using the arrow keys New for the FZ50 is the Function menu (which works in a very similar way to Canon's FUNC menu). Press the Function button and a mini menu appears; you can now use the control dials to change focus, metering, white balance, ISO, image size and quality very quickly. It remembers what you changed last time you used it, so if you regularly change ISO or WB (as I do) it's a real boon.
There is now a quicker way to access exposure compensation; just turn one of the control dials (you can define which in the record menu) and the AE-Compensation scale appears. As before pressing the 'up' arrow repeatedly cycles through Exposure compensation, Flash level and AE Bracketing. You can now change the setting using the control dials. The white balance fine tune has been enhanced and moved to the record menu.
Manual mode - the two control wheels change shutter speed and aperture. The new Custom mode, where you can save three sets of custom settings, covering just about every aspect of the camera's operation.
There is now only one 'SCN' position on the mode dial (the other is used for the much more useful CUSTOM mode). There are 16 scene modes in total. As with all the latest Lumix cameras, all scene modes also have brief descriptive 'info' pages.
The five-page record menu covers options such as white Balance (including an enhanced fine tune option), 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'. 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). Turning the front control dial to the left 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 25 thumbnails (shown here) and a calendar view.
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.