Noise reduction options

There has been much discussion of Panasonic's noise, and noise reduction; one of the marketing claims for the FZ50 is that it offers significantly lower noise than its predecessor despite cramming even more pixels onto a tiny sensor. The FZ50 features a new Venus III processor, and one of the selling points is its advanced noise reduction. Like the FZ30, the new camera has the option to adjust the amount of noise reduction (low, standard, high), though as our tests show these should perhaps be renamed 'high, higher, highest' - and the only way to reduce NR any further is to shoot raw and process yourself. Let's start with our standard noise reduction test (undertaken in fairly bright studio light). In 'real world' shots (especially those taken in less than perfect light) you can see the slight 'smearing' of the noise reduction even at ISO 100, and at times the effect is quite extreme.

ISO 100 Low NR ISO 100 Standard NR ISO 100 High NR
ISO 400 Low NR ISO 400 Standard NR ISO 400 High NR

The 100% crops above show clearly that the amount of noise at ISO 100 and ISO 400 is very low at all three NR settings; or to put it another way, the NR starts high and gets higher. As the graph below shows the difference (in noise) between the three settings is not great. What this camera is crying out for is more sophisticated noise control options, in-camera, for JPEGs. Ideally Chroma and Luminance sliders, but at the very least the option to reduce further - or disable completely - the heavy NR. Then you wouldn't have to shoot raw just to keep the texture of your shots!

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Low contrast detail

What the crops and graph above don't show is the effect of noise reduction on low contrast fine detail such as hair, fur or foliage. An inevitable side effect of noise removal is that this kind of detail is also blurred or smeared, resulting in a loss of 'texture'. In a new test the crops below show the effect of the three levels of noise reduction on such texture (fur) as you move up the ISO range.

ISO 100 Low NR ISO 100 Standard NR ISO 100 High NR
ISO 400 Low NR ISO 400 Standard NR ISO 400 High NR
ISO 1600 Low NR ISO 1600 Standard NR ISO 1600 High NR

At base ISO (100) the standard noise reduction setting is producing the classic smearing that robs shots of the fine low contrast detail needed to preserve the 'texture' of a scene (and you'd not want to use the High setting at all). We saw the same problem with grass and other fine foliage, even in prints at 8x10 inches or less - Panasonic is blurring the chroma noise away (at higher ISO settings it seems fairly heavy on the luminance noise too), and this is the result. The low NR setting is much better, preserving a lot more texture, though you can see noise in areas of flat color and in shadows using this setting. At the end of the day it's easier to remove noise (selectively if necessary) than to put back lost detail (which is, by definition, impossible) - so you may want to permanently turn the NR down to low.

At ISO 400 things are less clear-cut; the Low NR setting looks slightly sharper, but there's not a lot more information there (the high setting is almost noise - and detail - free), so it's going to be a matter of taste more than anything. At ISO 1600 it's a real 'hobson's choice' - the standard NR offers the best compromise between ugly noise and total loss of detail, but all three are almost totally lacking any texture.

Other Image Parameters

We found the FZ50 to produce very 'consumer friendly' images right out of the camera using the default settings (more so than the FZ30). There are, of course, plenty of opportunities for experimentation, with NR (see above), sharpness, saturation and contrast all controllable in-camera. The examples below give some idea of the variations you can obtain (we're not talking about big changes from one setting to another here). I wouldn't recommend using any of the setting on 'high' (though on a dull day a saturation boost can be useful) - contrast 'high' is particularly unpredictable - but it's nice to know you can set everything to 'Low' and get an image that is clean enough for fairly extensive post-processing.

Contrast Low (all others default) 100% crop
Contrast High (all others default) 100% crop
Sharpness Low (all others default) 100% crop
Sharpness High (all others default) 100% crop
Saturation Low (all others default) 100% crop
Saturation High (all others default) 100% crop
Contrast, Saturation, Sharpness Low 100% crop