White Balance

In addition to the auto white balance mode the FZ8 offers four presets (daylight, cloudy, halogen and flash). There is no preset for fluorescent lights, but there is a manual white balance mode that allows you to point the camera at a white or gray card and create up to two custom settings.

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In use - especially outdoors - the FZ8 delivers consistently accurate color. Under artificial lighting the results are more patchy. You'll need to use manual (custom) white balance under incandescent lighting, though the results from auto white balance under fluorescent lighting are good. When light levels drop (indoors at night) you'll get very orange results under tungsten lights unless you switch to manual WB.

Fluorescent - Auto WB
Red 6.3%, Blue -22%

Incandescent - Auto WB
Red 4.0%, Blue -8.2%
Incandescent - preset WB
Red 8.4%, Blue -16.8%

Flash Performance

No real complaints here. The range is good (around 1 to 20 feet with auto ISO), and color and exposure very reliable. Flash recycling, when the battery is full and your subject isn't too far away, is very fast; you can get shot-to-shot times of well under two seconds.

Skin tone
Good color, very slight under exposure
Color chart
Good color, good exposure

Macro Focus

Macro performance is pretty much identical to the FZ7, and Panasonic has done away with the pointless macro scene mode and added an 'auto macro' option to the focus menu. This allows you to use the full focusing range of the lens (from 5cm at the wide end of the zoom and from 100cm at the long end), though leaving it turned can does slow down non-macro focusing a little. At the wide end of the zoom you're able to capture an area just over 4cm across; at the long end it's around 9cm - pretty impressive for a 432mm (equiv.) focal length.

Wide macro - 41 x 31 mm coverage
74 px/mm (1876 px/in)
Distortion: Above average
Corner softness: Low to average
Equiv. focal length: 36 mm
Tele macro - 90 x 68 mm coverage
34 px/mm (858 px/in)
Distortion: Very low
Corner softness: Average
Equiv. focal length: 432 mm

Barrel and Pincushion Distortion

Given the huge (36-432mm equiv.) range, it is a tribute to the designers at Leica (who presumably had some say in the design of the lens) that distortion is kept fairly low. The 1.1% barrel distortion is just enough to be visible in wideangle shots, but not enough to be a problem, whilst there is virtually no measurable distortion once you start to move into the middle and long end of the zoom. If you open the full size images you'll see that there is a little corner softness at the wide end of the zoom, but this doesn't really effect 'real world' shot (unless you photograph a lot of flat things).

Barrel distortion - 1.1% at Wide angle
Equiv. focal length: 36 mm
Pincushion distortion - 0.2% at Telephoto
Equiv. focal length: 432 mm

Specific Image Quality Issues

Like the FZ7 before it, on the 'camera' side the FZ8 is a remarkably reliable picture-taking tool. In our tests very few shots could be classed as 'failures', with focus, exposure and white balance spot on in virtually every shot, in a wide range of shooting situations.

Of course there are problems. As mentioned elsewhere in the review the Venus III noise reduction has a smearing effect on low contrast detail at anything over base ISO (particularly if you don't set the NR parameter to Low). Even at ISO 100 the images - if viewed at 100% (actual pixels) don't look that clean, with the slightly 'painterly' effect of heavy NR rather obvious. It's not a major problem in small prints, but it does limit the usefulness of the FZ8's JPEG output for more demanding users. Aside from the noise reduction issue the FZ8 shows a slight tendency to highlight clipping, not helped by the rather high default contrast. We also found a little evidence of purple and red fringing, particularly in contre-jour situations.

Highlight clipping

The FZ8 has the usual problem associated with limited dynamic range and a steep tone curve (high default contrast), compounded by a slight tendency towards overexposure in contrasty lighting (something you can at least overcome easily). The annoying thing is that the highlight clipping is actually worse than it was with the FZ7 - that's progress for ya! The only way to avoid it completely in the bright, contrasty situations it arises is to lower the exposure manually if necessary, turn the contrast down (if shooting JPEGs) or - ideally - shoot raw.

178mm (equiv), F3.3 55mm (equiv), F4.0
36mm (equiv), F2.8 36mm (equiv), F5.6

Image stabilization

The MEGA O.I.S image Stabilization system used on the FZ8 (and most other recent Panasonic models) works, and it works well - perhaps better than anything else on the market. There are two modes: Mode 1 (IS on all the time) and Mode 2 (IS is activated at the moment the exposure is made). Mode 1 makes framing easier - the IS system steadies the preview image. Mode 2, which minimizes the amount of movement needed by waiting until the actual moment you press the shutter, is marginally more effective, but there are occasions when mode 1 works better - perhaps because it seems easier to hold the camera steady when the display isn't jiggering around.

That all said, there doesn't seem to be a hard-and-fast rule; sometimes both modes are equally effective, sometimes one works better than the other (though as the charts below show, overall mode 2 is the best). In all cases I'd recommend shooting several frames if your shutter speed is really low - that way you've got a much better chance of success.

But one thing is for certain; image stabilization works when it comes to avoiding camera shake; I certainly found the 3 or 4 shutter speed steps gain (over the recommended minimum unstabilized shutter speed) claimed by Panasonic to be justified - and was able to shoot at 432mm equiv. at speeds as low as 1/30th second - or even lower - successfully. Impressive stuff.

The stabilization test

In this simplified version of our SLR IS test, six hand-held shots were taken of a static scene with the stabilization off, on (mode 1) and on (mode 2). The shutter speed was decreased by a stop and repeated (from 1/500 sec to 1/8 sec). The zoom was set to its maximum position (432mm equiv.), the test chart was 3.5 m away from the camera.

The resulting images were then inspected and given a blur score - 'Sharp' (no visible blurring at 100%), 'Mild Blur' (the kind of camera shake that is tolerable at small print sizes) and 'Heavy Blur' (unusable due to camera shake).

As the charts below show we were able to get a measurable two stop advantage. More importantly we were able to get 'usable' results in two out of three shots at shutter speeds as low as 1/8th second

Hand-held, no stabilization (432mm equiv.)

As you can see from the chart below once we dropped to below 1/80th second we had little or no change of getting a usable shot, and only at 1/500th second were we guaranteed of a sharp result every time.

Hand-held, stabilization mode 1 (432mm equiv.)

With mode 1 we were able to get usable shots (with only mild blur or no blur at all) down to 1/25th sec. If you take several shots at the borderline shutter speeds (for me, 1/80th and 1/40th at full zoom) you should get at least one sharp one. Once you drop to 1/25th sec or below the chances of getting an unusably blurred image start to rise quickly.

Hand-held, stabilization mode 2 (432mm equiv.)

Mode 2 is obviously more effective, though the difference is fairly small, and at shutter speeds down to 1/40th sec you have a better than odds chance of getting completely sharp shot. Even down as low as 1/8th second you are getting usable, if not completely sharp, results.