'Compact Super Zoom' Camera Group Test (Q2 2009)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS1 (DMC-TZ6)
10.1MP | 25-300mm (12X) ZOOM | $270/£215
The ZS1 is the ZS3's junior partner in Panasonic's compact superzoom duo. The cameras are overall very similar and, like the ZS3, the ZS1 offers 10.1 megapixels, albeit on a different sensor. While in the standard 4:3 aspect ratio the output size is identical the ZS3 uses some of the 'spare' pixels on its 12.7 effective megapixel sensor to create 16:9 images. The ZS1 simply crops in from the 4:3 image to vary the aspect ratio. The other main differences between the models are the ZS1's smaller and lower resolution screen and the lack of HD video. The ZS1 only offers 848 x 480 Wide VGA video capture.
- 10.1 effective Megapixels
- 25-300mm equiv lens with 12x optical zoom and up to 85.6x Extra Optical Zoom
- WVGA video (848 x 480 pixels), 30 fps (Motion JPEG)
- 2.7-inch LCD with 230,000 dots resolution
- Optical Image Stabilizer
- ISO sensitivity up to 1600 (up to 3200 in High ISO scene mode)
- Face Detection and Tracking, Dynamic Range enhancer (iExposure)
- 27 scene modes and Intelligent Auto Mode
- Battery life: 320 shots (CIPA standard)
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Panasonic has stuck to the tried-and-tested design formula of previous DMC-TZ generations (now called ZS in the US but still 'TZ' in the rest of the world). The position of some of the dials has been swapped around (and the dimensions have shrunk slightly) but the overall shapes and the reassuring all-metal build have remained remarkably unchanged.
What has changed though is the Leica-branded lens. The zoom factor has been increased to 12x and it now offers an even more versatile zoom range from 25 to 300mm (35mm equivalent), covering all sorts of photographic tasks, from group shots in confined spaces to wildlife or sports (as long as the subjects aren't moving too fast). Like with all models in this comparison, it also offers image stabilization.
Ergonomically the ZS1 does a good job. The small grip and a rear thumb rest allow for one-handed operation although, at least at the long end of the lens, you should probably use both hand for optimal results. The user interface has hardly changed from the previous generation. There is a four-way controller which also gives you direct access to flash, macro, self-timer and exposure compensation setting. For all other frequently used shooting parameters there is the quick menu that has its dedicated button, too. The ZS1's screen offers the fairly standard resolution of 230,000 dots but we found it very difficult to view in brighter conditions. This hold true for most camera LCDs but the ZS1's screen is somewhat worse than average.
If you're new to Panasonic compact cameras the mode slider might require some adjustment time. While on most cameras a half-press of the shutter button will always take you back to shooting mode on the ZS1 (and most other Panasonic compacts) you'll have to flick the switch to get there which could make you miss the occasional spontaneous snap.
Image quality and performance
The ZS1/TZ6 is one of the slower cameras in the group, though its performance is by no means problematic (all the cameras are pretty good). In our moderate light focus test it took around 0.85 seconds to achieve focus, making is the second-slowest camera in our test and measurably slower than its higher-spec sister, the ZS3/TZ7. In all other respects its performance is identical to its sibling - they are the slowest cameras to travel through their zoom ranges, taking around 2.7 seconds to stretch from wide angle to telephoto and very slightly less time to rack back again. In its favor, the Panasonics are some of the fastest cameras to wake up and start shooting. It's only ever that sedate zooming pace that you'll notice.
In review mode the speed of image browsing and magnification is fairly average. At first there is a very slight delay between images but once the thumbnails have been buffered the transition becomes more or less instantaneous.
The ZS1's image quality is generally very good, with reliable focus and exposure, and natural colors. The output is very consistent, all the way across the frame, throughout the focal length range. The amount of resolved detail is very good, even at the long end of the zoom. As usual on cameras with such a small sensor, there is some noise reduction applied even at base ISO but on the ZS1 it is really only a hint. Therefore the ZS1, together with its sister model ZS3, shows the best rendition of low contrast detail in this test.
As you'd expect on a small sensor compact camera there is a hint of shadow noise and some tendency to highlight clipping but on the Panasonic these issues are better under control than on most of the competition, requiring less manual intervention in the setting of exposure values.
Flash exposures are generally decent but when shooting low light indoor portraits in Intelligent Auto mode the ZS1 has a tendency to use the slow sync flash setting to capture some ambient light. If you like that will entirely depend on the circumstances and your personal taste but if you don't you can always set the flash manually or chose another mode.
None of the cameras in this test do a great job in low light but the Panasonics certainly deliver the best high ISO performance. This is due to a mixture of sensible sensor design and efficient noise reduction. There is some visible grain in the ZS1's high ISO images but the camera preserves noticeably more detail than the competitors at all sensitivities from ISO 400 upwards.
Panasonic was the manufacturer that started the whole compact superzoom segment a few years ago so it does not come as a surprise that the latest generation ZS cameras are very mature products. The ZS1 offers (together with its sister model ZS3) the best image quality in this comparison both at base ISO and at higher sensitivities. The ZS1 shows very good detail all along the 12x zoom range and while at higher ISOs things naturally get worse the Panasonic does, compared to some of the competition, a fairly decent job. Apart from that the camera isn't class leading in any particular area but simply works very well all around. The full-metal body is nice to look at and to hold in your hand. The user interface is straightforward and intuitive, even for users who are new to the brand, and the lens covers an incredibly versatile zoom range of 25-300mm equivalent.
The ZS1 isn't the best specified model in this comparison but offers best-in-class image quality at an interesting price point. If you can live without HD video it should very high up your shortlist.
- We like: Good image quality, intuitive user interface, decent high ISO output (for smaller prints), 25mm wide-angle, relatively fast lens at the long end (F4.9)
- We don't like: Some highlight clipping of contrasty scenes, LCD difficult to view in brighter conditions
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