Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS100 Review
Performance - How well does it take pictures?
Choosing a digital camera is all about results: Getting the image quality you need and photographs the way you like them. Travel zooms are designed to be versatile while being highly portable which is why they were designed around small sensors until the ZS100 was introduced.
The Panasonic ZS100 uses a rather large 1" CMOS sensor which appears in Nikon 1 mirrorless cameras and a number of recent premium compacts It provides over 4X the surface area compared to sensors used in previous travel-zooms to deliver significantly better performance, particularly in low-light. The difference between this travel-zoom and premium compacts is that it is equipped with a longer 10X optical zoom rather than a bright aperture. Choosing between these two possibilities is entirely a personal choice.
Image quality from this digital camera is good for its size. There is almost no noise from ISO 80 to 125, which is the native sensitivity of the sensor. Details are rendered sharply, provided that the lens is sufficiently stopped down. Dynamic-range and contrast are respectable too. Given a class-leading resolution of 20 megapixels then, the ZS100 can produce very nice large prints, up to 18" x 12" which matches the aspect-ratio of the sensor.
ISO 200 shows an extremely fine noise-pattern which is only visible at 100% magnification. Images remain completely usable even for large prints while maintaining virtually the same dynamic-range and contrast as lower sensitivities. There is a small dip in image quality at ISO 400 which shows more visible noise that affects fine details. Maximum print size is reduced slightly, with 15" x 10" prints easily possible.
Gradually, images lose quality from there on. ISO 800 is a little noisier and shows slightly less details. Medium-sized prints are still possible with good dynamic-range and contrast. ISO 1600 is not much different. It shows more pronounced noise, fewer fine details and a little less dynamic-range. Colors remain quite stable through the entire ISO range which is fantastic.
ISO 3200 is where there is an obvious drop in image quality. While noise-reduction effectively keeps it at bay, it removes small details and greatly lowers image contrast. This can make a passable mid-size print. Small prints though still come out quite nice. ISO 6400 is the limit of useful sensitivities with output which is mostly devoid of details. Small prints come out OK but that is it. ISO 12800 and 25600 should best be avoided as they are both very noise and completely lack detail.
The ZS100 offers a typical set of Color Styles with control over Contrast, Sharpness, Noise-Reduction and Saturation. The default sharpness is somewhat anemic due to a soft lens. By boosting Sharpness to +2, results are much more pleasing despite showing minor sharpening artifacts. Noise-Reduction though is well-balance at its default level.
Colors never get entirely real though. Best results are obtained using Natural style with Saturation at +1. Default Contrast is somewhat dull and improves at +1 without introducing highlight clipping. For more vibrant yet not over-the-top rendering, one can use Standard style with Saturation at -1 instead. Remember that the rear LCD has adjustable colors which helps judge output but not as much as a calibrated computer monitor.
The other part of color rendition is white-balance. The Automatic White-Balance system on the ZS100 performs reasonably well. Under natural light, it provides well-balanced results with no intervention. With artificial lighting though, it gets closer than previous compact Panasonic cameras yet often leaves a slight cast which varies in color. Custom WB works very well though.
Metering is generally reliable with this camera. The Multi-Segment system is tuned to produce bright images while avoiding burning out any sizable area. It can occasionally over-expose to avoid clipping shadows but rarely does so by more than 1/3 EV. Given the sensor has a good dynamic-range, this easily results in usable exposures. For scenes of tremendous contrast, the ZS100 offers built-in HDR capture and AEB of up to 7 frames. The tone-mapping used to render HDR into a standard image is exceptionally well-balanced. Individual frames are automatically aligned which reduces the field-of-view slightly.
What makes the ZS100 possible is its incredibly compact 25-250mm equivalent lens with a 2.7X crop-factor coverage. The consequence is a maximum aperture which dims down quickly. While it starts at a typical F/2.8, it closes down to F/4 by 46mm and F/5.6 at 122mm with a maximum aperture of F/5.9 starting from 162mm.
The lens is rather soft wide open, although it reaches good sharpness two stops down near wide-angle and one stop down near telephoto. There is significant edge softness which goes deep into the frame at relatively wide apertures. Given that the minimum aperture is F/8 at any focal-length, this does not leave much room for adjustment. F/5.6 to F/8 are generally quite acceptable though.
There is surprisingly little distortion, even at wide-angle. No signs of vignetting or chromatic aberrations either. Lens sharpness is insufficient for such a high-resolution sensor and so must be added by the image processing engine. This produces reasonable results with some sharpening artifacts being visible when viewed at 100%.
This digital camera is nearly always responsive. Except for the upper control-dial which ignores the first click-stop, every other button and dial gets an instant response. Keep in mind though that the control-dial issue could be due to our review unit being pre-production. When shooting continuous bursts, the memory buffer clears rather quickly. Only long bursts may require the user to wait. Even expensive operations such as HDR blending allow the camera to continue operating while processing continues in the background.
For long exposures, the camera optionally employs dark-frame substraction which locks it up for a duration equal to the exposure time. A nice touch is that the ZS100 counts down the exposure time and the dark-frame substraction time, so the photographer knows how much patience is needed.