Can Panasonic reclaim the superzoom crown?

18 Jul

Just over a year ago, Panasonic rocked the world when announcing the FZ200, a superzoom camera with continuous maximum aperture of f/2.8 throughout the zoom range of 24 to 600mm equivalent. It’s a camera that largely gained very positive reviews, with fairly good video and macro performance, but an inferior sensor to its predecessor, the FZ150. Ever since the FZ50, this particular line of Panasonic’s has been the result of a collaboration with Leica, who provided the glass and possibly intel for the special lens of the FZ200, and always release a nearly identical version of each camera in the series half a year later, these being the V-Lux models in Leica’s classification.

Shortly after that release, however, Canon upped the ante by releasing a camera that, while having an aperture that declines from a slower f/3.4 to a maximum f/6.5 at the long zoom end, offered 1200mm equivalent reach. A blockbuster, if you will, that offered even better macro capabilities, a minimum ISO of 80 rather than 100, but mainly, twice the reach, or, looked at over two dimensions, the potential to record four times as much detail of very distant subjects. At this point, many who had considered the FZ200 switched their allegiance to Canon’s SX50.

Having broken down the wall where Panasonic had been content to keep its maximum at 600mm, the same as predecessor FZ150, a number of “me too” cameras followed Canon’s announcement, notably Fujifilm’s HS50, which was fit to compete in the enthusiast category by including RAW access, and S8500, which lacks that feature, as well as Sony’s rawless HX300. These cameras arrived with 1000mm reach at f/5.6, 1104mm at f/6.5, and 1200mm at f/6.3, respectively, meaning the HS50 at least on paper compares favourably to the Canon at the long end. In spite of this, the SX50 remains the camera to beat.

This week, Panasonic announced the FZ70, part of its budget lineage that runs alongside the 50-stepped models, and likely a first shot in the direction of regaining dominance in the superzoom category. As expected for that model, which will not be appearing in a Leica V-Lux version, the lens is not Leica-branded. Going it alone, Panasonic is showcasing a 1200mm lens with widest aperture of f/5.9 at the long end, beating the Canon offering by about a quarter stop. Should we expect the Leica version, presumably an FZ250, to have a shorter zoom range? I doubt this.

If Panasonic wants to only hold its current market position, the FZ250 should have a continuous f/2.8 lens ending at 860mm equivalent, and a sensor at least as good as the FZ150. If it wants to reclaim the market, the pressure is now on to produce a camera with 1200mm equivalent reach, with pushing that f/2.8 further through that zoom range than in competing offerings – perhaps Panasonic can engineer a camera that holds f/2.8 until 600mm or more, with narrowing of the maximum aperture starting only closer to the 1200mm end. If other features such as focus speed and accuracy, continuous shooting speed, and RAW buffer length are competitive, this could be the camera that once again redefines the category.

People have talked about handholding beyond 1200mm using, for instance, Panasonic’s DMW-LT55 1.7x teleconverter, but until someone tests this, we may safely assume this to be the domain of tripods and bean bags.

For completeness, I must mention that in a piece of sleight of hand, Panasonic are promoting the FZ70 as a 60x zoom, which results from being wider with 20mm rather than 24mm at the widest end. Most potential customers can safely ignore this, as wide angle photography is not usually a priority with superzoom cameras.

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2 Responses to “Can Panasonic reclaim the superzoom crown?”

  1. Richard January 21, 2015 at 10:23 pm #

    The FZ200 which I own have a lot of downside… If you switch to record from MP4 to AVCHD, the cameras/video goes around 2 stop darker, Panasonic never did anything to fix this issue. It doesn’t have a BSI sensor, so even with the constant F/2.8, you still get a lot of noise at ISO 200. When recording in MP4, blocking may appear on the footage you are recording, but you will see it till you download it, making the video useless, so there you go… you get nothing good in either recording mode (MP4 or AVCHD).

    • breakfastographer January 23, 2015 at 8:24 am #

      Hello Richard,

      Sorry to hear you’ve been having a negative experience. It is true that superzoom compact customers seem to receive less support from companies – I know this is also true of Canon, who’ve released cameras such as the SX50 with a number of different firmware versions, none of whom were apparently available for download by existing owners.

      However, I also know of one other FZ200 owner who uses it extensively for video and has had a very positive experience. It does depend on what you expect, of course. It has been widely noted that the sensor used in the FZ200 is not quite as good as that in the FZ150 – clearly Panasonic felt it necessary to target a particular price-point, and I can only assume that a decision was made to use one or more less expensive components compared to the original design to achieve this – apparently that included the sensor. I can’t say whether an appropriate BSI sensor was available to Panasonic at the time.

      However, as for blocking, you’ll find that this is a weakness of the MPEG-4 format – you will predominantly see it when there is a lot of motion in the image, leading to a situation where the available information exceeds the MPEG-4 bitrate set in the camera. This will affect all cameras using MP4, not just the FZ200. MP4 is also used by a lot of the more “advanced” cameras, such as entry level DSLRs.

      You’re actually getting me to wonder whether AVCHD is actually giving you the true exposure, while the MP4 is “jazzed up”. Have you tried any video editing software to see if raising the exposure makes the quality worse than it is in the MP4? I’d be interested to know.

      HTH,

      Breakfastographer

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