Friday, January 15, 2010

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FP8

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FP8

When Panasonic announced the Lumix DMC-FP8 (henceforth the FP8) in late July, a casual glance might impress onlookers that here was another rectangular, standard zoom compact digital with the 12 megapixel sensor resolution that seems to be almost obligatory in this class. More astute observers might have wondered where Panasonic put the lens, since the front of the camera was remarkably clean and appeared to house only a flash, an assist lamp and an electronic viewfinder.

Turns out the FP8 doesn't have a viewfinder but it does have a 4.6x Leica foldable optic zoom lens tucked into that small rounded rectangle on the upper right front of the body. Foldable optic means, among other things, that this lens never protrudes from the camera, zooming through its 28 to 128mm range (35mm equivalent) from behind the clear cover of the housing.

Panasonic also put in "high speed auto focus (AF)" and their new POWER O.I.S. (optical image stabilization) system that "doubles" the shake repression power of their earlier system, MEGA O.I.S. The processor is the current generation Venus Engine V, there's a 2.7 inch LCD monitor, approximately 40MB of internal memory and 720p HD video capability. The camera accepts SD/SDHC memory media and Panasonic includes a battery, battery case and charger, USB and A/V cables, basic printed operating instructions, CD-ROM software, a CD-ROM of complete operating instructions, and a hand strap with each camera.

The FP8's rectangular aluminum body fits the general "deck of cards/pack of cigarettes" size template that has been the standard for this class of camera for some time. It may be a bit slimmer than many competitors, but this difference doesn't really impact its shirt-pocket portability. The lack of a large, round lens centered on the front of the body is easily the most distinguishing characteristic and the camera has a solid, well-built look and feel. There are silver, black and red bodies available, depending on the sales area.

Ergonomics and Controls
Some subtle rounding and contouring of edges and a sort of terraced slope approach to the upper camera back are about the extent of the FP8's concessions to making the camera feel secure in the hand(s). The sloped part works well, but the attachment lug for the wrist strap protrudes from the right front of the camera body and lies right under the middle finger of the right hand during shooting. There are two ways to look at this - the protruding lug offers an additional bit of security in the grip, or an uncomfortable annoyance. I tended to find the latter more applicable.

The location of the lens on the FP8 brings up some potential to partially obscure its operation by users who tend to wrap their left fingers around the front of the camera when shooting, so a bit of attention to grip with the left hand is in order for you folks.

Aside from the relocation of the "set" button from the center of the directional buttons, control layout is straightforward and typical. Power, zoom/shutter, and intelligent auto buttons are arrayed across the top right of the camera body, with the record/playback selector switch just below on the sloping portion of the camera back.

The 2.7 inch LCD dominates the camera back and a vertical array of eight lighted control buttons sit alongside. The buttons illuminate briefly upon power-up and again when one is pushed, but the illumination is not sufficient to render the button descriptions legible in dim light - you'll need to push one and bring up the associated camera function unless you've committed the layout to memory.

The intelligent auto button is the selector for the camera's full auto shooting mode (all other shooting modes are selected via the control buttons on the camera back): a push of the button translates the camera into full auto, and a second push returns it to the previously selected mode.

Menus and Modes
Menus in the FP8 are fairly intuitive, which is good since the basic printed user's manual provided with the camera mentions the existence of "my scene" and "motion picture" shooting modes but offers not one word of advice on how to proceed if you've selected them. I had the same gripe about the Canon SX20 IS - a partial manual in the box with the complete document elsewhere - but this looks to be the way the industry is heading. At least Panasonic included a CD of the whole manual with the camera.

FP8 shooting modes are simple - much like Henry Ford's Model T that could be had in any color "so long as it is black" - the camera can shoot in any mode so long as it is automatic.

* Intelligent auto: full auto mode, with camera selecting aperture and shutter speed along with scene detection, stabilization, intelligent ISO, face detection, quick AF, intelligent exposure, digital red eye correction and backlight compensation. ISO can range from 80 to 1600 and scene detection chooses from portrait, night portrait, scenery, night scenery, baby or macro settings - if none of the scenes are applicable to the shooting scenario IA proceeds with the balance of the standard settings. User inputs are limited to burst or single shooting, picture size, LCD mode, and B&W or sepia color modes in addition to the default standard color and the face recognition feature of face detection.
* Normal picture: a program auto mode where the camera sets shutter speed and aperture but the user has a wide range of custom settings available, including picture size and quality, aspect ratio, intelligent ISO (which may have ceilings set by the user), ISO sensitivity, white balance, face recognition, AF mode, intelligent exposure, burst or single shooting, expanded color palette options and stabilizer mode.
* Scene: user selects from 28 shooting options and the camera establishes settings based on the particular scene with the user having some input available depending on the specific scene.
* My scene: allows the user to program 2 scenes from the scene menu for quick recall and the camera will establish settings according to the particular scene with user inputs limited to those available for the scene.
* Motion picture - can capture video at 1280x720 (HD), 848x480, 640x480 or 320x240 pixel resolutions, all at 30 fps. Video can be captured continuously up to a 2GB maximum per clip.

One of the scene modes is "photo frame" which provides the user three options to overlay a frame-like border on images - here are two of those.

The 2.7 inch LCD monitor is of 230,000 dot composition and is adjustable for seven levels of brightness. In addition, there is an LCD mode available in the quick menu that has three additional brightness settings including one designed to work at high angles of view. Any of the settings could be overcome by the right combination of bright outdoor lighting conditions, but the monitor was not too bad in all but the worst outdoor conditions.

Monitor coverage is listed as 100% - there is no viewfinder.

With a fairly pedestrian sounding sub-5x zoom and the ever-present 12 megapixel sensor, Panasonic has wisely chosen to spotlight the performance features of the camera (image quality, fast startup and autofocus times) as a means to set it apart from the competition. Somewhat surprisingly, they left out any mention of shutter lag, but they shouldn't have.

Shooting Performance
Panasonic claims a 0.95 second start up time for the FP8, and while the screen goes live in about that time, it's a bit longer before the focus icon is presented. Still, I managed a first shot in about 1.75 seconds after power up. Single shot-to-shot times (shoot, write, re-acquire focus and shoot) were about 2 seconds with a SanDisk Extreme III 20MB/s card. The camera produced 3 full resolution, high quality stills at a 2.2 fps rate in burst mode, and 5 at normal quality before the buffer took a break. The monitor blacks out briefly after the first two shots in burst and lags 1 shot behind, so panning with a fast moving subject can be problematic, even for the brief period the camera can shoot at full resolution. There is a high speed burst mode that fires at about 10fps with a brief blackout at the start of the burst, but resolution is limited to 3 megapixels or less.

AF acquisition times in good light were speedy across the range of the lens - we measured a 0.23 second press to capture time without pre-focus. Shutter lag came in at 0.01 seconds - this camera proved very quick to focus and shoot, and was quite pleasant to work with in good light. When I shot the camera for its first impression piece AF performance in low light appeared to be more in line with the class as a whole. After more extensive shooting in dim light the FP8 seems to do better than I first suspected - if there's anything with some contrast in range of the camera's focus assist beam it seems to acquire fairly quickly.

There are still times when the camera struggles like the rest in really poor conditions, but overall the FP8 was consistently faster to focus than the competition when lighting was good and generally faster when it wasn't.

Flash performance with the FP8 was very good with regard to recycle times with a fully charged battery. In moderate lighting conditions at wide angle and ISO 80, recycle times were in the high 2/low 3 second range. Shots in the same conditions at telephoto recycled in under 4 seconds. Switching to auto ISO produced similar times, and shots designed to produce a full discharge (80 ISO, telephoto, pitch black conditions) ran just over 4 seconds. At auto ISO flash range varies from almost 18 feet at wide angle to a bit over 10 feet at telephoto, but shooting at the low ISO sensitivities that produce the best noise performance impacts flash range dramatically - just less than 4 feet and 2 feet respectively for wide angle and telephoto at 80 ISO.

Panasonic rates the FP8 battery for 380 shots using a CIPA standard that generally produces accurate results in my experience. Our review FP8 produced 265 shots and about 7 minutes of video before the battery "fuel gauge" dropped to the last third, so this figure seems reasonable. Carry a spare battery for all-day shooting sessions.

Lens Performance
The Leica aspherical DC Vario-Elmar lens in the FP8 is "composed of 10 elements in 8 groups, including 1 ED lens and 5 aspherical lenses with 6 aspherical surfaces," not to mention the folding optics aspect which does away with the fixed lens barrel. In very general terms, the inclusion of aspherical elements is an attempt to optimize image quality at the edges of the frame while the ED lens is aimed at improving contrast and sharpness by reducing chromic aberration (purple fringing).

The FP8 was a bit soft in the corners at wide angle, but pretty good along the edges otherwise; corners were a bit better at telephoto and edges stayed comparable to wide angle. There was minimal barrel distortion at wide angle and a bit more pincushion distortion at telephoto, but both defects were slight. Chromic aberration was present in some images with high contrast boundary areas, but it too was slight and, overall, well-controlled.

The lens is a bit slower than the competition at both ends of the range - f/3.3 at wide angle and f/5.9 at telephoto, but this is perhaps the price you pay for optical performance that is quite good otherwise. A slower lens means the camera will have to resort to increasing ISO sensitivity to maintain fast shutter speeds sooner than the competition, bringing into play the noise problems associated with higher ISOs. The camera can focus at just under 2 inches in macro mode.

While mounting a nominally 4.6x optical zoom lens, the FP8 has another trick up its sleeve to push that ratio out to as much as 9.1x (although at reduced resolution). In any still shooting mode where you can reduce the image resolution size to 8 megapixels or lower, the FP8 will enable "extended optical zoom" and capture images from only the center of the sensor, resulting in higher magnifications from the increasingly cropped sensor. An 8 megapixel image permits a 5.7x zoom; 5 megapixels permits 7.3x and 3 megapixels or lower produces a 9.1x. Panasonic claims no loss in image quality from this process. Here are shots at the standard 4.6x telephoto zoom as well as the 8, 5 and 3 megapixel sizes for comparison.

Panasonic shared some details of their new "POWER" optical image stabilization (O.I.S) system with us, and it appears the performance gains have been realized primarily through improved efficiency rather than a radical departure from the basic design of the older MEGA O.I.S. system:

Panasonic's O.I.S system includes gyrosensors detecting handshake and the lens system shifts to compensate, helping to prevent handshake from creating a blurry image. Power O.I.S. offers double the repression power of Panasonic's previous optical image stabilization system, MEGA O.I.S. The mechanical process itself is the same, the repression power has just doubled and is now more effective for at least an addition 2-3 shutter stops.

With the ability of the FP8 to utilize that extended optical zoom, any increase in stabilization capability is a welcome addition to a camera whose telephoto can run out to as much as about 254mm at reduced resolutions.

Video Quality
HD video quality on the FP8 seemed on a par with or perhaps slightly better than class competition. The zoom function of the lens is available during video, but it's rapid and hard to control with regard to making a smooth transition from wide to telephoto, or vice-versa. The microphone proved sensitive but also susceptible to wind noise in light airs. Panasonic recommends a media card with at least 10MB/sec performance for video purposes.

Image Quality
Default images out of the FP8 were generally good as to color rendition and overall image quality and sharpness - there are no in-camera adjustments to image sharpness or contrast per se in either the shooting or playback menus. Exposure compensation is available in shooting modes other than intelligent auto.

Normal picture mode provides an expanded color palette of seven color and monotone shooting options - here are the standard (default), normal, vivid and b&w settings.

Auto white balance did a good job with a variety of lighting conditions including bright sun, overcast/cloudy, open shade, flash and the yellow sodium vapor lamps used in many local cities to help the astronomers at the nearby Palomar Mountain observatory. The camera shot quite warm under incandescent light in the studio. There are daylight, cloudy, shade, and halogen presets along with a custom white balance option.

Intelligent multiple metering that reads points across the entire image in determining exposure is the only method available.

Panasonic didn't break any new ground with ISO noise performance in the FP8. The 80 and 100 ISO crop shots are fairly clean but look somewhat soft, with noise beginning to become apparent at 200, and to a greater extent at 400.

ISO 800 sees a significant drop in image quality and 1600 takes another significant turn for the worse. In the 80 and 100 ISO range, the FP8 is probably average in comparison to top competitors, and perhaps as well at 200. From 400 and up the Panasonic seems to fall behind the best 12 megapixel compacts I've come across. The full frames don't look too bad across the board, which is the norm, and the higher ISOs are probably usable as long as print sizes stay small.

When I reviewed the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX35 back in March 2008 I was impressed enough with that camera's overall performance to buy one for my sister. Subsequent Panasonic offerings that have crossed my path for review purposes didn't produce the same warm and fuzzy feelings as the FX35, but the FP8 has reversed that trend.

The FP8 is a desirable camera by virtue of its sparkling AF performance and speedy shutter lag alone - the camera acquires focus quickly across a broad range of lighting conditions and then takes the shot with little delay. The camera also powers up quickly, recycles its flash promptly and provides a lens that captures images with minimal distortion and defects. There's a 720p HD video capability for those who shoot movies.

ISO noise performance looks average at the lower sensitivities, but at 400 and above it appears to lag a bit behind the best 12 megapixel compacts I've reviewed. The lens maximum apertures are slower than most of the competition, which isn't a good combination with the unremarkable ISO performance.

With only automatic shooting modes the FP8 will appeal primarily to folks seeking minimal involvement in the image capture process, but Panasonic has put in enough user options in the normal shooting mode to keep the more advanced shooters interested, particularly once they get a taste of that speedy AF and almost non-existent shutter lag.


* Very good AF performance
* Very good shutter lag
* Good image quality, largely defect free
* Good flash recycle times


* ISO noise performance below average at 400 and up
* Minimal flash range at low ISO

Editor's Rating: Very Good