For a pocketable camera, the 14-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 ($350 as of May 15, 2012) is about as loaded as they come. The trait that will jump out at you--literally, if you're facing the camera--is the Lumix ZS20's 20X-optical-zoom lens (24mm to 480mm). Like that zoom lens, the Lumix ZS20's laundry list of features keeps on going and going.
It's a good pocket megazoom option for manual-minded shooters, thanks to aperture-priority, shutter-priority, and full manual exposure controls. It has excellent video options, as it shoots full 1080p video at a clip of 60 frames per second. It's a touchscreen camera, but it also provides traditional buttons and dials for accessing some in-camera features more efficiently.
In addition, the ZS20 comes equipped with futuristic extras, such as 3D still shooting, in-camera GPS with mapping features, a high-speed video mode, and continuous-shooting speeds that reach up to 10 fps at full 14-megapixel resolution and 60 fps at 2.5-megapixel resolution.
All of that adds up to a camera that does a whole lot, though the ZS20 stumbles a bit in image quality and battery life. In the end, this camera's many benefits significantly outnumber its shortcomings. It's one of the most versatile pocket megazooms you can buy right now.
Performance, Image Quality, and Video Quality
Traditionally, Panasonic's cameras have met the challenge in the PCWorld Labs' subjective tests for image quality. The Lumix line usually errs on the side of underexposure and muted colors in Intelligent Auto mode, which is rare for today's cameras; everything from a smartphone camera to a DSLR tends to oversaturate and "punch up" colors these days, as the masses gravitate toward vibrant images with bright colors. If you'd prefer the punchy colors of other cameras, the Panasonic Lumix ZS20 can do that, too; you'll just need to use the camera's exposure compensation controls or set it to the Expressive Color option in its Creative Control menu.
In Intelligent Auto mode, the Lumix ZS20 captured understated photos that earned scores of Good in most of the PCWorld Labs' testing categories. Our panel of judges rated the Lumix ZS20's images as Good in exposure quality, color accuracy, and sharpness; in image distortion, however, we gave it only a Fair grade.
You can see the full-size photos used for our subjective tests by clicking on the thumbnails at left.
In PCWorld Labs subjective tests for video quality, the Panasonic Lumix ZS20 posted scores of Good for both video and audio capture. The camera's video performance in low light isn't much to write home about, but the 1080p AVCHD clips it shot at 60 fps in our well-lit test setting looked remarkably smooth, if a little dull and gray in terms of white balance.
You can view the bright-light and low-light clips we used for our subjective tests below. Select 1080p from the drop-down menu in each player to see the full-resolution videos.
In battery life, the camera kept up its run of Good scores, with a CIPA rating of 260 shots per charge of its lithium ion cell with the GPS functions turned off. Keep in mind that that shot count should dip significantly if you leave the camera's geotagging features turned on.
Shooting Modes and Features
Like many of today's best pocket megazooms, the Lumix ZS20 has no shortage of shooting options. In addition to aperture-priority (with maximum settings of F3.3 wide-angle and F6.4 at telephoto), shutter-priority (1/2000 second to 8 seconds), and full manual modes, the camera focuses very quickly, and it has a range of options that make the most of its CMOS sensor and autofocus speeds.
For instance, you can use the camera's touchscreen to select a moving object to focus on in motion-tracking AF mode, and you can change focus points on the fly while shooting video (although the camera does produce a bit of lag and searching when jumping between focus points, especially in less-than-ideal lighting conditions).
Creative shooting modes include a motion-controlled panorama mode; a 3D mode that creates an .MPO-format still image when you pan the camera from side to side; several high-speed options for recording stills and video; and a menu of Creative Control options that add tilt-shift, vignette, and monochrome filters to your shots as you snap them. You can apply the Creative Control filters to your photos after you shoot them, too; using them in this way creates a copy of your original shot rather than overwriting it.
Using the camera's Quick Menu button, you can set the resolution and continuous-shooting speed, and one setting has a tremendous effect on the other. If you set the megapixel count to 2.5, you can ramp up the camera's burst speed to 60 shots per second. In the camera's scene menu, you can also select 'High Speed Video', which allows you to capture a 320-by-240-pixel video at 220 frames per second.
The high-speed burst modes work well if you can deal with lower-resolution output and slow post-shot processing times. You have to wait about 10 seconds after shooting a batch of burst images for the camera to write the photos to the memory card. I experienced those wait times with a Class 10 card--about as fast a card as you can get--so you'll likely need to wait even longer if you're using a Class 4 or Class 6 card. The rapid-fire images are largely worth the wait if shooting fast action is important to you, but you may be able to capture only every other pitch or every other swing at a baseball game due to that image-processing lag.
In addition to those shot-to-shot speeds, the Lumix ZS20 makes use of its sensor and processor speed with a couple of exposure-bracketing and image-stacking modes for high-dynamic-range photos and handheld low-light scenes. Both modes are accessible via the scene menus. The HDR selection snaps three shots in rapid succession and then stacks them, while the Handheld Night Shot mode snaps as many as six shots to create a single, well-exposed photo in low-light environments without a flash.
Hardware and Design
The well-built Lumix ZS20 is bulkier than a basic point-and-shoot, but not by much. At 1.1 inches deep and 4.1 inches wide, it will fit in some people's pockets. The camera is bulky enough to host a handgrip, which is rubberized and comfortable; it does the job when you're shooting with one hand.
The control scheme on this camera is fairly standard-issue, but it gives you a choice between using the 3-inch touchscreen and pressing the physical buttons for triggering the shutter release, adjusting the zoom controls, swiping through photos during playback, selecting a focus point, and accessing other in-camera features. One nit to pick is that it's not always clear when the touchscreen is enabled for menu selections; you can touch on-screen icons at the top levels of each menu, but once you drill down deeper into the menus, you'll need to use the directional pad.
In many ways the Lumix ZS20 is better suited for manual-minded photographers than the latest touchscreen-heavy interchangeable-lens cameras in Panasonic's GF series are. It's great to have the ZS20's touchscreen controls for focusing and motion-tracking AF in the mix, but it's even better that the camera doesn't ditch the traditional mode dial and physical buttons entirely. In a lot of cases, using the physical buttons and knobs gives you faster access to some settings than navigating a series of touchscreen menus does.
The physical controls consist of a mode dial, a shutter release, a zoom control, a video-record button, and an on/off toggle, all on the top of the camera. You'll also find a stereo mic on the top of the camera, as well as an indicator light that lets you know when the camera's GPS functions are running. In addition to manual controls, scene modes, a 3D-shooting mode, and other entries on the mode dial, two custom entries provide quick access to your own mix of exposure settings; such a feature is rare on anything other than a DSLR.
On the back, to the left of the 3-inch touchscreen, are a dual-purpose button for accessing exposure settings and the map interface; a round directional pad that also gives you one-touch access to exposure compensation, flash controls, macro mode, and the self timer; and two buttons below that adjust display settings and jump to an abbreviated Quick Menu of settings such as image resolution, ISO, white balance, and burst modes. The ZS20 also has a capture/playback toggle switch, which is one of my few gripes about the camera: Because you're locked into either shooting or playback mode, you can't just half-press the shutter button to force the camera into capture mode when you're viewing images.
On the side of the camera is a well-built door that covers a Mini HDMI port and an A/V-out port. As usual, the bottom of the camera has a tripod mount and a door that covers the battery port and SD/SDHC/SDXC card slot.
I tested the camera's GPS features in San Francisco, so this section should be an indicator of how well the geotagging works in a big U.S. city. The Lumix ZS20 goes beyond most GPS-enabled cameras out today by including in-camera mapping features and tagging photos with real-world location names. You'll need to wait a few minutes (and remain outside with a clear view of the sky) when establishing an initial GPS connection; once you do, however, you'll have the ability to view your location on a map during playback, as well as to see the locations of your photos while you're viewing them on the camera.
It works, as long as you have fresh GPS data. When I failed to keep a constant GPS connection--or to reconnect once I got to a new location--the camera "remembered" the last place I had been, and tagged all photos with that location. I was able to edit mistagged photos manually, but the on-screen instructions aren't exactly clear on how to do so. You have to use the directional pad to fill out the location name manually; an on-screen touch keyboard would have sped things up a bit.
The tagged photos integrated perfectly with Flickr when I offloaded them to a computer. Clicking 'Add this photo to your map' in Flickr put the photo in the right spot--it even pinpointed the section I took the photos from in AT&T Park, which was impressive.
Viewing the photos on the in-camera map interface was a little more frustrating, as I couldn't get the maps to zoom in far enough. I wasn't able to see a block-by-block map of my location in the camera; the closest I was able to zoom in was a several-hundred-mile bird's-eye view of the California coastline. It did properly identify my location in San Francisco, but Los Angeles and San Diego were both visible on the map at its tightest zoom. Although you can swipe the screen to move around in the map interface, pinching to zoom in on a more-granular map view doesn't zoom in close enough.
The ZS20 has more far-reaching in-camera GPS features than most other current cameras, but the usability issues I encountered with its in-camera mapping features were significant. It's best to think of those in-camera maps as a "nice to have" extra, as the geotagging features really shine only after you've offloaded the images to a computer.
For $350, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 certainly doesn't skimp on features, and it's designed with the demanding traveler in mind. You'll find better overall image quality in other cameras, but the ZS20's range of shooting options is second to none in its class. If you buy this camera, you may want to delve into its scene modes, white balance settings, and creative controls outside of Intelligent Auto mode for the best results.