Digital camera makers are constantly one-upping each other, either by adding features or lowering cost. Only occasionally do those two variables intersect. But Panasonic's DMC-FZ7 puts an array of high end features in a lightweight camera for less than $400. With a 12x zoom lens carrying the venerable Leica name, 6-megapixel resolution, a 2.5" LCD and an optical viewer this camera is tough to put down.
I unboxed the FZ7 and was surprised at its light weight. I was expecting the extended zoom range to add weight to the camera, but the 35mm equivalent of a 36mm to 432mm zoom doesn't bulk up the camera at all. The camera has an additional trick available at some resolution levels that extends the optical zoom range to 17.5x. This is truly an amazing range that let me get close to wildlife and sporting events without injury. The camera supports an additional 4x digital zoom. But -- as with any digital zoom -- you're probably better off shooting at maximum optical zoom and cropping in your computer to get the shot you want.
Taking pictures at nearly any focal length past 100mm, or at slow shutter speeds is sure to introduce motion blur. But the FZ7 as well as Panasonic's entire line of Lumix cameras, includes its MEGA Image Stabilization system that uses a gyroscope to adjust for camera movement. I was able to take shots at the maximum zoom in bright sunlight, and still get sharp images.
The FZ7's image quality is very good. The combination of a high quality lens and 6-megapixel resolution make for photos that can be enlarged to at least 11 x 14 prints, and display wonderfully on a web page or video slide show. Newer cameras may offer higher resolution sensors, but even 10-megapixel images are likely to be indistinguishable under normal use conditions.
Like most modern digicams, the FZ7 has a selection of scene-specific presets for exposure and lighting conditions. A dial at the top of the camera provides quick access to automatic and manual exposure, macro, and video modes. If you need something more specific for shooting sports, food pictures, party setting, or even fireworks, turning the dial to the SCN setting brings up an easy to navigate menu on the LCD showing all 16 available settings.
The native format of the CCD image sensor is the standard 4:3 ratio, but you can change it to either 3:2 or 16:9 aspect ratios if you are shooting for specific display destinations. Since these settings only result in limiting the use of the full image sensor, you may do better to simply use the full 4:3 format and crop your shots in the computer.