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TRAVELLING SHOW

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ60 - $549: FULL REVIEW

Panasonic strikes a blow for the fixed-lens compact camera with its latest Travel Zoom model which packs a lot into its pocket-sized body. Paul Burrow reports. (For PDFs of the original magazine pages with test images and full specs, click the link to the right.)

When Panasonic launched its first TZ Series compact – the initials stand for “Travel Zoom” – the compact system camera was still in the future. Now that you can have a compact camera with the flexibility of interchangeable lenses, how is the fixed-lens camera faring? For instance, Panasonic itself offers a pretty formidable alternative in the shape of the diminutive (but significantly more expensive) Lumix GM1.

Well, Panasonic has worked hard to make its next-gen TZ compact an attractive proposition for anybody who wants to travel really light without compromising their photographic capabilities. Small though the GM1 is, the TZ60 is still a lot smaller overall and it weighs in at under 250 grams all up… i.e. including the lens as well. And this is now a massive 30x optical zoom (up from 20x on the previous TZ40) spanning the equivalent of 24mm to 720mm. To cope with the increased telephoto capabilities, the TZ60 gets the beefed up ‘Power OIS’ optical image stabilisation system for stills and the five-axis ‘Hybrid OIS’ for movies which uses a combination of digital and optical correction methods. When shooting video you also get a nifty ‘Level Shot’ function which provides real-time correction for tilted horizons.

As before, the lens is badged “Leica” and is called a DC Vario-Elmar in the style of the German company’s own optics, but it’s still primarily the work of Panasonic… actually one of Japan’s most accomplished lens makers. The optical construction comprises 12 elements in nine groups; five of them being aspherical types and three made from extra-low dispersion (ED) glass plus a special superfine ‘Nano Surface Coating’ is used to reduce internal reflections in order to minimise flare and ghosting. Given its combination of zooming range and very compact dimensions, this lens is a pretty remarkable piece of optical engineering, especially given its performance gets Leica’s tick of approval. Even at 720mm everything holds together pretty well and the maximum aperture range of f3.3-6.4 isn’t bad either, especially at the extreme telephoto end. However, here all you’ve got to play with is f6.4 to f8.0, and there isn’t a built-in ND filter to serve as a smaller aperture setting.

In Control

A nice touch – literally – is a new multi-function control ring around the lens which, among other things, performs manual focusing which feels comfortably logical. You’re guided by a magnified image and a focus peaking display that’s available in a choice of colours. It can also be used to manually set apertures or shutter speeds (depending on the selected exposure mode), operate the program shift or to select the scene modes or the ‘Creative Control’ effects.

The control ring works in conjunction with the navigator wheel on the rear panel so, in effect, the TZ60 operates more like a CSC or a D-SLR than the traditional digital subcompact. There’s also a main mode dial and, interestingly, Panasonic has dropped touch controls so this model is actually more ‘old school’ than its predecessors. However, the ‘Q.Menu’ is retained and provides quick access to a variety of capture-related settings using the rear control wheel.

When these controls are being used for exposure control operations, nifty semi-circular setting aperture and speed scales are shown in the monitor and the EVF. Yes, the TZ60 has a built-in electronic viewfinder which is very good news indeed, especially as the main monitor screen is fixed so it can’t be tilted to improve viewing in bright conditions. This EVF is truly tiny and the resolution is only 200,000 dots, but it provides 100 percent coverage and replicates all the monitor’s displays. You have to manually switch between the EVF and the monitor (well, there just isn’t room on the eyepiece for a proximity sensor), but despite these drawbacks, the provision of a built-in viewfinder still puts the TZ60 ahead of its rivals and it’s been included without making the camera very much bigger than its predecessor.

Intelligent Being

The standard set of ‘PASM’ exposure modes is available, supported by program shift, an AE lock, auto bracketing and a up to +/-2.0 EV of compensation which is dialled in via the rear control wheel and also accompanied by a neat little semi-circular scale display. As before there’s a choice of multi-zone, centre-weighted average and spot metering modes. As usual there’s a big choice of subject modes with automatic selection (from a shorter list of nine) when the camera is in the ‘Intelligent Auto’ (iA) mode. There’s the choice of iA or iA+ operations, the latter allowing simple manual adjustments for image brightness and colour balance.

The suite of iAuto controls is now quite extensive and includes multi-shot HDR capture mode called ‘iHDR’, ‘Motion Deblur’ and ‘iHandheld Night Shot’. If you have these enabled (via the iA menu), they’ll be activated automatically when the camera thinks they’re needed. ‘Motion Deblur’ automatically sets a faster shutter speed to freeze movement while ‘iHandheld Night Shot’ captures a short burst of frames which are then combined to increase the exposure without increasing the noise level.

Intelligent Auto will also perform AF tracking, ISO adjustment, face recognition, balancing the exposure and dynamic range, and the burst mode (based on determining the speed of a subject’s movement). Additionally some of the iA processes are available when shooting in the standard exposure modes, notably ‘iExposure’ and ‘iResolution’ – respectively for dynamic range expansion and cribbing some additional image definition. ‘Intelligent Exposure’ selectively increases the brightness of the darker shadow areas while ‘Intelligent Resolution’ detects outlines, textures and areas of soft gradations and then enhances the edges to increase the definition and, consequently, the perception of sharpness. Alternatively, it can be used to boost the zooming range to 60x without reducing resolution, but these images still have something of an artificial look.

The TZ60 also has the same 23-point contrast-detection AF system as its predecessor with face detection/recognition and subject tracking modes. With continuous AF operation, the maximum shooting speed is 5.0 fps, but this jumps to 10 fps if the AF and AE are locked to the first frame (but the burst length drops to just six frames which is a bit of a limitation). The choice of ‘Creative Control’ effects has been expanded to 15 and these include some of the settings found on the Lumix G series mirrorless cameras such as Dynamic Monochrome.

In The RAW

Apart from an increase in resolution up to 18.1 megapixels (effective), the big deal with the TZ60’s capture capabilities is the provision of a RAW mode. This puts the camera into the big league as far as many enthusiast-level shooters are concerned, providing the option of dealing with things such as noise levels post-camera. RAW+JPEG capture is also available with a number of settings.

The sensitivity range remains equivalent to ISO 100 to 3200 with a one-stop ‘push’ to ISO 6400, but now available at the full resolution. This is slightly academic because with 18.9 million pixels packed into an area of 4.55x6.17 millimetres, we’re talking truly tiny elements and so noise reduction is a mammoth task… making ISO 3200 pretty much the limit in terms of acceptable image quality. WiFi is a big plus on a travel camera as it allows for easy back-up to, say, a tablet and Panasonic provides the convenience of NFC connectivity. Remote camera control is also possible via smartphone or tablet after the Panasonic Image App has been downloaded. For extra peace of mind, you can also save images to Panasonic’s own ‘Lumix Club’ cloud service. The TZ60 also has a built-in GPS receiver with a database of over one million landmarks and it’s now also compatible with the Russian GLONASS satellites to give enhanced coverage.

The Verdict

Panasonic’s TZ Series compacts have always been well featured, but the TZ60 does even more while still maintaining a slimline compact design. The new features are all going to be winners; especially the EVF, the multi-function control collar and RAW capture. Just how often you’ll need to shoot at focal lengths over 400mm is probably debatable, but it’s good to know that the TZ60’s zoom still performs well beyond this setting. And, while the scope for manual control is commendably extensive, Panasonic’s iAuto operation is just so reliable, you can point and shoot in confidence. The image quality is excellent overall, but not surprisingly noise becomes an issue beyond ISO 800. However, given what Panasonic has managed to achieve here, the compromises are quite minimal and there isn’t much that this little camera can’t do… and do pretty well too.