by Joseph LaQuiere

"Declaring the glory of God
through photography of His created world"
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  copyright 2007 by Joseph LaQuiere
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A Quick Look at 3 Super Zoom Digicams
A review of the
Canon S3 IS, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7, Kodak Z612
I am often asked to make camera recommendations and this review is prompted by just such an inquiry.  Sometime ago in a previous review, I looked at two super zoom cameras; but every month (in the digital camera world) brings new and usually (but not always) improved products to the market. This time I have checked out three of the most popular digacams all sporting zooms of 12X giving them roughly 35-420mm range in 35mm terms.  The attraction to this style of camera is in having a very compact camera and powerful zoom lens combination and, while not pocketable, these cameras are easy to carry in a purse or belt bag.  This type of photographic tool fits the user that is interested in a bit more than basic snapshots of the kids or memorable event but the person that also wants to have the capability that a zoom lens brings. A camera with a lens of this range makes wide angle shots and dramatic close-ups possible allowing one to capture birds and animal life, flowers, close-ups and opens up a whole new range of subject mater that is beyond the standard 3x zoom cameras. 

I have reviewed each of these cameras briefly but for those that do not wish to read the complete review; I will offer my basic conclusion here.  Each camera offer's the same 12x zoom but all things are not equal.  While each of  the three have problems in performance, design, features and picture quality, the attraction of the low cost, big zoom range and the relative compactness of these units makes them very interesting to many consumers.  My opinion is based not on analyzing every technical detail but simply on using each camera for several days, looking at the pictures and deciding which, out of the three, I would prefer to use.  The choice for me was the Panasonic DMC-FZ7, it has the largest, clearest and brightest LCD and Electronic View Finder, is the nicest feeling in the hand, has the fastest lens (f/2.8-3.3), is the lightest of the three and upon considering all the factors would be the one I would rate best of the three.  This was not an easy conclusion and there was no clear winner on picture quality; read on for more details.
There was no clear leader in my opinion among these three cameras and I ultimately chose the Panasonic FZ2 by elimination of the other two due to convenience in operation. All these cameras feature a view finder but not an optical one meaning that when held up to the eye the image is viewed through an eyepiece with a tiny LCD screen inside.  Most of my problems with the cameras had to do with some factor about either the rear LCD or the viewfinder. These cameras all have similar features and all have manual control. I will not go into detail about each of these features but here is a brief rundown of what I found good and bad with each model that led to me recommend the Panasonic.

These three current models all feature a very exciting technology called optical image stabilization.  In any camera there can be very real benefits to this technology but it becomes even more noticeable when you add a high powered zoom lens.  If you have ever used a high powered binocular, and can remember how difficult it is to hold steady, you will be able to appreciate how beneficial it would be to reduce the shake and vibration that can occur in a camera lens.  This is exactly what image stabilization does and manufactures have begun to add it to many new cameras at all price points (see my review of the Lumix FX01).  The end result is many more pictures that are usable because the effects of shake and vibration are significantly reduced.  In many small cameras of the past, using the zoom to its available length and getting good pictures was somewhat hit or miss; with many more misses than hits.  The addition of image stabilization to these compact cameras, especially those with super zoom lenses, results in a significant improvement in the quantity of good images produced.
The Canon fell short primarily due to it's  poor LCD displays.  In fairness the Canon features a flip out rear LCD that allows viewing from almost any angle; the size of the display is smaller due to this feature.  I felt that I could have accepted the smaller size of the display in lieu of the flip out feature but for the fact that both the rear LCD and viewfinder display were dim and fuzzy looking.  I found it impossible to tell from either display if the picture was in focus or not and the rear LCD was difficult to view in sunlight.  Another thing that bothered me was switching from the rear LCD to the viewfinder.  Canon has made switching displays part of the display mode button instead of having a dedicated button just for the purpose of turning off the rear LCD and turning on the viewfinder.  This made switching from rear LCD to the viewfinder a cumbersome process of multiple button press in order to cycle through the various information displays on the respective monitor until the desired monitor would switch on. One other nit that I have had with all Canon compact cameras is that they do not tell, or record, what ISO they are using in auto mode.  Because ISO on these cameras is such an important variable I would like the camera to indicate what it has chosen when in the auto setting. I also thought the flash cycle time seemed somewhat slower on the S3IS than it did in the other two cameras. On the good side, this camera has a two speed zoom; the build quality is solid which is typical of canon as well as overall good ergonomics, with the exception of switching from rear LCD to the viewfinder.
I really wanted to like the Kodak Z612; it has a beautiful large rear LCD with all the shooting information clearly laid out; It is also the easiest of any of the cameras to adjust the shooting parameters. By simply highlighting the desired setting on the LCD, with the control wheel, selecting with a push and then rotating the wheel any of the mode adjustable parameters can be changed. The popup flash also automatically pops up when needed in auto mode.  Kodak has, as in most of their cameras that I have tried, adopted a punchy color tone producing very attractive JPGs with good color and contrast.  Unfortunately there were several very significant problems relating to both the viewfinder and rear LCD displays that made it necessary  to put the Kodak at the bottom of the list.  The first and completely baffling omission was no provision for adjusting the viewfinder focus making it impossible to get the eyepiece in focus if your vision needs do not match up with the fixed eyepiece.  This has nothing to do with focus of the actual camera lens but only how clearly your eye can see the internal viewfinder LCD; this is commonly called a diopter adjustment.  A diopter adjustment has been something that Kodak has omitted from a number of its cameras of this style which makes the viewfinder nearly worthless to those who need to adjust the viewfinder magnifier for a clear view.  The other problem, that both internal and rear LCD displays suffered from, was ugly light streaking (during live view) with bright or high contrast scenes.  This is a problem that is not uncommon in other cameras but most often occurs with extremely high contrast scenes like with street lights, strong reflections or the sun.  The Kodak Z612 however suffers from this problem frequently just about any time there are bright areas in an otherwise darker scene.   The problem appears as light bars that spread outward from the light source and extends to the edges of the screen.  The Kodak was also the least accurate, in live mode, at representing the final shot in terms of color or white balance.  This makes for a tonally ugly view while composing the picture however after the picture is taken the shot looks correct. I suspect that all these issues are related to Kodak's over zealous setting of gain on the LCD displays.  While these problems are only limited to the live monitor display and do not show up in the recorded picture it occurs too frequently to overlook and is very annoying.  I had several other small complaints; like the icons for the buttons on the top of the camera that are in black on a shiny chrome surface making it hard to see what each button does.  I also found the button to change from rear LCD to viewfinder (which is left of the viewfinder) not as convenient as the Panasonic which can be pressed with the right thumb.  The zoom speed of the Kodak was very fast but lacked a low speed; you had to make small zoom adjustments by pressing the button in short bursts making precise zooming difficult.  I did not test any of these cameras very thoroughly in video mode but one of the observations that I did make, with the Z612, is that it is possible to zoom the lens while taking video. However whenever you use the zoom it  makes the lens go out of focus for a few seconds till it finds focus again.  On the last note, I will say that if I had to choose one of these cameras just by reviewing the pictures from each, the Kodak would be the winner.  It is too bad that it had these problems that in my opinion were too significant to overlook.

Lastly we come to the FZ7, this camera was my overall choice among these three based on ease of operation, performance, and picture quality.  On this last point the FZ7 was about on par with the others in overall picture quality, with the edge going to Kodak, but when weighing all the factors together I much preferred using the FZ7 over the other two cameras. Handling and ease of use was by far the best on the FZ7 with bright, clear and accurate LCD displays.  The eye piece being best of the bunch with generous projection from the rear of the camera making for getting it up to your eye easy even if wearing glasses and of course the diopter adjustment.  Changing from the rear LCD to the internal viewfinder was very convenient with one button push; easily done with the right thumb while holding the camera in one hand.  Macro and manual focusing was easy to accomplish because of the quality of the display.  On the negative side, the FZ7 requires you to go to the menu to set ISO.  I also did not like the fact that when in full Auto mode you cannot set the "Red Eye" to off.  In video mode the FZ7 does not allow any zooming which is a real shame. All in all though the Panasonic was the nicest camera to use in just about every aspect, produced nice pictures and it's optical image stabilization system is perhaps the best of the bunch. Out of these three the FZ7 would be the one I would buy for a  friend.
There are three main reasons to consider these super zoom digicams over a DSLR, cost, size and the built in high magnification zoom; with these factors aside a DSLR is far superior in every way.  Even the lowest entry level DSLRs will deliver much better performance and much higher picture quality.  Be forewarned that you may quickly become dissatisfied with any of these three cameras and desire the performance of a DSLR.  Consider also that  DSLR prices have come down significantly and the difference in cost alone is not near as great as it once was.  The cost difference becomes more significant when one considers adding lenses to the DSLR but I for one, would rather have the speed, picture quality and optical viewfinder on any DSLR and sacrifice on the lens until I could afford more.  One camera to me that becomes a serious consideration is the Olympus E-300 that I reviewed previously.  This camera is now an older model and has come down significantly in price.  It is still available around the internet new for about $550 and that includes a telephoto zoom lens along with the standard lens.  To me there is no comparison on terms of performance and picture quality with the E-300 easily beating out anything in the compact digicam class.  If it sounds like I am promoting the Olympus it is only by comparison and because I see it being a much longer term camera that is much more likely to be satisfying to the user.  I only use the Olympus as an example because of my past review and the very reasonable cost but I recently have looked at an entry level camera from Pentax that offers the same advantages.  When considering the purchase of a compact super zoom camera weigh these factors well and your own desires for performance so that you will not be disappointed and find that you want to upgrade much sooner than you initially thought.
Here are 4 images from each of the cameras from the same tripod position taken in program mode at each ISO 80, 100, 200, 400
I made no adjustments to the exposure and let the cameras choose the settings.  As you can see canon did the worst job at the exposure at the ISO400 setting.  It is also interesting to note that in these flash exposures all three cameras kept the Aperture at 2.8 while the Canon set the shutter at 1/60 and the Kodak and Panasonic at 1/30.
Here are some sample images from each camera.  I have not made an effort to choose particularly artistic images but to give you a typical sampling of shots that you could expect from each camera.  I have not applied any corrections or sharpening to the images but they have been reduced in size for the web.

Canon S3 IS            Kodak Z612          Lumix FZ7

Kodak Z612
Canon S3IS
ISO 80
ISO 100
ISO 200
ISO 400
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7
Canon PowerShot S3 IS       *       Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7          *          Kodak Z612
Canon PowerShot S3 IS       *       Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7        *        Kodak Z612
Canon PowerShot S3 IS     *      Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7        *        Kodak Z612
October, 2006