Panasonic FX500 Review
When travelling it is always handy to have a compact camera as well as a DSLR for the times when you need travel light.
It sports a lens with the equivalent focal length of 25 -125mm (x5 zoom range). Certainly for me this encompasses the main range of focal lengths I would normally use. I tend to use longer focal lengths for wildlife photography.
The FX500 (or FX520 as it is known in Asia, New Zealand and Australia) is very much the modern camera. It has all the expected features that one could reasonably expect. Image stabilization, face detection, scene recognition, reduced shutter delay, wide exposure range etc are present and accounted for.
- 3.0" LCD Touch Screen
- f/2.8, 25-125mm Leica DC Vario-Elmarit lens
- 10 mega pixel CCD imaging sensor
- Intelligent auto mode with Intelligent Exposure
- HD video recording
- Optical Image Stabiliser (O.I.S.)
The dominating feature is the large 3" LCD monitor. This monitor is touch responsive and as a result provides an additional way to control the camera. I say additional as there are still some of the standard controls provided. The choice is yours, to a certain extent. The cameras body is fairly compact and the lens receeds back into the cameras body when not in use. As can be appreciated the FX500 uses a small imaging sensor with a resolution of 10MP. This resolution count is nothing special compared to a growing number of higher resolution compacts but for many users it will be more than enough for most tasks.
This is a camera designed to give you control when it is required. Full shutter speed and aperture adjustment is provided. I found it very handy at time to be able to manually adjust the exposure parameters. Program, Aperture, Shutter Speed, and Manual modes have been provided.
It is worth a reminder that there are limitations to what you can expect from a camera using a small imaging sensor. With regards to depth of field, this will naturally be fairly wide and as a result the true amount of flexibility you get by adjust the aperture is not as extensive as achieve with a DSLR. The effect of changing the depth of field becomes most apparent if the subject is fairly close to the camera and/or the telephoto end of the zoom lens is used. Unfortunately, maintaining a wide depth of field with the subject close to the lens becomes problematic too. Increasing the f number too much can lead to a softening of the captured image. Using f numbers beyond around f5.6 starts to introduce diffraction. (Explain in more detail and confirm aperture).
Shutter speed adjustment is straightforward enough. The speeds can be adjusted from 60 seconds to 1/2000 seconds.
The FX500 has a variety of autofocusing modes for the 9 focusing zones down to a single spot focusing zone. Some of the AF modes are designed for faster focusing. It is worth noting that manual focus is not catered for and unlike me most users probably won't miss it. To my surprise, my preferred AF mode for this camera was the face detection mode. It does a good job of detecting faces even if glasses are worn and focusing on them. Should a face not be detected the AF mode resorts to standard autofocusing.
The x5 lens, the Leica DC Vario-Elmarit, is of good quality (and I mean 'good quality) as it resolved detailed photos. I did not note any serious flaws with the lens but in keeping with many compact camera lenses the extreme corners of an image can appear soft. The 'flaw' at least for me is not much of an issue and can be mitigated to a certain extent by not shooting with the aperture wide open when it is not necessary.
The key feature of the Lumix FX500 is without doubt the touch screen and Panasonic have an unusual implementation here. The camera is not purely driven by the touch screen as there are the usual buttons provide on the left hand side of the camera. The screen is used for mode changes from Program, to Aperture, Shutter, Manual and Scene modes to the actual adjustment to of the exposure parameters including exposure compensation. Where the camera focuses can also be determined by touching the relevant area on the screen. By using this method to focus on the subject, should the camera or the subject move the focus point will move to keep track.
The hardware controls activate features like flash, timer standby (which offers 2 or 10 seconds delay), macro, photo deletion, mode activation and display selection. Most of these features require no touch screen response apart from the mode selection.
Despite the flexibility provided by the manual modes, the prime mode of operation for most users is likely to be the Intelligent Auto (iA) mode. In this mode the FX500 basically does everything for you including the determination of the type of scene the camera is pointing at. This has a useful function that will be discussed in detail later.
There is no escaping the fact that Panasonic Lumix cameras have developed a reputation to a certain extent for noisy images. This has been noted in a number of reviews (on other websites) and in forums. It is very apparent in cameras like the old Lumix LX1 model (though the raw images are much better). It seems Panasonic are getting to grips with the issue of digital image noise. The ISO sensitivity can be adjusted from 100-1600 and with the high sensitivity mode set auto adjustments are made from 1600-6400. I found that in everyday use I was happy to use ISOs between 100-400 and if I had no choice I would use ISO 800. I found I was happy to make prints up to A3 with a maximum ISO of 400. Don't expect silky smooth images rendered by the camera.
The exposure metering worked well dealing with a variety of situations with relative easy. At times I would use exposure compensation for slight under exposure where there was the risk of high lights being blown out. The small photosites on the sensor are more prone to blown highlights as the dynamic range is more limited than that offered by cameras using a larger image capturing sensor.
The camera has so many features that the user is very much spoilt for choice. The intelligent auto mode is what it no doubt the primary exposure mode of the camera and I was please overall with its operation. It did a reasonably good job of determining what kind of scene the camera was pointing at. As it turns out there is a certain logic to using this mode but this is not very apparent from initial use. More about that later. The 'intelligent' features provide sophisticated adjustment of exposure, motion detection, face detection, scene determination, ISO selection and image shake determination. This is essentially a full auto mode and not a mode of operation on a camera I would usually make use of. I found this mode great for straightforward point and shoot situations. Although the technology is sound the limitations of the imaging scene brought about some undesirable consequences. For example, intelligent exposure works but adjusting the ISO within the dark areas of an image to reveal more detail when shooting high contrast scenes. This is becoming an increasingly common way of improving the apparent dynamic range of a camera in difficult contrasty lighting conditions. If the base ISO is low before the scene is fairly bright the results were impressive. However, if the base ISO is higher (say ISO 400) and then the ISO is boosted further in the dark areas of a scene those areas will show more image noise. This can overall make an image overall more noisy than it needs to be. Therefore I found this mode was at its best in bright conditions.
Another auto feature is the Intelligent ISO mode and it is not the typical auto ISO mode found on most cameras. Intelligent ISO will determine if your subject is moving and then raise the ISO in order to prevent or reduce the level of subject blur. With the use of this and the image stabilisation (Optical Image Stabiliser) obtaining motion free photos was greatly improved. The unfortunate side effect was more image noise. It was clear to me that although I like the Intelligent Auto mode I required a bit more control over the results. The way you intend to use the images from the FX500 will very much dictate how much ISO adjustment you are prepared to accept.
Fortunately the FX500 has a Program mode and it turned out to be the primary mode for me to use. It gave a fair degree of automation but permitted the intelligent features to be activated or deactivated when required. This permitted me to minimise undesirable image noise issues but retaining the simplicity of operation of fast point and shoot photography.
Now to the point referred to earlier about the intelligent about and scene modes. The FX500 with only a 4GB memory card holds about 898 photos. That is a lot of photos to have in a camera and when wanting to find certain photos in that collection it would be a major challenge. The FX500 provided a number of ways to sort the photos to make navigating them easier. Favorite photos can be marked so that they can be easily found later. The photos can also be viewed via a calender which will allow you to select photos by pressing the relevant date on a calendar. Perhaps the most interesting method of search was that the photos can be grouped and categorised in terms of the determined scene. Therefore I was able to select whether I wanted to view landscapes, portraits, macros etc. All these methods made navigating though the photos a more pleasurable act than it might of been.
The LCD monitor automatic adjusts it's brightness depending on the ambient lighting conditions. This works well even in bright day light but of cause it will drain extra power from the battery. If power is a worry the mode an be defeated.
The lid that closes the battery compartment and SD (HC) memory card feel rather flimsy. Luckily, with at least a 4GB I found it not necessary to change the memory card too often. Although the same cannot be said about the lithium battery I had to shoot well over 200 images before I changed the battery. Generally, when on holiday I prefer to recharge the battery over night to ensure I have a fresh battery to work with the following day.
In keeping with perhaps just every other Panasonic camera the FX500 features the Scene mode. This is a set of pre-programmed exposures designed for various photographic situations. I generally don't use these modes as I feel confident enough to make my own adjustments. For those with no or minimal photographic experience then the Scene modes are handy. I found there are a couple of modes I had no choice to in order to deal with a particular situation, night photography. The Starry Sky mode permits shutter speeds up to 60 seconds to be accessed. The Night Scenery mode permits shutter speeds up to 8 seconds. A useful addition to these particular modes is that is that the maximum (longest) exposure times cannot be achieved if the camera detects any camera movement. The modes are designed to be used with the camera on a tripod or any other steady surface.
I found the FX500 to be a great general purpose camera. It does not have top of the league image quality but I liked the images rendered. Only those who must examine every image at 100% magnification are likely to be deterred. Using the camera in a in a more practical way will provide great looking photos that can be printed up to A3 in size as long as the ISO is kept reasonably low. EA