Panasonic Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 Ken McMahon, June 2012
 
 

Panasonic Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 review

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15 (or TZ25 as it's known outside North America) is one of two new travel zooms released by Panasonic in January 2012. The other is the Lumix ZS20 / TZ30, the latest incarnation of Panasonic's flagship market-leading travel zoom. The Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 is a more affordable version of the ZS20 / TZ30 and features a shorter 16x optical zoom and a slightly lower resolution 12.1 Megapixel CMOS sensor.

Since inventing the travel zoom category with the TZ1 back in 2006, Panasonic has held on to the lead position in this market by equipping each successive model with the best it has to offer, always staying one step ahead of competing products from, most notably, Sony and Canon. But not everyone wants premium-priced leading edge pocket super-zooms and that's where the ZS15 / TZ25 comes in.

But where last year's ZS10 / TZ20 and ZS8 / TZ18 shared the same 16x zoom and 16 Megapixel resolution (albeit with different actual sensors), Panasonic's 2012 versions employ different zoom ranges and sensors behind them. The ZS15 / TZ25 inherits the 16x zoom from the 2011 models, while the ZS20 / TZ30 sports a new 20x range. Meanwhile the ZS15 / TZ25 employs a 12.1 Megapixel sensor (perhaps the same as in the FZ150) while the ZS20 / TZ30 gets a new 14 Megapixel sensor. Both specifications would suggest the flagship enjoys the edge, but as we'll see, this may not bear out in practice. Other differences are the ZS15 / TZ25 lacks its pricier sibling's GPS receiver, has a best quality video mode of 1080i compared with 1080p on the ZS20 / TZ30, doesn't have a touch screen and isn't quite so compact. So which is best for you? I tested the ZS15 / TZ25 against the Lumix ZS20 / TZ30 and Canon's new pocket super-zoom the PowerShot SX240 HS to find out. Read on to find out how it measures up.

   
 

Panasonic Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 Design and controls

Measuring 104.9 x 57.6 x 33.4mm, the ZS15 / TZ25 is almost exactly the exact same size as the ZS20 / TZ30 when viewed face-on, but is just over 5mm thicker. Nearly all of that is the protruding ZS15 / TZ25 lens bezel, the camera bodies are the same width, give or take a fraction of a millimetre. The ZS15 / TZ25 also lacks the ZS20 / TZ30's slight top panel bulge and the hand grip is styled slightly differently, but other than that the two cameras are near identical in appearance. The Canon PowerShot SX240 HS is slightly bigger all round, curvier and weighs a little more.

The ZS15 / TZ25's top panel looks identical to the ZS20 / TZ30's with one exception. As I've already mentioned, there's no bulge, and the reason for that is the ZS15 / TZ25 lacks a GPS receiver and has only a mono mic rather than twin stereo mics. In addition to the mode dial there's a nice big shutter release with a zoom collar surround, on/off switch and a dedicated record button.

Moving on to the rear panel, the control layout is exactly the same as its predecessor the ZS8 / TZ18 with a capture/playback mode switch, exposure button, four-way controller and Display and Q.Menu buttons at the bottom. Panasonic continues to rely on a switch to change from capture to playback mode, despite it preventing automatic switching from playback to capture mode by half-pressing the shutter release - an advantage enjoyed by virtually every competing compact on the market.

 
 
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Though the ZS15 / TZ25 lacks the ZS20 / TZ30's touch screen capabilities, its 3 inch 4:3 proportioned screen has been updated and now has the same 460 thousand pixel resolution. The ZS15 / TZ25's screen shares the same proportions and resolution as the PowerShot SX240 HS / 260HS, and the Sony Cyber-shot HX20V / HX30V which has a 920k pixel resolution.

The screen is bright and contrasty and provides a clear view. It has a reasonably wide horizontal angle of view, but is not so good vertically. This isn't so much of a problem, though, as there's a special High Angle viewing mode that optimises the display for precisely this task - and it works.

The screen brightness can be set to automatically adjust for the ambient lighting conditions, but even at its brightest in Power LCD mode you can't see it too well in bright sunlight, a problem the ZS15 / TZ25 shares with every other LCD screen equipped compact.

 
 

The ZS15 / TZ25 has a built-in flash with Auto, Auto/Red-eye Reduction, Forced On, Slow Sync/Red-eye Reduction, and Forced Off modes. It has a maximum range of 6.4 metres in auto ISO mode, which is not a specification that makes comparison easy, but like most compact units it does a good job of evenly illuminating reasonably close subjects.

On the right side of the camera body a small hinged cover opens to reveal a mini HDMI port and a USB port. The latter connects the ZS15 / TZ25 to your PC to download video and images, but now also serves as a charging port. You can charge the camera via the USB port while it's connected to your computer and a USB mains adaptor is also included in the box so you can plug it in if you don't have a laptop handy. For a travel camera this makes a lot of sense as it means if you're travelling with a laptop you don't have to take a mains charger along as well.

The bottom panel houses the combined battery and SD card compartments. The ZS15 / TZ25 employs the same DMW-BCG10E Lithium Ion pack as its predecessor and Panasonic also quotes the same 260 shots per charge. The ZS15 / TZ25 takes SD, SDHC and SDXC cards and there's 70MB of built in memory - enough for about a dozen full resolution shots. Panasonic recommends using Class 4 or faster to support the best quality movie mode; there's no mention of exploiting the extra speed of UHS-1 cards.

 

Panasonic Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 lens and stabilisation

Whereas in previous years Panasonic's sibling super-zooms have shared the same optics, the ZS15 / TZ25 retains the 16x zoom of the earlier ZS8 / TZ18 and ZS10 / TZ20. With a range of 24 to 384mm this is still at the upper end of what you can expect in a pocket super-zoom, and will be more than adequate for most people's needs. It's only slightly eclipsed by the 20x range of not only the Lumix ZS20 / TZ30 but also the Sony Cyber-shot HX20V / HX30V and the Canon PowerShot SX240 HS / SX260 HS.

Panasonic Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 coverage wide
Panasonic Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 coverage tele
4.3-68.8mm at 4.3mm (24mm equivalent)
  4.3-68.8mm at 68.8mm (384mm equivalent)

To give an idea of the difference in the zoom range, I've included a comparison below between the 384mm maximum telephoto of the ZS15 / TZ25 and the 480mm of the ZS20 / TZ30. Though it doesn't extend to the 480mm telephoto of the ZS20 / TZ30, the ZS15 / TZ25 starts out at the same super-wide 24mm wide angle, a very useful focal length for landscapes, groups and interiors. And as you can see, the extra 100mm reach of the ZS20 / TZ30 doesn't make a huge difference in real-life.

Panasonic Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 coverage tele
Panasonic Lumix ZS20 / TZ30 coverage tele
4.3-68.8mm at 68.8mm (384mm equivalent)
  4.3-86mm at 86mm (480mm equivalent)

Like its predecessor, the ZS15 / TZ25 employs Panasonic's latest Power OIS system, claiming up to four stops of compensation. Stabilisation is either on or off, or in the case of movies, always on. Below are examples taken with and without stabilisation using the Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 fully zoomed-into its maximum equivalent of 384mm, and at a shutter speed of 1/8. Traditional photographic advice would recommend a shutter speed of at least 1/384 to eliminate camera shake, but the stabilised ZS15 / TZ25 allowed me to capture sharp handheld shots at 1/8. In contrast under the same conditions I required 1/125 without stabilisation to achieve the same degree of sharpness; this corresponds to four stops of compensation.

Panasonic Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 Power O.I.S. Off/On
100% crop, 4.3-68.8mm at 68.8mm, 100 ISO 1/8th, Power O.I.S. off.
  100% crop, 4.3-68.8mm at 68.8mm, 100 ISO 1/8th, Power O.I.S. on.

 

Panasonic Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 shooting modes

The Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 offers an impressive array of shooting modes including fully manual exposure and Aperture and Shutter Priority modes as well as Program Auto and Intelligent Auto. Additionally the mode dial has two custom positions (replacing the earlier Custom and MyScene modes) and 3D photo mode.

Intelligent Auto combines Panasonic's latest technologies to deliver a pretty foolproof experience. Like earlier models, these include Intelligent ISO and Scene Detection which both do a good job of figuring out what you're trying to take and whether the subject's in motion. In practice this works very well, with the camera automatically recognising and switching between portraits, landscapes, close-ups, night scenes (with or without people) and sunsets. If Face Recognition is enabled and spots a previously registered under-three year old, it'll switch to Baby mode, and if a night scene is recognised without a tripod, the camera can opt for the Handheld Night Shot mode. The camera's also good at detecting motion and increasing the sensitivity if necessary to maintain a quick shutter to avoid blurring - great when photographing unpredictable children, although obviously the quality reduces quickly at higher ISOs.

Turning the dial to SCN lets you choose from 17 Scene Presets (one fewer than the ZS20 / TZ30, the missing one being High Speed Video) which include Handheld Night Shot and the new HDR and Panorama modes. Unlike the High Dynamic mode on its predecessor (which is now relocated to the Creative Control section), the new HDR mode actually takes three different exposures and combines them into one.

 
Panasonic Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 Panorama Shot


Landscape format, >360 degrees, original 7840 x 864 - 6.8 Megapixels.
 

New to the ZS15 / TZ25 is a Panorama scene preset, similar to the sweep panorama option on Sony's Cyber-shot cameras. You can choose from panning with the camera held horizontally or vertically, but unlike Sony the ZS15 / TZ25 seems happy to capture a full 360 degree panorama and sometimes, as in the example above, even goes beyond 360 degrees. The maximum image size is 8000x1080 pixels in landscape mode or 1440x8000 in portrait mode, so the total resolutions of around 8 and 11.5 Megapixels aren't going to win any detail contests. Depending on how much you wobble, the camera may need to crop some of that down to an even smaller image and when objects are closer than a few metres it can take several attempts to get a successful sweep.

A new Creative Control position on the mode dial, offers the choice of Expressive, Retro, High Key, Low Key, Sepia, Mono, High Dynamic, Toy, Miniature and Soft effects. Here's a selection showing some of the Creative Controls in practice.

Panasonic Lumix ZS15 / TZ25
Retro Creative Control
Panasonic Lumix ZS15 / TZ25
Sepia Creative Control
Panasonic Lumix ZS15 / TZ25
Toy Camera Creative Control
 

 

Panasonic Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 movie modes

While it lacks the 1080p HD video option of the ZS20 / TZ30, the ZS15 / TZ25 has been upgraded from its predecessors 720p Motion JPEG to 1080i AVCHD encoded video. Panasonic continues to offer the choice of two encoding formats but has dropped Motion JPEG in favour of the more efficient MP4 codec. So the Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 now lets you choose between AVCHD or MP4, with Panasonic recommending the former for best quality results or playback on HDTVs, and the latter for extensive editing or uploading.

With AVCHD there are two recording modes; FSH records 1080i at 50 or 60 fps (region dependent) and SH records 720p at 50 or 60 fps both these modes encode at an average bitrate of 17 Mbits/s. Then with MP4 there's 1080p25 (or 30 depending on region) at 20Mbits/s and 720p25 at 10Mbits/s. Finally MP4 encoding also offers a VGA (640x480) mode at 25 or 30 fps.

Panasonic quotes a maximum continuous recording time in all modes of a second short of 30 minutes, though this restriction which is due to European VAT regulations is often not enforced outside Europe and in those regions you may get longer continuous recording times in some modes.

Like its more expensive and well-equipped sibling, the ZS15 / TZ25 has a dedicated movie record button on the top panel next to the shutter release which starts recording regardless of the mode dial position. There's no manual exposure control, but with the dial on the Intelligent Auto position the ZS15 / TZ25 can choose from one of four scenes: portrait, landscape, macro and low light. Exposure compensation settings of plus or minus 2EV will also be maintained during movie recording.

You can use the zoom while filming and take a still shot, albeit at reduced 3.5 Megapixels resolution and in 16:9 aspect ratio. The ZS15 / TZ25 is fitted with a mono mic, rather than the stereo one on the ZS20 / TZ30 and it also lacks its more expensive sibling's High Speed Video scene mode.

Finally, Panasonic recommends using an SD card rated at Class 4 or faster for recording movies. Now let's see how it looks...


Panasonic Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 sample video 1: outdoors, sunny, handheld pan with optical zoom
Download the original file (Registered members of Vimeo only)

The Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 does a good job of ironing out wobbles at the wide angle setting, but at the 384mm telephoto larger movements translate into jitteriness. The sound of the almost silent zoom motor isn't picked up by the mono mic.

Panasonic Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 sample video 2: outdoors, sunny, tripod pan with optical zoom
Download the original file (Registered members of Vimeo only)

The ZS15 / TZ25 does an excellent job with the exposure on this tripod-mounted panning shot. Although it can't be disabled for tripod-mounted shooting, the stabilisation doesn't do any harm and the focus during the zoom is pretty solid and doesn't wander.

Panasonic Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 sample video 3: indoors, low-light, handheld pan
Download the original file (Registered members of Vimeo only)

There's not too much evidence of noise in this indoor low-light panning shot. The ZS15 / TZ25 is generally quick to react to light changes when situations demand it, but doesn't over-react and maintains a good exposure for the interior while panning past the windows in this shot.

 

Panasonic Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 handling

The ZS15 / TZ25 takes a little over two seconds after switching on to be ready to shoot. The two-speed zoom covers the entire range in a little over three seconds at the faster speed and has good nudge control. While recording movies the zoom is restricted to the slower, quieter speed which is actually a benefit. As I found with the Canon PowerShot SX240 HS, with a two-speed zoom it's easy to accidentally slip into the faster zoom mode, which can ruin your shot.

The Lumix ZS15 / TZ25's face detect AF in combination with face recognition makes it a good option as a family camera - it automatically switches to its Baby Scene mode for registered subjects less than three years old. The other AF options include 23-area AF, single area AF, Spot AF and AF Tracking. All these AF options work very well and the only criticism I'd make is it would be good to have the option of repositioning the single AF area away from the centre of the screen. The ZS20 / TZ30 can do this using the touch screen, and if you could do the same using the ZS15 / TZ25's four-way controller it would be almost as useful.

Menu navigation uses Panasonic's Q.Menu shortcut system which provides quick access to image size, sensitivity, white balance, AF area, drive mode, video quality and LCD screen brightness. The main menu is divided over three screens Rec, Motion Picture and Setup; a neat enough arrangement except that Rec, which includes things like picture size and quality, AF mode, face recognition and drive modes is spread over five screens which takes a lot of scrolling. That said, most of the more important settings here can be accessed much more easily from the Q.Menu.

     

 

The ZS15 / TZ25 has similar continuous shooting options as the ZS20 / TZ30. At full resolution you can shoot at 2 or 5 frames per second with continuous Autofocus and adjustable white balance and exposure. With the AF, white balance and exposure locked on the first frame the rate can be increased to 10 fps and at reduced 3 (compared with 5 on the ZS20 / TZ30) and 2.5 Megapixel resolutions the frame rate can be increased to 40 and 60fps respectively. Panasonic claims the ZS15 / TZ25 will keep going for 100 frames at the 2 and 5fps speeds and 4 frames at 10fps (compared with 10 frames on the ZS20 / TZ30).

To test the Lumix ZS15 / TZ25's continuous shooting capabilities I fitted it with a newly formatted Sandisk Extreme Pro UHS-1 card and timed the various modes. At 10fps the Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 fired off four frames in 0.41 seconds giving a rate of 9.75fps. In 5fps mode it fired a burst of five frames in a fraction over one second then settled down to a steady 2.2fps. In 40fps mode a silent electronic shutter takes over and the ZS15 / TZ25 shot a forty frame burst in .99 seconds. In 60fps mode the figures were 30 frames in .48 of a second. So the ZS15 / TZ25 is more or less spot on with the quoted figures in real life continuous shooting performance with the exception of the 5fps mode. Practically speaking, these short bursts are of limited use for capturing action sequences and it's disappointing that the 5fps rate can't be maintained for more that a few frames.

The Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 is fitted with a 12.1 Megapixel CMOS sensor measuring 1/ 2.3in. This is the first 'second string' Lumix Pocket Super-zoom to feature a CMOS sensor, as its predecessor, the ZS8 / TZ18 has a CCD sensor. Earlier Lumix models that have made the switch from CCD, like last year's ZS10 / TZ20 and the Lumix FZ100 have come under fire for poor image quality, but it looks like Panasonic has now resolved those issues and in all probability the ZS15 / TZ25 employs the same 12 Megapixel sensor as in the highly respected FZ150; indeed this could actually give the ZS15 / TZ25 an advantage over its pricier sibling which employs a new 14 Megapixel sensor. The maximum image size is 3000 x 4000 pixels and two JPEG compression settings - Standard and Fine - are available. At the Fine setting images are on average 3 to 5MB in size. The ISO range is 100 to 3200 and the shutter speed range is 15s to 1/4000.

To see how the quality of the Lumix ZS15 / TZ25 measures-up in practice, take a look at my Panasonic ZS15 / TZ25 quality and Panasonic ZS15 / TZ25 noise results pages, browse my Panasonic ZS15 / TZ25 sample images, or skip to the chase and head straight for my verdict.

 

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