Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ38 / FZ35
Written by Gordon Laing
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ38 / FZ35 verdict
Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-FZ38 / FZ35 may represent a fairly minor upgrade over its predecessor, but given that was one of the best super-zoom cameras of the past year, the new model has a great heritage to build on. So with the FZ38 / FZ35 you get a compact, lightweight super-zoom camera with 12 Megapixel resolution, a flexible 18x optically-stabilised range, HD video recording in the 720p format, support for RAW files, a medium-sized but good-looking 2.7in screen, manual controls and one of the best fully automatic modes on the market. It’s a lot of camera for the money.
The optical range of course remains the highlight here, and even though Panasonic has now become the ‘shortest’ super-zoom in the current pack, it remains extremely flexible in use. It starts with decent 27mm wide-angle coverage, and 18x later ends up at an equivalent of 486mm. Sure, that’s shorter than the industry-leading 26x range (26-676mm) of the Olympus SP-590UZ, but 486mm is still very serious telephoto and we never found any situations where it wasn’t long enough.
Super-zoom ranges often involve optical compromises, but any nasty artefacts like coloured fringing are digitally corrected by the FZ38 / FZ35 in-camera, leaving your JPEGs impressively clean – be sure to compare the difference this makes in our comparisons against the Canon SX20 IS on our results pages.
The ability to record RAW images is also a highlight of the FZ38 / FZ35 and gives its files greater flexibility than those from the SX20 IS, although don’t expect miracles in terms of detail and tonal range – the flexibility is more about adjusting things like White Balance and Noise Reduction after the event.
The FZ38 / FZ35’s body is also surprisingly small and light, which many will consider a key advantage, especially if you’re hiking or travelling light – unlike the relatively hefty SX20 IS, you’ll hardly notice you’re carrying it.
But all of these were available on its predecessor the FZ28, so what about the new features? The 2 Megapixel boost in resolution may record more detail than its predecessor in technical tests, but there’s not a significant difference in terms of real life detail.
Noise levels are roughly the same as before, and you’ll want to stick to 80 or 100 ISO for the best results. Even then, there’s a sprinkling of fine textures if you’re looking closely, and when increased to 200 ISO and beyond, there’s a steady decrease in fine detail. Like the SX20 IS, this is in line with most compacts these days though and you can see examples in our High ISO Noise Results page.
Arguably the most significant upgrade is having the choice of encoding formats for the 720p HD video. There’s the older Motion JPEG format which is easier to edit, or the newer AVCHD format which is not only roughly twice as efficient, but also supports longer total recording times. Motion JPEG is limited to clips lasting just over eight minutes when set to 720p, whereas AVCHD will keep recording until you run out of memory.
European FZ38’s are annoyingly restricted to a second under half an hour due to tax regulations, but given an FZ35 and a sufficiently big card, you could record hour’s worth of uninterrupted video. For example, we used an FZ35 to record a 45 minute interview, and it hardly even dented the battery life.
The new Creative Movie mode is also a surprising, but very welcome addition to the camera, allowing you to adjust the aperture and shutter for video. The small sensor and actual focal length may mean achieving a small depth-of-field is as tricky as it is for stills, but it’s still a nice facility to have and a benefit over Canon’s SX20 IS. The decent stereo mics are also a nice upgrade over the tiny mono mic of the earlier FZ28, as is the button which can start filming video in any mode – although revealingly, both have long been offered on the rival Canon super-zoom.
Panasonic’s claims over improved AF and stabilisation were also confirmed in our tests. The AF speed really is much faster than the earlier FZ28, and with Pre AF enabled, the FZ38 / FZ35 can snap onto most subjects with surprising swiftness. We also found the AF system searched less while filming video, but this may just be lucky footage. Moving on, the earlier optical stabilisation was already effective, but the new Power OIS system gave us an extra stop of compensation, allowing us to handhold the camera when fully zoomed-in at shutter speeds as slow as 1/30 of a second.
Wrapping-up the other new additions, the earlier FZ28 may have also sported HD output, but most will be pleased to see a switch from analogue component to HDMI on the FZ38 / FZ35.
So far so good, but it’s not all great news. First, it’s a little disappointing to find the screen still fixed in position and sporting the same size and resolution as before. Don’t get us wrong, it’s one of the best-looking 2.7in / 230k models we’ve seen, but when cameras like Panasonic’s own TZ7 / ZS3 get a 3in / 460k screen, and Canon’s PowerShot SX20 IS has a fully-articulated display, it’s hard not to be a bit jealous. This surely has to be the last iteration of the FZxx series to use a fixed 2.7in / 230k screen.
Like its predecessor, the FZ38 / FZ35 also still has a tendency to select smaller apertures than it needs to in Automatic or Program modes. It may have avoided the minimum f8 aperture, but one look at our Sample Images Gallery will reveal a large number of pictures at f5.6 under bright conditions.
This is a problem because optical diffraction begins to noticeably soften the FZ38 / FZ35’s images at f5.6, and significantly reduces them at f8 (see our results page for examples). F4 delivers far better results on the FZ38 / FZ35 and we’d really like to see the camera selecting that in Auto and Program modes, just like its arch rival from Canon. As it stands, anyone wanting to get the sharpest image from this camera will need to nudge the joystick to shift the aperture in Program, or manually select the desired setting in Aperture Priority.
We also feel slightly churlish penalising any company which is considerate enough to supply a lens hood, but like its predecessor, the FZ38 / FZ35’s hood is impractical for two reasons: first it’s too large to reverse over the barrel for convenient transportation, and secondly you need to manually rotate it to the correct position before tightening a thumbscrew, which introduces the possibility of alignment error. We should also mention that unlike Canon’s SX20 IS, the lens cap still impedes the lens as it extends during power-up which can be annoying.
To be fair though, these are all fairly minor downsides. The bottom line is the FZ38 / FZ35 for its minor upgrades is still an improvement overall on its predecessor, and that’s a good thing. Its biggest problem is extremely tough competition from Canon’s latest PowerShot SX20 IS, which brings us neatly to our comparison section.
Compared to Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
The FZ38 / FZ35’s biggest rival is the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS. Both cameras share 12 Megapixel resolution, optically-stabilised super-zooms with wide angle coverage, 720p video with stereo sound, full manual control and DSLR-styled bodies with HDMI ports, but beyond these, there’s pros and cons to each model.
Most obviously the SX20 IS has a slightly longer 20x zoom range, a slightly smaller but fully-articulated screen which allows comfortable composition at any angle, a flash hotshoe for mounting external Speedlites, and an electronic viewfinder with the same resolution but a bigger apparent size. Both cameras may have full manual control, but spinning the large thumb wheel of the Canon felt ergonomically superior to us than prodding the tiny joystick on the Panasonic. Finally, the Canon may be larger and heavier, but many will prefer its heft, along with the convenience of picking up spare AA batteries almost anywhere. It’s a small point, but the SX20 IS’s lens cap also won’t prevent the lens from extending, and its lens hood is more portable.
The FZ38 / FZ35’s optical range may be slightly shorter, but as seen on our Features page, it doesn’t make a significant difference in practice – and more importantly, the Panasonic digitally corrects the coloured fringing seen towards the corners in many of the Canon’s images. It’s also worth noting the maximum aperture of the FZ38 / FZ35 when zoomed-into 486mm is a brighter f4.4, compared to f5.7 of the SX20 IS from 460-560mm, and in our High ISO results, the Panasonic also had the edge above 400 ISO. We additionally found the FZ38 / FZ35’s stabilisation was approximately one stop more effective and the AF speed slightly faster.
Unlike the SX20 IS, the FZ38 / FZ35 also features RAW recording facilities, manual control over the exposure in the movie mode, a longer maximum exposure of 60 seconds, and some usable burst options, albeit either with a limited buffer or at a reduced resolution. Some will prefer its rechargeable Lithium Ion battery pack to the AAs of the SX20 IS.
The FZ38 / FZ35 is also a smaller and considerably lighter camera, weighing 414g with its battery compared to the 680g of the SX20 IS when fitted with four typical AA batteries. It additionally sports a slightly larger – albeit fixed – 2.7in screen which looks more vibrant in use. Finally, depending on the shop, the price of the FZ38 / FZ35 is a little cheaper than the Canon.
Previously, HD video was a key benefit the FZ28 had over the SX10 IS, but now Canon’s equipped the SX20 IS with the same movie quality, it’s become an even closer contest. As always you need to carefully think about which of the features described above will mean most to you in practice, for example the articulated screen and AA batteries of the Canon versus the RAW mode and fringe-correction of the Panasonic. One thing’s for certain though, the SX20 IS enjoys some key advantages over its predecessor and is set to become another best-seller. See our Canon PowerShot SX20 IS review for more details.
Compared to Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Canon’s PowerShot SX1 IS costs around one third more than the FZ38 / FZ35, but features two key advantages: 1080p video recording and fast 4fps continuous shooting which keeps firing until you run out of memory. Like the Panasonic, the SX1 IS also features RAW recording capabilities and an HDMI port. Let’s detail the differences.
As mentioned above, the key advantages of the SX1 IS are 1080p video and 4fps continuous shooting, but the camera also features a slightly longer 20x zoom range, a fully-articulated screen which matches the widescreen aspect of its HD movies, and a flash hotshoe for mounting external Speedlites. Both cameras may have full manual control, but spinning the large thumb wheel of the Canon felt ergonomically superior to us than prodding the tiny joystick on the Panasonic. Finally, the Canon may be larger and heavier, but many will prefer its heft, along with the convenience of picking up spare AA batteries almost anywhere. It’s a small point, but the SX1 IS’s lens cap also won’t prevent the lens from extending, and its lens hood is more portable.
In its favour, the FZ38 / FZ35 features two extra Megapixels, a screen and viewfinder which match the shape of its 4:3 still images, a more sophisticated automatic mode, longer maximum exposures of up to 60 seconds and automatic correction of coloured fringing. In our tests its stabilisation was approximately one stop more effective and the AF speed slightly faster. Crucially it’s also comfortably cheaper.
When the SX1 IS was launched alongside the SX10 IS, it boasted not just 1080p video and 4fps shooting, but also RAW and HDMI. Against the FZ38 / FZ35 it’s a closer battle as the Panasonic also has RAW, HDMI, and while its video may not be 1080p, it still looks good at 720p. So the choice really boils down to whether you want or need the faster continuous shooting and higher resolution movies. Also remember the SX1 IS’s widescreen monitor and viewfinder may be ideal when shooting HD movies, but show a relatively small image when shooting stills in the best quality mode. See our Canon PowerShot SX1 IS review for more details.
Compared to Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1
The Canon SX1 IS isn’t the only super-zoom camera with a CMOS sensor, fast continuous shooting and better than 720p video. Sony’s Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 also offers all of that and at a price that’s much closer to that of the Panasonic FZ38 / FZ35.
In its favour, the HX1 boasts much quicker 10fps continuous shooting (albeit for only ten frames and tying the camera up for a while, but still four times faster than the Panasonic), higher resolution HD movies (1440×1080 vs 1280×720), a larger 3in screen which vertically tilts, smile detection, and Sony’s unique Handheld Twilight, Anti Motion Blur and Sweep Panorama modes.
In its favour, the FZ38 / FZ35 features three extra Megapixels, RAW recording, longer maximum exposures of up to 60 seconds and automatic correction of coloured fringing. It’s also a little cheaper.
While many people considering the FZ38 / FZ35 will be most closely comparing it against the Canon SX20 IS, Sony’s Cyber-shot HX1 has gradually fallen in price to become an equally compelling rival. Certainly if you’re into action photography, it’s one of the best choices out there. See our Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 review for more details.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ38 / FZ35 final verdict
Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-FZ38 / FZ35 is the latest version of the company’s gradually evolving super-zoom camera. Like its predecessors, this year’s updates may only be minor, but since they’re building on what was already one of the best super-zooms around, it places the new model in an even stronger position.
Buy the FZ38 / FZ35 and you’ll get a compact, lightweight super-zoom camera with 12 Megapixel resolution, a flexible 18x zoom with excellent stabilisation and very quick autofocus, 720p HD video with the choice of encoding formats, support for RAW files, a medium-sized but good-looking 2.7in screen, manual controls, HDMI output and one of the best fully automatic modes on the market. It continues to be a highly compelling proposition.
But while the screen is good quality, it’s disappointing to find it’s the same size and resolution as before, and still stuck firm in position. Panasonic’s own Lumix TZ7 / ZS3 sports a larger and more detailed 3in / 460k display, while arch-rival the Canon SX20 IS has a fully-articulated (albeit slightly smaller) screen.
It’s very important to carefully consider the pros and cons of the Canon against the Panasonic, and think about how they’ll relate to your photographic requirements. We’ve detailed the differences above, and the Canon certainly looks strong with its articulated screen and flash hotshoe, but you may find the RAW mode, manual exposures for movies, effective fringe-correction and slightly superior AF and stabilisation capabilities of the FZ38 / FZ35 more useful. It is however interesting to note now the Canon has 720p movies, the Panasonic fitted with stereo sound and both feature HDMI ports, these rival super-zooms are growing ever-closer. Ultimately one doesn’t take a decisive overall lead over the other, and it boils down to comparing feature-sets and handling for yourself. Suffice it to say both are great super-zoom cameras.
While the Panasonic has the edge on continuous shooting and AF speed though, it’s far from an action camera if you’re into capturing quick sequences. If that’s your thing, then seriously consider Sony’s Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 or Canon’s PowerShot SX1 IS instead.
Should you decide the Panasonic FZ38 / FZ35’s feature-set suits you best though, you won’t be disappointed. Like its predecessor it delivers a compelling array of features for the money and easily comes Highly Recommended. Just ensure you compare it very closely with Canon’s SX20 IS.
(compared to 2009 super-zooms)
17 / 20
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