To put it all out there at the top of the review, the FZ100 is the most impressive superzoom that money can buy right now. But speaking of money, its $500 asking price also makes it the most expensive superzoom by about $70. Some decent dSLR kits even sell for less. The FZ100 is an excellent camera, but read on to see if this premium superzoom is in your future.
Body and Design
Like any superzoom camera, the FZ100 looks roughly like a miniature dSLR, complete with a big lens out front, a contoured grip, a viewfinder (electronic, in this case), and a wealth of buttons, hotkeys and toggles. It’s an all-around well-built camera with an intuitive yet powerful control scheme.
The FZ100 is a tad heavier than most superzooms. It’s light enough to carry around your neck comfortably but solid enough to feel like it’s made to last. The battery door is sturdy, and the cavity accommodates a hefty lithium battery, with a reasonable battery life. A metal tripod threading sits to the left of the battery door.
The 24x (25-600mm) zoom lens looks large on the front of the camera and extends several inches from the body at the telephoto setting. Up on the crest of the camera, there’s a pop-up flash with a manual release, as well as a hot shoe and stereo microphone. A rubber plug-door on the left side of the camera covers an external microphone hook-up, mini-HDMI output, and USB connection.
The tilt-and-swivel 3-inch widescreen LCD is a great touch. It’s as vibrant as LCDs come and the hinge makes shooting from odd angles (like self-portraits or low-angle shots near the ground) especially convenient. Video buffs will appreciate that the high-def videos take up almost the entire screen, without the typical black-bar sandwich seen on standard 4:3 screens. The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is a welcome feature as always, especially on a camera with such a huge zoom range (holding it at eye-level minimizes hand-shake, so long range shots are crisper more often). The EVF is high-res and is free from the pixelation seen on cheaper EVFs.
As for the buttons, hotkeys, and toggles, the FZ100 has a few more than we’re used to seeing on a non-dSLR. On the rear, there’s the standard four-way pad, a quick-menu/delete button, toggles for playback mode and display info, an EVF/LCD toggle, an AF/AE lock, and a selection wheel. Up top, there’s a mode dial with 14 selections, the power switch, a burst-shooting hotkey, a video hotkey, and of course, a metal shutter release with the zoom tilter around the base. Rounding out the control scheme is a focus-mode selector on the left side of the lens, which switches between manual-focus and autofocus modes.
Performance and User Experience
The FZ100 performs like a $500 camera should: It’s snappy and intuitive, yet still chock-full of creative potential. Start-up is very quick, autofocus is fast and accurate (as it has been with all of the Panasonics I’ve seen this year), and shutter lag is barely noticeable once the focus is locked. The zoom extends and retracts quickly, though less so in video mode. Image stabilization is quite effective at the telephoto end, though blurriness due to hand-shake is inevitable every few shots.
Menus are responsive and easy enough to navigate. Canon’s interface still takes the cake as far as intuitiveness, but Panasonic is pretty good too. The hotkeys are useful, I never had to dig too deep in a menu to adjust what I wanted to, and the level of control is appropriate for a semi-intricate camera like this. The selection wheel in particular is a boon for adjusting settings in aperture and shutter priority modes, as well as controlling the manual-focus feature (which in itself is something you don’t see too often on a fixed-lens camera).
One of the FZ100’s marquee features is the 11-frame-per-second burst mode -- that’s with a mechanical shutter, not electronic, so these are full-quality shots. It’s a blast to use, and is exceptionally helpful for capturing fast moving subjects -- I captured small animals and hyperactive coworkers, but I think the most popular use would be to shoot sports. Though it doesn’t re-focus on every shot, it does re-focus five times per second, so if your object moves unpredictably (like a squirrel or youth soccer player), the shots are still relatively crisp and blur-free.
With that in mind, the FZ100 takes very good photos all around. It’s easy to point the camera and snap a crisp, well-exposed shot on the first try. Most shots are keepers. Colors seem a bit blueish to me, but it’s nothing that a little post-processing can’t correct. Shots at ISO 100 and 200 are very clear. Shots at 400 are still almost noise-free, though there’s a little bit of smearing at edges that can make colorful shots look a bit like a painting. This will irritate some pixel-peepers, or at least folks who like to regularly make prints larger than 8x10 inches, but it shouldn’t be a dealbreaker for most folks. Noise really creeps in at ISO 800 and shots at ISO 1600 are quite messy.
Despite the Live MOS sensor, I don’t get the impression that low-light performance is particularly notable. I got some solid shots indoors and in dim lighting, though it wasn't a guarantee and the darkest-set photos were almost always marred by noise. In any case, the MOS sensor doesn’t hurt, and like the overall image quality, the FZ100’s low-light shots are among the best you’ll get from a superzoom.
While I’m generally happy with the IQ, two things do bother me: One, the FZ35 took better photos. It maintained details better at higher ISOs, not by a huge margin, but it’s still frustrating to see a step backward for the sake of a higher megapixel count. Two, it’s expensive relative to the image quality. It’s quite good for having such a small sensor, and the extensive feature set justifies the price, but again, a few dSLRs go for less than the FZ100 and take significantly better shots.
Since a superzoom provides unmatched out-of-the-box versatility, the FZ100 could work for many, many types of photographers. Wildlife enthusiasts, tourists (though the bulk does make it more difficult to travel with), and most obviously, any amateur sports photographer. This is a perfect camera for parents of children in youth sports. The zoom lens is powerful enough to get close-ups from the stands, and the speedy burst mode combined with the equally quick autofocus should help capture great action shots with ease -- just point it down-field, hold down the shutter, and you’re bound to snap at least one or two keepers, even in difficult conditions.