Panasonic Lumix FZ72 Review - The Panasonic Lumix FZ72 features the largest zoom of any bridge camera, but does it deliver across the board? Find out in the What Digital Camera Panasonic Lumix FZ72 review
With manufacturers now capable of fitting increasing zooms in to smaller bodies, and the price of CSCs dropping, the superzoom bridge camera market is under threat from both the top and bottom.
The FZ72 distinguishes itself by delivering a world-first in the optical zoom department, and hopes in doing so to prove that the superzoom bridge camera market still has something to offer.
Panasonic Lumix FZ72 Review – Features
The primary defining characteristic of a super-zoom bridge camera such as the Panasonic Lumix FZ72 is the range of its zoom lens, and so inevitably there has long been a contest between the major super-zoom manufacturers to see who could achieve the lens with the greatest zoom range.
The title has gone back and forth between Olympus, Canon, Fujifilm and Panasonic for years, but now it looks like Panasonic may get to keep the trophy, because the FZ72 sports an almost ridiculous 60x zoom lens, fully 20 per cent bigger than its nearest rival. Surely the contest must end here?
That remarkable lens is a 3.58-215mm f/2.8-5.9 unit with aspherical elements, equivalent to 20-1200mm in 25mm terms, making it not only longer than any DSLR or CSC telephoto lens currently available, but also wider than most standard wide-angle lenses.
While the FZ72’s lens may be huge, it has a surprisingly small sensor. It’s a 1/2.3in MOS chip, the same size as most pocket compacts. Fortunately Panasonic has resisted the temptation to match the oversized zoom with oversized resolution, opting instead for a relatively restrained 16.1 megapixels, thus hopefully avoiding some of the problems associated with very small sensors.
Panasonic’s FZ cameras have always had above-average video recording capability, and the Panasonic FZ72 doubles as a high quality camcorder. It is capable of recording 1920×1080 full HD at 25fps (50i), in either AVCHD or MP4 formats.
It also features a new Wind Shield Zoom Microphone that greatly reduces the wind noise that plagues most built-in camera microphones, and also provides highly directional sound recording, very useful when shooting using the zoom lens. However it does lack the external microphone socket that pro filmmakers will be looking for.
As a bridge camera the Panasonic Lumix FZ72 features the usual range of manual exposure options, with a DSLR-style mode dial on the top plate offering program auto, aperture and shutter priority and full manual exposure, as well as a wide selection of scene modes and Creative Control filters and effects.
The range of shutter speeds is more limited than most current DSLRs, from 8 secs to 1/2000th, and aperture adjustment varies from three stops at wide and down to just one stop when zoomed in.
Viewfinder and screen
Like its predecessors the FZ72 is equipped with an electronic viewfinder. It’s a decent enough unit, with a 0.2in 460k dot display and a fast 60fps refresh rate, but even so it’s not really sharp enough for manual focusing. It also has a hard plastic surround, so watch out for scratches if you wear glasses.
The monitor is also surprisingly lacklustre for such a high-spec camera. It’s a fixed 7.5cm (3.0in) LCD screen with 460k dot resolution, rather than the fully-articulated screen found on some other FZ models.
Panasonic Lumix FZ72 Review – Design
Most bridge cameras are described as being “SLR-like”, but the Panasonic FZ72 takes that idea and runs with it. In both size and shape it could easily be mistaken for a mid-range DSLR, with a large handgrip on the front and a big textured grip area on the back.
The control layout too is reminiscent of a DLSR, with a large top panel mode dial, large well-spaced buttons and an adjustment wheel above the thumb rest. The FZ72’s shape is a radical departure for Panasonic, which has been using essentially the same body design for its FZ cameras for at least the last seven years. It’s a good-looking camera though, and the large size does make for comfortable handling.
The construction of the Panasonic FZ72’s body is all plastic, but the curvy shape makes it strong and the build quality is well up to Panasonic’s usual high standard, with tight panel seams and no creaking when squeezed. The only major metal component is the surround of the lens barrel.
Lens and connections
The FZ72’s battery hatch could be a bit stronger, but it fits tightly and latches securely, while the HDMI and USB connectors are hidden behind a secure rubber hatch. The tripod bush is metal, but it is positioned off-centre, which will annoy some macro photographers. As well as a powerful pop-up flash mounted over the lens, the FZ72 also has a hot shoe for attaching an external flash.
Having such a huge lens may make for an impressive and unique selling point, and it’s unquestionably an amazing technical feat, but as a photographic tool it does present certain problems. At maximum zoom it’s almost impossible to hold the camera steady enough to frame an accurate shot, especially with a moving subject.
Even the tiniest movement will mean that the subject slips out of the frame, and you will often spend valuable seconds hunting around trying to find a subject that has wandered out of shot. The FZ72 has a remarkably effective optical image stabilisation system which means that hand-held shots at full magnification are at least possible, but it’s far from easy. The ultra-wide end of the zoom range on the other hand is a joy to use, providing sweeping wide-angle panoramas with minimal distortion.
Panasonic Lumix FZ72 Review – Performance
Despite its size, and the size of that huge zoom lens, the Panasonic FZ72 is surprisingly light on its feet, although that statement does come with a couple of caveats. It can start up and take a picture in just under two seconds, which is pretty quick for this type of camera, and takes about the same time to shut down again.
In single-shot mode and recording only JPEGs it can maintain a shot-to-shot time of approximately 0.7 seconds, which is nice and quick, although with a slower class 6 memory card one does notice occasional lags as the data is written to the card.
This speed is thanks mainly to the excellent autofocus system, which works extremely well in most light levels and at most zoom ranges. However, and not too surprisingly, at maximum zoom it does take some time to achieve focus, and can sometimes fail to lock on to moving subjects. To be fair though it does succeed more times than it fails.
JPEG and Raw
The only real problem with the Panasonic FZ72’s performance comes when shooting JPEG+Raw. Even using a fast Panasonic class 10 memory card, surely ideal conditions, after the first two frames the shot-to-shot time drops to around five seconds, which is very slow.
Shooting at anything over 1600 ISO causes the camera to slow down dramatically too, even in JPEG-only mode, due to the heavy noise reduction. Ironically noise at high ISO settings is a major issue for the FZ72, as we’ll see later.
There’s no problem with battery duration, which is surprising considering that it’s powered by a relatively puny 895mAh li-ion rechargeable. Despite the strain of shifting all that glass around, after over 200 test shots, plus several long video clips and a lot of mucking about with the menu system, the battery level indicator was still showing a full charge. Panasonic claims 400 shots per charge, and we have no reason to disbelieve that figure.
Panasonic Lumix FZ72 Review – Image Quality
Colour and white balance
Colour reproduction is largely a function of image processing, and Panasonic’s well-proven Venus Engine is certainly up to the task. In the standard setting colours are bright and punchy, and just a little more saturated than they probably should be, but the result is a bright, eye-catching picture.
Switching to the Vivid setting produces even more saturation, but the Natural setting, as the name suggests, produces very neutral, natural-looking results. Automatic white balance copes well with a full range of daylight conditions, from early morning to late evening, and the various pre-sets are also very accurate. The camera lacks a fluorescent light setting, but the automatic setting coped well with all types of artificial light.
As with colour reproduction, exposure metering is pretty much flawless, coping well with most normal daylight conditions, including shooting into the sun and at a bright sky scene. The tonal range is excellent despite the limited dynamic range of the small sensor, although on very high contrast shots there were blown highlights and a lack of shadow detail.
The multi-zone average metering was so accurate we seldom needed to use the optional spot metering. However one problem we did notice was a purple bloom around very bright specular highlights. This is often mistaken for chromatic aberration, but is actually caused by charge leakage between adjacent photocells, a problem common to most small high-resolution sensors.
In terms of actual recorded detail, the FZ72 performs slightly less well than we had hoped. Although it’s less than some current compact cameras, 16 megapixels is still a lot of resolution, but nevertheless the actual amount of fine detail is not that great.
The problem may be that the image is undergoing a lot of processing to eliminate noise and optical distortion, which removes some detail, but the culprit may also be the lens, which simply isn’t as capable of resolving very fine detail as a less powerful zoom might be. Zoom lens design, especially one as radical as this one, is always a compromise between size and quality, and in this case quality has lost out.
While many modern compacts are capable of shooting at 12,800 ISO, Panasonic has limited the FZ72 is to 3200 ISO, and wisely so. As we’ve said many times, 1/2.3in sensors are very prone to image noise, especially in low light conditions, and this proves to be the case here.
There are obvious signs of noise reduction at 800 ISO, and the image quality at 3200 ISO is very poor. There’s no obvious noise as such, but the noise reduction processing has removed so much fine detail and introduced so many artefacts that all fine detail is wiped out. It is possible to extend the sensitivity to 6400 ISO, but it’s really not a good idea.
When it comes to the final evaluation of the FZ72, the crucial question is whether or not that huge lens is up to the job. The answer is a qualified yes, but only just. A lens like this is a jack-of-all-trades, but is unfortunately a master of none. Yes, it can shoot very wide angle scenes equivalent to a 20mm lens, but the processing engine is obviously correcting for a lot of optical distortion and chromatic aberration, which reduces final image quality.
Likewise it can shoot incredible telephoto shots, but images shot at this magnification lack contrast and colour depth, and show similar signs that chromatic aberration has been corrected in processing. The FZ72 is a great camera if you often need extremes of both wide angle and telephoto, but don’t expect to see the kind of results you’d get by using a dedicated wide-angle lens, or a 600mm prime with a teleconverter.
Of course it is a lot cheaper than those two options, but when it comes to image quality you get what you pay for.
Panasonic Lumix FZ72 Review – Verdict
The race between manufacturers, or rather between their respective marketing departments, to sell more cameras by printing ever bigger numbers on the box, has led to some impressive technical innovation over the years, with incredibly high-resolution sensors and ever-more-powerful zoom lenses. However this has not always resulted in better cameras.
Small over-powered sensors are prone to image noise, and beyond a certain limit very long zoom lenses become unwieldy and difficult to use. Unfortunately the Panasonic Lumix FZ72 is well beyond that limit. While having the equivalent of a 1200mm lens might seem like a good idea on paper, in practice it’s very difficult to get a satisfactory shot under real-world conditions.
The camera’s excellent image stabilisation and lightning-fast AF system certainly help, but it’s almost impossible to aim the camera accurately or steadily enough to frame the shot at full zoom, and if you’re not going to be able to use the full potential of that enormous focal length, you’ll be better off saving some money and getting a camera with a less boundry pushing lens.
Panasonic Lumix FZ72 Review – Sample Image Gallery
These are just a small selection of images captured with the Panasonic Lumix FZ72. For a full range of images, including ISO shots of the What Digital Camera diorama, visit the Panasonic Lumix FZ72 sample image gallery.