It’s an almost-ultracompact camera that uses new optical tech to keep the 8x zoom lens small, but you should see it go when you need to take a quick shot.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZR1 at a glance:
- Small and very light
- 8x zoom lens
- Focuses quickly with almost no lag time
- Lots of creative modes and options
- Mediocre image quality
- Weak flash
- LCD monitor hard to see in sunlight
- No eye-level viewfinder
Who it’s for
Snapshooters, vacation and travel shooters who photograph fast-moving subjects (like pets and kids) and don’t want to carry a big rig.
Approx. $280; available in Silver, Red, Black, and Blue.
There are so many compact cameras out there. How does one decide among them? For me, one of the biggest issues is performance: Will it take a picture the instant I press the shutter release, or do I have to wait a second, by which time someone will have blinked or run out of the picture? Other features include image quality, manual exposure and focus override abilities, and autofocus and auto exposure accuracy. I have yet to find a palm-sized camera that meets all of these criteria.
Then came the Panasonic DMC-ZR1. “Why, of all compact cameras, should I review this?” I asked the PR flacks. “Try it and you’ll see” they said. The camera sports an 8x optical zoom lens with a 25-200mm (35mm equivalent) f/3.3-5.9 that Panasonic says is the world’s first lens to have 0.3mm spherical and aspherical lens elements, which contributes to its compact design. They claim a fast start-up time and, more importantly, a responsive shutter release and virtually no delay. This I had to see for myself.
In the field
The ZR1 is very small, but its brushed-aluminum-like polycarbonate body has a solid feel. Flick the minuscule on-off switch on and the camera springs into action in a hurry—around a second. Controls are minimal, although I wish the Q Menu, which quickly accesses frequently-used features such as ISO, white balance, and shake reduction, were closer to where the thumb typically rests while shooting.
A mode selection wheel atop the camera moves you from iA (Intelligent Auto, which analizes what’s in front of you and selects the best scene mode to regular shooting) to My Scenes (where you can choose from a small selection of scene modes) to SCN (where you can get to all of the scene modes), to movie mode to audio note-taking. The difference between My Scenes and SCN may be lost on some users as there is much overlap. However, you can quickly toggle between two modes by setting My Scenes on one mode, and SCN on another.
High-Grain B&W mode is creative but yields a much smaller 3MP image. Better to use the “black and white” in the color settings.
While you can adjust flash and EV, that’s as manual as this camera will let you go so if you’re a traditionalist grounded in exposure basics, this may not be the camera for you. But it does offer multiple color modes, an effective stabilizer, a burst rate that zoomed along at 10 fps when shooting in 3MP or 2.3 fps at full resolution.
Advanced users can select the slowest shutter speed so if it gets too dark, the camera will lock up instead of letting you shoot a shaky shot. The 2.7-inch monitor was unremarkable: at 230,000 dots resolution is average; viewing images in bright sunlight was nearly impossible—which is unfortunately typical of compact camera monitors.
Out of the box, the ZR1’s performance is typical of a point-and-shoot camera: Even when I pressed the shutter release halfway down to pre-focus, the camera hesitated for as long as a second before triggering the shutter. But after burrowing through the mode menus I found the Pre AFs Q-AF setting. Selecting Q-AF was like putting a car into overdrive: Suddenly, I had a speed demon on my hands.
At 25mm, the ZR1 focused as close as an inch from the front of the camera. Macro at full telephoto didn’t let you get this close.
In Q-AF, the camera snapped into focus within a fraction of a second. When I pre-focused then pressed the shutter release the rest of the way down, the camera responded instantly and I was able to capture many more decisive moments. So, I’d recommend when setting up this camera is to turn on Q-AF, and keep it there.
I found focus itself to be reliable and recommend using the Face Detection technology whenever photographing people.
The flash is weak, and is basically useless beyond 10 feet. At lower speeds, even shooting a subject a few feet away yielded unacceptably dark results with worse results when shooting in the telephoto range. Shooting at ISO 400 or higher helped increase the flash range, but this also increased grain. Again, that’s a typical performance for a compact camera flash.
When you zoom the lens, an LCD indicator tells you if you are at 1x (25mm), 2x, 4x, etc. This is a nice convenience.
Despite its high pixel count, I’d call this a moderate resolution camera because of the noise. I would not recommend using it at speeds faster than ISO 200 if you plan on making 8x10-inch prints. If you plan on making 4x6-inch prints with an occasional 8x10, the overall image quality should be sufficient. In general, stay away from dark shooting situations.
The 720p HD movies looked good, although the internal-only microphone picked up handling noise.
Another contributing factor to image quality is the zoom lens. It is amazingly small, and at its wider settings is outstanding. However, when I zoomed it out to its full 8x extension, images were on the soft side when handheld—even with anti-shake turned on—and lower in contrast. On a tripod, image quality was still low contrast but somewhat sharper.
Zoom range: At 25mm, image quality is excellent. Handheld shots seem a bit soft and shaky, despite image stabilization, at 200mm.
Despite its diminutive size, the ZR1 is loaded with bells and whistles. Some of the scene modes are novel, such as the “Pinhole” mode, which adds dramatic light falloff except for the center of the image or the “Transform” mode, which stretches or compresses images horizontally to make your subject appear fatter or thinner. There are modes that produce an image that appears to have been shot on grainy black-and-white film, and Hi Dynamic, which tames high-contrast scenes by lightening shadows while simultaneously darkening blown-out highlights.
HDR Mode: The ZR1 can be set to automatically lighten shadow areas, but oftentimes the results looked fake, like in this example. Note the not-so-smooth transition area at the tops of the trees.
Note that many of its scene modes can only be done in reduced resolution. The “Grainy Black and White” mode, for instance, produced images at half-resolution. (Standard black-and-white, which is a camera setting and not a mode, is at full resolution).
The lens can focus down to around 1.5 inches from the front of the lens (when in wide-angle setting; it’s more like 3-plus feet when shooting telephoto), an impressive range.
To keep the camera so small, something had to give, and that would be lens speed and an eye-level viewfinder (electronic or otherwise). I would only use full telephoto in bright daylight since the small f/5.9 aperture lets very little light in, forcing a slower shutter speed which in turn will cause camera shake.
While it’s not well suited for serious hobbyists, the ZR1 is an excellent snapshot camera that will almost guarantee you perfect exposures. It is amazingly compact for a camera with an 8x zoom lens and while image quality is less than stellar at 8x, it’s still quite a technical feat. The ZR1 has plenty of creative mode settings so you can have fun with its different color and black-and-white settings. Its quick responsiveness means you are more likely to capture those decisive moments that most other compact cameras would miss. It’s a good travel camera for snapshots. Panasonic has packed a lot of camera into a very small, reasonably-priced package.