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More megapixels isn't always better—that's the motto Panasonic is taking with the compact zoom ZS50 camera. While there's a lower number of megapixels on the ZS50 from the older ZS40, that move is designed to bump up the low light performance, and it appears to be a change for the better.
The Panasonic ZS50 packs a nice 30x optical zoom intro a compact camera. Unlike most compact cameras, the ZS50 hasn't axed the viewfinder, and there's also a nice control ring around the lens. But can the ZS50 still snap solid photos? Is the camera worth all of the $399 price tag? We set out for a Panasonic ZS50 review to find out.
Body & Design
The Panasonic ZS50 is a true compact zoom, weighing just over a half pound. The camera is about the size of a typical point-and-shoot, though the control ring around the lens and the viewfinder adds a little to the depth, making the camera 1.34” deep total. There's a small grip on the front that helps make the compact size a little easier to hold. It will slip easily into a bag for travel photography, and it's light enough to shoot with all day. Most compacts have done away with the viewfinder, but the Panasonic ZS50 didn't eliminate the feature that makes composing shots easier. The resolution of the electronic viewfinder is excellent. It's a little small compared to viewfinders found on DSLRs, but it's a nice feature, especially when most compacts don't have one at all. The viewfinder has a sensor that detects when your face is against it, so you don't need to press a button to swap between using the viewfinder and LCD screen.
Along with the viewfinder, there's a nice 3” LCD screen, taking up most of the space on the back of the camera. There's also a button to swap between the two, or you can simply let the eye sensor do it's job.
The menu arrows on the back of the camera double as a second control wheel, with shortcuts for exposure compensation, flash, burst, self-timer and focus options. There's also a second function button along with playback and wi-fi controls.
At the top of the camera, there's a dedicated record button for video and the on/off button next to the shutter release, which is of course circled by a zoom toggle. There's also a mode dial for easily switching between the options.
Overall, the ZS50 has a great, compact design; however, some of the more advanced features are a bit harder to navigate through. On the default settings, the front control wheel and back control wheel will adjust aperture and shutter speed, but for ISO you have to dig through the full menu to adjust. You can change the defaults and adjust ISO with the back control wheel, but that leaves no easy way to adjust shutter speed. (Note: The manual says you can use the exposure compensation button to swap between controlling the shutter speed and aperture with the front ring, but this method didn't work on our test camera). It would be nice if you could use the back function button to swap between aperture and shutter speed, but that's not the case.
When you use manual focus, the front control ring becomes the focus control—but that leaves you without a way to adjust your aperture. So to shoot with both manual focus and manual modes, you'll need to first set your exposure settings, then switch to manual focus—you'll need to turn autofocus back on if you need to adjust the exposure settings further. While there aren't an abundance of scenarios that require both manual exposure and manual focus, this set-up does make it hard for certain situations like photographing the moon at night.
The Panasonic ZS50 is a compact camera with a sturdy-feeling construction. The viewfinder and front control ring are both excellent features to have. I would have liked to see a few more shortcuts (or simply the use of the function button) to adjust the more advanced options like manual mode and manual focus, but the design is still pretty solid for the category.
User Experience & Performance
The Panasonic ZS50 has a mode for pretty much everything. Even if you don't know how to use the camera's manual modes, the ZS50 has more automated modes than most other cameras in the category. There's an excellent High Dynamic Range mode that does a good job of keeping the sky a bright blue. A “through the glass” mode helps cut back on reflection when photographing through glass, like at a museum. There's also two baby modes, one for just shooting pictures and another for imprinting the child's age on the photograph.
The intelligent auto mode will automatically select a scene mode for you. While that's nothing new, there's also an intelligent burst mode, where the camera selects how fast to shoot repeated images based on the scene.
While all those features are great for getting good performance with little experience, the ZS50 has a full selection of manual modes and even RAW shooting. That's great news for enthusiasts that want to pick up a small zoom camera for travel, or anyone eager to learn how to take better photos. Keep in mind though that manual modes on any compact tend to be a bit more limited than with a DSLR or mirrorless camera—the maximum aperture on the ZS50 for example is f/8.
Along with a pretty great selection of mode options, the ZS50 packs in quite a bit of speed into a small camera. The autofocus locks on quickly, in a matter of milliseconds. My single shots were only about a half second apart in manual focus, and there wasn't a noticeable delay when switching the autofocus back on.
Burst speed hits up to 10 fps, which is excellent for the compact zoom category. That speed can be maintained for six photos before the camera needs to stop and process (or four photos in RAW format). The camera needs just about three seconds before shooting another full set again in JPEG, but add another ten seconds or so of processing if you choose to shoot in RAW. That's a pretty solid shooting speed for a compact camera.
The highlighting feature on the ZS50, though, is the 30x optical zoom lens. I expected to get some good telephoto photos, but I didn't expect the excellent macro capabilities. The camera focused on small objects closer to the lens than I anticipated it would. Add that to the 30x zoom and the ZS50 gets high marks for versatility.
The Panasonic ZS50 performed above and beyond what we expected, with solid speed, an excellent range of shooting options, and big versatility from macro to telephoto.
Contrary to popular belief, more megapixels isn't always better. In the case of a compact camera like the ZS50 with a smaller sensor, more megapixels creates more noise at higher ISOs. The ZS50 actually has fewer megapixels than the older version, in an attempt to to enhance the low light images. That strategy proved to work pretty well—noise is fairly low for the category and price point. Noise hits at around ISO 800 and even photos at ISO 3200 aren't too bad, though you may not want to blow them up into an 8x10. The highest setting, ISO 6400, is best avoided—along with large amounts of noise, there's a noticeable yellow and purple fringing.
Thanks to the solid performance at high ISOs, the SZ50 fairs pretty well in low light scenarios. How about when lighting isn't a problem? Colors are good, with generally accurate saturation. The auto white balance worked well in most scenes as well.
The macro on the ZS50 took me by surprise. The detail on close ups is excellent compared to similar cameras, with the ability to get pretty close to the subject as well.
The sharpness level on the ZS50 is about average, if not better than average. But while most cameras loose sharpness when zooming, the ZS50 appears to perform pretty evenly across the board. Since the highlighting feature is that 30x optical zoom, that's a great thing.
Videos are captured in 1080p HD with a nice 60 fps frame rate. Footage is smooth and not choppy, while still well-detailed. While the video quality is excellent, like most compact zoom cameras, the camera makes an audible noise when zooming, which of course appears in the video. But, the camera will refocus after zooming. While not flawless, the videos stand up well compared to other compact cameras at the same price point.
Panasonic ZS50 Sample Images
The Panasonic ZS50 is a wonderfully versatile compact camera, with solid images from extreme close-ups to telephoto. The ZS50 handles low light well and captures a pretty good video for a compact camera as well. The available settings and options are more diverse then most, giving even novice users a range of options to get the shot right. All of that is wrapped up in a sturdy feeling body, complete with a viewfinder and front control ring.
The Panasonic ZS50 is one of the top compact zoom cameras on the market right now. Is it perfect? Well, no. The use of manual settings is a bit crunched, since there aren't quite enough controls to easily work with manual mode and manual focus at the same time. Manual settings are a bit limited with a maximum aperture of f/8 as well—but, all of these downsides are likely to go unnoticed by the average consumer looking for a good travel camera.
The ZS50's closest competitor is the Sony HX90, with a 30x zoom and both an electronic viewfinder and control ring. Since the viewfinder is a pop-up, it doesn't have the automatic eye sensor that the ZS50 does. The HX90 also has a tilting LCD screen, however and a slighting larger buffer for the 10 fps burst speed. With an 18.2 megapixel sensor though, the HX90 will likely have a little more noise, though whether or not most users will notice is debatable.
The Nikon S9900 is similar, though with fewer features has a lower price point. There's a tilting LCD screen, but no viewfinder or control ring. Noise appears slightly higher, though not by too much. The S9900 also doesn't have RAW. The Olympus SH-1 is also more affordable but without several of the key features, using a touchscreen but no viewfinder or control ring, and only two of the four manual modes without RAW.
The versatility and image quality on the Panasonic ZS50 make it a great multi-purpose consumer camera, as well as a good camera for travel or for parents.