The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 is an impressive point and shoot camera that offers a huge number of features, combined with an excellent video mode and outstanding photo quality. I'll admit, I've never really dealt with the Panasonic line before, but I've always known that they had a decent reputation in terms of being mid-priced and easy to use, with good results. I just never considered owning one before. But after having the pleasure of testing the ZS3, I'm actually seriously considering deviating from my usual Canon loyalty. This is an excellent camera.
12x Optical Zoom in a Small Body
Perhaps the most surprising feature packed into this 10.1-megapixel camera is the 12x zoom lens. With a zoom that size, you'd think the body of the camera would be fairly large. But while the ZS3 is certainly larger than the credit card-sized models to which we're all becoming accustomed, it's still smaller than my Powershot from 2004. It's a purse camera, maybe a winter coat-pocket camera, but not a shirt pocket camera. Fine by me: the truth is that the slightly larger body is easier to navigate anyhow, since the buttons aren't all squished together like they tend to be on smaller models. Also, it feels good and solid, as it should: the body is made from all metal, and is built solidly, with even the hinges on the battery cover (a notorious weak spot) feeling good and tight. A slightly wider grip on one end of the body gives you a sure hand-hold, and you don't end up putting your fingers all over the screen like you do on smaller cameras.
Performance: An Intelligent Camera
So, the camera body is a pleasure. What about the actual shooting? When I first turned on the ZS3 and started perusing the menus, I was a little put off by the vast array of scene modes it offers. There are two full screens of them. Do you really need two baby modes? I don't know that anyone will use everything that's offered here, but having said that, I did have tons of fun with the special scene modes that are built in along with the usual suspects. Right next to Sunset, Snow, Fireworks, and Night Portrait, the ZS3 offers the unique options of Pinhole and Film Grain. These were actually the first things I tried out, and I loved the results. Basically, while there might be more scene modes here than you need, or will ever use, that's probably not something to complain about, especially since they seem really intelligently programmed.
Speaking of intelligent programming, this camera offers two variations of Auto shooting: regular Auto and Intelligent Auto (iA). Regular Auto works like the Auto we know so well (meaning, it automatically selects the settings based on the scene you're shooting), while iA works by using Panasonic's "Intelligent Scene Selector" and picks from six shooting pre-sets based on shooting conditions. The results are excellent: the camera does a great job of recognizing a scene, locking focus, and exposing well. What I liked best about the auto modes on this camera (both of them) is that they don't fire the flash unless absolutely necessary. As someone who avoids flash photography except when it's completely essential, I typically have to turn off the flash manually and use P mode rather than Auto on my point and shoot cameras, since most auto modes are flash-happy. Not so here. Furthermore, I've always heard that the drawback to Panasonic image sensors was their low light performance, and that they were exceptionally grainy compared to the competition. If that was ever true, they must have fixed it, because the ZS3 takes gorgeous low light photos, with a lack of grain and true-to-life color that is really impressive.
Performance of the ZS3 in general is quick and responsive: I did experience some wait time while the camera "wrote" images each time I shot, but I believe this is because I was saving photos to the internal memory. The test camera I was working with didn't come with a memory card, but I'm willing to bet a high speed card would solve this problem. Even with flash, recovery time is fast, and the LCD reacts admirably except in very dark conditions, where it slows somewhat (as is to be expected).
AVCHD Video Mode
The other major selling point of the ZS3 is that it's supposed to have a very advanced video mode. HD video capture and movie shooting performance that is supposed to rival that of camcorders is an impressive claim, and the ZS3 certainly does deliver smoother, higher quality video than many other cameras attempting to do double duty. With that said, it records in high quality AVCHD as well as traditional MPEG, and the AVCHD is kind of a pain. I don't know that there are any video editing applications out there that work well with this format. So it's kind of a moot point. You can view them just fine, but editing them is another story. With that said, the MPEG performs well, and the 720p resolution is excellent, and the top-mounted microphone is a huge plus for audio quality. In short, the ZS3 could arguably compete with low-end camcorders in terms of video recording, and that's saying kind of a lot for a camera that does stills, too.
Conclusion: An Amazing Little Camera
In conclusion, the ZS3 is a pretty amazing little camera, with a solid, easy to use body, amazing picture quality, some fun options, and a convenient and high quality video mode. The only caveat I'd place on this one is the sheer amount of options available. Total novice users may be floored by what is here: the huge list of Scene modes, combined with iA versus regular Auto, combined with Program Auto, six Auto Focus modes, white balance, ISO, exposure, etc . it could easily be overwhelming (and too much camera) for someone who just wants to point and shoot. It's somewhat ironic that the camera is loaded with so much but still lacks a full manual mode, which makes you wonder exactly who the target audience is. I suppose it's someone who likes to play with new settings but isn't quite sure how to operate a full manual, or doesn't want to? I'm not sure, but I do know that for sheer picture quality alone this one is worth the price if you don't mind navigating (or ignoring half of) the available options. The end result (the photo) is what matters most, and the ZS3 delivers impressively.