We've seen a lot of innovation in the consumer point-and-shoot market over the past year or so, from capturing homemade action sequences at 1000fps to shooting 720p video underwater. Many of these innovations are borderline overkill, like 12 megapixel sensors wedged in behind cheap lenses, so we're happy to report that, despite its impressive specs, the latest superzoom shooter from Panasonic is respectable all the way through. The DMC-ZS3 doesn't offer any crazy features that are completely unheard of elsewhere, nor does it suffer from any rock and roll-style excesses for the sake of arbitrary "world's greatest" claims. It's just a solid camera, but at $400 is it the sort of thing you want in your pocket, capturing your family's precious moments this summer?
Had we been able to secure one in time (we tried, we really did), the DMC-ZS3 would have tied Panasonic's other summer hit, the DMC-TS1, as the most expensive camera at $400. That's a lot of cheddar when most people get by with a $150ish compact and/or step up to something in a nice SLR. Despite that it doesn't exactly feel high-end. The camera is definitely hefty, but its plastic body doesn't really exude the feeling of solidity and durability that you might like from something this costly yet is almost guaranteed to get dropped at some point.
That's not to say that it feels flimsy, just not exactly $400 solid. That said, the mode dial on top with its knurled edge feels decidedly high-end, and of course there's the beefy brushed metal ring around the Leica lens -- this camera's main attraction. It's a 12x unit and is about the most usable we've seen in a compact, starting at a properly wide 25mm equivalent and going all the way up to 300mm. That's a huge range for a compact and, more impressively, the optical stabilization means both ends are quite usable.
The camera's menus are reasonably well grouped; not as user-friendly as those in the Samsung SL820, but quicker to wade through. Even speedier is the "Q.MENU" mode, which gives quick (with a capital 'Q') access to all the exposure settings you can tweak here, like white balance, ISO, exposure timing, and aspect ratio. A full manual this ain't, but you didn't really think that it would be, did you?
Also buried in the menus are some interesting additions beyond the typical point-and-shooter mold, most notable being a face recognition system that not only recognizes faces in general, but can identify specific faces. You can save someone's mug and assign a name to it, which the camera will display when that face is recognized. Then, in a group shot, the camera can be set to give focal priority to those people recognizes, and you can search photos by who is in them. It's a fun feature, but, honestly, is pretty useless. We'd have liked to see a timer mode that doesn't take a picture until the photographer is in the shot and, preferably, smiling.
Image and video quality
The DMC-ZS3's 10.1 megapixel CMOS sensor isn't the highest resolution thing out there, but of course more important is image quality, and overall we're impressed with that produced here. Like all compacts it's at its best in bright light, taking clear and crisp images at both ends of that 25mm - 300mm range. Optical image stabilization is quite effective when taking stills, and after a few days of playing with this camera we'd forgotten entirely about concentrating, holding our breath, using a short timer, or any other tricks we might typically employ to get a clear shot on a powerful lens. Yes this is a cliche, this camera lives up to the point-and-shoot moniker.
Lower-light pics are somewhat less memorable, but still good. Maximum ISO here is 1600, but 400 has a good amount of noise if you look closely. Colors are still bright and accurate, though, and images with lengthier exposures are again kept sharp thanks to the optical stabilization.
Videos are captured at 720p, and a set of stereo mics on the top ensures you'll get good quality audio to match -- assuming you don't accidentally put your finger over one or both, which is easy to do. Video quality is quite good, on par with the best we've seen in a compact, getting us a little closer to the point where a dedicated camcorder becomes overkill for casual filming. With two flavors of video encoding you can choose to either fill your memory card quickly with Motion JPEG vids, or spend more time later converting AVCHD videos into something your video editing suite can handle (a quick trip through Handbrake usually does the trick). Going with the latter encoding gives you about one fourth the video size (31 minutes on a 2GB card vs. about 8) without any drop in visual quality, and regardless which mode you choose videos can be as long as you have the flash to hold 'em.
The camera does allow optical zooming while filming, and the motor on the lens makes very little noise. The stabilization can't cure all shake at full zoom, but given the lack of a big grip and the size of the body we found video to be quite stable at its full extent.
The Panasonic DMS-ZS3 is a lot of camera in a compact but not exactly small package. It impressed in every situation we could throw at it, and that fantastic lens on the front makes it far more flexible than your average point-and-shoot. But, it's not for everyone, with that $400 price being the first and biggest disadvantage. For about $150 less you can get a quite comparable Panasonic DMC-TZ5 or take home the Samsung SL820 that recently won our shootout.
So then, this is one of those "if you have the means" situations. If you do, this camera is quite choice.