Is the Panasonic DMC-ZS3 the Best Travel Digital Camera?

Panasonic was kind enough to send me a DMC-ZS3 to test out during my recent trip to Argentina.  At first I wasn’t too excited to try out a new camera.  I really like my Nikon S600 for its wide-angle lens and small compact body.  It’s easy to us and takes good photos.  I don’t like to mess with success.

I took a look at the DMC-ZS3 anyway and was quickly excited to try it out when I saw some of the specs: 25mm wide-angle lens, 12x zoom, and best of all, 720p HD video recording.  OK Nikon.  You’re sitting this one out.

I played with the camera a bit and noticed a few things right off the bat.  It’s a little larger than most Point & Shoot cameras, the black metal body looks pretty slick, and the menus and settings are pretty easy to navigate.  In reality, those are probably the top three things shoppers look at when purchasing a camera.

Picture Quality

Technology has moved incredibly fast over the last few years and even the cheapest cameras take great photos.  If you are shopping for a new camera and you’re spending hours browsing the internet comparing photos to see which camera takes the highest quality photos, you’re wasting your time.  They may not be identical, but nearly every camera being produced takes great photos.  I don’t care if it’s $99 or $499, you are going to be hard pressed to find much difference in picture quality between them.

The DMC-ZS3 is no exception.  The pictures look great, just like I’d expect.  Shots taken around town, indoors, and other normal photo situations look great but don’t exactly stand out above any other consumer grade camera.  Where the DMC-ZS3 shines is in harsh lighting conditions.  Maybe it’s the high quality Leica lens that has been coated in ways only professional glass ever receives, or maybe it’s the great 10megapixel sensor.  I’m not sure, but either way, it excels in harsh light.

P1000081

Many cameras couldn't handle the exposure range and flare from the sun, but the DMC-ZS3 does so wonderfully in this photo from Ushuaia, Argentina

The Lens

Speaking of the lens, the DMC-ZS3 is packed with a 12x wide-angle Leica zoom lens.  Most cameras that are advertised to have a wide-angle lens have a focal length of 28mm and widest.  I’ve never seen it before in a Point & Shoot, but the DMC-ZS3 is 25mm at its widest.  3mm doesn’t sound like much, but it does provide a somewhat significant increase in viewing angle.  It’s a great bonus for travel photographers who constantly find themselves shooting beautiful landscapes, classic architecture, or even large groups of people.  Most standard Point & Shoot cameras have 35mm lenses and the difference is astounding.  I always recommend people look for a camera with a wide-angle lens.  It’s a necessity and I’m glad Panasonic not only recognized this, but expanded on it.

The only thing better than the 25mm wide-angle is the 12x zoom.  Roughly equivalent to a 300mm telephoto lens in traditional film photography, the 12x zoom allows you to get photos that were impossible with most other cameras.  I realized how powerful this can be when taking a boat tour of the Beagle Canal down off the southern tip of Argentina.  While the other people were using their 3x zooms to capture half of the island pictured below, I was able to use the 12x zoom and optical image stabilization to capture great close-up shots of the sea lions that were posing for us.

12x zoom, from a boat - Isla de los Lobos - Ushuaia, Argentina

12x zoom, from a boat - Isla de los Lobos - Ushuaia, Argentina

Sea Lion eating a Southern King Crab

Sea Lion eating a Southern King Crab

Wide-angle shot from hostel window - Beagle Canal in the distance

Wide-angle shot from hostel window - Beagle Canal in the distance

The Video

There has been a lot of hype on this camera and most of it has been surrounding the 720p HD video.  I’ve used several flash camcorders and always have been underwhelmed with the video, even when it’s 720p.  Encoding HD on flash memory has been around for a couple of years now, but due to the codecs and processes used to encode video into a usable format that is also small enough to fit on a memory card typically causes some pixelation.  It’s a trade off that most people can live with if they want a compact video recorder.

Some pixelation is present in the DMC-ZS3‘s video, but it is, by far, the best flash memory video I have seen with a compact camera.  Even the stereo audio sounds good though users should be careful of covering the mic with their finger when holding the camera.

Overall the video is clean and sharp, the audio is good, you can zoom while shooting video, and best of all, the optical image stabilization does wonders.  Without OIS, it would be practically impossible to hand hold the camera and shoot at 12x zoom without making your viewers sick.

Take a look at the video I shot during my boat tour of the Beagle Canal.

Watch this video in HD: Beagle Canal – Ushuaia, Argentina on Vimeo.

Keep in mind that much of the above video was shot with the lens fully extended to 12x and was on a moving boat.  It moves up and down quite a bit, but there is very little shake from hand holding the camera.  Overall I am extremely impressed.

Another thing you might notice with the video is the purple lens flares when shooting directly at the sun.  This is pretty common with video as the sensors can’t handle the full range of bright colors like still photography can.  It’s unfortunate, but I’m not surprised.  I doubt there is a consumer level camera that could do better.

Size

The last thing, and possibly most important to many people is the size of the camera.  Because of it’s impressive lens and beautiful 3″ LCD screen, the DMC-ZS3 is larger than most current Point & Shoot cameras.  As somebody who has used Digital-SLR cameras for most travel needs, it’s very small.  It’s not a “pocket” digital camera though.  I held mine in a waterproof Tucano neoprene case and it fit decently in my pants or jacket pockets, but it was more bulky than others I have used over the past couple of years.  It’s a trade off.

The Verdict

The Panasonic DMC-ZS3 is by far, the most impressive Point & Shoot digital camera I have ever used.  For the traveler, this camera should be a no-brainer.  I can’t imagine a better option in its class.

For the average user though, it may be a little overkill.  If you like to tuck a camera in your pocket and bring it out with you to the bar or club, this may not be the camera for you.  If you like to get out and go hiking, play sports, travel, or shoot high quality video, you’ve found the right camera.  It’s sturdy enough to get tossed around and take a beating so it will serve travelers well.

Overall, I’d give the DMC-ZS3 a 9/10.  The only thing that could use improving is the size, but if making it smaller means losing any features, I’d stick with the size it is.  It’s worth it.

MSRP is $399 but Amazon has the Panasonic DMC-ZS3 for closer to $300 currently.

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Comments

  1. Olga says:

    I have the Lumix DMC-TZ5 and I am absolutely in love with it. I spent several months researching the best camera for me to travel and take video. They make phenomenal cameras and the Leica lens is impeccable. I can’t wait to get the step up DMC-ZS3. Looks awesome!

  2. purplebuggy says:

    I have a Lumix DMC-TZ11 and, since I’ve bought it, I’ve not been on a trip where I haven’t run into at least one or two people who own a Lumix as well. And on top of that, seeing how easy they are to use with how many features it has for a good-sized travel camera, I’ve managed to persuade people to get one as their next camera. (Unless a manjor new feature comes out in this range of cameras…)
    The best thing about them is that you constantly find something that makes taking the pictires easier or with a higher quality end result. They’re a fantastic range of cameras and I’d recommend Lumix to anyone travelling who doesn’t require an arm sized zoom. (Even then, I’ve had the comment that the Lumix compared to the attachable zooms in some instances…)

  3. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about
    this, like you wrote the book in it or something.
    I think that you can do with some pics to drive the
    message home a little bit, but instead of that, this is magnificent
    blog. A fantastic read. I’ll certainly be back.

  4. Wong says:

    I bought this cmarea with the intention of using it as a film cmarea for small scale productions such as music videos and short films, and occasionally using it as a stills cmarea as well. After a fair bit of research into choices of lenses I decided that the Micro FourThirds mount offered the greatest amount of flexibility out of the main choices (the other being a Canon EF mount system) as well as the ability to adapt the lenses I already possessed from my previous cmarea, an Olympus E-410. The GH2 is being marketed as a cmarea designed for video, with a multitude of options and settings that suit the needs of D-SLR filmmakers and indeed it does, for the most part. It’s portability and form factor are unmatched in comparison to other D-SLRs with similar features, which make it ideally suited for guerilla’ shooting where gear is limited. The GH2 will shoot in 1080p at 24fps and 1080i 60 or 50fps in AVCHD video as well as 720p at 30fps in Motion JPEG format, which is fine for NTSC video regions, however conspicuously lacking from these options is any coverage for 25fps, i.e. PAL video, the European and UK standard for video. This does not leave very many options for people like myself who need to deliver content in 25p. You can either try and de-interlace 50i footage, which can be a nightmare, or conform 24p video shot with the cmarea to 25p for editing, however while this 4% change in overall speed does not affect the video greatly, a 4% increase in speed of audio (which also has to be sped up to match) can seriously distort the audio, again making it a nightmare. I honestly cannot fathom Panasonic’s decision not to include 25p in this cmarea, other than to try and push filmmakers that have 25p requirements towards their new AF101 professional camcorder, which costs over a34000. I have used quite a few of Panasonic professional camcorders, both SD and HD including the DVX100, HMC151 and HVX200, all of which I have been very impressed with, which is why my first thought for a cmarea of my own was a Panasonic, however I would seriously consider your requirements for video when looking at this cmarea. My advice is that if you are looking for a cmarea that can shoot really good video and supports all of the appropriate shooting formats, then opt for the , which with it’s kit 18-55mm lens is basically the same price as the GH2 and still features things like the Variangle’ screen. The 60D, as with all recent Canon D-SLRs, supports 1080p @ 24p, 1080p @ 25p /30p (depending on your region setting, which can be changed) as well as 720p @ 50p /60p (for slow-motion, PAL and NTSC respectively). These options, when compared to the GH2 s meagre offerings will probably end up making the decision for you in regards to the cmarea to buy primarily for video usage. While I understand that this cmarea is much more than just a video cmarea and is still primarily a stills cmarea, Panasonic’s big focus on video in their newest D-SLRs will mean that a lot of people are considering these types of cmareas to use almost exclusively for their video modes. I also realise that this review is particularly biased towards video, however, as they always say, write about what you know. I will therefore leave the evaluation of the GH2 s photographic capabilities to people who are better informed than I. Overall, I was really looking forward to using this cmarea and getting invested in the Micro FourThirds system, but Panasonic’s glaring omissions have unfortunately made this product useless for me.

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