Just a hair’s breadth away from a full-on DSLR?
We classify cameras like Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-FZ40 as mega-compacts. They resemble the big and powerful digital SLRs the pros use, and have some of the same features, but they use fixed zoom lenses and their price tags put them much closer to mass-market point-and-shoots.
The FZ40’s $300 street price will appeal to budget-minded enthusiasts who can do without some of the high-end features that a pro or hardcore hobbyist would demand—for example, a hot shoe to power an outboard flash. The FZ40’s Leica DC Vario-Elmarit 24x zoom lens, on the other hand, is a fabulous value in a camera priced this low, delivering a focal length ranging from 25mm to 600mm (35mm equivalent).
The camera's 24x zoom lens is virtually pro-quality. Focal length ranges from 25–600mm.
The 14.1-million-pixel image sensor inside the camera, however, sometimes has difficulty keeping up with its monster lens. Some would argue that the sweet spot for an image sensor in a camera this size is somewhere between six and 10 megapixels—any more and noise becomes an issue. And the FZ40 did produce some noisy shots at the extreme end of its telephoto range, where the lens’ aperture drops from f/2.8 to f/5.2 and ISO levels are boosted to compensate for the reduced light reaching the image sensor. Shooting at maximum zoom at ISO 400 resulted in marginally dirty photos, while images shot at ISO 800 and 1600 were straight-up unclean. Still, the camera
delivered SLR-worthy shots while shooting under less demanding conditions.
The FZ40 is absolutely loaded with features and controls. The camera starts up and is ready to go in less than one second, and you can save images in either JPEG or RAW format. Hands-on folks will love the robust collection of manual functions, including oodles of white-balance options and shutter speeds that range from a full minute to 1/2000 second. The jog dial for modifying aperture size and shutter speed, however, spins too easily to the left, is too stiff to accurately spin to the right, and depresses much too easily.
For those more comfortable with auto settings, the FZ40 has an incredible number of preset modes, including Intelligent Automatic (iA). This mode is the very definition of point-and-shoot, using six detection parameters to automatically focus, choose the right scene mode, set the correct aperture and shutter speeds, and more. The iA mode isn’t flawless, but the camera did easily freeze both a dog and a person as they sauntered through a frame, and its auto-focus latched onto faces that weren’t directly in front of the lens.
Panasonic has also beefed up its optical image stabilization feature. What was once known as Power OIS has been redubbed Mega OIS (italics ours). All snarkiness aside, we were impressed with the camera’s ability to compensate for shaky hands, even with the lens at its maximum focal length.
Virtually all the FZ40’s still-picture modes remain available while recording video. In fact, this camera does a fine job with movies, producing 720p video at 30fps with stereo audio. If you’re looking to step up from a basic point-and-shoot, Panasonic’s Lumix FZ40 should be on your short list of contenders.