Another guest review from the inestimable Mr. Bahas. Click on any of the pictures for a higher resolution version.
Traveling for a living allows for many opportunities for shooting pics. A few months ago I got the itch to get a new digital camera to take on the road. I was a film major in college and have had several professional quality cameras. I wanted a camera that would give me image quality similar to a DSLR, a long zoom, manual aperture and shutter controls and be small enough to fit in my pocket.
Armed with a long list of expectations, I was not very optimistic of finding many options available. I was assuming I would need to compromise with a fixed lens, medium body camera. Well I was wrong… dead wrong. I discovered a completely new genre of camera. Meet the compact super zoom.
Compact super zoom cameras are pocket cameras that have a high performance zoom lenses. I found I had several good choices. After looking at offerings from Nikon and Canon, I decided on looking at Lumix. The Panasonic Lumix cameras feature lenses by Leica. I had worked with Leica range finder cameras in the past and always loved using them. The Panasonic Lumix range of cameras have become very popular because of their excellent image quality and ease of use. Since I wanted something that would fit in my pocket I looked at Lumix ZS-5 and ZS-7. Both of these are almost identical and feature a 1/2.33 inch 14mp image sensor, a massive 12-300mm range, extensive automatic and scene modes, and manual exposure. As an added bonus, they also do 720 HD video. The ZS-7 adds GPS tagging of pictures.
Before purchase, I wanted to look at some images on the web. After looking for reviews and images I discovered that there is a Leica version of the same camera.
I looked at the specs and on the surface the 2 cameras are pretty identical except for a few cosmetic changes and the Leica red dot. The price difference between the two was almost double. Thats a big price difference for the Leica label. So what is the difference? I read a bunch of reviews from users of both cameras and nearly all of the Leica users love the camera and felt the price difference was worth it. Many of the Lumix users were not as enthusiastic. I took a leap of faith and bought the Leica pretty much because of my previous experiences and loyalty to the brand among its customers. There are many articles on the web contrasting the two. I am not going to cover that in this review except to say after using a ZS-5 and the V-Lux 20 I am not sorry I bought the Leica.
The controls on V-Lux 20 are laid out in a simple fashion. On the top, there is a mode switch that allows you to switch between between the various program and scene modes. There is also a power switch and a zoom lever. Also, there is a stereo mic and a small bump where the GPS antenna is located. On the back of the camera is a camera/picture review switch, a dedicated exposure button, a video record button, menu and navigation buttons menu and quick menu buttons. There is also a gorgeous 460,000 pixel 3.5 inch display. The bulk of the body is made of light weight metal. It feels nice and balanced. The only exception is the battery door which feels little flimsy.
The front panel is simply laid out with the lens LED sensor and a built in flash. The flash on the V-lux is only useful for a few feet. An external would be nice but not at the expense of size.
The V-Lux comes with a battery that is good for about 300 pics….. IF….. you are not using the GPS. I discovered that once enabled, the GPS stays on even after the camera is turned off. The manual clearly states this but I am terrible about reading manuals. Fortunately it comes with a quick charger and I was back in business.
My first use was to shoot some sunsets on the coast of Lake Erie. I first tried snapshot mode and was pretty happy with the results. One thing I noticed was the auto modes on this thing are pretty foolproof. It recognized that I was shooting a sunset and picked the proper scene preset. Pretty cool! Next I shot some long zoom shots at some people on the beach. The 300mm lens spoils you very quickly. Although the low light performance suffers at extreme zoom ranges it still performs well. I found that if you wanted to only shoot in snapshot mode, you almost always get good results.
The V-lux 20 has 6 autofocus modes. It has 11 separate focus zones with face detection and tracking mode. Most of the time I have it set to single zone, fast mode. The autofocus speed is slower in the other modes. One thing I do miss is pulling my own focus. A manual focus control would be nice, but, what do you expect for a pocket camera?
One of the high points of the Leica glass on this camera is Macro mode. I was surprised by how well it worked for such a small camera. Here is a shot I took in macro mode:
For those who want to dig deeper, you’ll find the V-Lux 20 has plenty to offer. First of all, there are 28 different scene presets that cover everything from portrait mode to sunset mode. These presets completely set up the camera for the application. I used the high sensitivity mode to shoot some live music. I shot these without a flash or tripod.
The camera adjusted the iso and shutter based on the current amount of light. I have several cameras with scene modes but V-Lux is one of best I have ever used. It gave decent results especially for a small sensor camera.
In addition to scene presets you have standard Program, Shutter Priority and Aperture Priority modes. These work pretty well with a bit of experimentation. I especially like the aperture priority mode for low light shooting. I set the camera to fast single zone focus and get great results. Here are a couple of shots from the Cambridge campus in the UK.
If you want to dig even deeper there is a manual mode that allows you to manually set exposure. You have shutter speeds of 1/1300 to 60 sec and aperture settings from F3.3 to F6.3. You also can set ISO from 80 to 1600. As you might guess 1600 gets pretty noisy. One additional nice touch is a dedicated timer button. You can easily set the timer without digging into menus.
The video capabilities of the V-lux were a surprise to me. It shoots 720p mpeg format video ( no ADVHC). You can also select various other lower resolution video formats using the menus.
I was a little disappointed that it didn’t use the ADVHC format that is available in the Lumix. But after I used it I was knocked out with the results. First of all, the zoom motor on the V-Lux 20 is nearly silent. Even in quiet environments it was not noticeable. Unlike many cameras in this format you have full zoom functionality in video mode. The zoom speed while not super fast, was perfectly functional. Panasonic’s camera stabilization works extremely well even when zoomed in tight.
In the love it or hate it category there is a dedicated video button on the back of the camera. Personally I hate it… I would much prefer that there was a video mode and use the shutter release button to start and stop video. That being said, I got used to it pretty quickly.
The best part of the V-Lux 20 video is the quality. It rivals many of the HD camcorders and the built-in mics work remarkably well. Even in high background SPL environments the audio stays clear and undistorted.
Is this camera for everyone? No.. First of all, it’s expensive and you can get similar image quality for less money. Is it a real Leica? If you are a purist you would probably say no in the same way a Porsche purist would never drive anything but a 911.
While the V-lux 20 is certainly not a M series range finder, it does have that Leica magic in the pictures. The V-Lux 20 has Leica’s JPEG processing engine in it, and there is a magic to the image quality it produces. To my eyes, it renders colors in a more pleasing way than the Lumix. The industrial design is also first class. It doesn’t have that cheap, throw away feel common among point and shoot cameras. A little bit of that Leica cache does trickle down to the V-Lux 20.
All in all the V-Lux 20 is great shooter for people who want “DSLR Like” image quality in a small package. It is also a great camera for photo geeks that want full creative control without hauling around a bag full of gear. Lastly, the experience of using it is just great fun!
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