One out of thirty-six

A knotty problem

Since I’m “re-learning” my cameras it was only fair to give the infamous Panasonic Lumix ZS60 another shot.

Actually it was a waste of a considerable amount of time. It’s a lousy camera.

Let me tell you what I did to try and overcome the built-in flaws. First of all I turned off the idiotic touch screen. All those things ever do is louse up the picture. Dedicated controls are what’s needed for photography, not infinitely nested menu options accessed by child-like behaviour.

Which brings us to the next issue; trying to get decent colour. I tried all the preset options and fiddled with the in camera contrast, sharpness, saturation … all to no avail. The sensor simply does not produce acceptable colour results. So I switched to monochrome. Hey, it has a ‘Leica lens’; will it be as good as a Leica Monochrom? Ha, ha, ha!

Next trouble was that even in B&W it produces poor results. Contrast and sharpness had to be turned up a bit. I also tried the included yellow, orange, and red ‘filter’ settings. Mediocre at best. Some of the problem can be attributed to the poor exposure evaluation: I found under exposing by 1/3 stop helped somewhat, but this camera over exposes in bright light and under exposes in low light. Frankly it has the dynamic range of a slug and needs constant over-riding of settings to get anything acceptable. Might as well be shooting manual.

Ah yes, manual. Have I mentioned that the autofocus is lousy? So let’s try manual focus. The ZS60 has a neat ’round-the-lens ring that can be used for manual focusing. *sigh* Unfortunately the photographer no longer has good enough eyesight to tell. The EVF is much brighter and higher resolution than the failing one in the venerable Nikon P610, but I still couldn’t use it. So I was using the LCD display, which doesn’t wash out as bad under bright light especially on B&W setting. It still does, though. Focus peaking? It’s got that. Makes a horrible mess of the view and does not aid in getting a sharp image.

So what did I do? Went back to autofocus, reset for single centre point. Honestly the ‘intelligent’ focus selection and multi-point function too often grabs on to the wrong part of the image. Hey you know what would work well for me? A rangefinder in the middle of the screen.

In the end I turned off/did not use more than 90% of the ‘features’ built in to this over-rated piece of junk. That is how I finally got one decent shot (with a bit of post-processing because even then it wasn’t good) out of it.

To sum  up: the lens isn’t sharp, the sensor isn’t good, the processor is poor, the exposure system is almost always wrong, and the ‘features’ are just an over-burden of technological gunk that get in the way of taking pictures (especially disappointing since none of the settings produce any better results than plain ‘automatic’).

Honestly, a camera that can’t take a good picture under normal conditions when set on ‘automatic’ right out of the box is a failed product. As a result of my bad experiences with this camera I will never buy another Panasonic model, new or used.

Lumix vs. Lumix

With Dan “35hunter” James’ permission, I’m ‘borrowing’ some of the content of his recent blog about the performance of his Panasonic Lumix FX10 to compare it with my newly purchased Panasonic Lumix ZS60. I’m going to quote the salient points from his writing on the FX10, and then add my observations on the same points as they apply to the ZS60. This is mainly so you can see how one company’s similar offerings differ in actual performance (although since the ‘testing’ was done by two different people under quite different conditions it is hardly a scientific analysis). I’ve put his original text in italics, and will add my comments in bold.

What I like about the Lumix FX10

– It’s very compact and light, but not so it’s awkward or fiddly to use.

Same with the ZS60. There are a few controls that are awkward, but on the whole it’s very easy to use. The front multi-purpose control ring is particularly welcome if you’re an old film camera user.

– The camera is easy to set up and use, the menus are logical, and there aren’t many (or perhaps any) silly superfluous features to get in the way.

Not so with the ZS60. It took me a week to get the settings to where it produced what I would say are acceptable images, and the menu could use some logic applied to it. As for superfluous features, it has a lot of them. So many I’m not sure I’ve even tried them all. There is a whole section of digital ‘filters’ which would probably be wonderful for anyone who doesn’t have post-shoot processing ability, but who is that user these days?

– The FX10’s zoom lens starts at 35mm, my favoured focal length for a digital compact, so I just powered it up and started shooting, without touching the zoom rocker. No need to reverse engineer and figure out different focal lengths.

The ZS60 starts at 24mm, with noticeable distortion. It does have “zoom resume” to enable the camera to start up at the focal length it was shut down at, which could be used to preset a favoured position – if you remember to shut it down at the right setting. Nicely, the camera displays the current focal length on a sliding scale when you activate the zoom control.

– The Intelligent ISO mode is great for optimising the camera’s performance. I set the ISO limit to ISO400, then the camera always used the lowest ISO it could (starting at its native ISO100) without dipping too low with shutter speed, thus avoiding camera shake.

This newer camera also has Intelligent ISO and a lot of other “i” settings, including “Intelligent Automatic”. Now let’s think about that: it has a “Program” mode which allows the camera to pick the settings and what is essentially this other “Program” mode which allows the camera to pick the settings. Why? Are they admitting one of these is no good? Well I think yes, and guess which one it is (from my experience anyway). The so-called “intelligent” settings don’t seem to make much improvement. I like that the ISO can go down to 80 as I generally shoot in bright sun. The high speeds (above 400) are just noise-producing, typical of most cameras with small sensors. You have to have pretty low standards to accept the quality of images taken at these ‘super’ ISO settings (this observation is not limited to the Lumix).

– The reliable exposure system of this Lumix meant very little need for using the exposure compensation dial, which is certainly not the case with many of my favourite digitals where I begin with -1/3 or -2/3 to avoid blowing out highlights, and sometimes need to drop further.

I wish this held true on the newer ZS60. It has a tendency towards underexposure, and compensating for it in bright light means overexposure in low light. I spent a lot of time getting used to correcting its exposure after finally getting the white balance accurate. Admittedly we don’t have ‘normal’ light here, especially at this time of the year, but that just means the camera isn’t good at handling difficult lighting situations.

– The FX10’s lens was fast enough at f/2.8 and plenty sharp enough with decent light, in fact significantly sharper than I expected. Again the 35mm focal length at the wide end helps here – many compact cameras go wider, to say 28 or even 24mm, with a maximum aperture of perhaps f/2.8 or f/2.4, but once you zoom in to 35mm, they’re slower than that, meaning longer shutter speeds and increased risk of camera shake.

The ZS60’s lens is a dim f3.3 that drops to f6.4 in telephoto range. It is decidedly not sharp, and this is the biggest disappointment of the camera. On the whole this isn’t an issue when shooting in bright light, but this in not a camera for low light conditions considering its maximum aperture and poor high ISO performance.

– Overall the Lumix FX10 just gets on with making decent, reliable photographs, in a very portable package, there’s very little to disappoint.

Over-all the Lumix ZS60 just about manages to take decent snapshots in good light. If the lens were sharper and the exposure more accurate it would excel as a camera, especially if they removed the superfluous functions (and their associated buttons). The specifications held such promise, but the camera failed to deliver on them. It’s usable, but it does disappoint.

What I didn’t like about the Lumix FX10

Really, there’s only one thing, and that’s something shared by the majority of cameras I use, so it’s unfair to isolate the FX10 for this exclusively.

The b/w mode is just too middly muddly grey (technical terminology!), only starting to show the deeper blacks and crisper whites I like in high contrast scenes with bright light and strong shadows.

I realised to avoid writing off 95% of the b/w shots I made with the FX10, I’d need to run them through one of my b/w Snapseed presets, something I increasingly want to avoid when I have a number of cameras that deliver b/w images I love straight out of camera.

The newer camera has the same failing. In fact, most newer cameras do. I think it’s down to the CMOS sensors they use these days as opposed to the old CCD sensors. (Be warned: some cameras with CMOS sensors are advertised as having CCD sensors; check multiple specification sources before you buy.) The CMOS sensors are ‘harsher’, without so many gradients in tone. As such they try to compensate by losing extremes, so absolute black turns to deep gray and bright white becomes dingy. The tones in between get shuffled into a limited range, and the picture comes out lacking ‘snap’. This is what we used to call “crispness” when it was a factor of the lens (yes, the lens design can affect image contrast as well as sharpness).

BW126

To the ZS60’s credit you can adjust the image type presets, and so give the monochrome setting some extra contrast. On the whole I tend to shoot in colour anyway, and desaturate to B&W if I think the image will look better that way. Otherwise if it would look better in colour and you shot in B&W – you’re stuck.

Aside from this, no complaints with the little Lumix!

I think I’ve made my complaints about the one I bought clear. If there is a lesson here it is “don’t be fooled by good specifications; get some user opinions before you buy”. Except that the user opinions I found for the ZS60 were inaccurate to my own subsequent experiences. When it comes to specifications, would it kill them to give some resolution numbers for the lens? The lens is, after all, the most important aspect of a camera. They stuck the Leica name on this because the lens design is from them, but the execution of that design is sadly lacking. Perhaps manufacturers think people won’t understand numbers like “67 lines per millimeter”, or perhaps they’re worried they will.

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Lumix view of Luna

That moon picture is the ZS60 pushed to the limits of my ability to get an ‘impossible’ shot out of it. In all honesty its more a testament to my abilities as a photographer than to the Lumix’s quality as a camera. The only other digital camera I’ve bought that disappointed me so was the Nikon W100, and that cost 1/3 the money, yet still does a better job of living up to expectations.