Anyone who's interested in photography as a hobby will want a bit more versatility in their camera than is offered by a simple point-and-shoot compact. Many will opt for a digital SLR, but for those whose budgets are a little more restricted, or who don't want the hassle and bulk of a kit bag full of lenses and accessories, there are a number of high-specification super-zoom cameras that offer almost the same level of performance and sophistication. These usually feature lenses of 10x or more optical zoom, covering the whole range from wide angle to extreme telephoto, as well as numerous creative options including manual exposure controls, advanced metering and multiple focus options. Because of the size of the lenses, most super-zoom cameras are relatively large and have SLR-style handling.
Panasonic has been a key player in the super-zoom field since the launch of its impressive Leica-lensed Lumix DMC-FZ1 back in 2002, and has maintained this position with a series of well-received models in the same series. Today I'm taking a look at the latest in the line, the FZ18, which offers a tempting specification for anyone with £300 to spend. It has an 8.1 megapixel CCD, 2.5in 230k LCD monitor, RAW mode shooting and a massive 18x Leica zoom lens with optical image stabilisation and a 28-504mm equivalent focal length range. There are few cameras on the market that even come close to matching a features list like that. The closest contenders are the slightly disappointing Olympus SP-550UZ (£255), or Fujifilm's Finepix S8000 fd, although that camera isn't even available until September. The current super-zoom heavyweights, the Canon PowerShot S5 IS (review coming soon), the Fujifilm Finepix S9600, the Sony DSC-H7 and even the previous holder of the "biggest lens" title the Samsung Pro815 can't match that huge zoom range.
Panasonic has taken few chances with the design of the FZ18. Its overall shape and layout are little changed from its popular predecessor the 12x zoom FZ8, although it is a few millimetres larger in every dimension. In fact the basic style of Pansonic's super-zoom FZ range has changed little since the FZ1, but it was a pretty sound design to start with, so if it ain't broke there's little point in fixing it. The FZ18 has the classic SLR shape, with a simple rectangular box-like body that protrudes both left and right of the large lens barrel, a prominent rubberised handgrip and a large electronic viewfinder set into a pentaprism-like turret above the lens, a feature which also houses the pop-up flash. The comprehensive control layout is also similar to a digital SLR, with a large and well-stocked mode dial on the top panel and numerous buttons providing external controls for most common shooting options.