Holding the WA3 by its pistol grip, your thumb can operate the zoom, and take pictures as well as video with buttons either side of the zoom rocker. The menu button is just below that, and the joystick to navigate this a little further down.
There are a few more buttons on the side underneath the LCD panel. These include buttons to toggle Intelligent Auto mode and the creative effects. The latter are more sophisticated than the usual digital effects. There's a faux tilt-shift Miniature option, monochrome with a single colour only, an old movie effect with animated scratches, time-lapse, a ghost effect, fish-eye, HDR paint, soft skin, monochrome, sepia, vivid colour, and soft focus.
There's a good selection of scene modes, including an underwater option that will come in handy with the WA3's waterproof capabilities. You can access the 360 and 180 degree panorama still image shooting modes.
There are also the usual white balance presets for outdoor and indoor conditions, plus fully manual. You can set the ISO from 64 to 1,600 and exposure compensation between -1.8 and 1.8 EV with 13 steps. There's manual focusing, although this operates with the joystick as well so is rather fiddly.
A macro mode is also available for extreme close-up shots. If you stay in auto focus mode, it's possible to choose between 9-point and spot focusing. Face detection is available, too, and there are multi, centre and spot exposure options. Although you have to hunt around the menu to find some settings, it's also possible to assign four of your favourites to the four axes of the joystick for rapid access.
With its huge high-resolution CMOS, the Panasonic HX-WA3 has highly commendable image quality. Colours are faithful, but not overly saturated, and there is a wealth of detail. Image stabilisation is not as capable as some of Panasonic's higher-end models, but it is still a cut above the purely digital (or non-existent) stabilisation in cheaper camcorders.
Most impressive is the low light performance. This is one area where the Panasonic HX-WA3 has marginally improved performance over the WA2, which was already good. In poor illumination, the image is surprisingly bright, with little grain, which bodes well for shooting in murky underwater conditions.
The Panasonic HX-WA3 isn't as major a leap as some of Panasonic's new camcorders, such as the HC-X920. But its new 5m underwater depth rating will make it a much more useful tool for grabbing footage whilst snorkelling or diving in shallow water, and it's great to see specific ratings for dust and cold, giving you confidence when using the WA3 at the beach - even if shoc proofing isn't on offer.
Nevertheless, with very good image quality, and particularly impressive levels of brightness in low light, the HX-WA3 is a serious tool for grabbing footage in a wide variety of extreme conditions, and it's reasonably priced, too.
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