Generally speaking, electronic gadgets and systematic abuse don't mix all that well. Looking to change all that and keep on taking pictures even after it's been dropped, dunked or frozen is the 12.1 megapixel Lumix DMC-FT3 from Panasonic, new for 2011 and successor to the FT2. This ruggedised camera recalls the old Konica Minolta Dimage range from 2004 in terms of boxy design, internally folded zoom lens (here comprising 10 elements) and the fact that it's available in red or blue. It also mirrors its closest current rival in the Olympus Tough compacts via its 'armour-plated' outer surfaces and chunky catches to avoid unwanted ingress from the elements. There's even on-screen warnings and prompts each time you switch it on to make sure you've done the equivalent of battening down the hatches properly, thus preventing the camera coming a-cropper through carelessness if you take it for a swim.
While it looks outwardly tough the FT3 fortunately also has the under-the-bonnet credentials to match. Its airtight body is waterproofed to a depth of 12 metres though we didn't have the opportunity to test that out, is shock proofed against a drop from two metres in height (more on which later), freezeproof to -10°C and is furthermore dust proof. And, like the most recent Olympus model, the TG-810, this time round Panasonic has also shoehorned in a GPS antenna, as already found in its TZ high zoom series. This gives real-time information on the location at which the shot is being taken; the place name displayed ticker-tape fashion along the bottom of the backplate LCD screen should you forget where you are. Panasonic claims said info covers 203 countries for worldwide use, and more than a million landmarks. What's more it appears to work, and managed to pick out our local National Trust property at least. Useful perhaps if you're abroad and haven't bothered to buy a guidebook to otherwise discover what's what, or of course want to plot the route of your travels via Google maps or the social media of your choice later.
Like its Olympus competitor, the FT3 features a built-in compass, and adds an altimeter and barometer to respectively display and record orientation, altitude, and pressure, on land as well as underwater. The FT3's other headline features include Full HD video recording in AVCHD compression format with useful wind cancelation feature. Like most if not all of the Lumix range now, the capture of video clips is a one-touch process via a dedicated button. It also has an optically stabilised 4.6x zoom, Leica-branded lens with a focal range equivalent to 28-128mm. This makes it both plenty wide enough for landscape and group photos as well as suiting portrait snapshots and being suitable for picking out middle distance objects (truly far away subjects will still require a much longer zoom, which is generally available in a rugged form).
Light sensitivity can be manually adjusted from ISO100 to ISO1600, with up to ISO6400 achievable if selecting High Sensitivity scene mode, albeit with a corresponding resolution drop. So it's a case of weighing up whether the shot is worth the compromise of an overall softer image.
For those wanting to capture the action on the ski slopes or in the pool, up to 3.7 frames per second burst capture is offered at full resolution, which isn't bad for its class, with the option to up this to 10fps if dropping down to three megapixels. More exciting for some, the camera also features a 3D shooting option, mirroring the Sweep Panorama feature of the latest Sony Cyber-shot and NEX compacts by compositing the final image from a sequence of shots - though here up to 20 individual frames, which is far less than the 100 images utilised by the range topping Sony's. Like its rival manufacturer, with 3D mode selected, the user simply pans with the camera in the direction of the arrow provided on screen, accompanied by a machine-gun like sample of the shutter firing. The camera automatically generates the end result and saves it as an MPO file. As ever this isn't actually viewable unless you own a 3D TV, although, as when shooting with the specialist 3D lens for Panasonic's GF2 and GH2 models, a low resolution JPEG is saved alongside the MPO file for immediate reference.
With a street price of around £300 at the time of writing, whilst not cheap the FT3 feels like fair value if you really do need the added protection it affords .It also looks like decent value compared to its predecessors, given the extras of compass, 3D and GPS. So how does it handle in practice? Read on to find out...