While compact system cameras represent the fastest growing segment of the digital camera market, superzoom sales are also especially healthy – and extremely competitive too. This, in turn, has increased the pressure on manufacturers to deliver ever more feature-packed and highly specified models. As a result of this increased competition maximum focal lengths have shot up in recent years. At present the Canon SX50 HS leads the way with its ultra-powerful 50x optical zoom, with the 42x Nikon P510 following close behind. Behind these two frontrunners sit a large number of competing models that generally hover around the 30x range, with the Sony HX200V (30x) and the Fujifilm HS30EXR (also 30x) being the pick of the bunch.
The Lumix FZ200 takes a slightly different path, however, and rather than simply extending the focal range into super telephoto territory it settles for the same (but still relatively powerful) 24x optical zoom found on the majority of existing Lumix superzooms, but keeps maximum aperture at a constant f/2.8 throughout the entire focal range. It’s the first time this has been managed on such a powerful lens – or indeed any superzoom – which makes the FZ200 something of a unique proposition that’s especially likely to appeal to sports and wildlife shooters. When you consider that an equivalent 600mm f/2.8 DSLR lens (or more precisely, a 300mm f/2.8 lens and a 2x teleconverter) would set you back around £2000, you begin to get an idea of what an achievement this is.
And of course there’s much more to the FZ200 than its advanced optic alone: add Raw shooting, Full HD and high-speed movie recording, a vari-angle LCD display and a high-resolution EVF into the mix and it’s hard not to be impressed. But while the FZ200 certainly looks good on paper, how does it perform in the real world? Let’s take a closer look and find out.
Even without the constant f/2.8 aperture the FZ200’s 24x optical zoom is still pretty impressive, offering the 35mm focal range equivalent of 25-600mm. At the wideangle end 25mm is plenty wide enough to capture buildings, landscapes and group shots, while at the telephoto end 600mm enables you to fill the entire frame with faraway objects. Stir in the f/2.8 aperture though and the FZ200 becomes eminently more flexible – especially if you plan to regularly shoot moving subjects at a distance.
In addition to the constant f/2.8 maximum aperture the FZ200’s Leica lens also benefits from Nano Surface coating to minimise the effects of ghosting and flare, and Panasonic’s proprietary, class-leading optical image stabilisation system (Power O.I.S.) is also built in, which will allow you to shoot at slower shutter speeds and longer focal lengths without suffering from image blur caused by camera shake.
Behind the 25-600mm lens the FZ200 employs a 1/2.3in High Sensitivity MOS sensor that offers an effective resolution of 12.1MP, and which is capable of capturing both JPEG and Raw still image files, as well as 1080p Full HD videos at 50fps. The sensor is paired with Panasonic’s Venus Engine technology, which features ‘Intelligent Noise Reduction’ and a ‘Multi-process Noise Reduction’ system for enhanced performance in low light. The Venus Engine also allows for a maximum continuous shooting speed of 12fps, albeit for a maximum of 12 consecutive frames. Last but not least the FZ200 also benefits from Panasonic’s proprietary Light Speed AF technology, which is one of the fastest contrast-detect autofocus systems going.
Exposure modes extend to the full quartet of Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority and Manual (PASM) modes for semi- of full-manual control over the camera. These are backed up by Panasonic’s iAuto (iA) fully automatic point-and-shoot mode, and a variety of Scene modes. Those wanting to add effects to their images in-camera can also choose from a selection of ‘Creative Control’ digital filter effects.
A vari-angle 3in, 460k-dot LCD screen dominates the back of the FZ200. The screen uses a side-hinge that enables the screen to be pulled away from the body and rotated through 270 degrees on a horizontal pivot – this means you can use the screen to frame self-portraits as well as making light work of shooting from high- or low-angles.
The screen itself has a resolution 460k-dots, which while sufficient is a step behind the 920k-dot displays offered by some competitors. Also, it has a 16:9 aspect and while this is great for HD video capture, the 4:3 aspect of the sensor means you’ll have to put up with black tramlines running down the sides of the screen when shooting full resolution still images.
While the rear display is great for composing and reviewing images with, the Panasonic FZ200 also offers an electronic viewfinder (EVF) for those that would rather hold the camera to their eye when shooting. This measures in at approximately 0.21in, offers a 100% field of view and has a resolution of 1.3m-dots for a sharp, clear image. However it’s set quite far down the viewfinder, which in turn makes it appear smaller, so it's not quite as easy to use as its high-resolution would suggest. Otherwise, though, it's very good for an EVF, with a fast refresh rate that ensures it keeps up with your movements, however speedy.
One further issue we have with the viewfinder is the lack of an eye sensor. This means that whenever you want to switch between the LCD and the viewfinder you have to press the button located to the left of the EVF – hopefully, Panasonic will see fit to attach an automatic eye sensor on any subsequent models.