Flicking the main on/off switch on top of the camera, the Lumix SZ7 powers up in around four seconds, which is fairly standard for a compact of this type and price. Where the SZ7 really does excel, though, is in autofocus speed. In the past year or so Panasonic has made pretty big steps forward with regards to the speed of its contrast-detect AF technology and while this was initially reserved for its G-series of compact system cameras the so-called “Light Speed AF” tech has now trickled down to Panny's compact range as well.
The upshot of this is that when the SZ7 is being used outdoors in daylight, autofocus is all but instantaneous. Combined with a noticeable lack of shutter lag, this enables you to get great candid shots and capture those fleeting moments that other compacts might otherwise miss.
Even when used indoors in slightly subdued light, the SZ7 shows few signs of focus hunt. Yes, of course there are limitations and in very dark conditions you can expect to encounter some focus hunting, or to require a bit of extra help via the built-in AF Assist light, but in good light the SZ7's AF performance reall does excel.
Processing times are, again, fairly standard for a camera of this type and price, with the SZ7 taking a fraction under two seconds to process individual shots taken in Single-shot mode. Should you need a bit more speed you can opt for 2fps in Intelligent Burst mode, 5fps in Continuous AF mode, and 10fps in Single-AF mode. While it’s fair to say that the SZ7 isn’t really intended for high-speed shooting, the range of drive mode options on offer do afford it some extra flexibility.
Image quality is very much on a par with other ultracompacts of a similar price. Used in good light outdoors the results are generally quite pleasing with relatively punchy colour, good levels of detail and sharp edges. Just so long as you don’t try and view the results at anything approaching 100% or beyond.
Enlarge your images to 100% and beyond, however, and the limitations of the small, densely packed sensor will start to become visible, especially once sensitivity rises above ISO 400. While ISO 400 does show some traces of nioise it remains perfectly usable. Beyond ISO 800, however, image quality does drop off quite rapidly. By ISO 800 noise becomes visible – especially in shadow areas – even at smaller image sizes, while ISO 1600 expands this theme while adding a degradation of colour to the mix. The top setting of ISO 3200 is grainy, fuzzy and fairly horrible – very much for emergency use only.
Even at lower sensitivities fine detail can be seen to show a “painted-on” or smudged effect when images are viewed 100%, which suggests some fairly aggressive JPEG compression – even on the Fine quality setting. Far from being unique to the SZ7 though, this is actually quite a familiar trait with compacts that use a 1/2.3inch sensor. It’s also worth pointing out that this is unlikely to be an issue to anyone viewing the SZ7’s images on a laptop screen or on a 6x4inch print.
On the plus side, at lower sensitivities and in good light the SZ7 is more than capable of producing decent, lifelike results, especially when the zoom is set to around the 25-100mm mark. There is a bit of barrel distortion at 25mm, and at 250mm we found that overall image sharpness takes something of a nosedive too. This is despite the usually reliable Mega O.I.S image stablilisation being switched on. Overall though, the SZ7 is more than able to hold its own against similarly priced rivals and it's limitations are common to the vast majority of cameras of this type.
The Panasonic Lumix SZ7 is an easy-to-use 14.3MP ultracompact digital camera with a 10x optical zoom. The twin highlights of the Panasonic Lumix SZ7 are undoubtedly its larger than average zoom and super-fast AF performance. Image quality is reasonable enough, and certainly on a par with the competition, at least when shooting at lower sensitivities and viewing the results on a laptop-sized screen, or as a 6x4in print. However, the combination of a small, densely populated sensor and some aggressive JPEG processing doesn’t produce particularly clean images at higher sensitivities.