That fast-moving lens makes the FZ18 pretty quick off the mark for a super-zoom; it starts up in around 2.5 seconds and shuts down again in under two, which is faster than a lot of pocket compacts. The autofocus system is also nice and quick, locking on in under half a second, and it is just as fast in low light and even in complete darkness, within the 2-3m range of the AF assist lamp. The AF area can be quickly moved to any of eleven positions, covering a wide area of the frame. In single-shot mode the camera can manage a shot every 1.7 seconds, which is pretty fast for a powerful camera. As I mentioned earlier, the FZ18 also has a RAW shooting mode, and RAW +JPEG too, and it’s performance in these modes is much improved over the FZ8. In RAW-only mode it can take a shot every 2.4 seconds, while in RAW + JPEG mode it can manage one every 3.4 seconds. It has two continuous shooting modes (not available in RAW mode), a four-shot burst at 3fps or an unlimited mode which can shoot a 2fps until the memory card is full or the battery gives out. Speaking of the battery, the FZ18 is powered by the same 710mAh Li-ion cell as the FZ8. Panasonic claimed 300 shots per charge for that camera, but for the FZ18, which has a bigger lens to move, the claim is 400 shots per charge. I took nearly 200, about 50 of them with the flash, and the charge indicator was still reading two out of three bars, so the claim, unlikely as it sounds, is probably accurate.
A major feature of the FZ18, and one without which that big zoom lens would be useless, is the optical image stabilisation system, Panasonic’s MegaOIS. As I’ve noted before it is one of the best IS systems on the market, but in the FZ18 it really excels. I found that as long as I held the camera reasonably firmly I was able to take sharp hand-held shots at maximum telephoto (504mm equiv.) at 1/30th of a second fairly reliably, which is nothing short of phenomenal. It represents a stability gain of a full four stops, beating any other IS system I’ve tested, including those on most digital SLRs.
Finally we come to image quality, and here I’m afraid there is some bad news. Given all the fantastic features and performance, why on Earth has Panasonic chosen to cripple the FZ18 with a 1/2.5-in sensor, the size more commonly found in cheap 3x zoom compacts? The pity is that the lens is far and away the best that I’ve seen on a super-zoom camera, producing razor-sharp corner-to-corner detail and a total absence of distortion even at the 28mm end. It’s the first wide-angle compact lens I’ve seen that produces perfectly straight parallels in my test shots. The Venus Engine III is a big improvement over earlier versions, producing fantastic colour and tone, but it is labouring against the odds with that cheap little sensor. Overall detail is no better than most 8MP compacts, and the limited dynamic range clips highlights, rendering the sky as featureless white in most shots. The image noise that has plagued every Panasonic camera is also there except at the very lowest ISO setting, causing major problems at higher settings. Don’t get me wrong; the image quality isn’t bad, and the camera’s other qualities more than make up for any shortcomings, it’s just that with that brilliant lens it could have been so much better.
The Lumix FZ18 is a very nearly the ultimate super-zoom camera, with good performance and handling, an excellent range of features and a simply astonishing lens, made usable by an equally superb image stabilisation system. However it falls just short of greatness due to the inexplicably small sensor, which in turn leads to image noise and dynamic range issues. It’s still the best 18x super-zoom out there though, at least until September.