Monday, April 11, 2016

Review: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS40 Pocket Superzoom Camera (Cheap Point & Shoot or Pro-Quality In Your Pocket?)

Introduction
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS40
I like my gear small. I've owned DSLRs and compact interchangeable-lens cameras, and found them to be just too bulky and heavy for my tastes. I have a couple of old 35mm rangefinders that are as heavy as bricks--despite the fact that they work perfectly fine and I have plenty of film, I almost never use them.

What I prefer are cameras that fit into my pocket. I can comfortably carry my gear around all day. I always have a camera with me no matter where I go. My photography experiences are so much more pleasant since downsizing my gear. It's like my camera has become invisible, just a small extension of me, and no one notices that I'm constantly capturing photographs, and the camera stays out of the way of everything else going on.

My primary camera is a Sony RX100 II, which has a 1" sensor and produces DSLR-like image quality, yet is pocketable. However, it's not a perfect camera, and one limitation is focal length range: 28mm-100mm. That's good for most of my photographic needs, but sometimes I want more reach.
Two Windy - Tehachapi, California
ISO 100, f/7.1, 1/200, 537mm.
RAW file post-processed using Alien Skin Exposure X.
I looked at several pocket superzoom cameras, and settled on the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS40 (known as the TZ60 outside of North America). This camera has a 24mm-720mm (equivalent) Leica f/3.3-6.4 lens, which I thought should compliment well the Sony camera that I already own.

The fact that the camera can save in RAW format was a big plus, and one of the deciding factors for choosing the ZS40. The main competitors to this camera are JPEG only. The smaller the sensor the more important it is to use RAW format, as the margin for error and ability to manipulate the files becomes narrower.

But is the ZS40, which has a tiny 1/2.3" sensor, capable of producing good image quality? I wasn't sure, and I didn't find a lot of information on the internet to help me decide, so I took a risk and purchased the camera to find out.

The Sensor
Tipped Wheel Chair - Lancaster, California
ISO 125, f/7.1, 1/100, 465mm.
RAW file post-processed using Alien Skin Exposure X and Nik Analog Efex.
The Panasonic ZS40 has an 18.1 megapixel High-Sensitivity 1/2.3" MOS sensor (which is similar to a back-lit CMOS sensor). That's a lot of light-sensitive "pixels" in a very tiny space! Resolution is resolution no matter the sensor size, and 18 megapixels are plenty for poster-sized prints.

When you have a small sensor with a lot of resolution one thing that tends to suffer is dynamic range (the ability to record details in the highlights and shadows). It's no surprise that this camera has a limited dynamic range, but it's not nearly as small as I had anticipated. The highlights clip rather sharply, but there is a surprisingly large amount of room in the shadows. For this reason it's best to underexpose slightly, about 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop, to prevent clipped highlights.

As the ISO increases the dynamic range decreases particularly sharp. Every camera loses some dynamic range as the ISO goes up, but the ZS40 seems to have a steeper curve than most. By ISO 800 the dynamic range is similar to that of slide film, which isn't terrible, but smaller than what's expected from most modern digital cameras at that ISO.
Following U.P. 8915 - Rosamond, California
ISO 100, f/7.1 1/250, 79mm.
RAW file post-processed using Alien Skin Exposure X.
Base ISO on this camera is 100, and at that ISO the camera will produce similar digital noise results as any other camera at base ISO. Studying 100% crops will show that even at base ISO there is a small amount of noise, but unless you're closely comparing this camera to a full-frame camera you're not going to even notice.

With each increase in ISO there is a noticeable increase in digital noise, although the difference in noise between ISO 100 and ISO 200 isn't large. ISO 400 on the ZS40 reminds me of ISO 800 on a camera with an APS-C sized sensor. The camera has a maximum ISO of 3200 (expandable to ISO 6400), but I found that the maximum practical ISO is 800--above that the results just aren't pleasing. Even at ISO 800 it's best to use RAW because the JPEGs are borderline unusable.

Colors are somewhat mediocre on this camera. I found that I prefer using the "Expressive" option in the "Creative Control" menu for color JPEGs. The RAW files look a bit washed out and you have to work to get the colors to come out. The camera has trouble producing vibrant reds and purples without losing details.
Red Rose Sky - Bakersfield, California
ISO 100, f/3.3, 1/1600, 24mm.
JPEG file post-processed using Alien Skin Exposure X.
The JPEG files don't have a lot of latitude for post-processing--it doesn't take much to begin seeing degradation in the images. This is especially true with photographs captured using ISO 400 and higher. I noticed that the camera seems to apply a heavy-handed dose of noise reduction to the JPEGs, and then applies a heavy-handed dose of sharpening. I think this accounts for why the JPEGs can't tolerate much manipulation.

Panasonic uses RW2 format ("Leica RAW") for their RAW files. It's a common type used by several camera brands, and most RAW editing programs can read it. The RAW files from the ZS40 seem to require more robust post-processing than most cameras I've worked with to get completed images.

The sensor on the Pansonic Lumix DMC-ZS40 is tiny with lots of resolution, but the results aren't as bad as one might think. At base ISO there's not much difference between images produced from this camera and those produced from cameras with larger sensors. It's high-ISO where this camera struggles, and it's about two stops behind typical modern APS-C sized sensors--the surprise here is that it's not further behind than that.

The Lens
Waiting For Hope - Bakersfield, California
ISO 160, f/7.1, 1/80, 265mm.
RAW file post-processed using Alien Skin Exposure X.
A camera's lens is equally as important, if not more important, than the sensor. The ZS40 has a Leica DC Vario-Elmar 24mm-720mm (equivalent) f/3.3-6.4 zoom lens permanently attached to it. On paper that seems pretty darn good for a camera that can easily fit into your pocket.

The lens is pretty sharp, but not quite like a prime lens (it might be as sharp as some prime lenses, but not a quality one). It's better than any kit zoom that you'd put on a DSLR. It's pretty good, but being a Leica lens I thought that it might be just a little better.

The largest aperture, available only at the widest focal lengths, is f/3.3, which isn't great, but perhaps it's the best that they could engineer in this small of a package. Because of this and the tiny sensor in the camera, achieving a small depth-of-field is challenging, but not impossible. Getting a large depth-of-field is no problem at all.
Rock In Spring - Tehachapi, California
ISO 100, f/6.4, 1/160, 720mm.
RAW file post-processed using Alien Skin Exposure X and Nik Color Efex.
At the telephoto end of the lens the largest aperture is f/6.4. Because of this, unless you are working in bright-light situations, you might consider using a tripod when zoomed all the way in. As you zoom out the largest aperture slowly increases until you reach the wide-angle end. 

The smallest aperture is f/8 (no matter the focal length), which (because of the tiny sensor) provides lots of depth-of-field. However, diffraction (which softens the image) is noticeable at this aperture. Diffraction actually seems to begins at f/7.1, but it's hardly noticeable at this aperture.

The sweet spot for sharpness at wide angle focal lengths seems to be between f/4 and f/5.6. From (roughly) 50mm-300mm it seems to be between f/5.6 and f/6.4, and beyond 300mm it seems to be at f/6.4 (or larger apertures when applicable).
I Broke My Foot - Tehachapi, California
ISO 400, f/7.1, 1/25, 84mm.
RAW file post-processed using Alien Skin Exposure X
Not surprisingly, there is some barrel distortion at wide angle focal lengths, most pronounced between 24mm and 30mm. It's not as bad as I thought it would be, and the camera will automatically fix this if you shoot JPEGs. 

There are pronounced chromatic aberrations (purple fringing) found at the edges of highlights. The camera will automatically correct this if you shoot JPEGs, but (obviously) you have to fix this yourself in RAW format.

I've noticed some very minor vignetting in the corners when using a large aperture at wide-angle focal lengths. It's barely noticeable and can be corrected in post-processing. Flare is very well controlled, even with that lens pointed directly at the sun.
Broken Fence In The Desert - Rosamond, California
ISO 100, f/4.4, 1/1300, 65mm.
JPEG file post-processed using Alien Skin Exposure X.
Below (roughly) 600mm the center stays pretty sharp. Longer than 600mm the lens seems to become a tad softer. Between 24mm and about 35mm there is some noticeable softness in the corners, and it's most obvious between 24mm and 28mm.

The minimum focus distance on the ZS40, available only at 24mm, is just over an inch from the end of the lens, which allows for macro photography (but at that focal length macro photography isn't all that practical). As you zoom the minimum focus distance decreases, but it remains fairly close, but not quite close enough for macro images.

When you focus close to the minimum distance you can achieve a narrow depth-of-field and you can even get some background bokeh (the out of focus area of an image). The bokeh produced by this camera is fairly creamy and pleasing, although not the best that I've seen (nor the worst). However, bokeh is often overrated in my opinion.
Frosted Tehachapi Mountain - Tehachapi, California
ISO 100, f/7.1, 1/500, 720mm.
RAW file post-processed using Alien Skin Exposure X and Nik Color Efex.
The longest focal length on the lens is 720mm, but I've found it to be somewhat impractical. The lens is at it's softest point when zoomed all the way in, there is atmospheric distortion when photographing distant objects, and there is the increased potential of camera shake when you're not using a tripod--all of which combine for sometimes disappointing results. It's best not to go beyond 600mm unless you need to.

At 24mm the lens barrel shows up at the edges of the frame. The camera automatically crops it out of the JPEGs, but it is clearly there in the RAW files. Because it requires cropping, 24mm isn't really 24mm, and so, unless you need that focal length for macro images, it's best not to go wider than 26mm.

The lens on the ZS40 is pretty sharp but not without flaws. It's not surprising that there are some issues because, after all, this is a zoom lens and not a prime lens. The lens not only has to zoom but also retract into the small camera body, so there are lots of moving parts. That they were able to get it as good as they did is actually quite an accomplishment.

The Camera
Cactus Bloom - Mojave, California
ISO 100, f/3.3, 1/200, 24mm.
JPEG file post-processed using Alien Skin Exposure X and Nik Color Efex.
One thing that really attracted me to the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS40 is the camera's size and weight. It's 4.4" x 2.5" x 1.3" and weighs half a pound. It easily and comfortably fits into your pocket. It's extraordinarily small and lightweight, perfect for travelling or hiking or pretty much anytime you don't want a bulky and heavy DSLR around your neck.

The camera has mediocre quickness. It takes a couple of seconds from powering on to capturing an image. Unless you have the camera set to Continuous Shooting Mode, it can only shoot about two frames per second (maybe not even that). Auto-focus is snappy in good light and less than snappy in dim light.

The camera's controls are via buttons, knobs, switches and wheels. Anyone who has ever used a DSLR will quickly understand how to operate this camera because the controls are similar. Some of the buttons can be customized to your liking. 
Young Girl Statue - Bakersfield, California
ISO 100, f/7.1, 1/125, 639mm.
RAW file post-processed using Alien Skin Exposure X.
Auto-focus, which uses contrast detection, is quick and accurate in bright light, and less so in dim light. The camera has face recognition and will automatically focus on the eyes. There are several different focus options: multi-area, center, tracking, single, face-detection, continuous, and manual. The camera has 23 focus points.

For manual focus you can focus peak which allows you to see a little better what's in focus and what's not (a useful feature). Manually focusing with this camera is not terribly difficult but not something I'd want to do all of the time.

Auto-white-balance is accurate in normal light. It seems a little too cool in the shade sometimes. Artificial light (especially florescent lights) seems to throw the white balance off and it often will be too warm. If you are shooting RAW don't worry about it. If you're shooting JPEGs simply make a test exposure to make sure that the white balance is correct.
An Early Spring In The Tehachapi Mountains - Tehachapi, California
ISO 100, f/5.9, 1/250, 322mm.
RAW file post-processed using Alien Skin Exposure X and Nik Color Efex.
The built-in light meter is usually spot-on accurate, although in high-contrast situations it seems to like to overexpose. You have three options to choose from: Multi, Center and Spot. The camera has two-stops exposure compensation.

Like many cameras, the ZS40 can be set to fully auto, semi-auto or fully manual modes. There's also panorama mode. Then there are two custom modes. Movie mode is accessed by pushing the record button on the back. It's similar to most other digital cameras, so it should look familiar.

Panoramas are easy to create with this camera. In panorama mode simply press the shutter button and sweep the direction the camera instructs. The camera does a pretty good job of stitching the exposures together. The panorama files are rather mediocre, with a resolution similar to about 10 megapixels.
Spinning Wheel - Tehachapi, California
ISO 400, f/7.1, 1/100, 678mm.
RAW file post-processed using Alien Skin Exposure X.
The in-camera JPEGs are less than stellar. The only way that I could get decent-looking out-of-camera JPEGs was with the Creative Control menu. There are 15 options, and only a handful are really usable. As I said before, the camera applies too much noise reduction, so you'll find yourself using RAW most of the time. You can capture RAW + JPEG simultaneously, even when using one of the Creative Control settings.

There is a built-in flash on the top-left-front of the camera body. It works pretty well as a fill-flash and the camera does a good job of balancing it with the exposure. It seems to take a couple of seconds to cycle between shots. For occasional casual use it's great, but if you frequently use a flash you'll be disappointed. Missing is a hot shoe, so you cannot use an external flash.

You can capture 1080p HD video with the ZS40. I haven't used the camera for video, other than some accidentally recorded clips after unintentionally pushing the record button. The built-in microphone is mono.
Cactus Blossoms - Mojave, California
ISO 100, f/4, 1/500, 47mm.
RAW file post-processed using Alien Skin Exposure X and Nik Color Efex.
The image stabilization built into the camera is pretty good. Using good technique, I was fairly consistently able to get sharp images handheld with the shutter as slow as 1/5 with wide angle focal lengths, 1/15 with midrange focal lengths, and 1/30 with longer telephoto focal lengths. At the far end (say 650mm to 720mm) the shutter speed should probably be kept 1/60 or higher.

The camera can capture HDR images, combining three different exposures into one. I'm not a big fan of HDR photography, but I did give it a try and it works ok. If you're into HDR photography you're probably better off combining exposures yourself on a computer instead of letting the camera do it.

The rear screen is a 3" LCD with 920k dots. It's not a touch screen, but it is a fairly decent in quality nonetheless. The camera also has a tiny built-in electronic viewfinder on the back, but I haven't found it to be particularly useful.
Union Pacific 8020 - Mojave, California
ISO 100, f/7.1, 1/320, 537mm.
RAW file post-processed using Alien Skin Exposure X.
Panasonic claims that the battery can capture 300 exposures on one charge, which is good but not great. However, on one occasion, I exhausted the battery after less than 250 exposures. It's probably a good idea to get a second battery. The battery charges in the camera using a USB cord.

The camera has WiFi included. You can wirelessly upload photographs to your computer or even control the camera with your cell phone. I've not set this up so I can't comment on how well it works.

GPS is included in the ZS40. The camera knows where it is and automatically records the city and state (and nearby landmark, if applicable) in the EXIF data. This is a good feature if you're trying to remember exactly where a photo was captured.
Over The Color Hill - Tehachapi, California
ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/200, 231mm.
RAW file post-processed using Alien Skin Exposure X and Nik Color Efex.
One great thing is that once you turn off all of the artificial sounds that the ZS40 makes--all the different beeps and so forth--the camera is pretty quiet. There's a click when the shutter opens and closes, and that's it pretty much it. It's perfect for street photography or anytime that you want to remain inconspicuous.

The camera is solidly built, mostly metal with some plastic. For the most part it feels tough. I think Panasonic did a good job of balancing build-quality with weight.

It's impressive that so much camera was stuffed into such a small package. I'm not sure that a better superzoom exists that's this small. The question is whether or not it is good enough for your purposes.

Conclusions
Cars In The Desert - Mojave, California
ISO 100, f/7.1, 1/400, 151mm.
RAW file post-processed using Alien Skin Exposure X.
I've talked a lot about the technical aspects of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS40 camera, but I haven't touched on the important question: is this a cheap point-and-shoot for amateurs or a pocket camera that can produce "professional" image quality?

The photographs you see here in this post were captured over a ten day period, just going about my daily business. You're actively looking for photographic opportunities when you have a camera with you and you're not when you are without a camera--you don't even know what you're missing. If not for a pocket camera these images wouldn't exist because I wouldn't have had a bigger camera with me.

The question is, then, is it better to have a "lesser" camera and capture images or a "better" camera and not capture images? A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush (or, a Panasonic ZS40 in your hand is worth a Canon 5DS and a Leica M at home on a shelf).
Blue & Yellow Dumpsters - Tehachapi, California
ISO 100, f/3.7, 1/1000, 35mm.
JPEG file post-processed using Alien Skin Exposure X.
This is not to suggest that the ZS40 could or should be your "primary" camera. But this camera does well as a take-with-me option. Going to the store? I can take this camera with me. Going on a hike? I can take this camera with me. And the image quality is just fine--I doubt anyone would know that the photographs weren't captured using a DSLR unless I told them. It fills a niche role of providing sufficiently good image quality and versatility when you don't have any other camera with you.

I would never call the ZS40 a perfect camera because that doesn't exist. And if it did exist it certainly wouldn't be in the same price point as this camera. This camera has plenty of flaws. But it also does some things surprisingly well.

For someone who doesn't own a DSLR but is considering purchasing one, this might be a good alternative if you're strapped for cash. You'd spend way more money on a good quality zoom lens for that DSLR than you'd spend on this camera. Yet the ZS40 has pretty much all of the controls that you'd expect to find on a DSLR.
Wind Turbine In The Hills - Tehachapi, California
ISO 100, f/7.1, 1/1300, 347mm.
RAW file post-processed using Alien Skin Exposure X.
My Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS40 was purchase from Costco. It came with a 16 GB SD card and a "leather" case. I found it on sale for $200. When this camera was released two years ago it had an MSRP of $450!

For $200 you can't go wrong. It would be hard to find a better value (price vs. quality). My recommendation is that every photographer should have a pocket camera of some sort, and this is one that should be considered.

If you are in the market for a digital camera that is small enough to fit into your pocket yet delivers decent image quality, the ZS40 is a good option. I wouldn't pay full MSRP, but for $200-$250, it's a great deal.

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