Lie a little when you're showing it to the Prophets of the Price Tag. Tell them it was supposed to sell for $1100 but you got a great deal and got it for $890. They'll never suspect you paid less than $300.
Four decades: Independent, honest, reliable Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously online since 1983
Lumix DMC-ZS40 camera breaks the mold for features and price
May 17, 2015
By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2015, Al Fasoldt
Pocket cameras usually sit at the low end of the price spectrum. I have one that looks sleek and expensive but has a fixed lens (meaning it can't focus, so you'd better not get your subject too close) and uses a couple of AAA batteries. It looks like $150 but costs $35. It takes dreadful photos.
Panasonic takes another approach. We've had three of the company's Lumix pocket cameras over the years, and they've all taken good photos. They each cost about $350.
But now Panasonic is showing Sony, Nikon and Canon how to make small cameras that take great photos, not just good ones. With great features, too, at a selling price of less than $300.
I'm referring to the fourth Lumix in our stable, which I bought at discount for $279. It's the Lumix DMC-ZS40.
I must pause for reassurance -- not for me but for you.
Your camera-collecting friends and your smarter-than-thou brother-in-law will insist on inculcating you into the religion of Price. Things that cost more are better than things that cost less, according to the theology of Price.
That this is demonstrably false has nothing to do with getting these folks to shut up. So I have a suggestion. If you buy the Lumix camera I'm telling you about today, lie a little when you're showing it to these Prophets of the Price Tag. Tell them it was supposed to sell for $1100 but you got a great deal and got it for $890.
It will be easy to convince them. Show them the "Leica" name on the lens.
Panasonic, the largest manufacturer in Japan, has had a productive relationship with Leica, the German inventor of the 35mm camera and maker of the finest camera lenses in the world. When Leica got caught out by the digital revolution, Panasonic and Leica combined their technical skills. Panasonic stated making Leica's superb digital cameras and Leica started designing Panasonic's lenses. Panasonic cameras with Leica lenses were branded as Lumix.
(Leica-designed lenses are not made in Germany. They're made in the last country left in the world where precision lens making -- for cameras, telescopes and research instruments, in particular -- is part of the national ethos, in an industry encouraged and protected by the government. And that country is, of course, Japan.)
Here are just some of the features of the Lumix DMC-ZS40:
An 18-megapixel sensor.
A super-long telephoto lens, with a range from 24mm to 720mm (expressed in 35mm terms to make comparisons fair). That's "30X" in the jargon of camera fans.
Good macro capabilities for extreme closeups.
Automatic GPS location tagging of all photos using the built-in Global Positioning System receiver.
Built-in Wi-Fi that works with free Panasonic apps for Apple and Android so that photos can be automatically transferred to a phone or tablet, with an additional benefit of full remote control from a phone or tablet.
An extremely sharp view screen on the back of the camera.
An eye-level electronic viewfinder.
Raw photo capability.
Extremely fast focusing and light sensing.
Full HD video with stereo audio using built-in left and right microphones.
Full manual control of every parameter.
Automatic scene detection that's undoubtedly the best in the business.
A rugged aluminum alloy and polymer construction.
We bought the Lumix at Costco while we were traveling through the northwest. I couldn't resist the discount -- only $279 for a camera that lists for $450 -- and, softie that I am for free extras, I couldn't turn down a free leather case from Panasonic. It was made especially for the ZS40 and sports two SD-card-size pockets on the inside and one battery-size pocket on the front, beneath a magnetic snap-close flap. ("Leather" is becoming a generic term for anything that feels like soft plastic, I suppose, but the case sure does smell like, um, kinda-sorta leather, more or less. Don't press me on this.)
This camera is simply superb. Leica lenses and cameras are the Rolls Royces of the camera world. Others might make competing products that challenge Leica in one way or another, but there is only one Standard of the World in cameras, and that's Leica.
The Lumix has a great lens, as you'd expect, but what's even more impressive is the range of the zoom. The 30X lens has about twice the range of most zoom lenses -- one of my cameras, a very good one, is impressive with its 16X zoom -- and has very little distortion at the top of its range; so little, in fact, that there might as well have been no deterioration at all.
Normal and wide angle shots were impeccable. The first serious camera I owned had a 28mm wide angle lens in its "kit" (separate lens group), and I remember how impressed I was then, in the '60s, with 28mm. A 24mm lens is a delight.
Uniquely, you can control manual focus and many other functions two different ways -- by nudging a small joystick ring on the back of the camera, near your right thumb, or by turning a large knurled ring at the base of the lens just as us old-timers did it in days of yore. (It's a big ring, only a few millimeters shy of the camera's full height.) I haven't experimented with the front ring yet -- it's so much a reminder of my war correspondent days with my totally manual 35mm camera that I've tried not to think about using it -- but the idea sounds great. (And, truth to tell, now that I've embarrassed myself with my comment about the old days I'll probably start using the front ring as soon as I take another picture.)
The camera's top dial lets you choose manual scene modes and other manual and semi-manual functions. But you're better off sticking that dial in "iA" mode for all normal shooting. It's Panasonic's incredibly accurate "Intelligent Automatic" mode, which usually sets all its parameters correctly no matter how difficult the scene. (I'm not sure I should be using the word "usually," since I can't recall a single mistake made by iA mode in all the photos I've taken in the last few years by any of my Lumix cameras, all of which had the iA function.)
Videos I took were as good as I've taken with a camcorder. The stereo mikes are close together, restricting the stereo effect, but taking HD videos with a monaural sound track is a dreadful experience once you hear the depth of the "soundstage" you get from stereo mikes. You have a choice of many video qualities and recording limits, from full 1920 by 1080 60fps progressive-frame HD down to the tired old 1948-era TV screen mode. (Why would anyone take videos like that? C'mon, tell your friends they're nuts to do that. Or be nicer and just disable that mode in their camera. That's what friends are form anyway.) The Lumix's best video quality uses AVCHD encoding, but you can choose industry-standard MP4 encoding instead.
The flash worked good any flash should, and that's all I'll say. Well, almost all. I'm the guy who teaches photography students that flash is the enemy -- you might have heard someone ranting about "this guy who says you should stop using flash" -- that's me, and nothing will ever change my mind. Flash photography destroys natural shadows and creates deer-in-the-headlights portraits every time it's used on people and pets. Fill flash can be handy, however, when you're unavoidably shooting toward the light, so don't leave flash turned off when you really need it.
I'm also a stickler on the need for good grips on cameras. The worst examples are cellphones, and even though my cellphone has an outstanding camera I usually can't seem to hold it properly -- as if there actually is a proper way to hold a 5-inch slab in front of your face. The Lumix has a clever rubber ridge, thick and sticky, running north and south right where your middle finger falls while you are looking through the eye-level viewfinder, and it's about the best non-grip-shaped grip I've ever seen.
The viewfinder is surprisingly useful. It's at the upper left corner, barely the size of an Altoid, but there's a diopter adjustment so you can take photos with your glasses off (diopters correct for vision defects) and there's a bright (and very small) LCD screen behind the eyepiece. A button lets you toggle the display to the large rear screen. I can't tell you much about the rear screen except that it was sharp, with exceptional resolution. However, I shot all my photos using the eye-level finder.
GPS tagging was accurate and fairly quick. Pictures taken in a turn-on-press-the-shutter-and-turn-off frenzy probably won't get tagged with proper GPS locations, but otherwise the place names of your shooting locations will show up in the normally hidden tags that are encoded into digital photos. (Most photo software will show that info.) You can turn GPS location tagging off if you don't want your ex's lawyer to know where you took those pictures.
The built-in Wi-Fi worked well. You can connect easily to a regular network or directly to a tablet or phone -- or, probably, to a computer, but I didn't try that. Free Lumix apps for Apple and Android control what happens when the camera is connected. You can, of course, set up the camera to auto-upload photos to another device, but you can also control the camera from a phone or tablet -- adjusting focus and zoom, for example, and taking photos or videos remotely. This is truly cool.
But the most exciting feature, at least for serious amateurs, has to be the camera's raw-photo capability. Raw photos are taken directly from the camera's image sensor without the kind of processing that takes place normally. In-camera processing normally includes sharpening, color shifting, light-and-dark boosting and, in the case of JPGs, a reduction in dynamic range. Without in-camera processing, the camera skips all image compression, too, of course. In plain English, that means raw photos won't have all the subtle and sometimes obvious unpleasantness that accompanies JPGs.
I realize JPGs have taken over the Internet and no one seems to complain if Kim Kardashian's butt-shot was taken using JPG or not. But the phenomenon of JPG processing is a perfect example of the Muffler Syndrome. You will never hear how loud your muffler is getting until someone points it out to you. Likewise, you will never -- I promise, never -- notice JPG artifacts until look at the raw and JPG versions of the same photo, side by side on a huge monitor if possible, or flicked back and forth on a normal monitor.
(If your photo software won't do that, get rid of it and use photo software that will. Picasa is good; I teach it, so come to one of my Picasa classes the next time it's on the OASIS class list. I'm astonished that so many people who take pictures haven't a clue about doing something with them; they just take pictures, leave them on the memory card in the camera, and go on with life. Would they go grocery shopping, buy $80 in food, and just leave it in the cart?)
RAW photos can't lie. So I was fascinated by the sensor noise barely visible at 200 and 300 percent magnification in the Lumix's raw output. This isn't a sign of a flaw; it's just testimony to the utterly unadulterated nature of a raw photo. This sort of sensor noise is filtered out in the camera in normal mode, but you can do a much better job after the fact. I used both Snapheal Pro and Photoshop to clean up and sharpen the raw images. Snapheal Pro is easier to work with but still does an excellent job with raw photos, but if you use Photoshop you'll appreciate Adobe's free Camera Raw add-on software.
If your digital photo experiences have been confined to JPG photos, as is likely for most casual photographers, you are going to be shocked and delighted when you see the first raw images that come from the ZS40. In raw photos that are properly exposed and focused, and, ahem, when the camera has been held solidly, the smallest and least significant areas of images become subtle scenes of the larger canvas, equally as sharp and clear as every other area; really good raw photos seem to have come as much from a master's sharp watercolor brush as from a sensor reacting to light.
As you can see, I am much more than simply impressed by the DMC-ZS40. Cameras so small and easy to carry normally carry penalties in certain areas compared to, say, DSLRs. But this Lumix comes about as close as possible -- raw capability, eye-level viewfinder, GPS and Wi-Fi, stereo movie-making, great photo quality, high pixel count and much more. You might be able to find it at about the price I paid -- use Google and use the term BEST PRICE in the search -- but even at considerably more money this camera would still be a high-end bargain.
Al Fasoldt is a retired technology writer for The Post Standard newspaper in Syracuse, New York. His landmark column, Technofile, is the world's longest running online column. Read any of the thousands of current and previous columns at technofileonline.com.