Panasonic FZ1000 Review – Zooming ahead

by | Aug 12, 2014

Superzoom cameras are not exactly known for their image quality. They are often referred to as “bridge” cameras because they seek to bridge the gap between point-and-shoot and DSLR, but the only real way in which they do this is with their looks. Otherwise, a superzoom is really nothing like a DSLR at all. It combines a point-and-shoot size sensor with a very long lens, neither of which are things that are found on entry-level DSLRs. The result is a camera that really only functions as a niche product, offering neither the convenience of a smaller point-and-shoot nor the image quality of a DSLR.

Or at least, that’s how it used to be.

I won’t claim that the Panasonic FZ1000 is the first real bridge camera. Its most direct competitor, Sony’s RX10, came out before it, and you could even argue that the smaller RX100, now in its third iteration, is a bridge camera, too—if not on looks, then certainly on specifications. But Panasonic has combined a 1” sensor (the same format as Sony’s RX series) with a 25-400mm (full frame equivalent) lens, thus creating the first camera that is both truly a superzoom and truly a bridge camera. But the ace up its sleeve is that it also bridges another a gap, between consumer and professional video.

Panasonic FZ1000 Top Deck

On the still photo side, the 20MP, 1” sensor delivers high dynamic range, good high-ISO capability, and plenty of resolution, which puts the FZ1000 well ahead of the superzoom competition. Other than an over-sharpening of in-camera JPEGs, I really have no complaints (the RAWs look incredible). It holds its place, as a bridge camera should, between a DSLR and a point-and-shoot—at least for image quality. It does not, however, offer even a smidgeon of compactness. It is a big camera. For all intents and purposes, it is as large and heavy as any entry-level DSLR (and bigger than some). Of course, no DSLR offers a 25-400mm zoom, especially at this size. In practice, I didn’t find this camera to be significantly bulkier than any other superzoom, which have always been too big to fit in a pocket, anyway. So long as I’m taking a camera that requires its own bag, I’d rather have this one than another superzoom that may be a little smaller.

While the 25-400mm zoom range may not match those of smaller-sensor superzooms from Canon and Nikon, I found it to be plenty good enough for me. And, given that the sensor is so much better, you can crop significantly and still end up with usable results. Furthermore, the aperture of f/2.8-4 may not be that fast, but it is faster than most other superzooms, even before taking into account the larger sensor. With a 1” sensor, low light performance is going to be much better even at a smaller aperture. That larger frame also gives you some control over depth of field, helping with portraits or any situation where subject isolation is desired. It’s certainly not as much as what you get with an APS-C, Four Thirds, or full-frame camera, but it’s much better than other compacts.

Superzooms have often promised more than what they actually delivered. In theory, their long lenses should be great for sports and wildlife. However, the advantage of a long lens is often compromised by a lack of performance in everything else. Slow autofocus and processing times, high noise levels, lackluster color depth and dynamic range, etc. The FZ1000, though, does away with nearly every complaint. It uses the same Depth of Defocus autofocus system that Panasonic introduced on the GH4, so autofocus is incredibly fast. Not only does it beat the RX10, it’s right up there with interchangeable lens cameras. Complimenting the AF performance is a nearly imperceptible shutter lag and short viewfinder blackout. Combined with up to 12 frames-per-second continuous shooting, this makes for a superzoom camera that is actually capable of shooting high-speed action. Which, you know, is how they should have been all along. If you like shooting birds but don’t like spending 10 grand on a lens and haven’t been satisfied with previous superzooms, you need to give this camera a try.

Panasonic Lumix FZ1000 back

Unlike large telephoto lenses on DSLRs, long-lens compacts (if you can still call the FZ1000 a compact) are meant to be hand held. That means a good image stabilization system is key, and I can safely say that Panasonic has done a great job with this on the FZ1000. Between both lens and sensor stabilization, it reduces camera shake on a total of 5 axes. Not only does that mean sharp results, but it also makes it easy to frame your subject, even at 400mm. I still appreciated a steady hand, and pros will undoubtedly opt for a tripod anyway, but it’s pretty amazing how far image stabilization has come.

The 5-axis stabilization and Depth of Defocus AF systems will also come in handy for this camera’s other killer feature: 4K video. The FZ1000 is officially the first sub-$1000 camera to shoot video at 4K resolution, and it does it quite well, even borrowing some features from the GH4 like the flat “CinelikeD” image profile and a 100mbps codec. Also similar to the GH4 is the 2.4-million dot EVF, which looks stunning. But GH4 it is not. Obviously, Panasonic targeted video professionals with the $1700 GH4; it would be odd to suddenly bring all of those features to a $900 glorified point-and-shoot. So while 4K video is present, it is only available at 30fps QFHD—no 24fps, and no Cinema 4K. Also, when shooting 4K, the sensor is cropped pretty significantly in order to produce a 1:1 pixel readout without line skipping or pixel binning. That’s great for sharpness, but it means the focal length changes to 37-592mm, cutting off a good portion of the wide-angle. When shooting in 1080p mode, the sensor is not cropped, but of course the results are not as sharp. You can shoot up to 120fps in 1080p for slow motion, though, which is pretty amazing. As for audio, there is a built-in stereo mic and 3.5mm input for an external microphone, but there is no headphone jack. D’oh. I would have also liked to have seen a built-in ND filter, which is not only found on Sony’s RX10 but also on Panasonic’s aging LX7, so it’s a little surprising to not see it here. While this doesn’t matter much for stills, it can make a huge difference for video. I shot some clips at a beach on a bright day, and it would have really helped to have an ND filter to keep the shutter speed down.

All whining aside, the video features of this camera are far and above what anyone else is offering at this price, but it’s just a little odd that Panasonic chose to throw in some professional functionality, like 4K and the flat CinelikeD profile, without even a basic 24fps mode for 4K. (24fps is available at 1080p). I wish I had more time to shoot a sample video, but instead I’ll turn it over to the professionals:

So, best-in-class still image quality and best-in-class video? What’s not to love? Well, there are some imperfections. The aforementioned Sony RX10, while not really a superzoom, set the benchmark for this type of camera: a 20MP 1” sensor and 24-200mm f/2.8 lens. It also set the benchmark for price: $1300. While the RX10 has since dropped to $999, Panasonic still wanted to offer more for less. The lens is twice as long, and the price is just $899. So what’s the catch? Well, no, it doesn’t hold the f/2.8 aperture out to 200mm, but maintaining f/4 to 400mm is no small accomplishment, either. The real thing Panasonic had to sacrifice to keep costs down was build quality. The plastic body of the FZ1000 feels vastly inferior to the weather-sealed, metal body of the RX10. This is particularly disappointing coming from Panasonic, who has a history of putting out cameras that feel very well-made. Every one of their Micro Four Thirds cameras, from the professional GH4 to the diminutive GM1, feel like carefully constructed machines (with the possible exception of the G6, but oh well). The FZ1000 feels more like a toy, except for the lens, which is housed in a metal cylinder. This mishmash draws even more attention to the plasticky body, though, and feels a little like putting Ferrari wheels on a Radio Flyer.

But don’t let my nitpicking over the camera’s palpability deter you, because despite how it feels, it still functions like an enthusiast-level camera. There are physical controls for just about everything, and five programable function buttons to customize it to your liking. My favorite feature is a simple switch on the lens housing that lets you select zoom or focus control for the lens ring. Manual focus on compact cameras has always been a waste of time, as you had to fumble around with a button or minuscule dial on the back of the camera to change focus, but Panasonic has made it easy and accessible. Add to this the fact that you have some depth of field control and a very detailed EVF, and I can see photographers actually enjoying manual focus on this camera.

The Panasonic FZ1000 may be the closest thing yet to the camera for every situation. It is not, however, the camera for everyone. People looking for a travel camera may be put off by its size and weight, and people who don’t need a 400mm lens may be better off with the weather-sealed RX10 (or should just put the money toward an interchangeable lens system.) But, when we look at the camera within its niche, it completely dominates it. Yes, it is roughly twice as expensive as other superzooms, but it is more than twice as good. As a second camera to a DSLR, or as a primary camera for outdoor enthusiasts, adventurers, and amateur sports photographers, you will not be disappointed. The FZ1000 has the zoom, performance, and image quality to keep you happy for a long time—just keep an ND filter handy for shooting video in bright light, and don’t get it wet.

…And never, ever feed it after midnight.

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