Panasonic Lumix ZS50 Digital Camera Review
Panasonic's ZS50 travel zoom trades megapixels for low-light prowess
By the Numbers
Like the ZS40 before it, the ZS50 is a monster on paper. Sporting a 30x zoom, reduced pixel count meant to improve quality, and improved EVF, the ZS50 aims to return honor to the ZS-series. But does it have too much in common with its predecessor to keep it from changing our tune about the ZS-series?
Color and White Balance
Let's start with what the ZS50 does fairly well, color and white balance. We were a bit surprised to see the ZS50 post very average scores considering last years ZS40 was one of the best we have ever seen. Just to be clear where our disappointment comes from, the ZS50 didn't do poorly in these categories, but the ZS40 crushed them last year.
In the color test the ZS50 scored a ∆C00 saturation error of 2.12 with an overall saturation of 106.7%. This is a solid score–especially for a point-and-shoot–but it's just not what we saw from the ZS40 last year. However, it's on par with what both Canon and Sony's travel zooms produce.
When it comes to white balance, the ZS40 was a superstar among all cameras, not just point-and-shoots. The accuracy it showed us last year was so impressive that we ran the test multiple times more than usual to make sure it was true. Unfortunately, the ZS50 does not carry over the freak-of-nature accuracy, but it isn't bad.
The auto white balance recognized daylight with near perfect accuracy, but stumbled with fluorescent before falling flat on incandescent. These results too are fairly average for the class of camera it's in, just a shame that it couldn't repeat last years herculean effort. We suggest you stick with custom white balance if you want true colors.
Sharpness, as we mentioned in the main review, is a tricky thing to pull off with long lenses, small sensors, and small apertures. Unfortunately, Panasonic has not defeated physics with the ZS50, so it suffers from the same diffraction limitation that plagues all of these cameras.
A camera with a 1/2.3" sensor, like the ZS50, that limit is when the aperture is just under f/5. The ZS50 goes from f/3.3 to f/5 when it reaches just 4x zoom. That means that the 5x-30x zoom range are all suffering great loss in quality due to the diffraction limit. This makes details muddy and images seem blurred even when they are perfectly in focus.
This isn't a flaw from manufacturers, but a sacrifice that physics demand. If you make the sensor bigger, you lose the zoom ratio. If you make the lens bigger, you lose the small size of the camera.
Noise is always the nemesis of small sensor cameras, there just ins't enough surface area to gather much light. It's another sacrifice demanded by physics. However, the ZS50 does a better job than the ZS40 of handling its noise thanks to the smaller resolution. Shrinking the resolution gave Panasonic more room for larger the photodiodes, thus being able to collect more light.
Even with the changes, the ZS50 is pretty atrocious at high ISOs. When you get above the ISO 800 mark, you start to get noise that slowly turns your images into detail-less blobs of color. If you look at Rosie, ISO 1600 is useable in a pinch, but ISO 3200 and 6400 are off-limits unless you are going for the abstract look.
Video on the ZS50 falls victim to the same dull details as the still images. In testing, it resolved 450 LP/PH horizontally and 500 LP/PH vertically, which is fairly average for point-and-shoots. It is capable of 1080/60p video which is silky smooth with little artifacting or trailing.
When we switched over to low-light, sharpness dropped to 350 LP/PH horizontally and 450 LP/PH vertically. While this isn't ideal, we knew the camera would struggle a bit in low-light. Sensitivity also took a hit on the ZS50. The ZS40 got as low as 9 lux while being able to still expose an image above MTF50, but the ZS50 only got to 15 lux before it hit that mark. This means you'll need more light to shoot useable video than with previous ZS-series cameras.
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