Sturdily built and feature-heavy for a midrange compact, the forthcoming Panasonic DMC-ZS40 is very much a point-and-shoot for 2014. It’s a reaction to the encroaching versatility of crossover cameras like the Samsung Galaxy Camera 2 and Nokia Lumia 1020. Unlike those shooters, however, the DMC-ZS40 is first and foremost a camera —there’s no identity crisis here.
Unveiled at CES 2014, the ZS40 is a camera for those who prefer the simplicity of a compact, fixed-lens device, but are interested in learning a bit more about the technical aspects of photography — just not enough to warrant the purchase of a system camera.
For beginners, the ZS40 features a slim design with a range of versatile controls including automatic effects, HD video, and advanced connectivity (Wi-Fi, NFC, and GPS). For more skilled photographers, there’s the Leica 30x optical zoom, manual exposure controls, focus peaking, RAW formatting, and electronic viewfinder (EVF). Together, these features make for a point-and-shoot that’s versatile enough to satisfy a wide swath of potential users.
That said, for an MSRP of $449.95, you may want to consider taking the two-foot leap into the system camera category. Many mirrorless models and even a few traditional DSLRs can be had for comparable prices, all while offering a longer, potentially more satisfying growth path.
Design & usability: Sturdy, rugged, versatile … so it seems
The first thing you’ll notice about the Lumix ZS40 is that familiar, sturdy Panasonic build. The metallic trim may not be real metal, but as a design element it harkens back to classic Panasonic models, and offers a touch of elegance in an otherwise routine form factor.
The lens-mounted control ring is another bonus, giving you one-touch access to a setting of your choosing — something enthusiasts will appreciate for active, on-the-fly shooting. And really, that’s the market the ZS40 is aiming for. Weighing in at half a pound, this 1.4-inch-wide point-and-shoot is something to be tucked away and removed at a moment’s notice. It might not produce DSLR-quality shots, but you can carry it anywhere without even thinking about it.
As with most Panasonic cameras, the menus are straightforward and responsive, but we found the live mode on the 3-inch LCD to be a bit cluttered for our taste. The 30x zoom also felt a bit unwieldy at times. Still, even with the lens fully extended the autofocus functioned pretty quickly, and images came out crisp (as far as we could tell on the show floor, anyway).
Aside from the lens-mounted control ring, the physical user interface is completely uninventive. You get the standard four-way multi-function pad, central OK/Menu button, and four flanking buttons, each with a dedicated shooting or playback function. The best thing we can say about it is that it works, and it’s all on the right-hand side of the camera. Truly, this is a camera meant for single-handed shooting.
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Features: Plenty to help turn a novice into an intermediate
What you should be asking yourself about this camera is, “Do I need a 30x zoom lens?” That’s really the ZS40’s defining feature. The extensive manual controls, lens ring, and EVF are all rare in a compact shooter, but this is still a crossover device. The 1/2.3-inch CMOS image sensor isn’t going to excite anyone, nor is the 100-6400 ISO range. The 18.1-megapixel resolution is plenty — perhaps too much for the sensor size, in fact — but at the end of the day, the real selling point is the 24-720mm Leica-branded zoom lens.
For the more socially oriented users, the ZS40 includes a host of connectivity options. Wi-Fi, GPS, and NFC allow you to remotely share or send images, or even to operate the camera from a mobile device. That last feature may come in handy if you intend to use the ZS40 as a video camera. With full-HD (1080p) recording at 60 frames per second, the ZS40 appears a fully capable video machine. And if you’re worried about image blur at the extended zoom range, there’s the Hybrid Optical Image Stabilizer Plus for both video and photo capture.
Additional features include a level gauge, composition guide, Panasonic’s usual iA (Intelligent Auto) mode, HDR (high dynamic range) capture, 10 fps high-speed burst shooting, and a 3-D photo mode. Also present are Panasonic’s proprietary Creative Control, Creative Retouch, and Creative Panorama shooting effects.
The ZS40 is set to launch this spring, and we have to imagine it will appeal to a specific subset of camera consumers: on-the-go photographers in need of a versatile backup camera. With its extensive manual controls and considerable zoom range, the ZS40 offers just enough control to satisfy advanced shooters willing to compromise on ultimate image quality in the name of pocketability. And hey, it even has solid video capabilities.
However, as a primary shooter it’s likely to appeal only to beginners. At $449, we can’t see the appeal of a fixed-lens shooter over many of the equally rugged and compact mirrorless system cameras on the market. And then there’s the fact that, historically, we’ve often found ZS-series cameras exciting on paper but less-than-stellar in the lab. As with most cameras we preview on the trade show floor, we’ll ultimately have to withhold full judgment until we get our hands on a production model for our full testing procedure.