Monday, 22 May 2017

Panasonic Lumix DC-FZ82 for Birding and Wildlife Video and Still Photographs: First Impressions

Readers will know that I was a fairly early adopter of a superzoom bridge camera for wildlife. Nothing else bar an APS-size-sensored DSLR and a lens of at least 600 mm focal length has the reach. With binoculars, sometimes a telescope and tripod, and a video camera, weight becomes important.

Self-defined real photographers and their familiars, the photographic journalists, ignored bridge cameras for a very long time but they are now so important to bird and other wildlife photographers that they have to be taken seriously. More and more wildlife watchers are using bridge cameras of varying zoom ranges for the simple reason that they are light and versatile. Indeed, we are just back from a wildlife trip in Europe where nobody was carrying a DSLR or CSC—a first as far as we can remember.

Yes, the sensor is small—it has to be—and so there is more noise especially as the ISO rating is jacked up for long shots and/or in poor light. And, yes, the image is subject to the effects of diffraction at any aperture smaller than about f/4 (1/2.3” sensor) but you can get a shot of a bird with the equivalent of a 1000 mm lens or longer and get a very good image especially after a little tweaking in Lightroom and/or Photoshop. As well as the well-known disadvantages of a small sensor, for wildlife photography there are advantages. Depth of field is greater. For example, with the Lumix DC-FZ82 at its maximum focal length of 215 mm (equivalent to 1200 mm on a full-frame 35 mm camera), the depth of field for f/5.6 at 20 metres is 54 cm. By contrast, the depth of field of that 1200 mm lens on a full-frame camera is just 9 cm. So getting an image is easier.

I started with the Nikon P510 and then, two years ago, moved on to the P610. Since then though I have moved to taking 4K video while outputting to HD (1080). This has given me enormous advantages: doubling the size of the image in the frame during editing in Final Cut Pro X and thereby doubling the effective focal length of the taking lens; zooming, panning and tilting in post-production; adding additional stabilisation, for example. The appearance of a new generation of bridge cameras with large zoom range offering long focal lengths plus 4K video and RAW for stills was too much of a temptation.

I had a choice between the Nikon Coolpix B700 and newly-on-sale Panasonic’s Lumix DC-FZ82 (FZ80 in the USA apparently). After reading a few reviews and looking at the specifications (which I could not find on the Panasonic website) I chose the Panasonic. There were compromises on features whichever way I had gone.

Neither camera has GPS—a serious omission for a travel camera. Yes I know that I can use my iPhone to make a log file and then do the whole GPS thing in Lightroom or use Panasonic’s iPhone app-Camera wifi connection but it is extra hassle. Why are camera manufacturers leaving out features they once considered essential or desirable?

I have now had a week or so to look at what the FZ82 can do. It does not have some features that the Nikon P610 had and the B700 has. The screen is fixed; there is no eye sensor to switch between view finder and screen; there is no easy bird watching setting. But focusing does seem to be faster (albeit still contrast detection) and the viewfinder brightness can be changed.

I am not showing any photographs or videos here; plenty of examples can be found in more formal reviews of the camera like this very useful one.

The reviews made much of the fact that the FZ82 has a touch-screen focusing, and the standard setting is for this to be activated. However, as also noted on this site where birders discuss their experiences of the FZ82, there is one severe disadvantage to left handers (actually left-eyers) like me. I could not work out why the focusing point was moving all over the place. I eventually realised the end of my nose in contact with the screen was shifting it about. Even when the screen display is “off”, the touch screen is still “on”. Right-handed users with a short distance between nose and eye have the same problem. I was less than content with this really silly arrangement. For most purposes I have disabled the feature, but kept a custom setting where it is on so that I can use touch focus when the camera is on a tripod. There are also discrepancies between the instruction manual (it has to be downloaded) and what happens in the camera in relation to touch focusing.

After that irritating start to getting the camera into a useable state, I tried some long- and short-distance stills and 4K video in good and poor light. Some reviewers have questioned whether RAW would be of much use in a camera with such a small sensor. I have found the jpg output to be rather flat, flatter than on the Nikon P610, and that it is more effective to work on the RAW files in Lightroom than on the jpgs (simultaneous RAW/jpg recording to the card is possible).

Reviewers have mentioned noise even at base ISO (which is low at 80). I compared the noise with the P610 and it looks about the same or slightly better. However, autoISO takes the setting up pretty quickly and I had several shots where the ISO was 1600; noise was obvious and needed attention in Lightroom. 

I am very pleased with the 4K video. I imported some into FCP X then balanced the colour. A quick export to a Blu-ray disc produced images on television that I really could not distinguish from my Sony 4K to HD footage. The sound quality seems to be better than in the P610 as well. I put the camera on a tripod and extended the lens. With the cropping for 4K, the working range of the lens in full-frame 35 mm terms is 28-1680 mm. I was able to fill the frame with a Blackbird digging worms out of the grass at the end of the garden. I had the stabilisation off. The travel tripod I was using is pretty stable but the effects of the wind coming round the side of the house could be seen in the form of an occasional slight wobble in the image. But 1680 mm equivalent focal length is a delicious prospect for future trips (with tripod!) especially since I can double that without loss of final quality during editing in FCPX—3700 mm, which deserves an exclamation mark.

I have also used the P610 for time lapse videos when travelling. That was easy. Start the process off and a time lapse video appeared when all the shots had been taken. With the FZ82, you have to find Time Lapse in the menu, set the number of shots and the interval between shots. No clues given as to sensible settings, so you either have to do the calculation in your head or use an App on the phone. You can then either make the 4K or other video format in camera (taking a few seconds) or use the collected stills in another programme because, unlike the P610, the original still images are retained.

There are all sorts of ways of using custom function buttons, custom settings for particular purposes and a customisable quick menu. I needed to go through the whole thing to see just what is there.

Basically, the camera will do what I want it to do. There are irritations and things missing that I would like to have. I do not know if the Nikon B700 would have been better, worse or more suitable for my particular requirements. I do, however, still have to do more tests on AF modes, for example, to see which is best for particular subjects, like birds in trees with twigs all around and then to arrange a standard setting that can be accessed by turning as few knobs, pressing as few buttons and selecting items on screen as possible. The essence of a wildlife camera is speed of being ready to press the still or video button (the latter being, incidentally, a little too small and depressed) from either a standing start or another setting. You may only have a matter of seconds to get the shot.

Finally, a plea to the manufacturers. There is a vast market for birding cameras. No bridge camera is ideal at present because the speed of focusing is still relatively slow. But on-sensor phase focus devices are being fitted to small cameras. Yes, they are more expensive but the first manufacturer to put it in a superzoom bridge would capture the birding and other wildlife market. It seems that bridge cameras are made down to a price as the poor-(wo)man’s proper camera. Double the price and put in the features we all need (phase autofocus, stabilisation as effective as Sony’s BOSS on its camcorders, mobile screen, high-quality viewfinder, GPS, the capacity to turn off whole suites of functions not needed in the field, for example) and the WILDLIFE CAMERA—a new category of camera for marketing purposes—would sell, just as the finest and most expensive binoculars and telescopes sell.