Tech Review: Zoom In… and In… and In… with the Lumix DC-FZ80

Bridge cameras aren’t usually my thing. If I want a small camera, I’ll go very small – point and shoot small, or my iPhone – and if I want better picture quality or more control I’ll go for my full frame DSLR. There’s no in between for me, so I was sceptical that the Lumix DC-FZ80 could impress me, but after carrying it for two weeks and testing its features even I’ve come around to its benefits.

If you’re a new hobby photographer or videographer, just learning what the exposure triangle is and without the budget for a Super High End Camera, the FZ80 would be a very smart purchase. It doesn’t feel like an expensive professional camera in your hands – it’s light and plastic-y and small – but its features are designed to make the camera user experience easier and get you the results you can see in your head, even if you don’t know where to start to make it happen. From there it’s easy enough, as is standard now, to send the photo to your phone via the camera’s wifi function for instant editing and posting in real time. Built-in time lapse and stop-motion video functions will make life much easier for budding video content creators, but the lack of a flip-up screen will probably nix this camera for the vlogging crowd.

Shot with the FZ80 at 1/125 sec, f2.8, ISO 80. Yes, the donuts were fantastic, thanks for asking!
The first thing the Panasonic website’s FZ80 page tells you is about the lens’ 20-1200mm zoom range, to “capture moments near and far”. It’s not wrong – I took the camera to Brisbane’s most notable lookout at Mt Coot-tha to test that zoom and was blown away by how close it could get me. Of course, it’s pretty impractical to shoot at 1200mm in the dark handheld, even with fantastic image stabilisation, but for someone travelling on a bus tour or cruise, or even for some killer wildlife shots at the zoo, that kind of focal length can make all the difference when you’re forced to shoot from afar. On the flip side, at its widest it’s very wide, even with a cropped sensor – wide enough to introduce some distortion for sick extreme sports shots if you’re willing to get that close to the action. As someone accustomed to shooting with prime lenses at fixed focal lengths, I could feel myself getting lazier and lazier as I didn’t have to “zoom in with my feet” – it was a nice feeling!

I mistakenly took my first several images with the FZ80 set to its lowest file size setting, and didn’t realise until I was researching the camera’s RAW capability. I then spent ages hunting through menus until I found the RAW option, and then another age lamenting that I hadn’t realised before I took my first batch of night photos. I like to edit my photos, and sometimes experiment with editing styles so shooting in RAW is important to me. I imagine in this day and age of does-it-match-my-Insta-theme-tho, it’s important to others too.

One of my accidentally-shot-in-very-low-res night shots, using the scene mode’s night star burst setting.
1/15 sec, f3.2, ISO 1600.
Panasonic’s iA (Intelligent Auto) feature continues to impress me – I first encountered it on the GH5, and I could see myself gravitating towards it with any of the Lumix range if I was taking photos or videos while travelling, to avoid having to make huge setting changes frequently across different lighting situations. It does a great job of making the right creative decisions for you, leaving you to focus on composition and timing, and the addition of “intelligent auto plus” mode introduces some control back to the user, allowing you to fine tune brightness and colour tone but letting the camera take care of the rest. A great place to start for absolute beginners who, on top of learning how to use a camera, are also learning how to SEE the world as a photographer in terms of light and shadow.

The 4K photo feature is cool, but honestly doesn’t do much for me. It makes for a great novelty, if trying to capture the squad mid-jump-shot on that beach holiday, but for anything more unpredictable it’s a little too precise to be practical. When 4K photo mode is enabled, the camera captures a one second long burst of frames of 4K video, then allows you to review them as a sequence and save the ones you like. I can still shoot up to 10fps at full resolution anyway, and the buffer limit for RAW files is 15 frames, so I wouldn’t see myself using 4K photo very often at all. That said, it also allows you to change your focus point during the 4K recording session, then choose the “right” one or even stack several images to create a completely sharp shot across what would usually be a shallow depth-of-field situation, which is a function that could have its benefits in some situations.

A little bit of Brisbane Festival.
1/40 sec (handheld), f2.8, ISO 1600. Shot in iA mode.
4K video, on the other hand, is a feature that do find useful. I’m torn in these situations between the option to shoot at 4K and simulate zooms and pans in post without losing quality in my final 1080p project, or to stick with 1080 and shoot at 60fps for some cinematic slow motion options later. As a result, I find I like to switch between the two – important chunks of footage in 4K and detail or B-roll shots at 1080p in 60fps – and I love that the FZ80 makes it incredibly easy for me to do that.  On top of that, superb image stabilisation instantly elevates your handheld footage to a much smoother and steadier look, especially in iA mode. It’s interesting to note the FZ80 splits videos into smaller files when they reach 4GB, which could make editing a little more difficult or frustrating if you were using it to shoot a large project, and the camera does not feature a mic input so serious video fiends would need to record audio externally.
I love that, beyond the ease of use that is filming in intelligent auto, the FZ80 has a manual video mode. So many consumer cameras don’t allow for this – they leave creative decisions to the camera, which can mean under- or over-exposed footage or even banding or flickering throughout the footage in some lighting situations. Having the option to manually control your shutter speed depth of field and ISO opens the door to a whole other world of creative possibilities.
I’m pretty demanding of my cameras in low light. I shoot in the dark a lot at weddings, so I need high ISO performance in dark situations, and when I travel it’s always the night time streetscapes and city views that I want to capture most. The FZ80 boasts it will help you capture great nightlife pictures, and it does – especially for a small sensor. My nighttime photos came out with just a little noise – certainly a manageable amount – and the image stabilisation helped keep things sharp at relatively slow shutter speeds. I wouldn’t be teaming up the closer focal lengths with dark lighting situations, but on the wider end of the spectrum the FZ80 can hold its own in the dark.
Solid, versatile and user-friendly, while the FZ80 would personally have no place in my collection it would be ideal for a photo enthusiast. Someone keen on snapping and capturing for their own enjoyment, learning the basics on a camera that’s both smart and not intimidating, and sharing their favourites online as they go.
Score: 7 out of 10
Highlights: Versatile, user-friendly, intelligent
Lowlights: No mic input, no flip-out screen
Manufacturer: Panasonic
Price: $599 RRP
Available: Now