The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15 ($280) compact Mega Zoom is the company's second-in-command to the venerable Lumix DMC-ZS20. While the new ZS20 benefits from GPS, a longer 20x optical zoom lens and 60P HD video, the Lumix DMC-ZS15 shares the same sensor technology and main features with its slightly more powerful fraternal twin. This year, the Lumix DMC-ZS15 has a 12.1-megapixel High Sensitivity MOS sensor, similar the chip found in the dazzling Lumix DMC-FZ150 Super Zoom. The DMC-ZS15 also has a 16x optical zoom lens with 25mm wide-angle capability, lots of helpful shooting features and a price tag that will entice those on a budget. But is the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15 worth almost 300 smackers when compared to last year's Canon PowerShot SX230 HS? Read on to find out.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15 Design
Looking back though ZS-series history, you'll find it quite difficult to tell previous models from current ones. That's because Panasonic has not altered the external designs of any of its ZS models aside from slimming them down or rearranging a button or two. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15 is no exception. The camera is rather dull on the outside, sporting a small four-way directional pad in back, recessed Video Record button on top, tiny Mode dial and good old-fashioned switches to power the camera on and off as well as change from Camera to Playback mode. A no-frills three-inch 460,000-pixel LCD screen spans across the rear of the camera and a hatch along the bottom reveals the small 895mAh battery and SD card slot. If someone had told me this was a 2006 model, I wouldn't think twice about believing them.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15 does pack in a substantial 16x optical zoom with 25mm wide-angle capability into its facade, so magnification is one of its strengths. There's a thin built-in flash along the top of the camera, but aside from that, the ZS-15 is rather boring. At $280 that's okay. But the Lumix DMC-ZS20, which is $350 and shares many of the same features, has an almost identical design. For what it is, the ZS15 is a good value, but if you're looking for refined controls in a sleek package within the $300+ price range, the Canon PowerShot SX260HS might be a better bet over the Lumix DMC-ZS20.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15 Features
This section is almost not fair to report on after having been spoiled by the glorious Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150. While I did find traces of FZ150 DNA in the DMC-ZS15, the camera proved itself as more of a basic model than an advanced powerhouse. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15 benefited from enhanced menu graphics inside, but it took too many steps to get to the main menu. The Q.Menu had been carried over from previous models, offering quick adjustments like ISO and Metering, so I relied on that and it did the job quite nicely.
Once inside the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15, you'll find that the camera's Intelligent Auto mode is superb. The camera recognizes varieties of scenes and applies the right camera adjustments based on the exposure and focal length. Tracking Focus had ADD and wandered a bit off screen, so I stuck to the camera's 23-area Auto Focus, which was top notch. Although the ZS15 was devoid of Manual focus, that was fine. The camera had Spot, Face Detection and 1-area to suit many different shooting scenarios. Manual mode on the camera was fairly basic, bringing to the table a 3200 max ISO level, 15-second base shutter speed and narrow f/3.3-f5.9 aperture range.
The Lumix DMC-ZS15 did excel when it came to digital filters and effects. In the Creative Control mode, I could select from Toy Camera, Miniature, Hi/Low Key, Expressive (vivid colors), Retro and even HDR. The thing about HDR mode was that I had to keep the ZS15 extremely steady in order for it to capture a sharp image. The ZS15 could also capture up to 10fps at full resolution in Burst mode, all the way up to 60fps at reduced resolutions, so the camera was a speed demon for fast action scenes.
On the downside, there were a few things that irked me regarding the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15's overall performance. First, the camera was slow to Autofocus in Still and Video mode. Secondly, the ZS15 was slow to zoom while recording videos. Speaking of Video mode, the ZS15 lacked advanced video control, whittling the menu down to the very basics. I could record in different digital filters, but the tool belt was far skimpier than that of the Lumix DMC-FZ150's. And lastly, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15 has a poor Manual White Balance mode. Rather than allowing the camera to evaluate the scene, I had to use a Cool Warm slider, so I was never able to achieve a good reading in low light and had to rely on Incandescent mode.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15 Image Quality
Over the years, I've had some of the best point-and-shoot experiences with members of the Panasonic Lumix ZS line, and the ZS15 was no different. The camera's 1/2.33-inch 12.1-megapixel High Sensitivity MOS sensor succeeded in producing impressive images, especially in bright light. In fact, the ZS15 shares its sensor technology with the more expensive ZS20 and FZ150, so it was no surprise. Colors were rich and more vibrant than colors captured with the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS, and the camera handled dynamic scenes much better than the Canon.
But in low light, the white balance issues were crucial. Unfortunately, I had to constantly select different white balance settings to avoid discoloration in my test shots. Sure, with a long shutter and the right white balance, the Lumix DMC-ZS15 was an ace, but it took more work to get there, compared to the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS, which had a far superior Manual White Balance system. Even videos taken with the ZS15 were underexposed at night, and there was nothing I could do about it due to the camera's lack of video controls.
Speaking of Videos, the Lumix DMC-ZS15 can shoot 1080 60i AVCHD clips that output as 30P. This is one of the main differentiators between the ZS15 and the ZS20, as the ZS20 is rewarded with superior 60P AVCHD video recording. In bright light, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15 was a great video performer, but it struggled in low light. Perhaps the Lumix DMC-ZS20 offers more manual control in Video mode, but it's doubtful. We'll just have to wait for that review, coming up soon.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15 HD Image Samples
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15 HD Video Samples
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15 Conclusion
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15 is a decent model in the sub-$300 range. However, there were a few major woes that made me want to consider the rest of the fish in the sea. Between the camera's tortoise-like operation at times, stubborn low light performance and basic design, I'm not seeing a reason to opt for the ZS15 over last year's Canon PowerShot SX230 HS. If size and price are not factors to you, then look at the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150. Although it's more expensive, the FZ150 will take you miles beyond the ZS15's capabilities. The FZ150 is one of the best Super Zoom cameras ever produced. But for now, let's see what the new wave of compact Mega Zooms has to offer.
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