Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ10; Big 12x Zoom Shows The Benefits Of A Built-In Image Stabilizer

4 Megapixel
$529 (street price)
35-420mm f/2.8 (equiv) lens
Two stabilizer modes

A few years ago, when most of us were shooting with 35mm cameras, a 400mm lens was considered to be a super telephoto, intended primarily for professional sports photography or for wildlife work. Today, an increasing number of digital cameras incorporate optical zooms that extend beyond a 300mm equivalent focal length, including two models with a full 420mm reach. (Even longer equivalent focal lengths are possible with digital zoom but that degrades image quality.) As cameras with powerful zooms become increasingly common and affordable, super telephoto photography is accessible even to those on a tight budget.

That's great news for anyone who enjoys shooting sports, wildlife, and performers on a distant stage, or any subject that's far from the camera. Simply zoom in to take frame filling images of the pitcher at a junior baseball game or a black bear lurking near the road in a park, for example. With a 380mm or longer zoom setting you can often exclude distracting elements such as other spectators or tourists. As you'll soon discover, however, many handheld telephoto shots will not be sharp, particularly those made at shutter speeds slower than 1/400 sec. That's because long focal lengths magnify the least bit of camera shake, producing blurry images.

With the typical 37-110mm (equivalent) optical zoom lens, it's impossible to take tight shots of distant subjects. Switch to a camera with a powerful telephoto zoom and you'll often be able to fill the frame, although the images will be susceptible to blurring unless you use a tripod or other anti-shake strategy. (Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ10 at 420mm equivalent; ISO 400.)
Photos © 2004, Peter K. Burian, All Rights Reserved

There are two common methods that we can use for making sharper images in low light. Mounting the camera on a rigid tripod is ideal, but a tripod is impractical or prohibited in many locations. The other alternative is to switch to ISO 400 or 800 for fast shutter speeds to "freeze" camera movement; if possible, bracing your elbows on a firm support to maximize the odds of getting sharp images. That combination of techniques can work well, but the images will probably exhibit obvious digital noise, colored specks resembling coarse film grain.

High Tech Feature For Sharper Images
It's tough to get sharp images in handheld shooting with a long lens, regardless of the type of camera that you use. That's why Canon, Nikon and Sigma make some lenses for SLR cameras with a built-in "image stabilizer" or camera shake compensation device. Such lenses are expensive and available only for SLR cameras, but there's good news for those who want a digital camera with a built-in zoom lens. You can find several models that incorporate an image stabilizer, including the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ10 that I tested, with its incredibly versatile 35-420mm (equivalent) zoom, the most powerful built-in lens at the time of my tests. Other cameras with image stabilizer are available as listed in the sidebar (below).

When hand holding a camera, telephoto images made at long shutter speeds are significantly blurred by camera shake, as in image A. Brace your elbows on something solid and activate the image stabilizer and you can make surprisingly sharp images even in long exposures image B. (ISO 200; 250mm equivalent; f/2.8 at 1/125 sec; OIS Mode 2; images slightly cropped.)

But should you pay extra for a camera with a built-in stabilizer? How successful is the technology and will it solve all of the problems that cause blurry pictures? In order to answer those questions, I recently tested the 4-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ10 with a "Mega Optical Image Stabilizer" or OIS. This is a system that detects the angle and speed of camera movement with a shake-detecting sensor and compensates by shifting an internal lens element. Consequently, the light rays reaching the image sensor should be stable instead of vibrating at the moment of exposure, increasing the odds of a sharp image.

This Lumix camera was the first to offer a choice of two OIS options. In Mode 1, the stabilizer is continuously active, providing "normal" stabilizing that's suitable for most situations. Switch to Mode 2 and the stabilizer is inactive until you press the camera's shutter release button, which provides a "maximum" effect over camera movement in any direction. Panasonic recommends Mode 2 for shooting at long exposure times, in high magnification "macro" photography and when panning with a moving subject at long shutter speeds.

Image Stabilizer Evaluation
In order to test the value of an image stabilizer, I shot hundreds of pictures, with and without OIS, both indoors and out. Test subjects included the competitors at the Canadian Aboriginal Festival, performing inside a cavernous, dimly-lit arena, stamps and other small objects, as well as people involved in outdoor activities. As per my findings listed here, the OIS system was often beneficial, helping to solve technical problems or providing greater versatility in the choice of camera settings that would produce the best possible results.

In dimly-lit sections of the arena, for example, I found that the image stabilizer was invaluable, especially for tight close-ups of distant competitors who were far beyond the range of flash. I was able to make sharp 420mm (equivalent) images at a shutter speed of 1/100 sec at f/2.8 using the ISO 400 setting. For comparable sharpness with a non-stabilized camera, a shutter speed of 1/400 sec would have been necessary, requiring an ISO 1600 setting. Such high ISO options are available only with D-SLR cameras and generally produce images with excessive digital noise that degrades fine detail. When I braced my elbows on a railing, I was able to get sharp super telephoto shots using ISO 200 for even better image quality, at a shutter speed of 1/45 sec.

Like any image stabilizer, OIS compensates only for camera movement and not for subject motion. Consequently, my wide angle shots of fast moving performers--in 1/10 sec exposures, using Mode 2 and ISO 100--exhibit motion blur but their surroundings are sharply rendered. The overall effect is quite pleasing, simulating flowing motion in a still image.

In outdoor photography the OIS system was not often necessary. In bright conditions, the camera produced very fast shutter speeds even at the ISO 50 setting that I preferred for the best possible image quality. When using a polarizing filter--to enrich blue skies or to wipe glare from reflective surfaces--I simply switched to ISO 100 and made sharp super telephoto images without OIS.

Overcast Days
During dark, overcast days or in the low light at dawn and dusk, OIS was more useful, though not always necessary. Because the Leica lens features an unusually wide maximum aperture of f/2.8, shutter speeds were often quite fast at ISO 200. And yet, shooting at f/2.8 has two disadvantages, particularly at long focal lengths. As with any camera, image quality drops to acceptable, with softness outside the central area, and depth of field--the zone of sharpness in an image--is very limited. For these technical and aesthetic reasons, I often preferred to shoot at f/8; that called for much longer exposures, making the image stabilizer a valuable amenity when working without a tripod.

An image stabilizer compensates for camera shake but cannot freeze the movement of a performer, an active animal, a competing athlete or flowing water. When shooting at long shutter speeds, take advantage of the system to produce interesting motion effects while maintaining sharpness in surrounding areas. (At ISO 100; f/2.8 at 1/10 sec handheld; OIS Mode 2; 35mm equivalent; image cropped.)

Close-Ups, Too
In extreme close-up photography, very high magnification is required to fill the frame with a tiny subject, amplifying the effect of any camera shake. When I used conventional cameras (handheld), fast shutter speeds were required for sharp images in soft, cloudy daylight. (In extreme close-ups, flash is generally impractical because of excessive intensity.) That called for an ISO 400 setting or wide apertures--and inadequate depth of field--at low ISO settings. The Panasonic OIS system solved this problem, producing sharp images at a 100mm (equivalent) zoom setting at shutter speeds as long as 1/30 sec in Mode 2. This enabled me to shoot at ISO 100 at an aperture of f/5.6 for the best possible results.

The OIS Advantage
Here's the bottom line on the benefit provided by the Panasonic OIS system. In handheld shooting, the Lumix DMC-FZ10 produced sharp images at shutter speeds four times longer than a conventional camera. This offered greater versatility in ISO and aperture (f/stop) selection, a valuable benefit for any serious imaging enthusiast. The system was smooth and quiet and it did not slow camera performance. Even with OIS fully active, I was able to shoot a series of five full resolution JPEGs at a blazing 4 fps. Granted, full-time OIS increased battery consumption by about 30 percent, but I was able to shoot all morning during a parade without power failure.